Saturday, January 31, 2009

Manifest in Making Whole

We at the Egg spend a lot of time razzing our Anglican friends, and have made no secret of our hostility toward the Anglican right, both in America and abroad.  But we came across this story -- a Chuck Colson press release, found on the Virtue Online site, about a founder of the Anglican Mission in America.  Normally, any of those phrases would make the spittle fly.

But not this time.  This is wonderful, and we are grateful to David Virtue and Chuck Colson for letting us know about it:

In a large open area of a Rwandan prison, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana spoke to a crowd of killers responsible for the 1994 genocide. "Close your eyes," he instructed them. "Go back in your mind to 1994. What did you see?" he asked. "What did you smell? What did you hear?"

Many in the crowd began to weep. He told the men to see their victims' faces. The sobs grew louder. "Now," said Bishop John, "that which made you cry, that you must confess."

It's amazing enough that Bishop John, himself a Tutsi, would speak to the Hutu perpetrators of the genocide. It's even more amazing when you consider that John's own niece, Madu, was brutally raped and killed during the genocide. But Bishop John had a reason to reach out to these men in compassion-for he, too, had found forgiveness of his sins through Jesus Christ.

... [Bishop John] found Christ while growing up as an exile from his native Rwanda. He puts it better than I've ever heard before: "I did not accept Jesus. Jesus graciously met me and accepted me." This is a man who understands how we come empty-handed to Christ.

There's more, and you can click above to find it.  We still lament AMiA and the deviltry that followed.  But you know what?  For today, at least, Bishop Rucyahana is our hero.

Acid Oceans by 2050

A recent study commissioned by the UN predicts that the world's oceans will be filled with carbonic acid by 2050.  This will kill off all the coral reefs, and screw up the marine food chain.  The culprit (need we even say it?) is atmospheric carbon dioxide, mainly from fossil fuels.

This is the less-researched parallel to global warming.  The oceans have normally been able to filter up to a quarter of the available carbon dioxide, thus helping slow the rate of climate change.  But as the gas dissolves, it turns to acid in the water.  And the acid kills stuff. 

This process has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and the oceans are already 30% more acidic than they were in the 17th century.  And the change is accelerating.  As a result, coral reefs are already deteriorating, and the shells of marine creatures are growing thinner.

For upstate New Yorkers, this is a familiar movie, now projected onto a much larger screen.  Acid rain -- the result of emissions from the Michigan automobile industry -- has long since poisoned the lakes and ponds of the Adirondack region.  More than one in six Adirondack bodies of water is no longer able to sustain life.  

The prospect of this happening to the oceans ought to be terrifying.  Frankly, we're stunned that today's Times relegates it to the back pages, way below the fold, and that a similar report last August didn't attract more attention.  This is potentially apocalyptic stuff.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The History of Breastfeeding

... is as long as the history of the human race.  Longer, of course, since other creatures do it as well -- but we are surely the only species to make such a fuss over it, much less consider alternatives.

The subject, about which we had thought rarely in the past 45 or so years, has been on our mind lately, as Baby Anonymous keeps sucking away.  We were more amused than outraged when Facebook banned the photos posted by proudly breastfeeding mamas, on the grounds that they were "erotic."  Seriously?  No.

And then we read the fascinating article, linked above.  It's worth a gander.

The New Yorker's Jill Lepore is well on her way to becoming indispensable.  Her writing may lack the zing that once defined the magazine -- Dorothy Parker!  A.J. Liebling! -- and which is now restricted principally to Adam Gopnik and, especially, Anthony Lane.  In its current incarnation, the magazine has a soft spot for earnestness, no doubt because editor David Remnick does it so well, and one of its earnest back-page features are essays on historical and literary topics of no special interest to the smart set.  These are often written by Simon Schama (good enough) and Louis Menand (quite good).  Jill Lepore's essays are the best of this sort.  She zooms in on her topics -- occasionally quite academic ones -- and extracts from them the images and ideas that make them seem suddenly important.

In her nursing essay, Lepore both begins and ends in the present.  As you probably know, breastfeeding is on the rise among bien-pensant mothers of the middle and upper classes (this includes the administration of milk which has been pumped and bottled, which is a rather different thing).  Much of Lepore's time is spent on the ironies, injustices and outright follies that have come with this.  A striking instance:  corporate lactation rooms are often meant only for pumping -- women aren't allowed to actually feed a child in them.

