Thursday, December 29, 2005

Brokeback Mountain Reconsidered

I have watched and read with some interest the hype in recent weeks surrounding the release of the movie, Brokeback Mountain. I don't have a decided opinion one way or the other about it--haven't seen it and I really doubt it will ever show in my little burg. Both proponents and opponents of the film have been staking out their expected, and predictable positions.

One of the most thoughtful insights I've read, however, comes from Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic commentator. He concludes that the real message of the film is not so much about tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality--as many lauding the movie would have you believe--but rather, the tragedy of the human condition, and the mess we humans invariably make of things. I appreciate Dreher's quoting from Flannery O'Connor in his article, as she is one of my favorites. To paraphrase O'Connor: once you realize that we are made out of dust, you shouldn't be surprised if things get a little dusty from time to time. Dreher's column, below, is from last Thursday's Dallas Morning News.

Rod Dreher:
The real message in Brokeback
The movie is so much more than a story about two gay cowboys

05:52 AM CST on Thursday, December 29, 2005

Seen the gay cowboy movie yet? I have, though I hadn't planned to because the rapturous reviews made Brokeback Mountain sound like a film that delivered yet another fierce left hook across the jaw of homophobic America. Ho hum.

I'm not interested in propaganda, whether pro-gay or anti-gay, and I get tired of the way the news and entertainment media find it difficult to discuss homosexuality without propagandizing. And some of the loudest conservative voices on gay issues are just about as bad.

What gets lost in the culture-war blitzkrieg over homosexuality are the complex and ambiguous truths that real people live and struggle with. Art that reduces messy humanity to slogans and arguments is not art at all, but sentimentality, kitsch, anti-art – in a word, propaganda.

My friend Victor Morton turned me around. On his "Right-Wing Film Geek" blog (, Victor wrote a long, impassioned post that said, in effect, Don't believe the 'Brokeback' hype, from either side! The film is good, not great, Victor argued, but what makes it worthwhile is its fidelity to the tragic truth of its characters, not its usefulness to anybody's cause.

Intrigued, I found on the Internet a link to the Annie Proulx short story on which the movie is based and was shocked by how good it was, especially at embodying the "concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position here on earth" – Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's description of what true artistry does. Though director Ang Lee's tranquil style fails to capture the daemonic wildness of Ms. Proulx's version, I came away from the film thinking, this is not for everybody, but it really is a work of art.

Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who meet in a 1960s summer job tending sheep on the mountain. They fall in love, then upon returning to the world, go their separate ways, marry and start families. A few years later, they resume their intensely sexual affair – visually, this is a rather chaste film – but with terrible consequences for themselves and the wives and children they deceive. The film climaxes violently and tragically, and it's this that has the critics lauding it as a cinematic cri du coeur for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.

But Brokeback is not nearly that tidy. True, the men begin their doomed affair in a time and place where homosexuality was viciously suppressed, and so they suffer from social constrictions that make it difficult to master their own fates. But it is also true that both men are overgrown boys who waste their lives searching for something they've lost, and which might be irrecoverable. They are boys who refuse to become men, or to be more precise, do not, for various reasons, have the wherewithal to understand how to become men in their bleak situation.

It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we'd legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis' pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool – social, moral, spiritual and erotic. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality, or "about" anything other than the tragic human condition.

Ms. O'Connor once wrote that you don't have to have an educated mind to understand good fiction, but you do have to have "at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." The mystery of the human personality can never be fully plumbed, only explored. To the frustration of ideologues, artists like Annie Proulx and Ang Lee undertake a journey to those depths and return to tell the truth about what they've seen – which is not necessarily what any of us wants to hear.

As Ms. O'Connor taught, "Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction."

Or read it. Or watch it.


I used to think it was a 'cruel' doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were 'punishments'. But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a 'punishment', it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable; think of it as a place of training and correction and it's not so bad.

C. S. Lewis, Answers to Questions on Christianity

We Americans would do well to ponder what Lewis is saying here. We are all about being "happy." Shoot, it's even inscribed in the foundational document of our society--that whole "pursuit of happiness" thing. And yet, I suspect that despite our dogged pursuit of it, we find it less and less.

Darrin McMahon wrote an interesting article on this phenomenon, found here
McMahon's observations are timely and astute. I was particularly intrigued by his documentation of the actual historical development of a culture of "happiness." Excerpts below:

HAPPY New Year!" We seldom think of those words as an order. But in some respects that is what they are.

Doesn't every American want to be happy? And don't most Americans yearn, deep down, to be happy all of the time? The right laid out in our nation's Declaration of Independence - to pursue happiness to our hearts' content - is nowhere on better display than in the rites of the holiday season. With glad tidings and good cheer, we seek to bring one year to its natural happy conclusion, while preparing to usher in a happy new year and many happy returns.

