Saturday, December 27, 2008

Life With Books

"You'll find plenty to interest you here...that is, if you're interested in things. " (Evelyn Waugh, Unconditional Surrender)

One of the things I enjoy about being off for a few days is being able to putter around the study, alone with my books. With some free time on my hands, I started making a mental list of my favorite books on the shelves. This soon became an exercise in futility, as the list became unwieldy. So, I decided to break it up into categories, and then limit my choices to 5 within each grouping.

Our house dates back to 1908, built by the first banker in town. This particular room was the bedroom of his daughter, Louise, who died as an 11-year old in the 1918 flu epidemic. Later, a maiden aunt, Sallie, occupied the room. A childless widow was the second owner of the house. She lived in one back room, shutting off the rest of the house. Technically, this was the guest room--but there were no guests. From the time she was a small child, my wife walked past the overgrown lot on her way to school every day, thinking that some day she would like to live there. So, in 1987 we purchased the then-derelict old place. The house consisted of 5 large rooms, with a wide hallway through the middle. There were dormers in the high, pitched roof, but the attic itself was completely unfinished, with no flooring or staircase. We added-on to the rear of the house and put the space in the attic to good use--finishing-out 3 bedrooms and 2 baths (and a staircase!). This left all the downstairs devoted to eating and "sitting-around" space. We gave especial attention to what was to become the study. We tore out the tacked-on closet and built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along two of the walls. The ceilings are 11 ft., necessitating a rolling ladder to access the top shelves. But the room ultimately proved insufficient, as there are 8 other bookcases scattered throughout the house.

I recall a family reunion from the third year we lived here. Cousin Alice walked through the house, making a careful inspection. Alice was a thin, wizened-up little woman with bright red hair out of a bottle. She was my 2nd cousin once removed, my wife's 1st cousin once removed and 2nd cousin once removed (don't ask--a squirrel could jump effortlessly from one limb of my family tree to my wife's.) Alice stuck her head into the study...tentatively...and wrinkled her nose in a sign of slight distaste. "Oooh, he must be a bookworm," she said, in the same tone she would have used to describe an alcoholic child molester or something.

Of course, she was right. My childhood was as happy as could be expected. My parents were somewhat older, and had spent their married lives relentlessly pulling themselves up from Depression-era poverty. By the time I came along, the money was starting to roll in, and they were both keen to make more of it. That is to say they were busy people, and it was easy for me to be left by myself. My next oldest sibling was 11 years older than I, and as he viewed my arrival as something of a threat to his spotlight, we never really got on. We were not a bookish family, being more concerned with the here-and-now practicalities of life. My granddad would read to me, but he died when I was 8, and I never recall either parent doing that either before or after. A red-letter day in my early childhood was the day our 1964 World Book Encyclopedia arrived. I still remember unpacking the boxes. So, books were always my escape, and I suppose they still are.

But, here's my list:


1. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Some may find this an odd choice from Dickens. David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers are favorites, as well, but Bleak House, in my estimation, is Dickens at his best. And let's face it, some of Dickens can be a hard slog. But the characterizations and plot development in Bleak House are just the best. Part of the attraction was the insight it provided me for close associations who, like many of the protagonists in the book, wasted their lives waiting on an inheritance that never came. I've read the book through at least 3 times. The older BBC adaptiation with Diana Rigg as Lady Honoria Dedlock cemented this in my psyche as one of my all-time favorite stories.

2. A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell

A better writer than his contemporaries Waugh and Greene, and often compared favorably to Proust, Powell is perhaps the greatest largely-unknown novelist of the 20th-century. If you want to know about Victorian England, you read Dickens or Trollope. If you want to know about modern England, up through about 1975, you'd better be familiar with Powell. His 12-volume series, A Dance to the Music of Time, is a subtle masterpiece. I have read the entire series through at least 3 times, and perhaps 4, since 1984. I have been bothered that Powell's works and his characters are not infused with faith, there is no spark of the Divine, as one finds in Waugh. Powell was quietly non-croyant, as he would say. But really, there was actually no one better suited to chronicle the soullessness and sadness of the wreckage of modernity that was the 20th-century.

3. Howard's End, by E. M. Forster

Forster addresses some of the same themes as Powell: the life of the mind, and personal relationships vs. those that live by force of will, the outer life, as Forster calls it. But what I enjoy most about Howard's End is the exquisite sense of place that the novel conveys. The movie, with Vanessa Redgrave, captures this mood exactly. My favorite time to walk around the yard is at dusk, and I sometimes think of the scene where Ruth Wilcox does the same at Howard's End.

4. Collected Stories, by Flannery O'Connor

I have often referenced O'Connor as the one of the greatest theologians of the 20th-century. That may be "damning with faint praise," as they say. Some readers skim over her work and dismiss it as just more quaint and colorful, albeit bizarre, Southern Gothic storytelling. Those that do entirely miss the point. The stories are all about Grace; not the saccharine-sweet evangelical imitation, but the real kind--the kind that hits you up-side the head like a 2 by 4. Her tales are grotesque, they are jarring, and they will leave you a bit disturbed. But you won't soon forget them, and chances are, they may change you. My favorites include Parker's Back, Revelation, The Displaced Person, and of course, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

5. The Leopard, by Guisseppe de Lampedusa

This was the only novel of this Sicilian nobleman, published shortly before, if not after, his death. But like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, when you write this well, one book is enough. The old ways succumb, inexorably to the modern. All this shouldn't last; but it will, always; the human 'always,' of course, a century, two centuries...and then it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take our place will be the little jackals, and sheep. We'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth. This book will haunt your memory.


1. The Jane Austen canon

I call this category "Guilty Pleasures," not in the sense of being in any way illicit, but rather that they offer pure, unadulterated escapism. Jane Austen's work must head this list. I have read all 6 novels through several times, with my favorites being Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. No one can consider themselves truly well-read without some exposure to Jane Austen. It's just that simple. I may need to re-read them again, if only to erase the mental image of the horrid recent BBC television adaptations.

2. Anything by Anthony Trollope

I think some unfairly consider Trollope to be a low-brow Dickens. Trollope was a prolific mid-Victorian writer who, like Dickens, desperately needed the money. He published 48 novels in all. Over a 12-year period, I read every one of them--4 a year. Trollope's writing is much more accessible, and less ponderous, than Dickens can sometimes be. My favorites are his Barsetshire series and his Duke of Omnion series. Dr. Thorne, one of the Barsetshire novels, is a favorite, as is The Way We Live Now, a biting satire of greed and avarice, not only for that era, but for ours as well.

3. Anything by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor is little-read these days. I consider him to be one of the South's, if not the country's, greatest writers. His stories do not in any way fall into the typical Southern Gothic genre. Most deal with Tennesseans of good family, who find themselves increasingly ill-at-ease in our modern world. Taylor's stories are subtle, and he is the American writer who most approximates Anthony Powell, in my estimation. From In the Miro District:

Grandfather could only confide those feelings of his to other men. He would only confide them when he had a little whiskey in him. And what is important, too, is that he only drank alone or in the company of other men. He abhorred what my father and mother had come to speak of in the 1920s as social drinking. Drinking liquor was an evil and was a sign of weakness, he would have said, and just because one indulged in it oneself was no reason to pretend there was any virtue in it. That to him was hypocrisy. Drinking behind closed doors or in a secluded hunting lodge, though one denounced it in public as an evil practice, signified respect for the public thing, which was more important than one's private character. It signified genuine humility.

4. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

This is, in my estimation, the greatest adventure story ever written. If you've read it already, you know what I am talking about. I was in my early 40s before I discovered it, and I wish I had done so decades earlier. Don't wait as long as I did.

5. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostovo

This is the only contemporary novel I have listed. I seldom read a novel by a living author, as I am almost always disappointed. That is not the case with this work. Kostovo has woven a ripping-good read containing murder, mystery, travel, libraries and vampires. What's not to like? A close runner-up was Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings.


1. The Crusades, by Sir Steven Runciman

Sir Steven Runciman was a historian of the old school, and by that I mean a real historian. His work will stand the test of time. Runciman's history of the Crusades can truly be said to be magisterial, with no danger of hyperbole. Read anything he wrote, but start with this one. And in his collected works, he has proven himself to be a good, great friend of the legacy of Constantinople. I also highly recommend The Sicilian Vespers and The Great Church in Captivity.

2. History of the Renaissance in Italy, by Jacob Burkhardt

I was introduced to Burkhardt in my graduate history studies. Renaissance studies generally start with him. His evocation of 15th-century Italy casts an almost magical spell over the reader. Burkhardt was a true historian and this is his best work.

3. Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer

Fischer examines the differing origins of British migration to America, and how this shaped our consciousness as a young nation. In this fascinating study, he follows the Puritans from East Anglia, the Cavaliers and their servants from the South of England, the Quakers from the Midlands, and the Scots and Scots-Irish from the Borderlands. The work held interest to me, as all my ancestors were here and in place by the time of the Revolution. I descend from all four groups. I can think of no better book to explain the culture of an America that once was.

4. The Alexiad, by Anna Comnena

The 12th-century is my favorite period of Byzantine history. The Comnenian revival had restored the empire to a semblance of its former glory following the collapse after Manzikert. But its enemies, East and West, were on the move, and as Runciman had noted, "the rot had set in." Who better to tell the story than, Anna, the ambitious daughter of Alexius I. In time, she became frustrated and bitter over her failure to ascend the throne after her father's death. She had to settle for being one of the world's greatest historians, which is not such a bad consolation prize. To firmly establish my Byzanti-nerd credentials, my alternate selection would have been Paul Magdolino's The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos: 1143-1180.

5. The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire, by Thomas Hogdkin

This is old-style history at its best. One of my history professors once said that it was a cliche to refer to any era of history as a "transitional period," for all history is transition. That said, and begging the indulgence of Dr. McCroskey--wherever she is--it is these "transitional" ages of history that fascinate me. I particularly enjoy studying cultures that are on the down-swing, in the process of becoming who knows what. This is the very environment Prof. Hogdkin chronicles in 8 volumes--from the invasions of the Visigoths to the Huns to the Ostrogoths to the Justinian Revival to the Lombards to the Franks. Once in Istanbul, I visited the neglected ruins of the Church of St. Polyeuctus. I wanted to visit it especially, for it had been a gift of Anicia Juliana, the daughter of the incredible Galla Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian III, and one of the most interesting historical figures I've ever encountered. All this, and Theodoric too, I owe to Hogdkin.


1. The Epistles of Ignatius, by St. Ignatius

A chance reading in 2003--when my heart and mind were ready to receive (though unknown to me at the time)--propelled me down the road to the Orthodox faith. These are just 7 short letters, addressed to the churches of Asia Minor by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, while awaiting to be transported to Rome, and martyrdom in 107 A.D. Ignatius was an old man at the time, and his life overlapped with the ministry of the Apostles. Indeed, he was a disciple of St. John the Theologian. To use the parlance of my religious heritage, Ignatius was a "First Century" Christian. That is why his letters were so dangerous for me to read--and really, for any evangelical Protestant to tackle in earnest. One could come away from the experience, merely saying, "So?" More likely, however, one will come away saying, "So...this changes everything."

2. From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple

Ideally, this selection would head the list of the Travel category. But for me, Dalrymple's book is much more than just a jaunty travelogue. In the late 1990s, he chronicled the diminishing Christian world of the Near East. I read his account during the period I was investigating Orthodoxy. His concerns became my concerns. So, as a newly Orthodox convert, I began retracing some of his steps in 2006, and then in 2007 and again last year. That is real influence.

3. The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky

I finished this book while traveling in 2007, after my third try. The new translation helped, and so did being Orthodox. That said, The Brothers Karamazov is still a difficult read. But its acclaim is well-deserved and the rewards of persevering to the end are well worth it. I find it hard to explain to someone who has never read TBK, but it is simply one of the most significant books I have ever read.

4. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

As something of an amateur Byzantinist, I now cringe at Gibbon's blatant anti-Christian prejudices, and Byzantine-bashing. And yet, you must begin here. If you are interested in Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, Gibbon is foundational. Like the New York Times, for better or for worse, he frames the debate. I have launched off on any number of historical tangents in the 24 years since I have read Gibbon. His writing gives context to all that has come afterwards. It is essential history, told in the best way.

5. The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis

It seems that anyone who finds their way out of the evangelical wasteland, spends some time walking alongside C. S. Lewis. That is how I see his collected body of work--as pointing us back in the right direction, walking with us for a ways and giving encouragement for the journey ahead. Back in my pre-Orthodox days, I had a disagreement with an elder in our church who advocated burning Lewis' works. If this wasn't the straw the broke the camel's back, it was the next one to it. I dumped him and stuck with Lewis and have never regretted the choice. Of all his writings, it was The Great Divorce, not Mere Christianity, that had the greatest effect on me.


1. When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh

Before he became a noted author, Waugh was a travel writer. This volume is a compilation of some of his earliest writings. The book contains Waugh's assignment to Abysinnia covering the coronation of Haile Selaisse. This experience informed his wicked early novel, Black Mischief, as well as Scoop.

2. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

This is the first volume of a proposed trilogy, describing young Fermor's trek across Europe, as he walked from England to Constantinople in the mid 1930s. I have not yet read the second volume. Fermor is still with us, living in Greece, as he has for many decades. He is in his 90s, still working on his notes for the last leg of the trip into Constantinople. If ever published, I will be first in line for a copy.

3. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West

I read this book many years ago. Dame Rebecca West spent a great deal of time in the former Yugoslavia, just before the Nazi troops washed over the country. She published her book in 1940, and it has been something of a standard for insightful travel-writing ever since. In light of all that has happened to that region in the last 2 decades, it would be a good candidate for re-reading.

4. All the Time in the World, by Hugo Williams

This is reminiscent of Fermor--a young Brit drifting around the world, poking about in odd corners. This time, the year is 1963. The English really do this better than anyone else.

5. The Vanishing Pomp of Yesteryear, by Lord Frederic Hamilton

I was all set to list Eastward to Tartary by Robert D. Kaplan as my last selection. Kaplan's recent account of his trek across the Balkans, Middle East and the Caucacus region would be a natural for me. And then I remembered Lord Hamilton's memoirs. He was a British career diplomat of the late 19th-century. His postings ranged from St. Petersburg to Asuncion. The book was not published until 1934, when Hamilton was quite old. There is a story from P. G. Wodehouse, where the hapless Bertie is commandeered to help snitch the apparently ribald memoirs of Sir Watkin Bassett, before it can be published, to the scandal of the family. One can just as well imagine Lord Hamilton's family trying to do the same. The Paraquayan chapter is a howler--from his walking the city streets incognito, passing himself off as Mr. Dwight P. Rogers of Hicksville, PA, to a day at the races with his favorable comparison of the barefoot Paraquayan women with those in the royal enclosure at Ascot, to his ride on the Paraguayan railway to nowhere. I seem to recall Hamilton also had quite a bit to say about the relative unattractiveness of Portuguese women...The book is a delight.


1. Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast

If I were trying to impress, I suppose I should be listing Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church, or perhaps John Zizioulas' Being as Communion. I have both books, but they are not my favorites. My priest emphasizes the value in reading the lives of contemporary, or near contemporary monastics. I took him up on the advice, and started with this one--the "blue book" as I call it. Few books have had such an influence on my daily struggle. I recommend it unconditionally.

2. Lives of the Georgian Saints, by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze

This is an incredible book--1700 years of the Faith in Georgia. The work chronicles the lives of over 100 Georgian saints, from the earliest days to World War II. The volume is lavishly illustrated--a treasure to keep and reread, as well as to give as a gift.

3. The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983

To be an American Orthodox Christian is to be in debt to Alexander Schmemann. His collected body of work is of profound importance to the growth and revitalization of the Faith in this country. His Journals, however, give one insight into the mind of this great man.

4. The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian, compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse

I am drawn to the writings of the Syrian Fathers, particularly St. Ephrem and St. Isaac. I read through The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian at least once a year. When I travel, the little volume usually goes with me. His writings are my gift of choice to catechumens upon their baptism and/or chrismation. That such wisdom is largely lost to the wider Christian world is a tragedy.

5. The Spiritual Meadow, by John Moschos

"I have plucked the finest flowers of the unmown meadow and worked them into a row which I now offer to you," the monk John Moschos wrote of his journey among the holy men of 7th-century Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. It was Moschos who inspired William Dalrymple to embark on his travels which resulted in From the Holy Mountain. Enough said.


1. Democracy in America, by Alexis de Toqueville

Most readers have books in their collections that look good on the shelf, but remain unread. I am no different, the most glaring example being this one. I have a fat red slip-cased edition that convicts me every time I walk into the room. I am aware of the significance of de Toqueville's work. A quote thrown out from de Toqueville has carried many an argument. But nevertheless, I remain un-de Toquevilled.

2. Collected Stories, by Anton Chekov

I know, I know. Soon....I promise.

3. The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

I've made two attempts so far, making it down to the 7th circle of Hell this last time. My son has read all 3 several times. He just loves the work and can quote from it at ease. I feel confident that my next try will be successful.

4. August 1914, by Alexander Solzenitzhen

I'm like so many people--we know a lot about Sozenitzhen, but we've never read him. I have read the transcript of his famous Harvard speech, but that is about all. I make no pretensions about ever trying to read The Gulag Archipelago. If I haven't read it by now, I'm not going to. But I would like to read this volume, the first in a little-read trilogy of the Russian Revolution.

5. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell

My Anglophile days are long gone, so there is little chance I will ever crack this one.


1. At the End of an Age, by John Lukacs

"Because of the goodness of God I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one." Anything Lukacs writes is good. This book is a good place to start. I look forward to reading his new biography of George Kennan.

2. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk

To understand where we are in the Middle East, as how we got there, The Great War for Civilization is essential reading. He covers everything: the Palestinian Question, Lebanon, the Armenians, the Kurds, Iraq, the Persians, the Saudis, etc. I also considerA Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin, and of course, Imperial Hubris to be essential reading as well.

3. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, by Samuel Huntington

This book made quite an impression on me when first published in about 1995. I've reread it since, I find no fault in his thesis. His theory has been often misapplied, and consequently wrongly attacked--particularly in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. This book should be read and understood.

4. Around the Cragged Hill, by George Kennan

George Kennan was the premier American foreign policy diplomat and intellectual of the 20th-century, dubbed in an Atlantic cover article "The Last Wise Man." His sage counsel has not been followed in this country for quite some time now, with obvious results. In this volume, he lays out his personal and political philosophy.

5. The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk

Kirk's book serves as a primer for would-be Conservatives. Many who call themselves by that name would do well to peak within its covers. The best chapters are the early ones covering Edmund Burke and John Adams. And the introduction to the largely unknown and fascinating Orestes Brownson is worth the price of the book.


1. The Rogue's Game, by Milton Burton

I have had 2 friends that have stuck by me, through thick or thin, for more than 20 years now. Milton is one of them. Several years ago, he published his first novel, The Rogue's Game, which was very well-received. His second, The Quick and the Dead, also enjoyed a successful run. Several more are in the pipeline now, waiting to be published. Milton's works are in the crime novel genre, an area in which I am not well-versed. But his mastery of dialogue and characterization is a delight to read. I look forward to expanding my collection of signed, first-edition Burtons.

2. The Sword of Honor Trilogy and/or Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

I often wondered why I enjoyed the Sword of Honor Trilogy so much. I generally do not enjoy war novels. I recently reread Brideshead Revisted. I had forgotten just how good it was. Nobody does the chipping-away by modernity of continuity, tradition and family better than Waugh.

3. The Landmark Herodotus

I have just begun to mine the riches of this work. I now know where the expression "as rich as Croesus" came from.

4. Middlemarch, by George Eliot

I haven't read much of Eliot. I believe this book and Daniel Deronda are the only ones. I place her work midway between Dickens and Trollope, and as such, an enjoyable and satisfying read.

5. The Golovlyov Family, by Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov

I haven't read Anna Karenina. I haven't read Crime and Punishment. I haven't read Chekov. But I have read Saltykov's The Golovlyov Family. The characters are loathsome and despicable. One reviewer said the story made Wuthering Heights look positively sunny in comparison. Reading it will make you a better person--if only to avoid being like the Golovlyovs.


1. Splendora, by Edward Swift

There's something funny about the new librarian in the fictional town of Splendora in deep East Texas. Things come to a head at the annual "Crape Myrtle Festival," a thinly-disguised take on Woodville and its annual "Dogwood Festival." From my connections in that part of the state, I heard that what passed for "society" in the burg were not amused--which makes it just all the more fun.

2. Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, by Florence King

King's book is a timeless classic. She is FFV (First Families of Virginia) so she can get away with poking fun at our Southern eccentricities. A favorite chapter covered the "Self-Rejuvenating Virgin," with 16 reasons "why it didn't count."

3. Delta Wedding and/or The Ponder Heart and/or Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

I should like Eudora Welty more than I do. I always felt there was something lacking from her work. Later I read that she was puzzled by the religious aspect of Flannery O'Connor's work. That is what was missing. Nevertheless, Delta Wedding is a comic masterpiece, as is the novella The Ponder Heart and the short story, Why I Live at the P.O.

4. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, by Henry Fielding

One of the first comic novels is still one of the best. I particularly enjoyed the BBC adaptation from about 1997 or so, as well.

5. Life With Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

Somehow, I doubt the 1920s were exactly like this. Even the idle rich couldn't have been as clueless and useless as Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse's tales of Bertie and Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, and Aunt Agatha and Aunt Dahlia and Roderick Spode and Sir Watkin Bassett and the Drones Club, etc. are laugh-out-loud funny even yet.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For

The latest from South Ossetia, here.

Things are not going smoothly in the Russian protectorate of "South Ossetia."

