Sunday, November 29, 2009

Remi Brague on Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Middle Ages

A h/t to David for this, The Myth that Muslims Saved Civilization. That post led to this article, The Legend of the Middle Ages, examining the work of French scholar Remi Brague, author of The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This article is well worth reading in itself, but also contains links to two interviews with Remi, here and here. I highly recommend the interviews, particularly the latter. Some excerpts, below:

(From the first interview)

But at that point we see that the expression conceals a second trap, symmetrical to the first: it implies that in these three religions, which do, in fact, have a book—as do other religions—the contents of revelation would be that book. As it happens, however, in Judaism that content is the history of God with his people, whom he liberates and guides by giving them his Teaching (torah); In Christianity, it is the person of Christ, who, for Christians, is a concentrate of the previous experience of Israel. The written texts record that history, or, in the case of the Talmud, gather together the discussions of the scholars regarding the interpretation and application of the divine commandments. But in no way do those books constitute the actual message of God to humankind. It is only in Islam that the revealed object is the Book. In the final analysis, the only religion of the book is Islam!

Why does this matter? Because the very way in which the god speaks, the very style of his logos, decides how that logos can be elaborated. If the divine word is a law, it has to be explicated and applied with maximum precision. But that law says nothing about its source. If that divine word is a person—and, inversely, if that person is a word stating who is its emitter—that is one step toward a certain knowledge of God.

As for the problem of the basis for coexistence, you have put your finger on a fundamental difficulty. It contains a paradox: what is troublesome is not that any one religion finds another strange, but rather a certain manner of interpreting a real proximity. What exasperates Jews is that Christians claim to understand “their” book better than they do themselves. In similar fashion, what perplexes Christians—and why they often refuse to recognize Islam—is that Islam sees itself as a post-Christianity destined to replace that religion.

For Islam, the survival of the Christian religion is an anachronism. Islam presents itself even as the true Christianity, given that, according to Islamic thought, Christians have disfigured the authentic Gospel, just as the Jews, for their part, have sold out the authentic Torah. Thus it is out of the question to appeal to common Scripture. This means that, from the Muslim point of view, the “Islamo-Christian dialogue” is a dialogue between true Christians (that is, the Muslims themselves) and people who imagine themselves to be true Christians but are not. This is why dialogue interests Christians more than it does Muslims.

The (very relative) success of my book on Europe, with its translations, continues to amaze me. But I sometimes wonder, when my morale is low, if I might not have done better to use the time I spent writing it to learn Egyptian or Akkadian. The civilizations that used those languages offer the advantage of being thoroughly dead. But are Europeans really living? Do they want to continue to live? Or are they zombies frantically agitating their limbs so as to pass for being truly alive?

Question: One last and perhaps more personal question: What place can someone who believes in one religion make for other religions?

Brague: A place where? In his library: in his quality as a cultivated man, he will give their documents shelf space, and he will strive to know something about them in order to keep himself from saying really stupid things about religions that are not his own. He may eventually discover fine expressions of religious sentiment in authors who profess other religions than his own and piously make them his own.

Can he respect those religions? Properly speaking, no. Not because he is or is not a believer, and not because he adheres to religion A rather than to religion B, but quite simply because he values the meaning of words. Religions are only things, and one can only respect persons. One can no more respect a thing than listen to a painting. I respect no religion, not even my own. I respect those who believe in all religions, not because they are believers, but inasmuch as they are human beings.

More specifically, I have no esteem for belief in and of itself. I detest the recent habit of considering the act of belief as having a value in itself, independent of its content. And I mistrust those who attempt to discover connections between “believers,” even to lump them together, without asking themselves what they believe in. One can believe in flying saucers, after all! There were sincere Nazis and convinced Leninites. And the Carthaginian fathers who had their sons burned alive as a sacrifice to the god Moloch (the scene is narrated by Flaubert, but the facts are true) must have “believed in it” strongly. For me, a belief is as good as its object, neither more nor less.

To speak of the Christian heritage of Europe bothers me. And for even greater reason, speaking of “Christian civilization.” Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about “Christian civilization.” What interested them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not “Christianists.”

(From the second interview)
Could you give any examples of frequently occurring errors, which you feel compelled to correct from your particular expertise in medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophy?

Yes. For example: people keep on referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three monotheistic religions, as the three “religions of the book”, and the three religions of Abraham. This is three times nonsense. To speak of the three monotheistic religions is incorrect, because there are more than three. More importantly, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways. In the Jewish tradition, God is the God who is loyal in history, and frees his people from slavery in Egypt. In Christianity, God consists of the mutual love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For Muslims on the other hand, God is a one solid block.

The second misunderstanding is the idea that there are “three religions of the book”. That is misleading, because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion. In Judaism, the Tenakh is a written history of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, almost a kind of contract. In Christianity, the New Testament is the history of one person, Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God. In Islam, the Koran is "uncreated" and has descended from the heavens in perfect form. Only in Islam is the book itself what is revealed by God. In Judaism God is revealed in the history of the Jewish people. In Christianity God is revealed as love in the person of Jesus. Judaism and Christianity are not religions of the book, but religions with a book.

