Friday, August 29, 2008

Of Reunions, Restaurants and Road Signs

As the summer is drawing to a close, I thought I would briefly comment on a few recent road trips in the American South. The accounts may not be as exotic as my Syrian travels, but then again, maybe they are even more so. As visitors to this blog can attest, a favorite pasttime of mine is observing the churches I pass on my journeys. Hopefully, this is more than just an opportunity to poke fun and wax sarcastic. I acknowledge my own droll sense of humor, and try to keep a rein on it, but I do believe many of my targets offer some insight into the state of American religiousity. Perhaps I am too critical (my wife certainly thinks so) and perhaps the weirdness is all on my end of things. That said, three recent excursions have supplied me with plenty of ammuniton.

In mid May, I made a mad dash through eastern Oklahoma and up to far northwestern Arkansas. I have one aunt still living. She and her husband retired from St. Louis 30+ years ago to a corner of the Ozarks remote even by Arkansas standards. They are now in their mid 80s, living alone, though assisted by my wonderful cousin who moved nearby. I felt strongly that I needed to see them, and soon. Happily, they were in fine health, and I look forward to future visits. I am not a big fan of Arkansas, frankly. I proposed to drive north through eastern Oklahoma and then cut over east only when it became absolutely necessary.

As I was approaching Idabel, Oklahoma, I noticed a billboard, proclaiming:



Now I know what these civic-minded folks were trying to say. I get it. But my first impression was the literal one: "Jesus Christ is the light bulb over Idabel." And I suspect that there may be some dim bulbs passing this way whose understanding never goes beyond that.

My path took me through Fort Smith, Arkansas. In the 1850s, my ancestors (the family of my surname, in fact) settled in a valley about 20 miles south of the city. The region is more reminiscent of nearby Oklahoma than the general perception of mountainous Arkansas. The hills are only rolling, with farms boasting real, substantial pastures in the spreading valleys. The Civil War disrupted things in this valley before my people could get settled good. They, and a clutch of neighboring families, were Unionists. Killings were not unheard of, with the father-in-law of one of my uncles being shot down. An aunt was caught alone in the fields by Rebel bushwackers and apparently raped (though this sort of thing just wasn't talked openly). She was never the same afterwards, and died sometime later, unmarried. A couple of uncles slipped across the the border into Indian Territory and joined up with Union forces. My particular ancestor, who had a young family, could not easily do so. He and a brother-in-law were drafted into the Confederate Army, but on Christmas leave, gathered up their families and fled to Indian Territory. They made it to Texas in early 1863, the last of my tribe to arrive. The rest of the family rode out the war and remained in Arkansas. Every time I am close by, I stop at the graveyard where they lie buried. The cemetery grew around the churchyard of the Coop Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church, an historic church dating to 1848 and the church of my ancestors. In that sense, the church had meaning to me. But no more. The church building has been modernized, and apparently the word "Presbyterian" was a little too restrictive for post-modern sensibilities. But then, even the word "church" is considered too dogmatic. For now, it is simply the Coop Prairie Fellowship, or something like that--honestly, I can't remember exactly, for they all run together. But what did get my attention was the large painting of Jesus on the outside of the church. From here on out, my ancestors lie buried in the shadow of the Happy Hippie Jesus Church. Oh well.

My second excursion took my wife and I to Jackson, Mississippi to attend an annual family reunion, on my mother's side. In 1776, a young German boy with a funny name enlisted in the British Army to fight in America. Once here, he decided the better course would be to fight against the British instead. So, from 1779, he served in the colonial army. At war's end, he married a North Carolina girl and began raising a large family, first there, and later in Georgia. When he died in 1816, he was a substantial farmer, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a Justice of the Peace, though still speaking with something of a thick German accent. For the last 29 years, representatives of his innumerable descendants have gathered for a reunion in some Southern locale. None of us are closely related to one another, but we treasure these yearly gatherings.

To speak of Southern eccentricities is to repeat oneself. At one point, I found myself chatting with a group of cousins that consisted of a NASCAR driver, a Mobile society doyenne and a Holiness preacher. The NASCAR driver created the most splash this year, arriving in his candy-apple red, vintage 1966 Corvette, with pictures of the plantation he had just purchased (1832 mansion house with columns and the whole bit).

One of the cousins of my generation is a Mobile attorney. Each year, she invariably ends up as the source of some memorable anecdote or incident. This year was no exception. We rented a restaurant for our Saturday night banquet and meeting. By the time we all left, the staff was anxious to close up. Halfway back to the hotel, my cousin remembered she had left her jacket at the restaurant. So she and her 85-year old aunt circled back to the restaurant to retrieve the jacket. Upon return, they found the establishment to be closed and locked up tight. Sure enough, the jacket was hanging on the hat rack, just inside the door. My cousin left a note on the door with her name and address and instructions for mailing the jacket back to Mobile. But before leaving, she noticed that the lock was just the normal residential variety. She jiggled the knob, and was able to push the door open. This, of course, set off the alarm system. With the siren blaring, she turned to her aunt and yelled "Get in the car, Aunt Mae! Get in the car!" 85-year old Aunt Mae took off running across the parking lot, as my cousin reached in, grabbed her jacket, pulled the door shut and ripped off the note with her name and number. They peeled out the parking lot and made their way safely back to the hotel.

