Friday, October 30, 2009

The Stories We Tell...

Richard Gamble, over at Front Porch Republic, has some important things to say about story-telling, the teaching of history, our national narrative and the nurturing of civic virtues, here. And he does so by way of Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter. A history professor himself, Gamble wrestles with the role that historical perception plays in the formation of our national character. “I have not settled in my own mind the place of the teaching of history in the formation of character and judgment—I mean the place of real history with all its weightiness, and seriousness of purpose, and messy complexity as opposed to romanticized versions of the past that make us feel good about ourselves and serve some narrow agenda.” I know what he is talking about. Every fall I teach a course in Texas history, a subject particularly susceptible to this romanticized feel goodism.

Gamble begins with the following passage from Hannah Coulter:

But did we tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and listening, usually the last thing before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life or a better place than we had?

I don’t know, but I have had to ask. Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place. Or suppose the stories you tell them allow them to believe, when they hear it from other people, that farming people are inferior and need to improve themselves by leaving the farm. Doesn’t that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn’t that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment?

And how are you ever to know where the thread breaks, and when the tug begins?

To the author, Berry is making the critical point that we should not only tell the right stories, but to tell the stories right.

The teacher of American history has the responsibility to do both of these tasks and to do them well. I do not believe that telling the right story means purging the American past of all its unpleasantness. We mourn and we rejoice when we read the American past. The American enterprise was and is a human enterprise, and as such it is filled with everything human: with sin, and the lust for dominion and all that comes with being part of the fallen and selfish City of Man, but mixed in with goodness and self-sacrifice and dedication to principle and real achievement.

Gamble takes a hard look at the themes running through contemporary American conservative thought: nationalism, populism, and imperialism. In the author’s view, “they have slowly destroyed our republic,” and have proven capable, as Berry notes, to “unmake everything that has been made.” Gamble voices concern over the telling of the “American story in such a way that the trajectory toward nationalism, populism, and empire appears preordained, a matter of America gradually becoming more and more what it was always meant by God or History personified to become.”

Gamble concludes with this: Children need to stop being children. The selective story of the American past needs to give way gradually and prudently to the larger story of America, a story fit for grownups and a not a story destined to keep citizens of the republic in a condition of perpetual adolescence. And coming back to Berry, he observes: "Hannah Coulter feared late in life that she and her husband had told their story the wrong way. Even if unwittingly, they had told their story in such a way that they made contentment and thankfulness unappealing and abnormal and restlessness and ingratitude appealing and normal. If we tell the American story in a way that makes nationalism, populism, and imperialism attractive, then we will not cultivate civic virtue with that story."

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grave-Mounding, Outhouses and other Remembrances

Last Saturday, I took the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite undertakings--taking a long day trip down to central Texas. The Lampasas River Valley is only 3 hours from East Texas, but one definitely passes over into another culture. I have lived my life in what is culturally part of the Deep South—albeit the westernmost bulwark of same. Somewhere between home and the Hill Country, one leaves behind all that sing-songy Southern sweetness and enters into the easternmost regions of the plainspoken West.

I made the trip to help in a cemetery work day, where people gather to clean up a rural graveyard. I have written of this particular spot of ground before, and probably will do so again. This cemetery has always been something of a touchstone with me. As cemeteries go, this one is not particularly old. After many relocations, my grandmother’s grandparents finally settled down here in 1880. Two years later, they suffered the loss of a small son. They buried Uncle Willie under a live oak tree about 250 feet north of the house. 15 years later, my grandmother’s dad was buried in the grove, as well. In time, the cemetery saw the burial of a large number of extended family members, including my grandparents and two uncles. But early in the history of the graveyard, neighboring families started using it, as well. Today, the cemetery contains over 300 graves.

There’s not that much to do at these cemetery workings, as it can often be more of an excuse for socializing. Mainly, I trimmed around the stones and raked the leaves and acorns from underneath that old live oak. It is not really necessary, but we do it anyway. I pay particular attention to 10 graves--my grandparents, grandmother’s dad, the baby of grandmother’s sister (from the marriage we are not supposed to talk about), my favorite uncle, another uncle and his wife, Uncle Willie, Aunt Fannie and the great-great grandparents. About 9 or 10 of us worked that morning, and we made a good showing. We broke up for lunch and met at the old schoolhouse where my dad graduated high school in 1932. (He did not live in that community, but as the school near their home only went to the 10th grade, he lived here in the old house next to the cemetery, with his grandmother, so he could graduate from the 11th grade.)

