Saturday, December 29, 2007

a barrel of monks

Well, it's finally happened. I've got nothing but monks on my reading list, as far as the eye can see. I'm still plugging away at St. John Cassian's Conferences for my reading at home. I started that a while back from a suggestion in The Arena. St. John helped to establish Western monasticism by traveling throughout Egypt, interviewing desert fathers, and compiling guidance for monastery life. The volume's kind of bulky, so I don't carry it with me when I commute. For that, I now have a Christmas gift from Julie--John Moschos's Spiritual Meadow. Perhaps one of my earliest encounters with Eastern Christianity was a book by William Dalrymple, called From the Holy Mountain. He traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean region in the 1990s, visiting a lot of the places mentioned by John Moschos, to see what things looked like centuries later. I went back and read the book again not long ago (now that I have a somewhat better frame of reference), and that got me interested enough to read the Spiritual Meadow for myself.

And if that's not enough, I'm still working my way through Palladius's Lausiac History when I need something to read on the computer. That was mentioned by Seraphim Rose in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. All three books are collections about the desert fathers. John Cassian's work is more discursive, while the other two are narrative. But they all have a similar feel.

If I don't get it for my birthday, I'll probably use some gift money to buy Sayings of the Desert Fathers (what is it with Cistercian Publications, anyway?), and maybe Way of a Pilgrim. So that should keep the trend going. I'm actually quite glad to be back to this kind of thing. I spent too long trying to rush through a lot of secular writing that I was getting from the library, and I can already tell that my spiritual life suffered from it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

American saints and American unity

I don't often do this, but I just really like this piece on four recent American saints by Fr. Andrew.

Not much time to write with the in-laws in town, but I do wish everyone a Merry Christmas! Tonight, Lord willing, I will attend my first Nativity service at Holy Cross. (I visited a Ukrainian service once, since it's on the Old Calendar and doesn't conflict with family stuff.) This year, since we have family around, Julie's OK with me slipping out while everyone's sleeping.

Monday, December 17, 2007

what was in that drink, anyway?

Never say I'm not a good sport. Someone got the idea to take this photo at Tait's birthday party yesterday. It ended up involving two photographers and several shots, so what began as a candid pic ended up requiring a great deal of cooperation on my part. (Mostly of the "stand right there" variety.) I'm not sure what it says about me that I felt more self-conscious about posing as a mock-saint than as a bearded beauty queen, but there it is.

Friday, December 14, 2007

artos, take two

This afternoon I tried again with the artos. I took Laura's advice and, besides adding more flour from the start, stirred it with a wooden spoon until I was sure it was workable. It was still a little too sticky once I got going, so I kept adding pinches of flour on the surface and my hands. The rest of the process went without a hitch. I stuck with the basic procedure of the prosphora recipe, since that's seemed to work for me so far. This one developed more of a crust, though that could be because I let it bake a bit too long. It's been a while since my last artoklasia, so I can't quite recall what the consistency is supposed to be like.

I've decided to ditch the bread machine altogether. I never used it much anyway for the space it took up, and the bread always came out too dense and not terribly appealing. (Though some of that might be because I was using old yeast.) I figure with a little more practice I should be able to do at least as well by hand, and get more out of the experience. My father-in-law has agreed to take it when they come down for Christmas.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

artos, take one

I've started baking bread from scratch. I like the idea of developing some kind of practical skill (I have so few), and it's certainly more engaging than a bread machine. I figured I'd start with something relatively simple and perhaps at some point useful--prosphora, which is the bread that's used for Orthodox divine liturgy. One advantage is that by nature it contains no ingredients that could not be consumed while fasting. Another is that the composition is very simple--flour, salt, yeast, and water. I figure if I can get that right, I'll be off to a good start. I had to cut down the recipe from the Holy Cross Web site, since I don't need five loaves at a time. The first attempt seemed bland and a bit too crusty. On the second, I made a few minor adjustments (doubled the salt, covered the bowl completely while rising, cut down the baking time), and it came out just about right.

Now that I've met some success with that basic recipe, I figured I'd move on to artos, the bread used in the artoklasia service, for various celebratory occasions. I guess some of the inspiration came from my name day, which is this week. Again, there's a recipe online for five loaves, so I cut it down accordingly to try just one for starters. The outcome was rather different.

Both times I used the prosphora recipe, it came out just about the right consistency without any trouble. I used a spoon for the initial mixing, but I got the sense that I could have used my hands just as well. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong time to test that theory. In this case, the dough was far too wet to work with. Of course, by the time I realized that, my hands were rather engulfed in the stuff. I managed to scrape enough off one hand, so I could scoop some more flour into the bowl. There was some improvement, though it remained very sticky. I decided to put flour down on the table and try kneading it, and just see what happened. I was hoping it was good enough that adding little bits of flour as I went would do the trick. But it stuck to the table and my hands so badly that about all I could do was drag it around in sticky streams.

I finally decided to give up on this attempt. Just cleaning up was a rather big job. After quite a bit of scraping I managed to get a wad back in the bowl. It took a few minutes to wash the rest off of my hands, then I used a plastic spatula to scrape the rest off of the table. I wasn't sure how to dispose of it. I knew I didn't want it just washing down the drain, and I wasn't sure what it would do just sitting in the trash. So I wrapped it in plastic wrap before throwing it away. More scrubbing got the table clean, and eventually the dishes. I didn't feel like starting again tonight, but I do plan to make another attempt. I'll just have to start with more flour and be more careful about assessing the consistency before I get my hands or the table involved.

I think part of the problem is I didn't know what kind of consistency to expect. I figured it would probably be stickier with oil and sugar in the dough, but whatever I had just seemed unworkable. Better luck next time.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Sometime back around the start of my teen years, an adult friend introduced me to C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. Up until that point, I'd read the Chronicles of Narnia, and perhaps Mere Christianity, but I wasn't yet familiar with any of his more grown-up fiction. I remember enjoying the trilogy quite a bit, though the last of the three got off to a slow start. (Fortunately, he warns you of this at the beginning.) I also remember a distinct preference for the middle book, Perelandra, though until now I couldn't have told you why. I'm not sure whether I ever read the trilogy again between then and now, though I've owned it for quite some time. Wendell Berry makes several references to the third book, That Hideous Strength, which got me thinking about reading them again.

The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, begins with the main character, Dr. Ransom, being abducted and taken to Mars. This is something of a surprise element, and I should warn you now that there will be some minor spoilers throughout this post, but it's the kind that readers probably figure out long before the protagonist. Besides, if you haven't read the books yet by now, it's your own fault--they were written and are set in the 1940s, before Sputnik or any manned space travel. (Consequently, they can take quite a bit of license.) Ransom makes it back to earth (another spoiler, but nothing more than you'd get from reading the back of the second book), and in Perelandra he's sent to Venus (Perelandra being its "real" name). The third book is set on Earth, with a clear connection (eventually) to what went on in the first two.

In the world of the Space Trilogy, Earth is the only planet (as far as we know) whose sentient race has fallen. Mars is much older and was already inhabited when Satan fell; Venus is much younger, and Ransom encounters its equivalent of Eve. He is not the only visitor from Earth; a couple of days after he arrives, Weston--the scientist who built the spaceship and abducted him in the first book--shows up, now a liberal/New Age theologian of some sort. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Weston is possessed by some demonic force, which relentlessly works on persuading the Woman to break their one negative command--not to live on the fixed land. (They live on floating islands in a mostly water-covered world.) The effect is reminiscent of the Screwtape Letters through the middle of the book, during which time Ransom struggles in vain to refute what he now thinks of as the Un-man. The demon apparently needs no sleep, and the woman much less than Ransom, so he's constantly waking up to find them already in conversation.

Ransom's internal struggle reaches its climax in chap. 11, when he finally realizes why he was sent to Perelandra and what he has to do. It's at this point that I not only remembered why I liked this particular book so much, but I also learned something about my proto-Orthodox past. I've already commented on my love for Stephen Lawhead's novels and how that seems to have have expressed some latent Orthodox longings. If anything Perelandra goes a step further. Sometimes it seems like C. S. Lewis is perhaps the closest thing we have to an authentically Orthodox Evangelical or perhaps an authentically Evangelical Orthodox. His classical Anglicanism probably helps in this respect, but somehow it seems like there's even more going on here. I'm not going to try to sort it out; I'll just mention it and move on. The point is that by now it wasn't terribly surprising to discover yet again that Lewis wrote something that looks very Orthodox. The surprise was more in knowing that somehow this book touched me in the depths of my teenage soul, and only now I see how I was responding to Orthodoxy before I knew what it was.

