Monday, December 31, 2007

Fr. Stephen on The Nature of Things

Fr. Stephen Freeman is always good, but this post is exceptional.

An except:

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

By all means, read the article.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Passing of Hugh Massingberd

I was sad to read today of the passing of Hugh Massingberd, 60, of London. Massingberd was the past president of the Anthony Powell Society, of which I am a charter member. He was a former editor of Burke's Peerage, and the author of dozens of books on the English aristocracy and the great Country Houses of Britain. But most importantly, he was the long-time obituary editor of the Telegraph. Indeed, he single-handedly elevated what many considered to be a journalistic dead-end into a high art form. His own obituary can be found here, and here and here.

A master of understatement, Massingberd was clever, droll, possessed of an encyclopedic memory, sharp-witted but never cruel. And by all accounts, he was a much-beloved man, noted for his abundant generosity. The Telegraph noted that, Hugh knew instinctively that it is our peculiarities - our failings, our embarrassments - that make us who we are. This view of mankind as fallen, but redeemed through eccentricity, ran like a golden thread through all his obituaries...

Part of the fun lay in the style which Massingberd evolved to pin down the specimens on display. Liberace, readers were gravely informed, "never married". Hopeless drunks were "convivial". Total shits "did not suffer fools gladly". Financial fraudsters seemed "not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City".

The 1988 obituary of John Allego, a once noted Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, was a case in point. In later years, Allego unfortunately advanced a theory that both Judaism and Christianity were the products of a cult that worshipped both sex and mushrooms. Massingberd pronounced him "the Liberace of biblical scholarship." And on Liberace himself: "The first sign that Liberace had embarked upon a road along which reticence would never ride came when he placed a candelabra on his piano. At this, the dam of discretion appeared to burst: first came a white tail suit, followed by stage patter about his mother and his philosophy of life, then a gold lamé jacket and a diamond-studded tailcoat.”

Indeed, the Times even offers up an abridged Massingberd-English dictionary:

"Convivial": Habitually drunk.

"Did not suffer fools gladly": Monstrously foul-tempered.

"Gave colorful accounts of his exploits": A liar.

"A man of simple tastes": A complete vulgarian.

"A powerful negotiator": A bully.

"Relished the cadences of the English language": An incorrigible windbag.

"Relished physical contact": A sadist.

"An uncompromisingly direct ladies man": A flasher.

I have to admit, reading obituaries is a guilty pleasure of mine. I enjoy scanning the obituary page, whether it be in the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, or even our local paper. But no one on this side of the Atlantic carries on exactly in the tradition of Massingberd. Of course, outside of the New York Times, obituary-writing is hardly the art form here that it is in England.

On the local level, where the notices are written by the families themselves, the humor one finds is seldom intentional. I have my own theories about how to interpret obituaries. If the obituary gushes about how loving/adoring/precious the family was, then the family may be trying to compensate for their lack of attention during the lately departed's lifetime. If the obituary refers to how much they "loved their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," then I assume this person was the church busybody.

Referencing hobbies and/or obsessions can be problematic. Saying that the avid golfer is now "playing the fairways of Heaven" is just tacky. I once laughed out loud after reading the obituary of a man who "liked to collect rocks." I collect coffee mugs, in a casual way, but I would hope my survivors have enough taste to leave that little detail out of my obituary.

Also, just because your little great-granddaughter calls you "Pee-Paw," is that really any reason to put it in the obituary? One popular line is: "after a courageous battle with... (fill in the blank)." The way it is always phrased makes it sound as if the person had fought just a little harder they would have actually have vanquished Death. The ones that list pets as survivors are often good for a chuckle. Why are the surviving dogs always chihuahuas? Or why do so many people with chihuahuas die? Could these little yappers actually be the hounds of Hades?

One of my favorite plays is Greater Tuna, which chronicles the goings-on in the "third smallest town in Texas." In one scene, the Rev. Spikes, pastor of the Coweta Baptist Church, is eulogizing a parishioner, pulling out every tired cliche along the way. Wrapping up, Rev. Spikes concludes: "He never said die......And then he did."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Jesus in Turkey

I was recently in my local Barnes and Noble, perusing the magazine aisle. One cover, in particular, grabbed my attention. The magazine was ChristianityToday, and the lead article was entitled Jesus in Turkey, Rebirth of a Bloodied Church. Okay, so there was no way I was going to leave the store without that magazine!

Of course, ChristianityToday is the flagship of American evangelical magazines. I have visited their website from time to time, but have never been interested enough to purchase a magazine, until now. You cannot really object to evangelical bias here. It would be like complaining that your favorite Tex-Mex joint has too many enchilada plates on the menu. It is simply who they are and what they do. And yet, I expected (foolishly, it seems) a little more historical context from this source.

The story covers eight pages. The writer notes that few nations have as rich a Christian heritage as Turkey (something of an understatement)....where Paul (known to some of us as St. Paul) founded some of the earliest churches. The writer gives a nod to the early monastic movement in Cappadocia, mentions in passing the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and then moves on to the really important date in the history of Christianity in Turkey: the beginning of Protestant mission work in 1820.

There are 2 passing references to the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey, but nothing about the perseverance of Orthodox Christianity after 1453, the exchange of populations and the massacre of 200,000 Orthodox Christians at Smyrna in 1932, the anti-Christian riots of 1955, and the continuing persecution of the Greek remnant in Istanbul. There is a side box story on the Armenian Christians, but the author is careful to not mention that they are Orthodox Christians. In fact, nothing in the story would lead you to believe they worshipped any differently than your local Bible Church.

