Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in the News

The current issue of Spiegel (the international edition of Der Spiegel magazine) is devoted to the topic of "The Power of Faith--How Religion Impacts Our World." They include an excellent article on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, found here. The story is informative, and surprisingly, largely supportive. The writers do attribute Ethiopian poverty at least partly to the Church, however. They contend that the numerous church holidays and fast days prevent the Orthodox Christians from doing more agriculturally.

However, these time-honored traditions and their enforced observance by the church are partly to blame for Ethiopia's plunge into bitter poverty over the past 50 years. How can a country possibly be self-sustaining if its people are prevented from tilling their fields every other day?

If poor and Orthodox Christian Ethiopia were surrounded by prosperous non-Orthodox African nations, then this argument might have some merit. Such is clearly not the case. Only this simplistic and unsubstantiated charge mars an otherwise excellent report.

The 300

I haven't yet seen 300, other than some clips on PBS. And I doubt that I will, until perhaps it is released on dvd. (For someone who doesn't even watch hospital shows on television because of the operating room scenes, the gore-fest that is 300 would be a little much). Some critics have panned the film as an overly-simplistic good vs. evil morality play, and have questioned its historical veracity (to which I would ask, just which historical era has Hollywood not butchered?) But, the Battle of Thermopylae was indeed a pivotal moment in history, the consequences of which have reverberated down through the ages. And from what clips I have seen, this particular re-telling of the epic seems to be one incredible movie.

The fact that the movie has generated world-wide debate speaks to its significance. Of course, voices within Islam, particularly from Iran, have protested against the film, saying that it casts the East in a purely negative light and reinforces existing stereotypes: the West (Sparta)=good, the East (Persia)=bad, which in turn unnecessarilly inflames existing present-day tensions between the two regions. And of course, as in the case of the Danish cartoons, such protestations are carried to extremes.

Mustafa Akyol is a noted young Turkish writer and commentator. He can generally be relied upon as a voice of reason on issues that too often become inflamed (see his blog, the White Path). Outside of the spectacular cinematography, he finds little to commend.

The message that the film is designed to give is all too obvious: Western civilization (which is free, rational and beautiful) has always defended itself against the barbaric East (which is tyrannical, irrational and ugly). And the saga just continues today.

Akyol pinpoints 3 areas of concern:

1. the movie is cast as a prelude for today's "clash of civiliztions,"
2. the movie is wildly unrealistic, and
3. that Sparta was in fact a bastion of fascism, not liberty.

I believe Akyol over-reacts somewhat. The movie is an entertainment product, not a vehicle for political propoganda. But he does raise some valid points. Akyol observes that the neocons who find validation in the story of a small, corageous band (Sparta) standing firm against an oppressive superpower (Persia) need to rethink the analogy. Who is the superpower today, he asks? We are. His second point is also valid. As he notes: "some of their soldiers, with their turbaned heads, look quite like the Islamist warriors of today." He finds this to be intentional. Perhaps so. In my view, a most glaring inaccuracy is the weird depiction of Xerxes himself. I would have thought that they would have paid at least a passing glance to the archeological record. And his final point has some merit, as well. If we are looking for ancient Greeks to emulate, we might pause before choosing the Spartans, as theirs was a fiercely militaristic society. Akyol even brings up the whole homosexuality issue concerning Sparta, which the film glosses over and/or ignores. (While not "homosexual" in the modern understanding of the word, the 300 did fight as couples. And of course, neither the ancient Persians or modern Turks can afford to throw any stones in that area.)

Akyol's essay can be found, here.

Spengler, takes on Iran's tantrum over the movie and weaves it into his larger view of imperial Persian ambitions here. He writes:

These new imperial ambitions inspire Iran's impassioned defense of the ancient Persian Empire, which, as noted, trample over the Koran's clear view of the matter. What upsets the Persians is not the inaccuracies of 300, a Hollywood genre film with few pretenses at historical authenticity. They simply don't like the fact that the Persians lost.

Never one to mince words, Spengler continues:

On the surface, the most objectionable departure from historical fact is the figure of Persia's King Xerxes, who is portrayed as a monstrous, body-pierced, sexually ambiguous monster prancing madly about the battlefield. That is fanciful, to be sure, but conveys a deeper truth about the character of Persian rulers, who were among the most lascivious, concupiscent, slothful, sensual, deceitful and greedy gang of louts who ever had the misfortune to reign.

