October 21, 2016

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament (Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons) or a Presbytera is not a “Priestess” (Part 2)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 2:17 am

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryThis is the second of two essays on on women’s ministry in the New Testament. In the previous essay, I addressed the question (1) “Did women exercise ministerial office in the New Testament period?”1 In this essay, I address the two additional questions: (2) How does the New Testament address the question of female bishops or presbyters? (3) What are the contemporary hermeneutical implications of what the New Testament says about women in office?

As noted in previous essays, the New Testament says very little about the actual practices associated with the more permanent ministries which I have called “office.” For example, the New Testament nowhere describes the ritual celebration of the Eucharist or indicates who presided at its celebration, nor does the New Testament ever use the word “priest” to refer to those who exercise office, both key concerns in Catholic discussions of ordained ministry. Although the New Testament nowhere identifies by name a woman who exercised the role of presbyter or bishop, it does not mention by name any man with these titles either.

In addition (as I also pointed out), the New Testament terminology for office is fluid, and a number of titles are used: “co-worker,” “apostle,” “deacon,” “teacher, “prophet,” “leader.” However, after the New Testament period, permanent ministry is particularly associated with the offices of overseer/bishop, elder/presbyter, and deacon. These offices are rarely mentioned in the New Testament. The book of Acts indicates that Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι, presbyteroi) “in each church” (Acts 14:23). As Paul concluded his third mission journey before returning to Jerusalem, he addressed the “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι, presbyteroi) of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17). Paul counsels them to keep watch over the flock over whom the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers” (ἐπίσκοποι, episkopoi) in order to shepherd the church of God (v. 28). In chapter 15, Acts mentions “the elders” in conjunction with “the apostles” (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23). In Phil. 1:1, Paul greets the “saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi,” along with the “overseers and deacons” (ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις, episkopois kai diakonois). This is the only letter in which Paul specifically addresses these office-holders by title. Again, there is nothing in these passages to indicate the sex of these office-holders, and the only person specifically identified as a deacon by Paul is the female deacon, Phoebe (Rom. 16:1).


October 6, 2016

Defeat, Shame, Memory: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:04 am

Lamentations 1:1-6
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Psalm 137
Luke 17:5-10

This morning’s lectionary readings contain two of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture. How does the preacher respond to a passage in which the final verse reads “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock”? (Ps. 137: 9). Certainly the preacher cannot suggest that this is an example to be emulated? “As we go forth this morning, let us remember these words from our Psalm: ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and . . .’ Uh, Never mind. Let us stand and say the words of the Nicene Creed.” Turning to the Lamentations passage does not make things any easier. Lamentations is probably the most depressing book in the entire Bible. At least the book of Job has a happy ending! There are lots of thoughtful commentaries and theological reflections on the Book of Job. Not so much on Lamentations. Can you imagine someone saying to a seminary student on the day of graduation “Congratulations! I’d like you to give you this commentary on the book of Lamentations to help you with your ministry”?

When we come across passages like this in Scripture, I think it helps to remember that the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books. The Bible does not speak with a single voice, but with many voices. I think it also helps to remember that these are voices in a dialogue. Voices in Scripture ask questions to which sometimes we have to turn to other passages in Scripture to hear the answers. I think that reading the Bible in this way is preferable to the kind of static view that imagines Scripture as a kind of database of theological propositions all of which are speaking with a single voice and saying the same thing. I think it is also preferable to the opposite view that says that the Bible is full of contradictions and so we can pick and choose what we like. Neither approach gives us a clue as to how the church might derive theological or spiritual insight from passages like this morning’s readings.

So I would ask my listeners this morning to hear the morning’s lectionary readings as voices in a dialogue. I am going to focus on three readings: the Psalm, the Lamentations reading, and the epistle reading from 2 Timothy. I would suggest that it is helpful to read each of these passages as asking the single question “Where is God?”


