Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Finding Unity

Rod Dreher has a timely article in today's Dallas Morning News, concerning Pope Bendict XVI's visit in Istanbul. Dreher hits on a number of issues of great interest to me: Turkey and its relationship to Europe, the plight of the Orthodox in Turkey (and all Christians, for that matter), Turkish nationalism, Armenian Genocide denial, and Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. He suggests that while the media will be focused on Benedict and his prickly relationship with the Islamic community, the real story will be his meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Dreher recounts a recent conversation with an Orthodox priest who laments that "the entire Byzantine Empire has been reduced to the Phanar." Would that it were so. Actually, the Orthodox Patriachate is hemmed into part of a block, with a mere handful of Greek shops on the adjoining street corner. The Phanar district has been almost completely taken over by the most conservative Islamic immigrants from eastern Turkey. If you want to see black burkhas in Istanbul, then go to the Phanar. But this is just symptomatic of the precarious plight endured by the few remaining Orthodox Christians in Constantinople. Dreher writes:
Few in the West gave a thought to Byzantium until Benedict cited in September Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in a controversial address that set off Muslim mobs in yet another spasm of inflamed sensitivity. Benedict's speech--both its content and the Islamic reaction--brought to mind the fact many Western elites take pains to avoid noticing: that down through the ages, the meeting between Islam and Christianity has been a mostly unhappy one. This is certainly true from the point of view of Eastern Christians--Orthodox, Coptic and otherwise--wh have suffered for many centuries under the Muslim yoke.
Well put, particularly the reference to our Western elites. Dreher comments on the age-old grievances between Eastern and Western Christianity, but concludes that "the hour is late indeed for the Orthodox to dwell on this history, as a resurgent Islam pushes what is left of Christianity in Muslim lands further to the brink of extinction." He also believes that "Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor... [and] he is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in." Lastly, Dreher believes that "it is in the interest of both Catholic and Orthodox believers to achieve whatever effective spiritual unity they can manage. History is on the move again, and not in their direction." Good thoughts, all around.
(The picture is of the Haghia Sophia the last time I was there, I taking special pains to find a view that clipped off the 4 minarets.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Not Ready for Prime Time

I read with interest the interview in last week’s NY Times with Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. I had refrained from commenting on this truly embarrassing interview, for frankly I do not have a horse in this race. The ECUSA is on a somewhat different trajectory than I am on. Additional information on KJ-S coming to light, however, causes me to offer up an opinion anyway.

I find three of her answers deeply troubling:

Q: How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

A: About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

I recall a saying from either one of the Desert Fathers, or perhaps from the Philokalia that one will never get in trouble for saying too little, or remaining silent. [S-P, help me out here!] Let's examine her answer. The newspaper asked a straightforward question. The correct answer (if indeed it is that many) was “about 2.2 million.” STOP. But KJ-S continued, noting that they “tend to be better-educated.” (While certainly true in the past, less so today and totally beside the point.) She concluded, somehow, that reproducing was somewhat lower-class behavior, or at least a under-educated thing to do. And then for good measure, she took a swipe at those rutting, breeding Catholics and Mormons. Considered alone, the last sentence is almost neutral, but within the context of her total answer, it was highly insulting. Why would one say those words, and particulary to a reporter of the nation's newspaper of record??? Can you say Elitist?

Q: Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

A: No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

This answer completely floors me! Yes, it is true that for the most part, higher-income and better educated people do have smaller families. But that is not the question. The question was “aren’t Episcopalians interested in having children (new little Episcopalians)?” KJ-S answers flat-out: No. And then, true to form, she goes on. In her view, being a good steward of the earth is a greater good than procreating (since when did it become either/or?). The last religious group I am familiar with that actively discouraged families and children were the Shakers. Met any Shakers lately?

Q: He [Pope Benedict] became embroiled in controversy this fall after suggesting that Muslims have a history of violence.

A: So do Christians! They have a terrible history. Look at history in the Dark Ages. Charlemagne converted whole tribes by the sword. I think Muslims are poorly understood by the West, and it is easy to latch onto that which we do not understand and demonize it.

