Generous Orthodoxy  

The word ortho-doxy (Greek for "right doctrine") has both positive and negative connotations. In a culture that prizes what is iconoclastic and transgressive, orthodoxy has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst.

The position taken on this website is that we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.
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Latest News

Fleming's book has gone to the publisher

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014

The completed manuscript of Fleming's book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ has gone to Eerdmans Publishing and will be published in 2015. This book, the product of 20 years of work, is designed for pastors and preachers, inquiring lay people, and perhaps seminary students. It is not an academic book, despite its academic pretensions! As the time of publication approaches, I will offer information as to how it might be used in congregations.

Recent Ruminations

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover 2015
Thursday, February 26, 2015

This blog is going to cross some boundaries, so you have been warned.

The new swimsuit cover is, as usual, front and center on all the newsstands. I thought I had become immune to what I see in the airport and supermarket displays, but this was something else again. I am certainly not posting it; you have already seen it.

The model (Hannah Davis) has obviously had all or most of her pubic hair removed, as have all or most models today. I don't look at pornography, but I have read that the performers in pornographic films have it all removed as well. The degree of anxiety that this new expectation must create in today's girls and women, not to mention the amount of money and time necessary for the procedure, can scarcely be exaggerated. Growing up and coping with sexual situations is complicated enough already; I am very thankful that my contemporaries and I did not have this particular concern to add to all the others. (I noticed that at least one of the actresses in the HBO series Rome had had the procedure; somehow I doubt if that was done in ancient Rome.)

A painting that I love is L'Origine du Monde, by the provocateur Gustave Courbet. (I'm not posting this one, either, but you can easily find it online.)  I have studied the history of art and have been to most of the major art museums, but I didn't know this celebrated painting existed until The New York Review of Books published a reproduction of it a few years ago (inside the journal).  It has only recently been hung in public view, though in a side gallery, at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. In my view it is art, not pornography. It is a picture that I would like for young people to see, with this comment: This is what women are supposed to look like.

There is a school of thought that women who allow themselves to be presented like Hannah Davis are exhibiting female strength. To me, it seems like a regression in women's advancement. I believe that most younger women who are struggling to make a place for themselves will be subtly or not-so-subtly undermined by this sort of objectivization. Sometimes I think there is something to be said for the modesty of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women. The way a woman dresses should never, and I mean never, be used as a justification for rape, but I also think that women are well served by discreet dress (though by all means fashionable, if she likes).

Moreover, adults who care about children should be increasingly concerned about the sexualizing of very young girls. This has been going on for some time and has been observed with alarm, but it continues apace. My precious little great-nieces are going to see this magazine cover and wonder about it. I know exactly how my mother would have dealt with it. She would have said something along these lines: "This picture is all over the United States and many people will look at it, but it is not a picture of the way a woman or girl should allow herself to be photographed and I hope no one in our family will ever want to be like that model." My guess is that most mothers today will simply ignore the cover and say nothing, which will lead the little girl to think that this is the way it has to be. It's not the way it has to be.


Another church is closed. Why?
Thursday, February 26, 2015

In the southern Massachusetts Berkshires, churches are struggling. The American Baptist congregation closest  to our house shut its doors for the last time this past Sunday. The local Episcopal church that I regularly attend is much further away. For some years, when I didn't feel like driving that far, I went to the little Baptist church. I loved it. When I started going, the elderly part-time supply pastor preached simple biblical sermons full of living faith, and his wife played the well-loved 19th century hymns on the little pump organ. There were usually about 20-22 parishioners present, and not all were older people.

Then a new pastor came, in his late 50s, full of vigor and ideas. His sermons were really excellent, and his missionary background was evident in his obvious Christ-centered faith. People responded to his gospel preaching, at first. However, he forced the congregation to change too much too fast. He asked for, and got, an expensive sound system for a tiny church which had never needed even a microphone. He insisted on one of those electronic keyboard things for his wife to play, and he expected the congregation to be enthusiastic about the new, unfamiliar music. He put a cross on the front of the church, which offended Baptist sensibilities. He was critical of the congregation's supposed lack of love. People felt alienated and uncared for, and they began to stay away. Then he and his wife, feeling unappreciated, abruptly departed, with some unkind words for the congregation. It was downhill from there. Two months ago, the six remaining members voted 5-1 to close. They simply could not make the effort to keep it going any longer.

I will be driving past this little church every day, several times a day. It  breaks my heart. The congregation had been meeting on that spot for 228 years, and the very simple building (its second) had been lovingly cared for. It looks pristine on the inside as well as the outside, as if the carpet had just been laid and the walls just painted. It all seems such a waste. The local newspaper, in a prominent write-up with a photo of the building, declared that people just weren't going to church any more. It sounded like a death knell.

