Sunday, September 24, 2006

Give Me That Rodeo Religion

In the last few days, I had opportunity to travel around a bit in this weird state of mind called Texas. Obstensibly, I was to attend a one-day continuing education seminar west of San Antonio, but you might say I took the long way there. A freakish accident, resulting in a broken ankle, scotched my seminar attendance and sent me limping home a day early (but that is another story).

I enjoy driving the backroads, savoring the small towns and the occasional cafe where the waitress might still call you "Hon." In these places, you catch glimpses of the unique, the off-beat, and sometimes, the downright bizarre.

Somewhat in that context, I always pay special attention to the churches I pass along the way: their archetecture (or lack thereof), their sloganeering, and especially their names. The Jesus Christ is the Answer, Inc. Church, painted in large red letters on the church roof is hard to miss, or forget. Somehow I suspect someone didn't really think this one through...."Hi, I'm with the Jesus Christ is the Answer, Inc. Church and I'd like to tell you that Jesus Christ is the Answer" just doesn't flow. I found the Little Zion Jerusalem Baptist Church, an odd juxtaposition, but then I found the Mother Zion Missionary Baptist Church completely baffling. I am familiar, of course, with the biblical usage of the word "Zion," but what is meant by "Mother Zion?" I don't get it.

But outside of these colorful varieties and the traditional Baptist/Methodist/ Church of Christ matrix, most everything else was of the "new" variety. By this I mean some variation of the phrase "New Life," "New Beginnings," "New Covenant," etc. or something or the other. In fact, 90% of these churches are some jumble of the following phrases:

New Life
New Beginning
New Covenant
Outreach Center

Just mix and match to come up with a jazzy name, find a metal building, and you are in business. Interestingly, many tend to avoid the word "church," thinking, I suppose, that if you don't call it a church, then people will come. So you end up with things like New Life Outreach Center, or New Beginnings Family Fellowship, or New Covenant Fellowship Center. A variation in a nearby county is Driven Life Outreach Center. Driven life? Excuse me. I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, but Muslims are driven. Christians are led. Bottom line: more often than not, new is not better.

I take all this in stride, but for some reason, I am baffled and a little disturbed by the phenomenon of the "cowboy churches." Those of you who don't live in the South or West may be puzzled by what I mean. These are churches specifically designed for "cowboys," where they can wear their boots and jeans and whatever else (hats?) and be comfortable and not feel out of place. Invariably, they meet in a large metal building that perhaps once was, or could still double as, a barn. Usually there is a roping arena out back, where the congregation can "rope," I suppose, after church.

What got me to thinking about this was the particular cowboy church I passed down in Central Texas--the All Around Cowboy Church. Now I understand that this is a rodeo term, but it just struck me as funny. If you are a part-time cowboy, or what we used to call a drug-store cowboy, then podner, you'd better jest mosey on down the trail, for this church is for "all around" cowboys.

And therein lies the heart of what bothers me about all this, and why it is just another example, par excellence, of the dissipation of Protestantism. The cowboy church philosophy, I gather, is to create a worship environment that is inviting to the "cowboy." I am speaking only for my part of the state, but real cowboys are pretty scare around here. There are folks who may have a few cows and who may occasionally ride a horse, but by and large it is merely an affectation, a stance, in many cases a mere fashion statement--a preference for wranglers and Tony Lama boots. (Now some truth in advertising here: I am not one, have never been one and have never aspired to be one. But my dad was--a real, old-time cowboy. He did other things, for sure, but at heart he was a cowboy, from cowboy country. So I do know the genuine article when I see it.) So, in effect, what we have here is a denomination created in large part for people who want to dress a certain way. I suppose it is no different than having Surfer Dude Churches in California and Hawaii, where you can carry your surfboard to worship. The raison d'etre of the cowboy churches is their particular hobby, or fashion preference. In my mind, this has trivialized Christianity down to the point where it cannot go much further.

