Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fun with Junk Mail

Ace Orthobloggers Aaron and Owen on their way to the Climacus Conference put me in mind of this conference just across the river (well, actually it didn't, but it makes for a nice segue.) Even though I have been full-bore Orthodox for some 5 years now, I remain on a number of mailing lists from the old days in the Church of Christ. Some of the mail--such as the promotion for the "9th-Annual Stone-Campbell Journal Conference"--is interesting to glance over, just to see what is going on in that world.

To explain what "Stone-Campbell" means, exactly, would risk losing the audience long before the punch line. Suffice to say that this is a conference for academic types, primarily from the independent Christian Churches, with a smattering of unity-minded Church of Christ academes, and the rare historically-minded Disciples of Christ scholar--all heirs to the 19th-century Restoration Movement led by Messrs. Stone and Campbell.

Other than the Disciples, these are conservative folks, and their churches have not exactly been at the forefront of religious trends in this country. And I mean that as a compliment. But a quick glance at the seminar topics reveal that they are doing their best to catch up. Most mainstream American Protestants were at this point a generation ago, so it is really a bit pitiful to see these latter-day Restorationists struggling to be so relevant, so inclusive and, of course, missional.

The seminar topics reveal much more than they realize about these churches' prospects. A sampling, below, with a few comments:

God, our Mother: Rediscovering the Maternal Divine in Prayer

[This one would be laugh-out loud funny, if it weren't so sad.]

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Case Study in Inclusiveness

Approaching New Religious Movements in a Missiological Spirit

The Latter-Day Saints Doctrine of General Salvation & the Restoration Movement Doctrine of Original Grace: Theological Conflicts and Connections

[Commonality with the Mormons?]

Rethinking Jesus' Death: Mark's Narrative in Mediterranean Context

Elaboration-Likelihood Model Applied to Preaching


Receiving the Message: The Reading Culture among Early Christians

[Seldom do you see the ramifications of sola scriptura laid-out quite so literally.]

A Theological Essay on New Testament Eschatology and the Contours of Christian Discipleship

Soulless Spirituality? Non-reductive Physicalism and its Substance-dualist Discontents

[I repeat, huh?]

From Table to Altar: Why the Early Church Moved from Supper to "Snack"

[This offensive title from THE contemporary Church of Christ scholar.]

Is Missional a Restoration/Stone-Campbell Paradigm?

[The better question would be, who would care?]

Toward a Stone-Campbell Theology of Religion: Interacting with the Proximate Other

The Historical Markedness of the Resurrection of Jesus: Its Value of an Evangelical Theology of Religions

Actually, there are two seminars that might be interesting:

Mad Honey Poisoning in Revelation 10


Divine Energies and Theosis

[What possibly could a Restorationist have to say about that!]

A hundred years from--if there is a hundred years from now--these churches will make for an interesting historical footnote.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Wasting Time

I have always been interested in the concept of time--not concerned about it, mind you, just intrigued by the very idea. And I am the first to admit, that the subject is far too deep and too close to God, for any one of us--myself in particular--to really wrap our brains around.

I have never known how to respond to people of a certain age who speak of the fleetingness of time, of "time slipping away," or wistfully wondering "where the time has gone," as if it were a commodity of which they suddenly find themselves in short supply. I have never felt that way in the least. If anything, time moves slowly for me. The days of my youth, adolescence and early adulthood already seem several lifetimes ago to me. The length of each day is about right, as is the night. Perhaps the only time I consider the swiftness of time is every Sunday night when I administer my pug's weekly eye-drop treatment. Each time, it seems as though I had just done so.

From this vantage point, my adaptation to an Orthodox understanding of time has been one of the easier transitions. I am supremely unqualified to pontificate on the timelessness of the Church, whether it be from a simple historical consideration--the visible and tangible connectedness of the Church in time--or the rhythm of time as lived out in the Church's cycle of feasts and fasts, or the eternal "now" of the Faith, or the Eighth Day, or the timelessness of our worship amidst the "vast cloud of witnesses." I just know my being at ease with time somehow fits in the Orthodox scheme of things, and I will leave it to others to explain.

