Friday, February 29, 2008
Orthodox Lent rarely makes the news. Not so with Catholic and Anglican Lent, which fits the more mainstream perception of the season. And every year, some news article quotes someone who just doesn't get it. A good case in point is this story, in which 2 Anglican bishops encourage their flocks to give up carbon instead of chocolate. Oh good grief. One expects this sort of thing from Anglicans these days. In fact, I would be disappointed if Lent rolled around without some such silliness as this from that quarter.
What one doesn't expect is this. The Dutch Catholic charity Vantenaktie is now referring to Lent as "Christian Ramadan." Lord. have. mercy. As I said, one would expect this sort of thing from the British Anglicans, but from a Catholic group? Christian Ramadan? The mind reels.
A spokesman explains:
"The image of the Catholic Lent must be polished. The fact that we use a Muslim term is related to the fact that Ramadan is a better-known concept among young people than Lent," said Vastenaktie Director, Martin Van der Kuil.
Oh, I see. Well, that makes it all okay then.
If memory serves me correctly, Christianity precedes Islam by over six centuries. Therefore, you cannot define or describe the Faith in Islamic terms. It would be akin to describing the Magna Carta in terms of the Declaration of Independence, or describing the battle of Agincourt in terms of the battle of Gettysburg. You can, however, legitimately define Islam in terms of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and everything else of which it is a derivative.
I recall my 2006 visit to the Meryamana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary) in Diyarbakir, Turkey. I wrote about it at the time, here. This city is well off the tourist trail. In fact, it is the only place, in all my visits there, that I ever felt the least bit uncomfortable. Diyarbakir is an ancient city, but the population surged to over a million due to the dislocation of Kurdish villagers during the PKK troubles of the 1990s. The city is considered the epicenter of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey. A heavy military presence guards a sometimes seething population. But the old city is enclosed by ancient Byzantine walls, said to be the longest outside of China. Also, deep within a maze of alleyways and warrens lies the Meryamana Kilisesi.
Hidden behind a protective walled compound, the church dates back to the late 4th century. Three or so Syrian Orthodox Christian families hold out within the compound. The church is one of the oldest in the world. Anyway, my Turkish guide, as well as our driver, joined me for part of the Vespers service there (in Aramaic, no less). They were both surprised to see that we did prostrations in the course of the service. My friend Turan asked me about it afterwards, and I gently chided him a bit by saying, "Of course we do prostrations. Where do you think y'all got the idea?"
All of that is to say that Islam can be seen in light of the Christian and Jewish practices that form the basis for its own practices. In the early years of Islam, it was often viewed as just another Christian heresy. But it cannot, and should not, work the other way around. This is just inexcusable.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
I first became acquainted with Dr. Wood in his Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, published in 2004. This book is, quite simply, essential reading. You don't even have to be Southern (but it helps). Dr. Wood is a native of northeast Texas, who in his youth aspired to be a Baptist preacher. His family was too poor to send him to Baylor, so he had to settle for a nearby teacher's college. As Dr. Wood tells it, this turned out to be his salvation. For at this institution he found something he would have never encountered at that Bastion of Baptistocracy on the Brazos, namely, a Catholic professor. [This reminds me of a quotation from W. C. Brann, "the Iconoclast," in reference to the Baylor administration of the early 1900s. He observed that they "couldn't father an original idea if they were hurled bodily into the womb of the Goddess of Wisdom."]
Young Wood's professor opened his eyes to the Catholic literary tradition, and by this I mean Chesterton, Waugh, Percy, Maritain, Gilson and O'Connor, among others. This mentor even arranged for O'Connor to visit the small East Texas campus in 1962, two years before her death. Dr. Wood has made this his life's work, and he is today one of our nation's foremost authorities on Chesterton, Tolkien, Percy and especially, O'Connor. He is a professor of literature and theology at Baylor, introducing his students--Protestants, in the main--to the riches of the Catholic literary tradition.