Two final points and I'll stop "beating this dead horse." American religious groups of all stripes have long adopted casual dress in worship. (I have no problem with this, up to a point, because what bothers me more than casualness is pretense.) I never heard of anyone being turned away from any Protestant church around here for showing up in boots and jeans. It just wasn't an issue. So there was no real need for any separate churches. And I wonder what my reception would be at the All Around Cowboy Church if I showed up in khakis and loafers? It's just the same old thing. Finally, the image of the cowboy in American culture is one of lonely, rugged, individualistic, self-reliance. While these traits may serve you well in taming the frontier, I don't see a single one that should be a characteristic of Life in Christ.

By the way, the first picture is our cowboy of American myth. The second picture is the real thing, my g-g-uncle Henry who went up the Chisholm Trail in the late 1870s.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Okay, I'll admit it. I recognize that I have become tee-totally obsessed with this whole Pope Benedict mess. I'm still stirred up about it and the thoughts that follow are far from a measured, calm response to the controversy.

My state of mind was not helped by yesterday's Dallas Morning News. The editorial headline read: "Pope was careless, but reaction is out of line." Although they did bemoan the disproportionate Islamic response, they saved plenty of advice for the pontiff, as well. The editor advised that Benedict should have "chosen a better example for a recent talk that has launched an international furor," and that "wisdom prescribed care and clarity in speaking of sensitive religious matters," concluding that "the current pope cannot afford another blunder like this one."

Careless? Blunder? What pure, unadulterated, pandering crap this is! As I have stated here and elsewhere, I am convinced that Pope Benedict's words were carefully chosen and he said exactly what he intended to say. I do not know his exact reasons for doing so, but they were no careless blunder. Ochlophobist has some fascinating speculation as to his motivations.

And then over at Dreher's Crunchy Con, I found a link to this about the planned "Day of Rage" this coming Friday, in which Muslims will vent their outrage over Pope Benedict's remarks. Oh, so you mean, the last week of rage hasn't been enough? I would suggest a counter "Day" in the West. I'm not sure what we should call it. Maybe "Day of Get-over-it-already" or maybe "Day of Grow-up!" or perhaps "Day of You-Call-That-A-Religion?" I don't know.

And yet, there are hopeful signs of dawning awareness in the West; perhaps a belated recognition of the adversary we face. By this I mean that some of the secular Left, who in former days would counsel "dialogue" and "understanding" and "sensitivity," now view this as the insipid pandering that it often is. Case in point (and a hat tip to my friend Milton) is Sam Harris, a left-leaning atheist whose latest book was entitled The End of Faith. He writes:

But my correspondence with liberals has convinced me that liberalism has grown dangerously out of touch with the realities of our world — specifically with what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith. On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are. A cult of death is forming in the Muslim world — for reasons that are perfectly explicable in terms of the Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. The truth is that we are not fighting a "war on terror." We are fighting a pestilential theology and a longing for paradise. Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope....Such an astonishing eruption of masochistic unreason could well mark the decline of liberalism, if not the decline of Western civilization. The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world's Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals....We are entering an age of unchecked nuclear proliferation and, it seems likely, nuclear terrorism. There is, therefore, no future in which aspiring martyrs will make good neighbors for us. Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies....To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization. For the full story, read here.

And then there is Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post:

Western politicians, writers, thinkers and speakers should stop apologizing -- and start uniting. By this, I don't mean that we all need to rush to defend or to analyze this particular sermon; I leave that to experts on Byzantine theology. But we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech -- surely the pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts -- and of the press. And we can also unite, loudly, in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies and elderly nuns. By "we" I mean here the White House, the Vatican, the German Greens, the French Foreign Ministry, NATO, Greenpeace, Le Monde and Fox News -- Western institutions of the left, the right and everything in between. True, these principles sound pretty elementary -- "we're pro-free speech and anti-gratuitous violence" -- but in the days since the pope's sermon, I don't feel that I've heard them defended in anything like a unanimous chorus. A lot more time has been spent analyzing what the pontiff meant to say, or should have said, or might have said if he had been given better advice. All of which is simply beside the point, since nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all. And maybe it's time that it should…

Indeed. Read the full article here.

