Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Power, Faith and Fantasy

I am currently reading Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present--and I would have been finished by now if I hadn't been side-tracked into John Ash's excellent A Byzantine Journey (which is, by the way, a worthy companion to Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain). Anyway, Israeli author Michael Oren chronicles American involvement in the region from the earliest days of the Republic. The book is balanced, to a fault, and written in a breezy, narrative style. Oren is an accomplished storyteller.

Perhaps the most intriguing part, for me, is Oren's depiction of Protestant missionary efforts, beginning in the 1820s. Somewhat surprisingly, they advocated a return of the Jewish people to Palestine from the very beginning. Of course, Christian support for Zionism really gained traction after WWII, but the basic premise had long been in place. On the other hand, they were puzzled by the existence of the 1800-year old Christian community. The Catholics, Orthodox, Melkite Catholics, Oriental Orthodox, etc. were seen as barely Christian, at best, and ripe prospects for proselytization. So, our meddlesomeness in the region has a long history.

Sad to say, American ignorance of anything predating the Reformation continues apace. I was recently reading the church bulletin of a large Protestant church. The minister (a friend of mine) is well-educated and highly intelligent--and someone whose opinion I respect. He has been in Israel recently and his on-going reports are carried in this church's bulletins. Visiting Bethlehem, he is surprised to discover that there are 15,000 Arab Christians in the city, behind the newly constructed Israeli wall. And he admits that he had been ignorant of their existence prior to the trip.

Until recent years there had been more, of course. Lots more. Even a casual reader of this blog knows this to be a special interest of mine. Middle Eastern Christians have been caught in the vise for over 1300 years now. Our politicians and preachers often seem blithely unaware of the effect we have on their ever-diminishing prospects. Even with the best of intentions, our uninformed policies and Protestant presuppositions and sensibilities often do nothing more than tighten the screws.

For more about the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, check out Robert Spencer's article, here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Spiritual Psalter

(No. 11)

No one can heal my disease except He Who knows the depths of the heart.

How many times have I set boundaries for myself and built walls between myself and sin! But my thoughts transgressed the boundaries and my will tore down the walls, for the boundaries were not secured by fear of God, and the walls were not founded on sincere repentance.

And again I knock at the door, that it may open for me. I do not cease to ask that I may receive what I request; and I know no shame in seeking Thy mercy, O Lord.

O Lord, my Savior! Why hast Thou forsaken me? Have mercy on me, O only Lover of mankind. Save me, a sinner, Thou only Sinless One.

Wrench me from the mire of my iniquities, that I may not be forever sullied by them. Deliver me from the jaws of the enemy, who roars as a lion and desires to swallow me up.

Rouse thy strength and come, that Thou mightest save me. Beam thy lightning and disperse his power, that he may be struck with fear and flee from Thy face, for he has not the strength to stand before Thee and before the face of those who love Thee. As soon as he perceives a sign of Thy grace, he is taken with fear of Thee and withdraws from such with shame.

And now, O Master, save me, for I flee to Thee!

from A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse from the works of our Holy Father Ephraim the Syria.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Next Conservatism

The lead article in the February 12th issue of The American Conservative is entitled The Next Conservatism. I found it well worth a read, and believe it will appeal to those with Orthodox sensibilities. The authors contend that what passes for American conservatism today has run its course, is dead intellectually, and would be unrecognizable to the fathers of historic conservatism. They posit a rejection of ideology, as true conservatism is not an idealogy, but a way of life. They advocate a return to "retroculture."

Some excerpts:

Real conservatism rejects all ideologies, recognizing them as armed cant. In their place, it offers a way of life built upon customs, traditions, and habits—themselves the products of the experiences of many generations. Because people are capable of learning over time, when they may do so in a specific, continuous cultural setting, the conservative way of life comes to reflect the prudential virtues: modesty, the dignity of labor, conservation and saving, the importance of family and community, personal duties and obligations, and caution in innovation.

If the next conservatism is to reverse this decline and begin to recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s...It must lead growing numbers of Americans to secede from the rotten pop culture of materialism, consumerism, hyper-sexualization, and political correctness and return to the old ways of living. The next conservatism includes “retroculture”: a conscious, deliberate recovery of the past.

