Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas and the Spirit of Individualism in America

"Merry Christmas"
and the spirit of individualism in America
Stan Williams, Ph.D.

During this Christmas Season, more than others in recent past, I’ve noticed the onslaught of public sector officials to rewrite history and the fundamental reason we take off work this time of year. To some of those whom we elect or appoint to positions of authority, the separation of church and state has become life’s obsession. No longer is it Merry Christmas, but Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings. We’ve even seen this revisionist shift in Christmas Cards (ah, excuse me, Holiday Cards) from otherwise well-meaning Christians, including the White House.
But this just makes sense to me. At least it is consistent with America’s history of protesting and maniacal obsession with individualism. In America, the land of the free, we should be free to think and conclude whatever we want (ah, excuse me, that should be “whatever ME want”). The reality and truth of history, or the reason for the season, is no match for individualism.
This is an interesting twist on the concept of democracy, or the rule of the majority, especially when our attention, with the fight for democracy in Iraq, is so often a front-page news item. Of course, we have never lived in a pure democracy, but rather a democratic republic. Yet the democratic principles are still on the books. That is, the will of the majority should take precedence and not the will of the minority and surely not the will of the individual. Although that too is changing.
We give lip service to democratic principles because we believe that there is some truth in what the majority believe, hold dear, and embrace as truth. Underneath the concept of democracy and our fundamental pursuit of happiness is the Biblical concept that God has written His Divine conscience on all of our hearts in the form of a natural law that keeps our minds rooted in reality the way gravity keeps our feet rooted on Earth.
Democratic principles and our institutional sense of right and wrong brings me back to the importance of the meaning of words. Words have etymologies, or a history of where they came from and why they are used. Words express a culture's remembrance of truth through a default sort of democratic principle. Words are not voted on in a polling booth, but are imbued in the rules of language by the use of the majority. As time and events shape a culture’s identity, so words change to reinforce what is learned and what should be remembered. Certain words change in subtle ways and take on new, but not always more truthful, meanings. Unfortunately, our culture’s obsession to remember history in certain ways drives the move to change, not just the meaning of the words, but to change the actual words as well. Thus, we are in the midst of changing from “Merry Christmas” to “Season’s Greetings.” Even “Happy Holidays” is being discouraged because the term Holidays is a permutation of the original phrase “Holy Days.” And while the term Holy means to be “separated from,” and individuals in America just love to be “separate” (it has a distinct, adventurous connotation don’t you know)... few Americans want to be identified with the institutional church that repressively declared what days were to be holy and celebrated “apart” from our everyday, secular lives.
But this is to be expected in America. Specifically, it is to be expected because “Merry Christmas” is itself a permutation, and shift from history, and from reality. “Merry Christmas” is the perfect idiom for America, the land of the free, the brave, and the individual. “Merry Christmas” sounds safe today, but it’s entomology points to King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, and the British Parliament's subsequent Penal Laws that were also successfully applied in parts of the American Colonies.
If you’re unfamiliar with that part of British and American history here's a synopsis. The Act of Supremacy (1534) and the Penal Laws (beginning in 1559 and continuing for centuries) were successful attempts to erase a part of history and suppress the roots of Western religious culture, replacing them with a protest against institutionalism. These legislated acts established the King of England as supreme head of the Christian Church and outlawed the evil practice of Catholicism with exile or death. Never mind that a few years earlier (1521) Henry VIII was declared "Fidei Defensor" (Defender of the Faith) by the Pope for defending the Catholic Sacraments against Martin Luther's rebuff, and never mind that to this day the initials F.D. appear on all British coins to celebrate that fact. The Act of Supremacy was the ultimate protest and helped to reinforce the concept of "Protestantism" as a powerful word ladened with historical meaning. As much as the Act of Supremacy established the British Monarchy as an institution, it was ironically the ultimate act of individualism — the supreme act of a King to press his individual will on an entire culture and force it to forget its roots and change its religious practice under penalty of death. Two hundred years later, this cultural embrace of individualism would create quite a problem for the British Monarchy when America wanted to be separate, and take individualism to the next level. But at the time being a protestor against institutional authority was very popular.
And so it is that the phrase "Merry Christmas" carries on this protesting tradition to shroud our roots in fog. In an etymological protesting sort of way "Merry Christmas" might remind us how a woman and a man put their individualism aside and obeyed the greatest institution of the Universe. "Merry Christmas" should remind us that the individual is very important to God, but only when that individual obeys God. But "Merry Christmas" doesn't do that very well, unless you strip away its protesting artifacts and go back to the original words. There you will find three words that were the focus of this most holy of days: Mary, Christ, and Mass. For it is in the Mass that we remember Mary's obedient "yes" to life, and Christ's obedient "yes" to death. It is at Christmas, in the Christ Mass, that we celebrate the incarnation and the selfless cooperation between God and a woman that made salvation from individualism and self-importance possible.
Words have meaning... and, unfortunately, "Merry Christmas" doesn't say it all.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Evangel Baptist Pulpit Apologetics

Dear Reader:

Here’s an email Pam sent to our Kids and me.  None of us can believe she did this.  I’m still shaking my head.