The story largely concerns Protestant house churches, such as the Istanbul Presbyterian Church, under the dynamic leadership of a Pastor Ucal. This is just fine with me. If Turks are abandoning Allah for Jesus Christ in these evangelical house churches, then Praise God for that! But it irks me that what could have been a blockbuster story is so limited by its own evangelical presuppositions. For these writers work within a historical enclosure, that only begins with the Reformation. They occasionally peer over the wall to look back at the First Century, but the concept of a seamless 2,000 years of continuous Christian presence is lost on them, or unexplainable within their religious framework.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

And Speaking of Icons....

yesterday from the Dallas Morning News on Putin, iconographer Vladimir Grigorenko and The Icon that Wasn't.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Piercing of Space and Time

Beauty will save the world, Dostoevsky

Susan Cushman, at the First Things blog, posts an excellent article on icons, here. In a wide-ranging essay, Cushman references Dostoevsky, Kandinsky, St. John of Damascus, Fr. Seraphim Rose, John Climacus, John Chryssagvis,and somewhat surprisingly, Henri Nouwen, among others. Nouwen wrote:

...icons...are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.

Outside of their Orthodox context, I suspect icons are largely misunderstood. And at least in my part of the country, they are hardly even on the radar screen of our collective consciousness. Many would condemn them as a variation of papist, graven-image idolatry. The less judgmental might appreciate their aesthetic value, as some sort of stilted, quirky religious art, peculiar to the Orthodox. In fact, they are neither.

My religious background was as iconoclastic as could possibly be imagined. We allowed for no images, no stained glass--not even a cross was permitted (though our children's classrooms and literature were chock full of syrupy and saccharine images of Christ and biblical characters--go figure.) Perhaps this stark, clinical rationalism left me starved and hungering for what was missing. I just didn't yet know what it was.

My first exposure to Orthodoxy came on June 6, 2003, when I walked into the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. I have related this episode before, and I don't want this to turn into yet another self-indulgent convert story. But I actually encountered icons the day before, and that experience is pertinent to the subject at hand.

I was traveling with my friend, Bill (see third previous post). We each had frequent-flyer miles to burn, but were short on cash. Bill and I had to set our sights considerably lower than the Grand Tour. Hence, Bulgaria. We were naturally sympathetic to the country--history has seldom dealt kindly with Bulgaria, whether it be 500 years of Ottoman rule, the disaster of the First World War, followed by the disaster of the Second World War, followed by the disaster of 45 years of communism. Then there was "Good King Boris" who saved the Bulgarian Jews from being shipped to concentration camps (a joint effort, I later learned, with the Orthodox church). Finally, the last tsar, Simeon, had recently returned and won election as Prime Minister of the the country. So, Bulgaria was a bit in the news at the time.

Anyway, we really took to Sofia--just enough faded neo-classical architecture to suit Bill, and just enough down-to-earth grittiness to suit me. The must-see attraction in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a magnificent early 20th-century church in the Russian style. This was the first functioning Orthodox church that I entered. It took a bit of getting used to, once inside. The nave was dark and cavernous, lit only by the flickering of candles. In time, my eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light. As my perception increased, the walls became alive with marvelous frescoes, and I eagerly went from one scene to the next, following the story of Man's redemption.

There were actually quite a few people in the church at the time. The structure was so large, however, that it had a sense of being near empty. I began to observe the worshippers--for it was a revelation to me that that was what they were actually doing. The idea that one could, or would, go to a church and worship outside of a "service" was foreign to my Protestant evangelical sensibilities. I observed one young man in particular. He was thin, probably in his mid 20s, standing very still and erect before a mounted icon of the Virgin Mary. He had already lit a candle and placed it in the stand to the right. He just stood there, perfectly still, seemingly for the longest time. Then I watched him as he crossed himself three times, in slow, sweeping movements, bowing low after each time. He then kissed the icon and moved on to another.

Flannery O'Connor observed that grace is never the "warm fuzzy blanket" we want it to be. More often than not, it comes as a knock upside the head--or worse. Certainly nothing quite so severe in this instance, but something was happening as I watched, my attention rivetted to the young man's actions. The logical, rational, "speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent," restorationist arguments, that I could have once mustered with confidence against such behavior, fell away into meaninglessness. For in the back of my mind, even then, I realized I had just witnessed something of the nature of true worship and devotion. I didn't yet know what to do with it, but that would come "in God's own time." In becoming Orthodox, I obviously struggled with certain things, but never with the veneration of icons.

Again, from Cushman:

Like the Incarnation, the icon pierces space and time, because a physical object—a piece of wood with gesso and paint and gold leaf—is shot through with God’s eternal presence...."iconography does not ‘decorate’ the church but has an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event, existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life.” This is heavenly stuff for us mortals to wrap our minds around, but we all need to be elevated—to be lifted up in order to see the world as God sees it—as sacred and worthy of redemption.

I encourage you to read her article. Her explanation of the theology of icons--particuarly for the non-Orthodox--is as good as any I have read.

Monday, December 24, 2007

This Is What I've Been Looking For

This, by way of my friend, Kirk:

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One — Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One — Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy – Let us not take revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will — Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace — Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, Rich One, invite the poor to Thy table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the Divine Being took upon Himself the seal of our humanity
In order for humanity to be decorated with the Seal of Divinity.

--St. Isaac of Ninevah

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Not from Borat Movie

This, from Friday's New York Times:

Kyrgyzstan: On Top of Old Santa


The authorities say they plan to name one of the country’s snowy peaks Mount Santa Claus. Why such an honor from the predominantly Muslim and former Soviet land? “We want to develop tourism, and Santa Claus is an ideal brand to help us do this,” said Nurhon Tadzhibayeva, a tourism official.