The third misconception is to speak of “the three Abrahamic religions”. Christians usually refer to Abraham as a person who binds these three religions together, and who is shared by them. In Judaism, he is the “founding father”. But in the Koran it is written: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian.” (III, 67). To Muslims, Abraham was a Muslim, as was the first man, Adam. According to Islam, the first prophets received the same revelation as Mohammed, but the message was subsequently forgotten. Or it was tampered with, with evil intent. So according to Islam, the Torah and the Gospels are fakes. All in all it must be said, that the religions cannot easily be compared. There are fundamental differences. Yet they are constantly discussed as if they were essentially the same thing.

Some would say that there are many fundamental differences even within Christianity or Islam. Are you ever rebuked for speaking of Islam as if it were a singular whole, whereas in reality there are many different forms of Islam in the world?

...I am an “essentialist”. I cannot say very much about individual Muslims, but I know some things about Islam’s basic claims, that each and every Muslim shares: the Koran as dictated by God, Mohammed as the “beautiful example”, Mecca as the direction of prayer, etc. I don’t know how Europe should integrate its Muslim immigrants, and I’m not saying that theology can provide all the answers. But social sciences and statistics don’t either. To understand Islam however, you must be willing to take the Islamic interpretation of Islam seriously. You must study its theology, the way it understands itself.

What are your views on moderate forms of Islam?

A moderate Islam would be a very good idea. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam has its inner logic, as do other religions.

What about the Islamic societies in Moorish Andalusia in Southern Spain, in the Middle Ages? Much is said about them being quite tolerant.

Many well-meaning myths circulate about Islamic Spain. The Muslims there were indeed quite tolerant towards each other. But in the oft-romanticized city of Cordoba, the family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was banished, Averroes was exiled, and many Christians martyred. If there was indeed some form of Islamic enlightenment in the tenth century under the influence of thinkers such as al-Farabi, it was buried in the eleventh. Philosophy never reached mainstream Islam. An “enlightened” thinker such as Averroës was completely forgotten in the Arabic-speaking world; but his works were widely studied in Hebrew and Latin. And the original texts were republished in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century on.

Incidentally, in one of his books Averroës emphasized that heretics should be killed (see Incoherence of the Incoherence, XVII, 17).

Why did philosophy play such an important role in Europe but not in the Arab world, when many classical (Western) philosophical texts were only preserved as Arabic translations?

Philosophy has always been marginal in the Islamic world, but it blossomed in Europe. Why? Well, it was not because of a difference in the sources: both had Aristotle and some Neo-Platonist texts. Although Europe had to put up with only the beginning of Aristotle’s logical works and waited till the 12th Century for the rest to be available in Latin. Also, there was no difference in the genius of their philosophers. Thomas Aquinas was no more brilliant than al-Farabi. The big difference was that philosophy was never institutionalized in the Islamic world, as it was in Europe, thanks to the universities. All great Islamic philosophers were amateurs. They practiced law or worked as doctors, because philosophy didn’t exist as a profession. Therefore, philosophy remained an army with only generals; whereas in Europe it was taught at universities, where the philosophers also trained lawyers, physicians, and theologians.

By the way, nearly all texts translated from Greek in the Middle East were translated by Christians. There is only one example of an early Islamic thinker who studied a non-Islamic language: al-Biruni. That is another difference: Islamic scholars read the classical works in Arabic translations; whereas in Europe, some people in the Middle Ages—and the whole intellectual elite from the 15th Century on—learned the classical languages. They did this to read the originals.

You frequently emphasize the importance of learning classical languages. Why?

Learning classical languages is essential to European civilization....Europe’s luck was its initial poverty. For a very long time, Europe remained far removed from the existing cultural centers in Asia. Europeans were barbarians, inhabiting distant, freezing northern shores. And they knew this about themselves. Studying classical languages, and thereby imbibing a civilization wholly different from their own, made them conscious of the fact that they were stinking barbarians, who needed to wash themselves with the soap of higher civilizations. The Romans were well aware that they were culturally inferior to the Greeks. But they also had the courage to admit it. And that is precisely what gave them the strength to absorb the Hellenic civilization, and spread it to the lands they conquered. The essential characteristic of European culture is that it is ex-centric. Not in the sense of an Englishman who takes a bath wearing his bowler hat, but in the sense that the two sources of her civilization, Athens and Jerusalem, lie outside the geographical area of Europe itself. European culture is based on the recognition that we are barbarians who civilized ourselves by internalizing ‘strange’ cultural sources.

And that’s unique to Europe?

Yes, Western civilization is something very strange and unusual. Most civilizations have only one centre. Islam has Mecca. Ancient Egypt had Memphis. Babylon had Babylon. But Western civilization had two sources, Athens and Jerusalem—the Jewish and later Christian tradition and that of pagan antiquity—often described as being in dynamic conflict. This opposition is founded on the opposition of Jew and Greek, borrowed from Saint Paul, which was then systemized in different ways: Hellenism versus Hebraism, the religion of beauty versus the religion of obedience, reason versus faith, aesthetics versus ethics, etc. The curious thing is that one was never swallowed by the other. Europe is neither Jewish nor Greek. In “Rome” in Christianity (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem and Athens are simultaneously joined and kept apart.

