Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Modern Day Drifters

I would like to recommend this site-- Modern Day Drifters. The young man on the right is a friend and co-worker. The guy on the left is a former student of mine. Each are about 22-years old. They decided to hitch-hike across America this summer. Dillon and Paul are both committed evangelical Christians, and plan to use this as an opportunity to minister to those they come in contact with along the way.

As long-time readers of this blog well know, I have been, you might say, a bit critical of American evangelicalism. That has not changed. But these are good guys. And as Dillon has told me, he refuses to be spoon-fed what many of the evangelical churches are dishing out. No doubt about it, this will be a learning experience for both of them--probably in ways they cannot yet imagine. And I admire the hell out of them. There's an old expression--"Youth is wasted on the young." Well, not on these guys.

Today (Day 1), Paul and Dillon hitch-hiked from Lubbock to Amarillo, with plans to get out of Texas as soon as possible. Check out their progress, and drop them a line along the way. Be sure and tell them I sent you (they know me not by John, but by my work name--TC) And if you see these boys on the highway, stop and give them a lift. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor


Good travel writing, here, following the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

"The mosque is not the church"


The mosque is not the church.

Interesting interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, here.

Country Wedding

A couple of weeks back, the wife and I attended a neighbor’s wedding at a rural bed and breakfast complex about 35 miles away. The ceremony itself took place in an outdoor pavilion, nestled amongst the rental cabins. The weather was perfect, the wildflowers in bloom, and the grounds awash in yellow snapdragons. I am acquainted with the Baptist preacher who performed the ceremony—a decent guy who played it straight. For these times, I would have to say that this is what passes for a traditional wedding (regular vows and no previous marriages, children or shacking-up involved.) The only kitschy element during the ceremony was the “unity sand.” Earlier, both mothers poured sand into a fluted glass. Then while a young man was singing something and strumming a guitar, the bride and groom each poured their sand into the glass. I get the symbolism and all, but it is was still silly. All in all, however, the whole affair was very nicely done, and the couple--she in her late 20s and he in his early 30s--make a handsome pair. I think they will do just fine.

The back roads drive down there and back was pleasant and gave my wife and I time to catch up on some things. We talked of a number of people who are close to us and whose current situations give cause for concern. (There’s the old joke: Southerners are not gossiping, they are just concerned.) But seriously, my wife and I were in complete agreement as to the particulars of the several problem situations. Of interest to me, however, was that we each arrived there following completely different paths.

The fact that I am Orthodox and she is Protestant is certainly part of it, but it really goes beyond that. I would say that my wife is perhaps too quick to resort to moralizing, just as she would likely say I am too quick to assert that morality has little or nothing to do with it. The older I get, the more I am convinced that morality, as currently defined, is only incidentally, or at most tangentially, connected to the Faith--and is certainly not the way one approaches Christianity. But I am equally guilty of overstating the case on most anything. My wife is the daughter of an old-time Church of Christ preacher, so the moralizing comes naturally to her. Our differing approaches came to the forefront in the discussion over one particular man whom we both regard as something of a creep. My wife starts with his alcoholism and his accompanying vulgarity, and then builds the case against him from there. I agree that the guy is a cad, but I begin with this and conclude that this makes him a sloppy, rather than happy, drunk. My wife contends that he needs to stop drinking. This is probably true, but I conclude that were he to join AA and never touch another drop of demon alcohol, it would still not address his basic jerkitude.

I remember having these same frustrating conversations with my mother. Unlike my wife, she was not at all religious, but could still engage in some heavy-duty moralizing. In her country way, she would often say that she just wished someone would learn to “do right.” For my mother, this involved working hard, frugality, minding your own business, and abstinence from alcohol. Not a bad To-Do List, apart from the last item. More often than not, her concern centered on a close family member; in later years, a granddaughter in particular. If there was ever a more forlorn hope, it was this. I would wager that the GOP will sweep Vermont before this girl ever learns to "do right.”

