Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 2 of 2

December 29, 2010

12.29.10

Alright, so we ended Part I of this post with Johnny and il papa in conversation.  And it was a nice conversation maybe, straightforward and edifying even.  But, still I wonder, why is it that what Johnny did in that video – getting all of those secular saints to listen – why did it speak so strongly to me?  Or, perhaps “why” is the wrong question.  Maybe we should ask: Johnny, how’d you do it?

I’ve got one idea, and you can find it in the second half of the title I’ve given this post: the authority problem.  Give me a second to set the problem up if you will; take a look at the video again too if that helps:

Okay, the problem: It’s a sociological sine qua non that the locus of religious authority has shifted from institution to individual in our time.  And this shift – in both its strengths and weaknesses – at the very least means that the authority to minister can no longer taken be taken for granted in the 21st century west.  Now, I’m not talking about the authority of a boss who says “do this” or “don’t do that.”   What I’m trying to put a finger on is authority as the power (the capacity, maybe) of a minister to interact with a person such that s/he is opened up a bit to the grace of God.  Ministerial authority like this is a beautiful and dangerous power.  But regardless, it seems evident that in our times – love it or hate it – people can only be ministered to if they are willing cede to another the power to minister to them.

As ministers (and lay or ordained or in-process we have all been baptized as prophets of the Good News), I think we have to face this reality in both its freeing and constricting dimensions.  We must recognize that ministerial authority is something given to us as a gift by the very people we seek to serve.  For me it’s this reality, and not any relativity in the truth of our message, that explains why we must adapt the presentation of the Good News to the context of those to whom we minister today. I think this is what St. Paul saw so clearly when he described himself as “becoming all things to all people so that by all means I might save some.”

So as I listen to Johnny sing I feel like he knew what St. Paul was about, knew what I’m trying to get at here.  At the very least he knew that there were some things, some jagged, honest things, that allowed people to face up to their need for the Good News.  At the very least he knew that presenting himself in the sincerity of his belief and his strength and his weakness (all three), could allow others to cede to him the precarious authority of a minister.  He certainly understood, like the quiet monks of old whispering “memorare mortis, frater” as they passed one another in the dark halls of an Advent monastery, that “remembering death” could be the trigger that allowed Johnny to take on the role of minister.  It’s almost like with each verse Johnny sings, he’s requesting something of us who listen, asking those secular saints: let me minister to you.  Let me open you up to living “under the challenge of eternity.”

But, as Aquinas said, that which is received is received in the mode of the receiver.  That is, the Good News isn’t received in the mode of the one who gives (of the minster), but in the mode of the other (the minister-ee, if you will).  The question for we would-be ministers then becomes: how do we best request of others that they cede to us the authority to minister to them?  This is a complex and malleable question, but its inner simplicity is just what’s captured in Johnny’s song.  It’s what’s captured in the subtext of his question: “will you let me minister to you with these words?”  Johnny didn’t know how what he offered would be received and neither do we.  Instead of assuming that he already possessed the authority to be minister to us, he asked.  And not in words, but the question is there in his vulnerability.  And like Johnny we must recognize that religious authority has shifted from the institution to the individual, and that if we want it back we must ask for it.  We ask.  We make the same request that Johnny makes of us.  Like him, we try to communicate what we believe with charismatic power and with the utter vulnerability of people who know that we lie under the same judgment that we proclaim.

Johnny knew just what our Pope meant when he wrote that we should all “live under the challenge of eternity.”  And it’s the call to live under that challenge – the call to live under the message of the Good News – that Johnny is issuing when he sings “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”  And maybe a few of the pop-culture saints who lip sync those words of Johnny’s are hearing that call afresh, are allowing themselves to be ministered to by a man to whom they’ve ceded their religious authority.

