Friday, January 30, 2009

Hymn of Entry (2)

Last week at church, in the Adult Education class, we began a study of Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church by Archimandrite Vasilieios. The author, the Abbot of Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos, has produced an incredible little book, only 133 pages, but powerful in its impact. I plan to post a few excerpts from each of the 6 chapters, but will withhold whatever meager commentary I could offer until the end of the series.

Chapter 2 -- The Structure of the Church as an Initiation into the Mystery of the Trinity

The unity of the Church is not the result of a theoretical plan, but a reflection of the mystical unity of the Trinity. That which exists by nature, eternally, in the relations of the three divine persons, is given by grace to the life of men.

What the world needs is the trinitarian flock, regardless of whether it is small or large. Its greatness is to be found in its trinitarian nature. What man thirsts for is eternity, "even a tiny little part of eternity"; and this is what we have here. To have the character of the Trinity is to be eternal....There is one way of true unity and existence: the way of life of the Holy Trinity.

The Church has one mission: to be in the world; and by its presence and the manner of its existence to confess: it is no longer I who live, but the Holy Trinity who lives in me....He who has really seen the Church has seen the Holy Trinity. This vision is Paradise, a pledge of the life to come and of the Kingdom. It is a vision revealed to those who are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, to those "who have attained not only union with the Holy Trinity, but also the unity which can be perceived within the Holy Trinity."

If we love the world, following the Lord's example we have to turn towards the church and not towards the world. The Church is the kosmos, the order and beauty of the world. In it the whole world finds meaning and harmony. Outside it, it falls into chaos and ruin. Thus the way to show the greatest love for the world and give it a unique blessing is not by supporting it in a worldly manner, but through the extension of the Church to embrace all things, giving them life and joy.

The unity of the Church is not an administrative system or a method of procedure which can be seen with the naked eye and arranged in a human fashion. It is a theanthropic mystery made known in the Spirit, who "unites the whole institution of the Church."

The Church is not an organization of "pious" people that provides liturgical outlets for the psychological needs of the faithful or theology to solve their metaphysical problems and puzzles. It is "the dwelling of God among men" (Rev. 21:3). It is at once the little flock and she who is wider than the heavens, which is not contained but contains history and the whole of creation.

...if you keep one aspect of your life removed from the "strange and most glorious change," you affect the entire mystery, putting your whole life out of joint and tormenting it through not receiving worthily Him who proclaims in categorical terms, "Behold, I make all things new."

The union of all for which the Church prays is not to be understood as an assembly of parts made up of 'Christian communities, " but as an extension of the trinitarian unity divinely active in the liturgical body of the Church.

Anything that exists outside freedom is hell and death....The faithful are children of freedom....Only within the Church can the truth which frees be embodied and become known and intelligible.How beautiful it is for a man to become theology.

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink. When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid. he will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother. that is to say, he nourishes the other's very existence and makes it grow.

We are bound together by the common faith which, in accordance with tradition, each of us has found and finds personally through the exercise of his own responsibility--"so each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12)....The Church leaves the believer free to feel Christ dwelling within him; free to live in fear on the sea of the present age; free to be crushed by his responsibility; free to cry out to the Lord, "master, we perish," and to see Him in the night of the present age, walking on the waters for him personally and for the whole Church; and free to hear the Lord say to him, "It is I."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thoughts from the parallel universe


Some thoughts from the parallel universe, here.

(I know, I know...I'm trying hard to just let it go.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Festival of Orthodoxy

It is that time of year again for the annual "Festival of Orthodoxy" in Dallas and Fort Worth, sponsored by the North Texas Orthodox Missions. This year's theme is "The Bible and the Early Church," with Fr. Peter Gillquist, Fr. Eugene J. Pentiuc and Fr. Justin (librarian of the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai) as speakers. There will be venues around Dallas and Fort Worth from Tuesday the 2nd through Friday the 5th, but the main session will be at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas on Saturday, February 6th.

This affair is always well-done and well-received. These sessions have nudged quite a few of us down the road to the Orthodox faith. If you live within a 100 miles of Dallas, and are curious about Orthodoxy, then this is the place to be on February 6th. More details can be found, here, or you can email me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Love in the Ruins

I have just finished reading Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic in a Time Near the End of the World. Last month, I posted on Life With Books, and in the discussion that followed, a friend--who knows about such things--suggested I read this work by Percy. I may now have to revise my list somewhat to make room for Love in the Ruins. Percy has a lot to say in this dark comedy. I should probably let it soak in a bit more. But I already know this--that the book will stay with me, as all significant reads do.