And finally, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury adds his voice:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury...has issued his own challenge to “violent” Islam in a lecture in which he defends the Pope’s “extraordinarily effective and lucid” speech. Lord Carey said that Muslims must address “with great urgency” their religion’s association with violence. He made it clear that he believed the “clash of civilisations” endangering the world was not between Islamist extremists and the West, but with Islam as a whole. “We are living in dangerous and potentially cataclysmic times,” he said. “There will be no significant material and economic progress [in Muslim communities] until the Muslim mind is allowed to challenge the status quo of Muslim conventions and even their most cherished shibboleths.” ...
Arguing that [Samuel] Huntington’s thesis has some “validity”, Lord Carey quoted him as saying: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” He said ... it was the “moral relativism of the West” that has outraged Muslim society. Most Muslims believe firmly that the invasion of Iraq is 2004 was solely about oil, he said. He went on to defend the Pope’s fundamental thesis, that reason and religious faith can be compatible. “The actual essay is an extraordinarily effective and lucid thesis exploring the weakness of secularism and the way that faith and reason go hand in hand,” he said. He said he agreed with his Muslim friends who claimed that true Islam is not a violent religion, but he wanted to know why Islam today had become associated with violence. “The Muslim world must address this matter with great urgency,” he said.

Read here for entire article.

End of rant.

Monday, September 18, 2006

We Are All Paleologi Now

The furor over Pope Benedict's remarks continued unabated over the weekend, following what is now a predictable and depressingly familiar pattern. Only two sentences from an academic speech by this former academician have apparently offended the whole of Islam. The silliness and absurdity of the protests rival that of the Danish cartoon "scandal." For Islam, this may be another Emperor-has-no-clothes moment.

But protests in the Muslim street appear to be the order of the day. In the face of their own homegrown poverty, endemic and institutionalized corruption and near hopeless economies--all legitimate reasons for protest--many riot over this obscure quotation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor by a German Pope. The indignation is not confined to the "streets." Muslim political leaders compare Pope Benedict to Hitler and recall their ambassadors from the Vatican. Official apologies are demanded across the board, but it is doubtful any will be sufficient to assuage the tender sensibilities of the professionally agrieved. Meanwhile Palestinian churches are indiscriminately torched, with Orthodox and Anglican churches suffering alongside Catholic. (Proof, if any were needed, that despite the distinctions we ourselves make, we are all very much in the same foxhole.) And apparently, elderly Catholic nuns are now to be shot in the back, as evidenced by the tragedy in Mogadishu.

That is the world we live in now. Of course, the irony here is that this reaction in the Muslim world only validates and reinforces those very sentiments--expressed by Manuel II some 600 years ago--that the protestors find so reprehensible today.

Victor Davis Hanson has some insightful comments here, and including this absolutely spot-on summation:

... by quoting from the emperor rhetorician Manuel Paleologus—whose desperate efforts at strengthening the Morea and the Isthmus at Corinth a generation before that awful Tuesday, May 29, 1453 all came to naught—the Pope failed to grasp that under the tenets of radical Islam of the modern age, context means little, intent nothing, learning less than zero. If a sentence, indeed a mere phrase can be taken out of context, twisted, manipulated to show an absence of deference to Islam, furor ensues, death threats follow, assassins load their belts—even as the New York Times or the Guardian issues its sanctimonious apologies in the hope that the crocodile will eat them last.

Rod Dreher has a good discussion here, with a link to Michelle Malkin here, who in turn has a link to a must-read article that puts the original 14th-century remarks of Manuel II Paleologus in their proper context, here.

Dreher thinks something about the reaction to Benedict's speech seems to have pushed Christians...over the line, concluding that if any good is to come out of this mess that began with Pope Benedict's speech, it will be that fewer and fewer ordinary people will be gulled by political correctness, and will start to understand exactly what we're all up against.