But understanding the present requires a tour of the recent past, and this is where Lepore shines.  Linnaeus, the great classifier of species, originally tried to distinguish the class to which human beings and horses belong as quadropedia, "four-footed," which caused confusion; later he invented the term mammalia, "nursing."  During the years that he revised the system, not coincidentally, his wife bore and nursed seven children.  The category was deemed "scandalously erotic" by critics but has endured -- although, as Lepore observes, by a a very strict definition, men cannot actually be "mammals."  (And from his youth, Fr. A. recalls at least one ladyfriend suggesting that he was indeed a lesser reptile or amphibian.)

The most gripping bit of Lepore's historical section is the late 19th century, when

... bizarrely, American women ran out of milk. “Every physician is becoming convinced that the number of mothers able to nurse their own children is decreasing,” one doctor wrote in 1887. Another reported that there was “something wrong with the mammary glands of the mothers in this country.” It is no mere coincidence that this happened just when the first artificial infant foods were becoming commercially available. Cows were proclaimed the new “wet nurse for the human race”....  Tragically, many babies fed on modified cow’s milk died. 

Lepore nicely avoids pinching the usual suspects, in favor of a more subtle sociological observation:

But blaming those deaths on a nefarious alliance of doctors and infant-food manufacturers, as has become commonplace, seems both unfair and unduly influenced by later twentieth-century scandals ....  In the United States, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century physicians, far from pressing formula on their patients, told women that they ought to breast-feed. Many women, however, refused. They insisted that they lacked for milk, mammals no more.

There's much more, and it is all fascinating.  Egg readers in particular may be struck by a bit of religious trivia.  Colonial preacher Cotton Mather decried the European custom of wet-nursing:

 “Suckle your Infant your Self if you can,” [he] commanded from the pulpit. Puritans found milk divine: even the Good Book gave suck. “Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments” was the title of a popular catechism.

Pardon our pedantry, as we observe that the image of the Scriptures as mother's breasts was not original to the Puritans.  Even more extravagantly, Carolyn Walker Bynum has found numerous instances in Cistercian monastic writing in which the abbot, and Jesus himself, are called "mothers," precisely because one is to drink the milk of wisdom from them.  Father A. (ahem) devoted a chapter of his STM thesis to sermons in which John Donne uses the same image to describe a parish priest in relation to the faithful.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, RIP

He was 76.  Strangely, we thought he was older.  

Updike's books, and his reputation have been a part of the American cultural scene since before Father A. was born.  They formed a row of spine-broken paperbacks on the parental bookshelf, and our first inspiring English teacher had a secret crush on him.  (One of our best history teachers had a similar crush on Joan Baez.  it was another era, friends.)

That said, we have never really enjoyed reading Updike, and have therefore read very few of his 50 or so books.  As the Village Voice says, This was a writer with an ambivalent reputation among people of a certain age (and an impossibly glowing one with people of another)

Still, we have our favorites.  The Centaur, about a bright boy raised in the country, struck us hard in the seventh grade, not least because the narrator was afflicted (as Updike was, and as Father A. is also) with eczema.  It's a minor affliction, to be sure -- and yet we had never seen anybody acknowledge its existence in print, much less experiment with its metaphorical possibilities.

Of more general interest, Updike was among the fairly small class of important living writers to speak comfortably and publicly about their Christian faith.  (Offhand, none of the others seems nearly as significant -- Gail Godwin?  Madeleine L'Engle?  No, not even Garrison Keillor.  Maybe Mary Gordon, someday. The closest is probably the poet Denise Levertov, who has written about how difficult it was for her to acknowledge her faith as she built a career in the world of "cultured despisers").  The Beauty of the Lilies has been on our to-do list since it was published, and by gum we will do it.

A WaPo blog post, linked above, quotes a nice remark that Updike made, speaking at St. Bart's a couple of years ago:  

When I haven't been to church in a couple of Sundays I begin to hunger for it and need to be there.  It's not just the words, the sacraments. It's the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.

Good thought.  We wish that more novelists -- not to mention plumbers, housewives, and magazine editors -- felt the same way.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chicks Dig Monkey Porn

The raciest Times article ever tells all, specifically about new research into the mysteries of female sexual response.  Suffice it to say that they remain mysteries.

But the lede is awesome:  

Meredith Chivers is a creator of bonobo pornography. She is a 36-year-old psychology professor .... The bonobo film was part of a series of related experiments she has carried out over the past several years. She found footage of bonobos, a species of ape, as they mated, and then ... she showed the short movie to men and women, straight and gay.

And guess who liked the money porn?

Kristol's Last Column

Surprise!  It sucks.

William Kristol has been a terrible op-ed columnist for several reasons.  His prognostications have been comically bad, his commentary reliably partisan and lacking in genuine analysis.  And, honestly, he just seems a little dim.

