Is Africa mysterious?

I’m going to have to say ‘Yes’. Let me explain.

A few days ago, Leithart briefly summarized an essay on language by Charles Taylor’s here. In it, he defines “mystery” in this way:

Taylor suggests there are three facets to mystery: (1) It refers to something we cannot explain; (2) it refers to something that we cannot explain that also is “something of great depth and moment”; and (3), since “mystery” etymologically refers also to “the process of initiation, in which secrets are revealed,” a mystery is something we cannot understand so long as we take “a disengaged stance” to it, something that must be explored by immersion.

I’ve been searching for things on the web since the early nineties when I dialed in on a 9600 baud modem and used the Lynx text-browser and Alta Vista. I know how to find stuff online. I know how to find scholarly journals and rare works on WorldCat and order them up through my (seemingly unlimited!) access to the inter-library loan system. I’ve frankly, never had trouble finding more than enough information before about whatever I desired to know about. The challenge was always picking what to read from a vast ocean of options.

Now I have found myself in a far different and (shockingly) uncharted place. The past 18 months, I have spent most of my reading and personal research on the topic of life and Christianity in Africa, especially Ethiopia. I’ve scoured the library. I’ve hit Google a thousand times. I’ve dug through old and new journals. I’ve read blogs, I’ve read travelogues, I’ve looked for answers all over the place and I’ve come up with… not a heck of a lot.

“a mystery is something we cannot understand so long as we take “a disengaged stance” to it, something that must be explored by immersion.”

I seriously considered giving up several times and turning my attention elsewhere but the very fact that this topic has been difficult to study seemed to suggest that there are things of value buried here that few others have ever bothered to touch. So I’ve responded by diving in deeper and also casting a wider net. I’ve had to put away popular books and just focus on first-hand research, most of it published only in obscure journals and often poorly written. I’ve corresponded with several people living and serving in the country and tried to kindly ask for the straight dope. I’ve had the fortune of speaking with a local women who spent her childhood there, the daughter of missionaries in the south. I’ve exchanged emails with a pastor there as well as another man who operates an orphanage. I’ve learned to read more scraps of the language.

As I poke around I feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface. At the same time, I am beginning to realize that I’ve already put together more pieces on this particular topic than, well, all but a tiny handful of people. I have friends writing their theses on some theological topic or trying to tease out one more tidbit on Augustine. Everywhere they turn, somebody seems to be so much smarter or well read. I find the same. I want to write something on a passage of scripture and I read some commentaries and conclude that I’m a moron. I want to develop a topic that Girard touched on and discover about 20 other people more qualified to write on it than I. I know that I have something valuable to contribute, but it can be stifling to be surround by so many smart guys writing really good material. Not so with this particular aspect of Africa. Everywhere I turn now, I’m surrounded by people that don’t have a clue. Or if they do, they only have experience with one small part of the picture I’m trying to cover. There is nobody to explain the picture to me. I’m having to dig it up a tiny piece at a time.

I stumbled upon this cool piece of music yesterday and its exemplary of the kind of difficulties I’m facing on this project. I actually heard this on the radio in the middle of the night. This song (music video below), is from Tukuleur, a French-speaking Senegalese hip-hop group. Its a cover (sort of) of the 1981 song ‘Africa’ by the band Toto. Pretty cool. It showed up on a world music compilation CD a few years ago. I’d love to hear some more of their stuff. Can you find it on iTunes? No. Surely you can buy their album on Amazon. Never heard of ’em. They look kind of interesting; I’ll go read the Wikipedia article on the band. Ha! Good luck. Oh! I know, I’ll check the French Wikipedia. Nice try. Nope. Library loan can surely find it for me. Here it is. Oh, the only copy of their album is non-circulating in a library in Lyon, France. Google… practically nothing. What about the usually rich AllMusic? Nothing.

Start using your ears. I swear I hear (uncredited) Mah Damba, the griot singer from Mali on the interlude after the chorus. Who knows? I finally found a stray copy for sale on eBay. The title proclaims “RARE!!!”. They’re not kidding. I am informed that a lot of pop music in Ethiopia is still only available on cassette tape.

