Monday, July 13, 2015
Friday, July 03, 2015
I can deal with most of the silliness on the Fourth. I have earplugs if they turn up the Lee Greenwood or Toby Keith. I guess it is the rhetoric that gets to me. Sometimes, we actually need to stop and think about the words that come out of our mouths. I love our history. I really do. I've spent a lifetime studying it. We are truly unique in so many ways--but this is due to many factors, not the least of which is the simple accident of geography. What it is not dependent upon, however, is any intrinsic superiority of our own.
And that is where I part company with the civic observance of the Fourth. We often seem incapable of praising our unique American-ness without using language that characterizes it in terms of superiority. Unique is not the same thing as exceptional. American Exceptionalism--the child of Wilsonian Democracy and the grandchild of Manifest Destiny--is our besetting sin. The last time I checked, Pride was still a vice. And we all know what it goeth before. Let me know if you ever see a bumper sticker that says "Humble to be an American."
In this morning's local paper (the reading of which is a bad habit that I can't seem to shake, for it is truly toxic), a columnist wrote of talking with members of her "small group" from church who had just returned from a 10-day mission trip to Russia, where they had been teaching English using the Bible. She asked their impressions of the country and heard about how thankful they were to get back here where there were fully-stocked shelves in the stores. The main quote, however, was that the people were hungry for "God, freedom, and anything American." There you have it--the way we look at ourselves and at the rest of the world. If this quote strikes you as anything other than self-serving crap, then my entire post will likely be incomprehensible.
I also wish Americans knew more about the Revolution we celebrate. I think someone once said something to the effect that a revolution is only a rebellion until it is successful. And so, our “Revolution” was only such after Yorktown--before that it was a rebellion. I am not just playing with words here. On the Fourth, one will hear politicians and other unlearned types wax eloquently about the struggle for our “freedoms,” and “liberty,” and the sacrifices of “our troops”, etc. Just for good measure, they may also throw in a line about fighting to be able to worship the way that we please. It won’t matter—no one in their audiences will likely know the difference. That is our Founding Myth.
There are myths and then there are myths--most have an element of truth, but some are truer than others. The hard fact of the matter, however, is this: our rebellion cum revolution was fought over economic considerations; tax policies, if you will. Americans did not, nor do they yet, like to pay taxes. From the beginning, we have demonized those we oppose, so as to cast the particular war in moralistic terms. And so, George III becomes a tyrant, an evil oppressor in our telling. I will just say this, the "oppression" was relatively benign, and as "ruthless tyrants" go, George III is way down the list. I am not saying that the war could have been avoided, for there was a certain inevitability about it all. England had kept us on such a loose rein for so long that we forgot that the rope was even there. I am simply saying that the war was not exactly what it is broadly perceived to have been.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
While recently rummaging around for something, I came across my commonplace book from many years ago. Though undated, I was able to deduce that I started it in 1996. The last entry was dated 10 January 2004. These two dates bookend a number of noteworthy milestones in my life: my mother's death (the last of my immediate family), the deaths of two much-beloved uncles, our son going off to college, my 2nd-6th trips overseas, the beginning of a side career of teaching, 9/11 and its aftermath, appointment to a position of responsibility at our local church (soon followed by a scandal/crisis), some sobering financial reverses, and most pivotal of all, my encounter with the Orthodox faith in June of 2003.
Of the 218 pages in this particular journal, only the last 50 pages or so fall after that aforementioned date. Reading back over what I had recorded before then was an eye-opener, to say the least, for it raises doubt in my mind as to the self-narrative I have so carefully crafted. In my telling of it, I have always emphasized the unforeseen nature of being confronted with Orthodoxy--I often say that I "stumbled" into it. I found the whole "seeker" posture to be too affected, or self-deferential, or narcissistic, and ultimately mostly ridiculous. In my case, I arrived in the Balkans only half-aware even of their Orthodoxy. Yep, you might say the Faith blindsided me.