Today's valedictory -- not only for himself but, according to him, for the entire conservative movement, is more of the same.  First, he talks about all the areas in which, since 1980, the conservatives supposedly "got it right":

... about Communism and jihadism, crime and welfare, education and the family. Conservative policies have on the whole worked — insofar as any set of policies can be said to “work” in the real world. Conservatives of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Bush years have a fair amount to be proud of.

Really, Bill?  You really want to claim that conservatives were right about jihadism?  You really want to tell us that their friendship -- and in particular the friendship of the Bush family -- toward the Saudi rulers didn't tacitly permit the cynical use of Wahhabism as a tool of governance, thus virtually creating Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda?  You really want to tell me that the president who ignored a brief headed "Bin laden Determined to Strike Within US" was somehow right?  Or that his policies of denying prisoners any basic human dignity has somehow helped to reduce the threat from their embittered allies?

And so far as we can tell, the nation is moving, slowly but inexorably, toward a definition of "family" so broad that Reagan wouldn't have recognized it.  Score one more for the liberals.  

As for "crime and welfare," the biggest improvements there occurred under Bill Clinton's watch.  Now, if you consider Clinton's centrism to be essentially conservative -- as some Dems do -- then you can argue that this is a point for your own side.  But if you think of Clinton as the most successful conservative on domestic issues, why didn't you support him?  Hmmn?

We will grant you Communism, and consider education an equal-opportunity disaster.

In all fairness, Kristol allows that conservatives

... also have some regrets. They’ll have time to ponder those as liberals now take their chance to govern.

Fair enough.  They have some regrets.  This might have been a good time to name them, if only in the interest of helping to rejoin a national discussion that is moving on past your tired partisanship.

And that's what Kristol can't absorb.  His whole point is to declare that Obama is a liberal, and to challenge him to be as good a liberal as FDR was.  This would be a perfectly reasonable thing to have said if an avowed liberal had actually won the election -- and several were running.  They lost, because Americans made it pretty damned clear that this wasn't a year for the conventional polarities of right and left.  Why do you think McCain called himself a "maverick" every two minutes, and kept Lieberman tethered to his waist?  And Obama made a point of being not only post-racial but post-partisan, an idealist perhaps but above all a pragmatist, committed to governing based upon facts -- precisely the opposite of Bush's discredited ideology-first approach. 

Kristol has a chance to get it.  He claims that the inaugural address "suggests that [Obama] may have learned more from Reagan than he has sometimes let on."  Well, yes -- except that he did let on about this, in an interview during the campaign and in some of his published writing.  

But what Obama admits to having learned from Reagan is the power of strong communication and new ideas.  Kristol misses the point completely when he gloats that "Obama’s speech was unabashedly pro-American and implicitly conservative," because it spoke about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and the rule of law.  Is he truly so deluded -- so blinkered by his inherited partisanship -- that he believes these things are the exclusive province of the right?  If so, he is more than a little dim.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pope Benedict Works First Miracle

And it's not a nice one.  He has led the well-known neocon Papist George Weigel to say something with which Father Anonymous is in complete agreement.  We only wish the circumstances were less grim.

Here's the sitrep.  In 1970, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded his infamous Society of Saint Piux X, dedicated to the proposition that the Second Vatican Council had strayed from the Catholic faith.  It has been, and remains, a favorite of the far-far-right.  In 1988, operating against the direct instructions of John Paul II, he ordained four SSPX priests as bishops.  By doing so, he incurred automatic excommunication for himself, another bishop, and the four "bishops" they "ordained."  Although there are technical arguments about the terminology, by any reasonable standard, the SSPX had created a schism.

To Rome's credit, it has continued in conversation with these guys.  Everybody deserves a chance to repent.  To his shame, however, Pope Benedict has this week lifted the excommunication upon those who remain.  They are a vile bunch.

The Times article linked above concentrates upon one of the supposed bishops, Richard Williamson, and his Holocaust denial.  Williamson is indeed a despicable piece of work, and for evidence, watch this recent interview:
No wonder the guy now runs a seminary in Argentina.  You know, where, ahem, those guys went after the War.

Now, let's be clear:  What Williamson is saying seems, especially toward the end, to be intrinsically linked to the sort of pre-Vatican II Catholicism that the SSPX exists to sustain.  Unless we miss our guess, he is on the verge of saying that "anti-Semitism" is a lot of nonsense because after all, Truth compels us to hate those who killed the Savior.  Maybe we're wrong, but it sounds like he's winding up for that particular spitball.