After eating, we attended to the business of the cemetery. These things are always much the same, but I am not complaining. We are in good shape financially. Much of the conversation centered around a controversy brewing in the region. The Lampasas River Valley is still relatively pristine, though imperiled. The sprawl from Fort Hood and the resultant Ugliest-City-In-Texas (Killeen) lies just over the hills to the north. The middle-class suburbs of Austin march relentlessly north, catching the region in a squeeze. In the old days, the area was known as the “black corner of Burnet County,” a recognition of its remoteness and of the fact that it was not particularly on the way to anywhere. Now, Oncor is projecting an enormous transmission line that will slice across the valley. The residents are organized ( and fighting it, but I am not optimistic about their ultimate success.

I enjoyed the discussion over our main item of new business—the replacing our current, and derelict, outhouse. We decided to ask for donated lumber and construct a new one—nothing elaborate, just a one-holer. I wondered out loud why there was ever a need for a two-holer, because it was not as if it was going to be used by more than one person at a time. My kinswoman sitting next to me informed me that one was for the adults and a smaller one was for the children, which makes perfect sense. I whispered to her (in jest) that one option would be to do as our great-great aunt did (according to my dad)—she just had a cane-bottomed chair with a hole cut in the seat that she moved around behind the cedar break.

Upon returning home, I was telling the tale to my wife. She asked me why there was even a need for an outhouse at a cemetery. I had to stop and think about that for a minute, for I had always just accepted it down there. In this part of the state, I have never seen such. In the Hill Country of central Texas, however, outhouses in country cemeteries are not unheard of. In East Texas, as elsewhere, the associations usually hire out the mowing and trimming. Not so, apparently, down in the Hill Country. In my experience, those cemeteries are often cared for by the family members themselves. These people actually spend time in the cemetery, and hence the need for outhouses.

Working my way home, I first stopped at a couple of nearby cemeteries where other family members were buried. The most beautiful is also one of the most secluded, and thus the target for vandals, a situation I attribute to the close proximity of Fort Hood. I was dismayed to see that my great-granddad’s stone was damaged even more than from before.

I then stopped in a nearby town to visit a couple of kins-people. One cousin’s life has been particularly tragic—including the early loss of a daughter and the decades-long disappointment of a son’s life misspent. Now at age 78, my cousin found herself in a nursing home. She was glad to see me, jovial and upbeat, refusing to engage in self-pity. I soon discovered at least one source of her good attitude—the son, now aged 50, had finally stumbled into doing the right thing. He was married again, to an obviously younger woman. My cousin, nearing the end of her earthly existence, was comforted-for the first time-by two grandsons, aged 2 and 1. I left there thinking of the unfathomable mercies of our Lord.

For about 12 years in my early married life, my wife and I made regular visits to see my favorite uncle in Georgetown. Everyone should have an uncle like mine. Our routine rarely varied. He and I would arise very early on Saturday mornings, drink a pot of coffee, eat homemade pecan waffles and talk at my grandparent’s old kitchen table, and then leave out before our wives emerged from their bedrooms. We would usually visit another uncle and his wife in Lampasas. This was a courtesy call. About the length of one cup of coffee was as long as either of us could hang around either of them. We would visit other kin, at this farm or ranch or the other, or search out old family landmarks. Around noon, we would look for a barbecue joint, and after lunch we might even stop in at the Rattlesnake Inn for a beer. But always, without fail, we included a stop at this cemetery. We would have loaded a wheelbarrow and shovel into the truck before leaving. And then, my uncle instructed me in what he learned as a youth. From a pile of sand in the corner of the cemetery, we would haul loads to the graves and carefully mound them up. That is an old but vanishing custom, rarely done, even in that region.

I have heard of this practice before, however, and I believe it a response to an ancient, if not primordial, impulse. Terry Jordan, in Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, notes : A more likely origin of the southern mounding custom is Britain. The antecedent is probably the “long barrow” grave, a pagan type dating back some three thousand years in the British Isles and succeeded by the grass-covered, elongated mounds so typical of rural English churchyards still today. I remember seeing a number of these barrows or tumuli over there—the most famous, I suppose, being Queen Boadicea’s tumulus in Hampstead Heath. Regardless of its pagan antecedents, the mounding represents a form of remembering--of respecting and perpetuating the memory of those whose bodies lie buried beneath.

As an Orthodox Christian, I find that I have a more heightened awareness of most everything I do. I can continue the discipline of keep these graves mounded, which now also includes my uncle’s, as before. But I now able, and privileged to pray for the souls of the departed.

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.

And, I can sing out “Memory Eternal.” Fr. Stephen Freeman recently wrote on this subject, from which an excerpt following:

I know as well, that our feeble prayers here are joined to the mighty chorus that ascends to God from those who have gone before us and remember and pray for us. That “great cloud of witnesses” sustains the living though we too easily forget this. How is it that the living pass their days with no thought of those who stand witness before God?

Memory Eternal for us all, until the battle is done and everything has found its rest.

