29 January 2010


J. D. Salinger has died, and I must mark the moment by praising one of the finest books I have ever read. It is not The Catcher in the Rye, easily the most notorious of Salinger's slight body of work. It is the small volume, Franny and Zooey (see here for a helpful summary).

Speaking of "small volume," note the very opening words, in the overly modest front inscription:

As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, "genius domus" of "The New Yorker," lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.

Who can resist reading the book which begins like that? Franny and Zooey is a book about prayer and breakdown, about family intimacy and public audience, about morons and geniuses, about identity and integrity, all set in the long weekend of an earnest college student around 1955.

Franny is learning to pray the Jesus Prayer and carrying around another slim volume, The Way of a Pilgrim. Zooey is her lovable and faithful brother, who tries to comfort her when she appears to be cracking up. There are other members of this highly educated and intelligent family.

It is the passage at the very end of the book that has stayed in my conscience for most of my life. Zooey is speaking on the telephone to Franny, but he has pretended to be another brother, named Buddy. Franny sees through the deception, but the conversation continues. Zooey quotes another older brother, named Seymour. Thus, using telephone and ruse and quotation of other people, Salinger confuses the very stability of identity. Who is actually doing the talking? (Add to this that the narrator of the book is actually the brother named "Buddy").

It does not matter who is doing the talking, Salinger seems to be implying, in a spectacularly Buddhist "non-identity" way. It is the advice of the older brother, Seymour, that becomes important -- important to writers and actors and anyone who is an artist. I daresay that the notion of "artist" here means any person of integrity in the world. Seymour had told Zooey always to shine his shoes before he appeared on the television game show "Wise Child" (on which show all the children had appeared at one time or another), this despite the fact that no one could ever see his shoes.

Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door.... I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to them for the Fat Lady (Franny and Zooey, Boston: Bantam edition. Little, Brown, and Company, 1961. p. 200).

As Zooey tells this story, and how he obliged in shining his shoes for the Fat Lady, Franny remembers Seymour saying the same kind of thing to her. "He told me, too," she said into the phone, "he told me to be funny for the Fat Lady."

So Zooey continues:

Yes. Yes. Yes. all right. Let me tell you something now, buddy....are you listening? [note that "buddy" is also the name of their other brother, "Buddy" who is narrating the larger story]. I don't care where an actor acts...But I'll tell you a terrible secret--Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know--listen to me now-- don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? ...Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ himself. Christ himself, buddy. (Franny and Zooey, pp. 201-202).

I give nothing away if I say that this passage is at the very end of the book. For joy, apparently, it was all Franny could do to hold the phone, even with both hands. After this, Zooey cannot talk anymore; it is as if words have ended.

As the world knows, J. D. Salinger did not publish much. Apparently, however, he wrote very much. I think of another of Zooey's remarks to Franny: An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's (Franny and Zooey, page 199). Here's to you, J. D. Salinger. May your soul rest in peace.

20 January 2010


Lanny Davis, a loyal Democrat, has written some clear reflections on why Massachusetts voters supported an independent-minded Republican over the Democrat (who, a month ago, was the presumed winner). (see The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, 20 January, 2010.)

"Somehow, in the last 12 months, we allowed the party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to morph into the party of George McGovern (or more accurately, his most ardent supporters) and Howard Dean, who called for the defeat of the Democratic health-care bill if it had neither a public option or Medicare buy-in. (He couldn't possibly have been speaking for the 31 million uninsured people in taking that all-or-nothing position.)"

..."Bottom line: We liberals need to reclaim the Democratic Party with the New Democrat positions of Bill Clinton and the New Politics/bipartisan aspirations of Barack Obama—a party that is willing to meet half-way with conservatives and Republicans even if that means only step-by-step reforms on health care and other issues that do not necessarily involve big-government solutions."

I agree with him that good politics always progresses incrementally. When politicians stretch for too much, too soon, too ambitiously, they will lose.

18 January 2010


An Associated Press story of 16 January 2010, used by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, unfortunately repeats a misleading and simplistic historical claim, that “Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused marriage annulment.” I appreciate any true news story, but it is an error to supply a simplistic historical background to an issue that is religiously complex.

The Anglican Communion of Churches, including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, has long been different and separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The popular and juicy story of Henry VIII and his obsession for a male heir (not just an annulment from Catherine of Aragon), while fun to repeat, can not be used as the point of separation between Roman and Anglican Christianity.