Like the cycle of the seasons, our emphasis on mirth may seem timeless, as though human beings have always made merry from beginning to end. But in fact this preoccupation with perpetual happiness is relatively recent. As Thomas Carlyle observed in 1843, " 'Happiness our being's end and aim' is at bottom, if we will count well, not yet two centuries old in the world."

Carlyle's arithmetic was essentially sound, for changes in both religious and secular culture since the 17th century made "happiness," in the form of pleasure or good feeling, not only morally acceptable but commendable in and of itself. While many discounted religious notions that consigned life in this world to misery and sin, others discovered signs of God's providence in earthly satisfaction. The result was at once to weaken and transpose the ideal of heavenly felicity, in effect bringing it to earth. Suffering was not our natural state. Happy was the way we were meant to be.

That shift was monumental, and its implications far reaching. Among other things, it was behind the transformation of the holiday season from a time of pious remembrance into one of unadulterated bliss. Yet the effects were greater than that. As Carlyle complained, "Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be, 'happy.' "

Carlyle was notoriously cranky, but his central insight - that the new doctrine of happiness tended to raise expectations that could never possibly be fulfilled - remains as relevant today as it was in 1843. Despite enjoying far better living standards and more avenues for pleasure than before, human beings are arguably no happier now than they've ever been.

Sociologists like to point out that the percentage of those describing themselves as "happy" or "very happy" has remained virtually unchanged in Europe and the United States since such surveys were first conducted in the 1950's. And yet, this January, like last year and next, the self-help industry will pour forth books promising to make us happier than we are today. The very demand for such books is a strong indication that they aren't working.

... we might do well to reflect on the darker side of holiday cheer: those mysterious blues that are apt to set in while the streamers stream and the corks pop; the little voice that even in the best of souls is sometimes moved to say, "Bah, humbug." As Carlyle put it, "The prophets preach to us, 'Thou shalt be happy; thou shalt love pleasant things.' " But as he well knew, the very commandment tended to undermine its fulfillment, even to make us sad.

Carlyle's sometime friend and long-time rival, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, came to a similar conclusion...."Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so," Mill concluded after recovering from a serious bout of depression. Rather than resign himself to gloom, however, Mill vowed instead to look for happiness in another way.

"Those only are happy," he came to believe, "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." For our own culture, steeped as it is in the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure and endless cheer, that message is worth heeding.

So in these last days of 2005 I say to you, "Don't have a happy new year!" Have dinner with your family or walk in the park with friends. If you're so inclined, put in some good hours at the office or at your favorite charity, temple or church. Work on your jump shot or your child's model trains. With luck, you'll find happiness by the by. If not, your time won't be wasted. You may even bring a little joy to the world.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Diyarbakir is not one of your better known tourist destinations. This city of near 2 million people lies in far eastern Turkey and is not really on the way to anywhere, unless of course you are going to Iraq or Iran. The area is overwhelmingly Kurdish and was at the epicenter of the PKK guerilla war with Turkey in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Things are calmer and safer now, though travel there can still be a little dicey. This didn't stop intrepid travelers Rich and Wendy, though. Check out their excellent travelogues at Diyarbakir is not without its attractions. Over 3000 years old, the city is the repository of layer after layer of varied civilizations. Until the 1920s, Diyarbakir had a vibrant Armenian and Syrian Orthodox Christian community. Before 1920, the city was one quarter Armenian. The Christians, as is often the case in this part of the world , got caught between the feuding Turks and Kurds, and have been effectively squeezed out. Yet behind its Byzantine walls, a handful of churches and Orthodox Christians struggle on. Rich and Wendy relate an interesting experience among the Diyarbakir Christian community:

"On to Meryamana Kilisesi, its tiny congregation just as beleaguered as Keldani's but retaining far more dignity, as befitted one of the oldest functioning churches in the world--- it had been built in the 3rd century. Services there were still conducted in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The fierce-eyed, black-bearded Syrian Orthodox priest met us and pointed out details of the small domed nave. Directly across the narrow street from this venerable edifice with its rich rites so closely connected with their object, stood a brand new building. A friendly young man beckoned us in, and the moment he opened the inner door I knew where I was. The small room was packed with people praying--- in the arm-waving ecstatic style of American Pentecostals. Our teenage guide was very uncomfortable, so we backed out after a minute or so. An unsmiling young American woman in the hall explained to me that the church had been founded by Assembly of God missionaries 10 years before. For our guide's sake we soon left."

Does this story make you as uncomfortable as it does me? The Meryamana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary) was built in the 3rd century. Not only have they kept things going for oh, say 1800 years or so, but they are even still worshipping in the language that Jesus spoke! I find this remarkable. These Christians have withstood invasions of Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Kurds and Turks. They have suffered persecution and martyrdom, and now struggle to survive in a culture than can quickly turn hostile. Notice especially Rich and Wendy's description of the church: "this venerable edifice with its rich rites so closely connected with their object."