If it seemed like it would make much sense on its own, I would just put chap. 11 before you and let you read the whole thing for yourself. But it is part of a larger story, so instead I'll just include a few selections, noting along the way where I think they connect with Orthodoxy:
Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. . . .
A great deal of Orthodox asceticism is about achieving inner silence, and the difficulty is widely acknowledged.
. . . And at that moment, far away on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions; and far away in time Horatius stood on the bridge, and Constantine settled in his mind whether he would or would not embrace the new religion, and Eve herself stood looking upon the forbidden fruit and the Heaven of Heavens waited for her decision. . . .
And, I might add, Heaven waited for the decision of the Virgin--the New Eve, as Orthodoxy calls her. Her greatness is in her "Yes" to God's will; where Eve failed, she obeyed. To speak of her saving us seems blasphemous to a lot of Protestants, but properly understood, it is the very point Lewis makes here.
. . . His thoughts had stumbled on an idea from which they started back as a man starts back when he has touched a hot poker. But this time the idea was really too childish to entertain. This time it must be a deception, risen from his own mind. It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle . . . the notion of a physical combat was only fit for a savage. . . .

. . . It would degrade the spiritual warfare to the condition of mere mythology. But here he got another check. Long since on Mars, and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom ahd been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial--was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance. In Perelandra it would have no meaning at all. . . .
Salvation comes even through the physical, as the sacraments teach. Because of the Incarnation, we cannot make the spiritual merely spiritual.
. . . Every minute it became clearer to him that the parallel he had tried to draw between Eden and Perelandra was crude and imperfect. What had happened on Earth, when Maleldil was born a man at Bethlehem, had altered the universe for ever. The new world of Perelandra was not a mere repetition of the old world Tellus [Earth]. Maleldil never repeated Himself. As the Lady had said, the same wave never came twice. When Eve fell, God was not Man. He had not yet made men members of His body: since then He had, and through them henceforward he would save and suffer. . . .
Since God became Man, salvation is now mediated through humanity. This is precisely what we see in the Orthodox doctrine of the saints, whose greatness is only to the extent that they are vessels of Christ.

By the end of the chapter, Ransom resolves to fight the Un-man, and his resolution echoes that of the martyrs, who know that their physical suffering is for a greater good. Predestination and free choice merge in his decision, and the sequence of time becomes irrelevant. The conflict in the following chapters parallels the dominant Orthodox conception of Christ's death and resurrection as victory over the enemy. These are just the highlights, but I hope they show as clearly as I feel that somewhere back there in my teenage years I came face-to-face with Orthodoxy, and it stirred my heart. It's good to be back at that point today.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

heavy horses

I finished my marathon read through essays by Wendell Berry--pretty much everything I could get from our county library (which was a lot). I'll admit that I did quite a bit of skimming in the later volumes. His writing is good, and he always has something worthwhile to say. But the themes and positions are similar enough throughout that it gets easier to follow his arguments on the fly, the longer you spend with his work.

Along the way, I also read Worms Eat My Garbage, a classic manual of vermicomposting, and the Seventeen Traditions, by Ralph Nader--a good book about lessons he learned growing up, though it makes me feel like a failure as a parent. (I'm formulating a general principle, that anything that doesn't make you feel like a failure as a parent probably isn't worth reading.) It's a very good book, regardless of what you think about his politics--and easy to get through, so if you don't like it, at least you won't waste much time. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Ralph, and since I don't expect any of my favorites in the two major parties to survive the primaries, if he runs again, I'll probably vote for him. I agree with the criticism I read somewhere recently that, although his positions are fundamentally right, his major weakness is that he has too much trust in government to solve the problems. Incidentally, in case anyone cares, his family's background is in fact Eastern Orthodox (or so he claims in the book--I already knew he was Lebanese), but they went to a Methodist church when he was growing up. His hometown doesn't appear to have an Orthodox parish, so that might be some of the reason; but I also get the impression of his parents that they wanted their kids to fit into the American landscape as much as possible.

One interesting thing that happened in the midst of my reading Berry--I had to take a friend to the airport before Thanksgiving. I've got out of the habit of listening to music in the car, and when I do, it's usually something Orthodox. But in this case, I figured my friend would appreciate something to listen to, and probably not Byzantine chant. So I put in a Jethro Tull CD. Yeah, I know--go ahead and start heckling. But I really like a lot of their stuff. I think the prominent flute in a rock band is an interesting twist, and I've always been a sucker the medieval schtik. On the way home, the song "Heavy Horses" came on, which I'd heard before, but in the context of reading Berry's work, I was struck anew by its message:
Iron-clad feather-feet pounding the dust,
An October's day towards evening,
Sweat embossed veins standing proud to the plough,
Salt on a deep chest seasoning.
Last of the line at an honest day's toil,
Turning the deep sod under,
Flint at the fetlock chasing the bone,
Flies at the nostrils plunder.

The Suffolk, the Clydesdale, the Percheron vie
With the Shire on his feathers floating--
Hauling soft timber into the dusk
To bed on a warm straw coating.

Heavy Horses move the land under me.
Behind the plough gliding--slipping and sliding free.
Now you're down to the few,
And there's no work to do:
The tractor's on its way.

Let me find you a filly for your proud stallion seed,
To keep the old line going.
And we'll stand you abreast at the back of the wood,
Behind the young trees growing.
To hide you from eyes that mock at your girth
And your eighteen hands at the shoulder.
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry,
And the nights are seen to draw colder,
They'll beg for your strength, your gentle power,
Your noble grace and your bearing.
And you'll strain once again to the sound of the gulls,
In the wake of the deep plough sharing.

Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill,
Up into the cold wind facing,
In stiff battle harness chained to the world,
Against the low sun racing.
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood,
A rein of polished leather,
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky,
Brewing heavy weather.

Bring a song for the evening,
Clean brass to flash the dawn
Across these acres glistening
Like dew on a carpet lawn.
In these dark towns folk lie sleeping,
As the heavy horses thunder by
To wake the dying city
With the living horseman's cry.

At once the old hands quicken,
Bring pick and wisp and curry comb,
Thrill to the sound of all
The heavy horses coming home.
Now, I should clarify. Berry never argues (nor would I) against all mechanization. What he does advocate, however, is the best equipment for the job. He defends, for instance, his preference of a pencil over a computer for his writing. That particular essay was written when PCs were just becoming popular, and it seems to me that there's a lot more people can do with them now. Not to say that you can't still get by without one, but personally when I look at my use of the computer and what it would take to do the same things without it, I'm not sure the equation balances quite the way his did. His point was simply that a pencil and paper is much cheaper, much more portable, much less dependent on fossil fuels, and it gives him a feeling of connectedness and fulfillment to write his own letters. He argues similarly in other areas that, if something needs to be done, it should be done with the least resources and expense necessary for the best output. In his farming, he uses horses, but he also uses a tractor. For some work, horses are the only sensible way to go. Because their energy is directly linked to the natural cycles of a well-run farm, they're generally the more efficient option.

Horses are just one example, of course, but they make the point well. The modern trends of farming highlight the modern mindset. Fields are made as large as possible, worked with machines that run on petroleum, in such a way that they absolutely must be fertilized with petroleum, to produce crops that will be shipped all over the world using petroleum. Seeds have to be manufactured to stand their abnormal conditions, so they must be bought. Livestock is considered a separate operation, and is also managed in large quantities, which makes it less efficient to use the "waste" that results. Resources are acquired, used up, and waste materials are produced. This is a destructive process that fails to replenish itself. He contrasts it with a more traditional, more conservative approach that recognizes and flows with the natural cycles of life. Small farms raise crops and livestock together--each feeds the other, so that artificial inputs are minimized. The soil is carefully maintained for repeated use. Most of the energy comes from the sun through plants, not from expendable petroleum reserves. The family is sustained by its own efforts, with extra to sell or trade for what it cannot produce at home.

Farming is where these conflicting approaches can be seen most clearly, but we all participate. We've accepted the norm that our food comes from money, without concern for the real costs involved. We're less capable of taking care of ourselves and less aware of the effects of our actions. We consume, but we do not produce. Now we've become a nation of consumers, with a massive trade deficit and diminished skill and resources to provide for our own needs. He ties this in with our national security concerns, as we continue to depend on foreign investment, foreign oil, foreign products. It all comes back to the systems we've embraced and the lie that more and better technology is always the answer.