No one knows exactly what happened to all the glass and other building materials. The same appears to apply to much of the €350 million ($490 million) in Russian reconstruction aid. To be on the safe side, Moscow did send two of its own people to Tskhinvali to serve as prime minister and finance minister. But President Kokoity has declared the budget, filled almost exclusively with Russian funds after the war, a state secret. A former security advisor accuses Kokoity of having surrounded himself with confidants from the Russian regions of Samara and Ulyanovsk and of conducting money-laundering operations with dubious companies....Kokoity governs his territory like a mafia boss. Critics are threatened with deportation by his security staff, while family members are awarded positions in the administration. Kokoity made his brother Robert, a feared gangster in Tskhinvali, ambassador in sunny Abkhazia on the Black Sea.


Many in Moscow are realizing that Russia went to war over a region that is not only insignificant, but also has a leadership every bit as unpredictable as Saakashvili.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Derbyshire on the Spread of Islam

I approach a John Derbyshire article with caution. While I often find much with which to agree--and a good read is almost always guaranteed--Derbyshire's anti-Christian bias (anti-faith, actually) always seems to seep into the story. He is much like Christopher Hitchens in this regard, casually dismissive of the role of religion, though lacking in his mad-dog histrionics.

So, Derbyshire's review of two recent studies of the advance of Islam into Europe, "When Worlds Collide, a Review of The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy and God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 by David Levering Lewis," found, here, is fraught with both peril and promise.

Derbyshire notes--rightly--that "it is a sad reflection on the current state of popular historical writing that one approaches any book about Islamic history with the question: what's the angle?" He observes that historians have always had "a bill of goods to sell," but that the stakes are raised when the subject is Islam. Derbyshire is outspoken in his belief that there exists no existential struggle between Islam and the West (no Huntington fan, he.) And perhaps because of this belief, Derbyshire pauses before reviewing the books at hand--in his best casually dismissive mode--to discredit the "Islamophobes." In particular, he identies Robert Spencer, Bat Ye-Or and Ibn Warraq. Derbyshire wonders "how seriously these Islamophobic writers should be taken," and observes that they are not cited in either of the books in review. This is not surprising in the least, as these three writers deal primarily with the Christian dhimmitude under Islam and/or the tenets of the faith itself. The 2 historians under review are focused, however, on the sweep of Islam into Europe, by way of Iberia before being halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Derbyshire and Spencer have conducted a gentlemanly debate on the subject before (Spencer's rebuttal found, here).

Derbyshire begins with a review of God's Crucible, first noting that the author is held in low esteem by the "Islamophobes," much like Karen Armstrong. He attributes their dislike of Armstrong to her favorable biography of Mohammad. [I suspect, however, that disdain for Armstrong has much more to do with the general shallowness of her Jesus Seminar theology.] But Derbyshire is understanding, to a point, of their opposition to Lewis. He cites the following passage from Crucible regarding the Battle of Poitiers:

Had [Muslim general] 'Abd al-Rahman's men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths. ...[T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

Such an assertion is ripe for ridicule by Derbyshire. "Can't we all get along?" asked Rodney King. "Yes!" replies Lewis in effect, "and once upon a time we did—in the convivencia, the spirit of tolerant coexistence that prevailed in Muslim Spain. And the rest of Europe could have had convivencia too, but for that darn Charles Martel and those fool Popes!"

It is hard to know where to begin with Lewis' sweeping assumptions. Anyone who would write such a paragraph and expect to be taken seriously is simply, well...a fool. Perhaps an Islamic Europe would have been "unobstructed by borders" and "devoid of a priestly caste." I'm afraid it would have been devoid of a number of things even Prof. Lewis might hold dear, as well.

Most irritating is Lewis' contention that Islam would have been "respectful of other religions." This is the constant refrain of apologists, but one which will not hold up to even the most cursory inspection of history or contemporary events. The "respect," if you want to call it that, was always an on-again, off-again thing, subject to the whims of the particular ruler in power. Certainly Christians worked out the best accommodation possible with their overlords, and yes, the urban Greeks and Armenians prospered--to a degree--under the long Ottoman decline, but there was never a century after Mohammad that Christians did not suffer significant persecution under his followers. Nor is it just ancient history: consider the massacre of Damascene Christians (1860), the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917), the massacre of the Smyrnian Christians (1923), the anti-Christian riots in Istanbul (1955), and the persecution of Iraqi Christians and Egyptian Copts today. To claim otherwise is either willful obsfuscation or ignorance.

Derbyshire identifies an important flaw in Lewis' argument. The author compares the Umayyad Muslims with the Frankish Carolingians, finding the latter "religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive." Derbyshire faults Lewis for using the 8th-century Franks as a representation of the Christian world. By even 800 A.D., the Franks were only just emerging from the crude barbarism that characterized post-Roman Gaul. The Umayyads, in contrast, emerged from the very cradle of civilization itself, drawing on cultural roots 3,000 years old. Derbyshire takes Lewis to task noting when one takes the entirety of "Christendom" in account--and by this he specifically references Constantinople, but should also include Alexandria and Antioch--then any civilizational comparisons between Islam and Christianity take on a new light indeed.

So, expanding on Derbyshire's observation, the point--it seems to me--is not that the Umayyads were Muslim that made them more advanced. Rather, it was the fact that they were from the very center of civilization--the East. Any number of eastern cities--Coptic Alexandra, Greek Orthodox Constantinople, Thessaloniki and Antioch, Umayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, Sassanid Ctesiphon and Armenian Ani--would have amazed a Frankish visitor.

Derbyshire also speculates that cultural considerations would have eventually trumped an Islamified Europe: "The Franks and other German-speaking peoples of northeast Europe, even before they emerged from their forests, seem to have been quite unusually fond of moots and councils, of liberty and disputation, of electing their leaders and honoring their women." Here again, Derbyshire refuses to even come close to the idea of an existential struggle, concluding that the natural instincts of the Franks would have changed Islam, not the other way around. I'm not so sure about that. He finds these factors more important that faith, for as he muses "when has religion really changed anything?" Again, this perverse denial of the sweep of history itself is an irritating aspect whenever one is reading Derbyshire.

But there is another point that I want to consider. Conventional wisdom these days--to which Prof. Lewis would certainly ascribe--has it that Moorish Spain was the height of European civilization during its era. We've all heard the narrative: Muslim, Christian and Jew living in perfect harmony under the enlightened rulers in Cordoba, as their sophistication and learning informed a backward and crude Christian Europe. That this is a sanitized view of Al-Andulus is not the point--much of the history we think we know has been scrubbed just as clean. And this is not to take away from the very legitimate accomplishments and culture of Cordoban Spain.

But Prof. Lewis and others attribute this to the supposed superiority of Islam. The truth is that Islamic culture is one of the most derivative in history. This is not a slam, necessarily. But the idea of a pristine Islamic culture arising whole out of the deserts of Araby is just a sham. Islam is, in itself, a mishmash of Judaism, heterodox Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The Arabic preservation of classical learning--and its transmission to western Europe--could not have happened if the Syriac Christians of Mesopotamia had not first translated these works into Aramaic, and then into Arabic. Traveling through the Near East, one is struck by the derivative nature of Muslim architecture, as well. Though they later put their own spin on things, parallels with Christian architecture is obvious. The central portion of the grand Umayyad mosque in Damascus looks like an early Christian basilica. The Haghia Sophia rises in splendor on the east side of Sultanhamet Square in Istanbul. On the west side, is its Islamic copy, the Blue Mosque--duplicated time and again across Anatolia, albeit in smaller versions. [I now put my soapbox aside and return to Derbyshire's reivew.]