This is bad, and we understand why the Times led with it.  But this focus risks obscuring some of the other wretchedness in play.  Theologically, the Lefrebvrists continue to make themselves arbiters of Catholic tradition, above and beyond a council.  And their rhetoric is bespeaks an utter contempt for the actual Roman Catholic Church.  Here is Williamson in 2006:  

One thing above all should always be remembered ... for as long as this post-Conciliar crisis will last, namely that it consists in a war to the death between two directly opposed religions: the Catholic religion centered on God, and the Conciliar religion centered on man and the modern world. The Conciliar religion is a diabolically skilful counterfeit of the true religion. Between these two religions, as such, there can be no peace until one of them is dead.

Hey, Benedict -- he just said he was going to destroy your church.  We're sorry, but what Pope in his right mind would un-excommunicate that guy?  (Although, actually, come to think of it, who do the SSPX sound like?  Rebellious leader believes the Church has fallen into error; rejects teachings of Council; gets excommunicated -- swap out "Vatican II" for "Lateran IV" and it's the story of Luther.  Of course, there are about a thousand SSPX members and 60 million Lutherans.  Does that mean Benedict will welcome us back without asking us to give up any of our distinctive teachings?  Because we're listening.)

Rome is engaged in tense negotiations with the SSPX, exemplified by some recent letters. (Reuters lays this out in some detail).  The language(s) are all open interpretation, but -- bottom line --  the excommunication has been lifted even though the SSPX has given no clear signal that it will accept the validity of Vatican II.  In other words, Rome caved on a major point, while the SSPX has not.  

The Pope blinked.  Needless to say, John Paul -- who was no less dedicated to dialogue with the SSPX, and to the "conservative" interpretation of Vatican II -- would not have.  He had plenty of chances, and he didn't.  He may have turned a wilfully blind eye to lots and lots of child molestation, but blinking in a negotiation wasn't his thing.

Benedict has damaged his own standing, both outside the Church (where he will be associated with the anti-semites) and within, where he will simply look weak in the face of an especially unpleasant and supercilious adversary.

And that supercilious thing is where we stunned ourselves by agreeing with Weigel.  Here's the Times again:

[Weigel] said he was troubled by [SSPX leader] Bishop Fellay’s implication in his letter that the schismatic group represented the tradition, while “the rest of us are, somehow, the true schismatics.”

We've seen this in our own camp, too.  The further right they get, the more routinely they claim to be exclusive mouthpieces for Tradition.  But upon close examination, this claim is often difficult to sustain -- the problem is that nobody tries it.  Conservatives don't examine tradition because they assume they're it; liberals just assume they've moved past it.  Both sides might be surprised by some solid historical research.  Weigel adds, with a forgiveable snark:

It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be enhanced unless the Lefebvrists accept Vatican II’s teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the evil of anti-Semitism, explicitly and without qualification; otherwise, you get cafeteria Catholicism on the far right, as we already have on the left.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Britain's First Female Bishop

... is a Lutheran.  This means that nobody will make a big fuss about her, the way they do (on both sides of the pond) about all things Anglo-Episcopalian.  and in all fairness, there are fewer than 3,000 Lutherans in the UK. But still:

History was made on Saturday 17 January 2009, as the first woman bishop to serve in a British church took office.

While the Church of England debates how and when women should be introduced to the episcopate and the Catholic Church maintains that only men can serve as priests or bishops, the Lutheran Church in Great Britain, became the first to take what some see as a radical step - and others as a necessary act of justice or a long overdue recognition of the grace of God.

The Rt Rev Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, whose parents were Latvian refugees but who was born in England, was consecrated as the Church’s first woman bishop at a ceremony in the City of London.

Lutherans in mainland Europe ordain women regularly. The service took place in the historic Wren church of St Anne & St Agnes on Gresham Street, in the City of London.

Jeruma-Grinberga's predecessor, the Rt Rev Walter Jagucki, presided at communion for the service, and bishops and other clergy from Nordic and European Lutheran churches participated in the consecration

We wish her well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Not to Gloat, But ....

Dick Cheney is no longer the Vice-President of the United States.  We just needed to say it.

The Obama Doctrine

So.  President Obama has been sworn in, and given his speech.  The controversial Rick Warren invocation was unremarkable; Lowery's benediction was a curious combination of hymn texts and rhyming about race.

But for those who care about oratory, the inaugural address was the chief order of business.  Here, for our money, is one of the key points:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

A commentator called this "the Obama Doctrine," which is overly simplistic.  It's too vague for that.  We concur, of course, with what the new president said, although with a reservation.  If by "our way of life" you mean liberty and diversity, then absolutely no apologies are on offer, and to hell with anybody who thinks they should be.  But if by "our way of life" you mean a gluttonous overconsumption of finite resources, like water and oil, or if you mean the export of ruinous wars prosecuted with radioactive bullets and hidden torture chambers, then apologies ought to be forthcoming.