Check out what he has to say.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On Death and Dying

In my recent reading of Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Journals, I found that he had quite a lot to say on the subject of death and dying. This has always been of interest to me as well, and has been somewhat on my mind in the last few months. I have been curious to what extent people really think about death and dying. In our culture, at least, it seems most everyone is in full-fledged denial, rushing madly to occupy every waking moment with activity--doing everything, anything to avoid the essential reality of their existence. So much so, that when the time comes, some seem actually surprised by it all, and surviving family members may act as though fate has played a cruel and unusual trick on them.

Our avoidance can even be somewhat comical. I purchased my first home when I was 22, in what was characterized as a transitional neighborhood. A, shall we say, "colorful" Pentecostal widow lady lived next door. She tied dozens of artificial red flowers to a shrub in her front yard, so that it would "bloom" all year long. She also fashioned a commode into a planter for her petunias. That too, in the front yard. You get my drift. Anyway, at the drop of a hat, she would testify that she was Heaven-bound, ready to go, right now! Her commitment to leaving, however, was somewhat suspect, for in almost the same breath, she was just as apt to tell you about the time when she was having a heart attack and prayed to God to deliver her--and He did!

One often hears the complaint--particularly as people age--how life is going faster and faster, the years slipping away from them, so to speak. And of course, this is true in light of God and eternity--In the morning they are like grass which grows up: In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers. And yet, I wonder if the people who harp on this theme are in fact those most disconnected with the rhythm and routineness of death? For the fracturing of our communal, familial and tribal ties is a legacy of our modern (and now post modern) world, as is the resultant disconnect with death.

I have never really felt this, and still do not. In my mind, the years of my youth and early 20s seem like ages and ages ago. I recall a quote from Donald Davidson, the Southern writer, who said "life is long enough to live." This actually seems much a paraphrase of Seneca's axiom, "life, if well lived, is long enough." There is wisdom here, and I find it more in keeping with an authentically Christian view of reality.

Fr. Schmemann had keen insight into our society's attempted dismissal of death and dying. His characterizations from 30 years ago are even more accurate today.

Fear of death comes from bustle, fuss, not from happiness. When one bustles around and suddenly remembers death, death seems totally absurd, horrible. But when one reaches quiet and happiness, one contemplates and accepts death quite differently....In happiness, in genuine happiness, one always feels the presence of eternity in the heart, so that happiness is open to death. (p. 33)

And later:

Death is in the center of religion and of culture, and one's attitude towards death determines one's attitude toward life. Any denial of death only increases the neurosis (immortality) as does its acceptance (asceticism, denial of the flesh). Only victory over death is the answer, and it presupposes transcendence of both denial and acceptance--"death consumed by victory." The question is "What is this victory?" Quite often the answer is forgotten. Therefore one is helpless in dealing with death. Death reveals--must reveal--the meaning not of death, but of life. Life must not be a preparation for death, but victory over death, so that, in Christ, death becomes the triumph of life. We teach about life without relation to death, and about death as unrelated to life. When it considers life only as a preparation for death, Christianity makes life meaningless, and reduces death to "the other world," which does not exist, because God has created only one world, one life. It makes Christianity and death meaningless, as victory; it does not solve the neurosis of death. Interest about the fate of the dead beyond the grave makes Christian eschatology meaningless. The church does not pray about the dead; it is (must be) their continuous Resurrection, because the Church is life in death, victory over death, the universal Resurrection. (p. 45)

This is a particularly powerful passage for me, for in all my earlier years as a Protestant, I never, ever heard it articulated quite this way. Of course we heard countless exhortations for hope after death, innumerable sermons about Christ's atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and a myriad of allusions to the beauties and wonders of Heaven. Yet, despite it all, in some sense we were unsure what to make of death, swinging from "super-assurance" to doubt. But what Fr. Schmemann describes; this over-arching view of death as victory and triumph, this trampling down of death by death and the view of the Church as life in death, I have only found in the fullness of the Faith.

Fr. Schmemann also thought that people have not so much abandoned belief in God, but rather they have lost their fear of God and knowledge of the reality of death.

People have stopped believing not in God or gods, but in death, in eternal death, in its inevitability--hence, they stopped believing in salvation. The seriousness of religion was first of all in the serious choice that a person considered obvious, between death and salvation. People say that disappearance of fear is good, although the essential experience of life is facing death. The saints did not become saints because of fear, but because they knew the fear of God. The contemporary understanding of religion as self-fulfillment is rather cheap. The devil is eliminated, then hell, then sin--and nothing is left except consumer goods. But there is much more fear, even religious fear in the world than ever before--but it is not at all the fear of God. (p. 63)

Fr. Schmemann pinpoints one sure proof of our death-denial--the shuffling off of the dying to the realm of hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, etc. His portrayal of a nursing home visit to an aging bishop is especially poignant.