Derbyshire treats Kennedy's book as real history, noting that he "is a professional Arabist and medievalist who has written a shelf of books on early Islam" and his work "inspires far more confidence that one is learning about things that actually happened." Derbyshire gives credit to Kennedy for emphasizing the 7th-century plagues that allowed the Muslim conquest in the first place.

The foremost reason for those early Arab successes is that they were kicking in a rotten door, worn away by rampaging armies and the great 6th-century cycles of pestilence that began with the Plague of Justinian in the 540s....When the Muslim conquerors entered the cities of Syria and Palestine in the 630s and 640s they may have walked through streets where the grass and thorns grew high between the ancient columns and where the remaining inhabitants clustered in little groups, squatting in the ruins of the great palatial houses their ancestors had enjoyed.

Derbyshire's conclusions are the same as mine, I suspect.

These are both interesting books, each in its own way; but it is Kennedy's that I shall be taking down from the shelf many times, I am sure, while Lewis's gets culled in the next trip to the second-hand book dealer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Five Ways to Worship

In reading through the Dallas Morning News this morning, I had to chuckle a bit at the advertisement for the Highland Park United Methodist Church. All Texans know about Highland Park--the toniest and wealthiest municipality in the state. It is completely enveloped by Dallas, and while the surrounding neighborhoods are just as affluent (if not more so), none carry the cache of Highland Park. This church is next to Southern Methodist University, and is only a stone (or shoe) throw away from the projected site of the George W. Bush Library.

The HPUMC message is "Five Ways to Worship...within One Church." And then they spell-out the options:

  • Traditional worship at 8:30, 9:30 and 11:00

  • Anglican-Style Worship in the chapel at 8:30 and 11:00

  • Contemporary worship in Wesley Hall at 9:30 and 11:00

  • preceeded by Early Morning Gospel Hour in the same hall at 8:30

  • and finally, Kerygma: A Teaching Service in the Great Hall at 11:00.

So, at HPUMC, you can be a traditional Methodist, a Angl0-Methodist, a hip Methodist, an old-time Methodist or a Bible school Methodist--or you can mix and match. The "Kerygma" class is designed to address hard-hitting issues, such as: "Was Jesus a disciple of John the Baptist?" Or "Did Jesus really perform miracles?" Or "Did Jesus provoke his own death?"

My point is this: considering the wealth of the Highland Park neighborhood, is it not odd that they offer merely 5 options for worship. Doesn't this seem, well, just a bit pedestrian? Surely their Marketing Department could offer the discriminating HP Methodist a few more choices, don't you think? Any suggestions?

Texas Style

News from Bizarro-Land. You just gotta see this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lost Christianity? Or Simply Ignored?

Philip Jenkins is a professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His 2002 publication of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity established him as something of an authority on the rise of evangelical Christianity in the Southern hemisphere. In recent years, any article that touched on the demographics of this phenomenon would invariably cite Jenkins. His current work, The Lost History of Christianity : The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia - and How It Died, may be something of a stretch, however. Jenkins penned an article, When Jesus Met Buddha, recently in The Boston Globe. If this article accurately represents the thrust of his latest book, then it would definitely be one to leave on the local bookstore shelf. From his website:

The Lost History of Christianity will change how we understand Christian and world history. Leading religion scholar Philip Jenkins reveals a vast Christian world to the east of the Roman Empire and how the earliest, most influential churches of the East—those that had the closest link to Jesus and the early church—died. In this paradigm-shifting book Jenkins recovers a lost history, showing how the center of Christianity for centuries used to be the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, extending as far as China. Without this lost history, we can’t understand Islam or the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complete with maps, statistics, and fascinating stories and characters that no one in the media or the general public has ever heard of, The Lost History of Christianity will immerse the reader in a lost world that was once the heart of Christianity.

You mean there was Christianity in the East? Who knew? And someone needs to inform, I suppose, all those Syrian Orthodox, Maronite Catholics, Copts, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Assyrian, Thomasine Indian Christians et al that their Christianity is lost and--as Jenkins claims--dead. The fact that Jenkins, the media and/or the general public have never heard of these “fascinating stories and characters,” doesn’t mean that they were lost; ignored maybe by Western Europe, but hardly lost. If Jenkins is attempting to point out that Western Europe and the Americas have been Eurocentric in their religious orientation, then that is a valid, though hardly novel position. If, however, he is stating that the Christianity of the East were somehow “lost,” and now uncovered, then he is following a well-worn and delusional path. The irony here is that for all his outcry over Eurocentrism, Jenkins has his Western blinders firmly in place as he looks East. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of overblown, relativistic sophistry than Jenkins’ piece in the Globe. He writes:

Most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and many also feel an obligation to carry that message to the world's unbelievers. But this creates a fundamental conflict with the followers of famous spiritual figures like Mohammed or Buddha, who preached radically different messages….Being intolerant of other religions - consigning them to hell, in fact - may be bad enough in its own right, but it increasingly has real-world consequences. As trade and technology shrink the globe, so different religions come into ever-closer contact with one another, and the results can be bloody: witness the apocalyptic assaults in Mumbai. In such a world, teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival.

This is odd, don’t you think? Jenkins’ addresses Christianity, and is chock-full of Rodney-King-can’t-we-all-get-along admonitions to Christians. And yet the example he cites is Mumbai. Frankly, I see little evidence, world-wide, of Christians falling down in this “getting-along” business. Perhaps Jenkins would be better served offering this advice to readers in Cairo or Islamabad.

But this is only the beginning. Jenkins also chides the Catholic Church that has cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions. This implies, of course, that those Roman Catholics who do not accommodate other world religions are not “thinkers.” He particularly notes the questioning of Georgetown University's Peter Phan, a Jesuit theologian whose main sin, in official eyes, has been to treat the Buddhism of his Vietnamese homeland as a parallel path to salvation. How dreadful--the Vatican expects Catholic theologians to be Catholic. What next? Even the Episcopal Church has given The Reverend Ann Holmes Redding until March 31, 2009 to recant her Muslim faith or be “de-frocked.” Jenkins continues:

Following the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI, though, the church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ.

This is a classic line. What? You mean Christians are required to believe in Christ? Is there no end to this insanity? Jenkins would have you believe that the non-thinking Catholics, with Pope Benedict XVI in the lead, are stubbornly holding to outdated beliefs in Christ’s divinity, stone-walling against the enlightened who seek to synthesize Christianity with other “great religions.” Actually, Benedict is saying nothing more than what the Apostles and bishops and priests and patriarchs and popes and all clergy and laity have been saying for nearly 2,000 years. Jenkins takes issue with the Pope, who says that we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. In fact, Jenkins maintains that there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course….These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East.

When Jenkins characterizes the ancient church as the “Jesus Movement,” one can just picture these early hippy-dippy Jesus People spreading across the Orient, learning from “the other great religions of the East” as they went along their way. Is this the view one gets from reading the monastic writings of the early Desert Fathers out of Egypt or Palestine? Or the early Syriac Fathers? Or from St. Ephrem? From John Moschos? From St. Isaac the Syrian? From St. John of Damascus? If so, then I completely missed it. Christianity, whether East or West, did not “synthesize”—it transformed. There is, in fact, a religion that did do this--with Judaism, Christianity and Zoroasterism. We call it Islam.