For instance, kings of England long before Henry VIII called themselves the Head of the Church in England, including William the Conqueror after 1066. Remember, too, that conflict between local versus Roman authority in the Church of England was the reason Thomas a Beckett was murdered in 1170. Finally, readers might recall that the Church of England returned to obedience to the Roman Catholic Church after Henry VIII and his son Edward died, when Queen Mary I ascended the throne in 1533. It was actually Elizabeth I, not Henry VIII, whose rule finally separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church (Elizabeth was not excommunicated by the Pope until 1570).

Today, what is referred to as “The Anglican Church” is more accurately referred to as “The Anglican Communion of Churches,” and not as a centralized and universally hierarchical structure like the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Communion of Churches traces its historical roots to England, for sure, but, more importantly, to an ethos of local authority and respect for indigenous spirituality. This is why The Episcopal Church established itself separately from the Church of England in 1789. The Episcopal Church, for better or worse, is not under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury; neither are the Churches of Nigeria or Uganda, for better or worse, under the authority of the Church of England or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

One can argue whether this “communion of churches” structure succeeds in proclaiming and serving the Christian gospel, just as one can argue whether a more centralized and universally hierarchical structure like the Roman system succeeds. In fact, I have no problem with the Roman Catholic Church providing a spiritual home for Anglican Christians who want a more centralized ecclesiology (which was the point of the AP story on 16 January 2010).

My own opinion is that God uses both church structures; different gifts of different Christians can be inspired by either structure, or by both systems. However, please do not confuse the two ecclesiologies, either historically in their development, or presently in their contemporary attempts to proclaim the Christian gospel.

17 January 2010


(a sermon for 17 January 2010)

According to the Gospel of John (John 2:1-11), Jesus performed the first of his miracles at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It was called the first of his “signs,” where he revealed his glory.

But listen closely this morning, because I want to start this sermon by referring to a different gospel than the one we have just heard. In the middle of the Gospel of John, some of the disciples of Jesus ask Jesus a hard question. These disciples see a man blind from birth. They ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned? Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

I reckon it was the sort of question Jesus received often. Every religious figure is asked such a question when tragedy, or suffering, or death occurs. Who is to blame? Who sinned? Where we can we register our complaint? But Jesus, as he often did, refused to be constrained to a false choice. “Neither this man, nor his parents, sinned,” Jesus said; “rather, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3)

In another gospel (Luke), Jesus makes a similar point. Apparently, in Jesus’ time, a tragic accident had occurred. The Tower of Siloam had fallen and killed eighteen people. Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you really think these eighteen people were any worse sinners than anyone else?” (Luke 13:4). Of course not.

Still, his disciples, when they encountered tragedy and suffering, would ask the question, “Who sinned? Who is to blame?” These were recurring questions for Jesus, and they are recurring questions for us. Some people have asked similar questions this past week. A powerful and tragic earthquake has struck Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

While many people have been about responding with prayer and money and aid, others have begun to ask the same old human questions, “Who was at fault? Was it the Haitians, or their fathers? Was it this generation of citizens or a former generation of leaders?”

What would the media do without poor old Pat Robertson, who seems to be always available during a tragedy to testify to the clumsy and weaker minds of humanity. One of his responses, as you might have heard, was to blame. He actually said that this week’s earthquake was one of several consequences of a pact that Haitians made with the devil during their revolution from slavery. The absurdity of this claim defies any logical response. But, suffice it to say, Pat Robertson not only got his theology wrong, he got history wrong, too (the successful Haitian revolution and resistance occurred against Napoleon Bonaparte, not Napolean III).

Pat Robertson, unfortunately, has become a caricature. His comments have become so buffoonish that it is easy to see through his weak intellect.

But what about Danny Glover? I actually like Danny Glover and his acting. But he, too, said some rather silly things following the Haiti earthquake. His comments were more trendy, so they did not get reported as widely as did Robertson’s.

It seems that Danny Glover blamed the Haiti earthquake on climate change. Now, I actually believe that the earth’s climate is changing, and I actually believe that some of that change has occurred because of the irresponsibility and ill stewardship of humanity. But I do not believe the Haiti earthquake resulted from what we failed to do at Copenhagen a month ago, a connection that Danny Glover did try to make.

Again, his response is like that of so many of us, whether we are conservative or liberal. We try to place blame. We ask, “Who sinned?” Be careful ridiculing Pat Robertson so much that you do not realize what Danny Glover said. Be careful ridiculing anyone else so much that we do not realize what we ourselves are doing!

