Monday, September 28, 2009

House Moving Day

Before the move

The first house in our neighborhood went up in 1906, a 3-story late-Victorian pile that was home to our town's leading doctor. Our much more modest-sized house next door, came along in 1908, followed by 4 or 5 similar homes built within the next decade or so. At that time, our neighborhood was considered the new part of town, with each of these spaciously-located homes situated on a bit of acreage.

Ready to roll

Some spectators

About 1912 or so, the doctor built one of these homes as a wedding gift for his daughter and new son-in-law. The doctor died in the flu epidemic of 1919, and it wasn't long before all his family had moved on elsewhere. A second family lived in the daughter's house for over 25 years. Then in 1950, they built new and sold the house to its third owners. This couple raised 4 children in this house, one of whom I had the great privilege of marrying a number of years ago.

Across the street

Along the way, different owners bastardized the house in all the usual ways: wooden porch replaced with concrete porch and pillars, portions of the wrap-around porch enclosed, ceilings lowered, aluminum siding and windows, carpets covering the wood floors, etc. But despite all these improvements, the old house was solid as a rock, built like a battleship.

Into the garden

When my mother-in-law passed away in 1995, the home place went to my wife's youngest brother, who kept the place as rental property until recently. He and his wife are moving back to our town. Initially, they considered remodeling the old home place, but soon decided to build a new house on the site. This presented the family with a dilemma, as everyone was loath to see the old house torn down, and perhaps just a little apprehensive as to how my wife would react. I actually took it harder than she did. In my view, it would be a sin to tear down the home. To make a long story short, they gave the house to my wife and we are moving it 250 ft. to the vacant garden lot adjacent to our home. These old houses do not last forever (though this one may very well outlast the new home replacing it.) The things we build are every bit as corruptible as we are. So, this old house will indeed one day fall into ruin. Just not on my watch.

In place

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blooming in the Desert


I recently learned of an new Orthodox podcast & blog--Blooming in the Desert, which I have also linked in Of Interest.

From their Introduction:

Blooming in the Desert is an Orthodox Podcast & Blog out of Las Vegas, Nevada, under the blessings of his Grace Bishop Benjamin, Bishop of San Francisco and the West, and Fr. John Dresko of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church.

Blooming in the Desert is a new and unique Podcast & Blog, that does not just explore the Orthodox Church, Her Faith, and a journey to be closer to God through love and prayer, but creates an open atmosphere of conversation and discussion for Orthodox Christians and general inquirers. We hope you that you enjoy our website and please come back and visit and comment.

By all means, check them out.

Second Terrace Post--"Yet"

I know I had resolved not to post on anything politically-tinged for a while, but this is just too good not to tag. Every word of Fr. Jonathan's post should be read, then copied and saved. A sampling:

The right wing cannot abide being told that Church is not something you can invent out of marketing questionnaires; that virtue has little to do with value; that goodness and beauty have an inverse relationship with consumerism and comfort; that the virtue of protecting family and land should not be confused with the protecting of wealth and privilege – the protection of which is cowardice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Christian Ramadan?

Here in the South, some local newspapers still publish a Saturday religion section. I always find something either of interest, or of unintended humor. Two months ago, the newspaper sponsored a contemporary gospel music contest, a local evangelical "American Idol" type of thing. This was clearly a pet project of the religion editor, as he has gushed about it ever since. This week, he wrote at great length of the ministry Christian rock bands provide for the "pierced and tatooed" unchurched set. Well, okay. But once I got past that, I found this: Muslims Find Ramadan Fast Partners: Christians.

It seems some evangelicals have rediscovered fasting, but boy did they go around the world to do so.

Like Muslims worldwide, Ben Ries has refrained from food and drink from sunrise to sundown in an act of self-restraint during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend....Only Ries is not a Muslim. He is pastor of 70-member Sterling Drive Church of Christ and a self-described committed Christian....Ries is among a small group of Christians who've joined well-known evangelical author and speaker Brian McLaren in observing a Ramadan fast, opening a new chapter in interfaith relations between two traditions often at odds. To McLaren and his Christian and Muslim fasting partners, it's a neighborly gesture of solidarity that deepens their respective faiths and sends a message about finding peace and common ground....McLaren, 53, is the godfather of the "emerging" or "emergent" church, a loose-knit movement that seeks to recover ancient Christian worship practices and, in some cases, question traditional evangelical theology.