(Do yourself a favor and listen to this – even if you don’t like rap one bit.)

That’s how I feel about nearly everything I’ve tried to learn about Ethiopia. This liturgy book is used by literally millions of people. Is there an English translation? No. This guy could help me. Does he have an email address? Of course not. This map is way out of date. This book is full of communist propaganda from the 1980s and not helpful. This book has all the same tourist crap in the last one did. This author was right there in the thick of it, but only wrote down some boring things about politics. Arg. Huge gaps abound.

People think Africa isn’t mysterious anymore since the entire Congo jungle is on Google Maps. Not so. To discover almost anything that actually matters still requires immersion, as far as I can tell. And (warning!) when you are immersed, YOU change and the questions you asked before turn out to be the wrong questions.

Alphabetic nuance

In learning Ehtiopian Amharic, I’ve been puzzled and confused by the host of redundant alphabet characters. Many of the consonants have exactly the same phonetic sound and I cannot discern any reason why sometimes one is used and not another. None of the language sources I have explain how they are used either. Sure, they say WHY there are redundant characters in the collection of 268 – they are remnants left-over from different peoples and dialects dating back to the time before Christ. As Ge’ez script developed, many of these minor variations were combined and codified, but some of the duplicates remained. OK. Great. Whatever. But that still doesn’t tell me anything about how they should be used or read.

That is why, a few days ago, I was delighted to find then this passage in the memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, by Ethiopain expatriate Nega Mezlekia.

Once Memerae [teacher] was completely satisfied that we could identify each of the characters, he taught us why certain of the letters repeated themselves. There were sixty-three such characters. For instance, there were six characters representing Ha, two for Se, four for …

Because it was rude to associate a king with something so intimate as a kiss, the ki in king would be different than the ki in kiss. As the sun was a symbol of power and eternity, the su in sun would be different from the su in sugar, which was a perishable item. And as power was something for the gods and kings, the po in power… We spent the rest of the year learning to identify celestial and imperial features, and to distinguish their spelling from that of everyday things. No individual would be accorded a learned status who lacked the ability to recognize such subtle differences.


Well it’s clear that I’m a hecka long way from being “accorded a learned status”. Fortunately these subtleties are not so detectable in spoken conversations.

Realizing this got me thinking though how this is another very subtle way that Amharic uses different tools to achieve a variance of meaning. In English we have a gigantic vocabulary, but many of these African languages have to make due with only a fifth or a tenth as many words. How do they still have a rich literary tradition? Through tricks like this. In English we use the same 26 characters for everything. Poets sometimes try to play with capital letter placement and line breaks to provide a shade of meaning, but that only goes so far. Here though, you actually have phonetic characters that carry their own baggage, be it celestial or earthly, beautiful or plain, common or rare. The skilled writer can use these to great effect – if his audience knows their history and convention. It’s another great feature that doesn’t translate well at all.

Respect the lion

Abdi earned his living smuggling humans out of the country and bringing in contraband goods from the neighboring countries of Djibouti and Somalia. Once, when he was traveling with his fellow smugglers through the desolate mountains, one of his friends looked up and saw a lion sitting on a bare rock, casually watching the nomads. The lion was perfectly disguised, blending in with the greyish rocks and dying grass and it was a matter of chance that the smuggler noticed him.

Instead of heeding what his ancestors had drilled into him and leaving the lion alone, the man raised his rifle, aimed clearly at the beast and fired. he missed. The lion disappeared. No one though much of this little incident until hours later, when they were crossing a narrow alley. They were walking in single file along the belt of the treacherous mountain when a tortured shriek was heard from the end of the line. Looking bac, they saw one of their men disappear downhill, carried by a lion. They could not tell if it was the same lion they had encountered earlier but there was no mistaking the identity of the victim – the man who had shot the rifle and missed. The moral of the story is that lions do not eat peace-loving nomads. If you are a nomad and you find yourself in the belly of a lion, rest assured – you are not nearly so peace-loving as you thought.