And while I still believe this to be largely true, this narrative fails to acknowledge just how receptive I was to receiving Orthodoxy. My jottings from 1996 through 2003 certainly indicate that something was going on. To be sure, no discernable "Road to Orthodoxy" emerges from these early writings. My readings were unfocused and undirected, and my writing was equally undisciplined. But taken as a whole, the restlessness of my intellect during that time is almost palpable. (I think restlessness is the right word. I was not disappointed with my life, for I had--and have--a very good one.) My writings betrayed, however, a gnawing realization that there simply had to be some larger and more significant drama playing-out, one of which I had not even begun to grasp the meaning. So yes, when Orthodoxy "found" me, you might say that I was primed and ready for it.
At some point during Holy Week, in the midst of one of those interminable services that run together in our memory, I was doing my regular bit as an altar server. During one of the processions, in-between chanting and trying not to mess up, I clearly remember thinking to myself, "This is life." That's all. "This is life." In this ritualized worship that is so strange to our region but so alive to me, I am being disciplined, my passions are being worn-down (albeit much too slowly), and yes, I am participating in that larger drama I half-sensed many years ago, the one that transcends time and space.
Anthony Powell's passage at the beginning of this post applies to a fictional character, a young man starting out in life. His words resonate with me, though I was middle-aged even at that time. No matter. I have taken them to heart, as I careen--though consciously and intentionally--down the slippery avenues of eternity.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
I come from a long line of storytellers I enjoy listening to a good tale, and have some decent stories to pass along myself, if I do say so. Of course, I have few opportunities to tell anyone around here, as the folks around here are only interested in hearing stories about, well, people around here. I believe this is what the dictionary would describe as provincialism. I should not complain, however, for it is only a minor annoyance and given everything else that is going on these days, it hardly qualifies as a real problem. I do not do nostalgia or cheap sentimentality and so resort to listening mode here in my small town. But get me around my friends; or better yet, my cousins, and the stories will fly.
I was talking to my son this morning, hearing the latest goings-on in what might be called Tbilisi café society. Living as an expat in a foreign capital is not without its adventures, apparently. But we also discussed the implications of the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. John wondered how things might have been different if the Hashemites had not been given the shaft by Wilson et al at the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles. I warmed to this subject, as one of my favorite themes of historical discourse is that most global problems of the twentieth century can be traced back, one way or the other, to Woodrow Wilson. (And the fact that George W. Bush's foreign policy was often characterized as "Wilsonian" offers a key insight into my animus towards his administration.)
Then John made some offhand remark about the time our Uncle Bill met the king. I said "What?" He replied, "you know, the time he met the King of Saudi Arabia." No, I did not know. As a 17-year old, my Uncle Bill dropped out of school, hopped a freight train to California and joined the Coast Guard, this being his ticket out of Depression-era Texas. When the war came, he joined up with the Navy and served 26 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer. He really did see the world during that time, circumnavigating the globe three times. He had tons of stories, and I liked nothing better than sharing a pot of coffee with him and listening to them roll out. I had a keen ear for his stories about growing up in central Texas. The Navy tales, however, ran together in my hearing. As much as I enjoy hearing of other lands, I did not have an overriding interest in sailing or the sea.
Uncle Bill kept a lot of memorabilia from those days, and I guess I looked through all the pictures at least a half a dozen times through the years. Yes, I do recall there being one snapshot taken on the ship where Bill and two or three other sailors were relaxing on deck. One of the men had a monkey on his shoulder. My son remembered Uncle Bill showing him the same picture, but he thought to ask the obvious question that only a child would know to ask, namely: "Where did the monkey come from?" To which Uncle Bill replied, "the King gave it to us." I remember that Uncle Bill spent a lot of time in the Persian Gulf area, and had visited Saudi Arabia more than once. I'm not exactly sure of the date, so it could have been either Ibn Saud or Saud, but apparently the king had an extra monkey to offer to the crew.