Now let's inject American Protestant evangelicals into the cultural mix. What do they do? They build a "brand new building" directly across from the ancient church. One almost imagines a metal building with a bright, white steeple. Such perception!

But of course, this is the American way, is it not? We build the Baptist Church next to the Methodist Church which is across from the Church of Christ which is around the corner from the Bible Church which shares a parking lot with the Believers Outreach Victory Chapel Community of Faith Church or some such--all enticing choices in the cafeteria of American religious pluralism.

Don't get me wrong, I humbly commend anyone who attempts to take the message of Christ to the Islamic world. But before it was an Islamic world, it was a very Christian world. And pockets of these Christians are still holding on. Pray for them. Respect and honor their witness. Perhaps evangelicals should consider this before they set up shop in the neighborhood, with buckets of American dollars, and seek to "compete" with the beleaugered locals. All I am saying is that a little less hubris and a little more perceptiveness to the witness of the apostolic faith seems to be in order here.

I found it ironic that their teenage Kurdish guide moved comfortably within the 3rd century church, but was spooked by American-style Pentacostalism across the street. You got it, kid.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Emergent What, Exactly?

You might be interested to know what the Emergent Church folks are thinking these days. Admittedly, that may be hard to pin down, as it seems they are anything and everything.

In recent days, Clifton Healy has engaged the movement head-on in This is Life! blog ( (see his posts on Dec. 12-14). Clifton confronts the Emergents from an Orthodox perspective, and as is usually the case, he goes deep. The discussion is well worth reading.

I certainly can't add much to the discussion, but it seems to me that emergents have forgotten that you can't just say anything, believe anything, open everything up for discussion with multiple options, pick and choose among the traditions of your choice and at the end of the day remain a Christian. Fr. Al Kimel, in a comment to Clifton's posts, made an astute observation about the Emergent Church Movement. He observed their own perceived self-importance and the very American nature of the movement. Exactly so.

Finally, the following story is an excellent little tale by Douglas over at Prochoros (, which has much to say about the Emergent churches, and schism in general. Thanks, Douglas.

God built a mountain and called a people to share in His work. They came from far and wide to live on the mountain. They worked with God to make the mountain strong and to defend it against enemies that would try to tear it down. The mountain was a place of strength, of refuge, of nourishment, and of healing - and the people prospered on its slopes.
Though there were often differences among the people of the mountain, these were like the differences between the members of a family, because they knew that they were all the people of God’s mountain. But eventually some of the people of the mountain rose up in dispute against their brothers and these left the mountain and descended into the plains. They claimed that they took the real life of the mountain with them and that those who continued to live on the mountain were, in fact, no longer the true people of the mountain.
These settled in view of the mountain on the plains and grew into a great nation in the world. Eventually, some of these rose up in revolt against their leaders as well, saying that they had lied to them about what it meant to be the people of the mountain. But instead of returning to the mountain itself, they moved off further into the plains. They split into tribes and generation by generation they spread into the far reaches of the world.
But though they had long ago lost all sight of the mountain, they continued to think of themselves as the people of the mountain, and to preserve the ways of the people of the mountain as best they could. And yet they were split into camps that fought one with another about what the mountain was, what it looked like, how its people lived, and about what it really meant to be the people of the mountain. The tribes split into clans, and the clans into families and single vagabonds, roaming the world.
Eventually they began to deny that a real mountain ever existed. Some insisted it was a theoretical mountain only, a symbol of something, some said the mountain was evil, or just a story told to children. And they stopped telling the story to their children, and eventually the mountain was completely forgotten.
Finally some of these began to talk to one another, and insist: “If we are called the people of the mountain, then there ought to be a mountain!” They gathered together in new clans and tribes and brought handfuls of sand from near and far and set out to build little hills of their own.

Iraqi Elections

Early reports from Iraq indicate that the election is going smoothly (or at least by Iraqi standards). With absolutely no real experience with true representative government, this effort to fashion a rough constitutional democracy out of whole cloth, so to speak, is noteworthy indeed. While disaster still lurks on every side, there is room for at least guarded hope. Let's just not be surprised, however, if this nascent "democracy" takes root and brings forth fruit not exactly to our liking.

The mess in Iraq, like so many others, has it roots in the divvying-up of the old orders after World War I. Mark Steyn, a gifted Canadian writer, had these thoughts on Veterans Day, 2002, which are still appropriate today:

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent. But peace is more than the absence of war. for the last decade, the world has been preoccupied with the messy unfinished business of the Great War, the "war to end all wars"--first in Yugoslavia, the prototype multi-ethnic utopia, which fell apart along the old Hapsburg/Ottoman fault line as if the last 80 years had never happened; and then in "the Middle East," an Anglo-French construct cooked up in the years after 1918. After decades of coveting Araby, by the time they got their hands on the place both powers were too exhausted to do little more than draw lines in the sand and call them "Syria," "Iraq," "Saudi Arabia." The most toxic states of the 21st Century are the progeny of whimsical Colonial Office cartographers of 1922.