-Nega Mezlekia, Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, p.164


On an attempt to fix modernism with more modernism

I just finished reading Punished by Rewards by education writer Alfie Kohn. My wife informs me that this book was all the rage in education programs at the university during the mid-1990s. I was asked to read it as part of a book discussion group and figured I should write down a few thoughts. This is a book review of sorts, though it is an opportunity to talk about some larger issues.

First of all, I’ve been spoiled by reading so much N.T. Wright, David Bently Hart, C.S. Lewis and other people that are careful writers and thinkers and who define their words up front. In contrast, THIS book was full of mushy thinking, self-undermining arguments and a disingenuous use of language. Chief among these was the use of the term “reward”, of which the title refers. At various points the word is used to refer to golden stars handed out to elementary students, candy used as bribes for good behavior, all academic grades in general, salary and money paid for work of any kind, verbal praise, lighter punishments, intangible situations in the afterlife and sometimes something as general as any reciprocal social interaction or exchange. Again and again the context changed but the thing being critiqued was supposed to somehow, in the abstract, be mostly the same thing and treated as such with few qualifications.

That’s not to say all the ideas presented in the book are terrible. Some of them seem pretty sound, but it was a very mixed bag. I felt that at the end it mostly served to muddy the waters. I thought he book was going to be long on diagnosis, short on cure, but to his credit, Kohn really does have three fairly substantial chapters of suggestions at the end of the work. The problem is that almost none of them are likely to work – ironically, for the same reasons what he is critiquing doesn’t work. At the end of the day, the author is firmly stuck in the land of Modernism. He correctly identifies problems caused by Modernism, but all he has in his belt are the same old tools used to dig us in the hole in the first place. He has no answers but more of the same in a different form. I’ll get into some specifics in a bit.

The first chapter is a critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist psychology and its dehumanizing effects. I was cheering enthusiastically through all of this. Wendel Berry would have approved.

Freedom is just another word for something left to learn: it is the way we refer to the ever-diminishing set of phenomena for which science has yet to specify the causes.

p.6, Summarizing B.F. Skinner’s definition of “freedom”

It was refreshing to hear a secularist critique scientism. I was optimistic at this point.

It is no accident that behaviorism is the [United States’] major contribution to the field of psychology, or that the only philosophical movement native to the U.S. is pragmatism. We are a nation that prefers acting to thinking, and practice to theory; we are suspicious of intellectuals, worshipful of technology, and fixated on the bottom line. We define ourselves by numbers – take-home pay and cholesterol counts, percentiles (how much does your baby weight?) and standardized test scores (how much does your child know?). By contrast, we are uneasy with intangibles and unscientific abstractions such as a sense of well-being or an intrinsic motivation to learn.


Things start to go south though in chapter two where he quotes a passage from Luke (the only scripture reference in the book) and reveals to even the half-witted reader than he has absolutely no grasp on the nature of the gospel. From there the talk runs the gamut of topics from Karma to Marx. With regards to parenting, he is always saying, “Ask the child, ask the child, ask the child.” I wanted to shout, “DUDE! They don’t know! Congratulations – you get to tell them.”

Lots of things we to today are terrible. Like what? Grades are bad, they are a distraction from actual learning. Spanking is bad it just causes resentment. Rewards are bad, they numb the receiver to real passion for the subject. Financial incentives are bad because then people won’t love what they do but only the money that comes from it. Bonuses are bad because they create bad vibes among coworkers. Bribes are unethical (where do these ethics come from anyway?). Competition is bad as it makes kids fight each other. Annual job evals are worthless because only regular continuous feedback is helpful. Giving people outside incentives is manipulation and therefore immoral because… just because.

And how does the author back up all these claims? “Recent research”, “Recent research”, “recent research”. This phrase appears literally hundreds of times throughout this book. It is used to justify virtually every assertion the author makes. Doing X is bad. Why? Recent research. Doing Y is good! Why? Recent research. Why did the chicken cross the road? Recent research. Good grief. Again, no sense of history, no imagination for pre-modern man, etc. The bibliography is practically wall-to-wall psych research from the 1970s. He seems ignorant of virtually all other disciplines as well as the last couple thousand years of human history. Aristotle had some really good things to say about education you know. But screw that, let’s just quote John Dewey some more. Bleh.