September 19, 2016

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ministry in the New Testament (Office)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:56 pm

Jesus and the Canaanite WomanIn previous essays in this series, I have addressed theological objections to the ordination of women, both Protestant and Catholic. In the next few essays, I will discuss the actual ministry of women in the New Testament, that is: What actual ministerial roles did women exercise during the New Testament period, and what might be the implications for current ecclesial practice? I will address three issues: (1) Did women exercise ministerial office in the New Testament period? (2) How does the New Testament address the question of female bishops or presbyters? (3) What are the contemporary hermeneutical implications of what the New Testament says about women in office? That is, what should be the church’s current practice in light of New Testament material concerning women in office? (Previous essays have already discussed the status of women in the Old Testament, women in the ministry of Jesus, women and Old Testament priesthood, and the theological implications of Jesus having called only male apostles.) In this essay, I will address the first question: Did women exercise ministerial office in the New Testament period?

New Testament Office

Roman Catholic theologian Francis Martin brings a helpful contribution to the discussion of the ministry of women in the New Testament by distinguishing between (1) charisms of service, (2) ministry, and (3) office. A charism of service is a particular endowment, given by the Holy Spirit, that enables a member of the Christian community to contribute to the life of that community. Examples of charisms of service would be prophecy, teaching, words of wisdom or knowledge, speaking, interpretation of tongues, helping others (1 Cor. 12:4-11,28, 14; 1 Peter 4:11). Ministry refers to divinely enabled activities that build up the Christian community and have a more permanent basis. More permanent ministerial gifts would include leadership, some forms of diaconal service, or itinerant preaching (Rom. 12:7-8; 1 Cor. 12:28). Office refers to a stable ministry which secures the permanence of apostolic teaching by providing for a continuing existence over space and time. Office works within the corporeal and historical nature of the church, and must be transmitted through some form of human activity (laying on of hands?). Office is particularly bound up with “remembering” the apostolic message, particularly the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The ministerial gifts that enable a person to exercise office include presiding over the faithful transmission of the gospel through word and sacrament in worship. Office is particularly associated with the ministry of presbyters and bishops.1

This is precisely the distinction that needs to be made to address the issue of women’s ministry and the ordination of women in the church. No one denies (not even Protestant complementarians) that women exercised what Martin calls “charisms of service” in the New Testament church and, presumably, may do so today as well. No one denies that women exercised some forms of more permanent ministry in the New Testament church, and may do so today – what we might today designate as “lay ministries” – although Protestant complementarians and Catholic sacramentalists disagree about what kind of permanent ministries might be allowed to women today. For Protestant complementarians, any permanent ministry involving the exercise of authority over or teaching of men would be excluded to women. For Catholic sacramentalists, women are allowed to exercise permanent ministries involving teaching and even the exercise of authority provided that they do not preside over the church’s celebration of the sacraments. For both Protestant complementarians and Catholic sacramentalists, the prohibition lies in the exercise of office; they disagree in their understanding of ordination to office to involve different tasks – whether authority and teaching or celebration of the sacraments.

Given the clear distinction between charisms of service and more permanent ongoing ministries, the crucial difference for the current discussion concerns that between more permanent ministries and “office.” Given that some women in the New Testament period exercised more permanent forms of ministry, were any of these positions of office? The question is not as straightforward as it might appear for the following reasons:


August 1, 2016

Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument From Symbolism (Part 2: Transcendence, Immanence and Sexual Typology)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 2:13 am

sun and moonThis is the second in a two-part series on Catholic objections to women’s ordination based on symbolism. In the first essay, I dealt with objections based on the doctrines of God and creation, the Old Testament priesthood, the incarnation, and the significance of a male apostolate. In this essay, I will discuss objections based on a theory of anthropological symbolism, specifically that men and women have unique symbolic roles based on inherent differences between the sexes: men represent externality, action, rationality, objectivity, and transcendence; women represent internality, receptivity, emotion, subjectivity and immanence.