Jackson is favorite of ours. We always drive by Eudora Welty's house. We always spend an hour in Lemuria, one of the best Southern bookstores. And Jackson is a good city for eating out. Dennery's is still in business--the haunt of Miss Welty. But this year, we stopped at another favorite of mine, the Elite Restaurant downtown. The same Greek family has operated the establishment since 1947. Interestingly, they are of the same family that founded the noted Texas eatery of the same name even earlier.

Once the reunion was over, we looped up through the Delta, turning a 5-hour return trip into 8 hours. This is sort of thing I enjoy and my wife patiently endures. But there is method to this madness, for we were able to stop in Greenwood for Sunday dinner (often referred to as "lunch" elsewhere). There were joined the local Episcopacracy at Giardina's, going strong since 1936, next door to the elegant Alluvian Hotel.

From there, we turned West, heading for the Greenville bridge. Along the way we passed the Jim Henson Muppet Museum in Leland (just look for the giant frog). Who knew?

At Greenville, I wanted to visit the kneeling knight in the Percy family plot there. Time constraints and a failure to locate the cemetery dictated that I postpone this to another trip (Ask directions? Never!) The impressive new bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville is nearing completion. From there, we angled across southeastern Arkansas, into Monroe, Louisiana, which put us within 3 hours of home on the interstate.

I saw some of my most memorable church signs on this Delta loop. One thing I noticed was perhaps a new trend--the mix-and-match of traditonal evangelical denominational names. The New Bethany Assembly for Christ is supposed to be somehow different, I suppose, from just the run-on-the mill Assemby of God. Then there was the Charismatic Holiness Church of Christ, which will make about as much sense to any Southerner as say, Ralph Nader Republicans. In Greenwood, a storefront church caught my eye: The Endtimes Encounter Church, with Pastor and Apostle Sherry _________. At least we don't have to wonder what they are all about. But the church that gave me pause was the Emanuel Baptist Church in Leland, near the Muppet Museum. Their sign on the highway outlined their plea:

Acceptance, Purpose, Family and FUN!

I can grudginly grant them the first three, even though they would be way down on my list if I was coming up with that sort of thing. Seems like humility, love, patience ought to be in there somewhere. But fun? And not just fun, but FUN! Why must everything in this country be fun? Can't some things simply by their very nature be deadly serious? The sign bothered me much more than any of the evangelical charistmatic church configurations I noted. Church--the Body of Christ--is serious business. And if we have to market it differently, then to quote Flannery O'Connor, "to hell with it."

But what really got my attention was a little church on the outskirts of Bonita, Louisiana, just north of Mer Rouge. The chuch was named--and you can't make this stuff up--"The Holy Ghost Disturbed Church." To me, this is right out of Flannery O'Connor. I think I know what they are referring to--the stirring-up of the waters at the pool of Siloam. Somehow I can just image a church member being asked their religious affiliation and replying, "Oh, I'm a Disturbed Christian." So am I, so am I.

Finally, my wife and I took a long weekend trip to Galveston. We are not at all beach people. Galveston has always had the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan and well, least Texan of our cities. It has been years and years since I've been there. Practically the entire city is the "historical district." We planned to meet friends there and attend the premier of Jaston Williams' and Joe Sears' latest play at the Grand Opera House. Afterwards, we had a memorable meal at Di Bella's, a old-time neighborhood Italian diner. In approaching Galvestion, one should avoid Houston at all costs. We turned off to the east of the city, driving through some pleasant rural areas located surprisingly close to Houston. Two churches along this stretch of road caught my attention. One was the "Melchizidek Divine Church." I just have no idea. Melchizidekians??? The next church down the road was "The Changing Lifestyles Fellowship." This name may actually imply something they probably didn't intend. And then finally, there was the appropriately brief and to-the-point "Happy Church."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Little Nation-Building

Russian recognition of the (in)dependence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is now official. No surprise here, as this was their end game all along. These nations now have a place at the table next to Ruritania, Grand Fenwick, Lower Slobbavia, and of course, Kosovo. Can Transdniestra be far behind?

Last year in Tbilisi, I visited the 6th-century Anchiskhati Church for Saturday Vespers. The church was packed, with services delayed due to a memorial service going on on one side and a baptism underway on the other--the whole Orthodox circle of life under one roof. I went outside for some air, and as it was raining, I shared the shelter of the portico with a beggar lady. Our conversation was limited--obviously--but I was able to determine that she was a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia, one of several hundred thousand uprooted by Russian "peacekeepers." I do not remember what I gave her, but now I wish I have given her more. I suppose she will now have to make room for the influx of Georgians from South Ossetia.

And now I hear that Dick Cheney is on his way to Georgia.

Good Lord, no.