Will we get our act together before "the oil barons have all dripped dry?" Or will it require a catastrophe of our obsolete way of life to force us back to a more sensible approach?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Maryland, My Maryland

Finally, I think I feel OK about being a Marylander! Though I still wouldn't object if an opportunity came along to move back to NY, as the prospect of staying here grows, I'm finding ways to come to terms with it. I don't think I've mentioned here except in passing that we're buying a townhouse in Elkridge--not too far east of here, but significantly closer to Holy Cross. (At the same time, with faster routes involved, it shouldn't affect significantly the time it takes to get to Bethany or where I work.) We're buying through a county program for poor folk--developers get a break on the density rules, and in exchange they make available a certain number of units for sale at lower prices through a lottery. In a way, I kind of like the randomness--it's less burden on us to pick something ideal. On the other hand, what we're getting has significant drawbacks. It will be harder to get to work by public transit, the distribution of space in the house is a bit odd, and there's no yard to speak of (without the benefits of living in a truly urban setting either). Still, I hope to do some gardening where I can, and it looks like there's a farmer's market on the corner. The library is closer than what we have now, and they're supposed to be putting in a path to walk directly from our development over to the elementary and middle schools. It should be tolerable.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. The point is, it looks like we're probably here for the long haul. So it's time to put down some roots and make this place my own. That's a difficult thing to do in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. With so much government and military, and ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs, it's like your typical cosmopolitan city, only with even less local character. What's a localist like me to do?

Well, for starters, learn something about where I am. Here's one cool thing: Maryland cuts across four geographical regions--the Appalachian Mountains in the west, the Piedmont (foothills) in the middle, and the Atlantic coastal plain in the east. Which will we be in? None of the above. Elkridge happens to sit right on the Fall Line--the boundary between the Piedmont and the coastal plain. In a fairly narrow span, the elevation drops significantly, identifiable in particular by waterfalls where rivers cross it. We'll be right on the edge, neither here nor there.

Speaking of boundaries and neither here nor there, where is Maryland? The North or the South? (No copping out and calling it Mid-Atlantic, either.) It gets fairly cold in the winter, with some snow, which might suggest the North. On the other hand, they have no clue what to do with snow here, and sometimes it seems like spring and fall last only a week or two, which is more like the South. Its northern border is the Mason-Dixon Line, which would make it South, just barely. But it stayed in the Union during the Civil War, which would make it the North. Keep in mind, though, that it stayed at gunpoint. Lincoln didn't want Washington surrounded by Confederate states, so he sent troops to arrest and imprison Maryland's elected leaders--anyone who might cause trouble--and shut them up in Ft. McHenry. Maryland was cautious about secession anyway, because they knew it would be on the border and play host to major battles. So who knows what would have happened if left to their own devices?

These days, with most of its population concentrated in this suburban nowhere, Maryland tends to align politically with the North. What surprised me, though, was an aberrant vestige from the Maryland of the Civil War era--the official state song, "Maryland, My Maryland." I was Googling Maryland and "the South," when I came across it for the first time. The song was written after a deadly altercation in which Union soldiers passing through Baltimore were attacked by a secessionist mob. The songwriter, James Ryder Randall, a native of Maryland, was living in Louisiana at the time. When he heard about the bloodshed, he wrote this nine-stanza poem, which was quickly set to music and became a popular anthem throughout the South. Almost 80 years later, it was selected as the state song of Maryland and has been ever since. You can see the full lyrics at either of the links above--definitely worth it--but here are a few choice excerpts (keeping in mind who the enemy is in context):
The despot's heel is on thy shore . . .
His torch is at thy temple door . . .
Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain . . .
Virginia should not call in vain . . .
"Sic semper!" 'tis the proud refrain . . .
Thou wilt not yield the Vandal toll . . .
Thou wilt not crook to his control . . .
Better the fire upon thee roll,
Better the blade, the shot, the bowl,
Than crucifixion of the soul . . .
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
Yes, he just called Lincoln "despot . . . tyrant . . . Vandal"; yes, he spoke the same Latin as John Wilkes Booth; and yes, Maryland schoolchildren (though perhaps not so much in recent years?) learned to sing about "Northern scum." Say what you want about the Maryland of today, but a state that could inspire this song has got to have something going for it.

Now, let me clarify a bit. I'm no proponent of American slavery, and I don't think that everything about the South--then or now--was right. So why am I, born and raised (mostly) in the North, so excited about this song? I'm sure at least some of it is the sheer surprise at finding such a state song, especially in such a state. But more than that, I do in fact sympathize with the Southern cause in the Civil War (War between the States, War of Northern Aggression, etc.). As a localist, I prefer my government decentralized, to the greatest extent practical. When the U. S. Constitution was written, there was a much clearer balancing of state and federal powers than what we've had for more than a century now. As I see it, that balance was upset decisively on the battlefields of this region where I now live.

I reject the notion that slavery was the fundamental issue of the War. Lincoln himself said that preserving the Union was a higher priority. The differences between the industrial North and the agrarian South had come to a head, and in the tradition of the American Revolution, it was time for the two sections to go their separate ways. Defending the Union was a convenient way to legitimize the Northern interests as higher and better; focusing on slavery was a convenient way to demonize the economy of the South. The Northern victory secured for industry a dominant role in American life, to the point that even what now passes for agriculture works more like a factory than anything remotely organic. The Federal government has become increasingly invasive in our lives, with fewer and fewer resources under the control of local communities. (Does anyone even remember what the word "federal" means?) Old structures and traditions have been sacrificed on the altar of Progress. Local cultures are deteriorating, only to be replaced by the global anti-culture of the corporate media.

To the extent that the agrarian South stood against these trends, to the extent that Northern victory served to diminish the cultural diversity and balance of these United States--yes, I lament that victory. I lament the bloodshed. I lament the nation that was lost. This is not to say that no good came as well. The end of slavery was an end to be desired (though, we have to ask some serious questions about how effective that end was); was civil war the only or right way to make it happen? Perhaps the North is a better place for still having some influence from the South, though it's hard for me to believe that the benefits there outweigh the negative effects on South or the nation as a whole.

The outcome is what it is, and we'd best get on with life. But there is still a need for people to stand against tyranny. There is still a daily choice to be made between the ideals of the Revolution and the expedience of overcentralization. There is still opportunity to support local institutions and culture. As long as we have these things, we need songs like this. I'm proud to live in a state that still sings it, however faintly.


Today it's still fairly cold--perhaps colder than the past couple of days, though with less wind. They're calling for 1-2 in. of snow. So far, we have a dusting that more or less covers untreated, untraveled pavement and dirt. Sad, that such things should be big news around here, but take what you can get.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fast Forward

This video put out by Willow Creek (an influential Evangelical mega-church in the Chicago area, for those who don't know) runs through Church history (in about 13 min.) from the New Testament to the present, specifically focusing on Christian unity. I include it here particularly for anyone who's curious what they have to say about the Church from Constantine to the Reformation (about 3:50-5:12):

Julie saw it before I did and concluded that I wouldn't like it. She was basically right, although not necessarily for the right reasons. After one pass, here are some of my general concerns:
  • As would be expected, the viewpoint is thoroughly Western. This is most apparent when the Crusades (starting around 5:12) are blamed on "the Church." The Eastern Church has enough of its own skeletons, but the Crusades were perpetrated by Westerners, and Eastern Christians were mostly on the receiving end. Considering that the video clearly assumes the standard Protestant definition of "the Church," it seems like a rather glaring oversight to ignore (or unjustly implicate) the primary alternative to Western Catholicism at the time of the Crusades.
  • As far as that goes, I'm not exactly sure why they highlight the Crusades as the one particularly negative event in Church history. The most sensible explanation is that they are a prime example of Western racism and cultural bias, though that point is not explicitly highlighted, and it would probably be too much to assume that the intended audience would get it. Perhaps it is merely to set the stage for the Reformation. The transition seems to suggest that the Reformers were responding to the Crusades in particular, though one might hope that the connection was unintentional.
  • The otherwise generally rosy picture of Church progress glosses over some important negatives. Particularly, the great missionary era of Western Christianity is presented without any reference to the accompanying problem of colonialism. Since most of the attitudes that divide Christians culturally are grounded in colonialism, it seems like a substantial omission.
  • On the other hand, the portrayal of medieval Christianity suggests nothing beyond the cloister. There is no mention of the Church that converted Slavic Eastern Europe or any of the other great missionary movements of the era, East or West.
  • Of course, the greatest problem is the overall thrust, which ignores the very real, very substantive issues that divide churches from each other. Racism, cultural bias, and ethnic divisions are a problem, to be sure. Orthodox, not least among Christians, face this problem. But there are key political and theological factors as well, most of which pre-date the modern causes of racism and ethnocentrism; a solution that brushes over them will never bring true unity.
Knowing what I know about Willow Creek, I don't think the point is to endorse liberal ecumenism, with a wholesale exchange of Truth for unity. But Evangelicalism as a movement has always had its own conservative ecumenism, which boils down the gospel to its lowest common denominator, then brushes aside all other issues as unnecessarily divisive. The vision of transcending denominational divisions is a positive one. Likewise, overcoming racism and ethnocentrism is a worthy goal. The problem is with what they sacrifice (and what they don't) to get there.

