Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fear the New Tribalism? Lent Madness and the Theology of Sainthood

OK, starting off with a disclaimer (never a good way to start, I know).  Crusty has been serving as devil's advocate, super villain in waiting, snarkster in chief, for the whole Lent Madness thing.  He hasn't voted or participated since early in 2012, when he helped, with others, to orchestrate Philander Chase's takedown of Thomas Merton.  Apart from wanting to uphold the legacy of the seminary where he is dean, Crust was miffed that Philander was set up as an obvious patsy to the much better known Thomas Merton.  And yea, verily, some people learned the hard way:  Don't mess with Crusty.

Truth be told, though, Crusty really has no beef with the whole Lent Madness thing.  COD is friends and colleagues with the people behind this, Scott and Tim -- and more than that, is honored to be friends and colleagues with them.  They are smart and savvy and have a deep spiritual and faithful center, and have done much more for the world in their ministries than a wise-ass blogger who spent a decade fruitlessly getting the world to care about ecumenism before becoming dean of the smallest seminary in the Episcopal Church.  They have done what no one else has been able to do in the past decade:  have the Episcopal Church be known for something other than lawsuits and fights over homosexuality.  That is no mean feat.

However, Crusty has been uncomfortable with some of the deeper issues Lent Madness has brought to the surface.  To be sure, Lent Madness has not created any of these issues; rather, they are part of the pond in which it is swimming.  COD is troubled by a new tribalism, expressed in advocacy born out of the absence of any coherent theology of practice of sainthood in the Episcopal Church.

Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.
Crusty was reminded of a story:  back in the day, before he was crusty, old, or a dean, COD was an undergraduate religious studies major at a New England college know for openness and liberalism.  He and his friends went off one Friday night to a party at Malcolm X House, the African American university-sponsored house on campus.  We had lots of them:  Womanyst House, German House for people who wanted to speak German, co-ed fraternities, all-male fraternities, sororities, you name it, we had one.  Crusty was headed to X House because they threw awesome parties, putting aside the notion that Malcolm would probably not approve of serving alcohol as a devout Muslim.  But anyway, Crusty was in line to get in when he noticed a sign at the front:  "Black Students: Free.  Everyone Else:  $5."  Crusty figured, Whatever, I'll certainly drink more than five dollars worth of beer tonight.  However, the sign sparked some serious conversation in the line.  One student asked, "Why does everyone else have to pay?"  The African American student collecting money at the door replied, "Because African Americans have been oppressed for so long in this society, we deserve to get something for free."  That caused a female student to shout, "What do you mean?  Women are still oppressed in this society!"  Then a Latino student called out, "I'm a person of color and an immigrant, I'm doubly oppressed!"  A Jewish student said, "What about Hitler and the Holocaust?  Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years all over the world!"  A gay student then said, "Sure, I'm white, but as a gay man I'm oppressed by this homophobic society!"  If only we had known about Godwin's Law back then, we were doing it in real time before the Internet!

Crusty thought at the time, as he still does, "They're all right; all those groups have been and still are oppressed."  What was startling was

a)  efforts to privilege one kind of oppression over another and
b)  arguing the finer points of comparison of gradations of oppression.

Rather than make any statement about oppression, the scene in the line only reinforced a kind of tribalism: advocating for one's perspective at the expense of the bigger picture.  Sadly this is something the internet has only reinforced in the past 25 years (yes, Crusty is old -- there were no cellphones or internet in that line), as groups are now able more than ever to communicate only with people that share their own viewpoint.   Rather than a debate in line, if this happened now, people would probably take pictures of the sign and storm off to post angry rants on Twitter and Facebook, where their like-minded friends would chime in, and then there would be a Tumblr made of all the stupid things drunk college students said so that the people who make those Tumblrs and think the same things but don't tweet them can be smug and superior.  Meanwhile, the real issue is never discussed:  all those people were, and are, oppressed.