It is this kind of rhythm, found in the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, that has been lost from so much of Christianity, where the grief is certainly as great. I know that I could not bear the weight of all I remember were I not able to stand with others and pray God’s eternal remembrance. There are times as an Orthodox Christian that I am not just grateful for the grace God has given, but wonder how I ever tried to live without it.

This trip found the graves to be in good shape. The next time I visit--to do a bit of remembering--I plan to bring my wheelbarrow and shovel.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Afghanistan

I have avoided taking a dogmatic stance on Afghanistan. But as one who is opposed to war in general, and particularly opposed to involving ourselves in places where we have no business, my sentiments are not hard to ascertain.

Michael Hoh's resignation from the State Department has received considerable attention in recent days. His resignation letter contained in the news story, here, is well worth a read.

I also recommend the open letter of William R. Polk to President Obama, here. This is a man who knows a thing or two about the region.

The same can be said for Thomas Friedman, who weighs-in today with his observations.

It seems to me that one thing unites Hoh, Polk and Friedman. All three address the issue from the standpoint of realism, rather than ideology.

And finally, we should ask why our soldiers are dying to uphold a society where far too much of this sort of thing continues.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Return to Alaverdi

While traveling in Georgia in June, 2007, I visited the Alaverdi Cathedral, near Telavi. The church was founded in the 6th-century, by St. Joseph, one of the 13 Syrian Fathers. We drove in from Sighnaghi that Sunday morning and attended Divine Liturgy. My short time there was a highlight of my Georgian experience.

I was excited to discover this fascinating documentary from 2006. The feast day for St. Joseph is celebrated in September. From time immemorial, pilgrims have come to Alaverdi for the feast. In time, a festival grew up around the observance. During the years of Communist control, the festival continued and grew, though without any religious connotation.

I found the documentary to be absolutely incredible, and quite moving. Now it seems there exists something of a tension between those who come for the feast of the Church, and those who still hold to the habits and patterns of life learned under 3 generations of Communism.

I believe the narrator at the first of the film is Bishop David of Alaverdi, whom I had the honor of meeting in Sighnaghi.

The documentary is in 2 sections--be sure to watch each of them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A John Calvin Make-over?

In yesterday's Dallas Morning News, columnist and Presbyterian churchman William McKenzie wrote on John Calvin, a man he feels to be under-appreciated, even in this, the 500th anniversary of his birth (story here.) McKenzie believes that Calvin suffers from even worse PR than Dick Cheney, and if people could just get over all that messiness associated with his burning Michael Servetus at the stake, then well, Calvin's reputation could be rehabilitated for the 21st-century.

First the disclaimers: I am not an authority on either Calvin or Calvinism. I have not read the Institutes, nor do I ever plan to do so. I also concur that Calvinism sometimes suffers cheap shots from its detractors, who know less about it than they imagine. And I have observed that you will often find some of the most intelligent and gifted people among its adherents.

That said, I am not a fan. This view does not rise from any dissatisfaction with a previous religious affiliation. Even back in my Protestant days, I was never, ever attracted to Calvinism. When I finally joined a church, my new tribe was equally and decided non-Calvinistic. My mother was the most nominal of Baptists. I always found this affiliation a bit ironic. To the extent that she thought about it at all, she disagreed with every one of the tenets that set them apart as Southern Baptists. I now realize that the things she disagreed with most were those beliefs rooted in Calvinism. And I agreed with her. Despite my lack of experience with Calvinism, I believe I can speak to the obvious fruits of Calvinist thought, not just in the religious sphere, but in the very formation and development of Americanism.

As to McKenzie’s defense of John Calvin, I found it surprisingly limp.

For starters, there's the fact that Calvin had a radical view of education. He thought that, heavens, people should read for themselves, including Scripture. He believed in truth being revealed through the mind, as well as the heart. He particularly had a passion for children learning to read and going to school, not necessarily the way things were done then. He began a school for children that grew into a university in Geneva.

Okay, so Calvin promoted education.

Calvin...embraced the intellect, which he personified by writing his landmark "Institutes of the Christian Religion." (The late historian Will Durant termed them one of the world's 10 most influential works.)

Well, I haven’t read Durant either. This also shows the limitations of list-making. From what I hear, the Institutes would also make the top-10 list for the most mind-numbingly unreadable works, as well.

"Calvin is to theology what Freud is to psychology: Love him, hate him, you have to deal with him."

Talk about being damned by faint praise…

The Frenchman got a closed sewer system built for his adopted hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. Like the pride Lyndon Johnson took in delivering electricity to rural Central Texas, Calvin considered that sewer one of his great accomplishments.

Again with the faint praise...(so far, McKenzie has compared Calvin to Dick Cheney, Sigmund Freud and Lyndon Johnson)

Similarly, his emphasis on the dignity of work is tied in the rise of capitalism. He didn't invent that economic system, but his challenging of the prevailing idea that work was drudgery reshaped the way people approached labor.