I find it interesting that these evangelicals are fasting not as a Christian discipline, but rather to show respect and solidarity with Islam. I have several Muslim friends. Were I to announce I would be participating in Ramadan with them, they would see it as the obvious gimmick that it is. Others seem to agree.

Southern Baptist thinker Albert Mohler notes:

The logic of Islam is obedience and submission...It's by following these practices that a Muslim demonstrates his obedience to the rule of the law through the Quran. For a Christian to do the same automatically implies a submission to the same rule. And beyond that, it's an explicit affirmation that this is a good and holy thing. From a New Testament perspective, it is not a good and holy thing.

And, I find myself in rare agreement with Mark Driscoll, who writes:

Christians observing a Ramadan fast is "insane at best ... Sad, tragic, horrific, misguided, dangerous, wrong...If Christians want to pray during Ramadan, they should pray not with Muslims but for Muslims — that Muslims would come to know Jesus. To pray with Muslims absolutely dishonors Jesus.

I find it ironic that Bruce McLaren, the Emergent guru, the recoverer of "ancient Christian worship" would be taking his cues from Islam. Much could be said of this, but two main points come to mind. First, I am reminded again of the shallowness and the unstable, shifting nature of what passes for Emergent theology. Weak tea, indeed, as they say. Second, I continue to be amazed at those who think that they have rediscovered/reclaimed/restored that which was never lost in the first place.

The purpose of this post is not to engage in any triumphalist Orthodox one-upmanship when it comes to fasting. My record in this department is not one which would provide any worthy examples. With the ready availability of shrimp, bean burritos and well, beer, I often feel that while technically compliant, I am far from the spirit of the thing. But I try, and am mindful of the fasts.

I had lunch with a good friend last Monday. That was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and a fast day. My selection of bean burritos lead to a conversation about the number of fast days we observe. He is an Episcopalian and freely admitted to have not observed a fast since he was a teenager. But my friend was shocked to learn that we have about 180 fast days throughout the year. Again, I say this not in any self-laudatory way, but to point out that Christians fasted for 600 years before Islam, and continue to do. The Jews, obviously, were fasting even longer. Clearly, there are deeper, richer and older examples of fasting than one finds in the Ramadan imitation of Muhammad.

I was reminded of an anecdote from my 2006 travels in Turkey. I was in Diyarbakir, perhaps the only dangerous city in the entire country. The area has long been a hotbed of Kurdish separatist activity, and harsh government crackdowns. Deep within the walled old city, a beleaguered Suriani Orthodox community holds on behind a walled compound. Three or four families remain and worship at the beautiful 4th-century Church of the Virgin Mary (with an incredible icon of St. Ephraim the Syrian). My guide and friend, Turan, our driver, Belial, and I arrived just before Saturday Vespers. We stayed for the service, and my two Turkish friends sat respectfully in the rear. The service was in Aramaic or Syriac, but I was able to follow along, roughly. On a number of occasions during the service prostrations were called for. I took my lead from the gentleman in front of me. After we left the church, Turan quizzed me about this. He had no idea that Christians did prostrations. We have a good-natured relationship, so I replied, "Sure we do. Where do you think y'all got the idea?" And the same would be true of fasting. While said partly in jest, there is truth to the statement. Islam is a mishmash of ideas taken from the surrounding faiths. For McLaren and other evangelicals to look to Islam for instruction in fasting is both silly and not a little insulting.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Love Song for Bobby Long

I'm generally not in the habit of reviewing movies. But last night, my wife and I watched a feature on the Independent Film Network that kept me awake last night, and remained on my mind this morning. The movie in question is A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004), with John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson and Gabriel Macht. I had never heard of the film, and apparently few others had either. I checked on reviews from the time, and critics generally panned the work--a simplistic and predictable plot, overly sentimental, and too self-consciously Southern Gothic. Yes, yes, yes, it is all those things. The movie is also a small treasure, with important things to say.

Set in one of the seedier neighborhoods of pre-Katrina New Orleans, the story revolves around those the movie refers to as the "invisible people"--washed-up alcoholics, misfits and lost souls--refugees all from their ruinous pasts. Together they find comfort, companionship and support, and maybe a bit of Grace along the way. Like any well-told tale, this is a story all about redemption.

