Saturday, September 15, 2007

Holy Communion as a Wholly Impersonal Meal

Holy Communion has all the trappings of a sentimental, personal meal. The bread and wine are given to you, and you are reminded that the bread was broken for you, and the blood was shed for you. You know that you receive Communion for the forgiveness of your sins, and to be in communion with other believers. Aesthetically, the music is often familiar, maybe even soft, almost like a lullaby. The mood around you is serious, and to receive communion can be seen as an opportunity to grow in your faith, to be close to God, to experience that concept of grace up close and personal. And then there’s the fact that often, when people commune, it’s at sentimental times of the year, like Christmas and Easter. Communion for you, in its familiarity, can help it to feel more and more personal.

So if it’s a personal meal, a meal that offers the personal forgiveness of sins, shouldn’t I, as a pastor, say everyone’s name as I offer them the bread and/or wine? If this is a meaningful event in the life of the recipient, shouldn’t I highlight that moment by adding a personalized touch, making sure they know that Jesus’ body was broken specifically for them? Not only them, to be sure, but to them as much as anyone else? Logic would say yes, if we accept the premise the Holy Communion is a personal meal.

But I say no. To personalize communion, to name the recipient is to cheapen the moment, to play into all the sentimentality the ritual seems to offer, but doesn’t. And please see this only as a small example of a much larger issue as it relates to worship in general: there is a certain danger when community rituals get so familiar we think of them in personal terms. At baptism, we says some very heavy things, and parents make enormous promises. Yet, it seems at times that the sentimentality of the adorable baby in her white baptismal linens overshadow the theological significance of the moment for the whole community. I’m no fan of private baptisms because they overemphasize the personal nature as opposed to the corporate significance of the moment.

Perhaps the most gaudy example of this corruption of corporate ritual is in the modern wedding. While there has always been some cognitive dissonance about whether marriage is a sacred or a secular event, the use of sacred space and sacred trappings for a marriage that has wholly secular intentions strikes me as drastic misuse of space. Not to say that the holiest of marriages don’t have their problems as well; they most certainly do! But the point here is that in personalizing corporate rituals, we begin a process of becoming selfish, legalistic, or self-righteous.

To take it a step further, I see this as a more common problem in Protestant worship than Catholic worship. One of the reasons I have always felt very comfortable in Roman Catholic worship (besides the liturgy), even as a Lutheran, is because of the sense of anonymity. Now, there are drawbacks to this, to be sure. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on evangelism, church members may have little interaction, and church life can become institutionalized instead of inspired. But Catholics seem to understand corporate ritual in a much healthier way. The emphasis isn’t so much on changing, but on simply being. It’s like the old adage: “90% of success is just showing up.” I’m not sure who to attribute that to; it’s probably anonymous.

But Protestants tend to demand more than being; they want change. Admittedly, some Protestants demand more change than others. And there is something good in hoping for change, aiming for and achieving an emotional response. Jesus made it pretty clear that repentance (literally “turning around”) was a major part of his message. But how do we know when enough change is enough? And when does this start to veer down the path of works righteousness? And finally, if an emotional response isn’t achieved, what does that say about the efficacy of the ritual? Catholics seem to appreciate communal rituals to the point where they have a power on their own terms.

So Communion as a personal meal seemed to sum this whole discussion up rather tidily. For a Catholic to attend mass and receive Communion, it’s like a way of life. I feel Protestants stress the importance of the moment more, in a more personal way. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I just prefer to think of these corporate rituals in terms of who has gone before me and who will come after me in addition to who is there at the moment. The beauty of Holy Communion is not just that I am emotionally settled that my sins are forgiven; it’s that I’m in communion with the community of saints that has preceded me for millennia. There’s something to be said for the stoic nature of impersonality in ritual. From my point of view, it doesn’t diminish it all; if anything, it speaks to its true power. It works over and against our sentiment, emotion, and fickle natures. They are timeless in their impersonality, consistent in their repetition. Of all the changes parishioners regularly reflect on taking place in the world, I can take great comfort in detailing all the things that haven’t change in the ritual life of the Church. If these rituals were mere exercises in personal sentiment, I couldn’t take the same comfort.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Give Me Your Poor, Tired and...Unschooled

In the past week, I've come across of a few articles that describe well the nature of poor people and how the current public education system keeps them that way. Beyond the obvious flaws in the philosophy that dominate pedagogical thinking in our schools, some blame can go towards the oppressive design of the school buildings. Fellow blogger Scott Walker describes the schools he works in as prisons, a surprisingly accurate description of spaces organized for maximum visual control and security. This a particular quality of mediocre urban schools, where more attention is given to keeping track of kids and their whereabouts than actually teaching them anything. There is a reason that many public schools, particularly at the high-school level, are not planned like those leafy college campuses we all remember fondly. One recalls how attendance was rarely recorded, students often slept in, no one cared what you did in between courses and somehow at the end of four years, you learned a lot more than four years at the public high school.