The ancient Church of the ecumenical councils worked hard to preserve unity, but it always knew unity needed its proper basis in shared faith. When that faith was endangered by theological innovation, it responded as necessary to clarify the Church's Tradition. With a more or less opposite approach, it took Protestantism very little time to fragment Western Christendom into several incompatible strands. In the centuries since, the divisions have only multiplied, despite the separate efforts of liberals and Evangelicals to unite Christianity around shared goals. I would dearly love to see unity restored, but it's hard not to be pessimistic when the root causes remain.

I don't want to over-simplify the situation. There are many types and layers of factors to be addressed, and Orthodox have their own unique contributions to the lack of Church unity in our age. As far as that goes, Orthodox have enough trouble right now with unity in their own midst. It's easy to blame them for moving too slowly on such issues, but the challenge is very real--how to live and function in this modernized, Westernized world without being conformed to its standards. And I have in mind here a tension that is not primarily between East and West; rather, as Meic Pearse says, it is between the West and the Rest. This Western trajectory, shaped by its individualism, its orientation toward progress over tradition, has been part and parcel of Evangelical development. To a large degree, the struggle is easier for Western Christianity, because it has never been engaged in the first place. And so we see a push in Evangelicalism to follow the secular trends of multiculturalism and globalism--not altogether divorced from the legitimate, biblical imperatives toward Christian unity, but the key question is, which is the real driver?

A constant source of heresies in the early Christian centuries was the attempt by various individuals to make Christian theology fit secular/pagan philosophy. The Church Fathers used philosophy where it suited, but they also criticized it whenever necessary. And generally speaking, the Truth of the Gospel was already there--in the day-to-day practices and quiet faith of the illiterate peasants--before and after the councils did their work. In the end, philosophy only complicated things. It seems to me that, when Christians let the secular trends of the day set the agenda for their own reform movements, we're walking right back into the same kind of trap. If it brings unity at all, it will ultimately be the wrong kind of unity--in fact, one that pulls us further away from any hope of true, biblical unity. The way out is back, not forward.


This morning, for the first time this season, I saw snow in the air. When I stepped outside, it was the faintest of dandruffs, barely visible if you caught just the right angle in the street lights. By the time the bus arrived, it was somewhat more accessible to the naked eye. That was it, as far as I saw. I wasn't paying much attention while on the commuter bus, and there was nothing to see in Silver Spring or Bethesda.

Yesterday, it could have snowed. It felt considerably colder in the afternoon than in the morning--perhaps nothing more than a trick of the wind. By late afternoon, it was driving dark, dull clouds into battle with the otherwise blue sky. There was no precipitation, but for once it felt like winter was truly on its way. I'm too cheap to buy new sneakers, so I've been treading the line between sandals and boots for my commute. Yesterday would have been a good one to make the switch, if I'd known how much colder it would feel in the afternoon. I also tend to favor a relatively light coat, since inevitably I will find myself bundled up on a bus with the heat blazing. Just as inevitably, on a day like yesterday, when I could have used some heat, neither bus was doing much more than circulate air. I wasn't seriously uncomfortable, but I still felt pretty chilled by the time I got home. I had a cup of coffee right away and followed it with soup for dinner. After that, I think I'd fully recovered, but this morning I did dust off the boots at least, and packed a hat in my bag, just in case.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

cry room

Back when I was interested in Judaism I read an explanation of prayer in Hebrew. The point was not that you absolutely have to pray in Hebrew, only that it's safer to do so. When you pray in any language, with any words, if your heart is in it, and you express yourself correctly and sincerely before God, you have done a good thing. When you pray in Hebrew, using the words handed down by tradition, you're expressing true and right thoughts to God, even if your heart is not in it. In that case, you've also done a good thing. So, it's better to pray in the traditional words from the Hebrew prayer book, because your prayer will always be worth something, and sometimes it will be worth double. There's a strong potential here for a legalistic outlook, but at the same time I think it contains a valuable principle--that sometimes reading right words you don't feel can be good in its own right--that it might be just the thing to "prime the pump" and get you feeling more the way you should. (Whether those right words have to be in Hebrew or not is another matter.)

But I bring it up here to illustrate another pattern. This morning Julie wasn't feeling well, so she asked me to stay with her in the cry room at Bethany until after she'd fed Jenna. Orthodox churches traditionally expect the whole family to worship together in one service. (Though I heard a talk not long ago by a Khouria whose husband had at one point been assigned to a parish that did not allow children in the service with the adults--it was brought up as a decidedly wrong way of doing things.) Other traditions take a similar approach, including some Presbyterian and Reformed churches, but the trend in modern Evangelicalism seems to be to keep kids out. It fits nicely with the "seeker sensitive" mentality--that worship is something to be tailored to the needs of the intended audience. Kids are therefore better contained in their own classes, where they can learn to worship God in their own way, and presumably grow into a more adult form of worship whenever the time is right. A common feature of this model is the cry room, which allows for infants who aren't quite ready to be deposited in the nursery to accompany their parents to the service, without disrupting the controlled, adult atmosphere. (Not that cry rooms don't appear in Orthodox churches as well--sometimes children just get too noisy and have to be taken out for a while.) The typical pattern for us is that Jenna eats in the cry room through the first part of the service and then spends the rest of the time in the nursery.

It's the first time I've really spent in the cry room with Jenna (maybe once or twice with Ian--I can't recall). They pipe in the audio, and there's a window so you can see what's going on. For me, it just felt like something was lacking. Actually, it felt like a lot was lacking. Evangelical worship normally seems incomplete anyway, but sitting in that room, it was almost non-existent. I felt completely like a spectator. Things were going on, but I wasn't at all engaged with them. The effect of being in that room brought to mind the bit about Jewish prayer. In Orthodox worship, the liturgy has an effect of creating worship, in and of itself. I feel it when I'm watching a service on the Internet or listening to music in the car. Actually being in a service, present with the other participants, certainly adds something to it, but the two elements are distinct and cummulative. Today it felt like what I normally got out of worship at Bethany depended solely on the "being there" part. Take that away, even if it's only through the separation of a single wall, and nothing is left.

I don't suppose that this perception can be generalized. I'm sure there are Evangelicals who get something out of the music and prayer itself, whether watching on TV or listening on the radio. Such people may feel that something is lacking when they're removed from direct participation, but can probably still consider it worship. For me, I guess it was just an eye-opening moment about my own connection to Evangelical practice (or lack thereof). There is still an element of the familiar. There are still people I know and love, and the connection I have with them is real; there are still songs that have special meaning for me; there is still a familiarity with services at Bethany. But the actual substance of the interaction, the thing we're there to do, the "about" of the experience--that's what seems to be missing. All that's left is the familiar feel, and when that is cut off, the void is apparent.

O Christmas Tree!

Last night, for the second time in our adult life, we bought a "real" Christmas tree. When we first got married and moved to Maryland, we bought a tiny, artificial "Charlie Brown" tree (at Wal-Mart, I think). Our dwelling at the time was a 320-sq.-ft. apartment on the campus of the seminary I was attending. For three years, we listened to our neighbors through the walls, went to sleep staring at our kitchen, and collected no-bake dessert recipes (because all we had for cooking was a two-burner stove, a toaster oven, and a microwave). Once we bought a "real" tree, but generally we traveled for the holidays, so it seemed better just to throw up our little standby. It moved with us to our first off-campus apartment, then the townhouse we shared with a good friend of Julie's, then here to where we are now. Since we're not going anywhere this year, Julie decided to buy a tree; for good measure, we're also going to give away "Chuck." It's the end of an era.