Oh, dear. Where to begin: a cheap, moral-equivalizing, milksop cop-out, coupled with an appalling ignorance of history! No one seriously tries to whitewash Christian history these days—far from it. But KJ-S seems eager to spotlight our "terrible history,” as if this were some novel insight on her part. Yes, we tend to view the “Dark Ages” (a simplistic misnomer if there ever was one) as a rather bleak period of history. Bad things happened and terrible conditions persisted (as viewed from our modern perspective.) And yet, this is a western European concept that totally ignores the Christian East, where conditions were much different. And the thing to remember is that, by and large, the barbarity of the age was in spite of the Christian influence, not because of it. As Western Europe was coming out of barbarism (when things were really rotten), imagine how much worse conditions would have been (and had been) without Christianity. And the bottom line is that violence, the “convert or die” mentality, was never a tenet of the faith, was never institutionalized into the very fabric of belief, regardless of the brutality of the age. Even in the worse excesses of European Christian expansionism (the Spanish in Latin America, for example), the authentic Christian witness was always there as well. Such cannot be said for the violent, forced imposition of Islam across much of the known world, as decreed by Mohammed, the Koran and the hadiths. And yes, Islam is often misunderstood, but just because something is uncomfortable, or is an inconvenient truth does not mean that it is misunderstood. It seems the demonizing is largely not of our making. KJ-S would be better informed if she were to read the account of a recent symposium, here.

Even more disturbing is the story concerning KJ-S's mother, a convert to the Orthodox faith, and the behavior of KJ-S after her death. Ochlophobist has investigated and has the full story, here.


This is a little late in coming, but I did want to mention the series of excellent essays in the November 20th issue of The American Conservative. Any literary endeavor associated with Patrick J. Buchanan is guaranteed to be lively and, shall we say, colorful. The magazine does not disappoint. I have learned to appreciate the writings of Daniel Larison at Eunomia and particularly wanted to see what he had to say in the current issue.

The headline on the cover asks Who Killed Conservatism? with a droll caricature of Bush as a gravedigger beside an open grave. One writer after another excoriates the Bush Presidency and his foreign policy legacy. And this from conservatives--just imagine what is being written over at The Nation. And I think therein lies the gist of this issue: that whatever Bush is, he is not conservative, or at least not one in the traditional meaning of the word, back when words actually had meaning. In a strange way, he and Hillary Clinton occupy opposite ends of the same continuum; each suffused with a heady Methodism, convinced that the world can be remade in this life, and that is what the "Almighty" (to use a Bushism) intended.

Buchanan writes:

Judgment day appears at hand. For the neo-Wilsonian foreign policy Bush embraced after 9/11 is everywhere collapsing in ruin. It consisted of three components....the concept of preventive war...an "axis of evil".... [and] contending contra history, that America can never be safe until the world is democratic...Neoconservatism has thus given us a bloodshed unending in Iraq, inflamed the Islamic world, divided America from Europe, antagonized Russia, and probably effected our early expulsion form Central Asia.

Austin Bramwell, former director and trustee of National Review observes:

Since 9/11, the conservative movement has not made unsound or fallacious arguments for supporting Bush's policies. Rather, it has made no arguments at all....the broader conservative public supports Bush for very sensible, non-neoconservative reasons. Those reasons just happen to be poorly informed....If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush's popularity would evaporate.

Jeffrey Hart concludes:

Is Bush a conservative? Of course not. When all the evidence is in, I think historians will agree with Princeton's Sean Wilentz, who wrote a carefully argued article judging Bush to have been the worst president in American history. The problem is that he is generally called a conservative, perhaps because he is obviously not a liberal. It may be that Bush, in the magnitude of his failure defies conventional categories. But the word "conservative" deserves to be rescued.

Daniel Larison writes:

In Traditional Christianity, the motif of liberation and deliverance is a strong one--so strong that the story of Israel's freedom from bondage in Egypt and the spiritual liberation of humanity from sin through Christ's death and resurrection can easily become confused with ideas of earthly, political liberty from which they are clearly and sharply distinct....but lately here in America we have started to see a similar blurring of the lines between Christian spiritual liberty and political liberty, the latter of which assuredly has its historical roots in the lands and traditions of Christian civilization.

[Quoting Bush]: "I believe a gift form that Almighty is universal freedom. That's what I believe...God's gift to every man and woman in the world."

...there is something deeply disturbing about the conflation of God's gifts and political liberty, and especially with the political liberation of other nations....it can dangerously blur the lines between the sacred and the profane...and...there is the danger of encouraging despair and loss of faith in a God who supposedly gives universal freedom but nonetheless withholds it from billions of our fellow human beings and who denied it to most of humanity for thousands of years.

Political freedom is a product of culture and habit, the fruit of the discipline of civilization. As beings created in the image and likeness of God, it might be said that all men have the potential to acquire these habits and learn this discipline over a great length of time, but to believe that this discipline is more or less automatically inherent in all people right now is to dismiss both the effects of the fall and the contingencies of history.

