Christianity


Now for some non-concrete thoughts.

I dislike Halloween. I especially hate yard decorations. For one thing, do you know how eerie a fluttering ghost or witch can be when you’re driving by in the dark, early in the morning, barely awake, trying to get to the hospital?

For another, I think covering your house in Halloween images is downright foolish. Witches, for instance, are not benign jokes. Sure, many self-titled witches today probably can’t accomplish much of anything. However, that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t real. In the Bible, for example, the witch of Endor summoned the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, who accurately foretold King Saul’s death in battle. In general, the idea of trafficking with Satan should not produce warm fuzzy holiday thoughts. (And even if you want to talk about different kinds of magic, in the end any real magic, in this world, comes down to the same thing: rebelling against God’s providence and trying to control Nature and events through your own power.)

Ghosts? Only in modern American cotton-candy thinking are ghosts friendly. I don’t believe they actually exist (as opposed to witches, who are at least a theoretical/historical possibility); “it is given unto men once to die, and after that the Judgment.” But if they did, they have been portrayed from time memorial as unhappy spirits, either trying to escape from an unpleasant afterlife, or with some vengeful business to accomplish. There’s a reason haunted houses have been viewed with terror. Why would you try to bring that atmosphere to the house you live in?

Jack’o’lanterns: designed to scare evil spirits away from the house. Also not originally funny.

Spider-webs: yes, personally there’s nothing I detest more than a real live spider, no matter how small. So my view may be skewed. But are any of you really fans of spiders in the house? So why drape giant ones over the outside of the house?

In short, people who celebrate Halloween, and especially who decorate enthusiastically for it, are demonstrating a breathtaking lack of imagination. For a Christian perspective on the reality of evil and the supernatural, and its potential for devastating intrusions into the everyday, try Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell or All Hallows’ Eve, which could be described (by extreme oversimplification) as a ghost story and a zombie story, respectively. For a (slightly) more upbeat approach, still involving a powerful and evil wizard, read War in Heaven, which is my favorite of his seven supernatural novels. (For those of you now questioning my literary taste, these are nothing like the current pulp vampire toxins flooding the market. Charles Williams was once a dabbler in black magic, who then converted to Christianity, and was a member of the Inklings, along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. So he knew what he was talking about, and he wrote as only an Englishman trained to write Latin verse from childhood can write English.)

I’ve been listening to a Christmas CD from the Boston Camerata – An American Christmas, which contains few familiar carols, but many beautiful early American hymns, which demonstrate an understanding of [I cringe to use the cliche] the true meaning of Christmas far beyond that which pervades pop culture today. This song is called Bozrah, from the Biblical reference given further down; you can hear a rendition of it by the Rose Ensemble here, very similar to the Camerata version, but with different verses at the end.

Who is this that comes from far,
With his garments dipped in blood?
Strong triumphant traveller
Is he’Emmanuel, is he God?

I that reign in righteousness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race -
               Jesus is your Savior’s name.

Hark the trumpet’s awful voice
Sounds abroad through sea and land.
Let his people now rejoice -
Their redemption is at hand.

I that reign in righteousness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race -
                Jesus is your Savior’s name.

See, the Lord appears in view;
Heav’n and earth before him fly.
Rise ye saints, he comes for you;
Rise to meet him in the sky.

I that reign in righteousness,
Son of God and Man I am;
Mighty to redeem your race -
               Jesus is your Savior’s name.

The first half of the song is a paraphrase of  Isaiah 63:1. The  prophet asks,  “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?” And Christ answers, “I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.”

Messianic prophecies often refer to blood-red garments: either the Lamb’s blood, shed to cover his people’s sins, or the blood of the Lion’s enemies, spilled as he comes in judgment.

A lot of people have been known to remark at Christmas-time that they “relate best to baby Jesus,” or some similar nonsense; as though it is possible to believe only in Jesus as a helpless infant, and to ignore the rest of his life. Jesus’ birth was a real moment in time and space, when one Person of the Triune God took a human body. But he existed before that, indeed from all eternity, as the Son of God, the Word, the Wisdom of God who breathed life into creation (Proverbs 8, John 1). He existed after that, as a sinless man, the perfect sacrifice who died, and then rose from the dead. He exists now, reigning at the Father’s right hand, while all enemies are put under his feet.