This is happening all over New England. Church buildings everywhere have become community centers, art galleries and studios, antique shops, private residences.  The saddest part of it all is that only a tiny fraction of the members of those congregations join other churches. Most of them stop going to church altogether. The loss of the memories is too painful. "I was baptized in that church, I was married in that church, I had always expected to be buried from that church."  There is an idolatry of church buildings, no question about that. I have been reading a history of the first two centuries of Christianity and it is hard not to conclude that there was great strength in those early congregations which had no buildings to meet in but were on fire with the good news of Jesus Christ the Lord. Yet today, when there are empty church buildings all over, it is easy for observers to conclude that faith is dead, that Christian worship has become irrelevant.

All of this has led me to reflect on a factor that has been bothering me for some years now. It is a pretty well-established fact that the most important factor in getting people to come to church and stay there is social. "Someone invited me." "I was shown in to the coffee hour and introduced to people." "People were friendly to me." This is so obvious that it should be addressed with the highest priority in all congregations. I can speak with some authority on this, because I have attended Sunday worship virtually every Sunday of my adult life somewhere, from Hawaii to Washington state to Florida to Minnesota to Maine--literally--and it is very rare for anyone even to acknowledge my presence, let alone escort me to coffee hour. I can name on fewer than ten fingers the number of churches where I have received a friendly greeting. Literally. It's easy to remember them because they were so few. Only one of them was an Episcopal church. Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul's Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly even though I attended for three consecutive Sundays. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get out of the pew as fast as possible.

And that little Baptist church? No one knew that I was an ordained minister. No one knew anything about me at all. I was just an ordinary person who was visiting, a potential new member perhaps. I must have been reasonably conspicuous as a newcomer among 20 people, all of whom knew each other well. I attended services there at least 15 times. I introduced myself, spoke pleasantly to people, praised the service. Did anyone ever make an effort to get to know me? No.

One of the reasons I have always loved St. John's Episcopal Church in Salisbury, Connecticut, is that the first time I ventured there, a couple in their fifties recognized that I was a newcomer and drew me into their circle. Later I became interim pastor there. Every Sunday during the announcements, I asked newcomers to raise their hands and, jokingly, told them that if no one spoke to them they should report it to me immediately. This, amazingly enough, actually seemed to work.

The lack of a friendly greeting (with personal follow-up) is not the only reason that churches are closing, but it is a major factor just the same. Congregations and their leaders need to pay attention to this issue as a high priority. It can be done. The most important step to take is for church leaders to identify members who have real gifts for social outreach. These will be friendly, easygoing, unselfconscious people who enjoy meeting newcomers and are enthusiastic about their church family. These people are not common, but they do exist. It is just as important to identify them and put them to work as it is to find a church treasurer, an organist, and an investment committee. Maybe more important.

The couple who greeted me at St John's Church many years ago, the Finlays, are long since gone to be with the Lord, but they had everything to do with my being to this day a supporter of that congregation. They were gifted by the Holy Spirit with unusually outgoing personalities. In my experience it is better if such people don't wear a "greeter" badge. Being greeted by a "greeter" always seems a bit forced and artificial. The Finlays were not artificial. Such people have a special ministry, a gift which amounts to a form of evangelism. It would make a big difference if congregations put special emphasis on identifying members who are anointed in that way, and commissioning them to serve to reach out to every new person who comes in the door. This would surely be a move in the right direction to stop the attrition. As Ephesians 4:11-16 says, there are many gifts of the Spirit for building up the Body of Christ. This is a wonderful New Testament passage that every congregation should know, and it is directly relevant to the matter at hand.


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Latest Tips From the Times

A truly great sports hero
Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The passing of Dean Smith, legendary basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, was noted almost everywhere with lavish obituaries and reverential assessments. It is hard to understand, sometimes, why men of this caliber are not only admired and praised, but also emulated and followed. Why aren't there more Dean Smiths? Writers keep reiterating the theme that we will not see his like again. Why not? Why don't all these people who ooh and aah over Dean Smith try to live as he did? Why do fathers not teach their sons to be more like Dean Wright instead of the latest Cristal-toting, foul-mouthed, wife-beating sports figures?

Many of the articles, including those in The New York Times which doesn't ordinarily honor religious commitment, mentioned his regular churchgoing and his beliefs about human dignity which arose out of his Christian faith. Would that we would hear this more often.

Here is a tribute to Dean that you might otherwise miss:


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