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Sunday, February 17th, 2008
The parliament of Turkey has lifted a longstanding ban on women wearing head coverings in the universities. This ban had been in force since 1980. Turkey has been a secular country since Ataturk instituted reforms in the 1920's, allowing women to go to school, to vote, and to take jobs in business and government. Turkey ceased being governed by Sharia at this time. This fact makes me think that the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments about Sharia being unavoidable in Britain were clearly wrong.
The question that this brings up is whether a practice like this can really be an option. In the United States, for example, university women my wear head coverings. It is little feared that by allowing this, women will end up forced to wear these against their wills. But in the early days of secularization, the Turkish state probably had to make this an all-or-nothing proposition. When a large portion of the country is for such a practice, it is to be expected that a woman's family will force her to comply with many Islamic practices.
I wonder if our own Lutheran history has anything to say to the matter. We have the principle Nihil esse adiaphoron in casu confessionis et scandali. No matter is indifferent in the case of confession or scandal. Now our principle is a theological principle, but I wonder if tucked within it is a more universal idea: many matters derive their importance from the broader moral context. Some things are right in themselves, but become very wrong in certain contexts based on other factors.
The wearing of a head covering SHOULD be an indifferent matter. In a country where women may wear what they wish without undue pressure from others, the wearing or not wearing of a head covering is not a matter or conscience. It is a matter of freedom. But when the women are forced to wear them by relatives, can we call it freedom to allow women the choice?
In a sense I think we must.
But we must also be aware that what we see in actual practice will be something other than true freedom. I can believe this is a matter of personal choice in the United States. And perhaps Turkey really has come as far as some claim it has. Perhaps freedom is robust enough to handle the lifting of this ban. But many Turks think otherwise. They see this as one more step on the slippery slope to Sharia. If this matter does have such importance to the future of the nation, it may in itself be something that we would ideally want to see allowed, but we should not see the lifting of the ban as a promotion of freedom.
As an outsider, it is difficult to know where this stands. It appears that insiders themselves are divided over the issue. But I have other questions as well. These questions have to do with how women should handle social pressure, and how they can be helped. The issue of legislation is a problem if the ONLY help women have in this matter is the legislation. Is it really true that nobody will come to the aid of women who are strong-armed into following customs they do not wish to follow? Will there be no men willing to stand up and publicly say that they don't expect women students to come to class with covered heads? The street demonstrations make me suspect that many are on the side of the women who want freedom to continue to go to class with uncovered heads. But I wonder if this is easier in crowds than in a classroom where you don't know how many students are on which side of the issue.
True freedom requires a population committed to it. Apart from that commitment, legislation can promote something that looks like freedom, but does not allow a full array of choices. I would take this managed freedom over slavery. But it is not a political ideal. On the other hand, I don't like to hear the ideal cited by those who want something that looks like slavery.
The question of Sharia in Britain is a difficult one. Lessons could probably be learned from what happens in coming months and years in Turkey.
10:47 pm Pacific Standard Time
Friday, February 8th, 2008
One of the links on my sidebar is to an excellent site on faith and journalism called Get Religion. This blog addresses how the press fails or succeeds in communicating stories on religion.
Recently I read some stories about how the Archibishop of Canterbury has been claiming that Sharia law would be good for Britain. This sounded preposterous, of course. But when I read what this was about at Get Religion, I found that perhaps his position had not been accurately conveyed. The Archbishop is not calling for typical secular British citizens to find themselves bound by laws from another time and space. He is calling for British law to make allowances so that muslims may, if they so choose, have certain kinds of matters like marriage or property dealt with through Sharia law. This is much less radical than what I had first heard. I still don't know whether or not this is a good idea, but it is something I would want to research or hear argued rather than reject out of hand. (It also appears that knowing where Sharia or regular British law would begin or end might be murky.) It could be that there would be a broad spectrum of ways such an idea could be implemented, from the socially helpful to the disastrous. It could also be that the Archbishop is imagining something that would be socially helpful, while the actual implementation would be disastrous.
Some of the conversations on this point have had to do with the problem of a culture that does not know how to argue its own authority. When I was a student under Os Guinness some years back, he promoted what he called his "crisis of cultural authority" thesis. This had to do with the fact that our culture was often not sure where its authority really came from. Now you can make a certain number of pragmatic decisions without having answers to that question. But at a certain point, your decisions become more costly. You must know, or you won't have the courage to implement your policies in the face of high costs. We see this problem with the idea of Sharia law. Do we really want to see British police stepping aside to allow muslims stoning their women to death for alleged crimes against Sharia? No. Clearly not. But I have to wonder if there are areas where the law can allow options in dispute resolution that are more in accord with religous beliefs. This would not be the triumph of Sharia law over British law. The question many have, though, is whether you can really stop it at that point. Or do the initial accomodations invariably lead down the slippery slope to the end of British law, at least over muslims?
Another interesting conversation I have heard of sharia is a few years back when Gene Scott was on television working his way slowly through the book of Romans. He got to the verse that says "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets" (Romans 3:21). He says we might have an idea of how radical this idea is if we tried to imagine standing on a street in Tehran saying that a righteousness from God had been revealed "apart from Sharia." Nice.
4:09 pm Pacific Standard Time
Friday, February 1st, 2008
My first Easter Vigil was probably celebrated at Christ Church of Hamilton and Wenham around 1990. I am not certain. It could have been later that I first went to one.
