Thursday, January 31, 2008

Some Recommendations

I am going through something of a dry spell, blogwise, these days. Perhaps it has to do with being busier than usual. I am teaching two night classes this semester, in addition to my regular job. Also, as the political race tightens, I will have less and less to say in that regard, for fear of giving my hand away--something I do not intend to do. But I am enjoying the conversations at several new Orthodox blogs. Chances are, you may have already visited them.


Oh Taste and See--back again, in great form, after a blogging sabbatical.


The Path, an evangelical contemplating Orthodoxy, with an interesting perspective.

Pious Fabrications--excellent blog by a young soldier and Catechumen in the Orthodox Church.

Midnight Disciple--a recent convert to Orthodoxy, thoughtful and insightful.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Florovsky and the West

Within Orthodox circles, the status of Western converts pops up from time to time on the blogs. Either converts are accused of being "Superorthodox" who somehow attempt to transform themselves into ethnic Russians, or contrarily, of bringing all our baggage along and, in effect, "Protestantizing" Orthodoxy. I have little patience with either accusation. As is usually the case, Fr. Stephen Freeman has the best take on this sort of thing, here.

The following paragraph contains the gist of his argument:

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox - we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience - yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries - problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

The comments are instructive as well.

Monday, January 21, 2008

After Iraq

Remember Iraq? Well, The Atlantic has an intriguing article by Jeffrey Goldberg, here, entitled "After Iraq." He puts a different twist on the ongoing question as to what comes next. And the map on the magazine's cover is a natural hook to geography nerds like myself who used to draw imaginary countries on blank maps.

The article begins with a story from a Kurdish prison. The author was allowed to interview a pyschotic Sunni al-Quada operative. Before all is done, the Kurdish officer in attendance beats the prisoner over the head with a copy of the Koran, and then curses Muhammed's mother.

In the hallway, I asked the interrogator, “Aren’t you Muslim?”
“Of course,” he said.
“But you’re not a big believer in the Koran?”
“The Koran’s OK,” he said. “I don’t have any criticism of Muhammad’s mother. I just say that to get him mad.”
He went on, “The Koran wasn’t written by God, you know. It was written by Arabs. The Arabs were imperialists, and they forced it on us.” This is a common belief among negligibly religious Kurds, of whom there are many millions.

This story clues us into the one factor that is most determinative in the region--its "blood borders." The author notes that five years on, our war's unintended consequences are still accumulating, while its intended consequences are astonishingly brief. One of these unintended consequences may be the questioning of artificial borders, not just in Iraq, but across the region, the "incoherent amalgamations of disparate tribes and territories." For example, Goldberg finds that the real question is not whether there will be 2 states between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, but how many states will there be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates? Or better yet, the Indus? As Goldberg observes, "All states are man-made. But some are more man-made than others."

Of course, the current turbulence in the Middle East is attributable also to factors beyond the miscalculations of both the hubristic, seat-of-the-pants Bush administration and the hubristic, seat-of-the-pants French and British empires. Among other things, there is the crisis within Islam, a religion whose doctrinal undermined daily by the global balance of power, with predictable and terrible consequences....But since 9/11, America’s interventions in the region—and especially in Iraq—have exacerbated the tensions there, and have laid bare how artificial, and how tenuously constructed, the current map of the Middle East really is.

A polling of Middle East experts offered nothing but bleak prospects. David Fromkin, respected author of The Peace to End All Peace, grumped “the Middle East has no future.” Military historian Edward Luttwak observed that "the United States could abandon Israel altogether, or embrace the general Arab cause 100 percent...[but] the Arabs will find a new reason to be anti-American.” Ralph Peters noted "It’s not a question about how America wants the map to look; it’s a question of how the map is going to look, whether we like it or not.”

Rather than following the European-drawn borders, he made his map by tracing the region’s “blood borders,” invisible lines that would separate battling ethnic and sectarian groups. He wrote of his map, While the Middle East has far more problems than dysfunctional borders alone—from cultural stagnation through scandalous inequality to deadly religious extremism—the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure isn’t Islam but the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.

Goldberg concludes: Americans cannot make Middle Easterners do what is in America’s best interest....A first step in restoring America’s influence in the Middle East is to accept with humility the notion that America—like Britain before it—cannot organize the re­gion according to its own interests.

Good advice, that--but not likely to be taken by the next adminstration, or either party.