And yet, Dr. Wood remains true to his roots, a committed Baptist. As one reviewer notes, he is that rarest of birds, a "Catholic Baptist Southern Literary Critic." Dr. Wood maintains a website, here. He links a number of articles and essays. Some are copies of published works, while others are simply short outlines intended for his classes. Such is his "A Brief Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition." It is very basic, intended as an encompassing overview for students. An error or two creeps in, but we won't quibble with that. I find it to be among the best of such summaries I have seen. The entire essay (only 4 pages) is found here.
The largely unrecognized irony is that, despite the common reading of Orthodoxy as merely the Eastern version of Catholicism, Rome and Protestantism have more in common with each other than either does with Orthodoxy.
Dr. Wood identifies 3 major claims the Orthodox make against Roman Catholicism:
1. They refuses to accept primacy of the See of Rome, and Roman additions.
2. They deny that apostolic succession in confined to Rome alone, (Indeed, Wood observes that "the Eastern church has a much better claim to an unbroken chain of the laying on of hands, all the way back to the earliest bishops, including Linus, the first historically-attested bishop of Rome.")
3. They view the Virgin Mary in "maternal terms," and rebut Marian claims that interpret her in "sub-incarnational terms"
He names 4 major claims the Orthodox make against the West, both Catholic and Protestant:
1. God is indeed Trinity, but God is 3 distinct persons or hypostates, not a unipersonal subject who revealed himself in three different ways. Consequently, the Holy Spirit plays a much larger role, for example, in the life of the Eastern than in the Western churches.
2. Salvation is not understood primarily in juridical terms.
3. Thus, they understand the human condition differently. It is our likeness to God which, after the Fall, must be restored. Orthodox thus speak of “ancestral” rather than “original” sin.
4. They view the Christian existence as a lifelong undertaking in theosis—"the divinization of human life by praying and practicing the faith of the Church." .
Finally, Dr. Wood finds 4 distinguishing characteristics of Orthodoxy:
1. Their insistence that Christian faith is not a set of religious ideas but an entire way of life: a life of worship and prayer, of devotion and service.
2. Orthodox inseparably link liturgy and theology. Worship lies at the center of Orthodoxy.
3. Their use of icons in worship and devotion.
4. Orthodox understanding of the Christian life as theosis, the divinizing and deifying of our humanity.
This is hardly the first time these distinctions have been drawn. This favorable analysis from a Baptist scholar, however, is refreshing. When Protestants become Orthodox, family members sometimes remain bewildered and confused by the path their loved-ones have taken. For those in this situation, Dr. Wood's essay would be a good one to copy and leave laying about the house.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
And on top of that, Condeleeza Rice is losing patience with Serbia.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was time for Serbs to accept that Kosovo is no longer theirs. She also suggested it was time to drop centuries of grievance and sentimentality in the Balkans. "We believe that the resolution of Kosovo's status will really, finally, let the Balkans begin to put its terrible history behind it," Dr. Rice said Friday.
Oh, really. Her message to Serbia seems to be something like this: We are America and we know what is best for you. We have divvied-up your country in a manner we think best, and it is high time for you to stop your whining and learn to live with it.
But I have saved the best for last. Rice continues:
"I mean, after all, we're talking about something from 1389 – 1389! It's time to move forward."
With the President out of the country--last seen getting-down, so to speak, with some Liberian tribal dancers--this statement is easily the most inane commentary coming from the Bush administration in recent memory.
The American people have been told that Secretary Rice's expertise lay in the field of Russian--or to be more exact, Soviet Union--studies. Such petulant comments display an appalling ignorance of Slavic history, culture and sensibilities. Beyond that, it dismisses the very thing which defines a people, any people--their shared history.
It's worse than we imagined.
Lord, have mercy.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Instead, my wife and I attended a production of Evita. What great fun. No, this wasn't exactly Broadway, but the performing arts center at our local university has consistently attracted some pretty impressive touring companies, or least for a community our size.
My only disappointment was not with the play, but in the receptiveness of the audience. Most of the theater-goers were older (old, of course, being anyone older than me). Listening to the conversations during the intermission and afterwards, it dawned on me that this lukewarmness stemmed from a general unfamiliarity with the story. How could anyone of a certain age not know about Juan and Eva Peron? Theirs is one of the great melodramas of the 20th century, involving, along the way, the ruination of a once great nation. Simply put, it is one helluva story.