But whenever it was, I do remember my impression the first time I sat through all the readings. The Easter Vigil has readings from the Creation, the Flood, the Call of Abraham, the Exodus, and other Old Testament readings in addition to New Testament readings in the history of our redemption. There was public reading of Scripture in the Presbyterian church in my youth, but it was usually just the text of the day. In the Episcopal churches I attended during seminary and the Lutheran churches I joined after seminary, there were the three lectionary readings, which gave me more of a sense of the connection of texts. The Vigil readings were another thing altogether.
Well, my readers have either been to a vigil or they have not. Those who have know what I'm talking about. For those who have not, there are two ways to become familiar with these texts. The best is to attend a vigil the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. Second best is to read the texts.
A list of readings as they would go in a Lutheran church can be found in the Altar version of the Lutheran Service Book. The regular hymnal just lists "Selected Readings" rather than specific texts. The rubric instructs congregations to choose readings according to what is suitable to the members. Some very assiduous congregations will spend a very long time reading. Congregations new to the vigil may use fewer texts to get people accustomed to such reading. (You don't want laymen who are not used to this to sit through it and vow "Never again!" Though I think you can push the envelope a bit without getting this reaction.) You can find a list of vigil texts here.
Public readings have a lot for which to commend them. My first impression was somewhat uncharitable. A thought popped into my head, "They have all these long readings at church because nobody probably reads the Bible at home." I don't know that I ever really held this. Lots of thoughts occur that I dismiss on the spot. But over time I began to see what public reading offered. When the Scriptures are read publically, there is a kind of edification that occurs that goes beyond individual growth. We now know those around us have heard the texts we have just heard. If several texts are read, we know they have been read together. More recently, I have also discovered that the longer readings offer something that you don't get reading these texts in pieces, even over the course of a few nights. When texts are read in one sitting, connections can be made that will never be made otherwise. I think the reason is that even the educated will harmonize what they hear into systematic theology. Now that is a very good thing in its own right. But what about more literary connections? What about when the same question is asked in different places? (In a marathon reading of Genesis, I discovered how God asks, "What have you done?" in the garden, followed several times by people asking "Why have you done this to me?" Sins against God are followed by sins against man. I hadn't seen this in such dramatic fashion before.) This kind of hearing is different from reading. Reading is good. But hearing should not lose its place in the church.
In helping to plan a vigil at Reformation Lutheran Church in Westminster, I ordered a couple of books recommended by John Pless. One is called Jerusalem Revisited: the Liturgical Meaning of Holy Week. This book tells what the vigil was like in the early days when Cyprian was bishop of Jerusalem. Some of their Easter celebration was almost a form of tourism, as actual sites were visited. As the rites were adapted to locations far from Jerusalem, some of the focus naturally shifted from a rememorative where, for example, the cross was venerated, but the crucifixion was not re-enacted, to a dramatic treatment where texts were read in parts, or actions were performed to re-enact portions of the original Holy Week. The difference would be like the difference between visiting Mount Vernon to get a sense of George Washington from the place he lived on the one hand, and going to a play about the life of Washington on the other. The second book I ordered is called Celebrating the Easter Vigil, and contains articles by various scholars. What I find intriguing is how early some of these approaches are.
As someone raised evangelical, this is somewhat unfamiliar territory. Although my Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation was not Calvinist in doctrine, they were iconoclastic, in the main. When they moved into a new sanctuary in 1984, the candlesticks reminded me of pen-and-ink drawings of candlesticks from the Old Testament Temple, and that bothered me. There was a sense I grew up with that all that cultic ritual was from another era. Our worship had to be more makeshift in recognizing that God didn't deal with us like He did in the Old Testament.
I have made a number of shifts since then. Now most of them came as package deals with entering a sacramental church. This was the way things were done, so I had to live with it whether I was altogether comfortable or not. But I found that there were things to be learned from going up to Communion every week. To our stance in getting up, going forward, etc. To watching someone you thought was guilty go up anyway. To being the one who was guilty going up anyway.
There are still things that make me uncomfortable, though. The veneration of the holy cross still bothers me. I'm not convinced that it is wrong. But it does seem wrong-headed. To talk to an inanimate object may be something other than worship. But can we be sure that everyone takes this in the right sense? It reminds me of the time in my youth I went to a Calvary Chapel afterglow and sought prayer for my bronchitis. Someone started to pray for me, and I was agreeing in prayer. Then he started to talk to my bronchitis, and I opened my eyes and started staring at him as he addressed my illness like it was a person. Yikes! Our own naming of diseases is based on our current level of knowledge and ignorance and how best to make distinctions that facilitate treatment. Other cultures will have more or fewer names for illnesses. Do they have more or fewer demons in charge of their illnesses? Perhaps the man doing the praying was under no such delusions. Maybe he had a more sophisticated sense of why he prayed as he prayed. But his manner was an impediment to my joining in with him. I think the same of the veneration of the holy cross. Even if there is a good idea behind it, I suspect that it can be done in a way that is more conducive to proper understanding.
I'll grant many other ancient practices more leeway, even when I can't see what they are good for. Sometimes you just have to try it for a while to discover that. My own approach is definitely not a Zwinglian clean slate that declares ancient practices guilty until proven innocent. But it is also not an antiquarian sense that older is always better. I want to make a critical reattachment to the past. If anything I want to see more ancient practice restored the older I get. But I want it done in such a way that the actual experience is appraised as I go. In certain cases the ancient practices were dropped for good reason.
Dropping the reading of the Vigil texts, however, was a bad idea. And I do love the procession with the paschal candle, and the changing of the paraments from black to white happening mid service.
7:51 pm Pacific Standard Time