As I have stated before, there is enough blame to go around for this mess. But to the extent that American foreign policy is culpable--and it is--you might say our Kosovo chickens have come home to roost. Srdja Trifkovic's column, here, is essential reading, in this regard.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Brideshead Re-Revisited

In recent weeks I have read several reviews of the remake of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. From what I can tell, the movie itself is sumptuous and visually stunning, but totally misses the point Waugh was making, if not, in fact, drawing the exact opposite conclusion. I will probably see the movie anyway...perhaps.

I first read the book about 25 years ago, and I missed the point as well. I suppose I was not ready for it at the time. I viewed it as just another English country house drama--complete with an eccentric, disintegrating, dysfunctional old family, out of step with changing times between the wars. I just lapped-up that sort of thing back then. Brideshead Revisited, while enjoyable and well-done, was not even the best among this extensive genre, in my view.

I have recently revisited Brideshead. Upon second reading, I can say that I now have a little more insight into what escaped me earlier on. The book's acclaim is well-deserved. I would place it among the essential works of 20th century literature. As Waugh himself later observed, the point of the book was “to trace the divine purpose in a pagan world.” In Charles' last conversation with Cordelia, she reminded him of an evening at Brideshead. A drunken Sebastian interrupted Lady Marchmain's reading from Chesterton's Father Brown. Cordelia remembered a line from the book: "'I caught him’ [the thief] with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” That is the point of Brideshead: grace, mercy and redemption--a few lost fishes hauled in from the sea.

Charles is slow to acknowledge the source of the inspiration he finds at Brideshead. I particularly like the following exchange he had with Sebastian (p. 65):

'Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic.'

'Does it make much difference to you?'

'Of course. All the time.'

'Well, I can't say I've noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don't seem much more virtuous than me.'

'I'm very, very much wickeder,' said Sebastian indignantly....

'I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?'

'Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.'

'But my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all.'

'Can't I?'

'I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.'

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea.'

'But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea.'

'But I do. That's how I believe.'

In time, Charles became increasingly exasperated with the Flyte's use of faith as a touchstone for most everything in their lives. In a conversation with Sebastian's brother (p. 113):

'My mother believes Sebastian is a confirmed drunkard. Is he?'

'He's in danger of becoming one.'

'I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people.'

'For God's sake,' I said, for I was near to tears that morning, 'why bring God into everything?'

'I'm sorry. I forgot. But you know that's an extremely funny question.'

'Is it?'

'To me. Not to you.'

'No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.'

'It's arguable,' said Brideshead. 'Do you think he will need this elephant's foot again?'

Charles acknowledged his own emptiness, but resisted recognizing the source of the hollowness.

"I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole...." (p.179) and "How often, it seemed to me, I was brought up short, like a horse in full stride suddenly refusing an obstacle, backing against the spurs, too shy even to put his nose at it and look at the thing." (p. 246)

Eventually, Charles began to realize that holiness was something altogether different than morality, or at least as it was conventionally understood. Sebastian ended up in Morocco, rejected from the monastery (for a time), living and caring for Kurt--a German of somewhat disreputable background--and drinking by turns. Cordelia, in relating this, observed that the Superior of the monastery recognized the holiness in Sebastian. By this time, Charles offered no rebuttal.

I have always been more a fan of Waugh's contemporary, Anthony Powell, than I was of Waugh himself. Powell is more subtle and nuanced, and a better writer in many ways. But in so many important ways, Waugh's writing is the more significant. Powell described himself as non-croyant. He always seemed a bit baffled by Waugh's seeming religious obsession (a similar relationship, I have learned, to that of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor). Powell's characters are often just as hollow and empty as Waugh's--the modern malady of "pretending to be whole." And while they may occasionally acknowledge the condition, somewhat bemusedly, there is never any recognition of its source, or more importantly, its cure. With Waugh, this awareness leads to belated, faltering, but quite purposeful steps toward healing.

Three Books I Plan to Read

Bill Moyers recently interviewed Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. A few excerpts, as follows:

Well, I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within. I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and probably a tendency on the part of many Americans to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere, beyond our borders. And that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home.

The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.

What will not go away, is a yawning disparity between what Americans expect, and what they're willing or able to pay....I think one of the ways we avoid confronting our refusal to balance the books is to rely increasingly on the projection of American military power around the world to try to maintain this dysfunctional system, or set of arrangements that have evolved over the last 30 or 40 years. But, it's not the American people who are deploying around the world. It is a very specific subset of our people, this professional army. We like to call it an all-volunteer force--but the truth is, it's a professional army, and when we think about where we send that army, it's really an imperial army. I mean, if as Americans, we could simply step back a little bit, and contemplate the significance of the fact that Americans today are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ask ourselves, how did it come to be that organizing places like Iraq and Afghanistan should have come to seem to be critical to the well-being of the United States of America.