I think I recognize these people, whether among extended family members or past work associates. I was particularly reminded of a favorite aunt, who lost everything over the course of disastrous, self-destructive, train wreck of a life. For more years than I care to remember, first my parents, and later my wife and I attempted damage control. I remember many trips to Houston, to retrieve her from the latest crisis. Over the years, I became quite familiar with the habitues of Nick's Ice House on the north side of town, a neighborhood much akin to that portrayed in the movie. We like to convince ourselves that our own lives are so much different than theirs. The main difference, as I see it, is that they know their lives are ruinous, while we often pretend that ours are not.

Some people reach a place in time
where they've gone as far as they can...

the place where wives and jobs
collide with desire...

that which is unknowable,
and those who remain out of sight.

"See what is invisible,
and you will see what to write."

That's how Bobby used to put it.

It was the invisible people
he wanted to live with.

The ones that we walk past every day.

The ones we sometimes become.

The ones in books
who live only in some one's mind's eye.

He was a man who was destined
to go through life and not around it.

A man who was sure the shortest path
to heaven was straight through hell.

but the truth of his handicap...

lay only in a mind both exalted
and crippled by too many stories...

and the path he chose to become one.

Bobby Long's tragic flaw
was his romance with all that he saw.

And I guess if people want to believe
in some form of justice...

then Bobby Long got his for a song.

Saints Barsanuphius and John

One of the most profitable books I have read this year has been Guidance Toward Spiritual Life: Answers to the Questions of Disciples by Saints Barsanuphius and John (selected and translated by Fr. Seraphim Rose.)

"Fr. Seraphim found that many of the questions posed to Saints Barsanuphius and John in Guidance Toward Spiritual Life were not unlike those asked by Christian strugglers of today; and the answers of the Elders cut right through common fantasies and misconceptions. The elders expose the nature of the vices--feigned humility, cold-hearted calculation, judgment, idleness, lack of inward vigilance, carnal imaginings, vainglory--and show how to overcome them and acquire virtue." (from the Preface)

A few selections:

...the will of God consists of abandoning not only what is demonic, but also what is natural...

#62 who is concerned for his salvation should by no means ask questions in order to obtain knowledge only, for for knowledge puffeth up (1 Cor. 8:1)....but to ask concerning the passions, and concerning how one should pass his life, that is, how to be saved, is most fitting; for this is necessary and leads one to humility. And humility is a shortened path to salvation...

The will inspired by the demons consists of justifying oneself and believing oneself, and then a man is caught by them.

...we who dwell outside of every concern and care do not even wish to consider that in actual fact we are earth and dust; and we have grown old, nourishing in ourselves vainglory. For to think that what we do is pleasing to God, that our dwelling in silence instructs others, and that we have been delivered form judgments and condemnations; all this is extreme vainglory and nothing else.

If, according to the example of Abraham and Job, we think that we are earth and ashes (cf. Gen 18:27 and Job 42:6) then we shall never be robbed.

In all cases let us hasten to humility; for the humble one lies on the ground, and where can one fall who lies on the ground?

Humility consists of considering oneself earth and ashes--in deed, and not in words only--and in saying: "Who am I? And who considers me to be something?"

...there is no need to write to you separately concerning every passion, for I have assigned you the treatment for them in one word: The Lord saith, "I will come to dwell int he humble" (cf. Isaiah 57:15).

...if a man can cut off his own will in everything, and have a humble heard, and death always before his eyes--he can be saved, by God's grace; and wherever he might be, fear does not take possession of him...

...what hinders you from entering into contrition is your own will; for if a man will not cut off his own will, he cannot acquire pain of heart. And what prevents you from cutting off your own will is unbelief, and unbelief proceeds from the fact that we desire human glory....Behold your previous transgressions are already forgiven; and yet you strengthen yourself by the wisdom of self-justification to enter into worse ones.

Repentance for a sin demands that one do it no more, and withdrawal from evil consists in abandoning it. May your previous sins not cause you offense; and do not decline from the service of God with fear and trembling. Remember, that this (service) is the sanctification of your soul.

When a man is tempted by his own lust, this may be known from the fact that he is careless about himself and allows his heart to reflect about what he has done before; and then a man himself draws passion unto himself through his own lust....If one allows thoughts to pay heed in this, warfare will increase until a fall, albeit not in body but in spirit, in agreement with thoughts; and it turns out that such a man lights the fire himself in his own substance....Tame your steed with the bridle of knowledge, lest, looking here and there, he become inflamed with lust toward women and men and throw you, the horseman, to the ground. Pray to God, that He may turn your eyes, lest they see vanity (Ps. 118:37). And when you acquire a manful heart, warfare will depart from you. Cleanse yourself, as wine cleanses wounds, and do not allow stench and filthiness to accumulate in you.