Mark Steyn, National Post, 21 November 2002

C. S. LEWIS "Quote of the Week"

The dangers of apparent self-sufficiency explain why Our Lord regards the vices of the feckless and dissipated so much more leniently than the vices that lead to worldly success. Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannont turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chapter 6

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Dog's Life


Occasional thoughts on my spiritual journey

Life in Christ

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St. Patrick (5th-Century Ireland)

It is Christ who gives us the power to walk,
And he is himself the way;
He is the lodging where we stay for the night,
As well as our final destination.

St. Nicolas Cabasilas (14th-Century Constantinople)

In Part 1, I began this examination of my spiritual journey by looking at the church through the eyes of a historian. My concern was the historical witness and continuity of the church, or rather the lack of it I experienced in my own religious heritage. I hope those observations were not too polemic in nature, as I am trying to curb the worst excesses of my “convertitis.”

The historical witness is indeed of vital importance. In every step of my journey, it has served as confirmation of the truths I have been absorbing. Yet, this is perhaps not the greatest concern, or at least it wasn't with me. Rather, the determining factor in my journey thus far has been what I like to simply call “Life in Christ.” This is an admittedly expansive term that encompasses much. But I suppose what I intend in this regard is something fairly tangible and measurable: my own transformation. That, it seems, has been what has been nagging me for years—my complete lack of growth, the lack of real closeness and communion with Christ, the lack of true spiritual fervor. I could put on a good show of it, but I always knew nothing much had changed inside. The person I presented to the world was not my true self as I actually was, and was certainly not the person God had created me to be--as Thomas Merton would say, a "false self."

I suppose what I was looking for was authenticity. I like the connotation of the word "authenticity," and I will probably overuse it horribly in coming posts. In John 17, Jesus prayed to His Father that we would all be one, as He was in us and the Father was in Him. St. Paul taught much about being "in Christ:"
to the Corinthians--“do you know know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?”
to the Galatians--“Christ lives in me”;
to the Colossians--“your life is hidden with Christ in God,” and
“Christ is our life," and
“Christ is all and in all”
to the Phillipians--“to live is Christ.”
All these scriptures and dozens more speak to the need to live a life that is truly "in Christ." I quess I was seeking a faith that was as Christocentric as the one Jesus prayed for and the one Paul described.

I have found that kind of faith in Holy Orthodoxy. But what I am trying to describe is my passage from evangelical Protestant (albeit of the Restorationist slant) to Orthodox. To be critical of what I have now left would be neither difficult nor noteworthy. The fact that I have left, in and of itself, already speaks to my dissatisfaction with what I once was. So, I should be cautious in what I say, not judging the spirituality of anyone, or the authenticity (there's that word again) of their faith.

That being said, I have always been dubious of cheap sentimentality. The Protestant world of my background seems awash in it, or if not in cheap, then certainly easy sentimentality. Here in the South, what passes for Christocentricity often seems to be just an endless variation on the old evangelical mantra of "all you've got to do is just accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior." Just??? The mystery of our reconciliation to God through Christ--just??? Anyway, you get my point.

This easy sentimentality lends itself to a more subjective view of "life in Christ." Though I am admittedly painting with a broad brush here, life in Christ in popular Evangelicalism is at its root, more juridical than experential. Everything revolves your status--are you "saved" or not? You are "saved" because you have accepted the mantra (above) and since you "feel it in your heart," it must be true, right? Confirmation of "life in Christ" is exhibited by the warm fuzzy feeling you get during a praise service, or how many times you can say the word "Jesus" in the chorus of a "praise song."

Now it is easy for me to be a little sarcastic in all this, as my own heritage church traditionally took the opposite approach. They shunned runaway emotionalism and did consider salvific issues more objectively. Yet, status was still all-important, just with a slightly different set of entrance requirements. We spoked in terms of "obeying the Gospel." "Life in Christ" often just translated into knowing more things about Christ, willing yourself to follow Him more closely, memorizing more proof texts and running yourself ragged in the busyness of the "work of the church." Somehow this approach didn't seem to be quite while St. Paul was talking about either.

Thinking back now, it is almost amusing to remember that in my Protestant evangelical/fundamentalist heritage church, we could never, ever, in any bible study or class, have quoted from the two sources at the top of this post. The words of either St. Patrick or St. Nicolas Cabasilas would have been highly suspect and undoubted brought down a rebuke from a self-appointed guardian of Church of Christ orthodoxy. The reasoning goes that since the church supposed “fell away” soon after AD 100, nothing was noteworthy, and everything was suspect until our guys got around to “restoring” the church some 200 years ago. Gentle readers, I am not making this stuff up!