With the coming of Christianity the preceding cultures were not destroyed, but a new civilization was formed. As the Romans recognized that their culture was "secondary" to that of the Greeks, the Christians recognized that Judaism preceded Christianity. This understanding gave European civilization a unique openness and humility towards the enormous cultural achievements of the past. This humility has been a great strength. It fosters the awareness that you cannot simply inherit a civilizing tradition, but that you must work very hard to obtain it—to control the barbarian inside. This has given European culture the possibility of renaissances: a renewed appreciation of the sources of our culture, to correct what has gone wrong.

This becomes apparent in the different ways in which Islam and Christianity approached their older Greek and Jewish sources. The difference could be described by the words “digestion” and “inclusion”. In Islam, the original Jewish and Christian texts were digested, changed into something completely new, purely authentic to Islam itself. In Europe on the other hand, the original texts were left in their original state. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tenakh are almost exactly the same; and Christians recognize the Jewish origins of the books of the Old Testament. Similarly, the Church Fathers took up classical philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas studied Aristotle and included Aristotelian notions in his theology. Yet scholars have never stopped reading the works of Aristotle himself. Do you think there is a threat that Europe may lose this unique openness? Is the West becoming ‘normal’?

With the decline of Christianity and classical education, the West is indeed becoming less and less interested in the classical sources of our civilization. Knowing less about our own civilization also seems to make us lose the ability to listen carefully to what we could learn from others. The Chinese show us that to survive you must work. And what do we do? We call them “yellow ants”. Muslims show us that to survive, you must procreate. We call them “fundamentalists”. Americans could teach us that you must not blind yourself to the fact that you have enemies. And what do we do? We call them “cowboys”.

Why are we allowing this to happen?

Perhaps we have become victims of our own success. It seems Europeans have eaten the carrot of civilization that used to spur them onwards. To survive, we must learn to remain humble, in spite of our successes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ Monastery

I had the great privilege today (28 November) to attend the blessing and founding of The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ Monastery in Kemp, Texas. Metropolitan Jonah and Vladyka Dmitri presided, with about 135 in attendance.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Well Said

This, I like:

I remember being taught that the steps of discipline in regards to prayer are as follows: first just saying the prayers, then paying attention to the words that one is praying, then comprehending mentally what one is praying, and then finally, the movement from the head to the heart. I can think of no teaching or text or Saint that has ever said that one needs to feel prayerful.


I am reminded of how some Georgians at my parish related how the Orthodox culture in America is so strange to them because everyone is so self conscious about it.

from Pactum Serva.

"Where there is no solution, there is no problem"

Two views on the Israel, Palestine and the "Peace Process":

I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

(Sarah Palin to Barbara Walters)

The only thing driving the peace process today is inertia and diplomatic habit....It is now more of a calisthenic, like weight-lifting or sit-ups, something diplomats do to stay in shape, but not because they believe anything is going to happen....It is time for a radically new approach....Take down our “Peace-Processing-Is-Us” sign and just go home....Let’s just get out of the picture. Let all these leaders stand in front of their own people and tell them the truth: “My fellow citizens: Nothing is happening; nothing is going to happen. It’s just you and me and the problem we own.”

“When you’re serious, give us a call: 202-456-1414. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix.”

It is obvious that this Israeli government believes it can have peace with the Palestinians and keep the West Bank, this Palestinian Authority still can’t decide whether to reconcile with the Jewish state or criminalize it and this Hamas leadership would rather let Palestinians live forever in the hellish squalor that is Gaza than give up its crazy fantasy of an Islamic Republic in Palestine.

If we are still begging Israel to stop building settlements, which is so manifestly idiotic, and the Palestinians to come to negotiations, which is so manifestly in their interest, and the Saudis to just give Israel a wink, which is so manifestly pathetic, we are in the wrong place. It’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional “peace process"....If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us.

(Thomas Friedman, from November 8th)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Two Novembers

Yesterday marked the 46th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. I was too young to remember much about it, although I recall first hearing of it as I came in from the school playground. My parents, of course, had voted for Kennedy. In those days, we did not spend much time in front of the television, or at least not as a family. But this was different, and I recall all of us watching coverage as events unfolded in Dallas and Washington. I was too young to have known of the passionate hatred directed against Kennedy by many in Dallas and in my part of the state.

At that time, a man who would later become my close friend (and mentor) was in his late 20s, living on his East Texas farm. He had gone to Dallas on business, and returned home on the 21st of November. My friend, also a Kennedy man, remarked to his wife that he was shocked, and perhaps a bit shaken by the vitriol he heard against the President in Dallas. The next day he was driving across his pasture and stopped to speak to a seismograph crew going across the meadow. One of them heard the radio coverage of Kennedy's motorcade from my friend's truck and said, "somebody ought to kill the sonofabitch." Not wanting to hang around, my friend eased on across the pasture. Not two minutes later came the news that the President had been shot. He said had he still been by the seismographers, he would have decked the man who had said that.

My friend and I meet every week for lunch, and have done so for over 20 years now. In that time, I have heard many stories, but he related this one only recently. And the context for the telling of it was the similarity he sees with the current extreme and radicalized political discourse again gripping our region.
And then today, another friend sent me this. The recent edition of Esquire (a magazine I am not in the habit of reading) carries a story comparing Kennedy-hatred of 1963 Texas with Obama-hatred of 2009 Texas. The focus of the story is the U.S. Representative from the city in which I work (I live 150 feet into the next district, though my representative is hardly any better.) The story also contains a letter written from a resident of my city 2 days after the Kennedy assassination. The story and letter are fascinating--and sobering. I'm afraid my region had, and has, much to answer for.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fr. Jonathan on "Localities"

Olive Chancellor, feminist:

"Don't you care for human progress?"