...labor against thoughts so as not to fall into negligence and vainglory, not to do anything according to your own will, and not to accept the thoughts of self-justification which arise in not think that you have done anything good,m and your reward will be preserved whole. Above this, remember that you will not remain long in the body, and strive so that you might be able to say with boldness in that hour: I prepared myself and was not disturbed (Ps. 118:60).

Humility consists in this: Never, in any circumstance, to consider yourself to be something; to cut off your will in everything; to be subject to everyone; and to bear without disturbance everything that comes to you from outside. That is true humility in which there is no room for vainglory. One who has humility of wisdom should not strive to express his humility in word,s but it sufficient for him to say: "Forgive me, " or "Pray for me."

If we suffer with Him, we will be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17). Do not be deceived: there is no path to salvation apart from this.

God gives us humility, and we refuse it and again say: Pray that God might grant me humility. Humility is the cutting off of one's will in everything and having cares over nothing. And to cut off the root of those passions, as you said, means to cut off your will, cause offense to yourself as much as possible, and compel the organs of the senses to keep their order, and not misuse them; through this the root not only of these, but also of other (passions) is cut off.

As much as you can, wear yourself out, but according to your strength; and have hope not in this, but in love from God and in His protection, and do not give yourself over to despondency, for despondency serves as the beginning of every evil.

The sign of the forgiveness of sins consists in hating them and not doing them anymore. But when a man reflects on them and his heart takes enjoyment in them, or he performs them in deed: this is a sign that his sins are not forgiven him, but that he is still accused of them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

While Peeling Pears

The other night, between peeling pears and evening prayers, I sat down in my wife's grandmother's old rocker and decided to watch some national news on television. This was a bad call on my part. In so doing, I witnessed much more coverage of the recent 9/12 Teabaggers March on Washington than I cared to see.

Mobs are never pretty, and this one was no exception--a bunch of pissed-off, overweight, middle-aged whiter-than-white folks in tee-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes. Their defenders will maintain that the media hones-in on only the wing-nuts in the crowd. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, but as the camera scanned the crowd, I saw no clumps of protesters that were not peppered with the crazy signs. By this I mean those signs comparing President Obama to Satan, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Castro, the Anti-Christ and--this I don't get--Heath Ledger's Joker. [Yes, I know that Democrats drew horns on pictures of George W. Bush. The ones I remember the most were pictures of Bush as Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed poster-boy for Mad Magazine. But as AEN's by-line was "What, me worry?" as disaster unfolded all around him, I didn't find this characterization of GWB far-fetched at all.] But apparently these protesters believe our President is both Socialist and Fascist, which is a nice trick, much like being a Catholic Muslim. The tough guys in the crowd carried banners proclaiming "Unarmed--This Time." Some thought the "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy" signs were particularly clever. Though there was plenty of sloganeering, the gathering was largely fact-free. Their complaints were all across the board, united by only the one thing that cannot be named.

I came across a short interview recently with Paul Gottfried, a leading American intellectual who posts periodically on the Chronicles and Taki sites. He is the author of a number of books, including Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State, and Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers. I enjoyed the article, but had not planned on posting anything about it, considering that his plain-spoken words might be misinterpreted. I no longer hold those reservations after watching the Tea Party crowd in Washington, and believe Gottfried's thoughts are timely indeed.

On populism:

I’m not much impressed with the “traditionalism” of the American heartland or (to use that ridiculous neologism “red states”). That heartland, in which I’ve spent much of my life, has supplied the teeming footsoldiers for McCain, Karl Rove, the inexpressibly stupid “W,” and loudmouths like Sean Hannity. It is the American heartland that now identifies patriotism with launching wars of choice in the name of spreading “our democracy.” Its inhabitants, moreover, suffer from the vulgar eating habits and lack of cultural literacy that their critics often impute to them. However perverse in their political judgments these critics may be, they are right about the ignorance and gullibility of heartland Americans.

In answer to the question “Do the people have the government they deserve?”

The government is far better than the one that the masses actually merit.