Occasionally, “trouble-makers” like me would sneak in quotes such as these, always dropping the “St.” to cover ourselves! But seriously, what I hear in these two quotes-separated as they are by a thousand years—is a continuity of the same Christocentricity expressed by Paul and the other Apostles. That was the life and authenticity I was looking for and had not found in my evangelical heritage.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Favorite Picture

This is a picture of an elderly monk at the Monastery of the Transfiguration, outside of Veliko Turnovo in Bulgaria. One of my favorites.

Some More Merton

My friend Grant recently put me on to Thomas Merton. I have just finished his New Seeds of Contemplation. I highly recommend it. Here's a selection (emphasis mine):

To avoid sin and practice virtue is not to be a saint, it is only to be a man, a human being. This is only the beginning of what God wants of you....But the crucial problem of perfection and interior purity is in the renunciation and uprooting of all our unconcious attachments to created things and to our own will and desires.

In fighting deliberate and evident vices a planned strategy of resolutions and penances is the best way--if not the only way. You plan your campaign and fight it out and reshape the plan according to the changes in the aspect of the battle. You pray and suffer and hang on and give things up and hope and sweat, and the varying contours of the struggle work out the shape of your liberty.

When it ends, and when you have a good habit to work with, do not forget the moments of the battle when you were wounded and disarmed and helpless. Do not forget that, for all your efforts, you only won because of God, Who did the fighting in you.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

C. S. LEWIS "Quote of the Week"

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past.

C. S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper, chapter 1

Monday, December 05, 2005

Transatlantic Llamas

Last night I finally got around to watching the 2004 so-called blockbuster, Troy. I recall at the time that the reviews were pretty flat. I suspect that the main draw for the movie has been the sight of a buffed-up Brad Pitt strutting around in various stages of undress. Yes, it was a big, overblown spectacle, but I have a weakness for big overblown spectacles. So I guess you can say that it was a guilty pleasure. And there is the added consolation of Peter O'Toole, who is always excellent.

Now I expected liberties to be taken with the story line, and I certainly wasn't disappointed in this respect. So I am not complaining about that. But I was incredulous at one scene. When the Greek fleet approaches the harbor of Troy, pandemonium breaks out inside the city. The inhabitants are rushing around and jostling with one another and the horses and the donkeys and the llamas. That's right.... llamas. The last time I checked--and I'm pretty sure about this one--llamas are, and have always been native to the Andean regions of South America. You wouldn't really expect to see a llama on the eastern Aegean, anymore than you would an elephant in the Mississippi delta. Did anyone else notice this? Anyway, I thought it hilarious.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Good News From Turkey (Maybe)

An article by Stephen Kinzer in today's NY Times offers some encouragement regarding Turkey, its relationship to Europe, and it belated soul-searching about the Armenian Genocide. While there is still a long, long way to go, apparently the Turkish desire to join the EU is finally breaking down their nationalistic stone-walling about the Armenian genocide.

The immediate beneficiary is the Turkish government's restoration--in the absolute brink of time--of the 10th-century Armenian Orthodox Church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, located in far eastern Turkey. Since the expulsion and genocide of the Armenians in 1915, this achingly beautiful architectural gem has stood vacant--at the mercy of looters and vandals--all the while maintaining silent testimony that the former residents of eastern Turkey were, well, Armenian Christians. As Kinzer noted, "its condition symbolized the abysmal relations between many Armenians, who believe their ancestors were victims of genocide in 1915, and the Turkish Republic, which rejects that claim."

Kinzer goes on to observe "that there is a new sense of freedom taking hold in Turkey," to the horror of the nationalists. The old prohibitions against admitting a Turkish genocide of Armenians seems to be falling. Yet old ways die hard; a newspaper editor and Turkey's most prominent author have been indicted for making comments "disrespectful to our Turkish ancestors," or similar charges. And of course the land border with Armenia remains firmly sealed.

One of the more interesting recent developments invovled the academic conference in Istanbul, challenging official Turkish nationalist denial of the Armenian genocide. Postponed twice, and banned from two universities, the conference finally convened at a third. Attendees had to run a gantlet of protesters outside the conference. But once convened, the speakers were free to speak their minds. One paper was aptly entitled, "What the World Knows but Turkey Does Not." The conference generated a tremendous amount of news coverage and launched weeks of public discourse and analysis. One newspaperman noted that "it felt like we were making history, like something incredible had suddenly happened."

While this progress is minimal, it is at least something. Lets hope that this new openness to reassess "official" Turkish history in light of actual Turkish history may indeed open the door to the re-evaluation of other thorny issues. And by this I don't mean just the obvious Kurdish question, but perhaps Turkey's treatment of its vanishing Greek Orthodox population, as well. On a final note, Kinzer cautions that this new openness may also open the door to a more engaged political Islam in Turkey.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

C. S. Lewis "Quote of the Week"

"I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don't get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal think is to lose one's temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence."