Love in the Ruins, published in 1971, is a futuristic pre or mid-apocalyptical novel. The age is one of random, inexplicable violence, though in this death-denying culture, the mere mention of the word "funeral" causes embarrassment. The utter banality of American life has broken down every defense. Life revolves around the golf course, which can now be played even at night. Jesus Christ is described as "The Greatest Pro of Them All." The Pro-Am is kicked-off with a "Bible Brunch" and a performance by the Christian Kaydettes. The biggest event in the liturgical calendar is now "Property Rights Sunday." The Catholic Church split into 3 factions: 1. the American Catholic Church (the A.C.C.) based in Cicero, IL which preaches property rights and neighborhood integrity and plays the Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation of the Host, 2. the Dutch schismatics who "believed in relevance, but not God," and 3. the Roman Catholic remnant, where the "monks are beginning to collect books again."

Politically, the old divisions hold: the conservatives are now the Knotheads (the businessmen), and the liberals the Leftpapas (the federal bureaucrats and the therapists and scientists). On Sunday mornings, the Knotheads go to church and the Leftpapas go on bird-watching expeditions into the woods, hoping against hope of spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker. But other than that, the lives of each group are much the same.

Therapy is the rule of the day, and pervades every aspect of daily life. Older Americans are shipped off to Tucson or Tampa. If they give any trouble there, they are shuttled off to clinics for more therapy. If this is unsuccessful, the oldsters are sent to the Happy Isles of Georgia, a way-station to self-euthanization.

The nation as a whole has undergone periodic unrest and riots. The Automobile Age, as it is known, is now a fond memory. There are still cars on the roads, but when they break down, they are just left, as there is now no one to repair them (or anything else.) The nation has been bogged down for the last 16 years in a civil war in Ecuador. All the while, the vines and sumac steadily encroach from the swamps and bayous.

And everyone pretends that all this is normal--except, that is, for the protagonist, a lapsed Catholic by the name of Dr. Thomas More. He alone, seemingly, realizes the spiritual malaise, and recognizes the swings between pure abstract thought and violence. He seeks to "cure" mankind through his invention, the lapsometer, and believes he can "save the terrible God-blessed Americans from themselves." He hopes his device can perhaps bridge "the dread chasm between body and mind that has sundered the soul of Western man for five hundred years."

On the very first page, Percy speaks to our American exceptionalism, which carries the day even yet.

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself....Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward.?

And later:

Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn't work after all. The U.S.A. didn't work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer.

Like I say, Percy has a lot to say about a number of things, and this brief post merely touches on a bit of it. But what I find odd and disturbing is that Percy's futuristic depiction, while bizarre, is not nearly as foreign to our sensibilities as it should be. Thirty-eight years of banality has carried the death-denying lost Western man even more closer to his vision than Percy could have imagined. A therapeutic doctor speaks to Dr. More: "Doc, we're dedicated to the freedom of the individual to choose his own destiny and develop his own potential." To this, our protagonist mutters "What crap." Indeed.

(A note about the painting at the top of the post: This is the work of William B. Montgomery, whose work can be seen here. He is originally from my hometown, though now based in Austin. I am unacquainted with him, but do share a good friend with him. This painting is based on Love in the Ruins and is a masterful evocation of the novel.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hymn of Entry (1)

This week at church, in the Adult Education class, we began a study of Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church by Archimandrite Vasilieios. The author, the Abbot of Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos, has produced an incredible little book, only 133 pages, but powerful in its impact. I plan to post a few excerpts from each of the 6 chapters, but will withhold whatever meager commentary I could offer until the end of the series.

Chapter 1 -- Theology as Liturgy of the Church

This new family--the body of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit--is responsible for writing the Gospel, which is not a systematic exposition of Christian teaching, precisely because it is not concerned with teaching. Jesus did not leave behind Him a new philosophical system, nor did He institute a mere religion. He left His Body and sent His Spirit.