Bass on Charlie

My other great friend of longstanding, is Bill Bass, a former attorney, legislator and appeals court judge. If this sounds a bit stuffy, then know that he is a one-time victim of the notorious White Rock Lake "Love Bandit," was known to his college pals as the "Crockett Rocket," sometime known to others as "One-Beer Bass," was fished out of the Colorado River by Ann Richards, survived an assassination hit on him by the "Canton, Texas Mafia" and found himself holed-up in an underground bunker during the siege and bombing of Vukovar during the Serbo-Croatian war--and that's just for starters.

Bill, in turn, is one of the oldest friends of Charlie Wilson, who is, of course, the subject of highly acclaimed Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile, as well the just released Tom Hanks film. My only connection is that Bill surprised me with an autographed copy of the book when it was first released.

Anyway, the headlines in today's Dallas Morning News showcases the movie, and more importantly, Charlie Wilson. Bill was invited by the News to an advanced screening, and is quoted extensively in the piece, here.

Bill Bass, a state appeals court judge from Tyler, is sitting in a dark theater, having just watched Charlie Wilson's War. As the credits roll, he wants to speak but can't. He's crying.

The real Charlie Wilson is one of Judge Bass' dearest friends. To see him portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks has reduced him to tears.

"I was very moved by it," he says. "I remember Charlie's efforts, and his efforts did change the world. Charlie is one of a handful of people who made a difference in the history of the 20th century. ... I'm so proud to have known him."

From 20 years of friendship with Bill, I have heard a lot of Charlie Wilson stories, and feel I know him a bit, as well--even though we've never met. A political career such as Wilson's--honest, passionate, devoid of cant--is a rarity, particularly in today's climate. I look forward to seeing the movie depiction.

For Judge Bass, the movie's legacy will be its "accurate depiction of a very good man, warts and all."

He loves the scenes that show the interior of Mr. Wilson's Arlington, Va., apartment, "where Charlie loved looking down on the Marine Corps monument. He was a true patriot. He loved women and whiskey, but he was like his idol, Winston Churchill.

"As Charlie always said, Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature. He was in the last cavalry charge in modern history. He was a great writer who, in his spare time, managed to save Western civilization," Judge Bass says.

"But then Charlie would look you in the eye and say, 'And he still drank, didn't he?' And, of course, he did. What both men have in common is greatness and the fact that each made a lasting imprint on history."

Of course, for those who are too young to remember, Charlie Wilson was instrumental---crucial, really--in supplying arms to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, fighting the Russian Communist occupation during the 1980s. It seemed like a noble endevour (they all do at the time), and its success played no small part in the fall of Communism itself. The rest, as they say, is history. But events of the 21st century certainly show how the chickens of our foreign adventurism have come home to roost. But Wilson does not see a straight line connection between the fall of the Russians in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban there.

"No one had heard of the Taliban," he says. "They didn't exist until 11 years after the Russians were defeated. What happened was, by not pursuing the end game as we should have, we let chaos develop in Afghanistan. I tried hard to pull the other way, but my colleagues were tired of listening to me."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Burton on Burke

You can never have too many friends, but those that last a lifetime and who stick with you through thick and thin are rare indeed. A person usually only has 2 or 3 who fall into this category. Milton is such a friend. He is, among other things, a mystery writer of some note. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you can find his works, here, and here. We serve as something of a sounding board for each other--which is useful, I suppose, as it keeps us from inflicting our pontifications on our other friends, co-workers and acquaintances. The depravity of modern American culture, the loathsomeness of our political discourse and the foreign policy debacles du jour provide ample fodder for our mutual rants. Recently, Milton forwarded a short essay on Edmund Burke and the nature of true conservativism, to-wit:.

Of late I have become deeply annoyed with those who profess to be both conservative and Christian and who show no outward signs of the practice--or indeed even the understanding--of either. In the first place, in this country the word "conservative" has been hijacked by a gaggle of right wing Jacobins who know exactly what they are doing, and who have been aided and abetted by legions of gullible followers who don't know what's being done to them, and who have no more understanding of the history of the Anglo-American conservative tradition than they do of... Well, anything else of substance.

What the Jacobin types want is nothing less than the complete transformation of our nation into a borderless utopia whose foreign policy is determined by a coalition of neocon theorists and the crony capitalists who dominate the major defense industries. As far as their dupes out here in Red State land go, their hopes are both more modest and less well-defined. They still give the occasional verbal lick and a promise toward abortion, and they can be counted on to get a bit huffy at the notion of gay marriage. But where I come from [East Texas], the mainstay of these common folks' agenda is the vague notion of "putting God back in the classroom," which in their minds amounts to opening each school day with approved prayers, and then prefacing the local Friday night football bloodletting by having some jackleg preacher from a local fundamentalist congregation mumble a few words of pious drivel about Jesus and sportsmanship into a defective PA system. And that's about the extent of it as far as either Christianity or conservativism go with the man on the street, though I'm sure sugar-plum visions of Rotary, the local Chamber of Commerce and due and proper veneration of such heroic figures as General Patton (now, there's a real man's man!!) dance around somewhere far back in the unexamined recesses of his mind.

