Thursday, February 28, 2008


Holy Cross does a monthly Paraklesis service (similar to a Moleben in the Russian tradition), which for those who don't know is an Orthodox supplication service. Now, for my Evangelical friends, don't expect to walk in and find people sitting around, sharing requests and then breaking up into small groups for extemporaneous prayer. We'll pray for specific people (from requests circulated daily on the parish e-mail list and weekly in the bulletin), but we assume that God knows at least as much as we do about their situations. So the prayer is light on details, heavy on context.

"Concise Orthodox service" is a Googlenope, a term coined by columnist Gene Weingarten for a phrase that does not register any hits if you Google it in quotes. (Of course, once you've identified a Googlenope online, it ceases to be one.) So it should come as no surprise that we spend an hour singing about our general human plight before God, and then the priest rattles through a long list of names. I never get the impression that this belittles their needs or anyone else's. It's sort of like the guys who brought the paralytic to Jesus and had to lower him down through the roof. They had to get a group together, somehow climb up on the roof, open up a hole, lower him down--a lot of hard work, it seems to me. But when everything was done, it was a simple act of laying their friend at Jesus's feet. They didn't have to explain anything, didn't have to make any eloquent speeches. The need was as obvious to him as it was to them, and their faith and love were obvious too. In prayer, we come before God's throne. We prostrate, we invoke the saints, we acknowledge our sin--and when all is said and done, we lay down our friends and neighbors and trust God to act.

I find it to be a very moving service, and I love when I get to attend. Last week, unexpectedly they scheduled an extra Paraklesis instead of the usual weekday Vespers. It happened to be a night when I was going anyway, so I could hear the talk afterward. If it wasn't enough that I got to attend, they decided to record the service and put it online. Kudos to Reader Ben for that! Now I can pray the service more often (with others is better, but I'll take what I can get), and hopefully learn the words and music more thoroughly. I've thought before that it would be nice to have some of the regular services recorded. Ideally, you learn it by attending; but for those of us who can't attend as often as we'd like, it's a nice alternative.

So I'm pretty psyched. I guess that makes me weird, but oh well . . .

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

nothing new under the sun

After we screwed up Ian's hair, I told Julie that it just looked like one of those old, wide middle parts that you see in pictures of people from the 19th and early 20th centuries. When we were visiting my aunt this weekend, she showed us a bunch of pictures she'd salvaged from my grandpa's house, including this one of Great-Grandpa Peterson:

Ian saw it and said, "That looks like my hair!" My point exactly.

the implosion of humanism

It is perhaps too much to credit postmodernism with leading me to Orthodoxy, but it has certainly played a key role. There's a lot that goes by the name of "postmodern," so let me clarify a bit. I came at most current (and not-so-current) thinking by way of literary criticism (also music, but that's a story for another post). The journey went something like this:
  • desire to know God led me to theology
  • desire to know theology led me to the Bible
  • desire to know the Bible led me to hermeneutics
  • desire to know hermeneutics led me to literary theory
  • desire to know literary theory led me to philosophy and politics
And it was once I realized that the end of this progression was meaningless that I knew something had to give. Where I ended up was pure relativism and subjectivism. Nothing can stand on its own--not truth, not the meaning of a text, and certainly not the conclusions we think we draw from such things. What we see as truth, what we find in a text--these things grow out of our subjective experience. The best we can hope for is to be honest with ourselves, which could still mean we're delusional; but admitting that is half the battle, right?

In the midst of all this depressing nihilism (I suppose I was never quite optimistic enough to be truly postmodern), I learned something important from Stanley Fish (and others, I'm sure--but he seems to have been the key voice here)--that texts and meaning happen in community. This notion shed a great deal of light on where I'd been so far--as my "community" changed, so did my thinking--and pointed the way to where I might go. I had started within a community that still held with conviction the humanistic notion from which it had been born--that an earnest student with a Bible can trump all else and arrive at the truth. I could not regenerate such a rosy perspective, but I could look for a community that recognized its own role in the process, while still retaining a deep respect for Scripture. This is what I ultimately found in Orthodoxy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, I've kept myself for the most part out of the mess of postmodern literary criticism, which has wrapped itself up nicely by declaring its own death. (Or I should say, by declaring its own meaninglessness. It can still proceed without meaning, so I suppose it's not exactly dead.) But I happened to come across a blog entry by Stanley Fish, referenced in a newsletter by a gentleman who still believes in good, old-fashioned humanism. Needless to say, he was rather upset by it, but once again I find a great deal of wisdom here. Fish concludes:
And that, I believe, is how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Hear, then, the words of this postmodern prophet. There remains no value to the humanities except the joy it brings its practitioners. Anything else would only degrade the discipline. Where humanism set out to ennoble mankind through learning, it has succeeded only in producing a discipline that wants nothing to do with humanity. It will keep to itself, thank you very much, like so many self-absorbed and ungrateful children (to strains of "Cat's in the Cradle"). Our thinking and our society have run their course together, and now neither is any more concerned about raising up future generations than it is about honoring those that came before. Intellectual hedonism meets its social counterpart in a perfect, childless marriage.