Just for fun, Goldberg maps the following possible changes:

Sunni Republic of Iraq
Shiite Islamic State of Iraq
Turkey (abbreviated)
Greater Azerbaijan (at the expense of Persia)
Greater Syria (so long, Lebanon)
The Alawite Republic (for the House of Asad)
Islamic Emirate of Gaza
Greater Jordan (West Bank reattached)
Bedouin Autonomous Zone
New Sudan (Christian)
Greater Yemen
Islamic Holy State of Al-Hijaz
Khuzistan (carved out of Pakistan)
Persia (shifted eastward)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Recent Reads

In recent months, I have resolved to purchase fewer books and read the ones I already have (with mixed results).

The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove.

The monk Theophanes was a Byzantine chronicler (they distinguished between a chronicler and a historian), who wrote of the period of anni mundi 6095-6305, our 602 AD through 813 AD. This was a low ebb for Constantinople--the waning years of the long struggle with the Persians, followed by the rise and sweep of Islam through much of an exhausted Empire, the iconoclastic controversy, the coronation of Charlemagne in the West, etc. Briefly put, things were in a mess. If Byzantium had a "dark age," this was it. Theophanes' account is one of those essential primary source document for the era.

Anthony Powell: A Life, by Michael Barber.

Powell is one of the least-appreciated great novelists. His 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time is in a class by itself. Since 1984, I've read through it 3 or 4 times. His style is cool and detached, as befits a slightly bemused observer. Powell takes a dim view of what passed for "progress" in the 20th century, but never in an angry voice. Unfortunately, he was, as he put it, non-croyant. Even so, there was no greater observer of the tragedy that was the 20th century.

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

This was a Christmas gift from my son. The highly-acclaimed biography lives up to its good press. This is generally not the type of history I enjoy, but the book is a real page-turner. Stalin was something of a monster, even from a young age. His legal father was the town drunk, his mother was promiscuous (at least 3 other townsmen were the reputed father of Stalin.) He spent some time in seminary, but this was just a ploy, he was never seriously interested in pursuing the priesthood. He quickly turned to banditry, and then anarchism in the name of Marxism. Amoral and immoral, he never forgot a slight, even decades later. His basic persona remained unchanged, until in time, he was the monster in charge of the largest empire the world has ever seen. One historical "what if" concerns his native Georgia. As the Russian empire was falling apart in 1917, outlying dependencies began declaring independence. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia broke away in 1917 or 1918 as the Trans-Caucasus Republic. Lenin was content to let them go, as he had with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But for the up-and-coming Stalin, this was unthinkable. A few years before, he had transformed himself from Georgian to Russian. Just as Hitler felt compelled to incorporate Austria into a Third Reich, a Russified Georgia had to be a part of the new Soviet Empire if Stalin was ever to have legitimacy as a ruler. The troops went in in 1921.

Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov Tsars, by Rosemary and Donald Crawford.

Okay, okay, so this is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I'm a sucker for any Romanov saga that comes along. Michael (Michael II, for you purists) was Grand Duke Michael Alexandreivich, brother of Tsar Nicholas II. And as the Tsarevich Alexis' health was always precarious, Michael was never more distant than 2nd in line for the throne. The last generation of Romanovs in Tsarist Russia hardly inspires confidence in the monarchial principle. Nicholas was a simple, good man, but hardly equipped to be Autocrat of All the Russias. He was totally devoted to Alexandra, who had an increasingly tenuous grasp of reality. Nicholas's cousins were a problem, as well. Few were attached to duty, and most were more interested in making the circuit of European watering holes with their mistresses or morganatic wives. Michael, to Nicholas' consternation, was no different. He insisted on marrying one of the most beautiful women in Russia, a commoner divorced (messily) from two men, one of them Michael's close friend at the time. But the real interest in the book--that makes slogging through all the courtship chapters worthwhile, is its insight into the events of 1917 and 1918. Nicholas could not be forced to take action. Even at the very end of his rule, he dithered and did nothing, when action might have paved the way for a constitutional monarchy under the sympathetic figure of the Tsarevich, as Alexis II. Finally, Nicholas abdicated in favor of Alexis. Then before the day was out, changed his mind and abdicated for himself and Alexis in favor of Michael--hence the "Micheal II," if only for a day. But by this time, things were so muddled, that there was no chance of saving the monarchy, as the government crumbled into chaos. Michael and Natasha remained in Russia, to see how things would turn out. Months passed when they could have easily left the country without incident. Only after the Kerensky government fell and the Bolsheviks seized power did the couple start attempting to leave. But it was too late. Michael was placed under arrest, despite Natasha barging into Lenin's office and demanding his release. In time he was transferred to the Urals, and then shortly to a shallow grave in the woods. Natasha was able to smuggle the children out of the country with the assistance of the Danish embassy. Her own escape through Germany was a close-run thing. As his brother, Michael was another good man, of simple tastes. He was certainly more perceptive and attuned to the temper of the times than his brother, but then, as youngest son, he was never called upon to utilize it.

