Thursday, August 31, 2006

Perditum Non Duco

Despite the lighting strike and its associated trauma, despite the neoconservative war against America's religious and philosophical tradition, and despite a whopping case of sciatica, Father A. and his strikingly beautiful consort are endeavoring to get a bit of West and Wewaxation in the Adirondack Mountains. (The photo's not our place, but it gives the general idea).

As is my tradition on these summer vacations, I've been translating some Latin poetry (now you know why I'm so much fun at parties). Here's a morsel that's been making me think: Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire / et quod vides perisse, perditum ducas. Roughly, it means:
"Poor Catullus! Stop being a dope, and give up for lost what you can see is lost."

Catullus, of course, goes on to talk about faithless women and their lip-nibbling. [He was that kind of guy.] On the one hand, this is straightforward worldly wisdom, of the sort that everybody has given to a heartbroken pal in a bar at three A.M. (Or that Jesus gave to his apostles, when he advised them to brush the dust off their sandals). And it sometimes seems, in a world of struggle, that this is just the advice we need:
Stop fretting! Admit defeat; move on to the next challenge.

But honestly, friends, I just can't do it. Not on the big things, anyway -- the future of the Church, or of the Republic; not on matters of war and peace, life and death. Even when it seems that the Flying Monkeys have taken over Washington, that pietist halfwits have taken over the ELCA, that the sheer bigotry is destroying the Anglican Communion and Rome's "defenders" are her greatest enemies -- even then, I can't just walk away and let them have their fun. And so I type, pissing and moaning and doubting it does much good today, but hoping it may do some good tomorrow. As Cicero says, somewhere, Spero meliora: I hope for better days.

[P.S. -- Those of you who enjoy Catullus and his sweet-and-sour approach to life might click on two blogs that have mentioned him lately:
Professor Zero and grammar.police]

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Neocons Hate Protestantism

Only half-true, but snappier than the sort-of-obvious "neocons hate liberal modernity." Still, it does appear that a Roman Catholic neocon cabal, led by Richard John Neuhaus, has been waging a long war of attrition on mainline Protestantism in America. And winning.

This at least is the argument of a fascinating article at Media Transparency, synopsized at
Political Cortex. The article is well-documented, including some especially damning remarks by Damon Linker, the former assistant editor of Neuhaus's on-paper blog, First Things. The idea is that the board of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (which includes Neuhaus, George Weigel, Mary Anne Glendon, and so forth) has spent decades promoting a pitiless critique of mainline Protestant denominations, while leaving Roman Catholic institutions largely uncritiqued. In theory, this is because the mainline Prots (or at least their national bodies) have leaned consistently left, while the church of John Paul II has been a bastion of traditionalism and conservatism.

In other words, at a point in history when Roman/Prot relations are comparatively warm, this bunch of renegades has been running a private war. Call them the Latin Hezbollah. And like the other "Party of God," they have led their formerly-dominant adversaries into a bad spot. Schisms are breaking out all over, especially in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, often spearheaded by IRD-trained "renewal" groups.

Obviously, this coup d'eglise is part of a larger sociocultural strategy. The issue isn't merely the transient political tendencies of mainline leaders; it is the historic resistance of their theological traditions to authoritarianism and oversimplification. Linker puts it in the strongest possible terms:

The America toward which Richard John Neuhaus wishes to lead us -- [is] an which moral and theological absolutists demonize the country's political institutions and make nonnegotiable public demands under the threat of sacralized revolutionary violence, in which citizens flee from the inner obligations of freedom and long to subordinate themselves to ecclesiastical authority, and in which traditionalist Christianity thoroughly dominates the nation's public life.

All manner of qualifications are in order here.

First, this bunch is really only as Catholic as they feel like being at the moment. The IRD crowd is often (and rightly) criticized by liberal Catholics for misrepresenting official doctrine on social issues -- they never came to terms with JPII's critique of capitalist materialism, for example; they promoted the Iraq war despite the Pope's strong objections. And I will never forget the issue of First Things in which both Avery Cardinal Dulles and Antonin "The Godfather" Scalia were induced to publish articles declaring that opposition to the death penalty really isn't Catholic doctrine, no matter what the Pope says.