There is nothing in the preamble to the Constitution which defines the purpose of the United States of America as remaking the world in our image, which I view as a fool's errand. There is nothing in the preamble of the Constitution that ever imagined that we would embark upon an effort, as President Bush has defined it, to transform the Greater Middle East. This region of the world that incorporates something in order of 1.4 billion people. I believe that the framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with focusing on the way we live here, the way we order our affairs. To try to ensure that as individuals, we can have an opportunity to pursue our, perhaps, differing definitions of freedom, but also so that, as a community, we could live together in some kind of harmony. And that future generations would also be able to share in those same opportunities.

I think that the Bush Administration's response to 9/11 in constructing this paradigm of a global war on terror, in promulgating the so called, Bush Doctrine of Preventive War, in plunging into Iraq - utterly unnecessary war - will go down in our history as a record of recklessness that will be probably unmatched by any other administration.

There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But when it comes, really, down to understanding what does it mean to support the troops? It needs to mean more than putting a sticker on the back of your car. I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty. And then we really turn away. We don't want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That's not supporting the troops. That's an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it - there's something fundamentally immoral about that. Again, as I tried to say, I think the global war on terror, as a framework of thinking about policy, is deeply defective. But if one believes in the global war on terror, then why isn't the country actually supporting it? In a meaningful substantive sense?

Yep, this is a book I plan to read. The full interview, here.

Another book on my to-read list is Michael Scheuer's Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Scheuer is the ex-CIA operative who authored Imperial Hubris a couple of years back. The man knows what he is talking about.

Finally, there is Tony Judt's Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Peregrine Worthorne, in a review in the American Conservative, had this to say:

For Americans, victory in the Cold War was more than a terrestrial victory. It was also a celestial victory for which the U.S. had been prepared to risk destroying not only their own and the Russian peoples--who could be presumed to have given their consent--but the peoples of the rest of the world whose permission was never asked. Henceforth all things were going to be fundamentally transformed--in a word, reborn. As Judt puts it,

...with too much confidence and too little reflection we put the 20th century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half truths: triumph of the West, the end of history, the uni-polar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market

In other words, as one evil empire fell, a utopian empire--equally dangerous--took its place.


More Thoughts on Georgia

With the tragic events of the last weeks, the world has discovered the Republic of Georgia, with more reporting and analysis than that nation has seen in 20 years. The Georgians are now at the mercy of geopolitical forces beyond their control. It is their plight that concerns me, rather than whether Saakashvili is a hero or a jackass, or whether Russia precipitated the conflict or merely responded to a provocation. Daragahi and Spiegel with the Los Angeles Times offer a succinct and excellent analysis, here. They quote an American diplomat who expounds on the nature of the Georgian people. In so doing, he hits close to the mark in explaining the passion this remote corner evokes among its citizens and visitors.

"These are the most romantic people in the world. They're very gallant, in the stupid sense," said Bruce P. Jackson, a close Bush administration ally who has worked extensively with Saakashvili and other leaders in the emerging democracies of the former Soviet bloc. "Do they really listen? They're very much 'the Charge of the Light Brigade' people. It has a lot to do with personal honor."

I understand what he is saying, even the use of the word "stupid." The world could use more such stupidity.

(This picture and previous from John Graham's blog, here.)

When it comes to foreign policy, I find myself in increasing agreement with Pat Buchanan. Like him, I believe our foreign policy has been needlessly Russophobic; that we have failed to understand Russia, and consequently wasted the golden opportunity to forge alliances following the end of the Cold War; and that Russia has quite legitimate security concerns in its own neighborhood, as do we in ours. That said, I think Pat paints with too broad a brush, is overly simplistic, and not a little judgmental when he states:

"American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight--Russia finished it. People who start wars don't get to decide how and when they end."

But Pat goes on to make an excellent point in analyzing Russian concerns (or paranoia, as some would charge):

Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them.

Imagine a world that never knew Ronald Reagan, where Europe had opted out of the Cold War after Moscow installed those SS-20 missiles east of the Elbe. And Europe had abandoned NATO, told us to go home and become subservient to Moscow.

How would we have reacted if Moscow had brought Western Europe into the Warsaw Pact, established bases in Mexico and Panama, put missile defense radars and rockets in Cuba, and joined with China to build pipelines to transfer Mexican and Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports for shipment to Asia? And cut us out? If there were Russian and Chinese advisers training Latin American armies, the way we are in the former Soviet republics, how would we react? Would we look with bemusement on such Russian behavior?

For a decade, some of us have warned about the folly of getting into Russia’s space and getting into Russia’s face. The chickens of democratic imperialism have now come home to roost—in Tbilisi.

The entire article, here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Latest from Georgia

I intended to post some more thoughts on the situation in Georgia. Over the weekend, however, I received the following information from friends there. The first is an impassioned letter from Jonathan (John) Wurdman. The second is a link to John Graham's blog, an almost hour-by-hour account of events there. I can add nothing to what they say. Please take time to read both, and continue to pray for Georgia.

Upalo Shegvitsqalen!

