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

Catholic priests and young boys
Thursday, August 21, 2014

You may think you know what the title of this Rumination refers to. When the film Au Revoir, Les Enfants (written and directed  by Louis Malle, 1987) begins, you see a Catholic private boarding school for boys. You see suspicious-looking priests and friars, shepherding the boys about, overseeing their undressing for bed, supervising their showers in the public bathhouse. The fathers and brothers in their brown robes seem stern and severe, yet overly attentive, patting boys on their heads and shoulders, examining their knees for injuries. You feel creepy. You wonder how any boys at all managed to escape from this predatory atmosphere.

Soon, however, the film begins to take on another aspect. The time is 1943-4 and the location is Nazi-occupied northern France. The students are mostly from highly privileged Parisian families who appreciate the school's reputation for excellence and, presumably, its location away from Paris with its concentration of German occupiers.  The Germans are making themselves felt outside Paris also, however, and we begin to realize what peril the French Jews are in, and how the Resistance is operating in quiet corners. The solicitude of the priests and other teachers begins to take on a heroic aspect. There are Jewish students being hidden among the others. There is a Jewish teacher, hired when he lost his job elsewhere. There is black-marketing going on among the school employees, and the students with resources are complicit, setting up a situation rife with peril as the Germans look for informers. The Nazis and their French collaborators (the Milice) harass Jews even in fine restaurants where the boys' parents take them as a treat (though even there, there is nothing to eat but rabbit, and even for rabbit, a rationing coupon is needed). The priests and teachers do their best to steer the students through this moral morass.

All of this is based on Louis Malle's personal experience as a student at the real-life Catholic school called the Petit-Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jesus d'Avon, a premier institution, founded in 1934 by Père Jacques (Père Jean in the film), Lucien Bunel, who then became its headmaster. A devout member of the Carmelite order, Père Jacques was widely admired for his leadership abilities and teaching methods and was tapped by the order to form the school. Soon, the best Catholic families were sending their sons there. When the war began, Père Jacques (Jean) served in the French military forces, returning to the school after the fall of France. Believing, as a Christian, that the Jews were God's chosen people, he began to engage in dangerous actions, like hiring a fellow Resistance member, a Jew, to teach at the school.

(Spoiler alert: you might want to read this next part later if you plan to see the film.)
During the Occupation, Père Jacques was notified by the small but potent Christian resistance movement (Témoignage Chrétien) that three Jewish boys needed to be hidden. He immediately acquiesced and took the boys into the school as boarders. On January 17, 1944, the Gestapo arrived at the Petit-Collège, having been tipped off by informers, and arrested the three boys as well as the Jewish science teacher and his family. They were all sent to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival. Louis Malle witnessed the scene of the arrest, which is in the film.

 Père Jacques (Jean) was arrested also. The final scene in the film shows him being led off by the Nazis as the students watch helplessly. He turns and over his shoulder says, with an almost conspiratorial little smile, says, "Au revoir, mes enfants. À bientôt!"  (Goodbye, children; see you soon!) As the film's after-notes explain, unlike the others he was not sent to Auschwitz, but to the ill-famed concentration camp Mauthausen, known as one of the worst, where he selflessly shared his pitiful rations and ministered to the sick and dying. When all the priests at Mauthausen were transferred to Dachau (supposedly less hellish than Mauthausen) he concealed his identity and remained behind, the only priest for 20,000 prisoners. He learned some Polish so he could minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him "Père Zak." He was unanimously chosen by the French-speaking prisoners to represent them after the liberation in May 1945. By that time, however,  Père Jacques weighed only 75 pounds. Completely worn down with malnutrition and illness, he died four weeks later at the age of only 45. He was buried in the Petit-Collège and is numbered in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. The soon-to-be Grand Rabbi of France spoke at his burial: "Thus we have seen cruelty pushed to its extreme horror, and benevolence carried to its highest degree of nobility and beauty."

I have been reading about and studying the various Resistance movements for decades (including of course the now-famous example of the French village of Le Chambon), yet I had never heard of  the Témoignage Chrétien--Christian Witness (which, it must be said, has no presence on the Internet).  I did not know of the existence of Père Jacques until now. It took a Criterion Collection film to teach me. The film has supposedly been much admired, but I didn't know anything about it until recently. These gaps in our knowledge need to be rectified (hence the deliberately provocative title of this post).

Pope Francis, I've read, wants to move Oscar Romero toward beatification (the step before canonization). The process has been held up because some people have thought that genuine martyrs should be only those who die specifically because they are Christians, not because they are engaging in radical (Marxist?) social protest. Francis wants to change the process to include those Christians who die because they are engaging in Christian actions. If this change happens at the Vatican, surely Père Jacques will be among the beatified.

For more on Oscar Romero, see my post: .

For more unsung Roman Catholic witnesses, see also:

And also:


Orthodoxy (whether generous or not) in disarray
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

During the 14 years I spent at Grace Church in New York City, April Fool's Day fell on a Sunday twice. In those days we had a beautiful church bulletin printed by a real printer in Brooklyn who set the type by hand (can you believe that was still going on? in the 1980s?). As the editor, I prepared the content and sent it over to Joe in Brooklyn every week (I think that delivery was probably by hand, too). On the Sunday morning of April 1, a couple of years after I'd been doing the bulletin, the "real" bulletin was intercepted by a benign conspiracy of our young  parishioners -- I was completely in the dark about this -- and replaced by a subversive bulletin (also printed by Joe, who was in on the joke). The ushers did not realize what they were handing out, until a number of chortles and pokes in the side among the arriving parishioners that morning alerted them to the headline on the front page: THE FEAST OF ST. PELAGIUS. The substitute bulletin was an affectionate, knowing satire on the clergy, the prayer groups, the Bible studies, the worship, the romantic entanglements among the young parishioners, and especially the well-known and well-loved content of the preaching and teaching at Grace Church. It was one of the most marvellous things that happened during those years in that congregation. Seven years later a new committee of wits (with some holdovers from the first time) did the same thing all over again, with the same headline. The"St. Pelagius' Day" bulletins are remembered with much delight to this day.