So finally we come back to the video.  I watch it again.  I listen.  Sure, those actors might be just acting and those singers just singing, but I’m sure Johnny wasn’t.  And even more I’m sure they know he wasn’t.  That’s a new ministerial reality for our times.  We’re living in a 21st century West in which vulnerable sincerity still gets a hearing, and while that can be both a good and a bad thing, it shows that its our job as ministers to handcuff vulnerable sincerity to truth while making the request that we be allowed to be the ministers we’re called to be.

Anyway, I’m sure grateful for you ministering to me, Johnny.  I’ll give you that authority anytime.

— PG, SJ

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A Homily on the Feast of the Holy Family

December 26, 2010

+AMDG+

For the folks at St. Paul Parish in St. Paul, Missouri:

As some of y’all may already know, I grew up in Georgia, which is basically Baptist country. Catholics were only about 3% of the total population of my home diocese of Savannah. And as you’d drive the through the Georgia, you’d often see these signs outside of the Baptist churches with catchy little slogans advertising the theme of the coming Sunday’s homily: “The attitude of gratitude,” or “The real reason for the season.” One was both catchy and relevant to today’s feast, the Feast of the Holy Family. It read: “God has children, but no grandchildren.”

It sums up pretty neatly a certain theology of grace.  Each man must carry his own weight: no one can simply ride his parents’ coattails to heaven.  Therefore, God has no grandchildren.

But this is not exactly the Catholic view. Read the rest of this entry »


A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

December 18, 2010

+AMDG+

I give myself about a B+ for this one, but one can never tell what people will find profitable.  So here’s the homily …

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child is conceived in her (Mt 1:21)

These words from today’s Gospel are striking.  Joseph, the chosen husband of Mary, requires the consolation of an angel because he was afraid.  But what did exactly he fear?

I used to think it was pretty obvious.  Mary turns up pregnant.  Joseph, who’s described as a “righteous man,” is afraid to violate the Law of Moses by ignoring her adultery.  Either that, or he’s afraid that he can no longer trust Mary, that he would be introducing a disgraced woman into his home.  So, decides to divorce her “quietly.”  On this reading, the angel would be relieving Joseph’s fears primarily by conveying essential information. Since “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child is conceived in her,”  Mary is no adulteress.  Case closed.

But I have a hunch that Joseph’s fear went deeper than this. Read the rest of this entry »


Johnny Cash, Benedict XVI & the Authority Problem – Part 1 of 2

December 17, 2010

12.17.10

This Advent has found me listening to a lot of music by the late great Johnny Cash. Johnny’s one of my favorites, and there are so many things to love about him – his honesty, his fire, the prophetic depth of his voice. I love it all. I love that Bob Dylan once said of Johnny, “he sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest… Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” I love how Johnny’s is a perfect sound for a cold winter, and for bringing Jesus’ impending arrival to mind.

But the thing I love the most about him is the rough honesty of his faith; how Jesus outlines all the jagged edges of the man’s life. I love how he wasn’t ever ashamed to lay that faith on the table for all to see. Damn the consequences. Rick Rubin (the great Hip Hop producer; the one who deserves my ceaseless praise for giving us Johnny’s last six American Recordings albums) tells an anecdote that captures what I love about the man. Rick said:

“I remember we had a dinner party at my house one night with Johnny and [his wife] June… and before dinner Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a prayer and he read from the Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had never experienced that before. And I know some of the people at the table were even atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didn’t matter so much. Because you were in the presence of someone who really believed. And that felt good.”

As Emeril would say: “Bam!” As I would say: “Preach on, Johnny.”

Anyway, I’ve been listening over and over to a song that, like Johnny himself, pulls no punches. It’s rough and jagged and honest and it’s called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Here’s the video. It’s worth 2.8 minutes for sure.

I know it’s presumptive to speak for the man, but I think Johnny would be proud of that video. I think he’d love the effect his song had on all those saints of pop culture. It’s like he’s been able to reach out from beyond the grave and say to them: “I’ve been where you are – I’ve been at the top of the word. And I got one thing to say: memorare mortis, friends, memorare mortis.”