So Calvin is responsible for the Protestant work ethic, huh? I have been looking for someone to blame for that. Now I know who.

Like with Marx's communism or Freud's views on the mind, the rest of the world spins around the influence of Calvin, whether we know it or not.

Maybe…but if so, is that necessarily a good thing?

McKenzie closes with the thought that “John Calvin deserves a new look.”

Well, thanks…but I believe I will pass.

[To give equal time to Calvinists, I came across this article, which is actually in response to Jack D. Kinneer's "A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy." Apparently Kinneer spent some time at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. The best I can tell, he takes us to task for supposedly not believing in "Justification by Faith" or "sovereign grace." Basically, he accuses the Orthodox of not being, well, Protestant. Guilty as charged!]

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fight For Your Right to Dry!

Clothes, that is. I am learning of a growing debate in this country over the right to hang out clothes to dry. I have never given this much thought, having lived (outside of college) in either semi--rural areas or small towns all my life. As a consequence, there has never been anyone to tell me what I could or could not do in my back yard. Such is apparently not the case throughout most of urban America. Clothesline proponents, as well as backyard chicken enthusiasts, are taking cities to court to reverse such prohibitions. I find it refreshing to hear of these sporadic outbreaks of common sense.

We have always had a clothesline. My mother used a clothesline. My mother-in-law used a clothesline, as did all our ancestors for time immemorial. It is remarkable to think that such a rhythm of life has been almost erased within the last 50 years--so much so, that most young people today do not even know what a clothes pin is, thinking it a potato chip bag clip.

I didn't incorporate all the lessons my mother tried to instill in me, but one I did take to heart was this: a clothes dryer uses more electricity than anything else in a house. My mother did have a clothes dryer. She bought it in 1973, I believe, and it was the same one in her house at her death in 1999. I do not recall seeing it ever actually used, however.

Like I say, we have always had a clothesline at our house. Our neighbors don't seem to mind, or if they do, they know better than to say anything. Since an elderly acquaintance of ours went to the nursing home, it seems that we and my sister-in-law are the only two remaining clothes-hanger-outers in our little town--at least on our side of town, anyway. We do have a clothes dryer, much like the lantern in the closet--there for emergencies. It was my brother's. When he died in 1984, we got the dryer, as we were the only ones without at that time. Two years ago, it started making a squeaky sound. We replaced the belt and it is probably good for another 25 years. If it is cold and rainy, we use the dryer--but only for sheets and towels. Everything else is either hung up on door frames or ceiling fans, or draped across chairs.

It is gratifying to know that one is actually ahead of the curve on a coming trend. I think a culture concerned with legislating open garage doors, dog poop and backyard clothesline is too silly by half. And for those of you considering using these "wind energy drying devices," the owners of the clothes in the picture above know what they are doing. Notice that the pockets of the jeans are pulled out. They dry faster that way.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission

Orthodox readers of this blog may be familiar with the situation facing the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission in Fargo, ND. If you are unaware and wish to know, email me privately and I can direct you to the appropriate sources.

Through no fault of their own, this mission has been abruptly placed in a severe financial bind. I understand that this is the only Orthodox Church within a 3-hour radius of Fargo. Undoubtedly any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Contributions can be sent to:

Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission
1845 16th Street South
Fargo, ND 58103

Their website:

Runciman on Mistra and the Peloponnese

I suppose the economy must be improving a little. I felt confident enough to splurge on a few books from the good people over at Eighth Day Books (facilitated by their 20th anniversary sale.) I had vowed to buy no more books until reading those remaining on my book table--and I held firm to that resolution for four months. I was down to Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanaugh, and made it the first 100 pages or so. Nureyev was a gifted artist, and his biographer's account is well-written. But his story I did not find to be compelling, and so, I laid it aside.

My first read from EDB is The Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese by Sir Steven Runciman. This is a 2009 reprint of the original 1980 edition published as Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peloponnese (I suppose adding the word "Lost" sells these days.) Sir Steven is perhaps my favorite historian--his 3-volume work on the Crusades can only be described as magisterial. Gore Vidal--not given to dishing out compliments--observes that "to read a historian like Sir Steven Runciman is to be reminded that history is a literary art quite equal to that of the novel." And I might add, one will find no more sympathetic treatment of all things Byzantine than from Runciman.

In 1204, Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, though the Empire continued on in the mini-states of Epirus, Nicaea and Trebizond. The Seljuk Turks, the Franks and the Venetians moved in to scoop up as many of the spoils as possible. Venice and the Frankish princes of Villehardouin ended up with the Peloponnese. Near ancient Sparta, the Villehardouin established their favorite palace at La Cremonie, as well as a neighboring mountaintop citadel, the beginning of Mistra. In 1261, the Greeks returned to Constantinople, and slowly regained control of the Peloponnese, as well. In time, Mistra emerged as the capital of the semi-autonomous Despotate of Morea, with a brother of the Emperor usually serving as Despot.