There is a problem with all this, though. The true intellectual father of our conservative tradition was, of course, the great Edmund Burke, and this isn't quite what he had in mind. Burke saw human rights not as things that float down from the aether to fall equally on all mankind, but as time-proven, positive benefits to both individuals and society that have emerged through trial and error and with great struggle from a historical process. And while I am sure he would have said that it was desirable for all peoples everywhere to have and enjoy the basic rights we have come to appreciate--a free press, free speech, freedom of religion, etc.--the truth was that he knew these things came into being through a unique set of circumstances, and that their actual possession in the real world was the heritage of a particular people--the British and their colonial offspring. If you will remember, Burke supported the American Revolution because he knew the North American Colonists were being denied their traditional, hereditary rights as Englishmen. On the other hand, he was opposed to the French Revolution because he saw it for what it was--an effort to impose theory on reality and thereby completely remake both human society and human nature along the lines set down by its chief spiritual guru, Jean Jaques Rousseau, a charming fellow who sired several illegitimate children on a scullery maid, then forced her to dump them in a foundling home when their presence in his life became oppressive. After which he went on to write a book on how to raise children that was very popular with the intellectuals of his day. Sound familiar? It should because he too thought that it takes a village. It should also sound familiar because Newt Gingrich's Contract With America owed more to Rousseau (albeit through what was no doubt ignorance on the part of its authors) than it did to true Anglo-American conservativism. As proof one need look no further than the Newt-Suiter's simultaneous proposal that we scrap the two-hundred-year-old congressional committee system and replace it with a series of "task forces" set up to deal with specific issues. Whatever Gingrich is, he is most definitely not a conservative because no true conservative would ever play so fast and loose with time-honored legislative procedures.

There is at the heart of conservativism a "fear and trembling," an appreciation of the limits of human understanding and abilities, and a rightful veneration of the successes of yesteryear. True conservativism has at its roots a respect for what has worked--or at least what has been tolerable--in the past; it is a perpetual attempt to let reality--and particularly the reality and limits of human nature--mold one's thinking in regard to society and politics. The conservative, grounded as he is in Christianity, sees human nature as fixed, immutable, and deeply flawed, if not totally depraved. The Liberal holds human nature up as infinitely malleable. Fix the outward environment and you will fix the man. The conservative knows that neither will ever be completely fixed, nor even partially fixed for very long. Liberalism, in both its right and left wing incarnations, represents an eternal effort to impose theory on reality. The liberal of either stripe takes a look at any situation and thinks how much better things might be made with a complete overhaul. The true conservative sees that same situation and thinks how much worse things might be, especially with too much ill-advised tampering. As a consequence, the former is wedded to broad brush strokes and big canvasses, while the latter is first, last, and always, an incrementalist. He realizes that social/political progress always comes in small, hesitant steps, and that many mistakes are made along the way. He knows too that politics is the product of human nature (often the worst aspects of that nature), and he accepts that it is not and never will be the doorway to Heaven. In his approach to government he is rather like the Medieval cartographer who, upon getting to the limits of known geographical knowledge, would draw a line and annotate his map with the statement, "Take ye care! Beyond here lurk troglodytes!"
They do indeed.

None of us is ever going to get the America of our individual dreams, and it probably wouldn't work very well even if we did because we and our institutions are and always will be deeply flawed.

So who have been the real conservatives in our history? In the presidency only three come to mind--Washington, Cleveland, and Eisenhower. That Ike made no effort to roll the country back to a pre-1929 state by abolishing the Social Security, the FCC, the FAA, and the Federal Trade Commission as the radicals of the Taftite right wanted is testimony to his good sense. He inherited a country that was doing pretty well, and he declined to tamper with its essentials. As for the rest of our chief executives from both parties who have been called conservative, they divide almost equally between Rotarians, ciphers, and idiots. Regan was a special case--the best of the Rotarian type, an able and decent man who probably was the last of the small town presidents. Though he spent a great deal of his life in Hollywood, his heart and his instincts were still with Main Street and Mid-America even when his ideology was off-the-wall.

And as for modern "conservative" Christianity, for it to ever have any validity it is going to have to go beyond the social Darwinism propounded by Falwell, Robertson, Hinn, and the rest of that coven of money grubbing Jesus-wheezers who would elevate the buying of something and selling it for a profit to a position equal to Holy Communion, and for whom the Christian life goes no further than opposing gay rights and supporting the local athletic teams.

So what is a person who is both Christian and temperamentally conservative in the Burkean sense to do since there are no political candidates that truly match up with his sensibilities? You might apply some time each day toward cultivating a healthy loathing for the meddlesome do-gooders who besiege us on all sides. I myself have found that to be an edifying pastime. Hatred, as our British cousins say, is not to be despised. Or you might do as I do and have a spot of fun and defuse some of your frustrations by making up a List of Utterly Pointless Countries. Guatemala and Belgium are high on my own roster. And while we're on the subject, I don't see that the world has any crying need for Lithuania, either. Beyond that, you might see to it that you render more to God than you do to Caesar, not just in money, but it time, thought, and veneration as well since modern man has entirely too much respect for government and politics anyway.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Remember the Balkans?

Bal·kan·ize (bôl k -n z )
To divide (a region or territory) into small, often hostile units.

The best I can figure, the administration of George W. Bush has 406 days remaining. That is more than enough time to initiate any number of fresh foreign policy blunders. But our administration seems perversely intent on bringing to fruition a disaster left over from the Clinton regime. In fact, there is no daylight between the Bushies and the Clinton on this topic. Iran? Syria? No, Kosovo. Yes, Kosovo.

Ready or not, Kosovo is poised to declare independence from Serbia, and the U.S. and most of the E.U. seem likely to go along. Apparently, this is a bad idea whose time has come.Russia will oppose the move, but what they will do to counter such a unilateral declaration remains to be seen. It doesn't have to be this way, as Doug Bandow observes:

Thus, the European states and the U.S. should propose a new round of negotiations – genuine negotiations. No preconditions. No timetables. If the Albanians want independence, they need to come up with sufficient concessions, territorial or other, to win Serbian assent. If the Serbs want to maintain formal sovereignty over Kosovo, they need to come up with sufficient concessions, expanded autonomy or other, to win Albanian assent. Agreement might still prove impossible. But success would be far more likely than from the faux talks promoted by the allies.