The impression is not only of a death cell, but precisely of the devilish absurdity of such a gathering, of every "settler" condemned not only to his decay and his dying, but also to the sight--life in a mirror--of the same decay and dying all around. Man must die at home! There must not be this awful isolation, this multiplication of dying, of disintegration. But there is the question: How does one resolve this situation in practice in this frightening and unfeeling world, totally dependent on economic possibilities and impossibilities. (p. 239)

I also appreciate what Athanasius wrote, in his On the Incarnation, on Christians and death:

...instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead....death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.

And finally, thumbing back through an old common-place book, I found the following by Malcolm Muggeridge:

Like a prisoner awaiting his release, like a schoolboy when the end of term is near, like a migrant bird ready to fly south...I long to be gone. Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited, hearing the key turn in the lock of time so that the great doors of eternity swing open, disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983

I must be the last kid on the block to read Fr. Schmemann's Journal. Once started, I could not put it down--a treasure of a book, by a remarkable man. What strikes one is his brutal honesty and tender humanity. Schmemann was a man of many interests, and his journal entries are wide-ranging. Along the way, he expressed great appreciaton for some of my personal favorites--the writings of Flannery O'Connor and Julian Green, as well as, of all things...."Fawlty Towers."

His frustrations are well-documented--clericalism, academic pettiness, the artificial "busyness" that can pass for church life, the dimunition of joy in the Liturgy, the baseness of Western society and what he refers to as "Byzantinism." But the journal is far from a chronicle of complaint. Schmemann always came back to the simple joy of life in Christ, for as he said, "there is undoubtedly only one joy: to know Him and share Him with each other." His last entry before his death was "What happiness it has all been!"

For some of the best ruminations on Schememann, review Scrivener's 13-part series, here.

Much Better Now, Thanks!

After 2 long weeks, the staples are now out, the catheter has been removed, and I am within days of being able to drive again. So, my recovery from surgery is coming along nicely. I want to thank everyone who visited, called, encouraged me by email, and offered up prayers on my behalf. This experience has taught me a few things about humility and gratitude, the nature of true friendship, and most especially, prayer. Until this last year, I have barrelled through life with barely a runny nose. For the first time, I am on the receiving end of prayer for the sick. Now I understand.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spengler, Europe and Orthodoxy

Spengler, in “Europe is not the sum of its parts,” makes some interesting observations regarding Europe’s continuing quest for a constitution. Basically, he sees no way forward for a constitution or a European government, as Europe is increasingly divorced from what made it Europe in the first place--the Church. He notes that it was the “unified Europe of Church and Empire [that] created the nations along with the languages and cultures,” and believes “as individual nations, Europe's constituent countries will die on the vine.

Spengler concurs with Belloc's quip - "Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe," and finds Voltaire to be only half right, for the "Holy Roman Empire was neither Roman nor an empire, but it was holy. European monarchs donned the robes of ancient Rome like small children playing dress-up...but the unifying concept of Christendom is what made it possible to create nations out of the detritus of Rome and the rabble of invading barbarians."

What really caught my eye, however, was Spengler's closing:

To recapture Europe means re-creating the faith. It is hard to imagine that the Roman Catholic Church might re-emerge as Europe's defining institution. The European Church is enervated. But I do not think that is the end of the matter. As I argued last month, Russia has become the frontier between Europe and the Islamic world and, unlike Europe, is not prepared to dissolve quietly into the ummah. Pope Benedict's recent pilgrimage to Turkey, it must be remembered, only incidentally dealt with Catholic relations with Islam; first of all it was a gesture to Orthodoxy in the form of a visit to the former Byzantium, its spiritual home.

Franz Rosenzweig, that most Jewish connoisseur of Christianity, believed that the Church of Peter (Rome) and the Church of Paul (Protestantism) would yield place to the Church of John (Orthodoxy) - that the churches of works and faith would be transcended by the church of love. If Europe has a future, it lies in an ecumenical alliance of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and at least some elements of Anglicanism.

For the time being, Europe's constitution will be stillborn. But Europe is not yet dead. Russia is the place to watch, and the quiet conversation of Catholicism is the still, small voice to listen for.

I recommend this article.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Infidel

The Dallas Morning News recently published an excerpt from Ayann Hirsi Ali's new best-seller, Infidel. Ali's story is becoming increasingly well-known. This strikingly beautiful and fearless 37-year old is an internationally renowned spokeswoman against the oppression of Muslim women. She escaped from Somalia in 1992 and sought asylum in the Netherlands. Ms. Hirsi Ali went on to repudiate Islam and gain a seat in the Dutch Parliament. In 2003, she collaborated with Dutch director Theo van Gough in the filming of Submission, Part 1. This, in turn, led directly to his brutal murder by a young Moroccan immigrant. The assassination rocked Europe, and did more than anything to shake the continent from it's contented and delusional lethargy. Ms. Hirsi Ali has been under a death threat since that time. She left Parliament in 2006 and moved to the US, where she is a fellow for the American Enterprise Institute. She remains heavily guarded at all times, yet continues to speak out. Infidel is her story.