Film clips of 1940s Buenos Aires served as a backdrop to several of the scenes, which served to put me in fond remembrance of the city. Almost 9 years have passed since I was there. And what a city! First of all, it is very European. In fact, these days it is probably more so than many cities in Europe. You will see no headscarves or burkhas. You will see Italian fashions. Architecturally, Buenos Aires may be one of the most significant cities in the world. There's plenty of soulless, modern ugliness, to be sure. But the greater part of the city was constructed during the first few decades of the 20th century, when Argentina was one of the world's richest countries. The streets are chock-a-block with magnificent, soaring beaux arts and art deco buildings.
My memories of the city came flooding back: the Plaza San Martin, the Cafe Tortino, Casa Rosada, Avenida Pacifica, the flea market at San Telmo, the tango show, the bar at the Plaza Hotel, tea at the Alvear Palace, an Argentine steak supper, the Circulo Militar, the horse races, exquisite Argentine Malbec served in beer-sized bottles with your meal, the taxi drivers, Palermo, the macabre Recoleto Cemetery, the Opera House, our friends Julio and Peter.
Buenos Aires is laid out in the grand style, with many wide avenues (the Avenida 9 de Julio reputedly the widest in the world), but it is definitely a city for walking, and of course, doing what Portenos enjoy most--talking and people-watching. The venue of choice is the coffee shop. It is a rare block that is not anchored with a coffee shop at each end, and perhaps one in the middle for good measure. Many of these establishments were grand art deco affairs, with plate-glass windows along the street, white-jacketed waiters, and even mezzanine seating.
We found countless opportunities to stop and cool our heals a bit, and watch the parade of handsome humanity pass outside our window. Invariably, we would have a cafe con leche and a plate of medialunas ("half-moons," for the Spanish-impaired). These medialunas are small glazed croissants--oh, they were so good!
And that has become my most cherished memory of Buenos Aires--not the tango shows or the architecture, but rather a good cup of coffee, a bit of sweet bread, and a simple savoring of the natural rhythm of life. Political enthusiasms usually come to a bad, or at least a disappointing end, whether it be Evita or Obama. There are more important things. Like a good medialuna.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Well, we knew it was coming. Kosovo has declared independence, with celebrations in Pristina. This is largely a situation of our making. The crowds in the street are waving American flags, alongside their Kosovo flags. They are also carrying signs saying "Thank you, America," and holding up pictures of Bill Clinton.
It seems increasingly obvious that the chances for a Clintonian Restoration are slipping away, and with it, the hope of solidifying and confirming their place in history. Future scholars will give the Clinton years a mixed review, at best. With no second Clinton administration, there will be no "Clinton era" for the history books. But Bill Clinton does have a legacy--if you want to call it that--and it is Kosovo.
Western Europe and the U.S. will fall into line recognizing the new state. Serbia and Russia will protest indignantly, but in the end, nothing much can be done. It will be interesting to see how quickly the "Kosovo principal" will be utilized by each and every separatist group in the world--many of which are uncomfortably close to western Europe and, I might add, the U.S. And when this happens, those of us who love irony can at least relish the sight of Western Europe and the U.S. preaching against the very same medicine they prescribed for Serbia.
The Kosovo story, here.
Friday, February 15, 2008
My bitter rant of the month:
There’s something deeply hypocritical about a country that took away a third of a neighbor’s territory in war, that went to war when Saddam Hussein did the same thing.
There’s something deeply hypocritical about the one country that used atomic weapons against inhabited cities threatening war because a distant rival might be manufacturing the same type of weapons.
There’s something deeply hypocritical about a country that fought a bloody war to keep eleven states from seceding, abetting secession from the heartland of a distant country three times as old, whose soil is thick with the blood of its martyrs.
There’s something deeply hypocritical about a country that wallows in trade and fiscal deficits preaching austerity and creditworthiness to the poorest nations on earth.