John has a much more precise and exacting memory than I do. I am pleased (and proud) to realize that he has been there all along, listening, and perhaps salvaging some of the stories I let slip through the cracks.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
Thursday, January 08, 2015
Thursday, January 01, 2015
|Patrick Leigh Fermor At Rila Monastery, 1934|
Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor is a good way to start off the new year. Fermor wrote about many things, but his fame stems from his account of a 1933-1934 hike across Europe. He intended a trilogy, and the first two volumes appeared decades ago. Severe writer's block descended on the prospective third volume, however, and Paddy Fermor was still revising his notes two weeks before his death at age 96. The literary executors proceeded to decipher his legendary unintelligible handwriting and publish the third volume, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, in 2013. I purchased the book as soon as it was available in England, some months before being on sale in American bookstores. For a number of reasons, I am only just now really starting to read it.
The account picks up with Fermor leaving the Danube at Vdin and entering Bulgaria, a country of particular and enduring interest to me. Though hardly over a chapter into the book, I am already highlighting passages.
For historical context, there is this (on the road east out of Sofia):
This as far as history records is the great path from Europe to the Levant: the road to Constantinople and the gates of Asia. It is the track of a hundred armies and the itinerary of those wonderful caravans from Ragusa that joggled their way to the Black Sea and Anatolia, just as their huge argosies of merchandise--when only Venice surpassed the little walled republic in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Here, too, the Bulgarian inhabitants were at their most defenceless during the long night of subjection to Turkey. The Ottoman 'beglerbeg' or viceroy of the Balkans, ranked as a three-tailed pasha, had his court and his garrison at Sofia, and between here and the capital, the Bulgars were powerless; the faintess stirrings would unloose a whirlwind of janissaries and spahis and later on, and perhaps the worst, bashi-bazouks. They adorned the towns with avenues of gibbets, the burnt villages with pyramids of heads and the roadsides with impaled corpses. I think it is an Arabian proverb which says, 'Where the Ottoman hoof has struck, the grass never grows again': and it is true that their occupation of the Balkans--in Bulgaria it started before the Wars of the Roses and ended after the Franco-Prussian War--has left desolation behind it. Everything is still impoverished and haphazard, and history in smithereens. The Turks were the last but one of the Oriental barbarians to cast their blight over Eastern Europe.
For a taste of pre-Hitlerian Europe, there is this (while walking east as the Orient Expresss passed by):
The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were--they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau.
Simply put, the man could write!
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Friday, August 01, 2014
In this article, Jenkins presents two important conclusions. The first one is certainly at variance with the broadly held perception of the Reformation--that is, of course, if any view of the movement (outside of scholarly circles) could said to be broad these days. My evangelical college students are as oblivious to this era and its implications for their beliefs as they are of any other historical period. That is not to say that I made any systematic study of the Reformation back in my Protestant days either. The Reformation personalities never interested me (and still do not). My understanding was the conventional one--that the movement corrected abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and made the Bible available to the common man. (My particular sect never devoted much attention to the movement, as we believed they did not go nearly far enough, misguidedly emphasizing "reformation" rather than "restoration.")
Jenkins (and Noye) would counter these comfortable, self-affirming assumptions with the proposition that "Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance." In other words, the main thrust of the Reformation was the destruction of the images.
"For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed....in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story."
No doubt my reception into Orthodoxy led me to reevaluate the Reformation, this time from the sidelines. Any deeper insight, however, I attribute to Eamon Duffy's brilliant and magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, simply one of the best corrective works of historical scholarship ever written.
Jenkins' first proposition may not trouble Reformation apologists, as I doubt many have ever anguished over the rampage against the images. His second observation, however, will be harder to digest, namely: "Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit."
Now before the sputtering starts, let's be perfectly clear about what Dr. Jenkins is proposing. He is not comparing Protestant theology to Wahhabism, for example. Nor is he addressing the specific truth claims of either body. To forestall the expected rebuttals, Jenkins states that "I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?"