Of course, in Fish's world, this is the end of the story. And the same goes for those reactionary humanists who take offense at his betrayal. That's why they take offense--because if he's right, there is nothing left to save mankind. But Fish is simply calling a spade a spade. Learning on its own has never been anything more than learning on its own. Removed from the context of faith, it has no power to save. I suspect this is part of the reason that I lost interest in my academic program. When I started out, I still believed it was the way to my destination. Once I realized that was an illusion, I discovered that I was much more interested in my original goal of knowing God than in humanities or any intellectual discipline for its own sake.

Friday, February 08, 2008


I don't generally get into artsy movies. You know--the kind that do well at film festivals, get critical acclaim, but never see the light of day at the box office. Often low-budget, stretching the limits of the medium, and popular with filmmakers because someone had the courage to make the movie they wanted to make, whether it sells well or not. I'm sure I've combined several incompatible ideas here, put forth glaring stereotypes, and completely missed the point. But that precisely is the point. I'm not even cultured enough to know what I'm criticizing.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not some couch potato with a cheap beer in one hand and a remote control in the other, searching for a mindless movie with less dialog and more explosions. (Though I do drink cheap beer--just not very often.) I like movies that make you think. I like Memento, which runs the scenes in reverse order to mimic the main character's affliction of short-term memory loss. Or Donnie Darko, which after three times watching it I'm still not quite sure I can put everything together. Or even the Matrix, which has its share of destructive action, but is set in a world that raises all sorts of interesting issues. I think the problem may be, I don't like movies that make you feel--at least, not if that's the primary focus.

Recently, some friends raved about Once--a low-budget Irish film that got something like 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. We got it from Netflix and watched it tonight. (SPOILER ALERT--there's not much suspense in this movie, but I suppose I do give away whatever surprise there might be.) The music was great, but I have to say, beyond that I wasn't too impressed. I told Julie afterward that it struck me as an extended music video. Someone had an idea mostly about music and pieced in enough story to hold it together. I wasn't surprised when we watched the "making of" feature on the disc. The director started as a musician and developed a later interest in film-making. He sees the two as similar processes and wanted to make a film that was mostly about the music.

On one level, I could appreciate what was going on. But I never really got caught up in the story. Mostly, I just kept asking myself, where is this going? He's still in love with his ex-girlfriend, she's married but living apart from her husband. There's an attraction between them, so what--they're going to find "true love" despite the inconvenient, extraneous relationships? they're going to go their separate ways, always wondering what might have been?

It was somewhat more vague than that--they made this deep connection, he went after his ex, she tried to patch things up with her husband. What then? Presumably they both got where they were going, but now with the baggage of a deep friendship in which they share with each other something they apparently don't get from their spouses. There's some glimpse of the danger--that it easily could have taken a different course in a more romantic direction. There are clear vestiges--the recording they made together will always be a reminder of what they once had, not to mention the new piano he bought for her before leaving town. But I don't get any sense that we're supposed to wish this relationship had never happened or wish for it to just fade away either. What will these ghosts do to their separate relationships with spouses and lovers?

I know, I know. I'm expecting too much. There was an icon of the Theotokos in the background of one scene, but otherwise, there's almost nothing religious in the film. There's no reason I should expect a definitively moral message about extramarital relationships with the opposite sex. I guess it's a sign of my own weakness that I feel the need to highlight these flaws and refute them. If I were stronger, I could simply accept that the film's message is what it is, appreciate the story's insight into the human condition, and go on with life. Perhaps I could even see in this fleeting moment of beauty and mutual encouragement a snapshot of how our lives comprise countless relationships, each of which is a glimpse of the divine. Instead, all I can think is, how is this possibly helping to restore her relationship with her husband?

Am I afraid to let films like this move me? Is it just a cop-out to say I don't trust my feelings to teach me wisdom? I guess I'm still just a critic at heart. At least in this case, I don't think Julie's impression of the movie was much better than mine; better to bug my artsy friends than my wife, I guess :-)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


I have to keep telling myself that it's February. As if yesterday wasn't bad enough (I didn't wear a coat), today's shaping up to be even warmer. They were calling for rain, so I held off putting on my socks until I could see what was happening this morning. (No point getting them wet first thing.) It looks like the storms aren't supposed to come until the afternoon (should be a great commute!), but it was so warm outside that I decided to go sockless on the way to work anyway--just because I can!