The most prominent voice in this discussion is that of German theologian Manfred Hauke, whose book, Women in the Priesthood? was one of the first contributions to the discussion, and is certainly one of the lengthiest. The central argument of Hauke’s book is one of anthropological symbolism. As noted in the previous essay, Hauke insists that masculine and feminine symbolism transcends culture. He appeals to examples from ancient religion, modern biology, sociology and psychology. The book abounds with statements such as the following:

The dynamics of the male are expansive, outer directed and aimed at overcoming particular sorts of resistance. The dynamics of the female are more adaptive in nature, that is, more strongly adjusted to the demands of the existing situation. . . . The fact that women are guided more strongly by intuition and feeling also means that they are more open to concrete experience, whereas men always behave more critically. . . . Women are always dependent, in one way or the other, on the leadership of men, but men, without the intuition and assistance of women, are only half human. . . . The superiorities of men, to express things pointedly, lead to a position of authority, but the superiorities of women, to a position of subordination.1

According to Hauke, because masculinity is bound up with externality and transcendence, men are symbols of God. In contrast, the “accent of feminine symbolism falls . . . not on the representation of God, but on the depiction of creation . . . women are simultaneously representative of mankind . . .” Hauke states succinctly: “The basic axis of the symbolism of the sexes can thus be equated with the relationships man = God, woman = creation” (Hauke’s emphasis) – although he insists that this does not imply a lesser evaluation of women.2

As discussed in the previous essay, Hauke insists that the “symbolism of the sexes” is “reflected in Christ’s entire redemptive work, namely his masculine human nature.” Jesus’ teaching and miracles are “expressions of Jesus’ power, which corresponds to his masculine expansivity.”3 Hauke recognizes that the gospels describe Jesus in terms of graciousness and mercy, but “Jesus’ benevolence can be understood only through his omnipotence.”4 Jesus’ masculinity is also of central significance on the cross, where Jesus represents God with respect to humanity, but also the submission of humanity with respect to God. Hauke here appeals to a dynamic between transcendence and immanence he had discussed elsewhere. Transcendence includes immanence, but immanence cannot include transcendence.5

If Jesus represents both God and the masculine principle, the virgin Mary represents the feminine qualities of receptiveness and obedience. Mary is thus “the representative of creation as creation.” She also “represents mankind.”6 (Hauke’s emphasis). Most important, Mary is the representative of the church: “The Church appears, in the image of Mary, as having feminine traits . . .”7

Building on the above reflections about masculine and feminine symbolism, Hauke concludes the following:

The priest represents the Church, but “represents the Church insofar as he first represents Christ as the head of the Church.” (Significantly, a couple of paragraphs later, Hauke states that the priest “effectively represent[s] God,” and, in so doing, “also participates in Christ’s ‘headship.’”)8

In contrast to the masculine role of the priest, Hauke writes, every Christian “stands as a receiver before God and thus fulfills the bridal role.” Although all Christians can represent the bride, it is appropriate to restrict ordination only to men because only men can realize “an ontological approximation of Christ” in the indelible character of ordination. Because Jesus Christ’s “masculine identity” is soteriologically necessary, only a male can represent Christ in church office.9


July 25, 2016

Abounding in Thanksgiving: A Sermon on Prayer

Filed under: Sermons,Spiritualty — William Witt @ 3:53 am

Genesis 18:20-33
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

angelusThis morning’s lectionary readings focus on prayer. The Genesis passage continues the story of three travelers who visit Abraham and promise that he will have a son. One of the visitors is identified to be God, and Abraham has a discussion with God. In fact, Abraham actually argues with God; he haggles with him like someone in a Middle Eastern market. In the Psalm (as in many Psalms), we have a specific example of a prayer: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name.” (Ps. 138: 1-2) In the gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray in Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer; the next paragraph in Luke contains Jesus’ well known promise about prayer: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

In my sermon this morning, I am going to try to answer the question, “What is prayer?” I am going to begin, however, with three examples of misunderstandings of prayer to help make clear what prayer is not.

July 8, 2016

Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument From Symbolism Part 1 (God, Christ, Apostles)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:51 pm

TrinityIn a previous essay, I addressed what I consider the definitive Catholic objection to the ordination of women – that a priest/presbyter acts as a representative of Jesus Christ, and that a woman cannot be ordained because, since Christ is a male, a woman cannot represent a male Christ. In that essay, I focused on the liturgical version of that argument: in celebrating the Eucharist, the priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), and a woman cannot act in persona Christi.1 In the following two essays, I intend to address a slightly different version of the argument, based on male and female symbolism. The structure of the argument is the same – that a female priest cannot represent a male Christ – but the focus is on the symbolic dimensions of masculinity and femininity rather than the narrower issue of liturgical celebration.