The other key point came toward the end of the speech, when he spoke of America's fundamental values, as he perceives them:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. ... This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

We are struck by tolerance, which Americans have historically displayed only in fits and starts, and by curiosity, a virtue which is widely lacking among many of our compatriots.  Lack of curiosity explains our notorious failure to learn languages or geography, not to mention an educational system that has become the joke of the developed world. More broadly, it might be argued that a lack of curiosity has been responsible for our astonishing intelligence failures, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11.

That's the main line of the booboisie.  But our best thinkers -- from Benjamin Franklin forward -- have always been distinguished by a gimlet-sharp curiosity about the world, unfettered by preconceptions or conventions.  They have been why "Yankee know-how" was a potent force even in colonial times, and in the modern era has become a force that dominates the world.  We have walked on the moon, and sent our robots to Mars, as no other nation has -- not because we are rich, but because we are curious.  Our prosperity, such as it is, has been the result of  this curiosity.

It is much to be praised, then, that the new president includes curiosity among the signal virtues of the American people.  May it be so.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hard Out There for a Pimp

Washington DC police will celebrate the inauguration by fighting crime.  Or violating constitutional rights of free assembly, take your pick.

Apparently, they are going to establish "prostitute-free zones" -- actually called that, or PFZs for short -- in which they will give a $300 fine to groups "of two or more persons found congregating in a public space or property within the PFZ for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offense."  (And no, this doesn't apply to Congress.  They can still gather wherever they want.)

But seriously.  Is it really that easy to get the hookers off the streets?  Because if it is, then why don't they do this all the time?  Prostitution is illegal -- we checked with Elliott Spitzer.  

We assume that they don't usually do this because of the whole civil-rights question, which boils down to "how do you know why they're congregating?"  Freedom of assembly and all that.  And if that's what makes the PFZs unworkable on a normal day, why are they suddenly workable now?

Please tell me that we aren't celebrating Obama's inauguration with a wholesale violation of Constitutional rights.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Ricardo Montalban, dead at 88.  But he will live forever on the Ceti Alpha V of our nerdy hearts.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Not All About the Gays. Is It?

Here in the Egg pressroom, we're dividing our time between the two different definitions of "clerical work":  wretched number-crunching on one hand, and care for the deeply troubled on another.  We have scarcely time for either, much less both -- such are the perennial tradeoffs of the pastor's life.

Bottom line:  not much bloggin' going on round these parts.  But we will share with you a nice catch from our friends at GetReligion.  

Barack Obama has invited two controversial clergymen to take part in his inaugural festivities.  Both Rick Warren and Gene Robinson will offer prayers.  Reasonable choices, we suppose, although we ourselves would have considered Walter Kortrey.  (What, you haven't heard of him?  He was our confirmation teacher, and even in old age retains a powerful spiritual presence.  Our point being that you don't need to pick somebody famous for this kind of thing.)  

But blogger Mollie Ziegler makes another point, which is worth hearing:

What I find interesting about the coverage of both of these civil religion picks is how everything focuses on the response in the gay community. When Warren was picked, almost every report focused on the response in the gay community — with a small allowance for a review of offensive things that Warren had said. When Robinson was picked, the early coverage all focused — again — on the response in the gay community.

I’m not saying that this is bad news sense but it is certainly interesting to think about whether either case reflects an accurate overview of the response of the average person who cares about the topic.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Department of No Surprise: Ethics Edition

NPR headline:  "Religious Figures Take On Public Corruption."

Relax.  That doesn't mean "take on" as in "adopt."  Sadly, of course, it doesn't mean 'take on" as in "do something about," either.

Seems that a pair of Christian and Jewish "ethical societies" have an annual joint meeting, which this year was held in Chicago, making for some good Blagojevich-related publicity.  Their conclusion, as least as dumbed down to a soundbite, is that "clergy, rabbis and professors need to improve their teaching on ethics, with the goal of creating a more moral world."

Really?  Does anybody think that "clergy, rabbis and professors," or the quality of their pedagogy, are the real problem?  It seems to us that a more useful call would be for governors, senators, and businesspeople to spend a little time listening to what the clergy have been saying for lo these thousands of years, and then putting a little of it into action.  (And yes, the clergy should listen to some of its own advice as well, heaven knows).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Umm ... WTF, NYT?

Molly Worthern has a fascinating Times article on Mark Driscoll, the somewhat raunchy pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill mega-church.  She spends some time building him up in our eyes:

Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements. Liberals wince at his hellfire theology and insistence that women submit to their husbands.