(the Despot Demetrios as depicted by Italians)

The last great flowering of Byzantine culture occurred during the waning days of the Empire.

Long before the end of the fourteenth century it was clear that the free Greek world was doomed....The Emperor ruled over a small and dwindling domain; and in Constantinople the population was impoverished and declining in numbers. Yet never before had the imperial city been so full of distinguished scholars, theologians, historians and scientists. It remained an intellectual centre which attracted not only all Greek men o learning but also Italians, eager now to study the old Greek lore than Byzantium had guarded down the centuries....And at the close of the fourteenth century Mistra emerged as a cultural capital. Not only had it already attracted many of the best artists from Constantinople, but now it became a haven for scholarship.

Runciman paints a vivid picture of medieval Hellene culture through his depiction of the court of Despot Theodore II Palaeologus and Despoena Cleofe Malatesta. The intellectual Theodore revelled in the relative obscurity of assignment to Mistra, where he could pursue his interests outside the confines and obligations of Constantinopolitan court life. He was not particularly pleased to hear that his brother the Emperor had arranged for him to marry Cleofe Malatesta. Though from a junior branch of the family, the Malatestas were not without connections. Her uncle was Pope Martin V, and her kinsman was Pandolfo Malatesta, the notorious "Wolf of Rimini" (to be labeled notorious in Renaissance Italy took some doing.)

Pandolfo Malatesta, the "Wolf of Rimini"

Their marriage was tempetuous, at least at first. Theodore was moody and difficult, and was seriously considering taking monastic vows just before he learned he was to marry. Cleofe was, well....a Malatesta. In time, Theodore came to realize he had a kindred spirit in the beautiful Cleofe. And under their patronage, artists and scholars flocked to Mistra. Cleofe adapted herself quickly to her new home--so much so that her uncle the Pope sent her a severe letter, threatening excommunication and damnation if she should become Orthodox. But the threats of a far-away pontiff did not sway her, and as the scholar George Gemistus Plethon wrote "she discarded the soft and decadent habits of the Italians to learn the simple modesty of our own manners, in which she was not excelled by any of our ladies." The Despoena Cleofe died young, and was much-mourned by her husband and subjects. Their only surviving child, Helena, married the Frankish King of Cyprus and titular Prince of Antioch, John II. (John was the last legitimate male heir of the old Crusader, Raymond of Toulouse. Helena greatly strengthened the Orthodox Church in Cyprus until her own early death.)

This is the sort of history I enjoy--obscure events in obscure places among people now largely forgotten. And I suppose there is a certain amount of escapism to it all. While immersed in the details of 14th-century Mistra, one can ignore, for a while, the realities of 21st-century America. But even in so doing there are lessons to be learned. A good friend of mine--a true intellectual--recently asked me to explain the uniqueness of the Byzantine Empire--why was it so different and why did I place so much importance on it? He is perhaps the most well-read person I have ever known, but the Byzantine East has just never been a particular area of study.

There is much that could be said in response to this question. Runciman's account offers one particular insight. Frankish troops poured into the Peloponnese soon after 1204, with the land soon divided into fiefs apportioned among the knights and noblemen. Most of the men were unmarried, and among the married, only the wealthiest could afford to bring their wives from France. The poorer soldiers took their wives from among the native Greek populace. In short order, there emerged a half-caste element, the gasmoules. The ruling Franks looked upon them with contempt and disdain. Over two generations, they became a sizable minority. In large part, the gasmoules adhered to the Orthodox faith of their mothers, while maintaining the martial abilities of their fathers. These half-castes suffered no slight from the Greek community, and became an important element in the restoration of Byzantine control. In this, Runciman gives no little credit to the gasmoules, "whom the Franks despised but whom the Byzantines, who were lacking in racial prejudice and were willing to welcome as equals anyone who accepted the Orthodox faith, regarded as fellow-citizens."

No doubt many Byzantines were as haughty and proud of their Empire (and their Church) as their compatriots in Western Europe. But this culture, which spoke Greek but thought of themselves as Roman, had little in the way of racial or ethnic prejudice. Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Albanians, Georgians, Armenians, Syrians, Russians and other Slavs, all bumped shoulders in Constantinople, not only doing business with one another but marrying as well. Even the most noble families were often multi-ethnic, with no stigma attached. This attitude and approach to life seemed particularly foreign and incomprehensible to visitors from the West. As Runciman observed, these East Romans found these distinctions to be of little consequence, as long as all were within the Orthodox faith.

It seems to me, that this would be something to contemplate today, not only for society in general, but also as a reminder to the Holy Orthodox Church, as it finds its place in America, and where jurisdictional and ethnic "issues" can oftentimes play too large a role.