C. S. Lewis, Letters (20 January 1942)

This quote is much along the same lines as the one I posted last week. I don't know about you, but I need the reminding.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Occasional thoughts on my spiritual journey

"To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant."

John Henry Newman, "Essay on Development"

I came across this quotation about 3 years ago. It still resonates with me. Newman, of course, was one of the more noted 19th-Century Anglican converts to Catholicism. His sentiments bore witness to the growing sense of disquietude in my own thinking. And this serves--as good as any, I suppose--as a springboard in the telling of my own story.

For, I am one who has gone deep in history. The study, understanding, and retention of historical truth has been one of my life's passions. I enjoy nothing more than wandering off into some obscure historical nook and cranny where I can root around the detritus of history. Yet, throughout all these historical tangents, I have maintained an abiding and continuing interest in church history.

As Newman noted, church history can be a stumbling block for Protestants. For ultimately, you run up against the chasm of the Reformation. How does one cross over and maintain the Protestant mindset? You can, of course, if you first accept certain presuppositions; namely that the early church was not apostolic and that its worship was neither sacramental nor liturgical [this not absolutely applicable to Anglicans and Lutherans], and that the Reformation was a necessary correction to a faith badly out of sync. With these parameters in place, pre-Reformation Christian history becomes a mere chronicle of the on-going departures from apostolic Christianity. Yet Newman's words expressed the disconnect I sensed between my 21st century faith and the historic church. Deep down, our take on church history never really rang true with me.

My own particular religious heritage was within what is known as the American Restoration Movement. [Perhaps embarrassed by the implications of the title, current scholars of the movement have taken to calling it the Stone-Campbell Movement after early leaders Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, though the original designation is actually more truly descriptive]. In the very early years of the 19th-Century, some American frontier preachers begain proclaiming a return to primitive Christianity. In light of the sectarianism of the day, they viewed a restoration of New Testament Christianity as the only means of achieving unity. Restorationists, while appreciative of the Reformation, believed that a better approach was not in reforming the church, but in "restoring" the original church of the first century. This became the special plea of what became known as the Churches of Christ. I have much fondness for these Christians. I would not be on the path I am now on without them.

The early leaders were heavily influenced by the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. In practice, Restorationists often treated the New Testament as a book of instructions, or a blueprint, in which one could "restore" the Church at any time or any place. They approached the interpretation of scripture scientifically and rationally, believing that the clear meaning could be deciphered almost as one would conduct a scientific inquiry. Though the actual term "sola scriptura" (too Lutheran, I suppose) was never voiced in Churches of Christ, the New Testament--or rather the Restorationist interpretation of same--was seen as all authoritative.

History, as such, had little meaning for the Restorationist. The ancient church and its historical witness, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and cultural factors were of no spiritual value, for in their view they had "the word," which was all that was ever needed to restore the church. They viewed their method of scriptural interpretation as being substantially unprejudiced, free from cultural and historical influences; "rightly dividing the word of truth."

The classical Restorationist viewed himself as separate and apart from the Protestant Reformation, indeed neither Protestant nor Catholic, but simply "New Testament Christians." The normative Church of Christ stance was that they were not a denomination at all, but simply the 1st-century church restored. Conservative ones still do. While perhaps a noble sentiment, even a cursory view reveals that the Restorationists drank deeply from the well of Protestant presuppositions. And, simply put, this particular claim fails the "duck test." If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck--even though it says it is a pigeon--it is still a duck.

Even today, the validity of the Restorationist principle is not questioned within Churches of Christ. [Interestingly, many would be uneasy to learn that restorationism is not unique to Churches of Christ, but a concept shared by the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses as well.] And the study of church history, even our own Restoration Movement history, outside of a required semester at our church colleges, is generally discounted. How a life-long student of history would be a member of such an ahistorical church is not without irony. But that, of course, is another part of the story.

Today, my heritage churches find themselves in something of a pickle. Their blueprint theology has spawned division rather than unity. Even within mainstream Churches of Christ, the center does not seem to be holding. The conservative churches are in full-fledged "circle-the-wagons" mode, lashing out at anything they perceive as a departure from the "old paths," as the circle draws ever closer. Meanwhile, progressive congregations are either going the Community Church route that is all the rage these days, or advancing the same arguments and positions voiced by mainstream Protestantism 40 to 50 years earlier, with predictable results. Both sides claim that they are being true to the "Restoration ideal."