There’s something deeply hypocritical about a country that fancies itself a City on a Hill imagining it is enlightening the world with fast food, gangsta rap, celebriporn, and explosion-and-chase movies.
God mend thine every flaw!
Confirm thy goal in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Thursday, February 14, 2008
As I was scanning the local paper this morning, I came across a short announcement (warning?) that on the morrow, former President Bill Clinton will be traveling through our part of the state, stopping even here, in the reddest county of a cat-house red state.
So it has come to this. The Clinton candidacy is in such dire straits that President Clinton is being dispatched to behind the Pine Curtain, to stir up what votes can be had in East Texas. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton, or as the television ads call her, Nuestra Amiga, is camping out in South Texas, an area we now learn is her "second home."
We Texans are not averse to attention, but we never thought that our March 4th primary would amount to anything. Now it turns out that we, more specifically our Latinos and white women, are to be Mrs. Clinton's firewall. Well...maybe not. It appears to me that Mrs. Clinton has been swimming against the tide of history for some time now, and I am afraid the waves are about to wash over her. First, Obama seems to have closed the white-woman-voter-gap in the Virginia primary. Second, much is made of her strength in the Latino community, which certainly cannot be discounted. But Texas is not California. Our Hispanic population is long-established and much more integrated, in my view, than in California. Texas (Tejas, if you will) started off Hispanic, and that influence has remained an element of our culture, from the very beginning. The Rio Grande Valley has always been integrated economically and culturally with northern Mexico. When we drive down to the shopping outlet malls between San Antonio and Austin, we meet Mexican shoppers who drive up from Monterey. Our border has always been porous. And the Hispanic voter in Texas is more independent, much less susceptible to control by party bosses. Generalizations made about the Valley simply do not necessarily hold for San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Austin.
So, Mrs. Clinton may very well carry Texas, but if so, it won't be by much. And in the current dynamics, it won't be enough.
Last weekend, in the nearby Starbucks, 10 or 12 of us were gathered around, having a free-wheeling pontification on what has to be the most exciting political season in almost 50 years. I was struck by several currents of thought. First, there is the ever-present Clinton loathing among some. It is visceral, emotional and irrational. One can certainly make a legitimate case, based on the issues, to be against Mrs. Clinton. But this opposition seems purely personal. To one of this mindset, it is inconceivable that the nation could ever elect Hillary Clinton (a fact I dispute). Some of us tried to suggest that our city is not even representative of Texas, much less the rest of the country. But they were having none of it, provincialism being a tough nut to crack. And yet, these same people were ambivalence towards Barack Obama, who is arguably more liberal than Mrs. Clinton. Some still do not think he can win the nomination--or better put, they don't see how Mrs. Clinton will not win the nomination (another fact I dispute--see above). I observed no hand-wringing over the prospect of an Obama administration. Next, everyone was underwhelmed by McCain--no discernable enthusiam. Finally, I observed an undercurrent that cut across the group--Republicans, Democrats and independents--that is, the desire to punish the current Bush administration. A discussion of the Bush-Cheney years leaves even the rock-ribbed Republicans sputtering and cussing. These observations are obviously just anecdotal. A roundtable discussion at a coffee shop in a medium-sized city in East Texas may mean something. Or it may mean nothing at all.
While I am enjoying the twists and turns of the political season (a guilty pleasure), the end game is not hard to figure out. Here is how I see it:
First, start with these 3 truisms:
- The Democratic Party was only 1 state away from winning the electoral vote in both 2000 and 2004.
- Democrats who voted for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 will not balk at either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Why should they?
- There is a deep-seated dissatisfaction/anger at the current administration which permeates all regions and parties.
Now, let's do the math. Take a yellow tablet. Draw a line down the middle, making 2 columns. On the left hand column, label it "States that voted Democratic in 2000 and 2004 that are now trending Republican." Go ahead, take you time. Now, on the other column, label it "States that voted Republican in 2000 and 2004 that are now trending Democratic." Use the second page if you have to. You get my point. By all means, enjoy the show, but I have just given away the ending.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
My previous post of Joel Osteen was creeping-out some people (myself included), and I received a request to replace it with someone less objectionable. Staying within the realm of religious charlatans, I chose the Reverend Spikes, shown here with Vera Carp, of Greater Tuna fame.