Not that we have much space for a tree now, either. We asked for the smallest type they had on the lot. It's a nice tree, though. It certainly looks better, and it is a bit larger and considerably fuller. The smell is nice, too (though I'm thinking either it's wearing off already, or I'm getting used to it). On the way home, Julie asked me what I thought about "real" Christmas trees. My initial thought was, as long as I don't have to pay for it, I really don't care. (Some time back, Julie put herself on a weekly allowance for things like eating out, extras for the house, and various forms of entertainment; buying a Christmas tree was one such thing.) But the more I think about it, I guess there are some distinct advantages:
  1. You're a lot more likely to buy local when you buy a "real" tree. An artificial one could come from pretty much anywhere (and probably does). I suppose you could truck a "real" tree several hundred miles, but it doesn't seem like there'd be much benefit to doing so. The quality would diminish, the longer it took to get there.
  2. Christmas tree farms seem to be one of the few agricultural operations these days that are still likely to be family-run. They don't take a great deal of maintenance, and although I doubt that you could live off one exclusively, it seems like they can probably be maintained on top of some other job. I'd like to think that we bought our tree directly from the guy who grew it. It certainly looked like a family operation, with help from the kids and a few hired hands to wrap and tie the trees on cars.
  3. Although I keep saying "real" in quotes, because obviously the tree is dead, there really is something different about it from an artificial tree. It may not be a living tree, but it still needs regular watering, to keep it from drying out. As I've been thinking lately about doing some gardening after we move into our new house, I figure this is about my pace to start out--watering a dead stick. It's already green, so don't confuse me with Abba John the Dwarf; but hopefully I can at least keep it from turning brown and shedding all over the living room.
So I guess I am pretty positive about the tree, as long as I still don't have to pay for it :-)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

I finally made it to the top of the waiting list at the library for The Year of Living Biblically. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the premise looked interesting--an agnostic men's magazine editor spends a year trying to follow everything the Bible says, as literally as possible. It could have gone different ways, from very cynical to very serious. Fortunately, he seems to have taken the project rather seriously. There's plenty of humor, but especially as the book progresses, he becomes more introspective and seems more in pursuit of some meaningful results.

The author is Jewish, so although he begins with a sensible enough division of the year--focusing proportionally on one testament at a time--by the time he gets to the New Testament, he confesses a more detached approach. Indeed, although he continually maintains an attempt to be biblical, rather than following some traditional application, he leans heavily on Jewish tradition to aid his efforts. Of course, it should only make sense that applying OT commands will bear some striking resemblances to Rabbinic Judaism, since the objective of Jewish tradition is to keep the Torah. And there are points where he decisively departs from tradition--meat and dairy restrictions, for instance (though he does avoid cooking a young goat in its mother's milk). But he also appeals at various points to existing Jewish practice--bringing in an Orthodox Jewish consultant to check his wardrobe for mixed fabrics, sacrificing a chicken with Hasidim, etc.

I guess the most interesting thing to me was how his efforts to live biblically led him to appreciate Jewish tradition, not just for its biblical aspects, but as his own distant heritage and as a logical way to apply the OT, even though it clearly does go beyond what's explicitly written in the text. He recognized that often you have to choose how to apply a biblical command, and acknowledged the advantage of tradition's explication. On the other hand, by the end of the book he tended more to embrace the freedom to choose for himself. In this respect, the book is unremarkable. It concludes with much the same outlook that one sees today in other postmodern approaches to the Bible--everyone picks and chooses, you have to pick and choose, it's probably OK to let a tradition choose for you, but it's also OK to choose for yourself, as long as you do it with open eyes. Is it telling that at the same time he admits only to a greater belief in the sacred, while remaining agnostic about God? In my own experience, it was a lot easier to accept this fuzzy, postmodern vision while my focus was on the Bible as such. I wasn't exactly agnostic about God, but I was certainly more vague about him than at any other point in my life. Once God comes into focus as a personal, self-existent entity, it gets a lot harder to accept that making a choice is more significant than what I choose.

And that's where tradition becomes critical. If God is really "out there" (in the Christian concept, he's not just "out there," but transcendence is an important element here), I can't be happy with my own subjective experiences and opinions. To have real communion with this real person, it can't just be about my perceptions. There has to be Truth beyond me and my little brain. The Bible itself embraces divine Tradition as a critical means of ascertaining this Truth; indeed, it is the only means available.

That point aside, it's still a very funny, very interesting book; and it makes some great points about taking the Bible seriously, even if the outcomes seem bizarre. There are important lessons here--just don't expect too much from its theology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

four dead presidents, and counting . . .

It occurred to me this morning, as I went to pick up a roll of the new James Madison dollars, that I've never shared here about my obsession with dollar coins. I can't even remember now exactly how or when it started. I think it had something to do with thinking they'd be easier to use on buses than paper dollars, which got me looking for more information and finally becoming a die-hard supporter of the things (even though I rarely use cash on the bus anymore).

A couple of months ago, I was checking out in David's (a local whole-foods type market)--I think just a box of falafel mix, so I paid cash--and the rather young cashier, after examining the coins carefully, asked, "Are you sure you want to use these?" After some contemplation, I politely answered, "Yes," foregoing the more elaborate response I was thinking: Yes, I'm sure I want to use coins that will likely be here when you and I are dead and gone, when the government that issued them is nothing more than a historical memory, rather than paper dollars that will be out of circulation in a month or two. In a store that dutifully asks whether I want a bag or not, do I really need to explain my preference for currency that will never have to be thrown away, and only replaced at the rate the coins are lost or collected? Her question was a good one--only the referent was misplaced. Ask it instead of every person who comes in using $1-bills.

The real travesty is that we even have paper dollars left in circulation. They have only two things going for them--habit, and the fact that they don't make noise in your pocket. Dollar coins, on the other hand, are much easier to use in machines and infinitely more durable. I don't know or care how the cost of initial production compares--once you factor in the rate of deterioration, it's a no-brainer which is more economical and environmentally friendly in the long term.

When I first started using dollar coins, probably a couple of years ago, the biggest problem was finding them. Initially I was able to get them from the bank in the building where I worked, but that supply dried up quickly. They didn't actually maintain a stock of dollar coins--they just collected in rolls whatever they were unfortunate enough to receive, which apparently happened at a rate slower than I was using them. I tried a couple of other banks that I could walk to on my lunch break and the bank we belonged to near home--same story. Someone I knew could get them from her bank; I tried one of their branches, and apparently it was only certain locations that had them. Eventually, I got so frustrated that I wrote my senator, who happened to be the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, which had sponsored the bill to issue Sacagawea dollars. I asked how it made any sense to have dollar coins in circulation if they could not be readily obtained by those who wanted to use them, and what I could do as a citizen-advocate to promote their use.

To my surprise, it didn't take very long to get a meaningful response. A cover letter came back from the senator's office, with an attached response from the deputy director of the U. S. Mint. He acknowledged the problem and even cited a recent GAO study that had investigated the issue. He also pointed out that a new bill had been passed, to start a program that would hopefully improve the availability and circulation of dollar coins. Starting the following year (2007), new dollar coins would be issued with pictures of deceased U. S. Presidents, in chronological order, at a rate of four per year until the list is complete. Based on the success of the state quarters program, the hope was that this would increase activity.

I have no idea whether the program is increasing actual usage of the coins in any way. Personally, I have never received a dollar coin as change (though I must admit, the opportunity is limited, since I try to make sure I never get back $1-bills as change), and I don't think Julie has either. It has certainly improved availability at banks, which is something anyway. At least now I have no problem keeping a supply onhand, and like a modern-day Johnny Dollarseed, I do what I can to spend them into circulation. I suspect that for the most part they are either socked away by collectors or quickly taken back to banks, to get them out of circulation. But I'm doing my part, including turning in paper dollars to the bank whenever possible.

As far as I'm concerned, there are only two negatives associated with using dollar coins. It seems like most vending machines are now set up to receive them as payment, but in my limited experience change and token machines are not. So if you need quarters or arcade tokens, a dollar coin may not be of much use. The bigger problem is the noise they make in your pockets. This is especially an issue for me, since I try to carry a supply, so I never have to receive $1-bills as change. I suppose I should revel in the sound they make, but I really don't like making noise when I walk. I would like to have a belt dispenser, but so far I haven't found any designed to fit them. I thought about getting one of those plastic squeeze change purses, but settled on wrapping them in a piece of rag. It does the trick, with the added benefit of winning sympathy points whenever I have to pull it out and unwrap them to pay somebody.

I read that GAO report, by the way. The overriding message was that no successful implementation of such a program has ever established dual usage. They always phased out the paper dollars altogether. If you give people a choice, they'll tend to stick with what's familiar, regardless of the relative advantages. Our government is not yet prepared to take that kind of decisive step, probably because it's so reluctant to get rid of anything. We add, but we do not take away. And surely someone's budget would be slated for cutbacks if we actually scrapped the $1-bill. My favorite example that highlights this mentality, also from the GAO report, is what became of the advertising campaign to improve circulation of Sacagawea dollars. Someone came up with a great idea for a commercial, showing someone trying unsuccessfully to feed a tattered paper dollar into a vending machine, while someone else made a quick and easy purchase by depositing a dollar coin. It was never used, however, because the Mint and Engraving & Printing are both part of the same government agency, and it was deemed inappropriate to advertise one by reflecting negatively on the other.