Jenkins makes much of the stone carvings in southern India and coastal China that clearly show a cross, but one that is coming out of a lotus flower blossom, a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment. He finds this flower a parallel symbol with the cross. To Jenkins, this is proof-positive of the synthesizing of Christianity with Buddhist themes. And from this, he makes his great point: They…believed that both lotus and cross carried similar messages about the quest for light and salvation. If these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired? This illustrates nothing to me other than what Orthodox Christians already know: that Christianity sanctifies the culture in which it takes root, and some pagan customs take on Christian meaning.

Jenkins has a unique take on the spread of Eastern Christianity:
When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten…But in the early centuries other Christians expanded east into Asia and south into Africa, and those other churches survived for the first 1,200 years or so of Christian history. Far from being fringe sects, these forgotten churches were firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church….Throughout their history, these Nazarenes used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. No other church - not Roman Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox - has a stronger claim to a direct inheritance from the earliest Jesus movement.

Jenkins is getting a bit ahead of himself, again. Several objections:

First, someone needs to inform the Eastern Christians of Africa and Asia that their churches died out 800 years ago…according to Jenkins.

Second, the fact that they used Syriac is not earth-shattering news here. They were Syrian. The Georgians used Georgian. The Armenians used Armenian. The Copts used Coptic.

Third—and this is really where I take strong exception with Jenkins—he claims for these particular Eastern Christians a stronger link to the Apostolic Faith than either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox enjoys. This is high-grade manure, indeed. Jenkins, in good old Western denominationalist fashion, draws sharp—and arbitrary--distinctions between Rome, Constantinople and the Christians of Mesopotamia. Broadly speaking, the Assyrians--the “Church of the East”--broke with Constantinople after the Council of Ephesus in 431. They have been dubbed as the “Nestorians,” though this is really a misnomer. And they haven't exactly died out--they were still quite numerous in Iraq PMA (Pre-Mission Accomplished). The “Oriental Orthodox Christians” broke with Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (again, broadly speaking). They are often called “Jacobites” or the “Suriani.” Yes, these early Christian churches argued over the nature of Christ (and poor communication and semantics) and divided, over time. Yet, they are Orthodox. Their original link to the earliest church is exactly the same as that of Constantinople and Rome—they had no particular unique insight on the early church that was not also available to their brethren around the shores of the Mediterranean. Today, there are close ties between Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodox, whether Coptic, Suriani or Armenian. Rome and the Assyrian Christians maintain close connections. This is no “lost Christianity.” I am currently reading The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Technically speaking, St. Isaac was a “Nestorian.” Bishop Hilarion is Russian Orthodox. There is an icon of St. Isaac in our small church. For gifts to the 4 young people recently chrismated at our mission, I gave copies of The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian, compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse. St. Ephrem was considered “Oriental Orthodox.” St. Theophan was Russian Orthodox. My point is that it is often hard to find daylight between the Orthodox Church and these Mesopotamian churches, and their writings have enriched the lives of Eastern Orthodox and other Christians all along. Lost? Hardly.

Finally, Jenkins’ continued annoying use of the term “Jesus Movement” actually discredits anything of substance he might have to say.

Jenkins does highlight the impressive spread of the Assyrian church into the far reaches of China. While not well-known, it is certainly not unknown among historians and theologians. In fact, it is one of the great "what-ifs" of history. The Monguls swept them away, as they did most everybody else in their path. Here Jenkins stretches again to make his point:

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world.

Absolutely--as the hordes of Buddhist missionaries to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas testify.

Jenkins notes the high degree of collaboration between the "Nestorians" and Buddhists in the area of translations, even of the works of Buddha. This should come as no surprise. The Syrian Christians had translated the ancient classics from Greek to Syriac, and then from Syriac to Arabic for their overlords in Baghdad. It was this supposed "Islamic" scholarship that made its way to Europe by way of the Iberian invasion. Jenkins wonders about the conversations between the Nestorian monks and the Buddhist monks, with the Christians talking about atonement and the Buddhists asking about meditation. [It's a minor quibble, but illustrative of Jenkins' prism through which he views the East. The atonement theory of salvation is a well-known Western theological concept, but not terminology that would be used by the Orthodox. Nor is what the eastern Christian monks do considered "meditation," in the sense that Jenkins means it.]

Jenkins keeps returning to his lotus blossom motif.
The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures.
Jenkins admits that the Christian cross teaches a comparable lesson as well. Well, that is good to know--that the cross stacks-up well, relatively speaking, to the lotus blossom. It is this lotus blossom-cross that drives home the point Jenkins is making.
Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.
While this is certainly the language of a stereotypical American college professor, there is nothing demonstrably Christian in these words.

Jenkins closes with the following story, detailing a debate between a Nestorian bishop and a Muslim calip of Baghdad, circa 800.

Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.
In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim - and all the caliph could say in response - was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.

That is all lovely, and oh so au courant in its sentiments. But let Jenkins find an iman today who would agree to this clever little lesson.

If not written by Jenkins, the book would be taken no more seriously than the latest Da Vinci Code or Elaine Pagels nonsense, or Discovery Channel expose on some revelatory "secret" Gnostic text. But Jenkins has a bit of heft. The book will be well displayed in Barnes and Noble. Reviews will appear in the expected journals, and who knows, maybe even a Jenkins interview with Bill Moyers. If Jenkins were simply trying to shine a light on Asiatic and African Christianity, then that would be a noble effort indeed. To the extent that he enlightens Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics to a Christian narrative in which the developments of Western Europe play no role at all, then he has performed a valuable service. And while there may be some of this, he seems more intent on twisting the record into something it never was, to make a particular point he wants to apply to contemporary Christianity. For Jenkins has found the "key"--the synthesis exemplied by the lotus blossom--to what ails mainstream Western Christianity. In taking this tact, he joins a long line of deluded prophets. This is perhaps a strong condemnation of an unread book. But then, the author himself has told us what the book is about. I am just taking him at his word.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Georgian Musings

Irakli II as a young man

The Republic of Georgia has (thankfully) been out of the recent headlines. After the disasters of the summer, the Georgians can stand a period away from the spotlight. The struggling little country hasn't fared well as a pawn in Russo-American geo-political power plays. I do want to recommend an article posted on First Principles. Virgil P. Nemoianu visited Georgia last April, and wrote of his observations in Georgia: An Ancient and Troubled Country.

Queen Tamar

This story caused me to follow some other Georgian leads online, and in so doing, I stumbled across an article I missed during the war last August. Gerald Warner, writing for the Telegraph, suggests, here, that restoration of the Bagratid dynasty might be of benefit to the nation. What a capitol idea! It certainly makes more sense than some things coming out of Tbilisi in recent years. Restorations are always fascinating to contemplate, though they hardly ever come to pass (Spain being the only example that comes to mind). But apparently, there is substantial Georgian support for the proposal.

Democrats have been talking about monarchy on the British model and citing the example of King Juan Carlos in Spain to prove the practicability of a restoration. What brought things back to the boil, however, was a sermon preached by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch Illia II, on October 7 last year, in which he publicly called for the restoration of the monarchy as the "desirable dream of the Georgian people". That led to the question being debated in parliament.

The Bagratid dynasty goes back to the earliest days of the Georgian nation, in the 6th century. The Bagrations, as the family is now known, were dynasts through Georgia's glory days in the 11th - 13th centuries, and in the troubled centuries since; that is, until Russia arbitrarily ended their rule and absorbed the country in 1801. The Georgian royal family was never remote from their subjects; often sympathetic figures in their country's many trials. Quite a few are recognized as saints and martyrs in the Georgian Orthodox Church--most notably King Davit the Builder and Queen Tamar.

