Prudentius’ Psychomachia turned up at church today!

The death of Superbia, British Library, Cotton Cleoopatra C VIII (10th century)

Unexpectedly, in a sermon that quoted John Piper (of all people) and Martyn Lloyd Jones, my minister closed the preaching with a brief discussion of the Psychomachia of Prudentius from around 405. Now, Geoff isn’t afraid of the Fathers — he’s prayed prayers from St Irenaeus before, and cited Cassian and Evagrius at length. He doesn’t even shy away from the Middle Ages, being an evident fan of St Anselm and unafraid of that great ox, St Thomas Aquinas.

Nevertheless, rarely in a sermon of any sort does later Latin poetry emerge!

So I was tickled pink.

If you’ve never read the Psychomachia, you should read it pronto. Drop whatever you are doing. Read it. Here it is in the original Latin. There is one English translation here, and another here.

Pause while you read Prudentius…

This is a short epic poem (approximately 916 lines; I guess it’s an epyllion?) written in dactylic hexameters, the meter of classical Latin and Greek epic. Beyond the technicalities of Latin verse, this poem is written in the poetic style of Virgil but is one of the first personification allegories. The theme is the battle for the human soul (indeed, the old Loeb translates the title as ‘The Battle for Mansoul’, although ‘Soulbattle’ would be closer). The characters are the virtues and the vices doing battle against each other; although each set of characters numbers seven, they are not the two lists you know:

  • Fides – Faith, vs ‘Worship-of-the-Old-Gods’
  • Pudicitia – Chastity, vs Lust
  • Patientia – Patience, vs Wrath
  • Mens Humilis – Humility, vs Pride
  • Sobrietas – Sobriety, vs Indulgence
  • Operatio – Thrift, vs Greed
  • Concordia – Concord, vs Discord/Heresy

Each of the virtues comes out victorious, of course. My favourite moment, and one that my former office mate also enjoys, is Patience (Long-Suffering in the Loeb) standing still, doing nothing, and defeating Wrath, who ends up killing herself. I quote the Loeb Classical Library translation:

Standing unmoved by the javelin while the monster that shot it rages in ungoverned frenzy, she waits for Wrath to perish by reason of her own violence. And when the barbarous warrior had spent with fuming the strength of her unconquerable arms and by showering javelins tired out her right hand with no success till it was useless, since her missiles, having no force in their flight, fell ineffectual, and the shafts, all idly cast, lay broken on the ground, her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt. Putting all its strength into a blow with the flashing blade, it rises high above her right ear and then, launching its stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle. But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is; the unyielding metal breaks the steel that smites it, unflinchingly receives the vain attack, and stands up to the striker without hurt. Seeing her blade shivered in pieces and how the sword has scattered away in rattling fragments while her hand still grasps the hilt after it has lost its weight of steel, Wrath is beside herself and casts away the luckless ivory that has been false to her, the token of honour turned to shame. Afar she flings that unwelcome reminder, and wild passion fires her to slay herself. One of the many missiles that she had scattered without effect she picks up from the dust of the field, for an unnatural use. The smooth shaft she fixes in the ground and with the upturned point stabs herself, piercing her breast with a burning wound. Standing over her, Long-Suffering cries: “We have overcome a proud Vice with our wonted virtue, with no danger to blood or life. This is the kind of warfare that is our rule, to wipe out the fiends of passion and all their army of evils and their savage strength by bearing their attack. Fury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons.”

My minister noted that the poem can be bloodthirsty, yet is well worth the read. We do not spend enough time thinking about the battle raging in our own souls. This lack of watchfulness (a virtue not in Prudentius but recommended by Christ: ‘Watch and pray’ [Mt 26:41]) is dangerous for our spiritual health. Thus, Prudentius can be good devotional reading. (I admit to not having read the Psychomachia devotionally before.)

The important thing, though, is that we are not merely victors because we are virtuous. Rather, we are virtuous because we are victors. Or, rather, we are more than conquerors (Ro 8:37). Prudentius knows this, as the close of the poem makes clear:

The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.

The Prologue (a very important piece of programmatic poetry in Late Antiquity) also points us to Christ:

Christ himself, who is the only true Priest, the Son of one whose name cannot be said, will feed the victor and enter his heart to let it entertain the Trinity. The Spirit will embrace the childless soul and make it fertile with eternal seed; late in her life, this richly endowed soul will be a mother and produce an heir.

Christ, you have always been revered because you have always had compassion on the misery of man; you are always revered for the powers you share with the Father – it is one power for it is only one God yet it is not merely one God that we worship since you too are also God born of the Father. Tell us, great King, how the soul is endowed with strength to fight and expel our sins from our hearts; when our thoughts are scattered and when strife rises within us, when evil desires rebel, tell us how to guard the liberty of the soul; tell us about our defenses against the fiend.