On populist activism:

I think the populist Right in the US vastly overestimates the virtues of the “people,” which it identifies with whatever it likes, as opposed to what the people overwhelmingly vote for. Listening to populists, one gets the impression that it was not “the people” who voted for Obama and whom big-government Republicans, leaning leftward, have been able to manipulate. The “people” only exist for their rightist admirers when they please those who are praising them. Otherwise, we are not dealing with the “people” but with Martians or interlopers. Needless to say, I am not a populist because I understand the total compatibility of the “people” with the leftist managerial regime that now rules us.

The interview in full can be found, here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

At the Gates of Adrianople


I cannot remember the last time I read a Wall Street Journal. The only reason to do so would be to read Peggy Noonan. One can easily find her columns elsewhere, however, or better yet, watch her over breakfast on Morning Joe. The WSJ ranks low in my estimation for two reasons. First, reading about stocks is every bit as boring as listening to someone drone on about their own stocks. (I am all for owning them, mind you, just not talking about them.) Second, the WSJ continues to peddle sophomoric dreck such as this, The Afghan Stakes, in which Bret Stephens expounds on our crisis in Afghanistan. In his very first paragraph, he states:

...a war that, if lost, would be to the United States roughly what the battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. —you can look it up—was to the Roman Empire. Things did not go well for Western civilization for 1,100 or so years thereafter.

Perhaps neo-conservative writers should only use historical references that extend no further back in time than, say, the Reagan Administration. Whenever one interprets history simply by projecting their ideology upon the past, then you often end up with nonsensical pronouncements such as Stephens'. In the header, he states that withdrawing from Afghanistan would have terrible consequences in the "war on terror." While this is clearly a fairly standard, boilerplate neo-con talking point, it is not at all clear what possible connection this would have with the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D.

Adrianople is now the modern Turkish city of Edirne, located west of Istanbul near the Bulgarian border. It is home to a big-daddy of a mosque, the Selimiye, which is something of a tourist attraction. I have actually been through Edirne on 3 occasions. Coming from Sofia on the Balkan Express, we would arrive at Plovdiv around dusk, the Turkish border crossing about 2:00 A.M., and Edirne sometime between then and morning. Leaving from Istanbul, you pass through Edirne at about 2:00 in the morning. Needless to say, as the old train lumbered through the night, I slept through whatever charms Edirne had to offer.

I do not discount the importance of the Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D. The discontented Goths, already living within the empire, made a march on Constantinople. Valens, the eastern emperor, awaited assistance from Gratian, the emperor in the West. Unwisely, he chose to attack before these reinforcements arrived. The Goths routed the Byzantine army, inflicting losses of perhaps 2/3 of the fighting force, including Valens himself. So, Adrianople was an ignominious defeat.

What exactly, were the long-term consequences of the battle--for this is the connection Stephens is attempting to make? Very little changed, actually. The Goths were already within the Empire, and they remained. Adrianople itself was not captured. The Gothic army marched to the gates of Constantinople, but the city held firm. The eastern Roman Empire actually was just building steam, and would endure (and often flourish) for another 1,075 years. The deterioration in the West was well underway already, and it is hard to see how the outcome of this battle materially changed things one way or the other. But Stephens contends that because of this battle "things did not go very well for Western civilization for the next 1,100 years." Really, now. The author is basically saying that things were pretty dismal in Europe until the Renaissance, and all because of Adrianople. Even if you do not consider Byzantine civilization as "Western," such a claim remains patently false, and a bit silly. While certainly those times could be fraught with peril, this was also the age of Augustine, Charlemagne, St. Benedict, Alfred the Great, Chaucer, William the Conquerer, Chartes, Frederick Barbarossa, Dante, Gothic architecture, the Magna Charta, etc. In point of fact, Western civilization emerged from this very crucible, the fusion of classical Roman culture with barbarian vitality. Whether you believe medieval Western civilization to be a good thing or not, it was little affected by the outcome of the Battle of Adrianople. If Stephens were grasping for a battle with horrendous repercussions, he should have used the Battle of Manzikurt (1071) instead. But here again, neither battle has any discernible parallels with our situation in Afghanistan.