The current claimant to the throne is Davit Bagration, who would be in the royal reckoning--Davit XIII. He is a young man of 32 years and is close to the Patriarch, Illia II--which is about the best recommendation one can have in Georgia.

David Bagration and the Patriarch Illia II

The Bagrations are buried in the historic Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mskheta. Patriarch Illia officiated the funeral earlier this year of Davit's father, Giorgi Bagration (George XIII).

Davit Bagration at his father's funeral in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Davit's great-aunt, Leonida Bagration, is the widow of Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov (Vladimir II, I suppose), claimant to the vacant Russian throne through his father Kirill Vladimirovich (Kirill I), first cousin of Nicholas II. Her daughter, Maria Vladimirovna, is the current, and perhaps most legitimate, candidate for the phantom throne of Russia. Some Romanov purists dispute her claim, citing the restrictive nature of the 1797 succession law. But the post-Revolution Romanovs have been something of a mixed bag, and Maria is perhaps their best claimant. She is half Georgian--and looks it. And her Romanov side is far more German than Russian in its bloodline. So, it is not without irony that if there is ever a Romanov restoration, the "Empress of all the Russias" would be more Georgian than anything else.

(With an economic depression, political turmoil and daily crises at home, and wars and rumblings of wars abroad, I find it refreshing to contemplate something of true significance--the restoration of the Georgian monarchy. Ha!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Something for Everybody

A spate of topics have caught my interest in recent days, to-wit:

Good Music

I've never been the one to go to when it comes to music. I certainly enjoy it, but I generally don't pay it much mind and often prefer the quiet. A recent post by Rod Dreher, however, got my attention. He comments on the English band, "Show of Hands," with links to two of their songs; County Life, and Roots, here. Dreher also links to an excellent R. R. Reno review, here. Finally, he also links the Quebecois band "Mes Aeiux" and their song, Degeneration. By all means, read the posts, listen to all three songs, and particularly note the English lyrics to the last.

A New Byzantine Book

My nephew always gives me a B&N gift certificate for my birthday, which sneaks in just before Christmas. Usually, I have the desired book chosen well in advance. I had been wanting Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power, but this may just edge it out. Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire sounds just right down my alley.

Gay Marriage

The Newsweek issue on gay marriage has created a bit of a dust-up. I respect editor Jon Meacham as a historian; less so as a theologian. His editorial, here, is needlessly dismissive of Christian (in this case, Episcopalian) opposition to gay marriage. To characterize their stance as "the worst kind of fundamentalism...intellectually bankrupt...unserious...and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition," is condescending, and a bit silly. Daniel Larison, to be expected, offers a measured response. Many of the 50 or so comments to his post highlight the fact that sane discourse on this subject is increasingly rare (and why I refuse to be drawn into it.) When Larison, an Orthodox Christian, says that God did not call His people to indulge their inclinations, but to deny themselves to follow Him, he is making a point often forgotten in this debate--but one which places it firmly within the Orthodox ascetic struggle. Rod Dreher's observations from a while back, here, are worth a second look, as well.

Rick Warren

I hate to keep picking on the Religious Right (well, maybe not that much), but honestly, they leave me little choice. I recently heard reports of a Sean Hannity interview of Rick Warren. I checked out Youtube to see if what I had heard was indeed true. Sadly, it was. [As a side note, I find it offensive that America's public preachers, as they are, find it necessary to go on these shows. For those of you who think my outrage only flows one way, I would be equally opposed to Warren sitting down with Keith Olbermann.] I'm a little disappointed in Warren, one of the much-touted new faces of American evangelicalism. He's certainly a more sympathetic figure than leaders of an earlier generation. But the interview shows that the theological waters are still as shallow as before, and Warren is easily sucked into the same political amen corner that characterized the Robertson-Falwell-Dobson crowd. Watch it, here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


At our church services tonight, we had Small Compline with the "Akathist of Thanksgiving." I found this akathist to be incredibly beautiful and moving. These lines, in particular, hit home:

Kontakion 10
No one can put together what has crumbed into dust, but Thou canst restore a conscience turned to ashes. Thou canst restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With Thee, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Thou art love; thou art Creator and Redeemer. We praise Thee, singing: Alleluia!

Frank Schaeffer and some things that need saying

Frank Schaeffer is not for every one's taste. He can sometimes be, I suppose, a bit polarizing. But then, can't we all? Schaeffer is generally not one who needs any encouragement when it comes to speaking his mind. I respect that. His Dancing Alone was one of the first books I read when I began my investigation into Orthodoxy. For someone of my background, and at that initial stage of the journey, the book made quite an impression. You might say it jolted me out of my complacency. Not everyone needs that, but I did. So, I owe Schaeffer a debt of gratitude.

He is now an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post. The following recent article, copied in its entirety, falls in the category of "Things That Need to be Said." Enjoy.

Changing the Failed Strategy of the Religious Right Into a Winning Formula That Helps Heal Our Country

Along with my late evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer for a time in the 1970s and early eighties (long before I became a "secular left wing back-sliding" novelist) I was an instigator, propagator and founder of the anti-abortion hard right of the Religious Right. Today I am one of President-elect Obama's most enthusiastic supporters and wrote dozens of articles, blogs and opinion pieces supporting his candidacy. As a result I'm getting a daily dose of hate mail from the same people who used to regard my family as royalty within evangelical subculture.

Long after I left that evangelical/hard right subculture I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church (in 1990) and so I'm also getting to a few "how can you support the abortionist Obama" hate e-mails from some of the more right wing and politicized members of the Orthodox community. (Most of them are converts who brought their former evangelical and/or Roman Catholic right wing politics into their new church.)

All the hate e-mails have one thing in common: a disdain for President-elect Obama (some with vile overt racist overtones) and all refer to him as "an abortionist," or "in favor of infanticide," or "wanting to force gay marriage on America," etc., etc., etc.

Every single one of these hate e-mails assumes a basic premise: President-elect Obama has -- through some nefarious underhanded means -- tricked our "Christian nation" into following him so that he can secularize our God fearing people, impose "anti-Christian" laws, and generally drive the goodhearted, moral and Christian American people over a cliff of socialized sexual decadence.

Aside from the absurd inaccuracy of this oddly paranoid vision, stoked by the likes of talk radio's village idiots, half-truths, exaggeration and outright "he's a Muslim isn't he?" lies, there's an even more basic problem: the evangelical right wing, Roman Catholic right wing and their Orthodox, and Mormon counterparts circulating these hate emails don't seem to have noticed that--

A), We live in a pluralistic democracy that never was a Christian nation, in the sense that, say, Byzantium was when ruled by an Orthodox emperor in league with the Orthodox Church hierarchy of Constantinople, or that the papal states were in the Middle Ages, or even the way that the Massachusetts Bay State colony was under Puritan rule.


B) Have any of these folks noticed that today they are in a distinct ideological numerical minority now whatever our historical American beginnings were?

America is a country with Hindus, Muslims, tens of thousands of splinter group Protestant denominations all over the map, both theologically and politically, a Roman Catholic Church split when it comes to politics, where some Catholics love Vatican II and want further liberation, and others regard the Middle Ages as a golden age. Then there are the Jews, divided into dozens of subsets, and many non-believers and on and on it goes. Whatever the argument about America's "Christian heritage" was there's no argument about the fact that today we are a polyglot, diverse society.