But someone who does know how to speak on the subject is Jonathan David Price in Front Porch Republic , where he has interesting things to say about the proper and needful waste of time, found here.

...we have more time now than ever before. One would think that since modern men...have more time, they would think less of it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The same applies to health and money. We are healthier and wealthier than ever, and these facts have neither calmed our fears nor added peace to our souls. Actually, we seem more anxious than ever about how we spend our time.

This newly-won time, occurring on weekends, evenings, and during paid vacations, is called “free time,” and it is a byproduct of industrialization....The majority waste their free time without a second thought....But there is another group...that busies itself with doing and getting and self-betterment. This cadre of terrible at wasting time. And even worse at wasting it well. The problem is that they consider leisure to be a waste of time as well.

Since the value of work is set so high, it is unlikely that this group of go-getters would soon perceive leisure as a good use of time....If leisure is the basis of culture, as Joseph Pieper argues, and if we have before us a group of time-conscious (future) leaders that considers leisure a waste of time, then to save the culture of our civilization we should first teach them to waste time. And then how to waste it profoundly.

Knowing what should be changed takes reflection, as does knowing what could be changed, and how. Acting without knowledge can do great harm. Thus, sometimes it may even be better not to act. There is no virtue in action per se....Now imagine the legion of petty peccadilloes and mistakes that each of us makes, and with the best intentions, since we cannot do good without also risking harm. We should thus be more cautious about trying to do good, more thoughtful.

That’s the rub. In our age, there is a covert moral position on the side of action. The belief that I am responsible not to waste time is tied up with the belief that my work can always be beneficial to myself or those around me or those who are affected, so long as my intentions are good and I try hard enough....The limits of human actions are not recognized. Human nature is skewed. Personal inadequacy is ignored. The call to know the world, to know the self, to have as much knowledge and wisdom as possible before acting—the classical fruits of leisure—fall on ears made deaf by self-help podcasts and on minds rendered inaccessible to formation by self-esteem.

Time is not as valuable as it seems, and it is less scarce than ever....And there is no telling what kind of trouble one may cause with good intentions and plentiful time. We do not own time. Thinking time is ours is hubris on the order of Prometheus—he stole fire from the Gods, and we took time. Since possession is nine tenths of the law, we now think that it is ours.

Civilization can be defined as that which a people cannot live without, as what have become necessities of life. Our culture is changing so that it values only material things or what helps you get material things. As the intellectual and spiritual are removed from the realm of what is necessary, we are losing our civilization by atrophy.

Philosophy, theology, poetry, ethics, the natural sciences, foreign languages, music, worship, novels, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, art, mathematics, cosmology, political theory, if all these are considered wastes of time for non-professionals, then by Jove I urge you to waste time. Waste it with panache. Waste years if necessary. These are bound up with what makes and sustains culture, and are part and parcel of active leisure. I know that already some of you are wasting time well. But in our age of transparency, I would encourage you to come out of the closet—or out from behind the bookshelf, as it were—as a time-waster. Join up with others and waste it like there is no tomorrow. Because if you don’t waste it well, there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one you would recognize.

A well-stated call to inaction, indeed. I am going to get started right now.

Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eadgyth of Wessex

This is the sort of thing I enjoy reading. Archeologists have discovered what they believe to be the remains of Anglo-Saxon princess Eadgyth (pronounced Edith.) Married to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, she died in her thirties, in 946 AD. Her remains were discovered in a lead box in a tomb in Madgeburg Cathedral. If verified, hers will be the oldest identifiable remains of any British royal. She was particularly devoted to St. Oswald, and introduced the veneration of that saint to Germany. Wanting to know a little more about her than just the Wikipedia entry, I pulled down my copy of Sir Charles Oman's A History of England Before the Norman Conquest, and for even more detail, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume III. Eadgyth was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great himself (which reminds me that I need to retrieve my copy of Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse from my son.) Her siblings were Aethelstan, Aelfweard, Edwin, Edmund, Eadred and Eadgifu. Eadgyth was the great-aunt of Edward the Martyr, and the great-great aunt of Edward the Confessor. Otto's stock continued to rise, even after her death. He learned to read, and his new-found interest in literary and liturgical affairs sparked the Ottonian revival of book-illumination in Germany. Years later, Otto married his son by his second wife to the Byzantine princess, Theophano, niece of Emperor John Tzimices. It was she who introduced the German court to forks, daily baths and other practices of a Byzantine nature. Fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Aunt Mary