If Bush speaks of God giving men universal freedom, he might as well say that God has given man universal bread or universal world peace, while tacitly ignoring hunger and war....He grants to men spiritual liberty from sin and death--far greater liberation, surely, than the tawdry Rights of Man. It is not faithful to the Christian tradition, and possibly rather unhinged, to say that God gives man universal freedom.

Read it all here, or better yet, go out and purchase a copy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

St. John of Damascus Orthodox Mission

After our first Divine Liturgy. Yours truly on the far left.

Christianity Today

A reference in today's Dallas Morning News sent me scurrying to the website for Christianity Today (otherwise not a site I particularly frequent). The article I wanted to read, "Finding God in Russia," was not yet online. But I can only imagine the worst. The CT folks are not exactly Ortho-friendly these days.

But two online articles did catch my attention. The first Marginalized Again, is particularly galling.

Evangelicals are incensed over developments in Israel. Religious education is compulsory in Israel. Muslims and Jews have their own religious instruction. And so do Christians. Representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican churches developed the curriculum for the Ministry of Education. But it seems the new school curriculum approved for Arab Israeli Christian students in grades 10 through 12 is not evangelical. They maintain that it "conflicts with their theology and must not be adopted." Oh, dear. The curriculim seeks to "include doctrinal statements and teachings about the sacraments and church rituals with an emphasis on the heritage and traditions of Christians in the Holy Land." The nerve! For the life of me, I cannot imagine how these heirs of 2000 years of Christian history and martyrdom in Palestine can last much longer without indoctrination into the cream of late 19th-Century American theological insight, such as: premillenialism, "one-saved, always saved," the non-essentiality of baptism or the "invisible" church.

While the overwhelming majority of the remaining 140,000 beleaugered Arab Christians are members of the Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican churches, an Evangelical spokesman said that they "could not accept the curriculum's teaching that the church is the believer's interpretive authority, nor its assumptions that rituals, sacraments, and liturgical prayers are means of sanctification." He asked "how can I as an evangelical advocate transubstantiation, praying to the saints and the Blessed Virgin, or salvation by water baptism?"

The Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, responded that evangelicals are "often perceived as having a different agenda, more to do with Zionism." No joke. The evangelical spokesman admitted as much, but added "there are clear voices among both Western and Palestinian evangelicals who oppose Zionism." Where, exactly?

The ancient Christian community in Palestine is taking a battering from all sides. They don't need grief from know-it-all American evangelicals or their agents.

And then there is the interesting development concerning the purposeful Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church fame. Mr. Warren recently visited Syria, held a series of meetings--one even with Bashar Al-Assad--and then flew on to Rwanda. Some Conservative Christians have consequently turned on Warren, seeing this visit as a betrayal of Israel. "The Crosstalk Radio Talk Show, part of a Christian radio network, called Warren a 'mindless shill' for Syria and said he 'owes an apology to Israel, to the American people and to the victims of Syrian-sponsored terror.'" I hope to visit Syria one day. Somehow, I doubt I will be apologizing to Israel for doing so.

Warren's response in a press release is well worth reading. A couple of excepts, as follows:

Dr. Warren was in Syria to meet with and encourage the country’s key Christian leaders; dialogue with top Muslim leaders; and promote religious freedom. Leaders who met with Dr. Warren included the Patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church; the leader of the coalition of Evangelical Churches of Syria; and the pastor of the world’s oldest standing church dating back to 315 AD; and Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti.

Many Americans don’t realize that both Christianity and Judaism are legal in Syria. In addition, the government provides free electricity and water to all churches; allows pastors to purchase a car tax-free (a tax break not given to Muslim imams); appoints pastors as Christian judges to handle Christian cases; and allows Christians to create their own civil law instead of having to follow Muslim law. Every Christian with whom Dr. Warren’s team met -- including those in the city of Malula, where they represent two-thirds of the population -- expressed gratitude for the government’s protection of their right to worship.

"The Syrian government has long had a bad reputation in America, but if one considers a positive action like welcoming in thousands of Christian refugees from Iraq, or the protection of freedom to worship for Christians and Jews in Syria, it should not be ignored,” Dr. Warren said from Rwanda. He further explained that in terms of religious freedom, Syria is far more tolerant than places like Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and nations identified in the U.S. Commission Report on International Religious Freedom. ''Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in Syria for more than a thousand years, often with mosques and churches built next to each other,” he added. “What can we learn from them?"