At the same time, some of his criticism was right on.

Standardized tests stifle and suffocate the best teachers – the ones who are innovative and creative – while doing little to reform the bad and lazy ones.

Stack ranking has been proven to be an absolutely terrible way to manage employees. A expose on the decline of Microsoft during the past decade found that every single ex-employee interviewed decried the practice as utterly insane. Once a year, every person in a unit (usually about a dozen people) were ranked in order from 1 to 10. Whoever was number 1 got a big raise and whoever was number 10 got fired, no matter what. It didn’t matter if the whole team was great and the number 10 guy was actually pretty good – he got fired. Or if the whole team was mediocre – it didn’t matter, the top guy still got a huge promotion regardless. Totally stupid right? But this went on for years and years with many people absolutely swearing it was a good idea. My friends tell me that schools in Korea do this too. From what I can tell, Ethiopian schools are the same.

Grades really do distract from the joy of learning, but they are only one element of an entire curriculum that, when applied to a large group, is going to forge ahead leaving some people in the dust and others bored on the sideline. Just about every page I read I found myself thinking, “Gee, homeschooling would automatically fix that, and that, and that.” I still think so.

At one point, Kohn talks about how he gave a lecture on all of this at a prestigious prep school. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the students had just finished a week of exams and were in the middle of applying for colleges, many of them trying to get into Harvard. Their applications were packed with extracurricular activities and club participation that was there solely to look good to the admission board – not because they cared one bit about actual activities. After talking about how grades and achievements and rewards were all not truly worth pursuing, one student stood up and asked, “Well, what else is there?” He admits that he had no answer.

I was actually a bit shocked to find he even recounted this story. He then proceeds to continue on his merry way, suggesting in passing that there is more to life than contrived achievements. But what? What!? He doesn’t have an answer. And that is because he is still trapped in modern materialism. Institutional schooling is all he knows. Hyperspecialization and scientism is the still the fallback. It’s the way he was trained. He knows something is terribly wrong, but can’t put his finger on it since his pointing finger is part of the problem. The truth is, you can’t answer any of these questions with psychology. You need philosophy and, dare I say it, theology.

Later, in one of the practical how-to chapters, he gives several suggestions about how to temper your praise of children. His points? I am not making this up:

1. Don’t praise people, only what they do.
2. Make praise as specific as possible (so again, it can be nailed down to an action or event, not a person)
3. Avoid phoney subjective praise. Evaluate performance objectively. (Yeah. Uh huh. Can anyone actually do this?)

There were some more points, but the first one blew me away. After all that talk about the perils of dehumanizing people, here we are back to being as materialist and pragmatic as possible. He needs to take his own advice from earlier in the book and not treat humans as robots. This sort of contradictory thought is everywhere in the work. I think he’s trying hard, but he just doesn’t have the right tools. His faith in science to reform itself appears unending.

At one point, he says that we need to “Decouple the task from the compensation.” You know, there is actually a word for that. It’s called LOVE.

To learn more about love though, you need to start with the fear of the creator – the one who is love itself. Eliminating competition and grades will do nothing to solve the root of our envy and violence. This is a sacred task that requires the dispensation of a supernatural agent – that of the Lord. All these things are excluded from the academy from the get-go, which is why all they have left is idle talk.

Still, to flip yet again, some of his advice was not bad. What is your child ALREADY engaged in? Start there to teach him new things. We constantly teach by example all day long. Go meta! Explain what you are doing. If you can’t get rid of grades, at least explain why they are in place and take some of the edge off them. Don’t let them remain a powerful mystery symbol. Natural consequences are best – avoid contrived situations.