Today is my Aunt Mary's birthday, her 85th I believe. A couple of weekends back, I drove up to Fort Worth and took her to lunch. She is still much the same as always--older, to be sure, with details of past relationships and events starting to get jumbled in her mind. But she remains a great (though largely deaf) conversationalist, pleasantly outspoken, and still just a bit larger than life.

She and my uncle had what might be called a classic love story. My Uncle Bill was much on his own from the time he was 15. My grandmother's death and the bust-up of their home threw him into the world earlier than most. He stayed with first one relative, then another, and at one point, even hobo-ed a freight train out to California. He joined the Merchant Marines, which turned out to be his salvation. By the time the war began, he was a thorough-going Navy man. And this became his career and his ticket out of Depression-era Texas. The year 1946 found him stationed temporarily in the Northeast. He and a buddy were on a train, somewhere in the Boston-New York corridor, when he first caught sight of Mary--a towering, leggy, buxom brunette--making her way down the aisle. The rest, as they say, is history.

Their backgrounds could hardly be more dissimilar. He came out of the hardscrabble Texas Hill Country. Mary Agnes Lewandowski grew up over her father's bakery in a Polish Catholic neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. Due to my uncle being at sea so much of the time, they were not able to marry until September 1947. Bill and Mary lived all over--stationed in New Orleans, Virginia Beach, Key West, Honolulu, Guam, Corpus Christi, among other locales, before retiring to Texas. She recently told me that she enjoying living in every single location. I asked Mary why this was so. She simply said that she made her mind up to, which, if you think about it, is not a bad approach to life. I have come to realize that my dashing uncle was her ticket out as well.

Visiting with her reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes. Soon after their honeymoon, Bill brought Mary home to Texas to meet some of the family. There is the classic staged photo of her standing in a cotton field, with a cotton sack over her shoulder, holding a cotton boll and grinning, as if to say "what the hell do I do with this?"

But the story I am telling involved her introduction to Bill's grandmother. Nannie stood no higher than 4' 10" and never weighed over 90 lbs, with her most defining characteristic being her large piercing eyes. A young widow, she never remarried and raised 3 daughters alone. The inside family joke was that the daughters petted on their mother and clucked around her as if she was some delicate hothouse flower that would wither upon touch. She did nothing to discourage this attention, while the truth of the matter was that she was as tough as leather.

At that time, Nannie lived with the youngest daughter, my great-aunt Frank. All the way out to their farm, Bill coached Mary on what not to do, the main thing being not to light up a cigarette in front of Nannie, who was shocked by such behavior in women. My great-grandmother was herself a steady user of snuff, but of course, that was not at all sinful.

Uncle Bill forgot one thing. He had been away for 10 to 12 years, and had seen a good bit of the world in the intervening years, giving him a broad view of things, you might say. He had forgotten just how narrowly things could be viewed back home, particularly religious matters. Nannie was staunchly Church of Christ, of the old-fashioned variety. Southerners will know exactly what that implies. A restorationist movement that in its youth proclaimed Not the only Christians, but Christians only, had by Nannie's time come to believe that they were the only Christians. And few were more convinced of this than she. I remember my dad mimicing her inflection in saying THE Church, when speaking of the Church of Christ. Maybe she thought her Baptist son-in-law might somehow slip past Heaven's gate, but I know she entertained no such notions when it came to her lapsed Presbyterian son-in-law (my granddad). And as for Catholics, well, for someone of Nannie's worldview, they were simply beyond the pale.