For you, good leader, have not left us here helpless before the onslaught of vice without the virtues to help us in battle and renew our courage; you yourself are in command of legions that fight this battle where the attack is worst. You yourself can arm the spirit with precious skills which permit it to resist and fight for you, conquer for you. The path to victory is there before your eyes. We must study the features of the virtues and the dark monsters waiting there to challenge their strength.

Here we have a magnificent piece of literature from the flowering of Latin literature in Late Antiquity, bound together with the realities of Christ empowering us to fight the vices. Well worth a read.

The Conciliar Theology of Christmas Carols

For the past month, everywhere you go you will have heard Christmas and winter songs, ranging from ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ Some of these are actual carols, unlike ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, following my good friend the OED (with whom my wife agrees), sense 3:

a. A song or hymn of religious joy.

b.esp. A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions.

A vast number recast the events of the Nativity. But some of these carols have obviously ‘conciliar’ verses and phrases — conciliar being the adjective used for that which is related to and derived from the theology of the seven ecumenical councils. The most obvious example is in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created

This is pulled almost word-for-word from the ‘Nicene’ Creed (my translation here). Many other carols, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, assert the divinity of Christ, no doubt intending a Nicene sense. One hymn that undoubtedly intends a Nicene sense is ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’*, which reads:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

But to cite J M Neale’s translation of Prudentius (348-after 405) as evidence for how conciliar theology has impacted our Christmas carols is perhaps too easy. Yet the fact that people still sing this carol demonstrates that we are not all allergic to Nicaea yet.

One of the carols that actually provoked this post was Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.’ Several modern ‘revisions’ (including the CyberHymnal!) of the hymn have changed the second-last line of verse two to, ‘Pleased with us in flesh to dwell’, although the original was ‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell.’ This line comes in the most theological of the carol’s verses:

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!

This change was inevitably made to remove Wesley’s ‘sexist’ language. However, unlike some such modifications (e.g. ‘Good Christians All Rejoice’) this has changed the sense of the line. What the original line is stating is that Jesus became a human being, just like us in every respect. The revision makes the line repeat the fact that his flesh is real — thus opposing the Docetists, I suppose.

‘Pleased as Man with man to dwell’, however, takes aim not at Docetists but first at Apollinarians, who denied the full humanity of Christ by claiming he had no human soul. It also has in its sights, I imagine, Eutychianism, in which the human nature of Christ is swallowed up by the divinity — the heresy often confused with the ‘Mono/Miaphysitism’ of the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches (see my post ‘Wait — Monophysites?‘).

I imagine that this line as composed by Charles Wesley could have had Chalcedon in mind; the Wesley brothers were knowledgeable in patristics. But to say, ‘This line makes “Hark!” Chalcedonian!’ is to miss the debates about Chalcedon that ensued in the following decades and centuries. It is as much ‘Chalcedonian’ as it is ‘Miaphysite’ — asserting the complete and utter humanity of the Incarnate Word. Nonetheless, that Christ was a perfect Man in the midst of men (archaic usage meaning ‘human persons regardless of gender) is the point being made here as well as in the ecumenical councils from Ephesus 1 (431) to Nicaea 2 (787).

The revisers will tell me that the problem of the sexist language persists. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the world that, although I think a contemporary writer should avoid using the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ to refer to human persons generally, this is its etymological definition, and one it maintained parallel to its being taken over by the other sense ‘male human being’ for many, many years. Therefore, why change the wording of something from the 1700s that was meant to include the whole human race? This hearkens back to my post about the scandal of the incarnation’s particularity — Jesus was a man in both senses, and feminists just have to deal with it. (Read also my post of a few years ago, ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!‘)

Anyway, hopefully this will help us sing our carols with gusto and meaning, perceiving the deeper truths that lie behind the poetry.

*Fouled by the Anglican Church of Canada hymn book Common Praise as ‘Of Eternal Love Begotten’.

Evangelicals read the Fathers ’cause they’re awesome

When I posted ‘Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?’, I got some feedback to the very question from friends on Facebook. Scott, a pastor with the Church of the Nazarene, gave two answers I quite liked: ’cause they’re awesome and because they say things that are relevant to people today. Frank, formerly a pastor and now a PhD student in the field of New Testament studies, gave the challenging response: So we can learn how not to do exegesis.

I thought it would be fun for me to give my musings off these three springboards. You, too, can join in on the comments!

The topic now is thus the awesomeness of the Church Fathers.

This is probably one of the best reasons to read the Fathers. I suppose there is a certain utility in the Fathers — drawing us nearer to God, exhorting us to holier living, clearer theological thinking, a more spiritual understanding of Scripture, an appreciation of the history of doctrine. But why do anything save the sheer … greatness of it?

I was once in a van with some IV people back in high school. One of the university students wanted to know why I wanted to study history. I gave all the pious, useful reasons. He said that the best reason to study history was because one liked it and found it interesting.

This is true of many fields.

Evangelicals should read the Fathers because the Fathers are awesome. And don’t just take my word for it. Take that of Prudentius:

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd; He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!