Basil Ransom, Southerner:

"I don't know--I never saw any."

Taken from The Bostonian by Henry James.

If you believe this to be true, then by all means read this, and this and this. Fr. Jonathan at Second Terrace posts an extraordinary 3-part series entitled "Localities." This is some of his best writing to date, and that is saying something. It is all very, very good. A sampling, below:

"Limits" is not a hard word for Orthodoxy to commend. The liberal political idea is based upon the unfounded certainty that commercial and industrial expansion is limitless. There is a mystical, eschatological belief that human nature has evolved, is evolving, and will continue to evolve into more complex form (and thus of a higher order). The expansion of civilization is a program that becomes the standard upon which all other values are based: local traditions, customs, folkways, family ties, dialects, mom and pop shops, little farms should all be bulldozed by the eminent domain of "progress."

(For progress is what a liberal believes in, not taking care of the poor: don't get excited, neocons and Obama-bashers – you don't believe in conservatism either. You, oddly, are just as progressive. It is not at all conservative to believe in the gospel of democracy, nor in its rather marshal evangelistic methods. It is not even conservative to be capitalistic: once upon a time, long ago and far away, people were rich and were thankful to God and to the poor, and did not presume that their riches were deserved and sacramental, and meant for the secular sanctification of the Western world.)

There is no way that Orthodoxy can believe in progress. The Nicene dogma is stern on this point. The Father is the Maker of all words. Human nature does not evolve: it is polluted by sin and death: it is regenerated by Christ: it is up to you and me whether we want to be human and become like Christ. We should feed the poor because we are Christian, not to make them Christian without knowing it.

Orthodox East Texas

This is what a small Orthodox mission in East Texas looks like (minus about 10-12 of our regulars.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Fort Hood Slayings

The recent tragedy at Fort Hood has been much in my mind. This is one of those events that forces inconvenient truths back into the foreground. I have little complaint with the coverage of the massacre. Yes, if one looks hard enough, one can find voices that attempted to avoid or excuse away the apparent motivation behind the shootings. But once the facts came out, most media outlets tended to call it like it was. Unhinged gunman?--yes, but also propelled by Muslim radicalism. Of course Charles Krauthammer would make the accusation that the media avoided the Islamic aspect of the story. That is what he does. But the most egregious violation was not from the pages of the New York Times or another outlet of the "liberal media elite," but from General Casey, in his now-infamous comments about how this might affect diversity in the armed forces.

I am reminded of Huntington's famous turn of phrase, "the bloody borders of Islam." He was, of course, referring specifically to those regions with Muslim minorities that bordered Islamic regimes, and their apparent inability to live under non-Islamic governments (see independence movements in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Chechnya, successfully imposed in Cyprus and Kosovo, unrest in Nigeria, to name a few, and the advance of de facto Muslim self-governing enclaves in France, the Netherlands, Britain, etc.) Huntington's posited that Muslims, due to the particularities of their beliefs and culture, had trouble assimilating into non-Islamic societies, leading to separatism. I find it intriguing this hold of Islam, so much so that the educated elite--even those raised in northern Virginia--are just as susceptible to radicalism, if not more so, than the poor tribesman.

Last week, I recall listening to CNN's Christianne Amanpour interview two Muslim spokesmen about this very thing. I perked up and listened closer when I heard the phrase "cultural humiliation" tossed out. This, of course, gets at the frustration many Muslims feel, assured as they are that their system is superior, all the while forced to acknowledge the backwardness of these very same cultures.

While a valid concept, it is tiresome to hear this continually trotted out as some kind of excuse. But it does approach the real point, and one that nobody can actually really say. It seems to me that the problem with Islam is that we pretend there is no problem with Islam. There is. And I find little support for the notion that Islam can somehow be reformed. It can't really, due to the nature of the belief and the underlying document. It sounds harsh, but all we can do is limit, wherever possible, the expansion and influence of such a culture where it does not already hold sway. It has been said by many observers who we are does not motivate such madness. Rather, it is what we do. And one of the things we are doing is fighting Muslims in 2 foreign countries. While this fact alone might not be sufficient reason to change our course, it is the height of foolishness not to recognize the straight-line correlation between our foreign policy adventures and these acts of domestic terrorism. To use a over-used current phrase--"I'm just saying...."

I have attached links to a few related stories of interest.

Political Islam is an outgrowth of modern secular fascism. In the Middle East, the mosque was the only place you could discuss politics safely, where the government wouldn't touch you, so Islam became politicized. That's the model that the Muslim Brotherhood followed and brought to the United States. They were the ones who built mosques.

This has been a frustrating thing for me as a Muslim activist. Many Muslims disagree with political Islam, but they're not pressured to take on the mosque leadership. So you have discussions in the mosque going far beyond theology and the example of the Prophet; imams use the pulpit, or minbar as it's called in Arabic, to discuss politics. I've sent this over and over again in mosques I've attended.

This from an excellent interview with Syrian-American Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, here.