Having forgotten all this, my uncle proudly ushered in his new Yankee bride into Aunt Frank's old rock house on the hill. The young couple brought along their wedding album to show, unintentionally ensuring that the visit would not end well. After pleasantries were exchanged, Nannie sat down in her rocker to view the wedding pictures. As she leafed through the album, her eyes grew even larger than normal. Finally, she turned to my uncle and inquired, "Billy, what church is this that y'all got married in?" My uncle, still unaware of his peril, readily piped up, "St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church." Nannie didn't say a word, but slammed the album shut and never looked at another picture. Upon witnessing this, Aunt Mary thought to herself, "Oh, what the hell," as she rustled through her purse for a cigarette and light.

She and Bill had one month shy of 50 years together. And while they had their normal amount of bickering, I always knew he was crazy about her. Only in recent years have I realized how crazy she was for him. Mary always said the most outrageous things, and got away with it. She still does. Here's to you, Aunt Mary.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crazy Time in Texas (or: Everything You Need to Know about our 2010 Gubernatorial Election)

It is Crazy Time in Texas (again.) Of course, I am referring to primary season in general, and our gubernatorial election in particular. Under the Texas Constitution, we have one of the weakest, least powerful and most ceremonial of governorships in the nation (a fact that should have received more play back in the late summer and early fall of 2000.) But you would never know it from the intensity in which the office is being pursued.

Incumbent Governor Rick Perry and incumbent senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison are locked in a fierce battle to the bottom, each claiming to be more reactionary-than-thou. How low can they go? Apparently, pretty low, as seen here. The good news is that this happens only once every four years. The bad news is that one of these candidates will be elected governor.

Despite Hutchison's high approval ratings, it is Governor Rick's race to lose. From an historical perspective, it is more embarrassing than anything, that perhaps the most inconsequential governor in Texas history is poised to become the longest-serving occupant of that office. The kicker in the equation, however, is a third Republican candidate, Debra Medina. She has no chance of actually winning the primary. But, as the current darling on the Tea-bagger circuit, she could seriously cut into Perry's secessionist/black helicopter constituency. Conceivably, this could swing the primary Hutchison's way, or force a run-off.

While the GOP primary is where the real action is, the Democrats are feeling their oats this year as well. My candidate, Kinky Friedman, opted out of the race a few weeks back, choosing instead to run for Agriculture Commissioner. His quixotic 2006 campaign gave birth to the two best campaign slogans ever: Kinky Friedman: Why the Hell, Not? and How Hard Can it Be? The wife, son and I visited with him at a book-signing in early December, while he was still mulling-over which race to enter (picture of son and Friedman at left.) His bumper stickers already reflected that indecision--they simply read Kinky. [It is an article of faith with me not to plaster bumper-stickers on my vehicle. I may have to make an exception with this one.]

Of course the big-name in the Democratic primary is former Houston mayor Bill White. He has a solid record of achievement in office--a thoughtful, articulate, well-spoken, squeaky-clean policy wonk, who has never resorted to demagoguery. This means, of course, that he has no chance of ever being Governor of Texas.

The big money in the Democratic primary, however, is with this guy, gazillionaire Farouk Shami, a native of Palestine. He arrived in the U.S. in 1965, and in short order made a fortune in women's hair-care products. As would be expected here in Texas, there are "concerns" about his religious affiliation. A campaign aide told the Austin American-Statesman that he was a Quaker, though his family insists Shami is a Muslim, "though not especially devout."

I understand their confusion. I get Quakers and Muslims confused all the time.

Shami maintains that "he felt a religious tug to run for office, though it's hard to put a label on his faith," and that he was "not a member of any specific religious tradition." He prays and meditates every morning and has a "strong personal relationship with God." A spokeswoman explains that while "he doesn't regularly attend services," that he is a "spiritual person." The article can be found, here.

Shami may be the sleeper in the race, for this immigrant seems to be the most quintessentially 21st-century American of any of the candidates. Think about it.