For those interested in learning more of the story of Theodore and Cleofe, I highly recommend the following links:
Theodore and Cleofe: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Conservative Bible Project

Looking for the right Bible to carry to your Tea Party tax protest, gun show or Tuesday Morning Businessmen's Bible Study? Well, this may be just the thing. This morning, while on my second cup of coffee and working my way through the Dallas Morning News, I came across the following editorial:

Getting 'right' with Jesus is wrong

A conservative Web site is leading an effort to rewrite the Bible to remove all the icky liberal parts.'s Conservative Bible Project invites readers to help scrub Scripture of "liberal bias." Among other revisions, Conservapedia proposes emphasizing "free market" principles in the Bible, and excluding "later-inserted liberal passages." We've heard of liberals and conservatives both interpreting the Bible to suit their own agendas, but editing Scripture itself to fit a secular ideology takes real chutzpah. Conservative? Hardly; it's radically anti-traditional. It's far more faithful to the conservative tradition to heed the example of a good Republican named Abraham Lincoln, who once said he wasn't worried about God being on his side, but rather "that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord's side." We're no theologians, but it seems to us that serious Bible readers would see their task as getting right with Jesus rather than getting Jesus on the right.

My first thought was that this had to be some kind of spoof. Apparently not. It seems that no one has ever interpreted the Bible just exactly right, a deficiency the Conservative Bible Project seeks to rectify. Members of Conservapedia will translate the Bible on a verse by verse basis, in accordance with the following principles:

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias...

2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity...

3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity...

4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop...

5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots"...

6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil....

7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning...

8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story...

9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open- mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels...

10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."

It will be interesting to see what they do, exactly, with Matthew 19:16+ (Jesus and the rich young ruler). I am most interested to learn the "free market meaning" of this story.

Finally, all this reminded of a scene from Greater Tuna, the first in a trio of farcical comedies chronicling the "third-smallest town in Texas." My wife and I have followed these plays for nearly 25 years now, and we know all the lines. There is one scene that involves Rev. Spikes, Vera Carp and Bertha Bumiller at the monthly meeting of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order as they worked on their project of expunging "objectionable" words from the Webster's Dictionary. Members were encouraged to bring any objectionable words to the meeting, where they would be considered on a "word by word basis."

Of course that is farce, and the Conservative Bible Project is supposedly real life. So, I guess truth is stranger than fiction.

(Apparently, I am a little late on this story. Rod Dreher blogged about it over a week ago, here. I suspect he had something to do with the editorial cited, as well.)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

That is what I am saying

Recognizing Kosovo was madness, and Georgia paid the price for it. Trashing international law and ignoring state sovereignty when it suited us paved the way for other major powers to do the same to their weaker neighbors. The aggressive and confrontational foreign policy of at least the last ten years, including both Clinton and Bush administrations, brought about this state of affairs, and it will probably take decades to undo the damage that “humanitarian” and “well-intentioned” hawks have done to the international order.

More, here.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Moroni in the Morning

Recently, the Dallas Morning News carried an insightful article, here, noting the dedication of young Mormons in the north Dallas suburbs. Every morning, five days a week, LDS high school students meet at 5:45 A.M. for "Seminary"--an hour of Mormon studies, singing and prayer before school.

The writer notes that "the Mormon population continues to grow in Texas and elsewhere, thanks partly to conversions, but more to a large families and a focused, rigorous approach to practicing the faith that tends to keep people in the fold." (emphasis mine) Collin County, Texas is an overwhelmingly white, middle to upper middle class, right-wing Republican stronghold, giving McCain 62% in the last election (though this pales in comparison to my county which went 70% for the GOP.) This environment has proved fertile ground for the Mormon message. In the last decade, Latter Day Saints have seen their numbers double in Collin County, rising from 6,000 to 11,000. And enrollment in the early morning "Seminary" stands at 569 students this semester. The eager, well-scrubbed students seem nonplussed by the early hours:

"It is the best way to start my day...I feel the spirit of the Holy Ghost, and I'm able to carry that with me."

"It's hard, but I know I'll benefit from it...It helps my day go so much better."

Nor is it just a semester of study. "It's a four-year program, with a year each spent on the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and the church's Doctrine and Covenants. (Church history is included in that year.) Students are encouraged to memorize 25 verses a year." The Collin County students are studying their way through the Book of Mormon, and are currently in the First Book of Nephi. According to the article, completion of the course gives you a leg up for admittance to BYU.

I have to admit, I do admire their commitment and self-discipline. Mind you, I did not say sincerity. Sincerity will only get you so far, and every last one of us has been guilty at one time or another of being sincerely, but spectacularly wrong. In my case, the rigours of a disciplined faith is one aspect I appreciate in Orthodoxy--though I am in no way comparing or contrasting the two, for they are different things altogether, but am merely acknowledging the attraction of a serious, committed faith that makes demands on one.