From this opening salvo, Stephens goes on to make a number of points. He contends that Afghanistan matters because that is where 9/11 was "imagined." Also, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan has played into the hands of Islamist mythology, for as he says "if one superpower could be brought down, why not the other?" Stephens believes that from this misconception flow a number of conclusions on the part of the terrorists:

1. Since attacks such as 9/11 are not fatal to radical Islam, then future attacks on the U.S. "homeland" could yield similar results.

2. The U.S. has no stomach for long-term counterinsurgency.

3. "The U.S. is not prepared to stand by its clients in the Third World if it believes those clients are morally tainted....Ergo, other shaky or dubious U.S. allies in the Muslim world—Algeria, for instance, or, yes, Saudi Arabia—are prime targets for renewed assault."

4. A U.S. that doesn't have the stomach for a relatively easy fight like Afghanistan...will have even less stomach for much tougher fights.

5. Withdrawal would force Islamabad to abandon its war on terror

6. Withdrawal would invite the al Qaeda remnant in Iraq—already on an upswing—to redouble its efforts, and do so with the confidence that the U.S. has permanently soured on Middle Eastern interventions.

Stephens concludes:

This is not the noblest fight, and no sane nation would wage it by choice. But we did not choose it and, if we keep our nerve, we can win it. Otherwise, the consequence will be ashes flying again in our own streets, something to remember on the eve of another 9/11 anniversary.

Mr. Stephens is currently a foreign-affairs columnist for the WSJ, and prior to that was the youngest editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. From his writings, it seems that he could have also served a term as speechwriter for President Bush circa 2004.

As to his first point, were we to occupy every square mile of Afghanistan, and empty its borders of every suspected terrorist, it would not destroy al Qaeda, but would in fact, embolden them. As I recall, the 9/11 terrorists were not Afghans at all, but rather, our good friends the Saudis. And while we are at it, let's drop the "homeland" business, shall we?

As to his second point, that is, I believe, already common knowledge. And exactly how many American lives should we lose just to prove to the Islamists that we don't like long counterinsurgencies?

Stephens' third point is particularly loathsome. The point is interesting, however, in that I believe this is the first time I have ever seen the words "U.S. ally" and "Algeria" in the same sentence without a "not" in between. But to tie our continued presence in Afghanistan, and the ongoing loss of American lives, to support for the House of Saud is simply despicable. When the Saudi royals finally fall, I am sure we will be even less pleased with what initially replaces them. But the fact remains that there is no more malignant regime in power today. The death of even one American soldier lost even tangentially in support of the Saudis is a crime.

As to his fourth point, Stephens believes this is the "easy" fight. He might want to do a little research in the British Archives, or even arrange to interview some surviving Soviet soldiers.

Fifthly, Stephens believes that our leaving Afghanistan will cause Pakistan to abandon its own "war on terror." Good Lord. Until very recently, it was hard to even detect a Pakistani effort in this direction.

Sixthly, in a bit of convoluted logic, Stephens believes that if we leave Afghanistan, it will encourage al Qaeda to stay in Iraq. As I recall, they only came to Iraq because we where there.

As to his conclusion, I am still waiting to hear what "winning" would look like, exactly? His last line, an alarmist tactic promising another 9/11 if we don't stay in Afghanistan is equally loathsome. But then, he is a neo-con. What is completely lacking in his article is any realization of a great truth, one that Osama bin Laden has stated time and again. That truth, briefly stated is this: they oppose us not for who we are, but for what we do. Unless we have grown fond of constant war (and I am not sure we have not), the wise course, it would seem to me, is to stop doing it.

I apologize to my regular visitors here, for the strident tone of this post. I usually try to keep things as mellow as possible. But the sort of mendacity being dished out by Stephens here--the kind that affects policy and costs lives--always gets my goat.

For a more professional savaging of Stephens' article, see Daniel Larison, here.

Some Thoughts on Missing a Tea Party


+Fr. Jonathan's observations, here, on the temper of our time--a must-read, in my book.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hugo Chavez's Rainbow Tour

BARVIKHA, Russia (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave Moscow a boost Thursday by recognizing the independence of two Russian-supported Georgian separatist regions, and President Dmitry Medvedev promised to sell Chavez whatever weapons he wants.

So, Venezuela's dictator joins Nicaragua and Russia in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now, THAT'S legitimacy.