So the next conservative movement is just this: a growing coalition of people who are committed to living differently. They share a common rejection of the popular culture, of a life based on wants and instant gratification, and of the ideology of multiculturalism and political correctness. They seek to work with other Americans, and perhaps Europeans as well, who know the past was better than the present and are committed to living as their ancestors did, by the rules of Western culture. They carry their quest into the political arena, lest their enemies mobilize the power of the state to crush them. But they look beyond politics to lives well lived in the old ways, as lamps for their neighbors’ footsteps, as harbingers of a world restored, and as testimonies to the only safe form of power, the power of example. We might add, as gifts to God as well.

Count me in. But if you think that Weyrich and Lind go too far in their nostalgic pining for the 1950s, you'll appreciate John Derbyshire's "yes, but" respose in the same issue, here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

About Taki

I recommend the new web magazine, Taki's Top Drawer. This is what they have to say about themselves:

About Taki
On February 5, 2007, journalist and socialite Taki Theodoracopulos launched Taki’s Top Drawer, (, a conservative online magazine. Taki writes a column, the “High Life,” which has appeared in London’s The Spectator for the past twenty-five years. He writes also for National Review, the Sunday Times (London), Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Quest, among others. In 2002, Taki founded The American Conservative magazine with Pat Buchanan and Scott McConnell. Taki is a descendant of a titled family from the Ionian island of Zante. His father was a self-made shipping magnate who served in both the Greek armed forces during the World War II Balkan campaign of 1940-1941 and the anti-German resistance movement. Taki was educated at the Lawrenceville School and the University of Virginia, and is married to Princess Alexandra Schoenburg.

Why start this new online magazine? According to the just-turned-70 writer—who’s fit as a fiddle, and active in competitive martial arts—“I want to shake up the stodgy world of so-called ‘conservative’ opinion. For the past ten years at least, the conservative movement has been dominated by a bunch of pudgy, pasty-faced kids in bow-ties and blue blazers who spent their youths playing Risk in gothic dormitories, while sipping port and smoking their father’s stolen cigars. Thanks to the tragedy of September 11—and a compliant and dim-witted president—these kids got the chance to play Risk with real soldiers, with American soldiers. Patriotic men and women are dying over in Iraq for a war that was never in America’s interests. And now these spitball gunners, these chicken hawks, want to attack Iran—which is no threat to the U.S. at all. One thing I can tell you for sure, there may well be some atheists in foxholes—but you’ll never find a neocon. They prefer to send blue-collar kids out to die on their behalf, so they get to feel macho—and make up for all the times they got wedgies in prep school. It shall be our considered task to take on the chicken-hawks of this world, and give them wedgies again.”

Writers for this site will include conservative and libertarian luminaries like Paul Gottfried, R.J. Stove, Justin Raimondo, Steven Sailer, John Zmirak, Robert Spencer and many others.

“We want to reflect a traditional conservatism that prefers peace with honor to proxy wars, Western civilization to multicultural barbarism, Christendom to the European Union, and Russell Kirk to Leon Trotsky. This will undoubtedly infuriate many in the mainstream ‘conservative’ movement, who have transferred their loyalties elsewhere. It’s time to raise their blood pressure a few points—and help them burn off some of those five-course meals they’ve been eating down on K Street,” Taki said.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Forgiveness Vespers

Last night, I participated in my first Forgiveness Vespers as an Orthodox Christian. I wasn't sure what to expect, exactly, but the service was one of the most incredibly moving experiences of my life. It is somewhat hard to describe--let's just say that you spend most of the time on the floor, prostrate, asking the forgiveness of, well....everybody.

The homily last night was simple, beautiful, and moving. We were reminded that, as the prodigal son, this is a season for our returning to our senses, and remembering the gift of forgiveness--that in our forgiving of all, we secure our own forgiveness. So, as someone who is proud and opinionated, who often pretends that sarcasm is a virtue (it is not), and who enjoys a bit of gossip and dirt as much as the next person, I humbly ask your forgiveness. Forgive me.