This "ideal," however, seems to me to be on shaky theological ground, and ultimately is only a 19th-Century American Restorationist take on the 16th-Century Western European rebellion against late medieval Catholicism. For a historian and a Christian who wants to find himself within the on-going story of God's people, the Restorationist principle is full of holes and the early 19th-Century just ain't old enough. While the historical witness perhaps should not be the primary factor in determining one's spiritual path, it is neverless one that is of great significance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

C. S. Lewis "Quote of the Week"

“For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process [trying again after failure] trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.”

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Saturday, November 19, 2005


All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful....Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does.

Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, page 308

Friday, November 18, 2005


Looking across the Atlantic these days definitely gives you an uneasy feeling. I am big-picture kind of guy and find my self worrying about all sorts of global events and trends. I keep coming back to the fate of Europe. By this I primarily mean western Europe, for it is not yet clear whether Eastern Europe will suffer the plight of the West.

The problem is not hard to see. Europe can be accurately described as a post-Christian society, that in the pursuit of a hedonistic, secular paradise has jettisoned any real, substantive concern for ensuring its own posterity. This generational change is most obviously demonstrated in the empty churches and the plummeting birthrates.

Into this void steps the Muslim immigrant, whether they be from Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria or Morocco. Assimilation is minimal, and blame for this seems to clearly lie on both sides: the Muslim who is interested only in re-creating a little Algiers on the Seine, and then the Frenchman, despite all protestations to the contrary, who could never envision anyone from the wrong side of the Mediterranean as ever being in any real way, French.

This is nothing other than one skirmish in the on-going "Clash of Civilizations" so brilliantly addressed by Samuel Huntington back in 1995. Some scholars today find it popular to denigrate Huntington's thesis. I find it compelling, however, and we ignore it at our peril.

David Warren, a gifted Canadian journalist ( has much to say about this in light of the recent Muslim riots in France. Below are some of his comments in an article entitled "Apocalypse," dated November 12, 2005:

The recent riots in France remind me how quickly Europe is receding, in historical time; how completely its civilization has been undermined; how much is irretrievably lost. European Imperialism is retrospectively derided, but it was a manifestation of a European mission -- to civilize and Christianize all human life; to bring the light of Europe to every dark, pagan, and barbarous enclave. It is that light which is now mostly extinguished, just where it once blazed most brightly.

After a century adrift, we find a Europe which itself has gone pagan again, and is returning to barbarity.

Soon, the average age in Europe will be beyond childbearing. Among non-Muslim Europeans, in probably already is. We can no longer dream of a recovery. Europe has leapt. New immigrants are taking possession of the continent, transforming it, as in the "Dark Ages". Rome will be sacked again, in due course.

America is not Europe, as Sicily was not Greece in the ancient world. We carried the ideals of Europe to the West, over ocean, and settled a new land. North America today is semi-detached, could survive alone. Christianity remains quite alive here, often in novel, evangelical forms; Catholic order begins to reappear; and yet much of North America -- “Blue State” and Great White North -- seems determined to follow Europe into the abyss, by denying its Christian identity, and embracing the great zero of "multiculturalism". Atheism, in America, has claimed its millions of corpses through the discreet operation of the abortuaries.
I know, I know: such reflections will reach many of my readers as a letter from the moon. But it will reach many others as a partial explanation of that apprehension of loss and doom, that hangs over so many in our Western world today, as we struggle to respond to such threats as Islamism; or wade in the septic tank of our popular culture.

We are wrong, however, to assume that any final Apocalypse follows from the cultural degeneration we see all around us. For Europe -- “the West” -- was always just a place.

Tell anyone in the first centuries of Christendom that the centre of Christian civilization was in Europe, and they would have been puzzled. For Europe hadn't really been invented yet, except in a few Augustinian minds (and Augustine a North African, you will recall). If you said, "Rome", they might have had some idea. Indeed, the Arabs had something to do with the fact that so unpromising a place as Hun/Vandal/Goth Europe became the centre of Christian civilization.

Then realize, that Europe did not create Christianity. Christianity created Europe. And will create new Europes, wherever its living seed may fall. Christendom is simply moving -- to Africa, to Asia, to the Americas perhaps; to wherever Christ is wanted, and away from where He is not.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

C. S. Lewis "Quote of the Week"

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommendChristianity.”

C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

This quote was sent to me by my good friend who knows my appreciation for both C. S. Lewis and good Port!

Seriously though, Lewis is on to something here. Certainly this sentiment flies in the face of the happy-clappy, smiley-face Christianity that both plagues and discredits the faith in this country. I am convinced that authentic faith must ultimately involve struggle; that it is muscular and demanding; and in the end, brings a measure of discomfort. Isn't this what Jesus taught in Matthew 10:

34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. 35 For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; 36 and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’[e] 37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. "

Which also puts me in mind of another Lewis quote:

In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth--only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and , in the end, despair.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


One of my most favorite blogs is Pontifications, found at . If you are unfamiliar with it, I encourage you to visit the site at your earliest convienence. I appreciate the Pontificator for posting the following short article, stating an oh-so-obvious truth; with good links to the Dennis Prager article and the David Warren site.