Personally, I never wasted much time with this approach, with no expectations that people will learn to “do right.” Given enough rein and unlimited options, most everyone will choose wrong. And I know this because I would be leading the pack. So, my expectations are pretty low, to begin with. But with my wife, the rules of living which always gave meaning to her world are quickly falling away. I do sympathize with her, for this must be heart-rending at times.

We talked on, speculating about when everything changed and why. But here again, we were coming at it from different directions. First, I doubt that the past she misses was ever really all that grand, for I have never entertained any idealized image of my own childhood world. But beyond that, (and here is where the Orthodox view enters in) I find that things are only playing out much as one would expect them to, given the particulars of our society--our rampant materialism/consumerism, our notions of progress and technology, the inherent flaws within our Americanized Protestant/evangelical culture, and the adaptation of Americanism as a near religion itself. Why would we think that things would be any different? Events are taking their natural course. I am neither surprised nor alarmed at it—“situation hopeless, but not serious.” Between the two of us, I feel I got the better deal—she gets the angst, I settle for a "love among the ruins" resignation.

During the conversation, I brought in the review I recently read of George Barna's The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. I don't plan on reading the book, as there doesn't seem to be any new ground broken here. His analysis, however, does strip away some of the remaining veneer on our popular self-delusions. Barna, a noted evangelical writer/pollster breaks the country up into 7 tribes: Casual Christians (67%), Captive Christians (16%), Skeptics (11%), Jews (2%), Mormons-who Barna identifies as the "Rodney Dangerfield of the Christian world" (just under 2%), pantheists (1.5%) and Muslims (less than 1%.) According to the review I read, Barna described "Captive Christians" as those who see their faith as making a demand on them, a demand they accept....it touches every aspect of their lives, every moment of their living. The category of "Casual Christians" needs little explanation. Barna found that this group believed tolerance, liberty, and happiness are the defining touchstones for them...comfortable picking and choosing the principles from the Bible that they believe are literally accurate. Scripture is seen as something to provide "encouragement," and Christianity is a place of comfort in their lives. Well, yes. My only observation is that maybe the 16% figure for the Captive Christians may in fact be wildly overstated.

I'm sure my wife was wondering what in the world I was babbling on about. But the point, to me at least, was obvious. None of the people we were talking about seemed to fall in Barna's "Captive" camp. Indeed, all were feel-good Christians. Returning home on the darkened country lane, I had to swerve to miss a herd of wild hogs crossing the road. This brought the conversation back to a more immediate, if no less remediable, form of ruination on our land.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Conversations with Metropolitan Jonah

A recent (Spring 2010) interview with Met. Jonah can be found here. The entire discussion is good, but I particularly recommend the first 3 minutes 50 seconds, in which Met. Jonah talks of his recent visit to the Republic of Georgia.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Small Steps

Very gradually and without much publicity, the Russian government has begun to replace the red stars that top the towers of the Kremlin and neighboring buildings with the double-headed eagles of old.

h/t to Andrew Cusack, here.

Too Funny. Too True.

Sunday's Coming.

h/t to John Medaille at Front Porch Republic.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shards of Culture

If for no other reason, I enjoy checking in at the Ochlophobist because it keeps me abreast of all those books that I should have already read. One case in point is Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America, referenced by Owen a few posts back. This volume was published by Christopher Clausen back in 2000. The only thing that dates the book is the author's persistent capitalization of "Internet." It's funny to think back to what a relatively new thing that was at that time.

I certainly know better than to do so, but I waste considerable time fretting about the sorry state of American culture. I would recommend the book to those similarly afflicted. But the first thing the author teaches is that the usage of the term "American culture" has no real meaning. I am guiltier than most in the sloppy usage of the phrase (but no longer.) Clausen contends not just that we are past all that, but rather we never really had it to begin with. We have always been a place that shredded cultures, seeking a "mass individualism," that he describes as being "an individualism without much individuality."

