Friday, December 31, 2010

2011 Georgian Monastery Tour


Luarsab and John have posted details of their 2011 Monastery Tour of Georgia. Read about it, here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Engaging the Church

One of the few magazines to which I still subscribe is The American Conservative--and conservative in the sense of writers like Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Bill Kauffman, Andrew Bacevich and Pat Buchanan. I'm afraid our celebrity "conservatives" wouldn't know what to make of this publication. I particularly enjoy the magazine's book reviews. In the February 2011 issue (not yet online,) Richard Gamble, a professor at Hillsdale College, reviews To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by sociologist James Davison Hunter.

According to Gamble, Hunter "takes up the question of what Christian faithfulness ought to look like in 21st-century America...[and] offers nothing less than 'a new paradigm of being the church in the late modern world.'"

Ho-boy. Whenever you hear the phrase "new paradigm" in regard to the Christian faith, you know what is coming. Christianity American-style never seems to tire of "new paradigms." Not that Hunter doesn't make some good points. He "challenges the American church's assumption that it can redeem the culture from the ground up, one person at a time, with the power of ideas wedded to political activism....this 'hearts and minds' approach...misunderstands the way sustainable change happens in society and will never achieve its noble purposes."

And Gamble notes:

"Hunter is at his best in cutting across superficial distinctions among the evangelical right and left and the neo-Anabaptists, uncovering the bad habits they have in common. American Protestants as a group, and even Catholics, have adopted, among other dubious propositions, a naive transformationalism, a mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America, a negative posture toward the world that emphasizes what Christianity opposes rather than the gift of grace it offers, and a politicized and power-driven strategy to defeat the enemy....He rightly criticizes Christians for cultivating a 'proprietarian' attitude toward the American narrative and culture, as if the nation personally belonged to any branch of Christianity or even to Christians in general."

But Gamble finds that many "will have a hard time wrapping ...[their] mind around just what kind of church Hunter longs to see. At times, he seems merely to dress up an old-fashioned social gospel and anemic ecumenism in trendy language. It is hard to grasp what his recommendations would amount to if he explained them in ordinary words." And while Hunter "insists more than once that the goal of Christian activism ought not to be to transform the word," Gamble detects an "unmistakable desire for the church to be busy in worldly affairs, to move beyond Word and Sacrament for the sake of Word and Deed."

For Gamble, the author "forgets what we might call the 'dark side' of the gospel"--that of not bringing peace but a sword, of setting brother against brother, husband against wife, etc. Gamble rightly observes that "a robust 'theology of the cross'--to borrow the vocabulary of Lutherans, who, along with other confessional, creedal Christians are nearly absent from this book--knows that the gospel reconciles God to man but that it doesn't necessarily reconcile man to man." Indeed, "rather than solving the world's problems, the faithful church might appear to make things worse from a human perspective."

Gamble takes Hunter to task for claiming that it is especially harder for contemporary Christians to bear witness to the faith.

Perhaps generic "faith" has become harder to arrive at in modern America--perhaps--but the Christian gospel has never expected to find "resonance" with the world. It did not resonate with the culture of 1st century Rome. Christianity exploded into the world as something hardly "plausible' or "persuasive" to human eyes. Yet pagans converted by the thousands and the Church flourished. Just why contemporary "social conditions...make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural" is not obvious, nor is it clear why Christians today should find that challenge more daunting than the 1st-century martyrs did.

I particularly like the following from Gamble:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter's recommendations for "faithful presence." Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents--or even by radically de-institutionalized "home church" families--who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

The Garima Gospels

This is a bit of old news, but I am fascinated by it all. The results of the radiocarbon dating of the Gospels from the Abuna Garima Monastery in Ethiopia were released earlier this year. As previously thought, no surviving Ethiopian manuscripts predated the 12th-century. Secular scholars had been skeptical of the Church's claim that the Garima Gospels were from the hand of Abba Garima himself, who arrived in Ethiopia from Constantinople in the year 494. Their scientific assumptions are now being revised, given that one volume has been dated between 330 to 540 and the other between 430 to 650.