He has a name like Farouk Shami, but claims "no specific religious tradition."

He prays and meditates every morning, but is not "especially devout."

He has a "strong personal relationship with God," but "doesn't regularly attend services."

Shami is a "spiritual person," but it is "hard to put a label on his faith."

And God talks to him, just like He does to Sarah Palin, though in an Islamo-Quakerish sort of way.

The fact that this year's race is not particularly out-of-the-ordinary for Texas may give some insight into my occasional need to get away.


Lord have mercy. Horrific is the only word to describe conditions in Haiti after their massive earthquake.

Fr. Jonathan Tobias has good thoughts in "What Orthodox Christians do about the Earthquake in Port au Prince," here. His advice? Pray for mercy, repeatedly, profligately. Give. Repeatedly. Profligately. Do not try to figure out how your gifts will make a difference. Now is not a good time to be an accountant.

One easy way to contribute is texting 90999 on your phone, then typing in the word, Haiti. This will automatically donate $10 to the Red Cross effort there.

The International Orthodox Christian Charities site is here.

Mercy Ships, an organization based in my area, has a long track record of providing real emergency assistance and humanitarian aid. Their site, here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Cretan Runner

I have just finished two excellent books by Greek authors: The Boundless Garden, by Alexandros Papadiamandis and The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis, at left. The Boundless Garden came highly recommended, and it did not disappoint. I definitely will be commenting about it in the months to come. But The Cretan Runner came as a surprise. I bought it only because of Patrick Leigh Fermor's Introduction (and I would discourage buying the new edition if it does not contain that section.) Generally, I am not terribly interested in wartime memoirs.

This, however, is an amazing book. And George Psychoundakis was a remarkable man. In 1941, he was a 21-year old Cretan shepherd, whose village of Asi Gonia was remote even by the standards of Crete in that day. Theirs was among the poorest of the families, living in an earthen-floored one-room hut, all looking to George for their very survival. As the Nazis over-ran Crete, Psychoundakis joined the partisans who retreated into the mountains. Here they joined forces with a scattering of British soldiers and spys stranded on the island to form one of the most remarkable resistance movements of the war. And it was in this context that Psychoundakis became the lifelong friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

By our standards, we would have called him uneducated. He had, at best 2-3 years of occasional schooling. And yet, this young shepherd could recite--completely from memory--an epic poem of his creation that took 2 hours in the telling. And this is not a book about Psychoundakis, but one written by him. He was unjustly and falsely imprisoned by the Greek government after the war. Before this mistake could be rectified, he spent a number of months in prison. During his imprisonment, he wrote this account in 5 notebooks. A few years after the war, Fermor returned to Crete and found Psychoundakis, who entrusted him with the manuscripts. Fermor immediately realized the extraordinary work he held in his hands, and worked tirelessly for its publication. With few and minimal revisions, the book was published in 1955, largely as Psychoundakis penned it in prison. In later years, he translated the Illiad and the Odyssey into the Cretan dialect.

Fermor describes his first meeting with Psychoundakis:

He wore a black Cretan shirt, his clothing was in tatters and his patched boots-the semi-detached sole of one of which was secured to its upper with a thick strand of wire--were coming to bits on his feet. When he took off his fringed headkerchief to untwist one of his messages, his forehead was shade by a raven-black shock. A small, carefully tended moustache ran along his upper lip. He was small in stature and as fine-boned as an Indian, looking little older than sixteen, though he was actually twenty-one. He was lithe and agile and full of nervous energy. His eyes were large and ark, and his face, in repose, thoughtful and stamped by a rather melancholy expression which vanished at once in frequent fits of helpless and infectious laughter that almost anything seemed to provoke.