Will Nikki and Paolo be in next year's Lent Madness?
Crusty was taken back to that night standing in line 23 years ago as he has seen something analogous at times in discussion around Lent Madness voting -- the notion that voting for one candidate or another is a sign or marker of what one thinks is more important or relevant than something else.  We can see this in the matchups first between Frances Perkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., and lately between Frances Perkins and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, and between Oscar Romero and Florence Li-Tim Oi.  There has been a  consistent push for Frances Perkins to win "so she can be better known."  (Throughout, Crusty will be paraphrasing some of the blogostwitterspherebook chatter so as not to single out individual persons -- except for the Mt Holyoke website, which openly advocated for people to vote for Perkins so she could be better known.)  Everyone knows Jonathan Daniels, people don't know enough about Frances Perkins!  Everyone knows MLK, people need to know more about Frances!  Sure, MLK was as civil rights leader, but Perkins' advocacy of the New Deal is important, too, and impacted as many people!  It has crystallized in some aspects around the Perkins-MLK and Perkins-Daniels matchups, but present elsewhere as well.  Is a vote against Florence Li-Tim Oi is a vote against women and women's ordination?  Or is a vote against Oscar Romero demonstrate a lack of willingness to stand with the poor?  At first Crusty thought some of the eye-raising matchups (Martin Luther vs Martin Luther King?) were just Lent Madness entering its hating its success and its audience phase, kind of like the third season of Lost.  Just as Crusty thought in line at X House, "They're right, they're all oppressed, but we're not talking about that, we're bickering over gradations of oppression," he found himself fuming that all these people are right in their advocacy of Perkins and MLK and Jonathan Daniels and Oscar Romero and Florence Li Tim Oi.

There are at least two issues in Crusty's mind with the way this is unfolding.

One is that it perpetuates the kind of zero-sum-game thinking that pervades our world.  Good God, we don't need to choose between civil rights and the f****g New Deal.   Aspects of the conversation itself  actually trivializes both.  Notice I say at best, because, of course, this whole Lent Madness bit occurs more or less inside our own bubble.  For instance, at an academic conference recently Crusty shared some of the Lent Madness stuff with some colleagues, marveling that Perkins had taken down MLK.  An African American colleague working at a historically African American seminary said, "On my campus we would consider it insulting to put Dr King up against anybody for a golden halo."

The second is that this reveals the utter paucity and void of any kind of theology of commemoration or sainthood in the Episcopal Church -- and all the knee-jerk Holy Women, Holy Men haters need to realize that it goes back longer than HWHM.  It probably goes back, in some form, to everything after the 1559  Book of Common Prayer.  Cranmer eliminated the overwhelming number of saints' days, restricting them by and large only to those with a biblical warrant or basis -- though even he included four commemorations  (St George, Lammas, St Clement, and St Lawrence) not found in the Bible.  After that, commemorations were added without any real systemic thought or justification -- 57 added in 1561, and another round with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  The Episcopal Church continued to have very few commemorations until the 1964 General Convention made up for lost time by adding over 100 commemorations and setting up a process for additional observances.

Since Anglicans (apparently) do not believe in the main function of saints in the Catholic  (and in some ways Orthodox) tradition -- that is,  an intercessory function of saints (we pray to them to intercede with God on our behalf), or pray for protection and healing directly from the saint -- the calendar of commemorations has served almost as an anamnesis.   The actual guidelines are laid out on pages 741-746 of Holy Women, Holy Men:  we commemorate persons to call to mind their lives for instruction, guidance, inspiration, and emulation; who should have actually existed;  who should be dead for 50 years (or two generations); and already be commemorated in a local observance in some way.  Well and good, but there's two problems with this.  For one, we have added persons that simply stretch the boundaries of this thinking, for all sorts of reasons:  persons from traditions that do not commemorate persons on a liturgical calendar, persons nominally Christian, persons not even Christian, persons not dead 50 years,  persons not commemorated locally by anyone, and persons who may not pass the historicity test (unless, of course, we become biblical literalists solely for the purpose of adding people to the calendar and treat Scripture as ahistorical in almost every other aspect).  And secondly, we haven't kicked people off the calendar who don't represent those elements.  By the standards we seem to have currently, I'd like to remove some people I don't think are worthy of emulation or inspiration and I don't turn to for guidance and whom I'm not sure existed historically.  So we'll give a pass to all the people on the calendar while adding people according to a different standard?  Here again, I don't blame the people who put together HWHM -- we use it at the seminary and I have a copy on my desk 24/7.  They were just working from processes they themselves inherited.

Listen to Boogalo Shrimp!  Stop the Madness!
Thus we have an interesting confluence:  a wonderful, lively, informative, and didactic form of mishegas called Lent Madness but which is like the statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the second chapter of book of Daniel:  Lent Madness is pure gold, but built on the clay feet of our theology of sainthood and commemoration.  The paucity of this theology, in turn, moves the conversation at times to being an ecclesial version of undergraduates standing in line outside Malcolm X House,  arguing as to whether the New Deal or the Civil Rights movement is more important, or whether standing with the poor or fighting for women's rights should get your vote.