There we have one of the most theological, poetical Christmas carols. Written by M. Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Latin poet who lived from 348-413. Ancient Christian poetry is among the wonders of the ancient world, writing down the wisps of knowledge grasped by human minds in the meters and images of their cultures (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic), the honey of poetry as the honey on the cup of theology. Read Prudentius or Ephraim the Syrian or Gregory of Nazianzus.

Awesome.

If theology stirs you, I refer you to my translation of bits of Leo’s christology for Christmas yesterday, or to Clement of Alexandria from December 4. Amongst the Fathers we find the keen minds of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, of Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea, of Origen and Evagrius — men who had both the keen philosophical parsing of words, phrases and syllogisms as well as the mystical insight of hours spent at prayer before the Triune God.

Awesome.

Then we come to the prayers of the Fathers, such as the following by St. Clement of Rome:

Almighty God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ, establish and confirm us in your truth by your Holy Spirit. Reveal to us what we do not know, perfect in us what is lacking; strengthen us in what we know; and keep us faultless in your service; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

St. Paul exhorts us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is not this plea of St. Clement’s in keeping with the apostolic exhortation? The Fathers call us to deep lives of prayer through their liturgies, found in Hippolytus, or their practices of prayer as found in the Desert Fathers and the ascetic works of Basil of Caesarea. The classic Evangelical call has been to lives soaked in prayer, as we see in John Wesley rising at four o’clock in the morning to prayer for two hours before breakfast. It is a practice heartily recommended by the ancient Christian witness.

Awesome.

The Fathers inhabited a different thought-world than ours. These men and women were to sort of people who have visions, to dream dreams. Their philosophy was more than the keen exercise of the logical aspect of the mind, but a force of will, of prayer, of contemplation, of imagination, of ethical behaviour. The mystical call of Evagrius, Cassian, Origen, the Cappadocians — this is awesome, if foreign to far too many Evangelicals.

The Fathers are awesome. They are not perfect in ethics or in morals or in theology or in prayer or in mysticism or in asceticism. But they are awesome, even if more than a little odd upon first acquaintance. I hope you will make your acquaintance with them a long one and deep.

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!

Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.

Christian Fiction

Ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Some of it has been among the world’s great literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and many more.

My recent discussion of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and its lack of certain heresies (read it here) has set me thinking about Christian novels worth recommending.  While The Shack was entertaining and thought-provoking, it won’t be in the following list.  The books I’m going to recommend have the following benefits: not only are they good novels but they express deep truths about the universe, God, humanity, and people who aren’t professing Christians could enjoy and read them as well.  Here are five, in alphabetical order by title:

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead.  This is a novelisation of the adventures of St. Aidan, an Irish monk who, in the Early Middle Ages sets off from Kells to Byzantium with a complaint about the behaviour of Western clerics on the Continent.  There are Vikings, Muslims, Byzantines, loss of faith and its recovery.  Aidan is very . . . real.  And the Vikings are fantastic (“Heya!”).

The Cosmic Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  Many people find The Chronicles of Narnia their favourites; others applaud Till We Have Faces as a work of genius.  I’m not sure what my favourite work of Lewis’ fiction is.  The Cosmic Trilogy, however, is well worth a read.  These books centre on the adventures of Ransom, who in the first (Out of the Silent Planet) travels to Mars (Malacandra), the second (Perelandra) to Venus (Perelandra), and in the final volume (That Hideous Strength), the battle takes itself to Earth.  The stories are excellent, the characters compelling, and a whole gamut of “issues” is run throughout this trilogy.

Godric by Frederick Buechner.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Godric, an Anglo-Saxon hermit in the Middle Ages.  This well-written novel tells Godric’s life, including Godric’s struggles and doubts, his own humility and questioning of his vocation.  It is beautiful and wonderful.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.  I believe that this book captures the spirit of the Late Antique world, especially in terms of philosophy and religion.  Waugh is not trying to make a historical reconstruction but simply telling the legend of St. Helena’s life.  I believe this is a masterpiece; it was Waugh’s favourite of his works.  Loyola Classics has a snazzy edition out.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  This, along with its companion novels, is among my favourite books.  It is a type of science fantasy, if such a genre exists.  It is about four children who set out across the universe to fight the Dark and to find their missing father; the Dark is taking over planets, extinguishing stars.  Their greatest weapon in the fight against the Dark?  Love.

Christian fiction I want to read:

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams

Brenden by Frederick Buechner

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (I’ve only read Taliesin)

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Psychomachia by Prudentius

What Christian novels do you recommend?

Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian.  And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews.  The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture.  Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you.  And their allusions.  And what exactly is going on in their art.  And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF.  We shall begin with literature.

The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much.  Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible.  CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation.  There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few.  Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it.  The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible?  And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle.  My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.

Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it.  This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.  Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature.  We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).

How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives!  Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems).  Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”.  Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem.  If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.

Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings.  The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book.  His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.

Now I must sleep.  My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy!  Read the Bible!  It can only do you good.