The rest of the sham, here.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Theophano's Fork

I have not bought any books in some time now. With the new economic realities of this past year, I thought it best to use a little discipline with this particular passion. Obviously, I haven't stopped reading, but have made a conscious decision to first read those books I already own. I was beginning to feel guilty about the teetering stacks on the book table next to my reading chair. I do not put a book on the shelf until I have read it, or at last as much of it as I am going to read. So, I have been whittling on the stacks, and now have them down to a more manageable level.

In so doing, I finally finished Judith Herrin's Byzantium: the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. I highly recommend the work. The book is arranged topically, and is accessible to the general reader, as well as containing enough meat for the more advanced Byzantinist.

The area of Byzantine studies has made great strides since the middle part of the 20th-century. The old stereotypes are falling away, and the civilization is increasingly seen in a new light, both among the general public and academics alike. The author seeks to counter any lingering misconceptions about the Empire among her peers. In her concluding chapter, Herrin chronicles the growth of prejudice against Constantinople in medieval Europe, and how this led to the prejudicial views of Gibbon and other 18th and 19th-century historians.

The initial animosity grew, it would seem, out of simple envy and jealousy. Theophano, a 10th-century Byzantine princess, was married off to the German Otto II. Her arrival on the Rhine created quite a stir. Dressed in silks, she insisted on bathing daily, was quite literate, and most upsetting of all, she used a fork. Outside of the particular dogmatic differences between Constantinople and Rome, the Byzantines soon became stereotyped as decadent, effete, cowardly and sly. Herrin rebuts each of these charges. While certainly a city of unimaginable wealth, the metropolis was just as well known for its piety and charity, with safeguards in place for the poor. Rather, than being effete, Constantinopolitans were simply the most educated populace before modern times. Herrin shows that the charges of military cowardice and diplomatic connivance nothing more than a deep-seated aversion to warfare, based on the spiritual underpinnings of the Empire. Wars were to be defensive, and only after diplomatic efforts were exhausted. These attributes--their aversion to war, their charity and their educational system--are those that set the East Romans apart from their neighbors, and the ones that provide the greatest examples for our age.

A few excerpts:

This is one of the most surprising things I discovered in writing this book. I fully expected that Constantinople itself would play a central role, as a fabulous and exceptional city with its buildings and its trade. What I had not expected was how often I would be recording the compelling inventiveness and novelty of the broader aspects of Byzantine civilisation, from its government and religion to its military and intellectual skills. It had the ability to develop a secret, sea-borne explosive artillery and keep the secret for centuries. It could generate and survive a profoundly divisive argument over the role of icons, identity and religious belief. When Latin Christendom and the Muslim East insisted on keeping the Holy Book in its sacred languages of Latin and Arabic, Byzantium had the audacity to translate the Greek Bible into a written language which its own scholars had invented in order to facilitate the conversion of the Slavs. It had the discipline to mint and maintain a stable coinage for over seven hundred years. It had the ingenuity to develop royal forms of power while maintaining Roman administration. Time and again, the extraordinary combination of Roman, pagan, Christian and Greek inheritances gave it the capacity to recover from adversities rather than to disappear, leaving only a trace of its achievements. The Byzantium that gainsays the generally accepted stereotype is this lively, inventive society, passionately believing in itself.


...we should be aware of Byzantium's exceptionally persistent, skilled fusion of traditions and inheritance, and how it created a varied and self-confident civilisation that grew as often as it lost ground and fought to the end to survive. It is astounding that Byzantium continued after 1204, when the West captured and occupied its capital for fifty-seven years, even if the mini-empires which sprang to life in its place were not truly imperial states. Something of that same combination of resources--classical, pagan, Christian, eastern and western--was in the founding DNA of Byzantium, and provided a reliably constant life force across the centuries....My aim is to expand, however, slightly, our knowledge and experience of others, and to glimpse how people of a cosmopolitan, city-based society, with a consciously historical belief in who they were, as well as a pious belief in the hereafter, could be so different from ourselves and yet so recognizably like us.

A picture in the book shows a 12th-century fresco depicting the Last Supper, found on the wall of the Kanakli Kilise, one of the Cappadocian cave churches. Herrin included the photo, at least in part, to illustrate her use of the fork as a symbol of Byzantine cultural distinctiveness against the West. In the upper left hand side of the table--sure enough--lay a two-pronged fork. I visited this church in 2007, but overlooked this detail. I went back and checked my photos, but apparently I had not taken one. While in the area, however, I did stay in a cave hotel. The upper level contained the ruins of an old church. A couple of frescoes had been repainted, no doubt as a draw for the hotel. One of the frescoes was an exact copy of the one shown in Herrin's book, and indeed, there was fork on the upper left hand side of the table (shown below).