If you are unfamiliar with the Osteenian eloquence of Reverend Spikes, I submit the following, his eulogy of Judge Roscoe Buckner of Tuna, Texas:
I just wanna say, I say I just wanna say a few words, a few words about a friend of mine and a friend of Tuna’s. Roscoe Buckner spent his whole life in service to his community, his country and his Lord. And we’re sure that when the roll is called up yonder, he’ll be there. He was a judge who made hay while the sun shined, but always, I say always let a smile be his umbrella. He always kept his sunny side up and always saw the silver lining behind every cloud. A judge who took no wooden nickels nor threw caution to the wind, but looked before he leapt and never got in over his head. No, he kept his head, when all about him were losin’ theirs and blaming it on him. He kept a stiff upper lip and his nose to the wheel. About this man, we can truly say, he was one of a kind, a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny. He was one for all and all for one, and to his own self be true. And I can tell you this, he did it his way. He was a serious-minded judge, and let bygones be bygones, but remembered the Alamo. About this man, we can truly say, he was the cream in Tuna’s coffee. He fought fire with fire, and kept the home fires burning. And when he couldn’t stand the heat, he got out of the kitchen. He would walk that extra mile, he would walk it softly and carry a big stick. He was a Pepper, a man’s man, early to bed, early to rise. He laid his cards on the table, gathered at the river, and brought in the sheaves. Hunger was his best pickle. He was a judge who wouldn’t fire until he saw the whites of their eyes, but whistled a happy little tune, praised God, and passed that ammunition. For he had not yet begun to fight. For never ever ever did I hear the man say die…he just did. He was a fine upstanding civil servant, who practiced what he preached, put his best foot forward and his money where his mouth was. And when the going got tough, he was gone…It’s not easy to find words to describe such a man. We commend his soul to you, Lord. I, the Reverend Spikes, recommend him. Amen, Lord. Amen.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Making light of the theological depth of Joel Osteen is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. It is just way too easy. I would never do that. I'll let Chris Lehmann do it, here. A few gems, collected below.
"Even many good, godly people have gotten into a bad habit of slumping and looking down...[Y]ou need to put your shoulders back, hold your head up high, and communicate strength, determination, and confidence."
"get in the habit of smiling on purpose"
"It doesn't please God for us to drag through life like miserable failures," he scolds. The Creator "wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly."
"If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be up on it. If God carried a wallet, your photo would be in it."
The Osteen Creed:
"This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I do what it says I can do, I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible, ever-living seed of God, and I will never be the same. Never, never, never. I will never be the same. In Jesus' name. Amen."
Lehmann is having none of it.
Mr. Osteen's rigid – and plainly dangerous – nominalist faith sits uncomfortably alongside an obsession with blood heredity, which seems to contradict the notion of a purely spiritual and supernatural health-care plan....an eerily collapsible spiritual narcissism that downgrades the divine image into the job description for a lifestyle concierge.
I haven't blogged about Turkey in quite some time now, but I have continued to follow events there. Apparently, the "head scarf issue" is still roiling the country. Parliament recently took a step towards lifting the ban on women's head scarves at Turkish universities. Secular Turks are up in arms over the move. As one secular legislator charged, "It will ultimately bring us Hezbollah terror, Alqaeda terror and fundamentalism." Well, this is the sort of hysterical, overblown rhetoric that one would expect from the likes of say...Mitt Romney. But considering Turkey's neighborhood, such concerns are somewhat more understandable. One commentator feared that "it is going to evolve into a ban on uncovered hair."
But such a take on events may be a misreading of what is actually happening. The issue "pits a rising, increasingly wealthy middle class of observant Turks, on one side, against a secular elite, backed by the military and the judiciary, on the other." One scholar concludes, "it's all about power....it's about who gets to decide what Turkey's image and emblematic lifestyle will be. Islam is the lightning rod for all the fears and concerns."