What's another foreign policy crisis among friends? Maybe one too many. The best hope to avert a new, and possibly violent, breakdown in the Balkans is for both Washington and Brussels to realize that America and the Europeans are far too busy to deal with civil disorder and conflict in Kosovo. They must tell Pristina no to independence. And they must do so quickly.

Nicholas Kulish examines the plight and prospects of the beleaguered Serbian minority in Kosovo, here. The picture is of Mother Anastasia and a German soldier in the gutted St. Joanikije Monastery. “This monastery was always offering a comfort of healing, not only for Christians but for Muslims as well,” Mother Anastacia said.

Since the Albanians in Albania have their own country, and soon the Albanians in Serbia will have their own statelet, it will be interesting to see how long it will take the Albanians in Macedonia to begin agitating for more autonomy. Not long, I'd wager. It will also be interesting to see just how the lessons of our Kosovo experiment play out worldwide. For there is hardly any country of consequence today that does not have an enclave of some sort with an equal or greater claim to "self-determination" than does Kosovo.

And if you like Kosovo, you'll love Molvania.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

St. John the Baptist, Rev. Strangelove and the Israel Lobby

I came across an interesting link at A Conservative Blog for Peace. It concerns the Franciscan-run Monastery of St. John in the Desert, located just outside of Jerusalem. The site is traditionally associated with the home of St. John the Baptist and his mother, who is buried there.

The monastery has long been a pilgrimage destination, as well as a popular hiking area for Jerusalemites. No longer, as the monastery has been overrun by both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews. The monastery is closed to visitors, save for those with licenced tour guides. In the last few years, the quality of visitors from Jerusalem has changed remarkably. On the one hand, the baptismal pool has been taken over by skinny-dippers and couples using the site for lewd behavior. Then in August, the monastery was overrun by 30 Orthodox Jewish "settlers," brandishing machine guns and threatening the priests. Fr. Sergio reported that "they started to say 'Eretz Israel is our land, and you have to go.' They were very aggressive. They spit at me. They said 'You killed my family.'" Read the whole story, here.

This disturbing view of the new Israel does not exactly harmonize with the image propagated by Rev. Strangelove, seen here.

Which brings me to The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy, by American scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, easily one of the most controversial books published this year. The authors make a strong case, saying what everybody knows, but what nobody heretofore could actually say, to wit:

  • that the Israel lobby is far and away the most powerful on Capitol Hill,
  • that the lobby heavily influences our foreign policy initiatives (or lack thereof) in the Middle East,
  • that these various interest groups--primarily AIPAC--exert, through their contributions, an unhealthy control over our representatives and senators,
  • that the lobby effectively squelches dissent or debate on issues pertaining to Israel,
  • that the lobby has a marriage of convenience with Christian Zionists,
  • that the lobby perpetuates the falsehood that Israel is still weak and in need of our subsidies and unquestioning support,
  • that the interests of the US are subsumed by Israel's to such a degree that, in fact, Israel's interests are America's interests,
  • that our biases have poisoned our relationships and influence throughout the region.

While the authors' premise was somewhat "preaching to the choir" with me, the details were still an eye-opener. The degree to which AIPAC and others have been able to shut-off debate over our support to Israel--even among Jews--is both astounding and frightening. And while I am sure there are some exceptions, most of our elected national representatives come off as little more than AIPAC whores.

Of course, the book has been roundly trashed, as would be expected. For to question the role of the Israel Lobby in the U.S. is to be instantly labeled an anti-semite. And yet, the book is doing well, and the subject of much discussion. The fact that it was published at all is remarkable. The work may in fact lead to what approaches an honest debate of our policy in the Middle East.

The book has some drawbacks, but by and large it is a seminal work. I believe it will take its place with Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. One can certainly disagree with the premise of either book, but each are of such import that they frame all discussions on the issue that follow. For a rare positive review, see here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

I am not familiar with the Biblical Archaeology Review, its reputation or slant. But in browsing through Barnes & Noble at lunch one day this week, I took note of the current issue. The lead story is Who Owns the World's Oldest Bible?, with a picture of St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai on the cover.

The story concerns, of course, the mid 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, which is the oldest complete New Testament.

The Codex Sinaiticus contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament—from the mid-fourth century. Originally, it contained the Old Testament too, but most of that is now missing.The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the big three...fourth or fifth century codices of the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) that include the New Testament as well. Vaticanus is at the Vatican. Alexandrinus is at the British Library. And Sinaiticus is, well, in four different places. And thereby hangs my tale. Each venue of Sinaiticus maintains that it owns the part that resides there. The major part is at the British Library (formerly part of the British Museum) in London. A lesser part is at the University Library of Leipzig. A few fragments are in St. Petersburg at the Russian National Library. Finally, the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, where it all originated, have discovered a few more leaves. The monks would like it all back.

The BAR article is behind the firewall and not available online. I have copied a portion of one of the side bar articles, below:

Why is Sinaiticus Significant?

Codex Sinaiticus, written around the middle of the fourth century A.D., is arguably the earliest extant Christian Bible. It contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. Only one other nearly complete manuscript of the Christian Bible--the Codex Vaticanus--is of a similarly early date. The only Christian manuscripts of scripture that are definitely of an earlier date contain relatively small portions of the text.

Three principal aspects of the codes contribute to its great significance: it roles as text, canon and book.