What is a symbol? In his classic text, Symbolism and Belief, Edwyn Bevan defined a symbol as “something presented to the senses or the imagination – usually the senses – which stands for something else.” Bevan distinguished between two kinds of symbols: (1) “visible objects or sounds which stand for something of which we already have direct knowledge,” and which “are not intended to give us any information about the nature of the thing symbolized, but to remind us them,” and (2) symbols that “purport to give information about the things they symbolize, to convey knowledge of their nature, which those who see or hear the symbols have not had before or have not otherwise.” The symbols of the first kind have no resemblance to the thing symbolized; the connection is simply a matter of convention. (For example, there is no resemblance between a stop sign and the command to stop, and there is nothing about the word “stop” that is like the action of stopping.) The second kind of symbol “purport[s] to give information about the nature of something not otherwise known,” and “resemblance is essential.”2 Similarly, Manfred Hauke, one of the authors who embraces the symbolic argument against women’s ordination, refers to a symbol as that something that “finds its special expression . . . where two realities enter into sensibly apprehensible interconnection.” Hauke, distinguishes a symbol from an “arbitrarily defined sign” (like a stop sign) in that a symbol is “suited in advance, by virtue of its inner structure, to entering into certain relationships, for example, ‘sun’ and ‘light’ in relationship to intellectual clarity.”3 (Thus, Bevan’s first definition of symbol corresponds to Hauke’s definition of “sign,” while his second definition of symbol corresponds to Hauke’s definition of symbol.)

The use of symbols is essential to religious language and practice insofar as religions need some visual or linguistic way to refer to non-visible realities. Bevan states that “in religion things are presented to the senses, or ideas presented to the mind, which purport, not to call to mind other things within the experience of the worshipper, but to convey to him knowledge of things beyond the range of any human experience.”4 Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis insisted that Christianity necessarily uses physical imagery (what we have called “symbol”) to refer to spiritual realities because “anyone who talks about things that cannot be seen, or touched, or heard of, or the like, must inevitably talk as if they could be seen or touched or heard . . .” According to Lewis, metaphorical (or symbolic) language is indispensable to Christian faith; language that says that one of the members of the Trinity “entered the universe” to become one of its own creatures is every bit as metaphorical (or symbolic) as “he came down from heaven.” The former only substitutes imagery of vertical for horizontal movement.5


February 14, 2016

I Don’t Get Mail or Anticipatory Responses to My In Persona Christi Argument

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 8:09 am

The following is a response to some (not recent) criticisms of my argument against the “Catholic” position that women cannot be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ. To get to my actual response, you’ll need to read past the list of argumentative propositions.

Melancholy In the most recent post in my series on women’s ordination, I addressed the definitive new Catholic argument against women’s ordination, which can be summarized as follows:


(a) the priest represents Christ in celebrating the eucharist (acts in persona Christ),


(b) the priest must be male


(c) Jesus Christ is male


(d) only a male priest can represent a male Christ.

Or, conversely

(di) a woman priest cannot represent a male Christ.


(ai) the priest does represent Christ in celebrating the eucharist (acts in persona Christi);


(dii) a woman cannot be a priest.

Note that in order for the argument to work, each one of the above propositions must be true. However:


(a) it is not the case that a priest exclusively or necessarily represents Christ in celebrating the eucharist


(d) it is not the case that only a male priest can represent Jesus Christ


(c) what is important in representing Christ is something besides his masculinity;


(dii) it does not follow that a woman cannot be a priest.

My response to the new Catholic argument can be summarized as follows:

(a) the priest does not necessarily or at least exclusively represent Christ in celebrating the eucharist


(ai) on the Eastern model (which has increasingly been adopted in recent ecumenical discussion and revised eucharistic rites), the priest represents the church and so acts in persona ecclesiae.