"Like Calvinism, Wahhabi Islam urged the destruction of everything that could be seen as a later accretion to the core of the religion, as well as all manifestations of paganism or idolatry. Since the 1920s, this version of the faith has been the official creed of Saudi Arabia, and variants of it are found among Islam's violent and extreme movements.
For present purposes, it is the Wahhabi tradition that has unleashed the savage destruction of shrines and holy places that has been so widely deplored in the past half-century or so. This includes the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the attempted eradication of the glorious shrines and libraries of Timbuktu, and the annihilation of most of the ancient shrines and tombs around Mecca itself. Some Egyptian Islamists fantasize about eradicating all the ruins of pagan ancient Egypt, including the Pyramids themselves. Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity's cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West's own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment's sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in."
Dr. Jenkins also raises an eyebrow or two at the typical Western reaction to Islamist extremism, most often expressed in the hope (and need) for an Islamic "Reformation." Our progressive interpretation of the Christian Reformation as a triumph of reason and moderation over superstition is, in his estimation, "an extremely distorted view." Jenkins finds the movement to be anything but, instead characterized by extremism, violence and destruction.
And so, the real take-away from this article is that Islam actually is going through its own Reformation, and has been doing so for the last hundred years or so, "exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists. That's the problem." The destruction of the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Iraq by ISIS is only the most recently manifestation of this particular pathology. Jenkins detects similar motivations between such recent barbarism and the iconoclastic rampages of the European Reformation.
Most Reformation apologists will simply refuse to accept any legitimate correlation between the two eras. The Reformers saw themselves as stripping away the corrupting accoutrements of the established church, and in so doing returning to the pure faith. How does this rational differ, exactly, from the motivations of today's Islamists? But there is an even more fundamental unity between the two movements. Both adhere to the "absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions." This bibliolatry would not doubt be denied by most heirs of the Reformation. And yet, words do have meaning. The belief and trust in the Bible itself, rather than the Trinity, seeps out from countless hymns, sermons, publications, and the very language of evangelicalism. This is no straw man, as I have observed it up close.
And so, the Reformation, for better or worse, realigned and reset the Christian faith for many. According to Dr. Jenkins, we may now very well be spectators as Islam undergoes the same wrenching process.
Monday, April 28, 2014
This is the second installment of selections from The Kennan Diaries: George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.
The first entry from 1936 naturally caught my attention, as Kennan found himself in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. While I might quibble here and there, I found that his observations largely rang true of this proud and idiosyncratic people. He accuses Georgians of laziness--perhaps the cardinal sin for someone of Kennan's Midwestern Presbyterian background--but it is a noble laziness. His account agrees with that written by W.E.D. Allen just a couple of years later. Both men foresaw that the Georgians would outlast the Russians--just like they had everyone else.
Kennan's entry from 1933 displayed his lifelong pessimism (even at age 28) about the trajectory of his own nation. He exhibited little patience with the foibles of his countrymen. Kennan expected the worst, and the broad American culture rarely failed to disappoint. But an entry from 1939 revealed that he remained at heart, a thoroughly "old" American who sneered at the cheap sentimentality of the British.
"America, after all, is too broad and confusing a conception to warrant any genuine loyalty. What have I in common with the average southerner, or the New York Jew, or any one of a hundred types? America is hardly a national conception anymore. It is a sort of international entity. The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers. There it lies now, this human overflow, sprawling out over the continent in all its ignorance and all its sordidness, a society conceived in selfishness and dedicated to the proposition that one man's suffering is no other man's business, incapable of regulating its own public life, waiting stupidly for the advent of catastrophe."
The Caucasus, March
"Kutaisi and Tiflis were too much alike to be described separately. They are essentially oriental cities, cities of the Near East. Hot sunshine, dust, overcrowding, intense street life, poverty, disease, and deceit seemed to be their main characteristics.
The Georgians are a lazy, dirty, tricky, fiercely proud, and recklessly brave people. They never seem to work unless they have to. The Transcaucasus is the spiritual home of the drug store cowboy. The streets are packed with loafers at all hours of the day.