And now, when we remember his birth, we also remember and long for his second coming, which will be from the heavens, awesome and full of glory; when those who have denied and mocked him will see the One who was pierced for our transgressions, and weep at their fatal error; when those who have believed in him will realize in full the truth of his promise, “He who believes in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live; and he who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

As the historic church recognized in the observance of Advent, Christmas is a joyful time, not only because our Savior was born, but because he is coming again.

Belatedly, Merry Christmas.

I’m trying to figure out what it was about my appearance or manner that made a guy sitting in the cafeteria last night feel free to start sharing his feelings about the latest episode of House with me. He was disgusted by the storyline (involving two lesbian women, one of course being on the verge of death, and her partner donating half of her liver to save her), and went on to share many of his opinions about gays with me.

It’s not like my clothes were unique (scrubs and white coat are fairly nondescript, no room for personal fashion statements there). Maybe it’s my distinctively feminine long hair, which I do try to maintain in distinction to many female doctors and surgeons.

I was upset with myself, for being so infected by the current air of political correctness, as to feel it impolite to state in public one’s opinion that being gay is wrong and unnatural.

On the other hand, about two minutes after we went our separate ways, I figured out what I really ought to have said to him: “You’re right, that homosexuality is a sin against God. But you’re wrong to think that just because you’re straight, you’ve committed no sins. Every time you or I are angry at someone, in God’s eyes we’ve committed the crime of murder. Every time you look at a woman wrongly, let alone sleep with a woman you’re not married to, you’ve committed adultery. Every time you bend the truth, you’re a liar. One way or another, we’ve all broken God’s law, and deserve his judgment on us. In the end there’s no difference between straights and gays. We all need God’s mercy and forgiveness, and the only way to receive it is through faith in Christ.” I’ll have to keep that in mind the next time I make the mistake of glancing towards an episode of House.

(It’s been too quiet on this blog lately; comments, anyone?  :)

Another magnificent piece of music: Haydn’s Te Deum, which was performed for a visit of Admiral Nelson to the Austrian court in 1800. It can be sampled (and even better, acquired) here.

This ancient hymn is glorious in itself, and Haydn’s triumphal score sets it beautifully. Some great lines:

Te Deum laudamus,
te Dominum confitemur.
We praise thee, O Lord; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.

Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur. . .
Thee, the Father everlasting, all the earth doth worship. . .

Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus,
te prophetarum laudabilis numerus,
te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus. . .

Thee, the glorious choir of the apostles,
Thee, the admirable company of the prophets,
Thee, the white-robed army of martyrs doth praise. . .

Tu rex gloriae, Christe.
Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory.

Tu Patris sempiternus es Filius.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.

Tu, ad liberandum suscepturus hominem,
non horruisti Virginis uterum.
Thou, having taken upon thee to deliver man,
didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb.

Tu, devicto mortis aculeo,
aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum. . .

Thou, having overcome the sting of death,
hast opened to believers the kingdom of heaven. . .

Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine,
et benedic hereditati tuae
. . .
O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance. . .

Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,
quemadmodum speravimus in te.

Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have trusted in thee.

In te, Domine, speravi;
non confundar in aeternum.

In thee, O Lord, have I trusted;
let me not be confounded for ever.

That last line is absolutely magnificent, as Haydn plays it out into a minute-long meditation of confidence and faith.

I don’t know why, but somehow prayers and psalms mean more to me in Latin. Maybe because the language forces me to think about them slowly, rather than racing glibly through the phrases.

In te Domine speravi; non confundar in aeternum.

I didn’t make it to church this morning. I’m feeling almost guilty about it, I don’t know why. I thought for the first time in six weeks I’d get there. I even dressed up before going to the hospital, just to be efficient. Then the attending was late, some patients were more complicated than expected, and a teammate got stuck in the OR and I had extra work to do. . . I could have rushed out, but it would have been irresponsible; there were labs to tidy up, orders for tomorrow to put in, and it takes time to sign out properly to the on-call team. So I didn’t make it.

I’ve been listening to this CD non-stop for the last several days; one of my absolute favorites: Chanticleer’s Mexican Baroque. The best tracks are a setting of Psalm 110, which was one of my favorite psalms in English anyway (and the most quoted OT pasage in the New Testament), but now I’ve got the Latin practically memorized. Buy it or get it from the library; the triumphal music matches the words perfectly. Here’s the Vulgate and English translation (a little different from King James rendering):

Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.
The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion; dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum.
The LORD shall send forth the rod of thy strength from Zion; rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.

Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae, in splendoribus sanctorum; ex utero ante luciferum genui te.
Thine is the foundation in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness; I have born thee from the womb before the morning star.