In fact, the Haiti earthquake occurred because earthquakes always occur. The great earthquake of Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755, also produced theological response and blame (do you know Voltaire’s Candide?). The earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 did the same.

We human beings are destined to construct buildings on earthquake faults, and earthquakes will always occur. I agree with the columnist David Brooks, who noted this week that in 1989 a 7.0 earthquake occurred in San Francisco and 63 people died. Last week, a 7.0 earthquake occurred in Haiti, and it is estimated right now that perhaps 100,000 people have died.

Brooks pointed out that the tragedy in Haiti is not an earthquake issue. It is a systemic poverty issue. Will we continue to provide the same shallow relief that simply makes us feel useful? The same shallow relief that simply assuages our guilt for a season? Or can we actually inspire people and countries to build infrastructure and plan for the long term? San Francisco and Lisbon learned from earthquakes.

We are beginning to hear some miraculous stories from the Haiti earthquake. Friends and family members have used their hands to dig out survivors from the rubble. Missionaries have vowed to return to the poor. Airplanes and doctors and supplies and food are flying in.

But, remember this about miracles. The true miracles of the world happen over time. They do not happen instantly, or without preparation and hard work. The world remembered Captain Sully Sullenberger this past week, he who landed his crippled airplane right on the Hudson River, without losing a single one of the 155 people aboard. That happened a year ago this past week. That emergency landing did not happen randomly, as if by luck. That captain had spent hours, years, a lifetime, flying airplanes. He was prepared.

The miracles of life take preparation, and they occur over time. The signs of God’s presence in the world take preparation.

Where was I? Didn’t I start this sermon by talking about signs?

Yes, the gospel for today is one of my favorites, the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding, when all the regular wine had run out. What a great party guest Jesus turns out to be!

Many scholars argue that the first part of the Gospel of John is structured around signs, or miracles – maybe seven of them. Jesus miraculously turns water into wine (the first of his miracles), he heals an official’s son and then a lame man. The feeding of the multitude is his fourth sign, and then there’s the healing of the man born blind, the man about whom the disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” According to the structure of the gospel, this would be the sixth of Jesus’s miracles.

But the Gospel of John does not call them miracles. The Gospel calls them “signs.” In the bible, a miracle is really anything that points to God. A miracle is anything that is a sign of the grace and love and power of God.

Jesus came into the world to be a sign of God, to point to God, to give evidence of the power and love of God. The Gospel of John organizes itself around these signs, and the first one – the very first one—occurs at a wedding.

I believe that Jesus shows up in tragedy and crisis. In the cries of pain and loss in Haiti this week, Jesus has been there. Jesus has been present with the caregivers and diggers and helpers in such tragedy. Jesus has been present with those who mourn. Jesus will be present at miraculous recoveries and with the healing power of doctors and nurses. The signs of the presence of God are those wonderful men and women who have showed up to help. The signs of the presence of God will not be among those who are blaming; the signs of the presence of God will be among those who are responding –responding with love and care and wisdom.

Yes, Jesus is present in tragedy, and Jesus will always be present in tragedy. But Jesus likes to be present at weddings, at times of rejoicing and merriment. Jesus shows signs of glory everywhere, healing the sick, assisting the poor. But, according to Saint John, Jesus performed his first sign, his first miracle, at a wedding.

So, friends, never be afraid to celebrate. Never be afraid to offer joy. Never be afraid to give thanks, just as you have heard this past week the voices of those Haitian citizens who were actually singing hymns to God in the middle of the night, following the earthquake. Singing hymns.

Never be afraid to celebrate. Never be afraid to offer joy. Never be embarrassed or sheepish to turn water into wine. According to Saint John, it was at a wedding, at a time of celebration, when the wine had run out, that was the first place in which Jesus revealed his glory.


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

15 January 2010

On Mary Daly and Catholic Progressive Theology

Charlotte Allen has written a useful summary of the heroes of "Catholic dissent," and I applaud the Wall Street Journal for publishing it (15 January 2010). It is titled, "As the Flame of Catholic Dissent Dies Out."

Essentially, Allen laments that there has been no "second generation of brilliant progressive Catholic theologians." She cites Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Edward Schillebeeckx, along with Mary Daly, and Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, as some of the first generation. Curiously, however, she seems to conclude that conservative Catholicism is also in weak, or "niche," shape. Allen claims that the weak theological foundations of contemporary conservative Catholicism has resulted in there being nothing substantial to "rebel" against; thus, there are few second generation progressive Catholic thinkers.