Nor are we in any way "multicultural," that is, if one defines multiculturalism as a society where differing cultures flourish and coexist with one another. The peculiarly American take on the concept is that the sharp edges of cultures get worn down, and then bits and pieces of varying cultures are cherry-picked as an individual's choice. In so doing, the true culture which once was determinative, loses all real meaning. In a telling example, he chronicles the Schandler-Wong family of Hawaii. The Jewish-American Schandler bride marries the Chinese-American Wong groom. The newlyweds construct a life with carefully selected bits of each heritage. When the Chinese groom eventually converted to Judaism, his mother was ecstatic, concluding that now he was truly American. The couple had woven Jewish, Chinese and Hawaiian cultures into their home like a bird building a nest from twigs, mud and foil....Any influence that Jewish, Chinese or Hawaiian cultures have on this family is purely residual, a matter of individual preference, and individual preference is the opposite of culture as traditionally understood. [As an aside, one wonders how Clausen would analyze a similar Hawaiian family of the same era, combining the heritage of Kansas with Kenya.]

Clausen posits that multiculturalism is, and has always been, an agenda or a program, and never a condition or state of affairs. He labels our real condition as "post-cultural." The best line in the book, in my opinion is this: Post-culturalism turns everything, whether sacred or profane, into twigs and foil from which any breed of bird can try to build a nest. The real meat of our cultures has been ground down to mush, from which emerges not a "multicultural" society, but one in which for all our vaunted "diversity," we are all very much the same. No other country has so undermined through its founding ideals and actual ways of life, the identities of those who lived there. By gradually turning more and more categories of outsiders into insiders, a process without logical limit, America began to solve some of the oldest problems of humanity while systematically dismantling the whole basis of traditional cultures.

Clausen finds similarities between the diversity Leftists and Right-wing groups. In the contest suburbs of social ideology, multiculturalism on the left and monoculturalism on the right flourish deceptively as expressions of longing for a past--differently interpreted, of course-- that has drifted beyond recovery. At bottom they both mean living in a museum.

In conclusion, Clausen asks:
Now that most of the old guide posts have rotted away, will individuals who have been emancipated from every authority but their own personalities start to rediscover some stronger basis for harmony and mutual respect than a bland refusal to judge.?"


...the negative qualities of the post-cultural condition are a deformed version of the good ones--the sentimental narcissism of those who recognize no demand but self-satisfaction, emotional exhibitionism, a substitute religion of products and celebrities, a smug indifference to the cause of conflict in the world.

In his concluding paragraph, Clausen tacks-on a hopeful note--something of a well, this is just who we are, and as shallow as it is, it sure beats the alternative rationalization. Personally, I find this to be unconvincing--he did too good a job convincing me otherwise.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Three from the Times

Several articles caught my attention in today's New York Times.

First, there is this on my favorite television program, Morning Joe, the only show I try to watch with regularity.

And this is why I tune in:

Some guests, used to the formulaic structure of other programs, have been confused by the program’s improvisational format. “We had one guest that kept coming on the set, saying ‘What are we talking about today, I didn’t get my talking points?’ ” Joe recalled. “And finally Mika turned to her and said, ‘It’s in the damn newspaper, and if you read it, you’ll know what we’ll be talking about.’ ”

Then there is The Ghosts of Gandamak, on the first Anglo-Afghan War. The writer is William Dalrymple, author of From the Holy Mountain. He is a great favorite of mine and, I suspect, of many other visitors here as well. He is researching for an upcoming work on the history of the First Anglo-Afghan War. An excerpt that speaks for itself:

The course of that distant Victorian war followed a trajectory that is beginning to seem distinctly familiar. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of dubious intelligence about a nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, was manipulated by a group of ambitious hawks to create a scare about a phantom Russian invasion, thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and wholly avoidable conflict.

Initially, the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless; Kabul was captured within a few months and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, placed on the throne. Then an insurgency began which unraveled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, then slowly moving northward until it reached the capital.

What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul, and the two most senior British envoys were murdered, making the British occupation impossible to sustain. On the disastrous retreat that followed, as many as 18,000 East India Company troops and maybe half again as many Indian camp followers (estimates vary), were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush amid the snow drifts and high passes, shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter.

The last 50 or so survivors made their final stand at Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry could be found lying in the screes above the village; even today, the hill is covered with bleached British bones. Only one man, Thomas Souter, lived to tell the tale. It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between the events of 1842 and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan is named Camp Souter.