Juravit Dominus, et non paenitabit eum:
The LORD has sworn, and will not repent:

Tu es sacerdos in aeternum, secundum ordine Melchisedec.
Thou art a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedec.

Dominum a dextris tuis confregit in die irae suae reges.
The LORD at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.

Judicabit in nationibus, implebit ruinas; conquassabit capita in terra multuorum.
He shall judge among the nations, he will fill them with ruins; he will break the heads over populous lands.

De torrente in via bibet; propterea exaltabit caput.
He shall drink of the spring in the way; therefore shall he lift up the head.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

In accordance with my resolution for the next [school] year to write more about the Bible:

The first ten or twelve verses of Ephesians 1 are amazing from many perspectives, but today I was noticing the emphasis on the role of God’s will and God’s choice in our salvation. Words denoting the supremacy of God’s will and purpose are mentioned at least twelve times in six verses:

“According as he [the Father] hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love;
Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.
In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence,
Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he hath purposed in himself,
That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in him. . .”
Ephesians 1:4-10

Which (if you don’t get along well with King James English, and that passage is particularly convoluted in both English and Greek) is to the point that God, from the beginning of the world, chose his children, and set his love on us and forgave us and planned everything for the purpose of bringing us together in Christ, for his own glory. He planned it all. It doesn’t depend on me – which is good, these days, because I haven’t always been paying as much attention as I should.

He makes us accepted in his beloved Son. What else is left to desire?

(Ok,  now we can discuss predestination, if you like. . . )

I picked up a CD of spirituals lately. One of the songs goes like this:

“Keep so busy servin’ my Jesus,
Ain’t got time to die.
‘Cause when I’m healin’ the sick,
I’m servin’ my Jesus.
Keep so busy servin’ my Jesus,
Ain’t got time to die.
‘Cause when I’m healin’ the sick,
I’m servin’ my Jesus.

“If I don’ praise him,
The rocks gonna cry out,
Glory and honor! Glory and honor!

Ain’t got time to die.”

Somewhere in the last couple of years, I was near a city where the Body Worlds display (or one of the copy-cat shows) was stopping. After thinking about this for years, I’ve had enough of the ads (as it keeps travelling around the country), so here you go.

There are two primary ethical objections to these displays:

1) Our common humanity is denigrated by dissected bodies being displayed to public view as a matter of entertainment and moneymaking.

From a Christian perspective, the body is an integral part of what it means to be human. The Bible describes God forming Adam’s body and breathing life into it, and says that Adam was made “in the image of God.” To turn the human body into an object to be displayed for the enjoyment of crowds makes this crowning miracle of creation nothing more than any other animal displayed in a zoo.

But even if you wish to avoid a religious rationale, surely we can agree that the concept of Body World is of a piece with the modern entertainment culture, where horror films like Saw, Saw II, and Saw III (not to mention all the rest of their ilk) are viewed as acceptable amusements. Violence perpetrated on human bodies is now just a way to pass the time, not something revulsive. Similarly, Body World teaches us to accept the image of human bodies dissected, distorted, displayed – for our entertainment.

One of the greatest nightmares of medical school, gross anatomy, for centuries an illegal secret, and until recently at least a private activity, has been turned into mass entertainment for the crowds. I cannot express to you what it was like to cut up a human body, to destroy what another human person had used to live in, to love with, to see the sky from, the feel the ground by. . . At least I had the comfort, the excuse, that I was doing it for a reason – to be able to help hundreds of other people live, love, see, feel, a little longer, a little more comfortably. And it was, at times, a paltry excuse. To saw a skull open? To split a pelvis in half? To peel the skin off a face? To split a hand into useless threads? Who can do that calmly and claim to be still human himself? These phrases are the description of a monster’s activity. At least we had a reason; and I think our humanity survived. 

But what excuse is there, for the general public, to go and stare at bodies split open, splayed apart -amusingly posed? If you want to know what your inside is like, read Grey’s Anatomy; get a plastic model from the school supply stores; read Netter’s, if you prefer color. If you want to know how the thing works, there is no scarcity of physiology books, in all ranges of readability. The craze about Body World has nothing to do with a sudden hunger for anatomical knowledge. It stems from a fascination with the forbidden, the weird, the indecent.

Like the rest of the violence and indecency which is now commonplace in our society, the Body World displays serve the purpose of destroying our conscience and filching our reverence for humanity as something separate from the animal kingdom.