However if

(ai) the priest represents the church

then either

(b) the priest must be female


(c) as the bride of Christ, the church is feminine


(d) only a female priest can represent the female bride of Christ;

Or, conversely

(di) a male priest cannot represent a female church.

Alternatively, if

(di) it is possible for a male priest to represent the female bride of Christ


(dii) it must be equally possible for a female priest to represent a male Christ


(ci) what is important about representing either Christ or the church must be something besides the sexual identity of the priest

or else

(di) is false.

Or, if sexual identity is still crucial, then

(diii) both men and women should be ordained


(div) insofar as the priest represents both Christ and the church, men best represent the male Christ and women best represent the female bride of Christ.

As the argument stands, it is valid. (more…)

February 8, 2016

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (in persona Christi)

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 4:11 am

Holy GrailThis is the second in a series of essays discussing the Catholic objection to the ordination of women that women cannot be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. Specifically, in presiding at the Eucharist, the priest acts “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi). Since Jesus Christ is a male, only a male can play this representative role. In the previous essay in this series, I have summarized the biblical and historical background to the New Testament notion of priesthood, and to the understanding of ordained ministry in the early church. In that essay, I noted that there is no evidence that either the New Testament or the patristic church understood ordained clergy to play this representative role, i.e., to be acting in persona Christi. I now turn to find the sources of this theology in the sacramental theology of the Western Church, specifically as articulated by Thomas Aquinas.

During the early Middle Ages, Latin theologians taught that only the universal Catholic church was able to celebrate the Eucharist. Local churches who were in communion with the one holy Catholic church (una sancta catholica ecclesia) were understood to represent the whole church in the eucharistic liturgy. The priest who presided at the Eucharist was understood to represent the whole church when he acted as the liturgical leader of the local church. A key concern in the development of eucharistic doctrine was the problem of the heretical priest. How could a priest represent the whole church if he lacked the faith of the church? The consensus was that the Eucharists of heretical priests were invalid. The author of the Summa sententiarium (probably Otto of Lucca [d. 1146]), held that they were invalid because in the eucharistic prayer the priest says “we offer” (offerimus), not “I offer” (offero); the priest thus acts ex persona totius ecclesiae (in the person of the whole church).1 In a discussion of the differences between the offering of the congregation and the offering of the priest, Lothar of Signi explained that the priest offers in the person of the whole church: “offerimus is said in the plural because the priest sacrifices not only in his own [person] but in the person of the whole church.”2

Different opinions concerning this ecclesiological status of who does or does not qualify to be a priest led to an “evolving theology of the hierarchical priesthood,” along with changes in terminology. Medieval commentaries on the Mass depicted the “priest of the New Covenant” as the fulfillment of Old Testament priesthood as one who offers sacrifice for the people. This description is applied first to Christ, and then to ordained clergy. Beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, figures such as Peter Pictor and Rupert of Dietz began to use the term similitudo (likeness) to describe the participation of ordained clergy in Christ’s priesthood. In addition, the imagery of drama is introduced and the priest is said to imitate Christ when he recites the words of institution in the Eucharist. Priests are referred to as vices Christi (deputies of Christ). The priest is compared to an ambassador – as ambassador of the church to Christ, and of Christ to the church.3

Thomas Aquinas

As mentioned above, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the central figure in the development of the notion that, in celebrating the Eucharist, the priest acts “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi), as representing Christ to the church. It is this theology of eucharistic representation that lies behind the recent and modern Catholic objection to the ordination of women to clerical office. If Jesus Christ is a male, then only a male priest/presbyter can represent Christ.

Aquinas’s earliest discussion of eucharistic theology does not mention the notion of representation of Christ at all, but follows the earlier notion that the priest acts as representing the church. In Aquinas’s earliest venture into a more or less comprehensive theology, his Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences,4 he claimed that the priest proclaims the eucharistic prayer in the name of the church and represents the church: “he alone [the priest] who consecrates the Eucharist is able to conduct the act of the entire church, which is a sacrament of the universal [or entire] church.”5

The claim that the priest acts as a representation of Christ first appears in Aquinas’s mature theological work, the Summa Theologiae. (more…)