—Stan

Mon, 25 Jul 2005

I Went to Church with Tom

I’d like to tell you of my church experience with Tom. He and I did a lot together this past weekend (including bowling—very fun) while my parents were in Alfred, NY attending my dad’s 65th high school class reunion!!!! Before I returned him home Sunday night, we went to the Sunday evening service at his church, Evangel Baptist, on Telegraph and Pennsylvania Roads in Taylor, Michigan.

They are currently without a pastor since their senior pastor retired, and they had a guest speaker—a missionary from Bethlehem—who had slides of his little fledgling church. One slide had statistics about the population of Bethlehem, and 70% of the city is Catholic. He then proceeded to tell a series of stories about Catholics and their ignorance of the Bible, their breaking of the 3rd Commandment (worshiping graven images, because they have statues in their churches), their addition of 7 books into the Bible, and their practice of only praying once a week when they went to Mass, and baptizing infants, when they should be waiting until after they are saved. When he equated Catholics with Muslims and said he was there to teach them the truth, I could not sit in my seat any longer. I got up next to him in the pulpit and said “with all due respect, I could not let him say wrong things about the Catholic Church anymore in front of the dear congregation of people, and asked if I could clarify some things. Of course, at that point one of the pastors came up and said he would talk to me on the side. But I said I had to say something in front of everyone, because I was raised thinking all these things were true about the Church, too, but then I learned the truth about what Catholics believe, and it’s not what is being perpetuated among Protestant churches, and I can’t let that continue. We don’t worship idols, and we didn’t insert books into the Cannon of Scriptures, (rather Protestants took them out), and I would have said more, but the pastor asked me to step out with him, so I did.

We talked in the lobby for another half hour until the service was done. Here is a sample of our conversation.

Me: I can’t sit by and hear someone spread lies about the Catholic Church and listen to your congregation give assent with their “Amens!” and laughter to hear the silliness of Catholic people and their beliefs. That’s how I was misinformed about the Catholic Church, too. Now that I know the truth, I can’t sit by and let that happen anymore.

Pastor: Well, if you have questions about our beliefs, I’d be glad to talk to you any time.

Me: No, I don’t have any questions. I only want to make the point that this spreading of misinformation about the Church needs to stop. This is not helping the unity of Christians as Christ prayed for.

Look, do you have pictures of your family in your home? Well, back in the earliest times of the church, they didn’t have photography, so they used sculpture/statues, ...paintings, and stained glass, to show the Holy Family (Mary & Joseph) and the disciples and other important people in Christ’s life. That doesn’t mean they worship these things. Have you ever been to a Mass?

Pastor: Yes, I have. And they do elevate Mary to a place above all other people, and don’t they believe she was sinless? They even call it the Immaculate Conception.

Me: Yes, they do.

Pastor: Well, that’s where we disagree. No one is sinless since Adam and Eve.

Me: But Mary was chosen to be the New Eve....

(Another pastor came out and introduced himself and we did not pursue this line of conversation further, but I wish I had been able to say, “The Bible even says that she is sinless! In Luke 1, what does the Angel Gabriel say to Mary? “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” If you are full of grace, there is no room for any sin! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This beautiful Angel with direct access to God Almighty hails Mary as sinless and claims that she is blessed above all other women. That’s why the Church calls her Queen of all Saints! Yes, she is elevated. The Angel straight from God said she was and the Church is merely perpetuating that truth.)

(Also, consider this: The Arc of the Covenant in the OT was so holy, no man could touch it without being struck dead. It had to be transported on poles and carried by priests. What did it carry? Symbols of Christ. --Manna (Jesus is the Bread of Life), The Ten Commandment Tablets (Jesus is the Word of God come to fulfill the Law), and the Budded Rod of Aaron (Jesus is the Resurrection). So, if the contents of the Arc were pointing to Christ, what was the Arc itself pointing to? Mary. Marry carried the Son of God in her womb for 9 glorious months. If God demanded that the OT Arc be untouched and reverenced, How much more the real living Arc of the NT. If God wants His Son carried by a sinless, holy temple, He can do that. He’s God! He found a way through the Immaculate Conception.)

Me: (My next concern had been the story the missionary told about him needing to correct the priest about the Cannon of Scripture—what books are accepted as part of the Bible.) Everyone in Protestantism has the story turned around. Luther’s German Bible has all 73 books. Even the first King James Bible had the 7 “contested” books in it, which you refer to as the Apocrypha! The Protestants took them out after the Reformation.

Pastor: That’s where we disagree.

Me: But, we don’t have to, if you read history. History doesn’t lie.

Pastor: Well, the Cannon was decided during the Councils of Nicaea and Trent.