In 1982, the leftist intellectual Susan Sontag caused a scandal by saying that someone who read only Reader's Digest would have been better informed about the realities of communism than someone who read only leading left-liberal magazines. Similarly, a contemporary American who gets his information about American Islam from a discerning read of the blogosphere will be better informed than the mainstream media's audience.

Rod Dreher, in Will we ever wake up to Islamic radical threat? here.

Saying Islamic terrorists just “hate our freedom,” is a childish and dangerous fantasy that has already led to thousands of deaths, both American and foreign. Saying Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam is a fantasy that is just as childish and just as dangerous, which led to the deaths of 13 innocent victims in Fort Hood last week.

From Casualties of Diversity by Jack Hunter, here.

In the following link, a convert from Islam to evangelical Christianity debates a Muslim spokesman (2007). I am not at all convinced that these sorts of things do much good, but it was enlightening to see just how unused to honest debate Muslims can be. The religion of Islam has never been open to questioning and inquiry in the way that the Christian faith has--and it shows in this debate. We are often accused (rightly) of not knowing much about Islam. If this spokesman is representative, then they know even less about the basic tenets of Christianity.

Is Islam a Religion of Peace, here.

And finally, there is this. Daniil Sysoyev, a Russian Orthodox priest in Moscow, was gunned down and killed in church by a masked assailant. Fr. Daniil ministered to Muslims and believed that it was a sin not to preach to them. He had reported baptized 80 former Muslims. Official Islamic organizations in Russia condemned the killing, as would be expected. One wonders, if such a thing had happened in an Islamic country (such as Egypt), would there be any condemnation? I think not. So yes, there is a problem with Islam.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Per request of scylding, these rabbits are posted so that readers will not be frightened by the picture of Joel Osteen on the previous post.

"Jesus loved money too!"

Hanna Rosin looks for connections between the recent housing crisis and the "prosperity gospel" in Did Christianity Cause the Crash? The short answer to her question is, of course, "No, Christianity didn't."

Approximately 50 of America's 260 largest churches are prosperity-gospel churches. And 66% of all Pentecostals and 43% of "other Christians" believe that "wealth will be granted to the faithful." Clearly, these American believers were, and remain, a receptive market to what the bankers were selling. Rosin looks in particular at Pastor Fernando Garay and his Casa del Padre, a largely Latino prosperity-gospel church in Charlottesville, Virginia. This group is representative of the larger phenomenon, "the shift in the American conception of divine providence and its relationship to wealth."

Obviously, there is enough blame to go around in the housing bubble, and Osteenites were hardly the only recipients of sub-prime loans. Her story, nevertheless, is an eye-opener, with greed and covetousness at both ends of the process. The most surprising aspect was the collusion between lender and pastor. She tells of mortgage brokers and bankers sending speakers to church-sponsored “wealth-building seminars.” There, pastors would be promised a $350 donation for every new congregant mortgage. Of course, in the case of Casa del Padre, the lines were blurred even more. Pastor Garay was a mortgage broker from 2001 to 2007, and served as financial advisor to many of his parishioners.

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”

Ah yes, the American way. And who said our immigrant populations would not assimilate?

Rosin ends with a passage from Jackson Lears' Something for Nothing, in which he describes two wildly divergent "manifestations of the American dream." On the one hand, there is this:

The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan”....[who] images a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits.

The alternative, and thoroughly modern version is this:

The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,”...who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.”

What is important for us to remember is that both of these narratives are, in fact, myths of our own making.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More Runciman: The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign

I have just finished reading a bit more of Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign. The book was first published in 1929, reprinted in 1963, and has now been out of print for a number of years. As always with this author, it is a first-rate read. The subject was not totally unfamiliar to me. A couple of years ago, I had searched and found the Myrelaion, the 10th-century church of the Lecapeni, now the Bodrum Camii in the Laleli District of Istanbul.

When Runciman wrote the work in 1929, he was fighting against the prevailing anti-Byzantine prejudice. As he writes:

At the hands of such prejudice many historical epochs have suffered, and most of all the epoch known as the Later Roman or Byzantine Empire. Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence....All the historians in chorus treated of a thousand years of empire as a short sinister unbroken decline.

Even by Runciman's day, that attitude had started to fade, though the historical chronicle still contained many dark corners, one of which is addressed by his study of Romanus Lecapenus. The subsequent 80 years have seen a growing appreciation of Byzantine culture. Even so, the civilization of the Christian East remains largely unknown to the West. This particular work of Runciman examines only the earliest decades of the 10th-century, when Constantinople was undergoing an ascendancy once more. His first chapter, nevertheless, is one of the best summaries I have seen of general Byzantine culture. Those who are just beginning to study Byzantium could do worse than to start with this work.

To take only a few examples, in the areas of meritocracy, education and the role of women, these East Romans presented a stark contrast to the whole of western Europe, not only in the Middle Ages, but into the modern age itself.

But even in the army the poorest could rise on their merits to the top. This lack of snobbishness was characteristic of the whole of Byzantine society. It is true that later chroniclers, wishing to insult Theophano, called her an innkeeper's daughter; but society would have to be very democratic where such a past would not be thought a little undignified for an Empress; while the fact that an innkeeper's daughter could become Empress shows a certain elasticity in the social divisions. It was lack of education rather than lack of birth that was considered a subject for mockery (emphasis mine.) The Byzantines prided themselves on their culture. Every self-respecting citizen could recognize a quotation form Homer or the Bible, and was well acquainted with the works of the Fathers and many of the masterpieces of the classics. The University...radiated intellectual activity throughout Constantinople; and the Court prided itself on the patronage of literature and the arts.