Dear Friends,

I have distaste for group e-mails and forgive me for writing one. So many people have written and reached out to our family and friends during this conflict period, and written their concern for Georgia and all of us. I want to thank you for thinking of us and for such an outpour of love and support. The last week has been an explosion of events that are very complicated and a tangled mess. The history of these problems is rooted much less in ethnic differences than Russian greed and imperialism. While it is also hard to understand for us being on the ground, having it unfold before our eyes has given us an up close, if bias point of view! Everyone knows about our love for Georgia and so what I am writing is not an indifferent cold report of facts, or the hard reality it has our feelings and subjective ideas at its core.First although there are some 100,000 + refugees and hundreds if not thousands killed I want to reassure you that nobody that you know or that was close to our family or friends has directly suffered injuries, at least not as far as I know. With one exception, Ketevan and Shalva had a Cousin named Goga that was a surgeon working 24/7 in Gori in the hospital helping Ossetians, Georgians and Russians wounded in battle around the clock, he went outside for some fresh air and was shot in the back of the head by a rocket from a helicopter above. This was a tragedy, they continued bombing the hospital!?There has been enough blame and fiery words thrown back and fourth from pain, resentment and disgust that I am sure you have seen in the news and internet. Georgians are a very emotional people and there has been a tidal wave of deeply felt hurt and no restrain by politicians, soldiers, or citizens in expressing this. The history of these regions and root of conflict is very convoluted, but Georgia has resented efforts by Russia to colonize and Russify it for many centuries. There was not great love for the northern bully before this conflict, I am afraid the wounds created now will span many more generations and be lemon juice on the soars. Georgian kids are asking why is our whole country being bombed by the Russians?There is no doubt that Saakashvili and his team acted in haste and did not foresee the reaction that Russia would have, and in times of war, people do commit war crimes and undoubtly there has been plenty of atrocities commited by all the multiple parties involved. The marauding of the Russian soldiers as well as their "volunteers" who where hired mercenaries from the North Caucasus, has created hell on earth of West Georgian cities. The so called 2,000 killed in Ossetia is not recognized as possible by Georgia, they said because of squirmishes and cross fire in the area most of the inhabitants in non Georgian villages had already started to evacuate Tskhinvali before the first attack launched against an illegitimate rebel army, and an impotent 300+ Russian so-called peace keepers. The majority of deaths on the Russian-Ossetian side are believed to be armed men. The Russian Government has not proved the amount of deaths nor are they letting independent experts or journalists in to research. They are also experienced liars that fabricate situations for their benefit. Georgia was attempting to liberate one of its territories and hoping to win the support of the locals Ossetian and Georgian alike therefore it would go strictly against their aim to ride over old woman and new born children in tanks as Putin alledges took place. Those of you that know Georgia and Georgians can't believe that! The Russian "peacekeepers" created anything but peace they had a nesting ground for the black market sales of drugs, human trafficking, and arms sale. They did what they liked in ethnic Georgian villages and shot anyone that resisted, this continued for 16 years. They don't tell you this in CNN. Georgia however has suffered as a result of a tug of war and power showdown between world powers as well as been made the guinea pig experiment in the region for Putin and his pseudo soviet regime to send a message that they will not be mocked and that they want to control what they call as the "near" abroad. Georgia is a freedom loving people that have been conquered over the millenniums by virtually every ambitious expanding empire in Eurasia. It has however retained so much culture, heritage and faith. This testifies to its high culture and national consciousness as well as to its tenacity. It may cost Georgia a lot more blood and chaos but they have had parts of their country trimmed away from the 12th C onwards while never annexing anyone else's territory. They will never settle for a Georgia without Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which by the way was called Inner Kartli) until the 1950's. The Russian government runs a brutish illogical, isolationist gov't that has as little morals as the Mongol horde did when it raped Russia in its entirety. Unfortunately Russia's level of civilization does not equal its might and wealth. Russia has decided they don't want to become part of a world community, they have their own personal economic and geo political agenda and they will walk over other peoples and raze their countries to the ground if they get in the way. For all the high culture and all due respect to the Russian Church it seems the general masses remain at a very low level of consciousness whose muck blinds them from being able to have common empathy and respect for cultures more ancient and gracious than their own. I am not talking about all Russians, you know how many friends I have there, but, the masses are a victim of the same hate machine that has attacked Georgia, they are victims of mass misinformation and spiritual darkness, may God help them! Georgian Mothers know what their sons died for, God knows if these poor Russian Mother's even understand the conflict that took their dear sons lives.Our Patriarch has said that Georgia's strength comes from constant martyrdom. Its patron saint is St. George who was martyred at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian. The Russians forgot that they were fighting a people who had 100,000 of its people beheaded on one bridge in Tbilisi at the hands of the Persian Murwan the Deaf in a single day, that fought for over 3,000 years of constant war to protect its tiny piece of beloved earth. They thought they could break Georgia, bring its people to their knees, they thought through mass rape, murder, bombs, and torture they would create such confusion that Georgians would start to shrink away from Saakashvili and his gov't and fall into mass panic. Russia will not break Georgia as long as one Georgian is left. This is not a regular people, they do not except becoming slaves no matter what they have to endure. Georgia's aspirations to have a free, democratic country open to trade and opening their doors to the West has cost them great pain and hardship.What can we do? Continue singing Georgian songs, paint pictures of its beautiful county side, make amazing wine, and keep visiting and conducting our business here and show Russia that not only Georgians but the friends of Georgia will not become the slaves of their program to instill fear in Georgia's partners.I hope Saakashvili's gov't shows restraint, in the upcoming days, and I hope Russia has a grain of respect for itself and shows the world that there is some conscience left in its dark mind. I also feel America's hands are mixed in this blood they have been stout supporters of Georgia, helped them build this army trained them asked for Georgia's contribution in Iraq, bolstered their decisions to move towards NATO and the EU and finally in Georgia's time of need their has been little more than some humanitarian aid and empty threats that aren't followed with real action, and a fairly impressive Diplomatic support that so far hasn't created real yields. Russians are not diplomats they don't understand or relate to diplomacy. "Don't cast pearls before the Swine" If you want to speak to a Russian military person you have to use a language he can relate to. I am a peace lover and a pacifist but you can't fight an enemy that is bombing you from state of the art artillery by throwing marshmallows at him. I hope that the world sees Russian's neo imperialistic ambitions and makes a decision, whether or not this is a superpower they are ready to bow down to. It is easy to distance the problem if you live in a different world, but all the countries that have been victimized by Russia and have lived through its repressions have spoken out loudly in support for Georgia. Especially Ukraine, the Baltic Countries and other Eastern bloc nations that were experimental projects of Russia's uncontained aggression and ambition. May God give each man his share and a cross he can carry, we have almost collapsed under the spiritual and physical exhaustion of the past 7 days! Currently The Russians have broken their commitment to withdraw their troops to the status quo of Aug 6th and they continue to move troops into Poti, Gori, and Senaki, where they are conducting barbarious acts there! They have sunk ships, stolen computers furniture, children, they have started fires in the national parks, and killed multiple journalists local and foreign alike, bombed churches and assault Bishops, and Priests. Today aside from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali a third of the country is under Russian control despite all international pressure! Our world is a theater and I don't see the final act, I see some possibilities, but they all seem grave for Georgia! Sorry for a torrent of words, but many of you have been asking my feelings! May God protect this land that we all love! Amen! Amen! Amen!