Ayann Hirsi Ali pulls no punches. Three excerpts follow:

In Islam, unlike in Christianity and Judaism, the relationship of the individual to God is one of total submission, slave to master. As Islam is conceived, any kind of disagreement with Allah is insolence because it assumes equality with Him. I felt that liberation of Muslim women must be preceded by liberation of the mind from this rigid, dogmatic obedience to Allah's dictates. Allah is constantly referred to in the Quran as "the most compassionate, the most merciful"; He also says several times that he has given us a will of our own. In that case, I wonder, why would He mind a little debate?

I called the film Submission, Part 1, because I saw this as the first in a series that would tackle the master-slave relationship of God and the individual. My message was that the Quran is an act of man, not of God. We should be free to interpret it; we should be permitted to apply it to the modern era in a different way, instead of performing painful contortions to try to re-create the circumstances of a horrible distant past.

People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.

The full article can be found here.

But as admirable as she is, I find myself uncomfortable with Ms. Hirsi Ali's struggle. For she has replaced her faith with, well, no faith at all. Ali's response to a destructive faith is a life devoid of faith. She writes, I said goodbye to Theo. He himself didn't believe in a Hereafter. I no longer believe in a Hereafter. And so this was it, I thought: This is the end. No, but it is sad.

Rod Dreher speaks to this concern in an excellent article, here. He notes that she is a tragic hero, three times over. (And please pardon the lengthy quotes.)

Though she is more staunchly European in her beliefs than many Europeans, her countrymen want her to shut up. She reminds them of their own cowardice in the face of aggressive domestic Islamism and of the utter failure of Europe's multiculturalist ideals....that is Ms. Hirsi Ali's first tragedy.

Her second tragedy is even more dispiriting: She has probably arrived too late. Ms. Hirsi Ali forces Europeans to confront their own helplessness in the face of a civilizational threat entirely of their own making.

Ms. Hirsi Ali's final tragedy is that what she preaches is leading to the triumph of what she most fears. Having escaped a cruel culture dominated by religion, she understandably despises faith. But religion per se was not what oppressed Ms. Hirsi Ali; it was a particular religion, Islam. The militant secularism Ms. Hirsi Ali advocates has already created a spiritual vacuum in Europe that Islam is filling.

Dreher concludes:

An exhausted Europe is dying from its lack of spiritual dynamism. Europe has set its prosperous face against the religious foundation upon which its post-classical civilization was built. As European Christianity breathes its last, the hedonism, moral relativism and consumerism that have replaced it cannot muster the wherewithal even to have babies, much less resist a confrontational Islam....As post-Christian Europe shuffles toward senescence, Islam's vital energy waxes. No one who cherishes the achievements of the West – including free speech, democracy, minority rights and equality for women – can see their crushing lack in the Islamic world and view the rise of Euro-Islam with must be conceded that Muslims today have a firm spiritual foundation for their individual and collective lives. No one can see that crushing lack among Europeans and view Euro-secularism with indifference.

There is something deeply admirable about this passionate African woman's stirring defense of Western liberties. But the question remains: What is freedom for? It cannot be an end in itself. There must be purpose beyond self-gratification. Europe is proving that materialism – the philosophical basis for the secularism and libertinism that is modern Europe's creed – is not sufficient to sustain civilization.

With their terrifying confidence, Islamic believers understand something about human nature that the West has forgotten – but will soon relearn, the hard way. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if Europe will not have the God of the Bible, it should pay its respects to Allah.