It's a good thought. It prompts me to wonder whether there is even any "market" for strong theology, in the Roman Catholic Church or in any Church. Our religious debates and arguments, so quickly assembled and properly aligned with either the right or the left, suffer from the lack of a common and mutually accepted tradition.

That "mutually accepted  tradition" should be "orthodoxy." Such is certainly my claim. I enjoy vigorous debate among people who, ultimately accept each other's faith and even each other's orthodoxy. However, our quick religious skirmishes, increasingly magnified into battles by the shallow media and even shallower blog vents, have often resulted in antagonists denying any orthodoxy whatesoever in their opponents.

We live in an age of "competing absolutes," as I have called it (see my sermon of April 20, 2008). Perhaps it is part of our politics these days. "Competing Absolutes" means that we accept only those friends and allies who are 100% for us, and we accuse any nuanced or slightly disagreeing person as being 100% against us.

God is larger than our differences. God is larger, even, than our sense of absolutes. I look forward to a kingdom of God where people of good will and good faith enjoy diversity of opinion because we trust ultimately in something larger than ourselves (and larger than our own opinions and theologies). I trust in a God who is ultimately beyond our understanding, and whose peace I seek daily.

12 January 2010


A group called Film Snobbery has released its list of the fifty most important religion films of all time. (Thanks to Christianity Today for referring me.)

For me, almost any film can become a religious experience, just as music --almost any type-- can become a religious experience for people. I wrote last Spring, for example, about the religious power of Clint Eastwood's character in the movie, Gran Torino. That is a provocative, tremendous, certainly religious movie -- so much so that I used it for the essence of my sermon on Good Friday of 2009.

While not identifying itself as religious, as such, Gran Torino's final scene (with Clint Eastwood's deceased character shaping the clear form of a cross) is beautifully religious. "Film Snobbery's" list identifies some all-time greats, for sure. I am glad that Dogma was included. The Last Temptation of Christ should also have been included.

However, my own nomination and addition to the list would be another movie that was implicitly religious, and even symbolically religious, but which rarely has been explicitly identified as such. It is Places In The Heart, with Sally Field in one of her best (though earnest) roles, joined by the inimitable Danny Glover and John Malkovich . The assembly of outcasts which brings in the first cotton crop is a striking allusion to certain Hebrew scholarship, which scholarship identifies the Hebrews who escaped Egypt in the Exodus as actually an assembly of outcasts.

Then, the final scene of Places in the Heart is one of the most overt representations of "Eucharist as heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God" that I have ever seen. Perhaps the religious sense of that scene requires that one know a bit about sacramental theology. Then again, one does not need to know theology to sense that Holy Communion is an experience of both the divine and the human -- all of humanity.

Again, any movie can point to the Holy. Any movie can be religious.

I do applaud this list for the movie it deemed number two on this all-time list: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, one of the rarely seen movies of the life of Jesus. One of this movie's many striking features, besides its portrayal of Jesus as so hard and fierce, is that the entire dialogue comes straight from the actual Gospel of Matthew; there is no other script used than that of the actual New Testament Book of Matthew.

Thus, it was difficult for people to complain that the movie made Jesus out to be a class-conscious Marxist (which it did), for it ascribed no other words to Jesus other than those in the New Testament. Even when we use the same words, each of us sees Jesus as someone different. See that movie!

11 January 2010


I agree with Ross Douthat, who, in the New York times yesterday, reminds us that the United States allows the free discussion of religion and theology. Just because someone criticizes my religion is no reason to whine that I am a "victim."

He notes that "these believers are colluding in their own marginalization. If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously. The idea that religion is too mysterious, too complicated or too personal to be debated on cable television just ensures that it never gets debated at all."

I like this article; he concludes that "the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them. "


Ted Olson argues here, in this week's edition of Newsweek magazine, the conservative case for gay marriage. This should be a welcome statement for Episcopalians who count themselves on the conservative side of the liberal/conservative split.

Several conservatives have complained to me that the Episcopal Church simply mimics whatever the political left is saying. Following Olson's arguments, which many of us have been making for years, one can still be a "conservative Episcopalian" and be in favor of gay marriage.

Grace and peace to conservatives and to liberals!