Second, let's not pretend that the mainline Prots aren't out of touch, both with solid doctrine and, more often than not, with their own constituencies. Nor should we pretend that they are anything less than ponderous bureaucracies staffed by pastors who washed out of the parish. They are, and would be suffering the consequences regardless of anything a second-rate think tank wrote about them.

And so forth. But all that said, the animus of the IRD crowd toward the forms of religious life that largely shaped the nation they themselves grew up in is undeniable. The Freudian kill-the-father element is most undeniable in Neuhaus himself, a convert from Lutheranism. But then, that's what's "neo" about neoconservatism: it doesn't actually seek to conserve any traditional institutions or values, so much as to undermine the midcentury political consensus. (That "consensus," of course, included bitter political and ideological enemies, all of them -- from Roosevelt to Goldwater! -- now dismissed as "liberal.")
Here's the good news, such as it is: The pendulum is already swinging. These guys have had their heyday -- it was Iraq, more and more evidently a disastrous box-up. They have had their president -- more and more evidently guilty of LBJ's inept warmongering without any of LBJ's high ideals. Rumsfeld actually makes Macnamara look like a man of wisdom and integrity. And America is beginning to sicken of the petty ideologues whose vitriolic psychodrama has been passed off as "conservative intellectualism" for the past generation.

Today's Democrats may be feckless, and the mainline Protestant denominations irredeemable, but mark old Father A's words: there is a new consensus building. And it is, it will be, in the broadest possible sense, a liberal consensus.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Seriously Bad News

Father A.'s church was hit by lightning the other night. No joke -- a serious strike that did serious damage. We'll spend a long time now dealing with insurance people, contractors and the inevitable massive fundraising drive.

There's something about a church hit by lightning, though, that makes you think. Should I have been a Baptist? A Presbyterian? A Satanist? Should I change my politics to something more Erastian? Or are all those low-church types right when they claim that Gothic architecture has outlived its usefulness?

For the moment, my answer to all the above is (as it has always been) a big No, with some Bronx cheer added for good measure. But I do have a newfound respect for the humble lightning rod . . . .

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


A military hearing in Baghdad has revealed the events of March 12 in Mahmudiya, Iraq. It's bad.

Click the link above for an Australian paper's account of the events themselves. It's brutal, sickening stuff. A group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne were on duty at a checkpoint, drinking, playing cards and driking, when -- without provocation of any kind -- they took it upon themselves to dress in black outfits and ski masks, and commit rape and mass murder. Here's the worst of it, slightly edited:

The girl, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, and her father were standing outside a house. The soldiers allegedly dragged them inside and pushed the man, his wife and younger daughter, 6, into a side room where one soldier stood guard over them.

Another soldier pushed the girl to the floor and tore off her clothes as the first held her down. She held her knees together and struggled as he tried to rape her.

A gun shot came from the side room as the men switched places. More shots were heard from the side room and a soldier emerged with an AK-47. He allegedly said, "They're all dead," before raping the girl and shooting her several times.

Then her body was set alight. They opened the house's propane tank to set it on fire. They burnt their clothes, threw the gun into a canal and, back at the checkpoint, celebrated by grilling chicken wings.

Obviously, these men are dangerous sociopaths. But here's another disturbing thing: the
Fox News report of the same story puts its emphasis on the soldiers' defense, which is, essentially, that they were under stress and expected to die before getting home. Unlike, say, everybody else in Iraq.

I sincerely hope we will not have to listen to months of "pity the poor soldiers" before these monsters are permanently removed from society.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bush Flunkie Gets Probation

Claude Allen is a Duke-trained lawyer and, until recently, a ranking White House advisor on domestic policy. He has also confessed to shoplifting stuff from department stores and returning it for the refund money.