There's nothing new here, really. Dreher and countless others have been sounding the alarm for years now. But it still needs to said, and often. The situation put me in remembrance of a passage I've just read from The Brothers Karamazov. This from Father Paissy's address to Alyosha:

Remember...that the science of this world, having united itself into a great force, has...examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy. But they have examined parts and missed the whole, and their blindness is even worthy of wonder. Meanwhile the whole stands before their eyes as immovably as ever, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it...For those who renounce Christianity and rebel against it are in their essence of the same image of the same Christ, and such they remain, for until now neither their wisdom nor the ardor of their hearts have been able to create another, higher image of man and his dignity than the image shown of old by Christ. And whatever their attempts, the results have been only monstrosities.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Freeman on Dostoevsky

I always enjoy Fr. Stephen Freeman's Glory to God for All Things. In a recent post on Dostoevsky, he notes having purchased the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov. (I found this interesting as I also bought the new version a few days ago. Facing several weeks of recuperation at home following surgery, I plan to really read TBK this time.) Fr. Stephen's article is excellent, as usual, but I particularly like the following paragraph:

This reality of our age has something to do with Orthodoxy for me. The “thinness” of Protestant thought and practice do not contain enough of heaven to serve as a sufficient antidote in our modern world - at least for me. I could not be a happy Protestant without somehow becoming blind to my own culture (for to a large extent, Protestantism simply is the culture and, for me, cannot be the bearer of Kingdom of God). Our culture has spawned many religions that are essentially worship of America itself (homegrown products like Mormonism is one that comes to mind - but I would have to quickly add almost all of the Protestant Churches that I know). I like America, but I do not think it is the bearer of the Kingdom of God.

Russia's hudna with the Muslim world

Spengler is always excellent. In my opinion, his latest column on Putin’s Russia, here, is his best yet. I have long contended that--in the grand scheme of things--Russia is not our enemy. In fact, as the 21st century progresses, they may be our last natural ally. Of course, their heavy-handedness can be hard for us to take—just as our sanctimony is for them. For all the recent uproar over Putin’s Munich speech, I actually found little with which to disagree. Some excerpts from Spengler follow (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it is inevitable that Washington should misunderstand Moscow at this juncture in history. Putin has embarked on a monstrous enterprise, next to which Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor seems like a country parson. European Russia is dying, and Muslims will compose a majority of citizens of the Russian Federation by as early as 2040. But the successors of Imperial Russia, the Third Rome after the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453, refuse to slide without a struggle into the digestive tract of the House of Islam. Western Europe may go with a whimper rather than a bang as Muslim immigrants replace the shrinking local population, but the Russians have no such intention. Putin and his comrades will employ all the guile and violence at their command to delay the decline of European Russia. The Europeans are the emasculated remnant of a fallen civilization; for better or worse, the Russians still are real men.

Putin is playing a Great Game in Central Asia, comparable in scope to the long duel with Britain during the 19th century, but with a difference: Russia's object is no longer imperial, but existential. America's blundering about its borders in the form of "color revolutions" in the republics of the former Soviet Union is an intolerable form of interference.

It is instructive to contrast Russia's policy in Chechnya with America's catastrophic policy in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Force, duplicity and bargains with the devil are the hallmarks of Russian strategy. Free elections have brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories, entrenched Hezbollah in Lebanon, and set in motion a civil war in Iraq. By contrast, Putin has pacified the most stubborn Muslim population in the world, namely Chechnya, by means that horrified the world. The United States offers democracy to the Muslim world, and is universally hated; Putin destroys an entire Muslim country, and is welcomed as a friend. The question begs itself: who better understands the Islamic world, Vladimir Putin or George W Bush?

It is maddening to contemplate the denizens of Washington sipping white wine and debating the final triumph of liberal democracy and free markets in the vaunted "end of history". Russia's tragedy is beyond their comprehension. For three generations, the communist system rooted out and extirpated any soul intrepid enough to show thought or initiative. By the early 1990s, Russia's European population was a passive, sullen rabble incapable of asserting its rights; the cleverest and most adventurous emigrated. Demoralization manifested itself in high rates of alcoholism, drug use and venereal disease. Life expectancy fell from 70 years in 1990 to 65 years today. It will take two or three generations before Russians acquire the courage and the sense of civil society to determine their own destiny after the fashion of the Anglo-Saxon countries.

The only leadership left in Russia by the terrible adverse selection process of the communist system was the former secret guardians of the state, men whose unique position required them to live by their wits. The former secret-police official Vladimir Putin is the only sort of man who could rule Russia in the wake of its 20th-century tragedy. There is nothing to like about the man, but there is something to respect. Russia is fighting for its life against the odds, and there is no one left to fight for Russia but the bloody-handed fighters of the old regime.

Safe in their own continent, with a Muslim population of no more than 2 million to 3 million, composed to a great extent of educated immigrants, the Americans are incapable of understanding what Russia now faces. Yet Russia is a natural ally of the United States for the remainder of the 21st century, perhaps the only natural ally the US will have. Europe does not have the stomach to resist its gradual assimilation in the Islamic world. But Russia will resist, and it will do so ruthlessly. America's cookie-cutter approach to nation-building has been a disaster; Washington stands to learn a great deal from the tragic history of the Russian Empire.

By all means, read the entire article.