So, I assume that when this program is completed, things will go right back to the way they were. (Maybe I should start hoarding now.) But for the next few years, anyway, I'll enjoy the easier access. None of this has much to do with anything, though of course I can always find a relevant Simpsons quote. When Homer is trying to help out Comic Book Guy after his heart attack, he takes him to Moe's:
Homer: Now, when you've got a bum ticker like we do, you need all the friends you can get. And Moe's is the friendliest place in the rum district.
[opens the door. Inside, Moe aims his shotgun at a bar patron.]
Moe: Get out, and take your Sacagawea dollars with you. I'll give you 'til three.
[cocks gun. The man leaves.] One! [fires]

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

happy anniversary to me

It's kind of hard to believe that it's been a year already since I officially became a catechumen. If you weren't reading my blog back then, you can catch the highlights in a couple of posts--one reflecting some of what went through my head beforehand, and one following up the day after. There was a rather frantic flurry of e-mailed dialog, mostly between me and my then-pastor, that preceded the service, up to literally hours before, as well as one emergency visit from a couple of elders. In the midst of all that, I attended the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Washington over the weekend, which may have been good in that it kept me from saying or writing more than I did. But it was a very fast-paced few days, and I was relieved to get through it.

After so much build-up, it was almost anti-climactic what actually happened in the service. I just responded when they called the catechumens forward, was prayed for like everyone else, and went back to my spot. Looking back on it a year later, it seems even less of a milestone, because I do the same thing in every liturgy I attend. In that sense, becoming a catechumen was almost a non-event. There is no inaugural ritual--only the difference between not being one and being one. It has to happen sometime, but that's really all there is to it. Not to downplay the significance of the moment--because of the build-up, because Fr. Gregory came to our house to talk with Julie ahead of time, because we worked for a while on setting a specific date, because Julie was there in the service and brought a friend for moral support, because suddenly at the last minute there was vocal protest from the Evangelical church leadership, because I really did go through a lot of soul-searching before the leap, it was still a monumental occasion.

Quite a bit has happened since then, but the pace has seemed more relaxed. I think Julie and I have reached a somewhat better place in our relationship and on this whole issue (even though we still have a long way to go, and no idea where it's going to end). I've rejoiced to see my fellow catechumens complete their journeys into the Church. Today, my name is the only one on the list that remains from a year ago. Names have disappeared, and others have come in to replace them. I'm not giving up the first slot just yet, though :-) The timing is not mine to decide. Fr. Gregory says it's a kind of dance in my situation. I suppose in a sense, it is for everyone--just some steps are more complex than others. I've never been much of a dancer, but fortunately I don't have to lead in this case. My fate is in better hands than my own.

For now, I'm still glad just to be here on the doorstep. My own Entrance will come soon enough.

Monday, November 19, 2007

in praise of "boring old mothers"

Lately I've been reading a lot of Wendell Berry (more follow-up reading from Crunchy Cons). A prolific essayist and outspokenly agrarian farmer from Kentucky, Berry has been for several decades the voice of rural American heritage against the industrializing trend of society. There's far too much of his work that bears repeating--more than I could possibly offer on my little blog. In this respect, all I can say is, read his stuff. But one passage I read last night really stood out for me personally. If that wasn't enough reason to post, I realized this morning that it may encourage my "boring old [God]mother," and others whose kids don't always appreciate what they do (or don't do). In the 1980 essay "Family Work," Berry writes:
How can we preserve family life--if by that we mean, as I think we must, home life--when our attention is so forcibly drawn away from home? . . .

We can see clearly enough at least a couple of solutions. We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. What a grand and neglected privilege it is to be shed of the glibness, the gleeful idiocy, the idiotic gravity, the unctuous or lubricious greed of those public faces and voices!

And we can try to make our homes centers of attention and interest. Getting rid of the TV, we understand, is not just a practical act, but also a symbolical one: we thus turn our backs on the invitation to consume; we shut out the racket of consumption. The ensuing silence is an invitation to our homes, to our own places and lives, to come into being. And we begin to recognize a truth disguised or denied by TV and all that it speaks and stands for: no life and no place is destitute; all have possibilities of productivity and pleasure, rest and work, solitude and conviviality that belong particularly to themselves. These possibilities exist everywhere, in the country or in the city, it makes no difference. All that is necessary is the time and the inner quietness to look for them, the sense to recognize them, and the grace to welcome them. They are now most often lived out in home gardens and kitchens, libraries, and workrooms. But they are beginning to be worked out, too, in little parks, in vacant lots, in neighborhood streets. Where we live is also a place where our interest and our effort can be. But they can't be there by the means and modes of consumption. If we consume nothing but what we buy, we are living in "the economy," in "television land," not at home. It is productivity that rights the balance, and brings us home. Any way at all of joining and using the air and light and weather of your own place--even if it is only a window box, even if it is only an opened window--is a making and a having that you cannot get from TV or government or school.

That local productivity, however small, is a gift. If we are parents we cannot help but see it as a gift to our children--and the best of gifts. How will it be received?

Well, not ideally. Sometimes it will be received gratefully enough. But sometimes indifferently, and sometimes resentfully.

According to my observation, one of the likeliest results of a wholesome diet of home-raised, home-cooked food is a heightened relish for cokes and hot dogs. And if you "deprive" your children of TV at home, they are going to watch it with something like rapture away from home. And obligations, jobs, and chores at home will almost certainly cause your child to wish, sometimes at least, to be somewhere else, watching TV.

Because, of course, parents are not the only ones raising their children. They are being raised also by their schools and by their friends and by the parents of their friends. Some of this outside raising is good, some is not. It is, anyhow, unavoidable.

What this means, I think, is about what it has always meant. Children, no matter how nurtured at home, must be risked to the world. And parenthood is not an exact science, but a vexed privilege and a blessed trial, absolutely necessary and not altogether possible.

If your children spurn your healthful meals in favor of those concocted by some reincarnation of Col. Sanders, Long John Silver, or the Royal Family of Burger; if they flee from books to a friend's house to watch TV, if your old-fashioned notions and ways embarrass them in front of their friends--does that mean you are a failure?

It may. And what parent has not considered that possibility? I know, at least, that I have considered it--and have wailed and gnashed my teeth, found fault, laid blame, preached and ranted. In weaker moments, I have even blamed myself.

But I have thought, too, that the term of human judgment is longer than parenthood, that the upbringing we give our children is not just for their childhood but for all their lives. And it is surely the duty of the older generation to be embarrassingly old-fashioned, for the claims of the "newness" of any younger generation are mostly frivolous. The young are born to the human condition more than to their time, and they face mainly the same trials and obligations as their elders have faced.

The real failure is to give in. If we make our house a household instead of a motel, provide healthy nourishment for mind and body, enforce moral distinctions and restraints, teach essential skills and disciplines and require their use, there is no certainty that we are providing our children a "better life" that they will embrace wholeheartedly during childhood. But we are providing them a choice that they may make intelligently as adults.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

one small exception

I used to collect Simpsons quotes. Well, let me clarify that. I still pick up quotes just from watching. But I used to collect them more seriously. The Simpsons has got a lot of flak over the years for mocking religion. Shortly after I started watching it (belatedly, when I was in seminary), I decided that judgment was unfair. The show mocks pretty much everything, but more than most T.V. fare, it embraces religion as an indispensable feature of ordinary life. Taken in that context, what the Simpsons does with religion actually has some important positive aspects.

So, I started collecting religious quotes. I faithfully watched the two reruns that aired each night and all new episodes. Some had such major religious themes that I taped them for later study. With others, I transcribed the relevant dialog. I had an idea of someday writing a book about the topic (which has already been done, but I still think there's room for a more comprehensive project). Over time, however, I realized that I was devoting far too much time to the show. I cut out watching reruns, and then decided that I needed to put the religion project to rest. I just didn't need that pressure to keep watching faithfully. I still watch new episodes as they come out, but now I typically watch them once, and that's it. I did watch the movie this summer (though honestly, I didn't pay much attention to when it was coming out, nor was I terribly optimistic that it would be any good), and I even made the pilgrimage to the nearest Kwik-E-Mart. (To promote the movie, about a dozen 7-11 stores around the country were transformed into Kwik-E-Marts for a month; there happened to be one not terribly far from here.) I sometimes think about stopping altogether, but I think I've mostly got the habit under control :-)

Tonight, I had to make an exception. I can't recall ever having seen a reference to Orthodoxy in the Simpsons. (I deleted all the material I collected, so it's hard to say for sure.) But in the most recent episode, "Husbands and Knives," the opening scene highlights Comic Book Guy's usual foul attitude toward his clientèle. After Milhouse accidentally sheds a tear on a comic book, he says, "Nice work, Dr. Boo-hoo. Your tears have smudged Wolverine's iconic sideburns. Hence, you must buy this comic book. And the cost of your innocent accident is . . . (he checks a pricing guide) . . . $25, please."