Keep us in your prayers,

John, Ketevan, Lazare and Gvantsa

John Graham's blog, here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tragedy in Georgia

The war in Georgia has been much on my mind in recent days. I was out of town when the war began. Upon returning home, I made some inquiries and learned that my acquaintances were out of Tbilisi, in the relative safety of Sighnaghi. For that I am thankful.

There is plenty of blame to pass around for this mess--Russians, Georgians and Ossetes all: the Russian government and military for being heavy-handed in the way only Russians can, the Georgian government for trusting too much in their far-away western allies, and the Ossetes themselves for persisting in a quixotic effort to extract themselves out of the very center of Georgia. But as is always the case, governments don't suffer, people do.

In all my travels, no country has affected me as has Georgia. This is not due to the spectacular scenery, for other countries have snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. Nor is it the history and architecture, for Europe is chock-a-block with historical set-pieces. And besides that, Georgia can still be a bit scruffy around the edges. Rather, it is the soul of the Georgian people themselves, evidenced in so many ways, that attracts me: hospitality and graciousness, a resurgent faith, joy in savoring the small things of life, the singing and chanting which still haunts my memory, a cup of good wine and a toast, their love of family and ancestors...And it is these things, not geographic boundaries, that are at risk in this fighting. The reporting and pictures have just reminded me of how much I miss the country.

I am frankly surprised that Russia is pushing past South Ossetia towards Gori itself. Clearly, they are trying to topple the current Georgian government, an administration that has aggressively pursued ties with western Europe, the U.S. and NATO. The impulse behind Georgia's policy is understandable enough. Eager to throw off the Russian yoke, the 17 years of independence have been marked by massive de-Russification of the country. English, not Russian, is the second language, and the Georgians--who see themselves as the last outpost of Europe--seem desperate to solidify their ties with the West.

But a quick look at the map shows that little Georgia will always have to work out some accommodation with Russia. I hardly see how they will ever be out of the Russian sphere of influence. And no country--whether the U.S. or the NATO alliance--is in any position to offer unconditional protection from such a powerful neighbor. The Georgian bid for NATO membership is totally wrong-headed, in my view--much like poking a sharp stick into the side of the sleeping bear you are nestled against. That said, Russian heavy-handedness in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia is despicable.

And the Bush Administration comes in for no small criticism, encouraging Georgia as they did in the belief that we had their backs covered. The country is awakening to the fact that the U.S. was never in a position to do anything substantive. This, from today's Times:

As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?