Codes Sinaiticus represents one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint and the New Testament. It is customarily given primacy of position in the lists of surviving manuscripts consulted for establishing the oldest text to these two traditions and is usually represented as ..."01" for the New Testament....
By the middle of the fourth century there was wide, yet neither complete nor universal, agreement over the books to be considered as authoritative for Christian communities. The Codex Sinaitiucs, being one of the earliest intact collections of such books, is essential for an understanding of the contents and the arrangement of the Biblical canon, as well as the uses made of it. The Greek Septuagint in the codex comprises books not included in the Hebrew Bible and regarded in the Protestant traditions as apocryphal: 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4th Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach. Appended at the end of the New Testament in the codex are the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The idiosyncratic sequence of books is also remarkable: Within the New Testament, the Letter of the Hebrews is placed after Paul's Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Acts of the Apostles between the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles. All these facts have to be considered carefully when reconstructing the history of the canonization of the Christian books.

This process of canonization has also influenced and been influenced by the medium in which it-the codex-has been transcribed and transmitted. From our earliest evidence onward, and in contrast to earlier and most contemporaneous practices, Christians preferred the format of the codex over the roll, particularly, albeit not exclusively, when copying sacred literature. And from the fourth century onward, parchment was increasingly used instead of papyrus, which had previously been the predominant choice. The quality of Codex Sinaiticus's parchment and the advanced binding structure that would have been needed to support and contain within one volume over 730 large-format leaves make the Codex Sinaiticus one of the most outstanding examples of book manufacture in its time. The careful planning, skillful writing, and editorial control needed for such an ambitious project gives us an invaluable insight into professional Christian book production that would exert its influence for many centuries afterwards.--Dr. Juan Garces, curator, Codex Sinaiticus Project, British Library.

The story addresses how the codex managed to end up, by and large, in the British Library. The key player was one Constantin von Tischendorf, a 19th century German scholar. In 1844, Tischendorf visited the monastery as part of an extended research trip throughout the Levant, in search of biblical documents. If the story can be believed, he stumbled upon a large basket full of old parchment. These sheets, like two baskets before them, were old and mouldy and destined to be burned. He was allowed to keep 43 leaves, but the rest was refused him, perhaps due to suspicion at his eagerness. Upon return to Europe, he deposited these leaves at the University of Leipzig.

Tischendorf would return again and again to the monastery, trying vainly to gain access to the parchments. Finally, in 1859 he met with success. Though a Protestant, he went as the emissary of the Orthodox tsar, Alexander II of Russia. [In one glaring mistake, the author of this article needs to know that the Tsar was NOT "after all, the head of the Orthodox Church."] Tischendorf jockeyed between Cairo, the monastery and Constantinople, trying to negotiate release of the codex. He even became involved in a dispute between the Patriarchs at Constantinople and Jerusalem, which involved the Sinai monastery. At long last, he received permission to borrow the codex to have it copied, save for a few leaves retained at St. Catherine's. Tischndorf even signed a receipt acknowledging same (said receipt being prominently displayed in the monastery to this day).

The rest of the story can be guessed. The codex was "presented" to Alexander II. The Russians interpreted it as a gift from the monastery to the Orthodox tsar. Protestations from the monastery over the decades went unanswered. In 1930, the Soviets were in need of hard cash and sold the codex, save for a scrap or two, to the British, for 100,000 pounds.

Today, all four depositories--the British Museum, the University of Leipzig, the Russian National Library and St. Catherine's Monastery--are working together to preserve and conserve the document. Ultimately, it will be digitized, available online with translations and in facsimile editions. A television documentary is in the works, as well. As a condition for their essential participation, the monastery insisted that the real story be told of how they lost control of the codex. And, oh yes, they still want it back.

Another side bar article in the magazine is An America Monk in Sinai. This is an interview with Fr. Justin, the librarian of the monastery, who grew up Baptist in Texas. He is the monk pictured on the cover of the magazine, and I believe he was the monk who accompanied the exhibit of icons to the Getty Museum last year, as well. And in the small world category, he is also a friend of a friend of mine.

The Oration in College Station

Okay, this is the funniest thing I've read today.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Some News of St. Nicholas from Turkey

(Icon of St. Nicholas from Orthodixie)

I do not know whether the story is factual or not, but it seems that the Turkish government will finally allow Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to celebrate a Divine Liturgy in the Church of St. Nicholas in Demre, Turkey. This seems to be the original source.

If true, it would mark a small, but significant step in the right direction for the Turkish government. The Minister of Culture stated that "I earnestly want every citizen in this country to be able to freely celebrate their own religion in the place seen as most important for worship.” Apparently, he also appropriated 45,000 Turkish Lira for completion of restoration of the 4th-century basilica. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Little Dispassion, Please

Faced with an oil-rich and newly-assertive Russia, we seem to have fallen back into a sullen, suspicious, Cold War-type, bear-baiting attitude. I have long contended that in this post-Communist world, Russia is--or should be--our natural ally. For excellent commentary on developments in Russia, and our appropriate response, I recommend:

Daniel Larison, here, here and here.

Justin Raimondo, here.

A Whole Lot of 'Splainin' to Do

The suddenly-struggling Mitt Romney has scheduled a major address tomorrow at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas--ostensibly to address lingering concerns about his Mormonism. From the beginning, Romney has been extremely reluctant to discuss this, if not downright testy. Now it looks like he will, once again, attempt to gloss over these concerns with soothing platitudes. It won't work. It is not that American Republican primary voters are bigoted against Mormons or ill-informed about the faith. Just the opposite, actually. Most people know, like and respect their upstanding Mormon friends and neighbors. At the same time, most people know quite a bit about the tenets of the faith and frankly are weirded-out by it.

I don't usually link to Mark Davis, but he has it just exactly right, here. Davis observes:

...he will mess it up. It will be delivered smoothly, as every Romney speech is. He will make the points he wishes to make, and they will be made eloquently. But they will do him no good because he has no intention of doing what is necessary to minimize the problem his faith poses among the voter pool he is trying to attract.