To me, Johnny sounds in song a lot like Benedict sounds in prose. They echo each other in my heart like friends crying across a great canyon…

Johnny: “You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time… Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter – tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.”

Benedict: “In practice [one]… should live quasi Deus esset – as if God really exists. He should live subject to the reality of truth, which is not our own creation, but our mistress.”

Johnny: “I been down on bended knee, talking to the man from Galilee. He spoke to me in a voice so sweet, I thought heard the shuffle of angel’s feet. He called my name and my heart stood still, he said ‘John, go do my will’.”

Benedict: “[We] should live subject to the love that awaits us and that loves even us. Live under the challenge of eternity… And one who – even if perhaps at first only hesitantly – entrusts him/herself to this difficult yet inescapable as if… will know profoundly and indelibly why Christianity is still necessary today as the genuinely Good News by which we are redeemed.”

I listen to these two talking, listen to that song, and I feel my own heart opened up this Advent. I feel myself a little more ready to welcome the little one who is my Savior. Because while I can run on for a long time, sooner or later…

Preach on Johnny. Preach on Papa mea.

– PG, SJ


Death and taxes

December 16, 2010

I have to confess that given my vow of poverty I tend to think quite a bit more about death than taxes.  And, for similar reasons, I don’t claim to be an expert on any and every political issue, even though here in the blogosphere that’s not always a bar to offering an opinion.

But I’ve been watching the progress of the tax compromise moving its way through Congress this week and there’s something about it that reminds me of the ocean… maybe it’s that fishy smell…

Perhaps my calculator is broken; perhaps my taste for irony is just that much stronger than my taste for Keynesian economics; perhaps I spent too much time around a grandfather who paid for his house in cash; but something in this “compromise” doesn’t make sense to me.  Something, in fact, seems wrong, and I’m beginning to suspect that what is wrong has a moral tinge to it, instead of being an accounting oops or a technical legislative flaw.

Read the rest of this entry »


Whose conception is it anyway?

December 6, 2010

There always seems to be a bit of confusion around this week’s Solemnity.  Despite falling in the middle of Advent, December 8 is not a celebration of the conception of Jesus—which would have meant a remarkably brief pregnancy—but of Mary.

Still, even if we remember whose life it is we’re celebrating, that doesn’t clear up every mystery about the Immaculate Conception.  I must confess that for most of my life even though I knew we had to go to church on December 8, I wasn’t exactly sure why.  It had something to do with one of those Marian dogmas, I knew, but most Catholics tiptoe around those nowadays for fear of offending the Protestants.  And even though I, being a somewhat contrarian lad, was prepared to pick Mary over the Protestants, I really had no idea why.

Even today, while I know a bit more about theology, I still have to admit to finding this particular Mystery particularly mysterious.  Among the writing I’ve found shedding light on the subject is an excellent essay titled “The Immaculate Conception” by the British Thomist, Herbert McCabe, OP.

Read the rest of this entry »


Waiting for the Mature Christ: A Homily

December 1, 2010

I would like to do three things in this homily—deal with the strangeness of the second coming of Christ as its often portrayed in popular literature, describe the pitfalls and potentials of waiting on Christ, and speak about the actual second coming of Christ.

We Catholics get pretty freaked out about the second coming of Christ. Other types of Christians, when it comes to the second coming, seem to have no problem predicting the exact date, the exact hour, the color of the sky, the mark to the beast, the signs of the times.

There are popular apocalyptic books, like the Left Behind series that are based precisely on today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Two will be in the field and one will be taken, the other left behind. Catholics, even though we have pretty active imaginations ourselves, don’t like to picture this event. We get uneasy when asked to imagine two people in a field and one being vaporized—or teleported—into heaven like some character from Star Trek. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper stickers—in case of rapture this car will be empty. As if at the second coming of Christ all the good people get transported out of this tired old world. Read the rest of this entry »