In response, Milhouse wails, "But that's the money Yia-yia Sophia gave me for Greek Orthodox Easter."

It's not a terribly funny line--mostly just based on the obscurity of the reference--but how could I resist recording it?

Mongo or Rodan?

I probably won't be able to get away with nicknames like this when she's 14 (or six, for that matter), but right now I'm vacillating between two for Jenna: Mongo and Rodan.

Mongo was a character in Blazing Saddles, with a more recent homage in Shrek II, as the giant ginger bread man cooked up to storm the castle. Ian has pretty much always been small for his age (even for someone else's age); to date, anyway, Jenna is on the large side. At her recent four-month doctor's appointment, she weighed in over 17 lbs. Ian weighed 17 lbs. once--when he was a year old! She looks about to out-grow her car seat, and this evening we mistakenly thought she might be ready for her exer-saucer. (It was an easy mistake, based on her size, but she's still pretty floppy--she hasn't rolled over yet, and she mostly just sat there in the saucer, leaning her face against the side of the seat.)

Rodan was the screechy, pterodactyl-like creature from Godzilla. Lately, Jenna likes to hear herself talk. (How many more times will I say that about my daughter before she leaves home?) The problem is, herself talking falls somewhere between a hawk and a jet-engine. Ian complains that he can't hear the T.V. when she gets going; he's right--you really can't hear much of anything else. She might sound upset, but it's usually with a smile on her face. I've tried teaching her to talk quietly. That hasn't worked with our four-year-old; I'm thinking it won't work much better with a four-month-old.

Speaking of our four-year-old, his Sunday school teacher asked this morning if he'd eaten ice cream for breakfast. I guess he was a little bouncy in class. Nope--just nachos. We may be bad parents, but give us some credit. Now if we could just figure out where the line is between, this kid has a lot of energy and, somebody diagnose the little bugger!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Georgia on My Mind

One of the oldest Orthodox nations on the planet is the little Republic of Georgia. (Nothing secessionist going on here--I'm taking about the former Soviet Republic in Western Asia, sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. As far as I know, the State of Georgia is still in the Union and not terribly Orthodox either.) Last spring, when I visited St. Tikhon's, we got to talking about religious revival in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism; one of the seminary students mentioned that Georgia has some of the most impressive levels of actual participation (vs. those who now say they believe but almost never go to church or anything), which piqued my curiosity. I haven't found much online about Georgian Orthodoxy--it has only a very small presence here in the U. S., and there doesn't seem to be much available in English about the Church in Georgia. (Any suggestions?) I did happen across a film with some minor Georgian Orthodox characters not long after that, which I mentioned here. More significantly, the English edition of Pravoslavie has been posting lives of Georgian saints from a recent book published by St. Herman's. Today I read about the 100,000 martyrs of Tbilisi, who are commemorated Oct 31, which might make them a good candidate for some kind of Halloween-alternative celebration, except that the liturgical day runs evening to evening. (Not to mention the difference between calendars.)

I've also been following the political situation in Georgia, which had its own "color revolution" a few years back, resulting in better relations with the West but greater tensions with its neighbor Russia. Now our "friendly" Georgian government seems to be cracking down on opposition protesters with an uncomfortable level of strictness. After an outbreak of police brutality, the street demonstrations were called off; a state of emergency was declared, which looks soon to be lifted. There will be an early election to sort things out--hopefully. For me, the interesting part of the story was the desire of opposition leaders that any talks with the government be mediated by the Orthodox Patriarch. That story made it into the mainstream media as well--seen here, in the NYT. (Sorry--you may have to sign up for a free login to view the article.)

And speaking of shifting Eastern elections, how about this possibility for Putin to serve a third term? Maybe the next best thing to crowning a new tsar . . . :-)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

7.5794559776 random things about me

1) That subject line has to be good for at least half credit :-)

To my dear wife, BOO, HISS! Of course she knows about me that, as much as I deserve the nickname Android (by which I was affectionately known to my Washington Bible College colleagues), I cannot bring myself to abstain from this detestable task when she, of all people, tagged only me (of all people). With that,

2) I also despise picking life verses, but if I had to pick one honestly, it would probably be Matt 21:28-31a:
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first.
And so, like the first son, I will often begin by saying no, by giving every reason why I shouldn't, by giving every impression that I won't, and finish by doing the very thing that was asked.

3) My most recent meal was rosemary chicken and white bean soup, with bread machine sourdough--this morning--at 4:30 a.m. (No, I didn't get up at 2:00 and make it fresh--the soup, on sale and with a coupon, was $2.00 from Safeway on Saturday; the bread I made later that day.)

4) What I'm currently reading. I have bookmarks stuck in:
  • America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics / Bill Kauffman
  • The Portable Edmund Burke / Isaac Kramnick
  • The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot / Russell Kirk
  • Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke / Saint Ambrose of Milan
  • The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John / Blessed Theophylact
  • From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire / Pierre Briant
I will probably finish them in that order--the first three are library books, which I tend to read in order by size. (I'm also expecting Who Owns America? to arrive today, which will probably come on the list somewhere near the top.) I'm reading Ambrose along with the daily Gospel selections in the lectionary. I'm about halfway through Theophylact and will get to the rest as soon as I have a lull in library materials. Briant is about 10,000 pages (give or take) of .25-pt type, with margins so small that the words actually keep falling out of the book. I will finish it when the coming nuclear holocaust wipes out all the other books on earth (and several of the outer pages on this one, but probably leaving intact at least 90% of the volume).

5) I got my dad's facial hair patterning--for years, I couldn't get my beard to come up very high, and it took too long to grow a mustache that would connect with it, for the few months of each year when I was allowed to grow a beard (yes, I went to a college that forbade beards and long sideburns). At one point I gave up and grew a beard without a mustache, but I had people I didn't even know calling me Amish, so I gave that up. My ape-like body hair, however, comes from my maternal grandfather. This is supposed to be random things about me--there's probably nothing more random than the line where a haircut ends, somewhere on my neck, chosen arbitrarily to save the trouble of shaving my entire back. It's both a blessing and a curse to have my own fur coat wherever I go--I'm perpetually overheated; the other day my boss came into my office with a sweater on and said she'd have to bring a coat for her next visit.

6) I was banned for several years from cleaning the bathroom. I did nothing intentionally to avoid the job, though I can't say it was a particularly negative side-effect. Apparently I'm more efficient than germophobic--what looked to me like a convenient source for floor cleaner looked to Julie like a toilet. I tell you, sometimes she just has no imagination.

7) It's election day, or so the calendar says. I have no idea what offices are open or who's running. I haven't seen a single campaign commercial, poster, or button. I'm not voting, and you probably aren't either. The fact is, it would be irresponsible for me to vote, because I'm completely uninformed about this year's election. (I have to specify this year's, because for months now, it's been impossible to look at any news source without something in your face about next year's election. Sadly, the offices that are up this year are probably of more local significance and should therefore concern me more than next year's choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

8) It's nothing short of a miracle that I've made it through this post without quoting the Simpsons. (Though there were a few places where I really wanted to.)

I'm not tagging anyone else, because I wouldn't subject my enemies to this form of torture, much less my friends. Let it lie here where it fell, in all its pseudo-randomness.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

discussing theology with a four-year-old

Disclaimer: This is probably one of those cases where it would have been better just to provide a straight transcript of the talk. Alas, I didn't have a recording device rolling, and my memory just isn't that good.

Lately Ian's been thinking a lot about monsters. I have to make a confession here: I might have played some small part in this by leading him on in thinking that monsters inhabit the woods behind our house. I didn't plant the idea--just watered it, I suppose, by not quickly denying it, and by playing dumb when he felt me touch the hair on the back of his head. What can I say? I'm by no means anxious to stamp out any sense he might have that this world is a mysterious place, even if that mystery has its spooky elements. (What fairy tale doesn't have its evil forces as well as good?) Besides, I figure he's probably going to believe in stuff like this whether I go along with it or not. What's more likely to help a four-year-old who's got it in his head that there might be monsters in his room? Explaining them away, or teaching him about the God who is sovereign over anything this world can cook up? (And wouldn't I feel bad if there really were monsters, and I'd just told him to get over it?)