The British press were all over the story, with articles in The Telegraph, here, The Independent, here, and in the Guardian, here. Apparently, such stories do not sell newspapers on this side of the Atlantic. Work of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund can be found here. But for the best and most extensive coverage, by all means, see the site here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Against Cremation

I have spent a fair amount of my life poking around cemeteries. I find them endlessly fascinating, whether they have any connection to my family or not. Cemeteries have stories to tell, if you know how to listen to them. It took a while for my wife to get used to all this. When we would travel, she was prone to quickly drifting off to sleep while riding. She would invariably awake to find herself not at our destination, but parked at some remote cemetery, whether it be Mississippi or Connecticut.

And I'm a bit of purist when it comes to graveyards. I am disturbed by modern cemeteries, with their twisting roads like subdivisions, and graves facing any which way. Don't they know the graves should all be facing East, towards the Resurrection? Last summer, the wife, her best friend and I visited Nottoway, the most over-the-top plantation home along the Mississippi. In a recent "restoration" the corporation that owns the enterprise, retrieved the family remains and monuments from a ill-kempt little Catholic cemetery a few miles away, and re-interred them on a corner of the mansion grounds--to complete the tableaux, you might say. While it was otherwise well-done, the graves were facing the house--south rather than east. I found it ironic that the highly paid consultants they engaged for this restoration did not even have the cultural insight to know how these graves would have surely been laid-out. Or perhaps they did, and just calculated (rightly) that the modern visitors herded through the site would not be any the wiser.

Along these lines, I have always been repulsed by cremation, finding the practice incomprehensible, at least for those who make any claims to being Christian. This has nothing to do with my being Orthodox, for I have held this opinion all my adult life. Orthodoxy just confirmed and validated that which I innately knew to be wrong. Burial makes a statement about the person--the life they lived and the place in which they lived it and the love they shared and most importantly, of the Life to come. Cremation says nothing at all, or at least nothing good.

About 15 years ago, a cousin died under tragic circumstances. The Fort Worth police found my name and phone number in his wallet and contacted me. I managed to locate one of his sisters and pass the information on to her. I expected to hear back from about the funeral and about which of the vacant spaces in the family plot they wanted to use. I never heard a word from them. Only this summer, in visiting with his son, did I learn that they had cremated his body, and his ashes had been scattered in the woods behind a sisters' house. Hearing this, it just compounded the sadness of it all.

Last year, out of the blue, my wife informed me that she wanted to be cremated. In a somewhat animated discussion, I explained why I would not consider doing it, and why our son (also Orthodox) would not or could not do it, and more importantly, why it was wrong for her to consider it. She grew up among extended family, many of whom viewed funeral home visitations as something of an entertainment venue. One great aunt in particular, on the rare occasions when she could not make the viewing herself, would inquire of family members who did--"did they lay a good corpse?" My wife is a very private person and I think that she just wanted to be no part of any such gawking--even from the other side! I understand that. But this is another case where her cure is worse than the disease. Cremation is no solution. Anyway, I have heard of no such foolishness since.

Last May, I made my yearly visit to my aunt in Arkansas. She is a real sweetheart, and at age 87, my last living link with that fast-fading world. Many years ago, she converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses. This came as something of a shock to her husband and children, who were Episcopalian. My cousin (now Catholic) said that whoever had knocked on her door that particular day would have gotten her. It just happened to be the Witnesses. She remains quite committed to all that. And while I relish my visits, it sometimes gets a little crowded with that elephant in the room. Anyway, while sitting at her kitchen table this year, drinking coffee and eating her homemade nut bread, she casually mentioned that she intended to be cremated. I found it hard to suppress my incredulity, as this is the side of my family which should know better. This should not be surprising, however, given this sect's particular heretical theories about Christ and His Ascension. I should have said something. But I said nothing.