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Reformation and Apostolic Succession


And it has been shown that if Episcopacy prevailed then it must have prevailed from the beginning, for no such stupendous revolution could have taken place within fifty years of St. John’s death.

Perry Robinson, on Episcopacy and the Reformation, here.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon on Kosovo

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon writes on Kosovo Lost and Found in the current Touchstone . He recently visited the area in the company of Nathan and Gabrielle Hoppe, well-known Orthodox Christian missionaries in Albania. Taken as a whole, the article offers a unique perspective on the contemporary situation there.

I do have a few quibbles with his account, however. I do not want to push them too far, for the fact remains that his observations are based on his personal experience on the ground in Kosovo, while my opinions come from following events from afar. That said, I submit the following reservations:

  • The imposition of an "independent" Kosovo is a diplomatic and foreign policy disaster in the making, the full implications of which are only just beginning to play out.
  • The tone of the article is decidedly pro-Albanian in tone. There is nothing wrong with that, but the first section of the story could have been just as easily put out by the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce.
  • I would posit that there is no such thing as "Albanian Kosovars." There are Albanians who live in Kosovo.
  • How do you write a lengthy article about Kosovo and not mention 1389? This would be like writing a comparable piece on Constantinople and not mentioning 1453.
  • In general, short-shrift is given to the historical claims of Serbia, while emphasizing the present reality of Albanian rule there.

Again, I am not really criticizing Fr. Patrick. This is an important subject, and one that is seldom discussed dispassionately. So, I appreciate his calm and measured contribution.

Fr. Patrick ends on a strong note, emphasizing two major considerations. First, he brings the subject of abortion to the forefront of the discussion. Secular Serbs under communism had a very high abortion rate, a tragedy that continues even today. Albanians have traditionally rejected birth control and abortion helping flip the region from majority Serbian to majority Albanian in the last half of the 20th century (that of course, and massive immigration from Albania proper.) Fr. Patrick contends that this weakens the moral high ground that the Serbians might assume in their arguments for the region. As he states, it is a spiritual and moral failure of the culture, insufficiently addressed from the pulpit and in pastoral pedagogy.

Second, Fr. Patrick finds hope in the approach of the monks at the beleaguered Decani Monastery, and their concern for the evangelization of Kosovo.

There is another part of the Church in Kosovo, however, which has already started preparing for the spread of the gospel to the rest of the region. These people are less concerned that Kosovo should become Serbian than that Kosovo as a whole should become Christian.

It seemed to me that the monks of Decani, some of whom have learned to speak Albanian, form something of a vanguard in this forward-looking movement. Although they insisted on the legitimacy of Serbia’s political claims in the region and showed not the slightest enthusiasm for Kosovo independence, the Decani monks manifested a greater interest in the salvation of souls—including Albanian souls.

Indeed, even during the war, the monastery of Decani was a beacon of hope and renewal. When hostile Albanians launched a mortar attack against the monastery, and bombs from American planes (evidently misdirected on purpose!) fell on the monastery’s apple orchard, the monks of Decani went on with their traditional routine: chanting the Psalms and hymnody in church, painting icons, studying the Bible, tilling fields, gathering honey, making cheese and butter, and so on.

And especially these monks loved their neighbors, regardless of race or religion. When the army sent from Yugoslavia was killing and pillaging all through the region, the monks of Decani received the fleeing Muslims and other Albanians into their cloister to protect them. These monks—never more than thirty in number, I think—fed the hungry and housed the homeless. When cursed, they blessed. Slapped on one cheek, they turned the other. That is to say, they did what Christians are supposed to do in the hour of the gospel’s testing. They placed the gospel first. If the spirit of the Decani monastery prevails in the Orthodox Church in Kosovo, I believe nothing is to be feared about the region’s future.

Fr. Patrick notes that the salvation of souls in Kosovo--Albanian and Serbian alike--is the proper concern of the Church, not the restoration of Serbian sovereignty there.

The missionary interests of the church are not co-terminal with the national aims of Serbia, nor is the political future of Kosovo as important—to God, the Lord of history—as the eternal salvation of those who live there.

And I tend to agree that this should be our guiding sentiment in this troubled region.