Where to begin? First off, this is obviously a sick man. His government salary was $161,000, so it's not like he needs the money. (He was stealing from Target, for pity's sake, not from Neiman Marcus.)

But second, the guy's a jerk. Here's a taste of an old article from

In 1984, Allen accused [his employer, Senator Jesse] Helms’ Democratic challenger, then-Governor James Hunt, of having links to "queers," "radical feminists," socialists and unions (Hunt was, in fact, a Bible-quoting right-wing Dem.) And Allen forged his odious reputation as a black capo for the racist right when he continued working for Helms despite the senator’s militant opposition to making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Lovely man, eh? During a stint at Health & Human Services, he also did his best to make AIDS organizations promote abstinence rather than condoms. But wait, as the Ronco adverts used to say -- there's more!

After he was first arrested, Allen started suggesting to friends and the media that maybe his twin brother was the real culprit. Yes, you heard me. He tried to frame his own brother. Man, that's cold even by the standards of anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-racist kleptomaniacs. And yet, astonishingly, there's more.

When he confessed today, Allen explained why he had chosen his life of petty crime: He "lost his bearings" because he was working 14-hour days after Hurricane Katrina.

The hurricane made him do it. Poor feller was just working too hard. Happens to all of us. Why, after Holy Week, I often run out and jump a few turnstiles, snatch a purse or two, maybe kill a hobo.

So Claude Allen is (1) demented, and (2) a jerk. But here's the part that really burns my biretta: he got away with it.

Judge Eric "Softy" Johnson gave him 40 hours of community service, $1350 in restitution and fines, and two years probation. But if he doesn't get caught stealing again for two years, his record will be expunged -- the guy may even be able to practice law. It will be as if this were all a bad dream (Which is how I have come to think of the Bush Administration as a whole).

Compare that wrist-slap to the judge who gave a
15-year sentence to each of three New Orleans residents for stealing some booze after the hurricane. I mean, if you want to talk about Katrina-related stress, you really might want to start with people who were caught in the storm.

They're Not Even Pretending Anymore

Interesting piece on the Iraq war by Greg Palast, at Tikkun. His main point is, planning the invasion, that the neocons thought they could privatize the Iraqi oilfields and destroy OPEC's price-fixing power, while Texas-based Big Oil wanted to "enhance" Iraq's place in OPEC, thus assuring high petroleum prices.

(In case you didn't notice, Big Oil won.)

But there's all sorts of curious detail in the report, including this:

Ever since the conviction of Elliott Abrams for perjury before Congress, neither [Paul] Wolfowitz nor the other Bush factotums swear an oath before testifying. If you don’t raise your hand and promise to tell the truth, "so help me, God," you’re off the hook with federal prosecutors. How the Lord will judge that little ploy, we cannot say.

I'd actually noticed this, back when Senator Spector refused to swear in
Alberto Gonzales before hearing the AG's testimony about surveillance of American citizens. But somewhow, I hadn't thought about its implications. And the implications are stunning.

Our leaders no longer swear to tell the truth when giving public testimony, because they don't intend to tell it and don't want to be punished for lying. Let me just repeat the key concept: They don't even bother to pretend they're telling the truth.

Somewhere, George Washington is weeping.

Friday, August 04, 2006

No Good Deed

The ELCA's publishing house, Augsburg-Fortress, is preparing a new "primary worship resource," or as we used to say, hymnal. (Lutherans customarily combine their prayer book and hymnal into a single volume). And there is anxiety in the air regarding Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Just last week, Father A.'s beloved godfather forwarded an email from Gracia Grindal, of Luther Sem. In it, she raised all sorts of wild alarums about the content of a book she has not yet seen, and knows about only from grapevine reports. Father A. gently pointed out to the beloved g. that Prof. Grindal is a career alarmist, especially prone to nasty remarks about the comparatively high-church traditions of East Coast Lutheranism. Oh, and she's trying to sell her own "alternative" book -- which makes any critique of ELW seem not only premature but crass to the point of cynicism.