And believe me, these young people would have to be true believers, studying the Book of Mormon at 5:45 in the morning, all the while completely uncaffienated. The BOM is perhaps the most mind-numbingly dull and stilted a piece of fiction as you would ever attempt to read.

I can say this because I have read it--the whole thing. I had a brief infatuation with Mormonism, one that perhaps lasted the better part of a week. I was raised as...well, basically nothing at all, but always knew that I wanted to be something. During my adolescence and early teen years, I was picked up after school and taken downtown where both of my parents had their offices. I would stay there until one of them headed home. Sometimes I would make deliveries, but often I would just read, work on my homework, or walk around downtown. This was back when there were actually things to see downtown, before our local banks destroyed it. Mormon missionaries had set up shop in one of the dusty old vacant store buildings on the north side of the square. I would walk slowly by, looking at the displays in the window, but too scared to actually go inside.

And then one summer, I accompanied my great-aunt and cousin to the Hemisfair in San Antonio. As I recall, the Mormons had a slick and elaborate exhibit there, with lots of their standard imagery writ large--the "angel" Moroni and Joseph Smith, white Jesus in front of a Mayan temple teaching the "Lamanites," the he-man Nephi, etc. Long story short, I was able to procure a free Book of Mormon, protected as I was by the anonymity of a crowd. It was one of those ubiquitous blue copies that one used to see everywhere. The picture plates inside the volume gave the false promise of a fascinating read.

But slogging through the Book of Mormon turned out to be something of an ordeal. I was a voracious reader even then--if I hadn't already read War and Peace, I wasn't far from it. So, the length of the work did not intimidate me. My problem was not with its theology. Like I say, I was raised as nothing at all, and had no context to even recognize the multi layered heresies within the Book of Mormon. Looking back, I can now articulate my misgivings about the work. I found the whole thing simply unbelievable, completely lacking in historical context and authenticity. At that young age, I had been fascinated with anything pertaining to native Americans. I was well-versed about all things Mayan, likewise the Aztecs, or the Incas, the Pueblo Indians, the Navajos, the mound-builders, the Iroquois, etc. I devoured each issue of the National Geographic, back when they published articles on places and history, rather than "issues." I was a sucker for any story with an exotic locale. I could believe King Solomon's Mines. But this Book of Mormon stuff was hokum.

As I understand it, Mormon missionaries do not lead with this, rather emphasizing morality and the values of a tight-knit community. The hokum, it seems, is brought in only after the hook is set. So, the Book of Mormon read alone, without prompts from missionaries, did nothing for me. Even if it had, their no-coffee rule would have weeded me out soo enough, as would the no-alcohol rule in a slightly later stage of life. So, I coasted through the rest of my teenage years immune from missionary zeal of whatever stripe, even enduring a couple of vapid Young Life rallies my sophomore year of high school, without long-lasting damage.

Again, I respect the discipline of these pre-dawn students. And, I might add, Mormons are some of my favorite people. Throughout the year, I occasionally order microfilm from the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City. They send the film to the Mormon stake in our city where it can be viewed on the microfilm readers there. This is where I sometimes spend my lunch hours. Over the years, they have grown accustomed to me and consequently pay me little attention, carrying on with their normal conversations, which I can assure are every bit as petty and gossipy as those of any other American religious group. And of course, I still enjoy seeing the Mormon art on the walls (which hasn't changed one iota in 40 years): white Jesus in front of a Mayan temple, white Jesus and the 12 white Apostles in Garden of Gethsemane, and as always, Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates.

In fact, the Mormons are building a new 24,000 sq. ft. stake in our little community, dwarfing any of our Baptist churches, or the Methodist church. The last time they came to our front door, I had a good time joking around with them, threatening to report them to Salt Lake City for driving a Yukon instead of a bicycle, etc. As they were leaving, without thinking, I did the Southern-hospitality thing and invited them to come back next time they were in town. Like I say, I like these people and respect their dedication. It's just their religion I find incomprehensible.


The Battle of Lepanto, 438 years ago today.

And a h/t to Tom Piatak, here, for this timely reminder.

LEPANTO, by G. K. Chesteron

WHITE founts falling in the Courts of the sun,

And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;

There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,

It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;

It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;

For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.

They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,

They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,

And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,

And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.

The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;

The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;

From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,

And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,

Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,

Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,

The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,

The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,

That once went singing southward when all the world was young.

In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,

Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,

Don John of Austria is going to the war,

Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold

In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,

Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,

Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.

Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,

Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,

Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.

Love-light of Spain—hurrah!

Death-light of Africa!

Don John of Austria

Is riding to the sea.

Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,

(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)

He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri's knees,

His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.

He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,

And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;

And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring

Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.

Giants and the Genii,

Multiplex of wing and eye,

Whose strong obedience broke the sky

When Solomon was king.