When my answers were written and safely stowed by George in their various caches, we lay about talking under the bushes till it grew dark, drinking from a small calabash of raki which Elpida had brought with her from the house, and cracking almonds with a stone. It was plain that George was enraptured with the excitement of our secret life, in spite of the appalling trudges that kept him for ever on the move in those merciless mountains. When the moon rose he got up and threw a last swig of raki down his throat with the words 'Another drop of petrol for the engine'', and loped towards the gap in the bushes with the furtiveness of a stage Mohican or Groucho Marx. He turned round when he was on all fours at the exit, rolled his eyes, raised a forefinger portentously, whispered 'The Intelligence Service!' and scuttle d through like a rabbit. A few minutes later we could see his small figure a mile away moving across the next moonlit fold of the foothills of the White Mountains, bound for another fifty-mile journey.

Psychoundakis's tale is told so earnestly, guilelessly and simply that one sometimes looses sight of the real horror of their situation. The Germans were led to believe that the Cretans would welcome them, and when the exact opposite turned out to be the case, the Nazis turned on them with savage fury, killing entire villages in retribution for partisan activity. But the natives were on their home turf, and effective German control never extended far outside the major towns. Psychoundakis recounts many tales of eluding German patrols, hiding out in caves and monasteries that they knew so well. On one trek, they disguised an Englishman as an old peasant woman, permitting them to walk alongside the Nazi soldiers looking for the very same man. Another escapade resulted in the capture of a German general.

Early in the account, he describes the torching of a German airplane by 3 village teenagers. In time, their names became known and the Nazis threatened to wipe-out their village unless they turned themselves in. The older two eventually did and were sentenced to death, and the youngest (age 16) was captured and put in prison. Psychoundakis describes their execution:

So, after a few days, in a street in Archontiki and under the eyes of all the inhabitants, these two martyrs to freedom and death-deriders stood before the firing squad--naked, hungry, barefoot and in chains. Their last moment was approaching. Their bonds were removed and their executioners, with rifles levelled at their bare breasts, were waiting for the word 'Fire!' The leader of the German party read out the sentence and asked if they had any last words to say. Daskalakis asked for a glass of water which they gave him, and the question was repeated to Vernadakis, who said: 'A glass of wine and permission to sing a matinada.' [this being a Cretan 15-syllable rhyming couplet, usually with a sting in it.] Saying which, naked, barefoot and utterly exhausted as he was from thirst and hunger (for, during their confinement in Ayia jail they had been given neither food nor water, he mustered all the strength of his soul--and what greater strength is there?--and took to his heels. Straight away the firing squad began shooting after him as he ran. But neither the rifle bullets not the bursts from the sub-machine-guns could touch him. He ran like lightening from lane to lane until he was out of the village. Then, as it was difficult to run further without being see, he climbed up into an olive tree and stayed there until night fell. When it was quite dark, he climbed gently down and, slipping through the sentries, fled far away. Later he escaped to the Middle East when he volunteered for the Air Force.

While they were chasing Vernadakis through the village, Daskalakis remained motionless in his place although he too had a chance of taking to his heels and escaping. 'Run for it!' several onlookers shouted, but he refused, saying the Germans would avenge themselves on his kinsmen. It would be better for him to die, he said. In a few moments the Germans were back again, and they opened fire on Daskalakis with fury. He fell at once,l quite transformed and unrecognisable from the bursts of the German machine-guns.

Finally, the character of Psychoundakis himself comes through in this account:

Alas, when I got back to my village, a great disaster awaited me. During the night, unknown people had come and stolen all the sheep my father possessed, about sixty of them. I ran from one village to another trying to find them, but all in vain. The sheep had vanished forever. I was miserable, for sixty sheep meant salvation to a family, especially in those years. What was I to do now? Should I, too, take to stealing, as the custom is in those villages? No. It didn't even pass through my head. Kill the people who had stolen them? Nor that, either. Take them to court? That too was impossible....So I left God to punish them, which He did after His fashion and in His own time. I resumed my peaceful way of life as before.

This, my friends, is what they call a good read.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Many now question our purpose in Afghanistan. Perhaps we are fighting, in part, to protect this sort of thing.

The Afghan national sport is called "Buzkashi." The humorless Taliban banned it during their reign, but it has come back with a vengeance following the U.S. invasion, and is now more popular than ever. Friday is buzkashi day in Afghanistan.