Instead, a Romney spokesman indicates that he will "share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition tolerance has played in the progress in our nation." In other words, Romney will be dishing out oatmeal to an audience looking for a little meat. Davis continues:

...questions remain, and there is only one way to address them....This is not done by telling people that Mormonism is really just another form of mainstream Christianity. Thoughtful people can argue all day about whether Mormonism belongs under the Christian umbrella, but the fact is that crafting an entire text to supplement the Bible, based on Jesus' visit to America 200 years ago, complete with wholesale revisions in mankind's status in the afterlife, will naturally raise the eyebrows of those who believe the Bible is the only faith document followers of Jesus need.

It is pointless to argue with anyone about the portions of his faith that involve the miracles that give that faith its validity. But part of Mormon belief involves an entire civilization existing in what is now America some centuries before Christ's birth and some centuries after. This society, using a hybrid Hebrew/Egyptian tongue and employing agricultural and metallurgical technologies that objective historians simply find no evidence to support, either existed or it did not. A voter e-mailed me a few months ago, with vast admiration for Mr. Romney on the issues, but asking: If he'll believe this, what else will he believe? This is not unfair. The question for Mr. Romney is how to address it. It is not with familiar platitudes about religious liberty or lectures on tolerance.

To be expected, Daniel Larison has keen insight into Romney's dilemma.

Second Terrace raises another interesting point:

But no one will notice that Romney doesn't know about the Trinity, except, perhaps, as a shibboleth. On Thursday, Romney will confess that he is a Christian. And the tragedy on that day will be -- especially for Mitt -- that no one will disagree for the right reason.

I just wish Mitt would explain about the magic underwear.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ethiopian Orthodoxy

If you are fascinated by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity--as I am--you will certainly enjoy "Keepers of the Lost Ark?" in the current Smithsonian Magazine. A corollary article, Christmas in Lalibela, is also good.

Interview with Frank Schaeffer

I was surprised to find an interview with Frank Schaeffer on the editorial page of the today's Dallas Morning News, here. Editorial columnist William McKenzie examines the role of celebrity worship within Evangelicalism. He notes that while the movement prides itself on needing no mediator between themselves and God, they in fact suffer from the worship of icons--in this case, celebrities.

McKenzie is a frequent commentator on religious topics and is perhaps unusually qualified to write on this subject, having studied for 3 months at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in 1977. This lead to this interview with Schaeffer's son, Frank, an Orthodox convert. Some Orthodox consider the plainspoken younger Schaeffer to be too polarizing a spokesman. Perhaps. All I know is that in my first inquiries into Orthodoxy, the first book I purchased after an Orthodox Study Bible was Schaeffer's Dancing Alone. Honestly, I don't believe it particularly set me on the wrong path at all. I appreciate and acknowledge the part he played in my early inquiries into the Faith.

McKenzie believes that "evangelicals have a rare chance to rethink whether the worship of leaders is healthy for their movement. And how much is consistent with the Gospel." He agrees with Schaeffer's statement:

"Big-time American Christianity is incompatible with the Gospel. It is part of the entertainment business. No matter what you think you are doing, you are really just another celebrity in a celebrity-obsessed culture."

And as McKenzie asks, "Where's God in all that?"

The article is worth a read, as is the more extended interview, here.

Never Mind!

Long ago, back when my wife and I were courting, we would go out on Saturday night. We would generally go to a restaurant and perhaps catch a movie, but would always be back to her parent's house in time for Saturday Night Live. This was pretty much the extent of our dating life--I worked out of town during the week and she was working full time, as well as finishing graduate school. Anyway, we both loved the now-classic SNL skits. A particular favorite was Gilda Radner as Rosanne Rosannadanna. Radner played a news reporter who inevitably got her story totally, terribly, agonizingly wrong. Eventually, she would be called down by the ever-correct Jane Curtin, causing Rosannadanna to ultimately close with "Never Mind."

That is what I thought of this morning upon reading the Dallas Morning News. The National Intelligence Estimate--representing the consensus of all 16 American spy agencies--concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This information, by the way, was available to President Bush a month or two back at the time of the now infamous news conference, in which he did some major saber-rattling about the Iranian nuclear threat, while throwing about references to World War III. As the story notes:

Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a U. S. foreign policy debate.

Never Mind.

Giving Hope a Second Chance

If you are following the Huckaboom, then you might enjoy Andrew Sullivan's column, here. But my caveat still holds: Beware of smiling Southern governors.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Seers and Sages

For the last few days, the AMC channel has been rerunning the movie Troy, which remains something of a guilty pleasure for me. I've always been a sucker for these overblown Hollywood spectacles. This one is a real hoot fest. The street scene of old Troy, complete with llamas mixed among the goats and donkeys is a pure delight (Troy, if you may remember, was in Asia Minor, near the shores of the Aegean Sea--not in the Andes, near the shores of Lake Titicaca where one would naturally find llamas. A minor detail...) Peter O'Toole, going through his paces as King Priam, was a class act, as always. Eric Bana's portrayal of Hector was on the mark, though the elfin Orlando Bloom less believable as Paris. Diane Kruger was nice enough, but something of a ho-hum Helen--hardly "the face that lauch'd a thousand ships." The main attraction (to many of both sexes, I suppose) was a brooding Brad Pitt as Achilles, stalking about in various stages of undress.

In the telling of this myth, I have always been more sympathetic to Hector and his put-upon Trojans. The tragic figure of Cassandra, another child of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was especially poignant. I believe the producer's missed a bet by writing her out of the script. Cassandra, of course, had the gift of prophecy. She clearly saw the oncoming doom, yet she was cursed to have her visions ignored and/or misunderstood. She, rather than Paris (as in the movie), warned of the Trojan horse. And as we know, it all came to a bad end. Cassandra herself was captured by Ajax and carried off to Greece in slavery (as depicted here, in a painting as overblown as the movie.)