They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,

From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;

They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea

Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,

On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,

Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;

They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,—

They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.

And he saith, "Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,

And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,

And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,

For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.

We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,

Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.

But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know

The voice that shook our palaces—four hundred years ago:

It is he that saith not 'Kismet'; it is he that knows not Fate;

It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!

It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,

Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth."

For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,

(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)

Sudden and still—hurrah!

Bolt from Iberia!

Don John of Austria

Is gone by Alcalar.

St. Michaels on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north

(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)

Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift

And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.

He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;

The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;

The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,

And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,

And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,

And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,

And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,—

But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.

Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse

Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,

Trumpet that sayeth ha!

Domino gloria!

Don John of Austria

Is shouting to the ships.

King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck

(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)

The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,

And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.

He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,

He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,

And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey

Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,

And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,

But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.

Don John's hunting, and his hounds have bayed—

Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.

Gun upon gun, ha! ha!

Gun upon gun, hurrah!

Don John of Austria

Has loosed the cannonade.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,

(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)

The hidden room in man's house where God sits all the year,

The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.

He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea

The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;

They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,

They veil the plum├Ęd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;

And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,

And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,

Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines

Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.

They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung

The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.

They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on

Before the high Kings' horses in the granite of Babylon.

And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell

Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,

And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—

(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,

Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop,

Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,

Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,

Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea

White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!

Domino Gloria!

Don John of Austria

Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath

(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)

And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,

Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,

And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....

(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Irving Kristol

I noticed last week the passing of Irving Kristol, the self-acknowledged godfather of "neoconservatism." I have not read much of his work, knowing of him more by reputation. I have read a couple of books by his widow, noted scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb. They, of course, are the parents of William Kristol, whose commentary in print and on television is usually a good measure of that of which I most opposed. I don't believe of speaking ill of the dead, and apparently the senior Mr. Kristol was a kind and gentle man, beloved by his family and wide circle of friends. No doubt. That said, the philosophy and policy he espoused, and as implemented by his disciples, is one of the most malicious and pernicious to ever attach itself to the American body politic. So, I read with interest the commentary associated with his passing.

This, from Richard Spencer:

Neocons were always well suited to flourish in a postwar America that, after subjecting Western and Central Europe to military and dollar hegemony, could prop up a consumer lifestyle as a kind of unalienable right. Personal prosperity became equated (somehow) with America having military bases all over the world. It’s rather easy to see how in such a situation Americans would fall in love with conservatives who told them that they represented the zenith of “freedom,” “democracy,” and general goodness.

More difficult to articulate, though none the less important, is a certain American Puritan foundation myth (which the neocons have consciously latched onto of late) of the American people as “chosen,” their land as a Second Jerusalem, and their task that of spreading this Good News across the world. The urbane and mostly Jewish neocons’ alliance with evangelical “Christian Zionist” is a grotesque spectacle, to be sure, but it certainly couldn’t have lasted as long as it has without a strong theological foundation. Put simply, Americans might have been tempted to invent the neocons, if the CIA hadn’t done so already.
Irving Kristol conceived of his country’s identity as “ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear,” and argued that the U.S. would thus “inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.” One wonders whether at the end Kristol grasped that his beloved Superpower was quickly going the way of the Evil Empire of old.

This, from J. David Hoeveler, Jr.:

Although Kristol showed a commitment to a free-enterprise economy and accepted as a fact the death of socialism, he registered a clear ambivalence about capitalism and the society it had produced. He distinguished between the bourgeois moral ethic, based on the traditional values of work, saving, and delayed gratification, and the capitalistic ethic, which was materialistic and hedonist. Kristol insisted that capitalism had once established its legitimacy on the bourgeois ethic, but it had eroded to the point that American society had become vulgar and self-indulgent. In his lament at this condition, Kristol sometimes echoed Victorian standards of moral judgment. He considered contemporary bourgeois society prosaic and unheroic. And he believed that institutional religion was American society’s only hope for a recovery from its spiritual malaise. Perhaps this contributed to his decision, late in life, to become a practicing Jew.

And no anti-neocon rant on my part would be complete without a nod to Daniel Larison:

It is not at all clear that neoconservatives have “returned” in any way, and it seems highly unlikely that many people overseas are now craving the firm smack of incompetent warmongering that the neocons can offer. To a large extent, the neocons never went anywhere in domestic policy and political debates. This is because there has not been any accountability in either the foreign policy community or the conservative movement for their colossal failures and misjudgments. That said, they are not exactly riding high, either. Neocons continue to be taken far too seriously and they continue to have access to a great many media outlets, but for the most part they have been leading the Republican Party’s charge into spluttering irrelevance on foreign policy. Having destroyed the party’s political fortunes with the war in Iraq, they seem intent on sinking the party even deeper into the ditch into which it has crashed. If this is a “return,” I wonder what decline looks like.