The term literally means "goat grabbing." And that is exactly what it is. The game resembles polo, though played with a decapitated goat carcass.The goal is to snatch the goat carcass from whoever has it, race around a flag at the far end of the field, and then race back and drop the carcass in a chalk circle. And most anything goes between each end of the field. The ensuing melee has been charitably described as "lightly-regulated."

American anthropologist G. Whitney Azoy finds buzkashi a suitable metaphor for Afghan life: brutal, chaotic, a continual fight for control (in this case, of a dead goat)...[where] leaders are men who can seize control by means foul and fair and then fight off their rivals. The buzkashi rider does the same.

Haji Abdul Rashid, head of the government-sponsored Buzkashi Federation simply notes that the game reminds Afghans of their warrior culture...and the goat symbolizes their vanquished foe. He states bluntly, Buzkashi is Afghanistan.

Rashid is thinking big. He wants to see buzkashi organized in leagues, with televised matches supported by corporate sponsorship. And yes, he is dreaming of the day when buzkashi is an Olympic event.

I pay no more mind to the Olympic Games than I do any sporting event. But, in the highly improbable event that Rashid's feverish fantasy were to somehow become reality...well, I would probably watch.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


If I have added correctly, then this is my 500th post on this blog. I suppose it is a little self-conscious calling attention to the fact…but then, worrying about that is like locking the barn door after the horses have escaped. Exactly what aspect of maintaining a blog is not self-conscious?

I suppose I should write something especially profound for my 500th post. But as is often the case, the well of profundity is running a bit dry these days. The other impulse is just to post get past this meaningless milestone and get on to business as usual. My inclination is to go with this second option.

That said, I think it appropriate to comment briefly about blogging. I have always been one to keep journals, to make notes of interesting passages I read, to cut-out and save magazine and newspaper articles, etc. This behavior has not stopped just because I now maintain a blog, but continues apace (and these files and papers will one day no doubt fuel a nice bonfire prior to the estate sale.) For me, blogging is simply another avenue to indulge my borderline compulsive habit.

Blogging also tempers, somewhat, a tendency to afflict my opinions on family, friends, neighbors and passers-by (although I still reserve the right to unload on the in-laws during holiday get-togethers.) One of my wife’s cousins once remarked to her, “Well, you know how weird he is.” Considering the world-view from which that comment emanated, I could not have been more highly complimented. But I recognize having a contrary view on most things can be tiresome to others, and that blogging provides a safe outlet for the expression of same, whether it be current events (dismal), politics (it was W's fault), American religiosity (growing sillier by the day), culture (irredeemable), or my favorite--books and travel.

I began this blog on 5 November 2005, and started keeping records of visits in March 2007, when I added the Stat-Counter application. The name John, which I use on this blog, was not the name I was given at birth. Back in 2004, one of the watchdogs of the Church of Christ I left (in the first week in 2005) had been monitoring my comments on several online sites—and keeping a log. For this reason, I wanted to maintain a bit of anonymity, and was consequently reluctant to use my real name. On 19 November 2005, I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church as John, with my patron saint being St. John of Rila. I like the name, thought it a good one to use on the blog, and still do. So, I am sticking with that. For those who might want to know, my real name is not hard to ascertain.

This blog has obviously paralleled my life as an Orthodox Christian. From the beginning, however, I determined to not make this an overtly “Orthodox blog.” The primary reason for that decision was, and remains, that I am simply not qualified. Orthodoxy, as it is absorbed, gives one a differing perspective on most everything. My blogging observations are certainly tinged with that. And I feel free to link to various articles touching on various aspects of the Orthodox Church--the plight of Orthodox believers in the Middle East being a particular interest--but I never really tackle doctrine or "issues" head-on. Nor do I intend to. There is no shortage of those who will, and I defer to their wisdom.