Oddly enough, one of the best parts of the book was an appendix near the end where he spends about ten pages discussing the difficulties of defining what “intrinsic motivation” really is. He brings up some really good points and shows how the phrase is used in different contexts to mean different things and that when we discuss it we need to be aware of the various pieces of baggage. In my opinion, this sort of thing shouldn’t have been hidden in the back, but made front and center in the thesis of the work. If you are going to talk about something challenging, then call it out up front and do all you can to prevent your readers from getting confused or derailed. Don’t let things get muddy.

I concluded that about 80% of the advice in the book could be recovered if the context were discussed a bit more and an age qualification given. Some of Kohns ideas will only work with young adults, others only with very young children, but he almost never makes a distinction, preferring to treat everyone from babies to people in vocational colleges in the abstract. It doesn’t work. Perhaps in twenty years this author’s work has gotten more refined and nuanced. I hope so. Behaviorism is still in need of some serious push-back today.

I ended up feeling the same way about this book as I did about much of Robert Bly’s Iron John. With that work, you had a secular modernist that couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong with modernism. BUT, the only cure he could come up with was more modernism. In Bly’s case, he was forced to admit that something about modern feminism was destructive to men and so he turned to Jung and mythology to try and poetically bolster a masculine ideal. Nice try, but an imagined sacred just doesn’t cut the mustard. You need a real one. The same is true for this book. Using the most recent 20 years of ivory-tower output to trash the 20 years before it only goes so far. It’s like trying to clean up a mess with dirty rags.

The naming of Eve

When you name something, you declare that you own it. You name your children and they take that name and use it and affirm your declaration. You may name your house, or your horse, or your musical instrument as well. You are not just describing the thing in question, but personalizing it, claiming it, connecting it to yourself.

In Genesis 1:27 we see God create man and women. They have no names at this point. In the next chapter, we find that God has named his special single child Adam. In 2:22, the woman is made from Adam’s rib. Adam describes who she is (“She shall be called Woman for she was taken out of Man.”), but she is still nameless at this point. Meanwhile Adam names all the living creatures. The Lord brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. Creation is given to the dominion of the man and the woman. Throughout Genesis 3, Adam is Adam, but the woman is just the woman. Then in verses 16-19, God pronounces his terrible curse on the man and the woman.

The very first thing Adam does in verse 20 after the curse is to name the woman Eve. That is the first occurrence. She is now the possession of Adam. And Eve lets this happens. She loves him, even as she hates him. They are estranged from God and from each other but the connections to both their creator and their spouse are of the impossibly deep kind that can never be loosed. She will always be lonely without him and utterly lonely without her creator. In his flailing and grasping and failing, Adam will reach to create a meaningful existence for himself. He will build cities and empires. He will oppress Eve along the way, but then he will love Eve. He has to.

Naming Eve is a curse that can’t be wholly undone before the fullnes of all redemption. The body is baptized, but it has been owned and cursed with desire after the husband. This needs bodily resurrection to be properly reset.

Adam and Eve

As I write this I’m listening to a slow and high violin solo. I can’t help but draw things together.

The violinist plays ever so gently the harmonic tone, exactly in the middle of the string. What makes it sound so mysterious? It can’t quite decide if it is the octave below or the one above. It is never wholly the one or the other. Your mind tries to attach to it and file it away, to properly name it. That is what Adam does. He names everything he sees and hears. But when he hears the harmonic, he stops and listens a little longer. Finally, in a distracted fog, missing the next few notes, he gives it a name, but even then he doubts. Perhaps it has another name. Can something be two things at once? Even so, it is like unto himself. He named Eve as an other, but sometimes she is so much Adam, just taking up a slightly different space. His own existence and nature of creation is a mystery. So mysteries like unto his own are just slightly disturbing as they remind him of his own origin and his own incompleteness.

This is why, in the new Jerusalem, we are neither married nor given in marriage. For the redemption of our split of being is not to be found in the wedding of couples. That is a substitution image for now, but when there is no need for the light of the sun or the moon (Revelation 21:23), there will no longer be a need for that union as well. The redemption Chrisy aims to bring does not unify this difference like a “better” marriage, but dissolves it for something entirely better. That is why those who make a great fuss about gender, be it professors of “women’s studies” or patriarchs lording it over their wives and daughters, are not actually participating in the healing of mankind. To emphasize our differences is honest, but it is to live in the past and the present. The love of Christ pushes us into the future, where no daughter is given in marriage. In the same way, women’s societies that revel in their independent professionalism, their desert of equal rights, or even their breast feeding, are asserting things that cannot heal the rift. This is equally true of men on elder boards that fail to listen to their wives. They aren’t healing anything either.