2) These particular humans almost certainly had no say in the disposition of their bodies; and even if you allow that it might be all right to use bodies this way, if their owners had knowingly and completely consented, it is wrong to participate in the exploitation of individuals who in their lifetimes were the victims of a cruel state.

We all ought to have known better than to think that Chinese bodies were come by honestly (and you had only to look at their faces to know they were Chinese). Recently ABC’s 20/20 removed the possibility of further self-deception by investigating the body-selling trade in China. Protest as he may, the inventor of plastination cannot deny that his original bodies came from a shady source, as he is now loudly promising not to use unethically obtained bodies anymore. The news stories mention thousands of people currently offering their bodies to be used in these displays, but the fact remains that there is no good documentation of the origin of the bodies that are currently touring the country. And for anybody who thinks any Chinese person whose body is being used actually freely consented to this arrangement, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

But, even if all the unethically obtained bodies were cremated, the objections in my first point would still be reason enough not to see these exhibits.

For a much better-written exposition of the moral objections, please see Thomas Hibbs’ essay, “Dead Body Porn”.

Christos anesti! Elithos anesti!

Alleluia.
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, has risen from the dead.
By death he trampled on death,
And gave life to those who were in the graves.

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

For someone who spends as much time communicating as I do, I’m obviously still not very good at it.

Since between work and Pascha services this week I don’t have much time, let me, as the fastest way of saying what I really think about Mormonism, refer you to a post I made this spring, back when Romney was a viable contender. You can find it right here. Basically, I conclude that Mormonism is a false religion, just as much originated by Satan as Islam is, in that he probably inspired two men (Mohammed and Joseph Smith) to write blasphemous lies against Jesus. Mormonism, unlike true Christianity, does not regard Jesus as divine, the only-begotten, unique Son of God. Mormonism teaches that God was once a human, and that all humans (or at least all males) can become gods in their own private universes, peopled by the offspring of their subservient wives (so yes, Mormonism, like other false religions, tramples on women, and, unlike Christianity, regards them as lower in kind than men).

Regarding polygamy, I agree that it’s illegal in America, and that even the biblical patriarchs limited themselves to two wives, and those of an age to consent.

What I was trying to say about the FLDS branch of Mormonism is that 1) I think most Americans’ visceral reaction to them is based on lifestyle choices that have nothing to do with polygamy, but which do present a glaring challenge to the culture of hedonism and free sex that prevails in America today; and 2) I respect groups which hold to the original tradition when it’s not politically correct to do so. The mainstream LDS church threw out Joseph Smith’s original teaching on polygamy because it made their life easier to do so. The FLDS hold onto it; even though that may involve brainwashing women, it’s at least the original form of Mormonism. Similarly, I respect “radical” Muslims more than “moderate” Muslims, because I think the radical Muslims understand and obey the original commands of Mohammed (kill the unbelievers until they submit to you, make no friends with Jews or Christians) better than the watered-down, secularized, moderate Muslims. That doesn’t mean that I approve of suicide bombers; I simply think they’re acting on the logical conclusions of their beliefs.

Does that help at all? Maybe I should also mention that in my personal beliefs, I try to stick to the Bible exactly as God gave it, without making alterations for modern sensibilities. God created the world out of nothing, in the space of six days, and all very good, until it was marred by man’s sin and the entry of death. God condemns sinners to hell in the next life because of their infinite crimes against him, and he is righteous and loving to do so (we can take this up in a later post). God offers free forgiveness and eternal life to all who confess that they have broken his laws, and accept his merciful gift in Christ, who died for us and rose from the dead on the third day, and sits in heaven until his kingdom is established through the whole world, and all nations kneel down and worship him. And along the way, women should submit to their husbands, men should have one wife and be faithful to her, and Christians ought to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. This is absolutely true, and I make no apology for any of it, except to say that I wrote it as forcefully and bluntly as possible in order to parallel my wild statements about Islam and Mormonism.

They and I are at least in agreement about the existence of absolute truth and the extreme importance of finding it out; just as I had more in common, regarding modest clothes, and avoidance of wild parties, and chastity, and taking time out from studying for religious observances, with the Muslim girls in medical school, than with the nominal Christians.

I look forward to reading your comments.  :)  And I guess I had better also put out an apology in case any of the above is needlessly offensive, as I may not have time to answer comments till late in the day. I don’t mean to be insulting, but to state the truth as I know it, forcefully. The lateness of the hour may make some phrases ill-judged.

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