So, in the past couple of days we've been having this struggle over the position of the light switch. He keeps wanting to leave the hall light on--not when he's in his room (he seems to have no real issues with thinking something might be in there while he's sleeping)--but when we're all in the living room, and he just sees that dark open doorway down at the end of the hall. I've tried the logical approach--have you seen a monster in the house? have you heard a monster in the house? (even tried smell, taste, and touch, just to make sure) so what makes you think there would be a monster in your room? See, I'm fine with him thinking there might be monsters, until it starts costing me money on utilities. The answers were all "no," but he still wouldn't be swayed--there might be monsters, just because.

Today, I tried another angle. I told him prayer would be a good way to deal with monsters. I explained that God could protect him. Ian said that God's not here--he's really far away. (OK, he's got the transcendence part--now we just need the immanence.) I tried to explain that God is everywhere, but we just can't see him. He reminded me of what I'd told him before--that even though we can't see God in person, we can see pictures of him, when he was a baby and then when he was bigger. (He does remember some of what I say.) We talked for a while about Jesus, how he was born as a baby and grew up like any other kid, and eventually became an adult. I explained that once he became an adult some people who didn't like him killed him. Ian wanted specific details about that part--how exactly did they do it? I then explained that he came back to life. Why? Hmm--good question. Because he's God, and you can't really kill God. (Not very good, I know, but I'm trying to tailor this for a four-year-old, remember.) So then he went back to heaven, but he said that he'd still be with us, that he would live in our hearts if we believed in him.

At this point, I think it was getting to be a bit much for him. I tried a fairly lame comparison. You can talk to someone on the phone, even though they're not in the room and you can't see them. Something like that, God can hear our prayers, when we talk to him, even though we can't see him. Then there was something about God coming on a plane, and I said God doesn't ride on planes, and he said it's the other god that rides on planes (remember?), and I said I wasn't familiar with that god. Then I backtracked and said there's only one God. I explained that God has angels (it's a lot easier to explain that God can send angels wherever we're in need of help, than to explain how he's everywhere all the time)--you know what angels are? Yeah, they have wings, and they're shiny. Right--so God sends them to help us and protect us from bad things, including monsters. Yeah, they can kill it with a sword. I have a sword too (a rather sturdy cardboard tube--probably from a roll of wrapping paper or something)--I can kill the monsters with it. Yeah, but you're small--the monsters wouldn't be afraid of you like they would of an angel. Maybe a small monster.

Anyway, in the end, he seemed to like the idea of adding a prayer at bedtime for good dreams and that no monsters would get him. I found one in my prayer book that seemed about right, and we used it tonight. It's not as cool as the prayer Fr. Stephen's son came up with when he was four, but it should suffice.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

a Homer moment

Headline: Kurds in Turkey Who Backed Erdogan Now Fear Civil War

mmmmm . . . curds in turkey . . .

Here's hoping we all survive until Thanksgiving! (Not least, the Kurds in Turkey.)

why I ride the bus

. . . aside from the fact that I'm the world's biggest cheapskate, and my commute is practically free . . .

A snapshot of my morning, before 6:30:

4:10--e-mail & feeds
4:20--breakfast & bills
4:35--teeth & clothes
4:45--walk through the woods to the bus stop, singing, praying, enjoying the great weather we've had this week
4:55--on the bus, listening to Trans-Siberian Orchestra* for the first time since last winter, reading on my laptop:
By the time I finish Bp. ARTEMIJE's speech, the bus has reached Scaggsville, where it really starts to fill up. I put the laptop away and slide over by the window to make room. I drift in and out of sleep until we reach Silver Spring, never really losing the plot in Lost Christmas Eve.*
5:55--back outside, across the street to the Metro station
6:00--on the bus, still listening to Trans-Siberian Orchestra* (it's a long album, and I repeat a couple of my favorites), standing as usual, just enjoying the music and the sway of the bus; it's full but not terribly crowded this morning
6:20--Medical Center Metro; one more time outside, nice quiet walk across campus; now listening to my Arabic Christmas album from Lebanon*
6:25--in my office; greet the icons and a quick prayer for the tasks ahead

What did you do before 6:30 this morning?

*--Yes, I'm listening to Christmas music! I know it's early, but I really want to learn some Orthodox Christmas songs this year, and I don't learn new songs quickly. Plus, if I can get a jump on things, it hopefully won't be a distraction during the Nativity Fast. I haven't quite decided whether I'll abstain from music in any fashion during the fast or not; if I do, that's even more reason to start now. (I probably won't, at least not altogether--if there's one thing we Orthodox do badly, it's compartmentalize present sorrow from future joy. We can't even get through Good Friday without singing about the Resurrection!) So, as of this morning, my mp3 player is loaded up with Christmas tunes, which still leaves some room for podcasts.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

better than no steps forward, two steps back

In the continuing saga of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, maybe one step forward, two steps back is the best we can hope for. The last thing I heard was that the PA and Jordan were backpedaling from their earlier recognition of Pat. THEOPHILOS Now it appears that Israel is finally going to approve his enthronement (was it waiting for the others to change their minds?), assuming it doesn't get overturned by appeal. Again, it's all about the land, which is getting to be a rather dead, bludgeoned, maimed, mangled horse.

Meanwhile, life just got a bit harder for Arab Christian clergy in Palestine . . .

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

American chant?

As usual, I'm way behind the curve on this one. In Clark Carlton's most recent podcast, he continues his musings on the role of Southern culture in forming an American Orthodoxy. He refers to the music of the Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia and its striking similarity to Byzantine Chant. Carlton alludes to prior discussion in the Orthodox blogosphere; in fact, you could get just about everything he says about it by reading this post on Christ in the Mountains (from back in February, I'm so far behind), and following the included links. There really are some interesting similarities, and given that the musical tradition goes back to the earliest days of English Protestantism, it's not out of the question that something is preserved here from pre-Reformation liturgical singing.

In any case, it would be a potential vehicle for some American adaptation of Byzantine chant, though I'm not sure exactly what that would accomplish. Perhaps in some parts of the South it would resonate enough for people to adopt it more comfortably than Byzantine chant. But I could see a lot of Northerners and Northern-minded urbanites having no more affinity for what sounds to their ears like a very depressing form of country, or southern gospel, or bluegrass (most of us probably wouldn't have a clue of the proper categories) than for Byzantine or Russian chant. The fact is, you'd be very hard-pressed to define anything as a national American musical form. Probably the safest bet is the ubiquitous, bland pop, pumped by the globalist media, but it's also the least suitable candidate for Orthodox liturgical music.

It may be that making liturgical music truly American inevitably requires a regional or local approach. For a rural area like Appalachia, maybe there are surviving musical traditions with enough popularity or familiarity that it would make sense to adapt them for Orthodox worship. On the other hand, a northern city with substantial immigrant communities might just as easily embrace the "ethnic" feel of Byzantine. For those who appreciate the sound and feel of Classical European, later Russian liturgical music might suit just fine, or at least might form the most convenient starting point to adapt something more familiar. Beyond those categories, however, I can envision a rather large chunk of the American population raised on more contemporary forms (increasingly used in churches as well) that would not care for any of the above. What do we do with them?

I really don't profess to have any answers here. Personally, I think I could get into the style used in these Old Regular Baptist churches, but then I had a quick and natural affinity for Byzantine chant, so I'm hardly the person to judge what will work for Americans in general. I like the idea that Orthodoxy could take on more indigenous forms in the South, and if Carlton is right, maybe that's where the ball will really get rolling for America as a whole. As for me, I'm just trying to learn the music as it stands right now. Lately I've been trying to learn some key troparia--for major feasts as they come along, and for patron saints. Occasionally I play around with how they're sung, since I'm mostly singing to myself and anyone in the spirit world who happens to be listening. To me, the troparion to St. Peter the Aleut (my patron saint) sounds good sung loud, forceful and raspy. I could hear it in some kind of rock ballad. St. Nicholas and St. John of Damascus sound better with a relaxed, jazzy feel (I'm sure there are more technical terms to use here--I just don't know what they are). Not that I want Orthodox liturgy to sound any more like a rock opera than it does like a free-form jazz odyssey--just pointing out how little I have to offer on the issue :-)