Also, I suspect Russia may be trying to make a point here, as well. This conflict cannot be separated from recent events in Kosovo, as Russian diplomats suggested before that region's independence. The same reasoning that supports an independent Kosovo must also back South Ossetia. The poorest region in a poor country, with only 70,000 Ossetians, is hardly in a position to demand independence. Only Russian support has allowed them to maintain this farce. Watching the Kosovo debacle unfold earlier this year, I feared it would only be a matter of time before Georgia would be paying the price of our misguided Kosovo policy. In recent days, we have heard the Bush Administration speak gravely about respecting the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. Such language would have been more believable had we heard similar concern for the territorial integrity of Serbia.

Ossetian claims for independence are a bit thin. What we call South Ossetia is the Georgian province of Samachablo, bordered on the east, south and west by other Georgian provinces, the north being a common border along the Caucasus Mountains with Russia and "North" Ossetia. I have been on the Russian border on both sides of Samachablo--at Kazbegi to the east, and in Svaneti to the west. Except for a few hazardous, warm-weather passes, the mountains are impenetrable--a natural border if there ever was one. In Svaneti, I stood at the base of these snow-capped mountains. Chechnya lay just on the other side, but as a practical matter, it might as well have been a 1,000 miles away. My point is this: North Ossetia does not just "flow" into South Ossetia, across some arbitrary Russo-Georgian border. Again, the Caucasus Mountains are a defining border. While admittedly remote, the valleys of "South" Ossetia do seem to be a natural component within Georgia. Russian support is the only way the de-facto South Ossetian "government" has been able to survive.

There have long been ethnic enclaves within Georgia. But the current crisis has much more to do with contemporary Russian geo-political stategy than it does any historical validity to the Ossetian claims.

The Times makes some good points in their analysis here and here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I have never read one of Solzhenitsyn's novels. I intend to do so before long, perhaps starting with August, 1914. But I have read many of his essays, interviews and speeches, including the Harvard speech of 1978. His passing this week generated considerable commentary about this great and courageous man, and his place in the momentous events of the 20th century. In my view, some of the best are as follows:

Andrew Cusack, here.

George Friedman, here.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, here, here and here.

Daniel Larison, here.

Terry Mattingly, here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

"History does not belong to us, we belong to it"

I have been on something of a reading-jag of late. First, there was Patrick J. Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, a ripping good read. You don't have to agree with Pat on everything--I don't, necessarily--to realize that here is a book of significance, one that may well stand the test of time. Tough on Churchill and other Western leaders of the 20th century, Buchanan makes a strong case against the folly of nations which commit to defend other nations, when they are ill-equipped to do so. More than a historical review, its lessons are as current as today's newspaper headlines. Then I picked up Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring, a series of essays by Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner. I will devour anything by, or about O'Connor. One quote that stayed with me was this: She identified "conversion," that is, a "character's changing," as the only real subject of good literature. All of her stories--full of the grotesque and monstrous--concern this very thing, the often violent experience of grace. After that, I read Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman. Percy was one of those writers that I have always intended to read, but have only now done so. And I'm certainly glad I did. Like O'Connor, he was Southern, Catholic and full of grace.

Finally, there is Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology by Andrew Louth, a noted Orthodox scholar. I spent considerable time with this book--slowly reading, re-reading, underlining. In short, this is an amazing little book. Its lessons are ones that I am trying to incorporate into my thinking. For I live in a region where the essentiality of tradition in religion is largely dismissed, unless of course it is the "tradition" of sola scriptura. Not only that, but I live in a country that believes its foreign policy is based on objective and self-evident truths, rather than merely reflecting our own history and preconceptions. Louth examines the concept and misconceptions of "tradition," the role our preconceptions play in historical interpretation and biblical exegesis, as well as the "lot bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment."

His is a deep, rich little book and I heartily recommend it. I have copied a few of the passages I found especially insightful, below.

What is important for an understanding of the condition of modern theology, though, is an awareness of how much it owes to these currents of thought and their culmination in the Enlightenment. For since then the mainstream of theology has been swept along by the currents of the day, and has, in a fairly direct way, reflected contemporary cultural preoccupations. (p. 6)

The historical-critical method is a way of explaining away what does not fit within a fairly narrowly defined, rationalistic enterprise. As we have seen, it was first used to explain away miracles. Generalized by the Romantics, it explains away the past altogether. Nothing like traditional Christianity can survive in such an environment. (p. 16)

A prejudice against prejudices is an attempt, which was the aim of the Enlightenment, to deprive tradition of its power. Freed from tradition and the prejudices that it bears, the individual can understand the past 'objectively.' not, rather, all human existence, even the freest, limited and qualified in various ways?...'In fact,' as Gadamer puts it, 'history does not belong to us, we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, the society and the state in which we live...The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being.' (p. 33)

....a truer theory of interpretation, which does not seek to elide the historical reality of the one seeking understanding, sets the interpreter himself within tradition....Understanding is an engagement with tradition, not an attempt to escape it. (p. 33)

...tradition is the context in which one can be free, it is not something that constrains us and prevents us from being free. (p. 35)

There is no longer any need to try and forget our preconceptions or prejudices when we seek to understand something written int eh past (or indeed someone who lived in the past): 'all that is asked is that we remain open to the meaning of the other person or text...' (p. 35)