One can hope.

Finally, Dreher notes "in any case, Benedict's speech will go down as a defining moment in this conflict."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Remembering Oriana Fallaci

Oriana Fallaci is dead. After battling cancer for 10 years, she returned to her native Florence to die. A take-no-prisoners journalist, Fallaci had bested the likes of Arafat, Kissinger and Khomeini in her day, as well as being shot 3 times and left for dead at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Always controversial, she was perhaps never more so than in the post 9/11 years.

I came to appreciate her rather late. A New York Times review of her The Rage and the Pride in September 2002 was my first introduction. I ordered the book, read it overnight in one sitting, and then promptly ordered 5 copies to give as gifts. It is neither a well-written nor even a well-reasoned book, but it is quite simply the most passionate book I have ever read. It is a cry of truth, and truth is often an inconvenient and uncomfortable thing. An extended passage from her The Rage and the Pride follows:

Good Lord, I don't deny anybody the right to have fear. A thousand times I have written that whoever claims not to know fear is either a liar or an idiot or both. But in Life and in History there are moments when fear is not permitted. Moments when fear is immoral and uncivilized. And those who out of weakness or stupidity (or the habit of keeping one foot in two shoes) avoid the obligations imposed by this war, are not only cowards: they are masochists.

Masochists, yes, masochists. And on this subject let's finally speak of what you call Contrast-Between-the-Two-Cultures. The two?!? If you really want to know, I feel uncomfortable even when you pronounce the words "two cultures." That is, when you put them on the same level as if they were two parallel entities. Two realities of equal weight and value. Don't be so humble, my dear. Because behind our culture there is Homer, there is Pheidias, there is Socrates, there is Plato, there is Aristotle, there is Archimedes. There is Ancient Greece with its divine sculpture and architecture and poetry and philosophy, with its principle of democracy. There is Ancient Rome with all its grandeur, its universality, its concept of the Law, its literature, its palaces, its amphitheaters, its aqueducts, its bridges, its streets built all over the then know world...There is a revolutionary called Jesus who died on the cross to teach us the concept of love and justice. (And so much the worse for us if we didn't learn it). There is a Church that...gave a tremendous contribution to the History of Thought, and after the Inquisition began to change. Not even an anti-clerical like me can deny it. Then there is the cultural awakening that started and flourished in Florence, in Tuscany, to replace Man at the center of the Universe and [re]concile his need of freedom with his need of God. I mean the Renaissance....There is also the heritage left by Erasmus from Rotterdam and Montaigne and Thomas More and Cartesius. There is also the Enlightenment....There is also the music of Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Rossini and Donizetti up to Verdi and Puccini and company....Finally, there is our Science, by God. And the technology that derives from it....Enough with bullshit, my dear: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein were not followers of the Prophet. Were they? The motor, the telegraph, the light-bulb, I mean the use of electricity, the photograph, the telephone, the radio, the television, have not been invented by some mullahs or some ayatollahs. Have they? The train, the automobile, the airplane, the helicopter, (that Leonardo da Vinci fancied and designed), the spacecrafts with which we have gone to the Moon and to Mars and will so go to God knows where, the same. Right? The heart and liver and eyes and lungs' transplant, the cures for cancer, the genome's disclosure, as well. Wrong? And let us not forget the standard of life that Western culture has achieved at every level of society. In the West we don't any longer die of starvation and curable diseases as they do in the Moslem countries. Right or wrong? But even if all these were unimportant achievements, (which I doubt), tell me: what are the conquests of the other culture, the culture of the bigots with the beard and the chador and the burkah?

