Theologian's Almanac for Week of November 10, 2019


Welcome to SALT’s “Theologian’s Almanac,” a weekly selection of important birthdays, holidays, and other upcoming milestones worth marking - specially created for a) writing sermons and prayers, b) creating content for social media channels, and c) enriching your devotional life.

For the week of Sunday, November 10:

November 10 is the day “Sesame Street” first aired, in 1969 on PBS.  In those days, every week the average American preschooler watched 27 hours of television, much of it violent and created for adults.  Joan Ganz Cooney, a documentary producer for PBS, envisioned a free, fun, educational television show for children - and especially for disadvantaged children - to help prepare them for kindergarten.  Sesame Street was an immediate hit, but early tests showed that while preschoolers liked the human actors well enough, they were positively mesmerized by the show’s motley crew of puppets - called “Muppets” - created by a young visionary puppeteer, Jim Henson.  And so began the world’s love affair with Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Grover, and the rest of the Muppet universe. By 1979, 9 million preschoolers were watching Sesame Street every day.

November 10 is also the birthday of theologian and reformer Martin Luther, born in 1483 in what is now Germany.  His parents hoped he’d become a lawyer, but during his legal studies - or so the story goes - he was out riding on horseback and got caught in a raging thunderstorm, feared for his life, and bargained for survival: “Help, Saint Anna! I will become a monk!”  This kind of passionate extremity would recur throughout his life. As a monk, he became profoundly preoccupied - even obsessed - with his personal salvation, strenuously trying to reshape his character, purify his heart, and prove his worth through self-flagellation, lying down in the snow all night, and so forth.

After a trip to Rome, he became disillusioned with church corruption, and in particular with the selling of “indulgences,” payments to the Church that would, it was said, guarantee divine forgiveness.  Luther found the practice outrageous, and he wrote a treatise condemning it, later known as the “95 Theses.” His close reading of scripture had led him to radically revise his former views: salvation doesn’t come through “works” at all, he argued (much less through lying all night in the snow, or purchasing forgiveness!), but rather only through the divine gift of sincere faith.  For Luther, a person’s inner disposition is what really matters - that much he carried forward from his monastic days - but salvation turns on a person’s faith or trust in God, not on acts of supposed “holiness” that earn or buy or otherwise achieve God’s saving grace.  

Luther wasn’t the first critic of church corruption, nor was he the first to contend that faith is the center of Christian life.  But he was a passionate, uncompromising, charismatic figure; he wrote in a slashing, fiercely intelligent, entertaining style; he had boundless energy (for example, he single-handedly translated the entire Bible into German, influencing Christianity and German culture for generations to come); and most important of all, his notoriety coincided with both the rise of the printing press (which spread his ideas like wildfire) and a burgeoning resentment, among nobles and peasants alike, of Church power and corruption.  Luther wanted to reform the Church, not split from it - but the Church was not amused by the upstart monk from Wittenburg, other voices across Europe began to chime in, and the Protestant Reformations were born.

November 11 is Veterans’ Day.  Here’s SALT’s “Brief Theology of Veterans’ Day.”

November 11 is also the birthday of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, born in Moscow in 1821.  After some initial success as a writer, he fell in with a group of utopian socialists, and was arrested and sentenced to death.  After eight months of solitary confinement, he was marched before a firing squad to be shot - but as he stood waiting to die, he learned that his sentence had been commuted to exile in Siberia.  He spent eight years there, four of them in hard labor. He returned with a renewed commitment to writing - and a new, provocative set of religious ideas. “The Grand Inquisitor,” a scene embedded within his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is a theological masterpiece: Christ returns, is promptly arrested by the Church as a heretic, and is brought before the Grand Inquisitor for a fascinating - and devastating - round of questioning.

November 12 is the birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York.  Exploring legal books in her father’s library, the young Stanton stumbled across laws that restricted women’s freedom.  Outraged, she tried to cut out the passages from the books, a visceral attempt to nullify them - at least in one library!  “Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed,” she later said, “and my duty plainly outlined.”

Stanton decided to have a family, raising seven children, and so she couldn’t travel much; she called herself a “caged lioness.”  But she formed a deep friendship and partnership with Susan B. Anthony, who had no children. Stanton wrote the speeches, eloquently demanding rights for women, and Anthony criss-crossed the country delivering them.  As Stanton later put it, “I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them.”

In her later years, she became increasingly interested in addressing sexism in the Bible - and in 1895, she published the first volume of The Woman’s Bible, challenging the idea that women should be subservient to men.  The book was a runaway bestseller, but other suffragists felt her controversial biblical views were a distraction from their main goal, obtaining the right to vote for women.  Consequently, Stanton was pushed out of the National Women’s Suffragist Association - but she stood firm. Not until the 1960s did the field of biblical studies catch up with her, as feminist scholars turned again to the question of rooting out sexism from biblical texts, translation, and interpretation.

Stanton once summed up her overall mission this way: “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives, but as nouns.”

November 13 is the birthday of St. Augustine of Hippo, born in 354 in North Africa, in what is now Algeria.  His most famous book, Confessions, one of the first autobiographies in literature, is a remembrance and inventory of his life, primarily addressed to God.  He wrote more than 90 books in total, and through his written debates with Pelagius, he became one of the Church’s principal champions of the idea that God’s grace, not human effort, is the underlying cause of salvation.  If we find ourselves turning toward God, Augustine taught, that’s only because God has already turned toward us: “our turning to God is itself God’s gift.” In a related vein, Augustine also developed the doctrine of “original sin,” essentially the idea that all people, not just some, require God’s merciful grace and forgiveness.  Outside of the biblical writers, Augustine is arguably the most prolific and influential theologian in Christian history. “You have made us for yourself, O God,” Augustine wrote, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

November 15 is the birthday of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887.  She’s most famous for her giant paintings of flowers, to which viewers often ascribe sexual connotations - but O’Keeffe insisted otherwise. She described her floral portraits this way: “A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower - lean forward to smell it - maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking - or give it to someone to please them. Still - in a way - nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven’t time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”  And so she painted flowers on a grand scale, to help us slow down and see them as they really are.

November 16 is the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe, born in Nigeria in 1930.  His great-uncle hospitably received European missionaries into their village, and his father became an early convert to Christianity.  Achebe grew up reading the Bible every day and attending church every week, but he was intrigued by the customs of the non-Christians in his village - as well as by the caricatured native characters in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  He set out to turn the tables on the colonialists - and the result was his novel, Things Fall Apart, now a classic in Nigerian literature and an international bestseller.  Here’s a taste of the novel: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion.  We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one.  He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” Things Fall Apart has been translated into more than 50 languages.