Man acknowledges nothing without presuppositions, even nothingness itself presupposes fullness of being, not vice versa. (p. 35)

...our situation is something in which we are inextricably bound up; we cannot jump out of our historical skins and gain objective knowledge of the situation in which we are. (p. 36)

If we accept the implications of this...that this engagement with the past is not simply a process whereby we understand the past, but equally a process of self-discovery which can never be complete...we can begin to see what is involved in any process of understanding within the humanities. It is a process of revising our preconceptions, not seeking to escape from them. It is a growing into what we learn from tradition. The movement in the process is a movement of undeception: as a result of experience and growing understanding we see that we have been deceived and so are freed from deception. It is thus a growth in truth, and a growth in openness towards new experiences. (p.37)

'...the experienced person proves to be...someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its own fulfilment not in definitive knowledge, but in that openness to experience which is encouraged by experience itself.' (Gadamer) this growth in experience is not primarily an increase in knowledge of this or that situation, but rather an escape from what had deceived us and held us captive. It is learning by suffering, suffering the process of undeception, which is usually painful. (p. 37)

'...what a man has to bear through suffering is not this or that particular thing, but the knowledge of the limitations of humanity, of the absoluteness of the barrier which separates him from the divine....The truly experienced man is one who is aware of this, who knows that he is master neither of time nor of the future.' (Gadamer) Understanding is, then, an exploration of the dimensions of human finitude. (p. 37)

"A person who imagines that he is free of prejudices, basing his knowledge on the objectivity of his procedures and denying that he is himself influenced by historical circumstances, experiences the power of the prejudices that unconsciously dominate him....A person who does not accept that he is dominated by prejudices will fail to see what is shown by their light. (Gadamer) (p. 43)

The air is thick with bastard traditions which carry us captive unawares while we seem to ourselves to be exercising our freedom and our instinct for truth. the traditions of the hour of the age are as indubitably external to us, and as little founded of necessity on freshly perceived truth, as any traditions of the past. the danger of them lies in their disguise. the single negative fact that they make war on some confessed tradition prevents us from discovering that they too draw their force no less from an authority, until it is too late and we have lost or damaged that power of independent vision which is but braced and harmonized by a known and honoured tradition. (Hort) (p. 56)

The idea that theology must work within the alleged heritage of the Enlightenment now looks much less compelling....The way of much theology since the seen to be based on assumptions about how we come to knowledge that are being rendered increasing incredible and naive. (p. 65-66)

For it is not a matter of solving a mystery, but of participating in it. (p. 69)

...the main concern of theology is not so much to elucidate anything, as to prevent us, the Church, from dissolving the mystery that lies at the heart of the faith, dissolving it, or missing it altogether, by failing truly to engage with it. (p. 71)

For the central truth, or mystery, of the Christian faith is primarily not a matter of words, and therefore ultimately of ideas or concepts, but a matter of fact, or reality....words, even his words, are secondary to the reality of what he accomplished. To be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something. The role of the Church, then, is not simply as the contingent vehicle--in history--of the Christian message, but as the community, through belonging to which we come into touch with the Christian mystery. (p. 74)

...tradition is not something we make up, but something we accept. (p. 85)

...ultimately the tradition of the Church is the Spirit, that what is passed on from age to age in the bosom of the Church is the Spirit, making us sons in the Son, enabling us to call on the Father, and thus share in the communion of the Trinity. (p. 88)

To hear Jesus, and not just his words, we have to stand within the tradition of the Church; we have to put our trust in those to whom our Lord entrusted his mission, his sending. Part of the stillness that is needed for us to hear the words of Jesus is a sense of presence, and it is this that tradition conveys. We become Christians by becoming members of the Church, by trusting our forefathers in the the faith. If we cannot trust the Church to have understood Jesus, then we have lost Jesus: and the resources of modern scholarship will not help us to find him. (p. 93)

The mystery of faith is not ultimately something that invites our questioning, but something that questions us. (p. 95)

...the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scripture, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture....It is curious to realize how this whole approach...has been both scuppered and reinforced by the growth of the method of historical criticism. (p. 99)

The presuppositions that lies behind all this--a presupposition either defended (more or less desperately) or finally relinquished --is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God's revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: not something that inspires confidence....The principle of sola scriptura actually leads one away from the traditional devotion to Scripture as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers. Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. (p. 101)

Christianity is not, properly speaking, a 'religion of the Book': it is a religion of the word (Parole)--but not uniquely nor principally of the word in written form. It is a religion of the Word (Verbe)--'not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate.' (Lubac) (p. 101)

...tradition is that by which we receive Scripture and the context within which we interpret it. What unites us with the writers of the Scriptures is the life of the Church from their day to ours. It was in the life of the Church that the Scriptures emerged, but in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, and in the Church that they were recognized as Scripture, as in the Church that they are read as Scripture--as opposed to being read as ancient Hebrew literature and the writings of one of the new religions that infested the world of late Roman Hellenism. (p. 107)