The whole attitude towards women was different from that of Western Europe, but certainly no more degrading. In the West, women were the frail sex set apart by chivalry and owing their privileges to their frailty; but in Byzantium women were men's intellectual equals. Girls usually received the same education as their brothers; and Byzantine history can point to several authoresses of distinction.

The reign of Romanus Lecapenus contains one of the best examples of this "Byzantine difference." The army of the Tsar Symeon of the first Bulgarian Kingdom had advanced to the very gates of Constantinople. The Theodosian walls were the toughest nut to crack, but he was closer than he imagined, and the City was in another one of its innumerable dire straights. The Emperor Romanus sent the following letter to Symeon in his camp outside the gates:

I have heard that you are a religious man and a devoted Christian; but I do not see your acts harmonizing with your words. A religious Christian welcomes peace and and love, for God is love, as it is said; but it is a godless and unchristian man who rejoices in slaughter and the shedding of innocent blood. If then you are a true Christian, as we believe, cease from your unjust slaughter and shedding the blood of the guiltless, and make peace with us Christians--since you claim to be a Christian--and do not desire to stain Christian hands with the blood of fellow-Christians. You are a mortal; you await Death and Resurrection and Judgment. Today you live and tomorrow you are dust; one fever will quench all your pride. What will you say, when you come before God, of your unrighteous slaughter? How will you face the terrible, just Judge? If it is for love of riches that you do this, I will grant your desires to excess; only hold out your hand. Welcome peace, love concord, that you yourself may live a peaceful, bloodless and untroubled life, and that Christians may end their woes and cease destroying Christians. For it is a sin to take up arms against fellow-believers.

Chastised, Symeon broke camp and returned to Bulgaria.

Can anyone imagine such a letter being given--or heeded--in the West? I cannot. The empire cannot be understood apart from its Orthodox faith. And while the emperors (including Romanus) could be brutal in defense of their throne or empire, they remained bound to their subjects by a common belief that permeated all aspects of Byzantine society. That, was the Byzantine difference.

The Ark of Salvation

An explanation, here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Border Town is a Border Town is a Border Town

I have found that border towns are all much the same, whether it be Nuevo Laredo or La Jonquera. Some borders have practically vanished. One hardly even slows down going from France to Spain or to Italy or to Germany. Elsewhere, things remain more traditional. And I don't think you have really crossed a border unless you come back with a story to tell. I have a few. Crossing from Bulgaria into Macedonia by foot is not as neat as it sounds. When you disembark from your train at 2:30 A.M. for a visa at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, it is helpful to remember which train to re-board. And Israeli border guards make reaching Palestinian desert monasteries from the Jordanian side a near losing proposition. Even my business partner was detained for 2 hours trying to cross from Montana into Alberta. I have always told him he looked suspicious. With these thoughts in mind, I particularly enjoyed reading this article from The Atlantic Monthly.

Astara sits on a border few of us will every cross, on the Azeri side of the Azerbaijan-Iran border. As one would expect, few Azeris are pouring into Iran, but there is a brisk traffic in Iranians passing through to the north. Peter Savodnik recently visited the town, described as the "gateway to pork products, alcohol, and easy sex" where "no one cares what you do."

This makes the mullahs in Tehran very nervous. Books, DVDs, fashions, and—most important—ideas that are inaccessible in Iran are ubiquitous in Azerbaijan. Iranians line up daily to cross the Astara River to buy and sell jeans, chickens, bras, laptops—and often sex and schnapps and heroin. This commerce, combined with cultural curiosity and shared Azeri bloodlines, has transformed Astara into the Tijuana of the Caspian.

Iranians find the Azerbaijanis’ mildly ironic attitude toward Islam a welcome relief from the stern theocracy of the ayatollahs. During Ramadan many Azerbaijanis do not fast, and the cafés in Astara do a bustling lunch business, serving lamb shashlik, or barbecue, to visiting Iranians.

This reminds me of an anecdote I heard years ago in Izmir, the gateway to the Turkish Aegean beach resorts. I was walking through the airport terminal with a Turkish friend. He told me that wealthy Saudis (is there any other kind?) would fly into Izmir for their holidays. The Saudi woman were often observed to discard their headscarves in the nearest trash receptacles as they rushed through the terminal on their way to the beach.

The last sentence in Savodnik's article is absolutely priceless, but I won't spoil it. Read it for yourselves.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More Front Porch: Mere Krustianity

At the risk of preaching to the choir, I also want to note this post from Front Porch Republic--Mere Krustianity. In this article, Jason Peters takes on American big-box churchianity. There are few things more satisfying that reading something exactly expressing the views one already holds. Nevertheless:

But I have often wondered what this same dispassionate observer would make of those versions of the faith, if “versions” they may be called, that have sprung up either in contempt or in ignorance of tradition—or in contempt and ignorance both. I’m talking about those places, built on a kind of shopping-mall plan, that avail themselves of the word “church” without any regard for its meaning–rather like those who help themselves to connubial privileges without ever uttering the terrifying words “I do.” We know what the hostile observer makes of First Church of the Sprawl. But what would the amiable, if distant, observer make of it?

