"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Creed

It was the Methodist theologian Will Willimon who, about fifteen ago now in a short article in The Christian Century (if my memory serves) wrote of once taking a class at Yale in which a Greek Orthodox bishop was asked to address the students on the role of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. At one point, a young student stood up and asked "What do you do when you can't say the creed?" The bishop responded to the effect: "You just say it; eventually you'll learn it." The young student, frustrated, responded: "But what do you do when you don't really believe certain parts, like the Virgin birth?" The bishop again responded "Well, you just say them, especially the difficult parts. Eventually it will come to you." Now really exasperated, the student demanded: "How can I profess a creed I don't really believe in?" The Orthodox theologian then asks how old this man is, and he's something like 21, to which the bishop responds with the lovely rebuke to this man's self-importance and narcissism by saying that nobody knows or understands anything at 21 and to remember that "it's not your creed: it's our creed. Just keep saying it and eventually it will come to you."

The creed is indeed a part of our common patrimony as Christians--Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic. A new DVD has recently been released and, taking a break from our usual bibliographic focus around here, I thought I would offer a review of The Creed: What Christians Profess, and Why It Ought to Matter. Directed by Tim Kelleher, and produced under the aegis of the journal First Things, this is a smartly produced short film that marries commentary from leading Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox scholars and writers with lush imagery and beautiful music, much of it courtesy of St. Vladimir's Seminary Choir.

About this DVD, the producers tell us:

A Film by Tim Kelleher. From the back cover: The Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed, professed by billions of Christians throughout the world, makes radical claims about the nature of reality and the identity of Jesus Christ. What are those claims? Can they withstand contemporary scrutiny? Who should care? Andy, why? In this remarkably succinct consideration, the 12 basic articles that compose the Creed are examined historically, theologically, philosophically, linguistically, scientifically and culturally, in order to appreciate more fully this treasure that is so often "hidden in plain sight." You are invited to join this stirring conversation, featuring an eminent group of scholars and thinkers, whose insights are the fruit of life-long study, prayer and reflection. Whether you are a student or a teacher; one struggling with questions of faith or a believer, THE CREED: What Christians Profess, and Why It Ought to Matter, will be a challenging and rewarding experience.

I watched this film, which is only thirty minutes long, chiefly as a professor trying to see if it would be suitable and useful in my classes. I have over the years seen again and again the amazement, and often the bewilderment, in students when first confronted with the messy and often hotly debated nature of Christian dogmatic history in the era of the ecumenical councils. I have also frequently seen the glazed-over look of too many people who mindlessly accept modern prejudices in assuming that creedal, doctrinal, or dogmatic statements are ipso facto boring, abstract lists of things nobody cares about and that such lists do nothing except make Christianty seem "intolerant" and irrelevant in a twenty-first-century world of technology and terrorism. Creeds, according to this mindset--the product of feverish readings of Foucault and Nietzsche--are little more than the products of a will-to-power in which the so-called orthodox try to "discipline and punish" the so-called heterodox, these latter often being portrayed as brave but persecuted dissidents fighting, well, a proleptic version of the French or American revolutions against jack-booted bishops who have not yet encountered the Enlightenment.

The DVD offers a very vigorous defense of the importance and the centrality of the creed against its modern despisers. It is generously ecumenical in the best ways, lucidly drawing on such prominent Orthodox theologians as John Behr, Catholic historians such as Robert Louis Wilken, biblical scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson (himself the author of a 2004 book entitled The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters), particle physicist Stephen Barr, and other writers such as Frederica Mathewes-Green. 

My only criticism of this otherwise very well done production is that it is unaccountably short. It is an appetizer when I was expecting an entréeIndeed, it ends with one of the commentators expressing the hope that parishes and others will form groups to dive into the creed in depth. That was exactly what I was hoping this DVD would do: not just present an apologia for the existence and use of the creed, but a more systematic exposition of each clause. We get some exposition throughout, but not all articles are covered, and none with as much historical detail as I was expecting and thought necessary. Still, if this does nothing so much as provoke people to consider anew the basic tenets of Christianity, this will have done a great good. If it raises new questions for people, that is all to the good, and the producers and participants are to be commended for this compelling and elegantly executed presentation. 

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