What I'm reading now:

The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler

Purchased with the B&N gift card I received from my nephew at Christmas, this is in incredible read! This particular translation is very accessible to the general reader. But as I am only 60 pages into the 850 page tome, it may be a while before I report.


Nureyev, by Julie Kavanagh.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

2008 Georgian Monastery Tour Update

My friend John Graham informs me that the 2008 Georgian Monastery Tour has a new website, here. Though I am not returning to Georgia this year, the thought of doing so is never far from my consciousness.

I consider John and Luarsab Togonidze to be experts on all things Georgian--its rich history, the wine, the incredible topography, the wine, the ancient but vibrant Orthodox churches and monasteries, the wine, the haunting Georgian polyphony, the wine, its supras and cuisine. And did I mention the wine? Touring this magnificent little country with these guys will be a life-changing experience.

Tours are limited to 15, unless of course, you do as I did last year and continually badger John until he agrees to make an extra spot for you. I do not expect the remaining openings to be available for long. Check out the site, and enjoy the photography and travelogues. And if you are contemplating travel a little off the beaten trail this year, by all means, contact John Graham about the tour. You will not regret doing so.

The Dead-Ends of Protestantism

Benedict Seraphim posts an excellent article, here, entitled The Dead-Ends of Protestantism. I found it a thoughtful piece--as his posts generally are--and not as in-your-face as the title might imply. Remarkably, in making his point, he accomplishes a task not often attempted: finding commonalities in the experience of American Churches of Christ and The Episcopal Church.

There is something of a cottage industry among Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. For some reason, we all feel compelled to share our particular "conversion story." This is understandable, human nature being what it is. In all probability, however, our time would be better spent remaining quiet, and learning how to actually be Orthodox, rather than pontificating on how we had "figured it all out." I am struggling to resist that temptation, and Benedict Seraphim's essay certainly does not fall in that category, either.

But something in his title really struck a chord with me, for it puts a name to the unease I once felt, particularly following 9/11. I was no different than anyone else. The events of that day jolted me out of my complacency. But I never viewed the tragedy as random or inexplicable, but merely the latest skirmish in an age-old conflict--dormant, but never dead. In the clarity of that moment, I began to examine our standing in the Protestant West, and more to the point, my particular (and peculiar) variant of it. You might say I found us sadly wanting, ill-equipped and lacking resources to engage in any ideological, philosophical or theological struggle. We were a good fit for the peace and prosperity that Americans had come to expect to be our due, but ill-suited for tackling the long haul of history.

True, we made grand claims for ourselves, as restorationists are want to do. But these claims were never self-evidently so, or at least not to me. The plea rested solely on the intellectual constructs we derived from Scripture. Others made different cases from Scripture. And few people were buying what we were selling.

Inexorably, my readings drifted back to those who took a little longer view of things: Lewis, Chesterton, Newman, O'Connor, Pelikan, and others. I came to see that much of Protestantism either had become, or was in the process of becoming a "dead-end," to use Benedict Seraphim's terminology. [My co-religionists would have argued, "Oh, but we're not Protestant," an argument which has never passed the duck test.] This brings me to the points made in Benedict Seraphim's post. He identifies 3 interrelated areas where Protestantism becomes a dead-end.

First, there is the inherent problem with Sola Scriptura. Those who believe in the concept explicitly might wonder, "What problem?" Simply open your phone book and turn to "churches" in the yellow pages for an answer. He makes the excellent point that scripture is not a series of essays, but rather is addressed to the church, from the church, within the church. And for the first 1500 years or so, its interpretation was found within the context of the Church. Sola Scriptura divorces scripture from the church, excluding it from the context of the church. Despite assumptions to the contrary, he notes that scripture simply does not and cannot come to us uninterpreted.

Second, Benedict Seraphim posits that Protestantism almost always fails to consider church history as a dynamic reality. This is particularly true within our Restoration Movement heritage, whose churches "were shaped and formed by Lockean empiricism, by a form of Enlightenment modernism..."containing "all the blind spots of that modernism: a false belief in progressivism, an o'erweening confidence in human reason, and a certain arrogance toward pre-modern/pre-Enlightenment thinkers." To the restorationist, church history is useful for informational purposes, but not living. He finds that "just as an insect pinned inside a shadow box, this approach to the New Testament Church rendered it nothing move than an intellectual concept, a blueprint or pattern, one birthed or progressivism, rationalism and price, and ultimately little more than a lifeless, dessicated bit of chaff."