In over 4 years of blogging, I have grown not at all tired of it. There’s a great line from Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender, in which the butler shows a guest into the Crouchback drawing room to wait. He advises, "You'll find plenty to interest you here...that is, if you're interested in things." That’s just it--I remain “interested in things,” and have no desire to retire the blog.

There's no way to say what follows without coming off as overly sappy and sentimental. That is to say that the best part of blogging and this blog is, well…you. Those of you who respond to my posts from time to time treat me gently and indulge my idosyncracies. Comments are generally kind and considerate, intelligent--or at least clever, which often gets you further anyway. It has been my great privilege to meet a few of you in person, and given enough time, I hope to increase that number. So, I just say "thanks," and that I look forward to hearing from you.



Monday, January 04, 2010

Twenty Years Later

I wanted to post this picture 12 days ago, on the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu's fall. Saving newspaper and magazine articles is a lifelong habit--and I do have a filing system in place. On my third foray through my folders, I found the clipping right where it should have been. This is my favorite picture from that period, capturing the exuberance, the rush of excitement and hope of a subjugated populace as their yoke was suddenly, amazingly being lifted.

Those were exciting times for all of us. And now, 20 years later, I suppose it is time to engage in some retrospection and take stock of subsequent developments. That brings me to this recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Meyer, who witnessed the Romanian Revolution firsthand (and who, I might add, is the author of The Year that Changed the World.)

Meyer begins his account with the hasty funeral of Jacob Stetincu:

A light snow came down in Bucharest, covering the mounds next to freshly dug graves, open and gaping in long straight rows. "Here are the fallen," intoned a solemn priest as four men placed a wooden coffin before him on a wobbly trestle. Jacob Stetincu, shot by a sniper, lay wrapped in a thin cotton sheet, wearing a worn blue beret, snowflakes catching in his grayed mustache. After a hurried sacrament, the men nailed his coffin shut, carried him to the nearest grave -- his widow struggling to keep up -- and shoveled in the heavy earth. The priest, working in shifts with a dozen of his brethren, was already shaking holy water on the next victim of Nicolae Ceausescu's brutal reign.

Meyer contends that while the fall of the Eastern Bloc Communist regimes was indeed a victory for "our" side, he suggests that we have learned the wrong lessons from the event, or as he quotes Niebuhr, the "mis-memory" of history.

Yet it was a dangerous triumph, chiefly because we claimed it for our own and scarcely bothered to fully understand how this great change came to pass. We told ourselves stick-figure parables of defiance and good-versus-evil triumph, summed up in Ronald Reagan's clarion call: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

From the vantage point of 20 years, we should be wiser. The reality is that "our" victory in the Cold War was not what we thought it was, nor did it happen the way we think it did. Most painfully, the myths we spun about it have hurt the world and ourselves.

Meyer identifies four areas where he contends we have misread the real history of the fall of European Communism. I particularly agree with his third point:

A third myth is the most dangerous: the idea of the United States as emancipator, a liberator of repressed peoples. This crusading brand of American triumphalism has become gospel over the past two decades in certain foreign policy circles, especially among neoconservatives. For them, the revolutions of 1989 became the foundation of a post-Cold War worldview. All totalitarian regimes are hollow at the core, they suggest, and will crumble with a shove from the outside. If the inspiration for this was the Berlin Wall, coming down as Reagan "ordered," the operational model was the mass protests in Romania leading to the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.

"Once the wicked witch was dead," as Francis Fukuyama put it, "the Munchkins would rise up and start singing joyously about their liberation." It is a straight line from this fantasy of 1989 to the misadventure in Iraq, and beyond.

This admonition is especially timely in light of those who ill-advisedly advocate an aggressive involvement with the Iranian dissent movement, for example.

The United States contributed uniquely to the end of the Cold War, from the reconstruction of Europe and containment to capitalist economics. But others "won" it, on their own (and our) behalf. Among them were the likes of Jacob Stetincu, all but forgotten in his grave.

Drunk on pride and power, we Americans have tried to rewrite history. Having got it so wrong, it's time to figure out how, and why, and move on.

(A h/t to Milton for the Meyer link.)