By “it” I have in mind, for example, a place called “Bible Harvest Chapel,” which is a kind of movie theater retrofitted to a former big box electronics store. I went in it once to see in what ways I might be oriented to something beyond myself. The first architectural feature I saw directing my thoughts heavenward was a Starbuck’s-style coffee shop.

Welcome to Bible Harvest Chapel; would you like to try our Lord’s Day Special?

Was I to dip my fingers in a double-skinny caramel latte and make the sign of the dollar? I didn’t know for sure. The place hardly resembled a chapel. And although there was once a harvest on that spot (for the big box store-cum-ecclesia was built on a cornfield), no one there rejoiced to bring in the sheaves, not even in that robust manner of your hearty Baptist congregation cycling through the hymns it agrees to sing. Even that kind of hymnody, which isn’t quite up to the standards of what Tradition hands down, had been replaced at the Church of the Electronic Jesus. Indeed, the hymnals were flat-screens on the walls of the “sanctuary,” and across these screens strolled the lyrics to songs the drummer kept time to as the guitar-players jammed. The singing was literally off the wall, and I wanted to gyrate my hips before the Lord, as King David had of old.

Recitation of the creed, incense, daily lessons, sacrament: no signs thereof.

And the parking lot, now desertified by asphalt, was full of Lincoln Navigators sporting, at about eye level, “W ’04” bumper stickers . American Christians shopping on Sunday morning. The last great synthesis. Full acculturation. Full interpenetration of marketplace and faith. Marketplace as object of faith, with Jesus and Jeep Liberties for all.

Or, rather, full absorption of the faith by the marketplace—and the obliteration of history.

Well, yes. The article generated considerable response, as it is a little more theologically hard-hitting than what is normally seen on FPR. But the comments quickly devolved into a Catholic vs. Protestant squabble, mainly due to posts such as this:

But I’ll be damned if this lowland Scot turned free soil prairie sod buster presbyterian Calvinist will consent to live under a dictatorial church anymore than I will a dictatorial state.

Give me that old time religion anyday. Its traditionless tradition recites a lineage going back further now than that from Augustine to St. Peter and it tells me its own stories, which are my stories, of faith and sacrifice and binds me to a deeper magic, a deeper authority, than the tightest grip any prelate ever had...

Well, you get the drift. Fr. Jonathan, from Second Terrace, salvaged the conversation with this excellent contribution:

Truly thanks, with no hidden sardonic subtext, because the “Krustian” truncation of “40-yard Christianity” is actually abetting the progressive gods unmoor people away from the land (and Trinity) and hasten them toward the gnostic gas of limitless expansion and consumption.

My old-line Pentecostal associates have no use for the mega-church religion, which has no understanding of grief or joy. The showtime-church avoids unease and seeks fixes of fun and frenzy. It has replaced hope with the wan shades of Republican and Democratic optimism. It has ripped out the Nicene Creek and has embraced psychotherapeutic rituals of self-esteem: no wonder there is no “felt need” for sacrament.

This argument in the comment section has turned ignoble. None of you would want to actually defend the megachurch experience, which is just as separated from the Reformation as it is from the church of “costumes and customs” (a comic note). I look for the Nicene Creed and some acknowledgement thereof to find fellow travelers: I see it here on the Front Porch in spades (do not pardon the pun) — but it is sorely missing in the dead marshes of mega-church-ianity.

Shame. The critique was leveled against denatured Christianity. Not against people who still sing the old 100th.

Jason Peters continues with a follow-up post--“And the Disciples Were Called Krustians First In …” —Acts 11:26, RSV (Revised Suburban Version)--which, if anything, is even better than the first. Here, he "reiterate[s] the dangers of living in contempt of history." Read the comments as well, for the link with Flannery O'Connor.

Heard on the Front Porch: The Romance of Conservatism

I like to check in at the Front Porch Republic from time to time. Ted V. McAllister recently posted The Romance of Conservatism, the transcript of a paper delivered at a conference focusing on Russell Kirk. He speaks eloquently of a number of things--romanticism, mystery, liberty, imagination and abstraction—with Chesterton and Kirk as his touchstones. I found it all to be exquisitely done. I highly recommend the post, as well as the comments. A few selections, below:

G. K. Chesterton declared that faith is romantic, that materialism is not only dull but produces a boredom that leads to madness. Humans are born romantics and they can never fulfill their better natures without cultivating an imagination that accepts and embraces mystery....we need this life of practical romance: the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.

Conservatives reject—more properly, they fear—simplifications. Simplifications are usually a result of isolating something, tearing that something from the whole of which it is a part. Simplification is a form of abstraction....The romantic rejects the middle as he demands all extremes—he demands the extremes as they were meant to be, bound together.

The lust for complete freedom produces nihilism. But choice, in the context of order, is liberty....any liberty that is not ordered liberty is just another word for slavery.

Spiritual slavery, which includes being enslaved to one’s most base desires, to be addicted to the satisfaction of easily attained earthly things, is a result of boredom. Boredom is the final and most enervating human disease. It can produce ideological madness, expressed in efforts to remake the world, to deify humans as the authors of their own reality, or it can result in an intense privatism, an indifference to all things public, to all beings outside of one’s pinched world.