Warren is a man to watch. Somehow, I think he may be about to break out of the evangelical reservation.

Nahed's Story

I have just finished a short book, Islam Encounters Christ: A Fanatical Muslim's Encounter with Christ in the Coptic Orthodox Church by Nahed Mahmoud Metwalli (Minneapolis: Life and Light Publishing, 2002). This rivetting story, an autobiographical account of an Egyptian Muslim woman's conversion to Christianity, is one that will stay with me for a long time.

In 1989, Nahed was a noted and influential educator, with important family connections in the Egyptian government. She presided as head principal at a high school of over 4,000 students, the largest school of its kind in Cairo. Like Saul himself, she hated Christians and took particular delight in persecuting the Coptic Christian teachers, staff and students under her charge. Without fail, they took her abuse and quite literally, turned the other cheek. And yet, Nahed was empty inside, concluding that even though she "prayed a lot and read the Koran often, yet there something missing." She even went to Mecca for 10 days, but returning more distraught than ever. As she was to learn, what was missing from her life was Christ. Nahed's remarkable conversion cost her everything--her job, home, position in society, as well as most of her family. She went from a respected and sometimes feared, official to a hunted fugitive, staying one step ahead of the police, as she fled from apartment to apartment. Many of the Christians who befriended her along the way suffered imprisonment and torture.

At one point, her sister was able to contact Nahed and give her 3 options: (a) she could turn herself in and recant what she had done, or (b) her family would commit her to a mental hospital as she had converted to Christianity and must obviously be mentally deranged, or (c) the family would kidnap and kill her and bury her in the desert, with absolutely no repercussions. Thankfully, Nahed and her oldest daughter were able to leave Egypt by means of fake passports (though not without one final scare as she noticed her picture on the wall in the airport passport control office).

But what I find particularly instructive (and convicting) is what first attracted Nahed to Christ: the behavior of these detested Christians--what we would call Christ-likedness. Nahed writes:

Indeed, I was both innovative and creative in humiliating, hurting and causing problems for the Christians. Not because I was evil but because I thought they did not love the God whom I loved and I worshiped. Yet there was always something puzzling me; I needed that inner peace which Christians had and for which I yearned. I was far wealthier than they were, wore expensive clothes and lacked nothing. Yet, there was something reassuring inside them. I could spot a Christian from the look in his/her eyes, that deep confident, peaceful look.

Later, Nahed caused much difficulty for a priest trying to enroll his daughter in her school. She remembers:

He thanked me, we shook hands and he went on his way. He had no idea of what turmoil was going on inside me. I felt so bad. One question kept haunting me, "What is it within this man? How can he be so kind and tactful?" He had what I lacked and was searching for: peace. I tried to forget this incident, but from time to time I would remember his look at me; his deep eyes filled with peace.

If one is looking for the elusive key to ministry in the Middle East, the simple answer is found in this book. But there is even a more obvious application, one that hits much closer home to me. Privileged and pampered American that I am, I do not have to live among people who hate me because I am a Christian (yet). But I am in contact with many, many people in a day's time. I wonder what peace do they see in my eyes, if any?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Not that it matters in the least, but

This is the one-year anniversary of this blog. I have to admit that I take great pleasure in the writing and dialogue. And while this exercise may have brought some much needed clarity to my own muddled thinking, the best part...the absolute best part of all this is the online acquaintances I am now honored to number among my friends. Thanks, guys!

Good thoughts

Over at Second Terrace, there is a good anaylsis of the recent Republican election debacle. Somewhat as an aside, he relates the following fascinating, and prescient anecdote:

(A Nazarene missionary stopped by to see me, some years ago, as he was heading off somewhere in Northern Africa. Since I was the only Orthodox priest he knew, he asked me what the Orthodox Church knew about living with Muslims. "What kind of evangelistic program did you guys use with them?" he asked, with a callowness that was charming, in a way. I mused, while he coached me with a multiple-choice response: "Door to door? Evangelistic services? Literature?" He didn't like my answer, as I had expected. "There's only one evangelistic program that works in that world," I said, "Martyrdom -- the old-fashion, non-homicidal kind.")

And then I have just come across Frederica Mathewes Green's thoughts on the Ted Haggard mess, found here. She has the best take on it that I have read so far. I particularly like this:

So it is a mistake to present Christianity the way some churches do, as if it is the haven of seamlessly well-adjusted, proper people. That results in a desperate artificial sheen. It results in treating worship as a consumer product, which must deliver better intellectual or emotional gratification than the competition. And that sends suffering people home again, still lonely, in their separate metal capsules.