Islam scares meNovember 14th, 2005
by Alvin Kimel
I admit it. Islam scares me. It was born out of violence and the conquest of the Churches of Africa and Byzantium. It enforces its religious ideology by force and persecutes those of other religious faiths. Thousands of Christians and Jews die each year at the hand of Muslims. Presently Islam is generating forms of barbarism, violence, and terrorism that are a true threat to all forms of civilized life.
If the God of Islam is the true God, then I will gladly return to my earlier atheism.
Historically, Islam is the one religious group that is most resistant and most hostile to the gospel.
Dennis Prager asks five questions for Muslims to answer. I think that we and the rest of the world have a right to know the answers. Everyone is bending over backwards to excuse Islamicist terrorism. A cowardly appeasement is now occurring everywhere.
In the name of God, in the name of civilization, in the name of humanity, fascism must be energetically opposed wherever its ugly head pops up. Surely Europe learned this lesson during the 30s and the 40s, but apparently not. Fascism is rising again in the form of extreme Islamism. And it frightens me. A religion that can inspire and authorize suicide bombings and the killing if innocent civilians is truly a religion of Satan. It is a religion that has embraced death, not life.
I also commend several of the last articles by David Warren.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Little Merton

Recently, a friend put me on to Thomas Merton. I had certainly read about him, but had never been exposed to any of Merton's actual writings. The work I am reading is New Seeds of Contemplation. All I can say is, this guy is really, really good. Following are a few samples I've gleaned thus far:

The mind that is the prisoner of conventional ideas, and the will that is the captive of its own desire cannot accept the seeds of an unfamiliar truth and a supernatural desire. For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire? God cannot plant His liberty in me because I am a prisoner and I do not even desire to be free. I love my captivity and I imprison myself in the desire for the things that I hate, and I have hardened my heart against true love. I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to "leave myself" in order to find myself by yieliding to the love of God. If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of His life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest.


The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His love we possess all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And thus as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and of heaven.


All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as If I were an invisible body that cold only become visible when soemthing visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But hey are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

And finally:

...our own life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self, whom we feed with the illusion of passion and selfish appetite, and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Pat Robertson warns town of disaster after election
Voters turned against God, broadcaster says
11:01 PM CST on Thursday, November 10, 2005
Associated Press
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson warned residents of a rural Pennsylvania town Thursday that disaster may strike there because they "voted God out of your city" by ousting school board members who favored teaching intelligent design.
All eight Dover, Pa., school board members up for re-election were defeated Tuesday after trying to introduce "intelligent design" – the belief that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power – as an alternative to the theory of evolution.
"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city," Mr. Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club .
Later Thursday, Mr. Robertson issued a statement saying he was simply trying to point out that "our spiritual actions have consequences."
Mr. Robertson made headlines this summer when he called on his daily show for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
In October 2003, he suggested that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device. He has also said that feminism encourages women to "kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

Puh-leeze. I think it may be time for Pat to step away from the microphone. Way past time, actually. The tragedy is that for many people in this country and throughout the world, Pat Robertson is still the public face of American evangelical Christianity. While I have quite a few issues with evangelicals, the fact is that they deserve better. The parade passed Pat by years ago, yet he still receives the air time and the press coverage. Which ever side you come down on on the issue of "intelligent design" is not the issue here. What is truly troubling is Pat's view of a capricious, vengeful God who pursues his aims by a conservative political agenda, turning his back on municipalities based on their voting records, while deciding just which natural disaster he can hurl their way as punishment. Sad, sad, sad.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

C. S. Lewis "Quote of the Week"

The glory of God, and, as our only means to glorifying Him, the salvation of human souls, is the real business of life.

'Christianity and Culture', Christian Reflections

I have to admit, I am a C. S. Lewis fan from way, way back. So look for snippets of wisdom from Lewis about once a week.
First Post

I just hope my subsequent posts won’t be as hard to pull together as this very first one!

Frankly, I begin the blog with some trepidation. Do we really need another blog on the internet? Probably not. Can the world continue to muddle through without being subjected to my pontifications about this, that or the other? Most assuredly. And yet, here I go anyway.

I have always been a person of definite opinions, interested in a wide array of things, who enjoys good dialogue. As one who has kept journals and common-place books for years, I view this as just an extension of that practice. I will try hard to keep the blog directed away from my occasional rants, narcissistic ramblings and pet peeves, and focused on writings, ideas and events that I find significant. And while I enjoy a good discussion, I am not especially interested in hard-nosed debates or polemics.

I am aiming for a good mix of topics: theology, current events, history, travel and literature (sports and music aficianados will probably need to look elsewhere). In time, I hope to address the twists and turns of my particular journey of faith, which seems equal parts learning and unlearning.