What is the reason that Christ’s ministry on earth not exhibit a sexual element? He is the firstborn of the new creation. He needs no sexual union, no husband-wife relationship, to fully express his humanity. This is extremely telling, is it not? It was not good for Adam to be alone, so then Eve. But the second Adam had no Eve, and yet was not alone. To do the will of his father was his bread and oxygen. When we are raised on last day, we will see him, and when we see him we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). Our union with Christ will supersede our substitute unions to the daughters of Eve in the meantime. Women will be truly free then – free from the name Adam gave to them, free from their desire for him – and able to properly give and receive love from their creator. They will be unbroken. Depression and weakness will be things of the past. The same is true for all the sons of Adam. They will be made new – unbroken and non-depleting. Their ambition for false things will finally dry up for all ages. In the vision in Revelation 3, Christ gives us a new name. Eve gets a new one too, this time not from Adam but from her maker.

(Thanks to Fr. Thomas McKenzie for mentioning the naming of Eve after the curse in a recent lecture. I had not made the connection before. I think this whole line of reasoning could be developed a lot further than I have briefly done here. Why? I am attempting to resolve some of the tension between complementarianism and egalitarianism. I affirm the natural just tuning of the hierarchy while also pushing back and saying it is not an eternal institution but a temporary and fundamentally broken one. To redeem all creation is to gradually see the distinctions blur as both the man and woman are image bearers of the same.)

A couple of poems by Rumi

This is pretty off-topic, but I really enjoyed this NTY interview with Robert Bly (whose work I have mixed feelings about). In it though, he quotes a couple of poems from Rumi translated by Coleman Bark. They were so great I felt the need to copy them down. No this is not a Tumblr blog, but sometimes I do this sort of thing anyway just to keep it filed away somewhere.

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
Chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
And end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
And fall in.

I should be suspicious
Of what I want.

I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.
I do some meanness. It turns out helpful.
I say one must not travel during the holy month.
Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.


Every night I administer eye drops containing betaxolol hydrochloride, brinzolamide, and the prostaglandin analogue latanoprost to my daughter. What do these marvels of modern medical chemistry accomplish? Almost nothing. That’s right – almost nothing.

Some drugs are simply chemicals that already occur in your body – you just change certain balances by administering them and naturally (more or less) push things in a desired direction. Other drugs cause profound reactions in specific cells. A well-timed antibiotic has saved many a man from near certain death. Pain killers make surgery possible in nearly all cases and daily life possible for many.

But other drugs are just grasping at straws to accomplish anything at all. I was reading a detailed report on how one of the drugs I mentioned above works and discovered that 80% of the drug is recoverable in urine within 17 minutes. 17 minutes!? Do you know what that means? It means as soon as you put the stuff in your body, it says, “What the hell is this? Flush that straight down the toilet!” The affect of the drug is literally felt for just a few minutes. You could administer it more often, but that is challenging, has many ill side-effects and only increases overall effectiveness a tiny amount. And speaking of side-effects, some of them are downright odd. One of them will cause your eye lashes to grow extra long. Another will make a funny taste in your mouth. A third can weaken your breathing – all with a single drop in your eye. So do they do what they are meant to do? Sort of. A little bit, but often nobody knows why. Under the mechanism heading on one prescription, it reads: “Reduces interocular pressure. The precise mechanism of this effect is not known.” Nice.

Now I love learning about this stuff. Some of my best memories are when my father used to read and explain passages from his pharmaceutical reference tome (among other things) to me when I was a young man. My sister is getting her doctorate in the field in a few weeks time. (Congrats!) But the more I interact with these materials first hand, the more I realize that this clever stuff will not save us. Not even close. Our own half-life is not much longer than some of these remedies. The only thing that will save my daughter is love – perfect love. It’s the only thing that will save me too.