Me: That’s right, and who do you think called those Councils? The Catholic Church. There were Protestants there at Trent, yes, because they were invited! But, who was given authority to decide what books are in The Word of God and what are not? Not individuals (and not individual denominations)! The authority was given to the Church that Christ established through the Apostles!!! (I should have added, “The Nicaean Creed calls the Church ‘the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.’” Do you accept that Creed?) So, after consulting with these councils, and asking the Holy Spirit to guide their decision, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the contested books should remain.

[Here are some facts I did not have at my fingertips at that time: The same list of books confirmed at the Synods of Hippo (393) and the three of Carthage (393, 397, and 419) and Council of Florence (1442), were also confirmed at the Council of Trent (1546, Session IV). In other words, that list was right from the beginning—the first 3 hundred years after the Church was established, and it was confirmed at the Council of Trent.]

Pastor: Well, we’re just not going to agree on these things, but if you have any other questions, please feel free to come talk to me.

Me: But, I don’t have questions. I just want to clear up what Protestants misunderstand about the Catholic Church, so we don’t create greater divisions between us.

(At this point, a woman from the congregation approached us, still in the lobby, and said,... )

Woman: Pastor, you know me. You know that I’m Catholic, and I go to Mass in the morning and your church at night. I bring people to your church with me and to my church, too. I love them both. And, you know I don’t pray just once a week, and you know I’m saved. That was not right what the missionary said about Catholics not praying much, and not being baptized right, and that Muslims and Catholics are to be grouped together as if they weren’t even Christians. You have to speak to him about that. That’s not right.

Pastor: OK, I can agree with that. I’ll speak to him after the service.

Me: But, in the meantime, everyone is saying, “Amen,” to everything he throws out there about Catholics, and your whole congregation is assenting, by their laughter, to the lies that are being told them. (And, I don’t blame the missionary. He is just passing on what he thinks is the truth about Catholics.)
But, we have to stop this. It’s not bringing unity among Christians. It’s making Catholics appear as not even in the same ballpark as Christians.

Pastor: OK, I’ll speak to him. We’re getting together after the service.

Woman: Well, you have to agree that the missionary asking one Catholic woman how often she prayed does not give an accurate picture of how all Catholics are. Come on, Pastor, that was a cheap shot!

Me: You could get that response from any Protestant, as well. People do not always practice what their church teaches. For instance, the Church has scripture readings and prayers that they encourage Catholic Christians all over the world to pray every day, morning noon and night. No matter what their language, we have the same scriptures to read and prayers of meditation on any given day. Do all Catholics do that? No, but then do all Protestants pray every day either?

Pastor: Well, that’s a good point. Even for Baptists.

Woman: And, I bring Catholics to your services all the time. I’d hate for them to hear what we “preach” about them. Pastor, you’ve got to set them straight. Pastor, you know me. You know I’m not like what he’s describing Catholics to be.

Well, I have to go now. (And she left the church.)

Me: (I began to appeal to the other pastor.) Since you are a Baptist Church, let’s talk about baptism. The missionary said baptism should be in a certain order with salvation, namely after one is saved. If the Bible is your only authority, what are you going to do with the scripture that says, “Baptism now saves you?”

Pastor 2: Yea, I know. It does say that. I’ve read that, too.

Pastor: But, we interpret scripture differently than you do.

Me: And where do you get the authority to do that?

Pastor: From the Holy Spirit!

Me: Then why do other people/pastors who claim the same thing (that the Holy Spirit is their authority to interpret the Bible) come up with different answers from you? If it’s the same Holy Spirit, it has to be the same answer! Instead, trying to do this on our own has resulted in over 33,000 different denominations!

God knew we would need a way to interpret His Word, so he gave us the Church (with the Holy Spirit) to do that.  The authority comes from Christ, to His Church, founded on the Apostles and passed on through the priesthood with the laying on of hands. You can go to any bookstore and buy a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church for $8 and know the truth about what the Catholic Church teaches! You don’t have to misunderstand anymore or spread things that are not true. You can read it for yourself and also see the scriptures they use to back up their claims! It’s all written down for you to examine.

Pastor: Well, we’re never going to agree, but if you have any questions for us...

Me: Please understand, I don’t have any questions about what you believe. I only want you to be correct in what you teach your congregation about what Catholics believe! We do have to talk again, though.

Pastor: Thank you for your respectful manner in speaking with us. We would be glad to continue the discussion further any time.

Me: Thank you, too, for your kindness to me, for listening to my concerns, and for agreeing to speak to the missionary about the two areas you do agree he needs to be corrected in.

 (I’ll just rephrase them now: 1] not generalizing about the whole Catholic Church on the basis of one Catholic person’s practice, and 2] not grouping Catholics with Muslims but rather Catholics with Christians. Protestants and Catholics can learn much from each other, and we need to be telling the truth about each other.)


Well, I just thought it would be helpful for you to know that this happened, because as I was able to tell the congregation before I was ushered out, “I once believed all these same things about the Catholic Church that this dear missionary has said. But now that I know what the Church really believes and teaches, I cannot sit by and allow these misrepresentations of the truth of the Church be perpetuated any more.”

Thanks for listening.

Love,  Mom