What's Tony Thinking

End of the Week, December 15


We’re still six days from the longest night. But of course the good news is that after the winter solstice on December 21, the days begin the long lengthening that goes on until June 21. This evening’s sunset has the sky full of reds, a promising sign for the weekend. But the dark ain’t so bad. It has its own beauty and its own time. “To everything there is a season . . .”

Former editorial page editor at the NYT, James Bennet has broken his silence on the events that led to his firing in 2020 for running an op-ed by the conservative senator, Tom Cotton. Bennet, writing in The Economist, notes that spineless compromise now characterizes both the left and the right. Here’s Bennet,

“One of the glories of embracing illiberalism is that, like Trump, you are always right about everything, and so you are justified in shouting disagreement down . . . In the face of this, leaders of many workplaces and boardrooms across America find that it is so much easier to compromise than to confront—to give a little ground today in the belief you can ultimately bring people around. This is how reasonable Republican leaders lost control of their party to Trump and how liberal-minded college presidents lost control of their campuses. And it is why the leadership of the New York Times is losing control of its principles.”

On a sweeter note: reader Alan Grainger sent along a piece titled “My Jewish Charlie Brown Christmas.” Author James Poniewozk writes about how much the 1965 classic has meant to him, even though and in some ways because, he is Jewish. One of the things I appreciated about Poniewozk’s piece is that he like the fact that the show is overtly and simply Christian.

” . . . this year, just in time for Hanukkah, I went to Apple TV+ and fired up ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ which is one of my favorite programs ever made — in part precisely because of how frank it is about being Christian. And in part because it’s more Jewish in spirit than you may think.” And then, a little further on,

“But honestly, I appreciate the Peanuts special more for how it looks directly at the Christianity of it all. It’s not trying to hide the ball. It is sincere and radically earnest, without any interest in converting anyone. This is just, brass tacks, what Christmas is, a ubiquitous celebration based in a faith that I don’t share but that I can appreciate the way I can appreciate the art of plenty of other cultures.”

That strikes me as an eminently sensible and an adult perspective, which is to say not one to be much evident in our confused culture. Instead of saying, “oh the Christianity in it offends me,” Poniewozk takes it in stride, not asking that other faiths be watered down beyond recognition. Note also his words, “without any interest in converting anyone.” Jesus was always non-coercive, something his better followers remember. You can express a faith, sincerely held, without coercing others to share it, buy it or otherwise sign up.

Extreme illness is hell. The poet Christian Wiman published “My Bright Abyss” about faith and having cancer ten years ago. He’s now promoting a new work and made the following comments  in an interview in Christianity Today. 

“Extreme illness is hell, but it does strip away the inessentials and make certain intimacies and insights possible, both with people and with God. I spent five weeks in Boston, and while there, two old friends came (at different times) to be with me. One is a Jewish Buddhist poet with whom I have had an ongoing conversation about God for 35 years. The other is a Lebanese/Irish novelist who has a finely developed sense of and respect for the mystery of existence but an antipathy for organized religion.

“What surprised me — and has stayed with me — during our time together was how close Christ seemed to be to us, how I could feel him in the care and love they showed for me. I’m not saying either is an ‘anonymous Christian,’ to use Karl Rahner’s unfortunate term. That would be condescending and disrespectful to both. What I am saying, though, is that Christ precedes and exceeds Christianity, and that belief in him is not a precondition for his love.” Added emphasis is mine. What a lovely, lovely statement.

For my meditation for this Sunday’s Advent Vespers, I am drawing upon the work of theologian, Andy Root, who is arguing that the crisis of declining churches is not — as people think — about getting more money, more members or more relevance. It is about getting more God, dying to the illusion that in ourselves we are sufficient to save ourselves (or our churches). “Acceleration” mentioned here is, according to Root and his mentor, Helmut Rosa, the heart of modernity, and the reason why people are so often exhausted and distracted. Constant acceleration.

“Only dying can stop acceleration. There is no other way. Only in dying can the church find its way beyond the crisis of decline, which is a fake crisis, and into the crisis of God’s action in the world.

“Humility is not something on our to-do list, as if it were a difficult workout at the spiritual gym. Rather, it is a surrender, stopping and confessing that having more cannot save us or our church. In humility, you confess you need something outside your own energy, outside your own creativity, to save you. You die to yourself by confessing you’re in need of a saving you can’t accomplish from your own striving for more. This kind of dying creates new possibilities because it leads to confession.”

I will close my meditation for the Vespers on Sunday with that final paragraph. Join me at 4:00 PST on Sunday by clicking on the zoom link/ login at right.



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