Turkey's booming economy is a great equalizer. On the streets of Istanbul, young women in heans, stylish T-shirts and Keds wear head scarves of all colors. Young observant women are more integrated than ever.
My response is somewhat counterintuitive to the response I would have tend to have in other parts of the Muslim world. For the secularist tradition in Turkey cannot be divorced from Turkish ultra-nationalist. And it is this virulent nationalism that has been most repressive of the Christian minority there. The voices of moderation and tolerance (such as they are), come more from the so-called Islamist parties.
I recall a conversation I had with my friend, Hakan, on my last visit to Istanbul. We were sitting at a small restaurant--4 tables set out in the cobblestone street, for there was no sidewalk--savoring a meal of fish, mezes, melon, flatbread and, of course, raki. I was making the observation that I noticed far fewer head scarves then (June 2007) than I had in 2003 and 2004. I wondered if the whole head scarf thing had been more of a political statement than anything else, and now that Erdogan's party had carried the day and they were in power, there was no longer a need for the "statement." He said that that was exactly the case. For people like Hakan, thoroughly Western in orientation, the AKP party was simply the party of good government and the rising middle class.
I have commented before that I believe Turkey will remain solidly Muslim in character. And it may take its eyes off the West, somewhat, to gaze eastward at their historic Turkic homeland. But they are not looking south, to Mecca.
Read the story, here.
I also was blessed to attend the baptism of young James in Fort Worth, whose parents are now parishioners at our mission. Along the way, I had the rare treat to visit, face to face, with several blogging friends: Eric (Jacob), David Bryan and Andrea Elizabeth. I wish I could have spent longer with them, but it was a hurried trip, and I am thankful for the time I had.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Americans express disquiet about Romney's religion; 27% of respondents to the 2007 Pew Center poll held an unfavorable view of Mormons, about the same as of American Muslims (29%), against only 9% for Jews and 14% for Catholics. These numbers suggest that Americans are not as dumb as they look.
Joseph Smith...the Sorcerer's Apprentice of American religion.
According to a recent survey, 99% of the students at the church's Brigham Young University believe that Smith was a prophet, despite overwhelming and authoritative evidence that he was a con man.
And then Spengler asks "what attracts people to the cult of the book?" That is a question that has been on my mind of late. I am curious as to why it is so. For the cult of the book is not confined to Mormonism or Islam. As Spengler noted, "why we believe something cannot be separated from what we believe."
I spent a quarter century deep in evangelical American Protestantism. From that perspective, I could never see just how close we came to bibliolatry ourselves. Scripture, or rather our interpretation of it, was the ultimate Authority. From this, we deduced a concept of Christ, a plan of salvation, and fashioned an ideology. But really, it was always all about the book. I remember comments made in bible class about how much more fortunate we were than those First Century Christians, because we had "the Word," meaning of course, the leather-bound variety. It sounded odd, even then. Now, it is almost laughable, if it wasn't so sad. We didn't use words like Incarnation, but it was almost as if Christ's role in giving himself to mankind was really just to bring us the New Testament.
A bit harsh? Perhaps. I don't want to be one to throw stones back at "from whence I came," but this situation intrigues me, particularly when I look at the current state of religion in America. I would be curious to hear the experience/observations of others.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
I have never forwarded a chainletter or anything of that nature, so I think I will follows s-p's lead and let the meme die here. But it is fun to play along. If I were home, I would be able to throw out a passage from my Landmark Herodotus. But, I am away from home, in this case, Austin. That means, of course, a mandatory stop at the "Best Little Orthodox Bookstore in Texas," mentioned, earlier. So, my selection is, as follows:
Faith in the Byzantine World, by Mary Cunningham
Finally, Orthodox Christians believed then, and still believe, that God continues to reveal himself to us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The ideas expressed in the seven ecumenical councils of the Church, which took place between 325 and 787, may go beyond biblical sources in their formulation of Christian doctrine; nevertheless, this reflects God's continuing involvement in human history and the gradual process of divine revelation. As Gregory Nazianzen argued in the fourth century, some doctrines, such as the divinity of the Spirit, were revealed only gradually since Christ's disciples and their followers were not yet capable of fully understanding them.