Let's suppose for a nutty moment that the evangelical/Mormon/conservative Roman Catholic/ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Muslim view of such issues as abortion, homosexuality, marriage (gay or otherwise) is correct. For one crazy instant let's even assume that God wants everyone in America to live as if all the injunctions of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran, when it comes to sexual moral behavior or not eating shellfish, are to be practiced literally, up and to including the stoning to death of homosexuals. How then to best get back to some sort of Promised Land of rectitude and God-pleasing ways?

Clearly the election of our new the pro-choice, tolerant, progressive President-elect, represents the sweeping aside of the Republican majority in Congress and their triumphal neoconservative American exceptionalism. It is also an utter repudiation of the evangelical right and their fellow travelers.

The Republican/evangelical right's world view has been replaced by a battered, it's-the-economy-stupid!, state of mind. Economic collapse and perhaps worse awaits us. We are losing one war, and the other war was clearly a mistake. And the fools who got us into this mess need not apply for any post higher than dog catcher for years to come. Most American know all this.

This knowledge signals not just a loss for the Religious right but a resounding and permanent defeat. It also signals (to anyone sane) that even if you except the Religious right's view that, for instance, all abortion is murder, gay marriage an affront to God's natural law and so forth, a change of tactics is in order. Obviously no one is getting convinced, but rather the culture is moving in the other direction. In fact the Religious Right has made its case so badly that with friends like them the right's causes need no enemies.

What might a change of tactics be? How to effect change at the same time as practicing love for one's neighbor without which love -- by Christ's standard anyway -- everything else becomes mere sound and fury signifying nothing?

Here's the answer. (Yes, I said the answer.) First, admit that the traditionalist view of matters sexual, reproductive and moral is now the minority view. Statistics on teenage sexuality and pregnancy, divorce, single parenthood, polls on how Americans view gays, statistics on premarital sex, multiple serial monogamy "marriages," the number of children being raised by stepparents (including in many so-called conservative evangelical homes), all point to the fact that trying to close the "barn door" on these issues through legislation is futile.

Take abortion. Polls show that most Americans feel that abortion should be legal but somewhat more restricted, in comparison to the permissive license for all abortions at any time and for any reason provided by Roe v. Wade. Therefore if Roe was ever overturned by the Supreme Court (which has been the stated aim of the 30-year futile pro-life effort), every serious student of this matter says that abortion would remain legal, if somewhat slightly more restricted in most states. That doesn't even account for the availability of abortion through the abortion pill.

Fact: abortion is going to remain available in America, with or without new appointments to the Supreme Court by President-elect Obama.

Fact: It doesn't matter one way or the other what any president says or does "about" abortion. It is here to stay, unless the population has a change of heart. So it boils down to changing hearts and minds, not laws.

The same goes for laws related to easy "no-fault" divorce.

The same goes for legal rights for gay men and women, whether those rights are called "marriage" or something else.

The horse is long fled, the barn door permanently open. There are no short cuts to change. It boils down to each heart and mind.

Religious conservatives should stop pretending that they are living in 13th century Rome, or 11th Century Byzantium, or 21st-century Saudi Arabia. Where conservatives, and especially religiously conservative people, are actually living is in the American version of Babylon, or, for that matter, on Jefferson's Monticello estate while he's busy with a pair of nail scissors cutting out the bits of the New Testament he doesn't like.

Deal with it!

That being the case what strategy can people who wish to change their culture to a more traditional one employ? Is it to, for instance, spend millions of dollars on California's Proposition 8 to outlaw gay marriage? Will this win long term when the whole of society is becoming more and more tolerant of gays? Or is that just a good way to make most Americans disdain and/or fear the Mormon Church and other conservative religious people and to make the gay community hate them and everything they stand for forever?

Note to my old friends on the American Religious Right:

Your new winning strategy begins by you acknowledging where you are living. Do you want to just talk to yourselves or change America? This is not the Bay State in the1600! Therefore writing the kind of political screeds that might have passed into law in 17th-century New England, is a dead end. All Prop 8-type overtures will eventually loose. Trying to overturn Roe, or roll back the acceptance of gay marriage by the force of law is futile. What makes sense is an entirely positive campaign of hope rather than negativity.

Rather than telling lies about your fellow believers, such as President-elect Obama - that he's a " secret Muslim," a "Manchurian candidate," a "Communist," a "child molesting, sex pervert," "that he will ban talk radio..." and so on and on, how about telling the truth? The truth is that President-elect Obama is a born-again Christian (just like you evangelicals are) but with progressive social views on certain social issues that you conservative Christians (Mormons) and other religious folks disagree with. However Obama has shown that he is sensitive to those who disagree with him, for instance on abortion, by saying that there ought to be government programs to help women and babies in a way that makes abortion far less frequent. Do you want that to happen or not? If so get on board.

Having once told the truth about those with whom you disagree you evangelical right wingers, and all your fellow travelers, should concentrate on providing both the inspiration for, and the means for, positive change of heart. You could do this in a way that would actually advertise religious faith as an attractive alternative to secularism, rather than making it seem that you are the sort of ignorant rubes who are about to pull a hood over your heads and burn a cross on somebody's lawn.

Positive action could change the dynamic of the American political debate. Instead of being labeled as professional haters you on the Religious Right would be seen as agents of compassion, consistent with what you say you believe.

What if right wing Christians, Mormons and others volunteered to work with the Obama administration in helping to set up programs to provide women with the means to have and keep their children? How about evangelicals leading the cheering section for Obama's health care reform? What if those same Christians set up programs to make sure that gay men and women in their communities are not discriminated against and protect them if they are? What if these same Christians work to welcome, care for and protect immigrants, instead as portraying them to as enemies and the "other?" What if instead of being against gay marriage you were for keeping all marriages together and worked to reduce the numbers of evangelicals getting divorced?

If the fight for the rights of the unborn became a positive effort to hold President-elect Obama to his word when it comes to health and welfare programs for mothers and babies, if the fight against gay marriage took the form of outdoing all other groups when it comes to fighting for the rights of gay men and women to be treated with dignity, and for all married people to find ways to make their relationships work, if the fight against illegal immigration took the form of reaching out to the immigrant community, both legal and illegal, with compassion care and love, educational programs and with the welcome Jesus commands us to have for the stranger in our midst... the entire enterprise of the Religious Right would turn from a bitter hate-inspiring (and now massively politically losing) effort, into what has always been the actual business of the best of Christian faith from time immemorial: missionary outreach to "the least of these" in the name of the Christ who, according to the Scriptures, "desires the salvation of all humankind."

I have a question: if your idea of fighting for moral change via political means is so great, how is it working out so far? Roe was 30 years ago. Closer to overturning it our we? Did the nation fly to Sarah Palin? How many abortions have you stopped since W. took office? How many gay men and women love Jesus more because they met your groups? And, by the way, why did you all give us 8 years of the worst presidency in our history, being that without your votes W. would be running a ball club now instead of running America into the ground.

Your born-again president has bankrupted our country, destroyed the Christian community in Iraq, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including over 4000 of our men and women? If you don't learn from these failures what will you learn from? Do you think America will ever trust your judgment again unless you change? And now you are putting yourselves on the wrong side of Obama, a man who is going to be one of our great presidents.


Members of the Religious Right wouldn't have to give up one iota of their principles, moral or otherwise if they took the advice set forth above. But rather than relying on the political and legislative process to force other people to comply with the right's American version of Sharia'h Law, their effort could be to make converts through generosity and love.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.

The link can be found, here.