I had the misfortune of attending a public high school that was quickly degenerating into another mediocre urban school. It had become clear to me that the authorities were more concerned about enforcing rules and security policy than celebrating academic achievement of any kind. Although I was among the top 5 in my entire class, I was sent to in-school detention twice for forgetting to wear my ID badge that I left at home. "In-House", as it was called, was a classroom where these supposedly terrible transgressors were prevented from attending class throughout the day so that a clueless and bored "teacher" would monitor you to make sure that you couldn't do the things that students are supposed to do. Worse, they treated in-house inmates as chain-gangs working to clean up the cafeteria after the last lunch period. Couple that humiliating experience with random pat-downs and metal detector screenings and it became clear that I had to get out of that school as soon as possible. I finished high-school one year early and treated myself to an exchange year abroad in Germany, attending the "gymnasium" (elite level high school over there), where the academic content was college level, the students wandered freely in and out to town and some even smoked like chimneys confidently in front of everyone on school grounds.

My old high school would abandon the ID badge policy a year later, citing its ineffectiveness in preventing strangers from infiltrating the campus.

It seems that things haven't improved at all if this post is any indication. Overcrowding has become a big issue in my old school district, and more an more resources are being diverted to effectively control the crowds and make schools an effective detention facility. This of course favors ever-expanding bureaucratization and thus prevents any meaningful educational reform. As an alumnus of such urban schools, such a progression towards high-security over useful learning was anticipated. Apparently, that has become the default state of affairs in suburban public schools as well. Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and computer start-up expert, recounts his experiences attending his local suburban public school from the point of view of a nerd. In initially trying to explain why nerds aren't popular, he goes further into identifying pathological problems of public schools in the modern era. It's one those few essays I've read that truly turned on a switch in understanding the experiences I had in public schools that I'd rather forget. Graham provides some hints as to how to improve secondary education, and correctly notes that many of the problems that afflict adolescents should not be passively accepted. His essay is definitely a must-read, and I recommend checking out his other insightful essays.

Still, I find that Graham writes from a perspective of relatively privileged upbringing and doesn't take into account enough the baggage students from poor families bring with them. All sorts of debilitating character traits afflict the poor and handicap their ability to be minimally schooled. The lack of character also seems to make them terrible agents for any kind of business transaction as well. Michael Lewis, a professional in the financial sector, sarcastically remarks how the media coverage of the current sub-prime lending crisis focuses almost exclusively on the careless wrongdoing of the lenders but ignores the responsibility of the poor engaging in reckless borrowing (hattip: instapundit). Before accusing him and myself on 'beating up on the poor', I would contend that much of the intractability of poverty comes from our unwillingness to do precisely that. For as long as we all frame the image of the poor as mere victims, no significant improvement of their lot can be expected. The transfer of government wealth in alleviating poverty seems to have the opposite effect, since all it does is infantilizes an an entire class of people. Employers who manage poor workers often find that they have to treat them like children, looking over their shoulder on every assigned task and taking out extra time to go over their work and frequently re-doing it. A very close friend of mine works with many workers coming from the lower class, and is constantly frustrated in trying to hand them any modicum of responsibility. She has been told that one tried and true method in getting these people to successfully complete tasks is to complement in them in the same exact that she complements her two-year old son. So far, it apparently works, but it is quite a sad indictment on the poverty of character among the poor.

Other than not having much money, there seems to be little that likens the protagonists of the "Grapes of Wrath" to the masses of illiterates that populate today's urban schools. Poverty has become institutionalized, and rather than excusing it as a by-product of an inherently unjust capitalist system, we now are guilty of excusing the cultural rot and the lack of character that accounts for much of poverty today.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

KROB 2007: A Call for Entries

The 33rd annual Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation competition awaits new entries. KROB recognizes mastery in hand delineation as well as digital rendering techniques rather than the merit of the building rendered. The winning entries from exhibit characteristics often left out in everyday architectural drafting, such as conveying moods or other-wordly landscapes, and most importantly, they inexplicably move the viewer. Such aspects are not exclusive to the special effects brought about by computer software but also with graphite pencil and watercolor, as these traditional hand techniques give a picture a particular richness and liveliness.

The Ken Roberts Competition is the longest-running architectural illustration of its kind in the United States, awarding cash prizes in categories for both students and professionals and in both hand drawing and digital media. Submissions are to be received by October 31, 2007, and multiple entries per person can be entered. Finalists will have their work exhibited at the office of the competition's sponsor, the American Institute of Architects' chapter in Dallas. The winning entries will be announced and presented at a reception at the Magnolia Theater in Dallas on November 15th, where selected jurors will discuss the qualities of the selected works.

The competition is open to individuals in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Entries can be submitted electronically at the competition's website or by mail. All competition details, including entry forms, fees, and background to the competition can be found on If you have any questions on the competition, you can leave a comment under the blog posting or email the competition administrator at the address

This is an extraordinary opportunity for those who have produced veritable works of art in the process of completing building projects for school or for private clients. Unlike most architectural competitions that demand countless hours of unrenumerated work for a project that is often hypothetical in nature, the KROB rewards work that has already been realized for no other purpose than to artfully to describe an architectural concept. The result can be impressive and inspiring.