Finally, Benedict Seraphim observes what he calls the "ex-ecclesial critique of the Ekklesia." He finds that both the Restoration Movement churches and The Episcopal Church, having divorced themselves from the context and living history of the Church, have turned back upon the church and attempted to criticize it for its perceived sins and failures--i.e., the Churches of Christ reinterpretation of Communion as merely a memorial, while castigating the concept of the "real presence" and The Episcopal Church's ordination of women and redefining "social justice" by contemporary mores. In a telling line, he concludes that "the beginning assumption is that the Church is wrong, except insofar as the Church already agrees with us."

The post is not some triumphalist trashing of Protestantism by an ex-adherent, but rather a cool reflection based on one man's life experience. To the extent that my background overlaps with part of his, I find his insight to be spot on. Anyway, Benedict Seraphim makes some excellent points, and I commend his work.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I Don't Believe I Would Have Said That (cont.)

Asked whether the American commanders on the scene were right in not attacking the Iranian boats, Mr Huckabee said he backed their decisions, before warning Iran: "Be prepared, first, to put your sights on the American vessel. And then be prepared that the next thing you see will be the gates of Hell, because that is exactly what you will see after that."

More silly chest-thumping, here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bush in Bethlehem

Now here's something you don't see every day. Read the full story, here. (And thanks again to the ever-vigilent Kirk for spotting this.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

I Don't Believe I Would Have Said That

I am frankly enjoying the spectacle of the 2008 Presidential election. While I couldn't characterize it as a particularly edifying experience, the surprises on both sides of the aisle have made for some lively entertainment. And I know not to put much stock in political rhetorical excess, especially in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. But something I read today gave me the chills. The article is "Not So Fast, Clinton Says About Obama Momentum," found here.

She did not spare President Bush in her remarks, either. In Hampton on Sunday night, Mrs. Clinton ribbed Mr. Bush for saying he had looked into the soul of President Vladimir V. Putin. “I could have told him Putin was a K.G.B. agent,” she said. “He has no soul.”

I am no Hillaryphobe. In fact, this may be the first time I have even mentioned her online. I understand the point she was trying to make in referencing George W. Bush's inexperience and naivete, while casting herself as a no-nonsense negotiator, tough and battle-hardened. But this is too much. From a practical standpoint, if she were to be nominated and if she were to be elected, she might have to deal with Vladimir Putin. His only crime, that I can see, is putting his own country's interests ahead of the Bush administration, and of course, being right about so many things he warned against in the lead-up to our invasion of Iraq.

But the real problem with her statement is it's troubling moral and theological implications--not for Putin, but for Mrs. Clinton. As a Christian--which she purports to be--there are certain things that you just don't say about anybody. This is one of them.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Post-caucus miscellaneous

Rudy Giuliana, fulfilling Joe Biden's quip that all his sentences contain just a noun, verb and 9/11, here.

Barack Obama once again deftly turning a Clinton jab into a joke, here.

John McCain redefining "victory" as occupation, here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Fearless Prognostications!

Well, here we are on the eve of the much-anticipated, or at least much ballyhooed Iowa primary. I have refrained from commenting on American political developments, other than the occasional snide remark about the current administration (Have I mentioned lately that this is, without doubt, the most disastrous Presidency since that of Woodrow Wilson?) I will become even more reticent about my preferences, as the election approaches. Nothing is more polarizing than political partisanship, and I see no need to flaunt my choices on these pages. My wife and I have been married for....well, a long time, and we have never, ever told the other how we voted --not even the party!

That said, here on Thursday afternoon at 5:22 PM before the caucuses open at 7:00, I make the following predictions:

Barack Obama will come out on top in the Iowa caucuses. This will lead to victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well. I think he has correctly read the temper of the times. But, this in no way means that he will necessarily receive the nomination. (I recall a Saturday Night Live skit from late 2000 or early 2001, where the Clintons had to be literally pried out of the White House. You might say there are entitlement issues involved here.)

Mike Huckabee will win for the GOP. What this means is anyone's guess. What it will not mean is that he has a clear shot to the nomination. I can make an excellent case why each of the GOP candidates cannot possibly receive the nomination. I cannot make a case why any of them will. But one of them has to, I suppose.

For political junkies, you can get your fix by checking in at Daniel Larison's Eunomia. He is a Byzantine scholar, frequent contributor to various journals, Orthodox, helluva nice guy, with one of the keenest political insights anywhere.