Those who think they know Christ outside the church know very few things about Him; those who belong to the Church live "in Him." thus we can say that the Gospel is essentially a "private" book. It belongs to the Church...outside the Church the Gospel is a sealed and incomprehensible book. nothing other than the expression of our experience of being baptized into the life of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit....Dogma is the expression of the mystical life of the Church, the formulation in the Holy Spirit of the trinitarian experience into which the whole man is baptized through the Church.

The Church is Christ, His Body living in history. It is summarized in each of the faithful, who is the Church in miniature. The personal consciousness of each of the faithful has an ecclesial dimension, and every problem for the Church is the problem of the personal salvation of each of the faithful.

Faith is not a matter of mere understanding, so it is not cultivated and does not grow simply through investigation or through study. Faith, as trust in God and abandonment of oneself to Him, is closely related to love, which is God Himself. When you love, when you offer as much as you can to others, to your brother--to Christ--and end up by offering your very self to God, then you know Him; you believe. Your faith increases. You are flooded with it, with its strange power which raised up lives....You do not simply have an intellectual calm....A heavenly restfulness reaches into your innermost parts....You know God through faith, not intellectually, but existentially and with the whole of your physical being.

This life which is in Christ, and the expression of it, constitutes the true theology which is the one truth, because it speaks of and brings us to the one eternal life. Thus we realize that we cannot create theology by taking a piece of paper and writing down our ideas, which may very well be correct, theologically pertinent (as to their terminology) or socially useful. The material offered to each person to struggle with, to write theology with, and to speak about to the Church, is none other than his own self, his very being, hidden and unknown.

Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating "fathers" who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increased as it is given away. This is the unchanging change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption. It is the motionless perpetual motion of the word of God, and its ever-living immutability. Every day the word seems different and new, and is the same. this is the mystery of life which has entered deep into our dead nature and raises it up from within, breaking the bars of Hell.

How beautiful it is for a man to become theology.

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink. When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid. he will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother. that is to say, he nourishes the other's very existence and makes it grow.

Worldly knowledge, which sees things from a human point of view and mechanically, is sterile and lifeless. Knowledge in the Holy Spirit, which presupposes the death of man, ignorance of the world, and our resurrection into a new form of perception, is the only knowledge which is communicable; it can be passed on organically. When it is offered, it gives life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Inaugural Prayers and Such Like

Bishop Gene Robinson of the ECUSA is in the news again (which begs the question--exactly when is he NOT in the news?) He led in prayer at the pre-Inaugural ceremonies on Sunday. It seems this prayer, or rather his comments beforehand, have caused a bit of a stir.

I have never jumped on the Bishop Robinson-as-bogey-man bandwagon. In my view, his selection is merely symptomatic of deeper problems. I will let my Episcopalian friends sort out their own crises. But then Bishop Robinson sat for an interview with the NYTimes. This took it out of in-house Anglican politics and placed it firmly in the public square. It seems he is often his own worst enemy (as most of us are.)

The interview with the Times, here, raised a number of questions. My concern came from the following:

Bishop Robinson said he had been reading inaugural prayers through history and was “horrified” at how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were.”

What gave it away, Sherlock? Could it be the 43 Christian (in the general understanding of the word) presidencies we have had to date? Why anyone with even a superficial knowledge of American history would be surprised that inaugural prayers have been "specifically and aggressively Christian," is beyond belief. I think Bishop Robinson should stay indoors, away from television and far from contact with the general public, for he is much too easily "horrified." Taken on its own, his statement here is buffoonish.

“I am very clear,” he said, “that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.”

G. K. Chesterton can usually be marshaled for a quote on most any subject. He does not disappoint here. "There are those who hate Christianity and call their hatred an all-embracing love for all religions," and "These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own."

Chesterton's comments point to the abject silliness on Robinson's part. I recall an anecdote about the late Brooke Astor, doyenne of New York society. She was the younger, later wife of the last of the Astors, and died only recently at age 104. Brooke Astor was one of the city's greatest philanthropists, and insisted on inspecting first-hand the work of her various charities. Invariably, she dressed in hat, pearls and white gloves, even if visiting the poorest projects. Some aides suggested that she might consider dressing-down a bit for these occasions, to which she replied: "the people expect to see Mrs. Astor, and I do not intend to disappoint them." She knew something about herself that Bishop Robinson doesn't know about himself. She knew who she was--she was "Mrs. Astor." It is not clear Bishop Robinson knows he is a Christian pastor. I would think a Christian should never be embarrassed to offer Christian prayer.

