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By John Wilson


"Have Mercy on Me, O God"

A report from AAR/SBL.

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The line at Starbucks was long, snaking its way out into the lobby of the Marriott, but the overheard conversation got my attention: "the intensification of the police state… the literal parallels with Nazi Germany… and no one seems to care!"

Yes, this was the annual gathering known in the trade as AAR/SBL, the joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. This year's convention brought something like 8,500 academics to Philadelphia to give papers, conduct job interviews, prowl the aisles of the book exhibition, practice the fine art of networking, and deplore the descent of the United States into fascism while waiting in line for one's decaf tall latte.

It was ten years ago that this show last came to Philadelphia, an occasion unusually vivid in my memory because it was my first AAR/SBL. As I looked through the program that first year, I saw listings for far more sessions worth attending than I was possibly going to be able to catch. AAR/SBL is a chaotic marketplace of ideas, and if some outlooks are--shall we say--privileged over others, let no one claim that this is a one-party production. I found it exhilarating, and still do, a decade later.

By the time I picked up my own iced grande latte, I was feeling pretty pleased with my restraint while listening to my companions-in-line, at once comically hysterical and nauseatingly smug. After all, hadn't I maintained a lightly amused expression, resisting the impulse to break in with an acid comment? But then I remembered the night before, at St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church, where Frederica Mathewes-Green talked about her just-published book, The First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew (Paraclete Press), and where we heard hauntingly beautiful chanted excerpts from this work, which dates to the 8th century.

Frederica noted that 21st-century readers may have a hard time at first entering the world of this text, itself woven from the words of the nine biblical Canticles, so deeply saturated is it with repentance. And part of the difficulty, she suggested, lies with an overemphasis on the forensic understanding of the Atonement, which has never taken hold in the Orthodox tradition as it has in the Western church. After all, hasn't Jesus paid our debt once and for all? Isn't there something mistaken--the evangelical believer may say--in this constant harping on repentance, these dramatic prostrations?

Well, the Puritans certainly wouldn't have thought so, and I'm not sure about Frederica's historical argument. But I think she's right when she says that such a response--that of our imaginary contemporary evangelical--misses what is really going on in the texts of the early church, where sin is most often seen, she writes, as "a self-inflicted wound," and God as "compassionate rather than wrathful. God is always described as rushing to meet us like the father of the prodigal, or coming like the good Samaritan to bind up our wounds." Hence repentance is inseparable from joy and gratefulness at our deliverance. Couldn't evangelical churches do with more confession in this spirit?

And here I was, not even 24 hours after hearing Frederica speak and listening to the ravishing beauty of the Great Canon, feeling superior. Nothing wrong, of course, with registering foolishness, nor with finding it amusing as well as awful, but the mind is infinitely tricky. Have mercy on me, o God--have mercy on us all.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

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