A romantic is never bored
[emphasis mine], for he occupies a world full of mystery and surprise, a reality understood in complex forms, in traditions, in liturgies, in myths, in complex social fabrics that bind humans together in community and that bind communities together across time. To inhabit such a reality is to see in all simple things the wonder of the universe, to see patterns, to feel connections, to relish in the particular, because in the particular one witnesses, but does not possess, the universal.

A liberty...emerged in a particular historical context to address particular human needs. Liberties were always part of duties, obligations, and even more important, expectations. Liberties that emerge from a long experience, from habits and cultural forms, are part of a much larger moral economy that is reasonably suited to a people. Liberties, understood this way, are not abstract, not disconnected, not due people as a result of some abstract human dignity. They are particular expressions of a particular people.

By contrast, Freedom is a universalist claim, a claim about the human understood abstractly rather than historically. Freedom leads to imperialism—a la George Bush. Freedom is simple, clear—it is a moral slogan that substitutes for the moral imagination.

Because abstract reason is disconnected from imagination, it does not understand beauty. Efficiency, of one sort or another, becomes its master. The drive to simplify is part of this desire for the most efficient means of organizing our lives. Defending equality simply or freedom simply is much easier to do than to talk of ordered liberty or of spiritual equality. The tyranny of efficiency means that the human goods found in our aesthetic nature, our spiritual need for beauty, are sacrificed.

In other words, a bland and efficient architecture atrophies the very imagination that helps people to find their ancestors, to think ahead to posterity and to recognize their moral obligations before a creator.

I particularly noted McAllister's assertion that a "romantic is never bored." A number of years ago, I realized that about myself--that I never recall being bored. As a child, I never had (or expected) to be entertained. As an adult, I could be stuck in a deadly-dull seminar, but my mind would be elsewhere. I am seldom more than an arm's reach away from something to read. Yesterday, my job required that I drive 120 miles into a largely unfamiliar part of the state to me--a region noted for being flat, plain and not at all scenic. And yet, I found it to be a fascinating drive. I made innumerable stops or detours to have a better look at a house, a barn, a field, or to check out a small town. I used to think it odd that I never complained of being bored. Now I know--I'm guess I am just a romantic.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

St. Isaac's "Second Part"

Many of us are watching and hoping for the republication of The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, now long out of print. Though scheduled for late 2009, I have not heard any progress reports. In the meantime, there is this: Isaac of Ninevah (Isaac the Syrian) 'The Second Part', Chapters IV-XLI, translated by Sebastian Brock. As I understand it, there is no overlap between The Ascetical Homilies and The Second Part. Taking advantage of substantial savings and free shipping during Eighth Day Books' recent 20th anniversary sale, I finally purchased a copy. I have found the work to be a treasure, and one that I expect to be re-reading. A sampling, below:

Chapter XI

11. Thus in this way the variation between assistance and feebleness takes place for a person at all times and at all stages in the ascetic life: it may be in the battles arranged against chastity, or in the varied states of joy and of gloom; for sometimes there are luminous and joyous stirrings, but then again all at once there is darkness and cloud. Likewise with things revealed in certain mystical and divine insights concerning truth: the same variation is experienced by the person who serves (God), with the apperception of the assistance of divine power which suddenly attaches itself to the intellect--or it may be (the apperception of the opposite, where the intention is that he should receive awareness of the weakness of (human) nature, (and realize) what his own nature is, and how weak, feeble, stupid and childish it is--and then, in a single moment, to what heights he is raised in his knowledge, and in the glorious and wonderful things which he perceives in himself!

12. These are the workings of God, and these are forms of assistance employed by His Will towards humanity. But it can be the case, when we cleave to some sin in our minds or actions, that He will bid one of those inquisitors of His, mentioned above, concerning us--those who, as long as we travelled in an orderly way with (our ) will completely (directed) towards virtue, ministered to our benefits--and they will flog us harshly, so that by one means or another we will not became lost far away from God.

13. Now, however, with the assistance that comes from grace; let us conclude these matters and approach the riches of (God's) nature and the ocean of his creative power and the waves and resplendence of his Being.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On Dying Well

S-P posts some of the most insightful thoughts on this subject, here.

A sampling:

A Christian's life may or may not be as moral or healthy or happy or even "blessed" as the atheist's. Evangelism based on God "one upping" lifestyles that lack irony, tragedy and poverty is doomed to attract only the deluded and desperate and can only end in either deeper delusion and ultimately in despondency. The Christian Gospel requires a life of self restraint, sanctity and love for one's neighbor, but the Gospel does not claim that any of it is a talisman against the cosmic assault on our bodies and souls. The Christian is not called to overcome life, but himself. He is not called to live long and prosper, but to live well and be content in any state. He is not called to have a nice day, but as the Psalmist says, to offer up all days wherein we saw evil to God with thanksgiving. And in the end the Gospel points us to consider the randomness of life and the ultimate injustice: death.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fear-mongering 101

Apparently Congresswoman Virginia Foxx represents the most timid district in the nation. To hear her tell it, her constituents are all cowering indoors, "fearful, frightened and afraid." The clip, here, could also be used as Exhibit A for term limits.