So far, so good.  He drinks, he swears, he (gasp!) likes rock music. The man is clearly unfit for the ordained ministry.  (And as for those other things, a bit more submission from Mother A. would be welcome indeed.)  We sort of liked him, as we read along.  Then Worthern dropped the bomb:

But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

For us at the Egg, this was a major "wtf" moment.  Calvinism is dead?  And nobody told us?  Shit!  Think of all the time Lutherans could have spent gloating.

After all, we spent centuries hammering those Swiss SOB's about single predestination and the Real Presence, not to mention trying to convince them that some stained glass and a few statues don't automatically spell Papism or idolatry, much less Papist idolatry.  If we'd known they were just going to celebrate the first Thanksgiving and then die out, we could have skipped over them, and spent our spare time arguing against the Moravians.

As it happens, we at the Egg went to a proudly Calvinist seminary.  One of our classmates taped to his door a large poster displaying the five points of the Synod of Dort (you remember them by their suitably Dutch acronym, TULIP).  Another committed to memory the entire Westminster Shorter Catechism.   It was also, by seminary standards, very large, with something like 700 students, from all over this country and many others.  A Lutheran student, while certainly welcome, could expect to be routinely teased for wearing white robes, insisting upon weekly Communion, and raising snarky questions about the usus tertius legis.

So, honestly, we were pretty sure Calvinism was alive and well, until the Times told us otherwise.

As for "making Pat Robertson look warm and fuzzy," we suppose it's a matter of perspective. Calvinism is often called "grim" or (in one of the most abused of all cliches) "dour."  As Worthern describes it:

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. 

Fair enough description.  But is it really so grim?  After all, despite this utter depravity, some people are going to be saved.  How freaking cool is that?  

Worthern goes on to say that "Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition," but her main point is that "they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian."  Um, maybe, if by "evangelicals" you exclude the groups who actually began using that word to describe themselves, back in the Reformation.  Here's the logic of the soi-disant evangelicals:

If predestination is true ... then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. ... Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

This is all very confused, and Worthern really can't be blamed for the confusion.  The culprit in this case is a fellow named Jacobus Harmenzoon, or Arminius, who injected an element of what Lutherans had already come to call synergism -- human cooperation with divine grace -- into pure Calvinism.  They kicked him out of the club, for what looked to the Reformed tradition like Pelagianism.  Nonetheless, his ideas had some currency, especially in England, where they probably contributed to what later became Methodism.  And that -- to make a complex story too simple -- is where the divide between Calvinism in its pure state and the free-will-driven revivalist movements parted company.  (Consider the intense dislike of Augustus Toplady, author of "Rock of Ages," for John Wesley, whom he called a "hater of the Gospel-system.")

Two caveats, however.  First, the divide was never all that clear.  Calvinists, especially in the US, were happy to adopt some of the revivalist "new measures" that reporters today call "evangelicalism."  When somebody like John Wiiamson Nevin pointed out the internal contradictions in their practice, they mocked him -- there was and remains a strong strain of this so-called "evangelicalism" in evangelical circles.  And second, the lines have grown blurrier in recent years, as many theologians in America's largest Arminian movement, the Southern Baptist Convention, have begun to embrace positions that are Calvinist in all but sacramental theory.

Readers can probably see what we're yammering on about, right?  When Worthern (like a great many other journalists) glibly says that "most Americans" assume Calvinism is dead, she tells us less about the beliefs of most Americans than about her own curious worldview, in which "most Americans" are revivalist Arminians.  In fact, despite the undeniable weight of those ideas in this country, we venture to suggest that most Americans don't share them.  The overtly Calvinist churches -- Presbyterian and Reformed -- are alive and reasonably well, with a cultural influence disproportionate to their modest size.  Many Episcopalians are Calvinist, more or less, and the Arminian ones have little use for revivalism. While Roman Catholics and Lutherans aren't Calvinists, we share a common Augustinian frame of theological reference, and are generally more comfortable in conversation with each other than with the (and typing this kills us, every time) "evangelicals."

Oh, and for what it's worth, the Roman, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have all done pretty well with missions over the years, despite our conviction (variously expressed) that God is the one in charge of human salvation.   

One Thing About Neuhaus

... that the standard obits haven't picked up:

For many years, long after his crossing of the Tiber, he hosted an occasional gathering of Lutheran pastors in his Manhattan apartment.  The evening began with tobacco and alcohol, continued with pizza and concluded with Neuhaus holding court.  

Although those invited were overwhelmingly conservative (and male, and high-church), and although politics and religion were certainly discussed, it should not be thought that these were some sort of conspiratorial cabals, in which plans for world conquest were hatched.  They were social events, at which people -- including many old friends, now separated by various confessional boundaries -- were able to connect with one another.