What all humans have in common is our pathos. Getting honest about that binds us together. And then we begin to see how the mercy of God is pouring down on all of us all the time, just as the Good Samaritan bound the wounds of the beaten man with healing oil. May God give this healing mercy to Ted and Gayle, and to their children. May God reveal his healing mercy to Michael Jones, who told the truth. May God have mercy on all of us.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

High Five!

Okay. Confession time. I went to see Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This may be the most hilarius bit of film making I have ever seen. I was literally on the floor laughing. Check it out here (be sure and watch the deleted scenes), here and particularly, here. Not for the squemish or easily offended. You go see! High Five!

Monday, November 06, 2006

You Gotta Love Texas Politics

I have tried to refrain from commenting on this year's political campaigning. I saw no need to join the chorus predicting a well-deserved drubbing for the GOP. But then, there is always Texas. Our gubernatorial race has generated a bit of interest. Rick Perry, the current occupant, is a former Texas A & M cheerleader who moved up from Lt. Governor when W moved into the White House. He served out the remainder of that term and was reelected in his own right in 2002. Although popular with the Texas business establishment and GOP activists, his statewide ratings are abysmal--and rightfully so. The irony is that if Perry is re-elected and serves out this term (as seems likely), the most mediocre governor in memory will be the longest serving governor in Texas history.

Sensing that Perry had a lock on the Republican base, Texas' political gadfly, the much-married Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, opted out of the Republican primary and challenged Perry as an independent. She shares the moderate anti-Perry disgust vote with another independent: singer-songwriter-author-animal rights activist Kinky Friedman. Kinky initially grabbed the spotlight with campaign slogans such as "How Hard Could it Be?" and "Why the Hell Not?" Although still wildly popular on the Letterman show, his campaign has stumbled somewhat in Texas. And then there's the Democratic candidate, somebody Bell, I think. As it stands, the lackluster Perry will win another term with something over 30% of the vote.

Oh well, the state that foisted LBJ on an unsuspecting nation can hardly complain much about a piker like Perry. And then he does this. With the election absolutely sown up, Perry decides to throw a little red meat to his God-and-County constituency. He, along with some 60 odd Republican candidates, prostitute themselves before a get-out-the-vote worship(?) service at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. [Does this many Republicans on the dais at one time raise any red flags about the church's tax exempt status?] You may not be familiar with the Cornerstone Church by name, but have probably seen it on television, as this is the megachurch of that bumble-butt televangelist, John Hagee.

Hagee, once he got wound up, declared that "if you live your life and don't confess your sins to God almighty through the authority of Christ and his blood, I'm going to say this very plainly, you're going straight to hell with a nonstop ticket." After the event, a reporter asked Governor Perry if he agreed that non-Christians were going to hell. Perry, a graduate of the George Allen School of Political Suavity, responded: "In my faith, that's what it says, and I'm a believer of that."

His opponents were quick to respond. Friedman, a Jew who often describes himself as a "Judeo-Christian," noted that Perry "doesn't think very differently from the Taliban, does he?" and that Perry's comment "hits pretty close to home." Meanwhile, Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, trolling for votes in the black Baptist churches of Ft. Worth, tried to match Perry in cringe-inducing commentary: "There are many ways to heaven. We're all sinners, and we're all God's children...God's a uniter." [Carole might need to refresh her reading of Luke 15:49-53]. The Democratic candidate noted that "God is the only one who can make the decision as to who gets into the kingdom of heaven." I am reminded of an observation I once made about Protestantism being all about status: who is in and who is out.

The picture at the top of the article says it all. Hagee, Sr. is front and center. Hagee, Jr. is to the right [Why am I reminded of Governor O'Daniel and son from O Brother, Where Art Thou?] Our governor is on the left, with his hands covering his face. I'm ashamed too, Governor.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Dry Spell

My nephew tells me I need to post something to the blog. Okay.... Yet, for the life of me, I cannot think of anything that really needs saying, or rather, that needs to be said by me. At the risk of sounding like a whiney-baby, I suspect the weariness of being on crutches since September 22nd is starting to take its toll on me, in body and spirit. And then I remember those who have never walked, or those who will never walk again, or those who have lost limbs. All of which makes me ashamed of my minor complaints, particularly in light of the grace shown me in this recovery. And so, all I offer is the following quote:

He was bald but seemed to be bearing up well.

Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men