In this way, then, perhaps Lent Madness is a perfect metaphor for a theology of commemoration and sainthood in the Anglican world: the church's commemoration of saints, in all ages, has always told us more about ourselves than those we commemorate.  It seems our current format makes them little more than people we'd like to be Facebook friends with.


  1. I had a similar queasiness reading the LM comments thread, for different (but tangential) reasons. I tried to talk myself down by telling myself that, after all, this is modeled on the insanity of NCAA bball tourney season - specious reasons for rooting are part of the joy.

    And yet... I spent years at school studying Christian Anthropology as understood via the narrative theology of saints' Lives, and I have a pretty well-developed theology of sainthood (which is inextricable from Christology/Ecclesiology/Eschatology...). So trivializing that shit doesn't go down well with me.

    My ultimate response: voting for the saint I most want to emulate/honor on that given day, and avoiding the comments thread.


  2. COD attended PCU with Jeremy Piven? :D

  3. You know it, Mary Sue. And Dar Williams and Joss Whedon and the dude who wrote the Lemony Snicket books, all of whom actually were there when I was there.

  4. I agree entirely that there's no agreed-upon theology of sanctity in the Church. Furthermore, there's not an agreed-upon theology of sanctity on the SCLM that is trying to finalize Holy Women Holy Men. Needless to say, I see this as a problem...

    Perhaps the biggest problem here is that we like to say that we are a sacramental church and trumpet the importance of the Baptismal Covenant, yet we have not clearly articulated the organic connection between sanctity and a sacramental life of discipleship.

  5. Doing Lent Madness with my kids this year has helped to counteract the tribalism. They just vote for the story that inspires them the most. And when their pick doesn't "win" I remind them that it is really just important that we are learning about all these inspirational people. Which reminds me. Still, I see your point. And experienced it yesterday when I got "tribalized"!!!

  6. Thanks, Tom. Though I have been playing along, I have often been bothered by the snarkiness of some of the comments. One of my favorites, Nicholas Ferrer, was apparently too male, too white, and too privileged to be considered seriously even though he truly lived a life of holiness and service. I am a proud graduate of Bexley Hall, but I have to admit that at CRDS there was definite a culture of victimology: who was more the victim. I think that many of the Bexley students were pretty good about not falling too deeply into that. Anyway, great article. So many issues worth discussing.

  7. I really like Lent Madness. And let's face it: in a church that generally doesn't celebrate even its own major feast days (Presentation, Annunciation, Ascension, Transfiguration, even Epiphany) - well, I think the "theology of sanctity" is going to have to get in line with everything else. (I do sympathize with Derek's position, though; it must be nearly impossible to finalize HWHM without any sort of standard to work from.)

    Meantime, it's fun to have these people front-and center in a way they really aren't, anywhere else. The whole thing is just a tremendous good time, as far as I'm concerned - and the education really is going on. I suspect people will broaden out from a "modern social justice" viewpoint as the years go by. Anyway, haven't people always celebrated saints for their own reasons? My neighbor, who hasn't gone to church in decades, still buried St. Joseph while she was trying to sell her house.

    It's interesting what you say here about victimology, though. The whole idea of liberation movements is actually to cease being a victim - but people do seem to get stuck sometimes. I've noticed that same-sex marriage seems to be gay rights' "final frontier" in the blogotwittomagobooksphere - but even that is losing steam now, and then what? What happens at the end of an ever-growing "acceptance" that's taking the place of an almost universal antipathy (and at lightning speed)? To me, the discussion will only become interesting again when (and if) people start talking about the inner life, and about how best to live given the facts of the world; these things have been almost completely neglected, as usual. Our American fixation on the "pursuit of happiness" almost always leaves that part out these days.

    But, take heart: dozens of (for instance) gay organizations and publications have literally gone out of business over the past 20 years or so; there's just no need for them anymore.

  8. (I admit I truly cannot fathom the love affair with Frances Perkins, though. That, for me, is a total stumper....



  9. Hey Barbara, remember Crusty said repeatedly he loves Lent Madness, too. But he wouldn't be Crusty without pointing out some things which bother him.

    1. Oh, sure. I was just pointing out some of the things I have noticed and/or liked....


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