In other words, I did my bit to support the team. You know, defending the Church and its organizations from those who scorn and belittle them, including seminary professors. Stuck by my side and all that.

And here's the thanks I get. Augsburg's website (click the link) advertises the book, which won't be published until October. Along with the pew edition, there is also a "Leaders Ritual Edition," which we are assured will "look good in procession or on the communion table or ambo."

Ritual Edition? Communion table? Sigh. The LBW used to call the big book that the presider reads from an "Altar Book." And it referred to the piece of furniture in question as an "altar." So did the SBH which preceded it, and the CSB before that. But apparently, that isn't good enough for the bold new world

Yes, I do remember Gordon Lathrop's seminary lecture on the importance of keeping alive both terms, "table" and "altar," as a way of reminding people that the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we offer there is a shared meal, rather than bad mimickry of some pagan rite. And that's fair enough. But still.

Look, there has already been a longstanding compromise within Lutheranism, by which we don't call the big book by its traditional name, a Missal. That's the proper, traditional, medieval word. It's the word Luther would have used: the Mass-book. But of course some Lutheran ears burn like vampires spritzed with Holy Water when they hear the M-word. So, out of concern for the weaker brethren, we've settled for generations on a nice, neutral, mutually-acceptable word: Altar Book.

But now somebody has gone and upset the apple cart. Either they didn't know, or they didn't care. And either possibility bodes ill for ELW.

Junk Mail, Book Division

Along with the usual unwanted credit-card offers, my church mailbag often includes catalogs of cheaply-made plastic toys that we are supposed to buy and then give away to unsuspecting children, who will doubtless choke on them and die. (Or would, if we actually purchased any of this crap.)

In the same spitit, this week's mail included a complimentary copy of a book by Pr David Glesne, of Redeemer Lutheran, Fridley MN. It's called Understanding Homosexuality: Perspectives for the Local Church. The author's tone is mild, at least as compared to some of the screaming crazies out there, but his purpose is not. Glesne uses "science" to rebut the usual "myths of the homosexual agenda." Such "myths" include the proposition that "homosexuals lead happy lives." Needless to say, he is a great advocate of psychotherapeutic efforts to straighten out those who suffer from such unhappiness.

The rest of the book is about what you would expect. Nothing new here. The book is not very scholarly, nor especially well-written, nor in any way original. The author's credentials are unimpressive (a D.Min. and some experience teaching at an unaccredited seminary). It is a more sophisticated version of the ten-page xeroxed mailings I periodically get from Sister Elijah at the Universal Grapevine Covenant of God, proving through an astute juxtaposition of Revelation, Proverbs and Fox News that the End Times are at hand.

Normally, I would just chuck this without a thought. But the book retails for sixteen bucks, and copies seem to have been mailed to every pastor in the ELCA. This raises an obvious question: who footed the bill? To whose largesse do we owe this unwelcome intrusion into our lives? And how do we keep it from happening again?

Pr Glesne's cover letter says that the book is brought to us by "the generosity of a sister ELCA congregation in Colorado." But he doesn't name the parish. So I called Redeemer, Fridley, to ask him, but he's conveniently out of town. I left a message for his secretary, as polite as you please, asking her to call me back with the information.

That was three days ago. I don't think she's gonna call. Which means my "sister congregation in Colorado" has chosen to remain anonymous -- which strikes me as an act of cowardice. (But a reasonable one. I was planning to order them a lot of pizza.)

[Update: A call to the publisher, Kirk House Publishing, doesn't provide a name. But it does offer a fascinating story -- the mystery congregation is apparently defunct, and used the proceeds from the sale of their building to pay for this book. They could -- one might even argue should -- have turned that money over to their synod, to start new churches or endow a seminary scholarship fund. But they preferred to trade their heritage for this potty bit of pottage. How sad.]