If you don't know who Pelagius was or why he matters (or doesn't matter), then the whole thing would have been lost on you. At Grace Church in those days, a lot of people knew. A lot of the young adults, as well as the older ones, knew that the very knowledge of our salvation depended on the outcome of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine won the debate -- theoretically -- but the Pelagian position has remained the default for everyone, and must therefore be identified, understood, and rejected all over again in every generation.

What's this all about? We'll get to that, but the first thing to be noted is that there is now an overt, intentional, and quite serious move afoot to reclaim Pelagius as a Doctor of the Church. J. Philip Newell, a very popular author and "spiritual" leader, is one of the chief cheerleaders; you can read about him at

This move is associated with the current enthusiasm for all things Celtic, which has deeply penetrated the mainline churches, perhaps especially the Episcopal Church. Closely related is the overt outreach to the group, now growing in numbers, of those who define themselves officially as "spiritual but not religious" (hence the earlier use of quotation marks for the word "spiritual"). The New York Times last week ran an article about that phenomenon, with a reference to the delightfully fearless Lillian Daniels, who can be found here: 

Lillian is a tonic. She understands, for instance, that the phenomenal popularity of "Celtic" services being held for all comers, with open communion for the unbaptized, is not going to strengthen the faltering churches. Her voice is valuable and much needed. She does not, however, seem particularly interested in The Great Tradition (aka generous orthodoxy) of the church, but rather, in what the church asks of its people -- and more power to her on that. Doctrine, however, still lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. As soon as one becomes unmoored  from the Great Tradition of biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine, there are unnumbered, treacherous currents, tides, and rocks to get lost in or run aground on. Moving away from the church (with all its all-too-obvious defects) means exchanging one flawed organism for another -- oneself. Pelagius was a Christian, a very serious one, but the teaching that Augustine was dead set against was his tendency to substitute human agency for divine agency.

In the end, it's about God. Who is God, and what difference does that make? There are a number of dangers in the Pelagian route, but perhaps the primary route out of biblical faith is the redefining of the identity and nature of God. It is simply tragic that the issue defining the various parties in the church today is same-sex unions. The passions surrounding this debate have almost entirely obscured the all-important questions of Christology and the role of Scripture in an age when an unprecedented number of books and media messages are bent on undermining the church's ancient confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

This is the first post of two or three to follow on the subject of Christian doctrine, the Augustinian position, and the fashion for spirituality.

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Latest Tips From the Times

Two stunning stories about Christian leadership, little known in the USA
Wednesday, August 13, 2014

We hear so much about the awful things Christians have done and so relatively little about the great things. Yet over the past few years many examples have popped up here and there for those who are paying attention. I have posted several of them on this "Tips" blog. Here are two more from the recent news, both of which I find exceptionally inspiring.

The first is an obituary for Christian Führer, who was the Lutheran "pastor in the denim vest" during the worst of times in East Germany under the Communist regime. Deeply influenced by the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he held little prayer meetings for peace in his St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, which soon grew to be "The Monday Demonstrations," held outside in the streets. "Not thrones and altars, but the street and the altar are what belong together," he preached. Before October 9, 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall), many people were skeptical about his people's movement of prayers and candles, but eventually the demonstrations led by Pastor Führer mushroomed into a mass movement of some 70,000, part of the mighty uprising that helped East Germany to throw off its shackles. For this, he deserves as much notice as Pope John Paul II gets for rousing the Poles. After he retired in 2008, he received many honors from Germany, but until illness slowed him, he never stopped preaching non-violent resistance. Here are links to the obituary and an even more informative article. If they don't work, just Google Christian Fuhrer, an amazing name! 

And for further reflection about street demonstrations, see this link:

The second story is obscure but even more astonishing, and definitely should be better known. It is mentioned in a story in The New York Times today about the Ebola epidemic and the debate about creating a cordon sanitaire (closed-off zone)  in affected areas. The most famous voluntary cordon (not forced by government edict) took place in 1665, in an English village called Eyam in Derbyshire. The dread bubonic plague (called the "Black Death" in the Middle Ages) came into the village from London in a bolt of cloth delivered to a local tailor, who died from the bites of fleas that had been unknowingly folded into the cloth. The villagers, under the leadership of two local ministers, isolated themselves for 14 months. Only a quarter of the population survived, according to estimates, but the plague burned itself out and never escaped into the rest of the county. There is a museum in Eyam about these events, and a search for Eyam, the "plague village," gives plenty of information. The way that the whole village cooperated in this project under life-threatening circumstances recalls the more recently famous village of Le Chambon in the Cévennes mountains of France where, under the leadership of Pastor André Trocmé, a large number of Jewish children were safely sheltered throughout the years of World War II.

As always, the question arises, What would you and I and our Christian communities do under such circumstances? As always, it is something to ponder in our hearts. May we always have such leaders.

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