I suppose I am to the point where I think we should be calling it out for what it is. Andrew J. Harvey, in this excellent article, agrees. He has some good things to say. A few excerpts, as follows:

Cremation is an increasingly popular option but it is neither a Christian nor an agrarian option. That more and more Christians opt to incinerate themselves does not necessarily make that option Christian. A Christian who defends cremation more than likely appeals to utility or to what the poet Scott Cairns calls “gnostic bullshit.” As if upon death we are done with our bodies. Christianity has a long tradition regarding the dead, and cremation has no part in it. Cremation is a sign of our time, and it is ultimately a sign of our culture of death—the post-Christian regress of western civilization.

We no longer kill for our suppers, know where are food comes from, tend to our elderly, or bury our kin....“this evasion of the dead and dying is manifest in the extradition of the dead to a position at the margins of the city during the Industrial era, the removal of the dying to the functional space of hospitals, in the discreet elimination of corpses, and in the domestication and beautification of death”.....

It is the ultimate mystery of our redemption that He will call us back from the grave. Burial, therefore, is the final way in which we can live into our baptism. It completes the typological imagery in our own mystical Passover. It is the culmination of our faith. By sowing this seed of a natural body into the soil we will bear fruit in fields of glory. By commending this image of God to the earth we will be raised up in heaven. This is the sacrament of death and burial.

In case I have not made my point bluntly enough: cremation in terms of the advancement of Christian truth is a step backwards. A desecration. A form of apostasy. I do not think that Christians today who are considering cremation choose it as the fiery means to release the immortal soul from the body as ancient pagans saw it. Nor on the other hand is cremation preferred in the light of any precisely Christian theology or tradition. Rather they are motivated by a heterodox view of the body or of death, a kind of latent Gnosticism that assumes the immortal soul will have no more to do this body. Such heterodoxy is more in line with our Progressive Age’s own heady mix of necrophobia, necrophilia, and the myth of an end of suffering through advancement of medical science. But the cult of this life is precisely what our Lord chastises as the path of nihilism: he who seeks his life shall lose it, and he who loses it for my sake shall find it. Rather if we are to reject this culture of death and the cult of this life, we must cultivate life, an abundant life that transcends the fear of our own mortality. One way to celebrate this proper culture of life, counter-intuitively, is to cultivate our bodies in death.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The End of Suffering


I have recently finished reading The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns. This is my first exposure to the author, who has a lot to say in this small book.

For all our good intentions, our long-distracted crew--the ostensible followers of Christ--have squandered our diverse gifts over the centuries. We have even intermittently modified our theologies--lowering the bar of our expectations--time and time again to accommodate our failure to become what we are called to become. "No one is perfect," we repeat, smiling as we scribble our own doctor's excuse for the teacher.


Those of us who struggle with habitual sins--and we know who we are--are very likely to break our hearts over the business of turning away from those chronic mark missings. Our problems with recurring sin, and the more general human problem of being enslaved by sin, is never solved simply by our rejecting that sin, no matter how many times we try, no matter how strenuously we struggle to reject it....The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by our saying yes to something else, by our saying yes, and yes, and yes--ceaselessly--to Someone else. It is not our finally turning away from sin that frees us from sin's recurrence; rather it is our turning toward Christ--and the mystery of our continuing to turn into Him--that puts sin behind us.


And so, sure, I too want very much to be saved. These days that means that I want to be saved from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not always feel quite like the self that is framed in the image of God and is thus united with those around me and is, allegedly, growing with them into His likeness. I would like to replace this recurrently hamstrung, self-defeating, and mostly isolated self with the more promising image: the person in communion with other other persons. And while I'm at it, I wouldn't mind undergoing something like a lasting re-pair of heart and mind, body, and soul.

This book makes a great gift, whether the recipient is Orthodox or not.

