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.