(Fr. Joseph Huneycutt has St. Tikhon's 1901 homily for Forgiveness Sunday, here.)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Interview with Lord Carey

I came across this short interview today with Lord George L. Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, who is on a speaking tour of the U.S. I found his responses refreshingly clear and straight-forward, whether discussing Islam or the Anglican Communion's on-going deconstruction (at least in the northern hemisphere). Other than failing to bat down the interviewer's predictable cheap shot of equating supposed Christian violence with that of Islam, Carey's thoughts are worth a look. Read it here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lives of the Georgian Saints

I am current reading Lives of the Georgian Saints by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze. I highly recommend it. The book is well done--a tight hardcover, with color icon prints of the Georgian saints, as well as many pictures of their churches and monasteries. In chronicling these little-known saints (at least to us in the West), the author also imparts a tremendous amount of Georgian history, from the first century through the Soviet era. Perhaps more so than for any nation today, the history of the Orthodox Church is the history of this country. The book would certainly make a nice gift for someone, as well as excellent Lenten reading. Copies are $29 plus $4 mailing from St. Herman Press, here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Shame of the Cross

In the year 1064, Turkish tribes under the leadership of Alp Arslan, overran Ani, a Armenian city of over 100,000 inhabitants. Hundreds of churches dotted the metropolis, dominated by the great cathedral church. Alp Arslan ordered that the dome of the cathedral be scaled and the great silver cross pulled down. He had the cross embedded in the threshold of his mosque, so that "true believers" could trample upon the symbol of the Christian faith as they entered. The city never recovered from the carnage and butchery that followed it's fall. Today, Ani is a windswept ruin, though the gaunt shell of the enormous cathedral still stands.

A thousand years later, any battles over the cross are not so epic or spectacular--at least here in the West. There are no walls to scale, few defenders, and often as not, those inside the walls have already done the preparatory dirty work.

The following story should not be particularly alarming, mainly because it is so typical and the responses oh so predictable--all grist for the conservative talk show mill, I suppose. The story revolves around a simmering fuss at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. W&M is our nation's second oldest university, dating from 1693. As one would imagine, the college is steeped in history. The gem of the campus is the Wren Chapel, dating from 1732. [I visited in 1998 and can attest to its beauty]. At issue is an 18" brass cross which has been on the altar there since 1940. It seems some students have taken offense. And with good reason--a cross! In a chapel, of all places! Imagine the horror of it all.

Gene K. Nichol, the school president, is sensitive to the tender sensibilities of the W&M student body. Indeed, he notes that since 2005, perhaps 20 people have mentioned to him their concerns about the brass cross. With such an overwhelming groundswell of opposition, what course could he take other than remove the cross? In October, he did that very thing "to make the chapel more welcoming to all faiths." He remarked that "it's the right thing to do to make sure this campus is open and welcoming to everyone...this is a diverse institution religiously, and we want it become even more diverse." But of course. And what better way than to remove the last remaining vestige, however faint, of the faith that both formed and has informed the university for most of his 313 years? Certainly, W&M is an elite institution that no longer caters to planters sons from along the Rappahannock. The international student body is indeed diverse, and I would doubt that a majority is even nominally Christian. But still, one can't help but be struck by the silliness of it all.

Some former students have rallied to protest the removal, and well-healed alumni have threatened to withhold funds. A spokesman for the group claims "it reflects a view that religious symbols --religion and the public expression thereof--are somehow an obstacle for us to get along with one another."

Nichol counters by asking "does that marvelous place belong to everyone, or is it principally for our Christian students...Do we actually value religious diversity, or have we determined, because of our history, to endorse a particular religious tradition to the exclusion of others."

I suppose the chapel could be converted to a cafeteria. Perhaps that would not be offensive. Of course, there could be no pork, and the other meat would have to be halal.

As one would expect, Nichol's decision was endorsed by the student assembly, most of the faculty and the Campus Ministers United. An Orthodox Jewish student from Israel complained that he was "uncomfortable" during Freshman orientation in the chapel. But now he feels "an integral part of the community due to this symbolic action." How lovely. And I'm sure Israeli colleges are equally accommodating to any non-Jewish students that come their way. Really.

Perhaps the opponents of the cross have inadvertently hit on something. In our country, the symbol has become little more than a piece of decorative art or a fashion accessory. When seen in this light, there could have been no ruckus at William and Mary. But maybe the Israeli student was right to feel "uncomfortable" in the same room as the cross. For the cross does not soothe and comfort. Rather, the cross, rightly seen, is unsettling. It is convicting. It pierces the soul and demands a declaration from us. And ultimately, it leads us to our redemption.

So, we'll see. Perhaps the alumni money will triumph over the diversity and dialogue crowd. But it will be a hollow victory. The problem here, it seems to me, is not those non-Christians who catch a sense of what the cross implies and oppose it. Rather, the true enemies are those useful idiots who, while giving lip service to Christianity, jettison the cross as a divisive and offensive symbol, to be sacrificed to the God of Diversity.