Laws and other wastes of time

My friend Milton forwarded this quote on to me. I had seen it before, but it is a good one, that bears repeating in these times.

"It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects -- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

--- C. S. Lewis

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lying is Not Patriotic

"Few are interested in understanding the relationship of our foreign policy and our presence in the Middle East to the threat of terrorism. Revealing the real nature and goal of our presence in so many Muslim countries is a threat to our Empire and any revelation of this truth is highly resented by those in charge."

H/T to Conservative Blog for Peace

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New on the Book Table

Perhaps the most cherished and coddled of all my vices is the buying of many books. In these straitened times, however, I have had to apply some much-needed discipline to my excessive book-purchasing. The rule I try to hold is this: I keep what I am currently reading on a side table next to my favorite chair, and I do not purchase new books until the table top is emptied. I recently passed that milestone when I finally finished up with History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (skimming over the battlefield maneuverings and savoring the speeches.)

The previous reading list is now off the table and on the shelves. I found some good bargains online, and Eighth Day Books' annual 15% off sale came along at just the right time, bringing a couple of volumes within the arc of affordability. So, the books I will be reading for the foreseeable future--in no particular order--are as follows:

1. Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse by Roger Kimball

2. Early England and the Saxon English: With Some Notes on the Father Stock of the Saxon-English, the Frisians by William Barnes

3. Christianity and Culture by T. S. Eliot

4. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy

5. Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers by Metropolitan Hierotheos

6. When Church Became Theater: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America by Jeanne Halgren Kilde

7. The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns

8. The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky

9. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Volume Three (January, February) by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra

10. The Lives of the Monastery Builders of Soumela: Saints Barnabas and Sophronios of Athens and Christopher of Trebizon

11. Nights of the Red Moon by Milton T. Burton

These books will keep me occupied and out of trouble in the days ahead. If I hold to my discipline, Florensky's volume alone will keep me out of the book-buying loop for quite some time to come.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Ain't That America

Last night I left work and headed out for my night job at our local university, where I teach a class each semester. The Christmas shopping busyness is in full throttle about now, meaning that all the streets and highways are stacked up in all directions. As I inched along, I couldn't help but notice a gleaming new white SUV in the next lane. Of course, I am driving a white SUV myself--though of course mine is smaller and older (going on 5 years and just turning over my first 100,000 miles.) What especially annoyed me however, was the bumper sticker prominently displayed on back: Impeach Obama. That's Change We Can Believe In. Around here, otherwise hardcore sentiments such as this pass for political moderation. (And for all the lecturing about the Constitution, the real basis for such opposition is not hard to read, at least around here.) And I just hate such snarky, rabid partisanship...unless of course, it is snarky rabid partisanship from my side of the aisle. As I eased forward, I could see in the backseat where a overhead television was playing some Disney movie--perhaps Snow White. I have never understood televisions in cars. God forbid that these little darlings in the backseat should have to undergo an unentertained moment as they are carted from store to store to restaurant, etc. Back in the day, I made my son listen to NPR. Now that he's grown, that's probably why we avoids riding with me anymore. But still, televisions in automobiles are just wrong. A commercial came on, so I turned down the volume on Chris Mathews' Hardball on MSNBC that I was listening to on my Sirius Radio station 090. Easing up a little further, I noticed that the mother behind the wheel had a cross hanging from the rear view mirror--a big gaudy Celtic-y-looking thing that you could see from a block away. I have a cross hanging from my rear-view mirror as well. Of course, mine is a small, tasteful, silver Russian version. Having time to think, it seemed like each effort at condescension on my part was coming back to bite me in the butt. Thankfully, the light changed and I pressed onward, my uncomfortable Pogo* moment having passed.

*We have met the enemy and he is us (Walt Kelly, 1970)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Milton's New Book

A month or two back, I mentioned Milton Burton's upcoming novel, Nights of the Red Moon. The book is being released today. The novel scored a highly positive review in yesterday's Washington Post, here. Way to go, Milton.