Look and search, search and look. I can only find the Prophet with his sacred book that sounds preposterous even when it plagiarizes the Bible and the Gospels and the Torah and the Hellenistic thinkers. I only find Averroe with his indisputable merits of scholar...Omar Khayyam with his fine poetry, plus a few beautiful mosques. No other achievement in the field of art and in the garden of Thought. No accomplishment in the domain of science, of technology, of welfare...When I mention this truth, some object with the word mathematics....Mathematics was invented more or less simultaneously by the Arabs, the Indians, the Greeks, the Mayans, the Mesopotamians. Go and check. Nor did your ancestors invent numbers. They simply invented a new way of writing them. The way that we Unfaithful have adopted, thus facilitating and speeding the discoveries you never made. That invention is highly commendable, I agree. Undoubtedly meritorious. But it is also insufficient to define Islamic culture superior to Western culture. As a consequence, I feel fully authorized to affirm that, apart from Averroe and some poets and some mosques and the way of writing the numbers, your ancestors have substantially left a book and that's all. I mean that Koran which for a thousand and four hundred years has tormented humanity even more than the Bible or the Gospels and the Torah together...

As you see, Fallaci pulls no punches. I would like to think that Fallaci was becoming uncomfortable with the atheism she professed throughout her career. Some of the best writing in the book is her defense of the churches in Florence and her indignation and rage over their desecration by Somali Muslims. The Somalis, protesting the hesitancy of the Italian government to renew their visas, erected a tent city in central Florence. Taped recordings of "calls to prayer" by a muezzin drowned out the bells of the churches. Some Somalis used the bapistry of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral as a urinal and defecated in front of the 9th-century Church of San Salvatore al Vescovo. Fallaci complained to the newspaper, then the Mayor of Florence and finally the Minister of Foreign Affairs. All were sympathetic, but no action was taken. Finally, in desperation, she called the chief of police. She informed him that if he did not see to the dismantling of the tent city, that she would burn it down and "that not even a regiment of soldiers could prevent it." Furthermore, that she fully expected to be arrested, handcuffed and locked in jail, and that the newspapers and TV stations would report that "Fallaci has been incarcerated in her own city for defending her own city. And this will throw shit on all of you." The tent city promptly came down, but as she states, it was a Phyrric victory. The government quickly and quietly re-issued all the visas.

I know she respected the new Pope, and even had an audience with him within the last year. I would like to think that she was informed of his comments earlier this week that have ignited such a furor. I think she would have been pleased. What a woman!

Obituaries here and here, and a book review from earlier this year here.

Memory Eternal.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pope Benedict's Byzantine Moment

It is always noteworthy when a 21st-century Pope quotes a 14th-century Byzantine. Pope Benedict XVI did just that at a speech given at Regensburg University.

Benedict addressed the issue of Islamic holy war, noting that it was "against God's nature." He quoted, interestingly, a 14th-century Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologos.

Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman , such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

Benedict went on to explain the emperor's repudiation of, and unreasonableness of, the use of violence in spreading faith.

One spectator was impressed, noting that "Muslims aren't going to take us seriously until we become conscious of our own values."

Exactly so. Read here.

Wedding Feast at Cana

No commentary, just a beautiful fresco.

Haghia Sophia Church, Trabzon (Trebizond), Turkey; 13th Century.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Belated Plug

I want to take opportunity to put in a good word for good man--Steven Robinson. As most visitors here already know, he is the co-host of "Our Life in Christ." His audio archives are an incredible resource--whether you are just inquiring into Orthodoxy, have already become so and need help with Protestant friends and family, or are a lifelong Orthodox looking to deepen your faith. If you don't already have it bookmarked, do so NOW.

Steve is devoted to pastoral work and is to be commended for his recent article in the Spring 2006 issue of AGAIN magazine: "I Am Not My Sin: An Orthodox Pastoral Approach to Same-Sex Attraction." Unfortunately, this article is not online. You can subscribe to the magazine (and purchase back issues, I suppose) on the Conciliar Press website.

Finally, Steve is a man with a wicked, wicked sense of humor. If you don't believe me, check out "poor little Billy's" plight on his blog.

Thanks, Steve, for everything.