It is in the nature of things that seers, most often foretelling an ill-wind, generally fair poorly--whether the mythical Cassandra, the biblical Jeremiah, or even current prophets of doom. Which brings me to....ahem, Pat Buchanan (I know, I know--a clumsy, ham-fisted segue. But it's late...)

I have enjoyed Pat from way back in his Crossfire days. I never supported his presidential bids, but find myself more and more in agreement with him these days. He has recently published a new book, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology and Greed are Tearing America Apart. The prophet of doom approach is something of a cottage industry with Buchanan. This work, together with his previous State of Emergency and The Death of the West form what some might call the Hell-in-a-Handbasket Trilogy.

Buchanan talks of his latest work, here. He attributes the Bush failure to "his fatal embrace of ideology." Buchanan sees ideology as a "substitute religion, a belief system based on ideas that are often contradicted by history and common sense." Just as Marxism, fascism and socialism were all gods that failed, so is Bush's "democratism." What is "democratism," you ask? Just listen to any Bush speech. Buchanan explains:

Democratism is a belief that all men are equally endowed with a desire for freedom and an aptitude for democracy. All can be uplifted, and all brought to see that democracy is the one true path to peace in our world. In democracy lies our salvation. This conviction lay behind the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s crusade to democratize the Middle East and his “global democratic revolution” to “end tyranny in our world.” And, as Woodrow Wilson’s crusade “to make the world safe for democracy” gave us Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, Bush’s crusade for democracy is leaving us with ashes in our mouths.

Buchanan finds no cynicism at play here. He sees Bush, like Wilson, as a True Believer. Of course, many who have long despised Bush refuse to grant him this, characterizing the President as both cynical and manipulative, as well as naive and inarticulate. I tell my friends of this persuasion, "Look, he is either an evil genius or he is a doofus. He can't be both." I tend to agree with Buchanan that Bush is a man of his convictions--which of course, makes it all much worse when such convictions are so dangerously ill-informed.

Using my B&N coupons and discounts, I can purchase the Buchanan book for 55% off. So, we'll see what he has to say. But I do think he is on to something here. For Buchanan is not trotting out the standard boilerplate issues that have come to define "conservatism." The title says it all: hubris, ideology and greed. The word "hubris" is much used these days, but it is crucial we remember it's original Greek context--the excessive pride which precedes a fall. This, coupled with an ideology of democratism is a recipe for disaster. And finally, add to this our greed--from an acquisitivst culture currently engorging itself in a holiday spending frenzy, all the way up to our global American corporate capitalism writ large. Buchanan sees a train wreck on the horizon.

I wouldn't know how to be anything other than an American, and one of the Southern variety. I love my country (if by that one means love of family, hearth and home) and our unique history. But that said, we are still nothing special. By that I mean, I don't confuse the USA with the Israel of God (nor do I confuse Israel with the Israel of God, for that matter.) We are the product of historical forces, just as every other country. Our borders are not inviolate, but the result of historical processes, just as other countries (and for a view of how things could have turned out very, very differently, see here.) Our system of government is unique and has served us well. In my view, however, it is not God-given, or even particularly blessed by Heaven, or necessarily universal in application. To someone who ascribes to "democratism," who believes in Americanism as a near-religion, who believes that our troops, wherever they are, are by definition, "fighting to protect our freedoms," this is rank heresy. But there is an ebb and flow to civilizations, cultures and nations. The changes we are undergoing are indeed transforming the country we know. How could it be otherwise? No nation stands outside of history.

But back to Buchanan's book, for his emphasis intrigues me. Like most prophets, he is calling us to repentance--from our pride, our false gods, and our greed--before it is too late.

As in everything, there are those who beg to differ. Which brings me to Michael Medved. The last time I heard of Medved was back in the mid 1990s, when he was giving movie reviews on talk radio, right after Rush Limbaugh. Apparently, he has now joined the ranks of the political commentariat. Our own local newspaper is so conservative that their guest editorialists run the gamut from Cal Thomas to Mona Charen. If they are feeling particularly edgy, they'll throw in one by Robert Novak. I made the mistake of reading one of Charen's recent columns, a near-hysterical screed against Ron Paul. The best I could tell, Paul's main offense was in not answering an on-air/online challenge by Medved.

Medved, here, takes Buchanan to task , casting him among the "militant alarmists" who preach "apocalyptic hysteria." Medved compares Buchanan's omens to those of Jerry Falwell, Billy Sunday and Michael Savage (a little context here, please.) Medved is right to say that there have always been doomsayers. But that is not to say that they are always wrong. In Medved's pollyannic view, things are much better now, actually almost hunky-dorry. He lumps Buchanan among those who are too quick to discredit our ancestors. He lauds the virtues of the Victorian Age and quotes from Getrude Himmelfarb (who may be a great scholar, but who as Mrs. Irving Kristol still has a lot to answer for in giving birth to neo-con chickenhawk William Kristol.) He contends that "today's citizens display vastly better discipline and higher moral standards" than our Revolutionary ancestors. Oh yes, indeed. As proof, he cites reduced New York City crime statistics, as well as historical alcohol consumption statistics. In the later 1700s, the average American over fifteen drank just under 6 gallons of alcohol a year. The current average is less than 2 gallons. Lord, have mercy. Medved misses the point so widely that one doesn't really know where to start to answer it.

An axiom I live by is that things rarely turn out as bad as we fear, nor as good as we hope. While not particularly inspiring, such an approach works out well on the day in, day out struggles of existence. That said, those who sentimentalize and who look at the past uncritically, are often the ones left with nothing by simplistic platitudes for the present. We need more voices like Buchanan, and fewer from the likes of Medved.