God I need your help tonight

Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear your voice
It’s whispering
In science and in medicine
“I was a stranger
You took me in”

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough of romantic love
Yeah, I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, miracle drug

-Lyrics from “Miracle Drug”, by U2

Why am I attracted to Anglicanism?

Why am I attracted to Anglicanism? A friend asked me this last week and expected some substantial answers. This is just a rough and quick explanation – not a careful apologia.

1. Sacrament central to worship.
The Lord’s supper is the high point of the worship gathering, not some man up on the platform yacking. In contrast, the guy in charge is at the center of non-liturgical worship today. The pulpit is the centerpiece of the architecture rather than the table. If the guy in charge is a great speaker and MC, then things go astonishingly well. If he’s having an off-day, things crash and burn. Not so when the Lord’s table is the high point. Good day or bad, clever leaders or not, it just works. God meets us in the bread and the wine. You can’t really screw this up too terribly. It’s the same every week and Jesus has promised to meet us in this fashion. Now, there is still a guy leading the thing up front, but whether he does well or not has little effect on the most important part of the service. This is a more stable and trouble-resistant form of “the main thing that happens on Sunday morning”.

2. “via media” theology.
The middle way. No a**holes allowed. You HAVE to get along with each other. Over and over on a hundred different topics, the Anglican way is to find a happy inclusive middle way WITHOUT straying from historic orthodoxy. Throwing out everything their great-grandparents held dear is never an option. Neither is ignoring the future. So they have a high view of grace and hold to a Calvinism-lite kind of soteriology, but not so tightly that they have to kick people out over the finer points every five minutes (ala Presbyterianism.) They are liturgical and hold to an ancient form of worship, but are flexible enough to accommodate local languages, customs, new prayers, new music, and even guitars(!) On gender issues, they strike a balance too with women being allowed to serve in most capacities, even as priests in some cases, but usually not as bishops. They, in my opinion, keep many of the best parts of Catholicism intact while stealing the best of the Reformation.

Of course there are always elements within trying to push the ship one way or another: The Anglo-Catholics want to have one foot in Rome, the Episcopalians want to sell the whole farm to the liberals, the Africans skew heavily Charismatic, but the core, the default, is to always be looking for that middle ground while also staying true to scripture. It doesn’t always work, but it works a lot of the time and I like it. Sometimes there is schism, but it’s not the first or even second thing on the table. (Leaders of recently-formed groups who spent the last ten years ridiculing Rowan Williams just cannot fathom this idea.) They have a long history of cool ecumenical optimists like Martin Bucer and of great irenic apologists like Richard Hooker.

3. Global Connection
Despite the name, Anglicanism is not limited to England or the English language. There are about 37 million Anglicans in Africa, far more than in Britain. They are all over the place and allow for local variation. Where many other Christians have a long history of missionaries forcing new converts to change their language and liturgy, Anglicans have often been first on the ground translating the bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the native tongue. Everyone does that now, but some have been doing it for far longer. Colonialism may have had many dark moments, but there were bright points. When the Spanish Catholics conquered Latin America, everyone had to learn Spanish, pronto. When the British set up a colony in Kenya, a Swahili bible was quick on its heels.

I also admit a desire to be connected to a larger tradition with a deeper history. The church I grew up in (Conservative Baptist) was founded in the 1940s and has only about a quarter-million members. The church I was part of in college was independent, though it at once time considered joining the Foursquare Gospel Church. That goes back a little further to the 1920s, though it has 8 million members. The Anglican communion goes back to the 17th century formally, but much farther back in many regards, still claiming apostolic succession. It has 80 million members worldwide. I don’t question the legitimacy or orthodoxy of these smaller Christian groups at all. They are all deeply connected to the past too, though it may not be part of the story they tell about themselves. I just want to acknowledge that connection more. I’m not part of the hot new thing, but I’m part of the best old thing. Jesus is making all things new.