ot so many years ago I went with a good friend to see an Australian film, Bliss. Overall not the greatest film ever made, but it has its points.
The opening scenes are set in a home, with a family at table together. The father walks out into the backyard, and with terror in his eyes clutches his chest. A heart attack. And the camera slowly begins to take us up into the sky, looking down upon the body. As the seconds pass, the images of earth are less and less clear, until finally we begin to see something else.
Wonderful and beautiful and good, and then awful and ugly and evil—in stark contrast.
But then those images also become less clear, and through the murk we begin to see earth again. No longer a lone body, but now an ambulance with lights flashing, and family and caregivers are surrounding the stricken man. And with a shock—a literal shock to his system—the man comes back to life.
Rushed to the hospital, he has an operation to address his wounded heart. The next minutes in the film are the strongest in the story, as the man knows that he has come close to death and wants to know what the images he saw mean—for his life.
An Anglican clergyman comes to visit him in the hospital, offering pastoral care. But it is the man with the mended heart who asks the most important questions. He wonders what he has seen, the images of good and evil so plain before him as he wandered up and out of his body. And so he asks the clergyman about something he has read in the Thirty-nine Articles—the historic doctrines of the Anglican Church—in particular about its statements on the reality of hell. He is certain that he was very close to its gates.
The clergyman takes the book from the man, reads the words himself, and says, “1571…. It’s a bit out-ofdate, don’t you think?”
Over the last months I have thought of this film and its conversation many times, as I have listened to the debates in the press, on-line, and among friends about the present and future of the Anglican Communion. At heart, of course, it is historical hubris and theological naïveté of a malicious sort that makes it possible to say with seeming seriousness, “It’s a bit out-of-date, don’t you think?”
And yet to read the reports from the less-than-orthodox bishops in the Episcopal Church USA, in no uncertain terms that is what they are saying to themselves and the watching world. The deposit of faith prized over time is “a bit out-of-date.” What true Christians in the third century and the thirteenth century believed about God, human nature, and history, about heaven, hell, and salvation, is no longer acceptable in our so-sophisticated post-Enlightenment world. In words very much like that, the American bishops overwhelmingly thumbed their noses at history and the Anglican Communion worldwide—with special scorn for the theological and moral out-of-dateness in the two-thirds world churches—in their decisions this summer to rewrite the creed and confession of the Church with regard to human sexuality. All in the name of making it more “up-to-date,” I am sure they would say.
This all came home to me with painful poignancy this fall when one afternoon I stopped at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA, a seminary of the Episcopal Church USA. Some say it is the best-endowed seminary in America; its beautiful campus reflects the history and wealth of that possibility. The seminary’s library is a great resource to many from across the city, and they generously allow people in to read and study. On many days over many years I have been graced by that kindness.
After I found what I was looking for, and was making my way out, I saw a row of used books for sale, a temptation I rarely resist. On the bottom shelf, there it was: a real find. When I opened it up, I saw that in fact it really was a first edition of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
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