Transcaucasian filth is the filth of the Orient. Compared to it, Russian filth seems earthy and wholesome.
The Georgians claim to have acquired their trickiness from their dealings with the Armenians. However this may be (and to the outsider it seems an idle question), Tiflis and the entire Trans-caucasus seem to be rampant with corruption, speculation, and crookedness. It is commonly believed that every cashier in Tiflis makes an average of two or three hundred rubles a month on the side, by crooked means. Many of the state funds flow into channels other than those for which they were allotted. Arrears in the payment of wages are a chronic evil which not even the best efforts of the state have been able to alleviate. The teachers seem to be the hardest hit in this respect.
The pride of the Georgian is well known. He looks down on all the neighboring races, with the possible exception of the Turk, for whom he has a certain respect as a fighter. The Armenian he hates virulently, and the Russian he holds in contempt.
Being an intense individualist, he has a typically romantic conception of honor and dignity. He will stand being cursed better than he will stand being laughed at. He considers that it is better not to live at all than to live with besmirched dignity. He is willing to fight at the suspicion of a sneer or a slight.
As a result of this same individualism, he shows great daring and spirit in an individual, hand-to-hand encounter, but makes comparatively poor material for a military organization. The Caucasian military units (I understand there are two divisions of locally recruited troops stationed in the Transcaucasus) look sloppy in comparison with Russian units.
Although the Georgian nationalists do not like Stalin, they have every reason to be thankful to him. They are still the only remaining independent people of any importance in the Soviet Union. This is borne out by thousands of little indications by the faces and behavior of the people, even by the number of loafers and beggars in the Tiflis streets.
The Georgians have never regarded themselves as having been conquered by the Russians, or as being a subject race. The Russians, in their view, simply bribed their princes and grained access to their towns. Russian soldiers, they told me, had never subjugated the country districts. At the present time, the Russians were only a tool in the hands of one faction of ambitious Georgians. To hell with them.
Since the Kirov murder, Moscow's grasp on the Transcaucasus has begun to tighten up. It is doubtful whether Stalin, in the face of the consolidation of his power and his economic success in Russia, will be willing to tolerate much longer the laziness, the backwardness, the corruption, and the defiant, romantic nationalism of his compatriots.
Georgia will be a hard nut to crack. But Stalin's nutcracker has cracked hard nuts before, and at the present moment it is stronger than ever. Outside observers who have had an opportunity to study Georgia at close range for a long time feel that this contraction of the Moscow nutcracker, when it occurs, will be the best thing that ever happened to the Georgians...
The country was rich with the remnants of every sort of old culture: Roman, Greek, early Christian, every pre-historic. It was evident that man had scratched out a scanty existence on these barren, almost biblical hills for many a century.
We passed a dam and a hydroelectric station, built some years ago by a German firm. Over it stood a statue of Lenin. The outstretched arm pointed downward, and, local wit had it that he was indicating to the faithful where they should look for his soul.
One wondered whether some day that electric station and the statue of Lenin would not join the rich assortment of historical ruins and mementos which littered the surface and the bowels of those hills--whether, a thousand years hence, the era of Russian domination might not be recorded by historians as merely a brief and minor link in the long chain of the history of the Caucasus. It was difficult to believe that the crude stamp of Soviet Muscovy would leave a mark deeper than the mighty cultural influences of Greece and Rome."
London, June 11
"Sunday. Stayed home all morning. Lunched downstairs. Anna Freud came over in the afternoon, a middle-aged woman with tired, deep eyes and a sensitive, intelligent face which, once seen, will not readily be forgotten.
Later we went downtown. We walked around past Buckingham Palace and past a park where the ponds were beautiful and full of ducks and smelled abominably.... Thence to a big movie house, where we saw Goodbye, Mr. Chips and I was disgusted at the sentimentality and romanticism with which the British upper-class loves to surround itself."