Father Anonymous was, briefly, included in this group, as was the lovely Mother A.   It was quite enjoyable, despite Fr. A's lack of interest in cigarettes or hard liquor.   After a year or two, the invitations stopped arriving, presumably because the Family A. didn't quite fit in.  No hard feelings.

He had a dog -- a large one, for such a small apartment.  Whatever our disagreements with him may have been, and whatever our occasio  nal doubts about his character, we find it hard not to enjoy the company of a man with a large dog.  One one wall was a large tapestry with Luther's face, commemorating some anniversary celebration.  On another was something that always amused us far more:  a framed poster for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a reminder of just how far to the left he had once been.

Perhaps our favorite story about one of these evenings was told by a very senior pastor, who like Neuhaus had left Lutheranism for Papism.  "Well," he says, "there we were talking.  And Richard John is going on about his last visit to Rome, and about the time he spent with the Holy Father, and how 'he said such-and-so, and I said such-and so.'  And after a few minutes, I leaned in and said, 'well, yes, Richard John.  But remember -- he's only the Pope.'"

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

This appeared on the First Things website today:

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.

Angeli te deducant, and so forth.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Temptations of the Fleshly

We confess a certain affection for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and for their schoolmaster John Ruskin.  They were preoccupied with two of the Egg's stated concerns, religion and sex.  And William Morris was a socialist, so that really covers all our bases, dunnit?

That said, we further confess that they seem like a bunch of degenerates.

We aren't speaking so much about their complicated amours, detailed in a new book by Franny Moyle (click up top for a review).  These are titillating, no doubt:  Ruskin couldn't consummate, Rossetti couldn't stop consummating; those gorgeous models seem to have been street urchins shanghaied, seduced and serially betrayed.

But no, that's not the true degeneracy.  We're speaking of the paintings themselves, and -- even more -- the poems, which always seem to us like bruised fruit, picked from the Romantic tree and then left sitting in the sun for a few weeks.  Think of everything wrong with Keats, and then kick it up a few notches. 

A contemporary review of D.G. Rossetti by Robert Buchanan, called The Fleshly School of Poetry, does a fine job of describing the problem.  Buchanan begins with the obvious Victorian objection:

Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness. We are no purists in such matters. We hold the sensual part of our nature to be as holy as the spiritual or intellectual part, and we believe that such things must find their equivalent in all; but it is neither poetic, nor manly, nor even human, to obtrude such things as the themes of whole poems. It is is simply nasty.

But he has more to say. Much of it is on target, and quite funny:

We cannot forbear expressing our wonder, by the way, at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter. We have lived as long in the world as they have, but never yet came across persons of the other sex who conduct themselves in the manner described. Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers, must surely possess some extraordinary qualities to counteract their otherwise most offensive mode of conducting themselves. It appears, however, on examination, that their poet-lovers conduct themselves in a similar manner. They, too, bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and slaver, in a style frightful to hear of. Let us hope that it is only their fun, and that they don't mean half they say.

Perhaps the most perceptive passage is one that connects form to substance:  

It is in all respects a sign of remarkable genius, from this point of view, to rhyme "was" with "grass," "death" with "lièth," "love" with "of," "once" with "suns," and so on ad nauseam. We are far from disputing the value of bad rhymes used occasionally to break up the monotony of verse, but the case is hard when such blunders become the rule and not the exception, when writers deliberately lay themselves out to be as archaic and affected as possible. Poetry is perfect human speech, and these archaisms are the mere fiddlededeeing of empty heads and hollow hearts. Bad as they are, they are the true indication of falser tricks and affectations which lie far deeper.

Rregarding these affectations, Buchanan remarks that "to paraphrase the words which Johnson applied to Thomas Sheridan, Mr. Rossetti is affected, naturally affected, but it must have taken him a great deal of trouble to become what we now see him — such an excess of affectation is not in nature." Perhaps the very unnaturalness is what we find ever-so-faintly repulsive.

What Buchanan doesn't touch upon, because it has little to do with D.G., is the role of religion in Pre-Raphaelite poetry.  For this, we look to Ruskin, Morris and, especially, Christina Rossetti.   As a teen, she collapsed from "religious mania," whatever that may have been, and much of her poetry is unremarkable Anglo-Catholic stuff.  Or it would be unremarkable, if she were not also the author of Goblin Market,  one of the most erotically-charged poems of the nineteenth century (or, we suppose, any other).  Talk about your overripe fruit:

Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me ....

Okay, so maybe Lizzie is a Christ-figure, with  dash of Proserpine.  Or maybe -- and this is what we've been trying to say -- the Pre-Raphaelites were a bunch of degenerates.

New York Times, RIP

Well, not quite yet.  But the Atlantic has a sobering article on the eventual fate of the Old Gray Lady.  (And thanks to Times-a-holic Fr. W.E.B. for pointing it out).