And finally, there is the article on Julian Castro, the squeaky-clean, 35-year old, Harvard educated mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Some tout him as our future First Hispanic President (sorry, George P.) He is the son of longtime La Raza Unida activist Rosie Castro. His advisers see the path to national prominence as going through the Texas Governor's Mansion (its been done before.) While our demographics are changing, Texas is still very much a GOP stronghold, at least for the next 6 to 8 years. To break through, the Democratic candidate will need every vote in the Rio Grande Valley. To assist in this, Castro's advisers have quietly arranged for him to be tutored in...ahem...Spanish. That's right, the Latino son of a La Raza Unida leader is taking Spanish lessons from a Ms. Bronstein so he could pursue his national aspirations. Only in America, folks!

Orthodox Turks

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy is a favorite blog of mine. I was interested to see a recent post there concerning Turkish converts to Orthodoxy, found here. From all accounts, there have been a number of Turks who have become Orthodox Christians in recent years--perhaps a thousand or so. This has been occurring below the radar screen, as can be well imagined. To be sure, this is not a major trend in Turkish society, but the fact that it is happening at all, given the nature of Turkish nationalism, is itself noteworthy. As I have noted time and again, interesting things are taking place in Turkey--a country which defies simplistic categorization. An excerpt from the interview with 2 Orthodox Turks:

—Ahmet, probably your desire to become a Christian arose while you were living and working in a Christian country?

A.: No, the ground had been cultivated much earlier. Unfortunately, Christianity in Turkey is viewed as something that comes from the ”outside.” This is a mistake, because Orthodoxy is a part of our land's history. This can be seen from the privileges that Mehmet the Conqueror gave to the Constantinople Patriarchate.

I had some idea of Christianity from childhood, although it was through the prism of Islam. Many Moslems have great respect for Christians, which is bound up with the fact that the Koran accepts Jesus as a prophet. In general, Moslems also respect the Most Holy Mother of God. I think that you have seen the crowds of faithful Moslems who gather in the Romeian churches of Istanbul in order to venerate the holy shrines, and ask for help. In Turkey, we are prepared to accept the message of Christianity.

If there are problems, they are bound up with the education that both sides receive, and with ignorance. For example, many Moslems do not understand the meaning of the teaching on the Holy Trinity and think that we worship three gods, and that Christianity is a political religion. I do not say this as a criticism of Islam, but only present the fact as an example to show how uninformed they are.

—Necla, did your search also begin in Turkey?

N.: Yes, when I was studying in the university. My family was on the whole religious, but without following all the precepts of Islam to the letter. I considered myself a Moslem until I began to distance myself from Islam during my studies in Ankara. My parents allowed me the freedom to decide my relationship to religion. While I was in Islam, I felt an emptiness that demanded fulfillment. I read, and searched. I entered upon a path that led me to Orthodoxy.

—It would follow that your path to Orthodoxy was the result of ”local” experience, without any influence from outside of Turkey?

A.: Any influence from American or European Christianity can only do harm. I never felt comfortable with the Christians there. They repelled me from Christianity by turning it into psychotherapy. They go to church on Sundays to talk. However, religion has an aim of filling a certain other emptiness. In Europe, Christianity has been relegated to holidays without any connection to religion. Take the Nativity of Christ, for example. Many people greet each other with the words, ”Happy holidays,” instead of Happy Nativity.” In Europe, people have a superficial connection to Christianity, without an understanding of its spiritual meaning.

The post also has great links to Orthodox churches in the Hatay, that region around Antakya (Antioch) that was part of Syria until 1939.

And while the subject of Turkey is at hand, a young Turkish writer reflects on the Armenian Genocide (really), here. This is a must-read.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tarnished Silver

Mary, a good friend and member of our little mission here, is back in the blogging business, I am happy to say. I particularly enjoy her latest posting, found here. Sitting at the kitchen table late at night, while polishing an old silver service, triggers memories of Kentucky and a difficult grandfather. I find it to be very well done. If you like that sort of thing, be sure and visit her blog.