December 19, 2015

I Get Mail: Concerning Women’s Ordination and Church Tradition

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 10:47 pm

Woman Touching JesusI received the following comment from someone named Peter in response to my essay “Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (Biblical and Patristic Background)”:

When I read your comment that the reason that church tradition opposed w.o. due to their believing that women were intellectually inferior to men and not based on either the reformed view(headship) nor the anglo-catholic view (Christ was a male)my internal red flag went up. The idea that that 1900 hundred years of a unanimous christian tradition was based primarily on women being inferior comes out of the handbook of modernisation liberalism. Well I went and actually looked on the earliest tradition of the first five hundred years. The apostolic constitutions clearly speaks against w.o.based on on 1 cor.11:3. So it is inaccurate for you to say that the headship reason is not found in the early tradition. Empiphanius of salamis opposes it based on the apostles were andll men. Many of the fathers I searched they don’t give an explicit theological or cultural reason(including the one you state)but do give the reason of scripture being emphatically against it. The use terms such as “delusion”, “deception”, “heresy”. This clearly infers that the opposition is grounded in a theological reason not cultural. If women were viewed an unqualified due to a weaker ability issue than man than thAt would be an issue of prudence. Yet the language of the fathers is far beyond that of prudence. You also have crysostom who says very positive things about women, even supporting them teaching men in a non-liturgical setting, yet he opposes w.o. to the Presbyter. Clearly his reasons are not what you suggest. His homily on the passage in 1 timothy 2 is clearly a conveyance of the principle of headship. I could go on but I stated enough to show that your claim, in all due respect, does not hold up to historical evidence.

Dear Peter,

I apologize that I have not responded earlier. It has been the end of the semester where I teach, and I have had to put blog matters aside. You are incorrect that “The idea that that 1900 hundred years of a unanimous christian tradition was based primarily on women being inferior comes out of the handbook of modernisation liberalism.” You can be excused for not having read every one of the numerous essays I have contributed to this series, but the documentation for my claim can be found at length in my previous essay “Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument ‘From Tradition’ is not the ‘Traditional’ Argument”. In that essay, I include citations from East and West, patristic, Medieval and post-Reformation tradition in which Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Bullinger, Richard Hooker, and John Knox all attribute as the primary reason for not ordaining women to their ontological, intellectual, or moral inferiority. (These citations are representative enough to make the case. I could have expanded considerably.) The texts say what they say. (more…)

December 17, 2015

The King in a Manger: An Advent Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 6:13 pm

Micah 5:2-5
Psalm 80
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-56

annunciationEvery generation has its crises, and my generation certainly had its share. I grew up on the tail end of the baby boom, and here are some of the things I remember from my childhood: the assassination of a president and his brother. The murders of black people with names like Emmet Till and of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. The burnings of black churches, and police dogs turned loose and fire hoses opened up on black marchers. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Riots in Watts, Los Angeles. A decade long war in Southeast Asia, and students burning draft cards and chanting “hell, no, we won’t go.” Videos of soldiers and helicopters and machine gun fire in the jungle, and coffins wrapped in flags on the news every night. Students shot dead by national guards troops at Kent State, Ohio. A president who resigned from office in disgrace.

Looking back on all of this, it is quite surprising to think about the kinds of songs that we heard on the radio at the time. Despite deep divisions in the culture, and crisis after crisis that was truly depressing, some of the most popular songs were filled with hope: songs with lyrics like “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Harmony and understanding, Sympathy and trust abounding.” “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” This was not just the left wing hippie counter-culture either. There was a singing group called “Up With People,” who were the short-hair polyester-slacks wearing alternative, but the message was the same – despite all of the bad news that was going on in the culture, there was hope for a better future. This optimism lasted for a couple of decades. As late as 1985, a huge group of popular singers got together to sing about the “world coming together as one” in a charity raising video called “We are the world.”

It would be hard to imagine anything like this optimism in contemporary popular culture. Ever since terrorists drove two airplanes into the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 and the economy collapsed in 2008, there has been a massive cultural shift. If there is a single mood that dominates culture today, it would seem to be that of fear. 1 John states that “perfect love casts out fear,” but the converse is true as well. Perfect fear casts out love. (more…)

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