Bishop Robinson said he might address the prayer to “the God of our many understandings,” language that he said he learned from the 12-step program he attended for his alcohol addiction.

This is just lovely, isn't it--perfectly suited to our age. But in the end, a prayer to "the God of our many understandings" is a prayer to no God at all. I couldn't help but think of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, with Hazel Motes and his "Church of Christ Without Christ":

"...that church where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. ...there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two."

So, my advice to Bishop Robinson is this: be a man, just say your prayer, stop apologizing for it being "Christian," and most importantly, stay away from reporters. The prayer itself, here, actually wasn't that bad, for this sort of thing. Though most of it was standard kumbaya boilerplate, there was one line I found to be exceptional for our times.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Events of the Day

I tend to become entirely too wrapped-up in the events of the day. And I have much to hold my interest these days, what with the carnage in Gaza, the economy tanking, Bush winding-down and Obama gearing-up. Last week, I even wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper--a danger sign if there ever was one.

So, I am resolving to step back a bit from this obsession (passion--let's call it what it is) and direct my attention to those things that really matter. But before I do, I pass along these links to the following stories of interest:

Pat Buchanan on "An Unreflective Man." (Who could this possibly be?)

Daniel Larison takes on Tom Friedman on Gaza.

Larison again on what it means when we say "the West."

Rick Spencer on Israeli options in Gaza in "A Damned Foolish Thing."

Insightful discussion on the Middle East on "Morning Joe," featuring, among others, Queen Noor of Jordan.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tribute to Samuel Huntington (1927-2008)

First Principles contains an excellent tribute to Samuel Huntington, here.

...he argued that Western civilization was the product of a distinctive Western history and Christian legacy and that its values and traditions were unlikely to be successfully exported to other civilizations, which had their own distinctive traditions. Rather, the West should focus upon strengthening its own traditions and identity, while expecting that other civilizations would do much the same. The U.S. role within the West should be to encourage this strengthening and within the world to facilitate mutual recognition and accommodation between the different civilizations.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"The Prop of the Knout"

Thanks to Milton for forwarding a review of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia in the latest New Republic, found here. The book sounds interesting , though you would never gather that from this review by Leon Aron. His Russophobia almost leaps off the page. I notice that he is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Aaah, all is clear now. Aron goes off on any number of ranks--criticizing Medvedev for crossing himself after receiving an icon from the Patriarch, as well as taking Putin to task for wearing an Orthodox pectoral cross in his famous bare-chested photo op from 2 years ago (I have news for Aron--we all do, it is just that our shirts are generally on.) I realize I am hardly unbiased here, but the more I read the article, the more it falls into the category of screed. I am curious if anyone out there has actually read the book.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Reforming the Reformation"-Take 23,487

The goings-on among American mega-churches continues to interest me, though reading about them leaves me feeling the same way I do after wasting 30 minutes in front of the televisional box. I suppose they are as good a barometer as any of our chronic cultural ill-health. In a surprisingly-balanced article for the New York Times, Molly Worthen examines a new wrinkle in the emergent church world--a return to roots--not of the Apostolic Faith, mind you--but a return to the Calvinism of old. For the Reformation is ever in need of...well, reform.

Her subject is Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I was vaguely familiar with Mars Hill, but totally uninformed about Driscoll, or other emergent-type church leaders. Worthen entitles the article "Who Would Jesus Smack Down." Driscoll and Mars Hill are angling for a particular market segment--think skateboarder attire, tattoes and YouTube sermons. Indeed, Worthen observes: Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen. Detractors have dubbed him the "cussing preacher." There is nothing particularly new in any of this--even modest-size cities boast any number of preachers attempting the same thing. What is interesting here is that his message is not new at all, but a return to old-time Calvinism. And it seems to be working--at least for now, and in this place. "In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a mega church that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and pod casts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide."

A few excerpts from Worthen's article, below:

Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.

[Well, no wonder I didn't know who he was.]

Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t “Amazing Grace” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s “Fight Club.”

Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”

He read voraciously and was born again at 19. “God talked to me,” Driscoll says. “He told me to marry Grace, preach the Bible, to plant churches and train men.”
....God called Driscoll to preach to men — particularly young men — to save them from an American Protestantism that has emasculated Christ and driven men from church pews with praise music that sounds more like boy-band ballads crooned to Jesus than “Onward Christian Soldiers.”....What bothers the portrayal of Jesus as a wimp, or worse. Paintings depict a gentle man embracing children and cuddling lambs. Hymns celebrate his patience and tenderness. The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

In recent years, mainstream mega churches — the mammoth pacesetters of American evangelicalism that package Christianity for mass consumption — have been criticized for replacing hard-edged Gospel with feminized pablum. According to Ed Stetzer, the director of LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist religious polling organization, Mars Hill is “a reaction to the atheological, consumer-driven nature of the modern evangelical machine.”
The “modern evangelical machine” is a product of the 1970s and ’80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was “seeker sensitive”: upon learning that many people didn’t go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life....Stetzer says. “The center is not holding.”

New Calvinists are still relatively few in number, but that doesn’t bother them: being a persecuted minority proves you are among the elect. They are not “the next big thing” but a protest movement, defying an evangelical mainstream that, they believe, has gone soft on sin and has watered down the Gospel into a glorified self-help program. In part, Calvinism appeals because — like Mars Hill’s music and Driscoll’s frank sermons — the message is raw and disconcerting: seeker insensitive.

Driscoll disdains the prohibitions of traditional evangelical Christianity. Taboos on alcohol, smoking, swearing and violent movies have done much to shape American Protestant culture — a culture that he has called the domain of “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.”

Well, okay. I will give Driscoll his due. He has spotlighted an obvious failing in mainstream liberal Protestantism, as well as evangelical mega churches--the wussification (to put it in Kinky Friedman parlance) of the faith. I am not a church-hopper, but did park myself in a large happy-clappy Church of Christ for a short while before following through to Orthodoxy. The church is chock-full of the most wonderfully nice people one would ever want to meet. But a diabetic could not attend there without endangering their health. Thankfully, the hymnody is fading from my memory, though it will be a few years yet before I can fully erase "The Days of Elijah."

So, Driscoll has identified the symptoms of an illness. Yet he has misdiagnosed the true malady, for the remedy is not Calvinism--not even "cool Calvinism." He has added another entre to the buffet-line of our religious pluralism, but there is little of lasting value here, and the novelty will fade. Again.

But it is a good story, which can be read in full here.

Shameless Plug for my Parish

Our little Orthodox mission here in East Texas has recently updated its website, here. Fr. John and Mat. Christie have done an extraordinary job with this. I am excited about it and anxious for others to visit the site. Of course, the real excitement comes from occasions like the one pictured here.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Timely Articles

On Gaza

Daniel Larison (4 January), here.
Daniel Larison (4 January), here.
Daniel Larison (5 January), here.
Daniel Larison (5 January), here.
Daniel Larison (6 January), here.
Mustafa Akyol (3 January), here.

On the Late, Great Samuel Huntington

Francis Fukuyama (29 December), here.
Rod Dreher (4 January), here.

On the End of the (Financial) World

Michael Lewis, here.

The Mosque of Ming the Merciless

While at first glance this may look more like an annex to the palace of Ming the Merciless, it is actually the very latest thing in mosques. The designer, Zeynep Fadillioglu, is "known for creating some of the most stylish lounges and nightclubs in Istanbul." The interior design pushes the envelope a bit, as well. Female worshippers will no longer be confined behind a tacky screen in a back corner. In this mosque, an open, airy mezzanine level is designated as the women's section. Could it be that modernism-- not a compliment, mind you--is coming to Islam at last? I'll admit to being prejudiced against mosques. Outside of a few notable exceptions in Istanbul, I've never been particularly impressed with their architecture--finding them externally derivative and internally empty and barn-like, for the most part. This mosquestrocity is located on the Asian side of things, so will remain largely unseen by Istanbul visitors. Read more, here.

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Blog Recommendation

I would like to recommend the new blog, Obscure Destinies--just launched by my good friend, Milton Burton. He assures me that he is going to play nice and confine his commentary to literary topics. So far, Milton has made 2 postings, and the worst he has done is call Gloria Steinem a "gibbering ninny." One can hardly fault him for that. Check it out from time to time--whatever else, it will never be boring.