Bottom line:  the "old media" -- meaning especially newspapers -- are dying.  The longstanding assumption has been that a few titans would survive:  the Times, the WaPo, even The USA Today.  But a look at the numbers suggests otherwise.  In the scariest scenario, the Times could stop publishing in May.

Obviously, a paper like this has a great many fallback positions.  For starters, it could sell some or all of that cool new building.  It could stop paying what we assume are outrageous salaries to its posse of undercompetent op-ed columnists.  (Maureen Dowd is shrill, Frank Rich is shriller, Bob Herbert is predictable, Tom Friedman can earn his keep on the lecture circuit, and everybody hates Bill Kristol, probably including his own mother.  David Brooks seems okay, except for a kind of twerpy affect that makes us suspect he secretly wants to wear bow-ties.)

But when the dust settles, how much can the Times lose and still remain the Times?  If it isn't an all-knowing, omnipresent voice -- the paper of record! -- declaring truth on everything from Balkan politics to society weddings, then what is it?  And without the Times actually doing those things, then what will the rest of the journalistic world aspire to?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Neuhaus is Ill

Richard John Neuhaus, easily the most frustrating public intellectual in the Egg's world, is gravely ill.  An update on the site of his magazine, First Things, says that he has a serious form of cancer, currently complicated by a systemic infection, and that he has been hospitalized.

He is not able to receive visitors, and has asked for no flowers or gifts -- only prayers for a quick recovery.  We offer those prayers, and ask that our readers do as well.  He is an easy target, and we hope to continue throwing darts at him for years to come.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Muslim "Heretics"

Turns out they're more widespread that we knew.  

Click up top for a drop-dead fascinating Economist report on the prevalence of Sufism in South Asia, particularly Pakistan.  The article, while solid, may be a little confusing to some readers, mostly because of some sloppy editing near the beginning.  We'll try to say plainly what the article gets to eventually. 

Sufism, of course, is the mystical strain of Islam.  Like many mystical traditions, it is sometimes at odds with the upholders of rigid orthodoxy -- but not, by any means, always.  And there is in Sufism a sharp division between the "official" and "popular" versions of the religion.  (The same division exists in Christianity, as famously in the distinction between magisterial teaching of the role of the saints, and popular reception of same).  It is to the latter that the Economist gives most of its attention, and in which flourish practices which would make not only the mullahs but even the proper Sufis shudder.

Whether official or popular or something in between, Sufism is fascinating.  Western readers went ga-ga some years ago over Coleman Barks' delightful, but un-scholarly, translation of poems by the great Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.   We are no less excited about Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, a contemporary of Rumi's, whose Divine Flashes have been translated in a very fine edition from Paulist Press.  Sufi poetry appeals because it is, as the lit-crit types like to say, transgressive.  Union with God is presented in the language of sex and drunkenness -- think about an entire religious movement that speaks like Charles Bukowski.  Or anyway Arthur Rimbaud.

The Economist captures the popular expression of these transgressive impulses in its descriptions of the urs, or saint's-day celebration, at a town called Sehwan:  a "three-day orgy of music, dancing and intoxication, literally and spiritually ... one of the best parties in Pakistan, or anywhere."  Or this account of "a traditional family celebration" in a Sufi household: 

a dance performance by a visiting troupe of prostitutes. To the uninitiated, this splendid occasion is not obviously religious. The men of Mozafir Ali’s house sit in proud silence, as prostitutes straddle its courtyard, thrashing their long hair and kissing these hereditary notables’ knees. The women of the house rain rupee notes down on the dancers from a balcony discreetly above. A drummer shouts: “Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar duma dum mast!”

Makes you want to join up, doesn't it?

Geopolitical strategists are interested in Sufism for political reasons, since it cuts across the Sunni-Shia divide, and stands largely over against the rigid legalism of the Taliban.  This is foolish.  We shudder at the thought of RAND Corporation eggheads, who may barely grasp the complexities of their own religions, trying to manipulate the subtleties of another.  

But -- and it is a but worthy of Sir Mix-A-Lot's attention -- that doesn't mean Sufism is irrelevant to the political calculus.  Pakistanis, no less than Muslims in India, no doubt already realize that the Islamist version of their religion is an alien import from the Arab countries, a form of cultural imperialism far more dangerous to their traditions than, say, McDonald's is to French agriculture.  And sooner or later, without the misguided efforts of outside agitators, it is likely that this conflict will come to the surface.  They are only waiting for their own José Bové to emerge, and lead them in defense of their own tradition.

And then?  Bin Ladin versus Bukowski, in the cultural smackdown of the new century.  A guy can dream, anyway.