Monday, June 29, 2009

St. Paul: Papist!

GetReligion chides the AP for referring to the erstwhile Saul of Tarsus as a "a Roman Catholic saint."

While not untrue, so far as it goes, it doesn't go very far. Pretty much everybody in the Christian world regards Paul as a saint. No matter what they think about saints, and no matter who else they may argue is or isn't a saint, there's no real argument about St. Paul. (Come on -- the guy wrote most of the New Testament. And "Amazing Grace" is, basically, the story of his life. )

What's just as interesting to us is the story in which this little goof occurred. Apparently, they have dug up Paul's bones. At St. Paul's Outside the Walls, in Rome. The Pope said so at Vespers the other night, so it must be true. Or at any rate, they have dug up the bones of some other guy who lived during the first two Christian centuries -- which, it seems to us, is a reasonably wide margin of error.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Naked Civil Servant

(Tip o' the biretta to Quentin Crisp.)

Mark Musselwhite, former mayor of Gainseville, Georgia, was arrested for public nudity this week. He is alleged to have been walking down the road drunk and naked, and was picked up by rangers at a campsite, where he was drunk, naked, and with a young lady in similar condition.

He claims he wasn't the guy on the road. And who knows? Maybe everybody in Georgia walks around naked.

But okay, ha-ha, let's all make fun of the politician caught with his pants down, or in this case off. Now let's move on to the more important subject: Why is it a crime to be naked?

Seriously. Public drunkenness bothers us a great deal, and often poses a genuine safety hazard near streets and parking lots. But nakedness? We just don't see the problem. Or rather, we see a few problems, but they are problematic primarily for the unclothed person. Musselwhite, for example, is 43; he looks healthy enough in his headshot, but we'll bet he's got a bit of a paunch, and his biceps aren't what they used to be. The next time he faces the voters, one bad picture could lead to endless ribald hilarity, especially given his name. But isn't that his problem?

And sure, as an aesthetic matter, we don't want to see most people naked. But we don't want to smell their cigarette smoke, either. There are some people we don't want to see, period, even dressed in a Brioni blazer. Our desire, however, doesn't make their puffing on the public sidewalk, or their unfortunate facial configuration wherever, illegal. It doesn't give society just cause to keep them locked at home until they stub it out or wear a mask.

Yes, Adam and Eve were ashamed, post lapsus. (Who knew that one piece of fruit would put on thirty pounds?) But it seems like a jump to go from that to the blanket conclusion that nudity is shameful, and a bigger jump still to impose a clearly religious definition of decency upon a secular state. Could we restrict the religious practice of, say, sky-clad Jains, if they were to set up a community here?

In the case of Mayor Musselwhite, the fellow was at a campsite. Granted, he wasn't alone in the roaring wilderness; this was the sort of campsite where there are people around. But if they can't avert their eyes, or get over their shock at a middle-aged man with no clothes, is that his problem or theirs?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Three Cheers for Ecological Apocalypse

Sharks are racing toward extinction. Is there a single animal we will miss less?

Okay, okay. We understand that all of nature is connected, and that the loss of even a single species is a serious blow to the delicate balance. And we realize that sharks are beautiful, ancient creatures, among whom very few are the man-eating monsters of lore. Beyond that, we are appalled by the irresponsibility and outright cruelty of fishermen who hunt them only to hack off a fin and release the mutilated, doomed beasts back into the sea.

So, intellectually, we are distraught over the coming shark extinction. But still, there is a small, shameful, and atavistic part of our brain that feels ... victorious.

When We First Learned We Were Conservative

It was high school. Just a glimmer in those days, really.

Oh, we already had a clear commitment to what often pass for "liberal" causes -- for example, our hometown attempted to pass a gay-rights ordinance, which would have prevented housing discrimination and so forth, and we were there for the debate, even if we had little to say. (So was our boyhood pastor, who had more to say, and who was then as now a profound influence upon us). We read a lot of Shaw in those days, and were pretty much sold on socialism and Wagner, and very nearly on atheism. We frequently spent our lunch hours arguing matters of politics and morality with a devout Mormon, who would later join the Air Force and commit adultery, thus in one heady post-collegiate weekend teaching us everything we have ever needed to know about the the religious right.

But at the same time, we were making a discovery: we liked John Keats more than Dylan Thomas. Both were doomed prodigies, both had enormous (and, in retrospect, somewhat inflated) reputations among the teachers who influenced us. But we liked Keats more. No big deal by itself, except so far as it revealed a pattern. Aristophanes cracked us up, and Sophocles made us really think about the world, while Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett left us cold and unhappy. The Renaissance paintings reproduced in our old Time-Life "Museums of the World" volumes were brilliant and witty and inspiring; occasional glimpses of, say, Jackson Pollock were (and remain) intensely annoying. As for the world of what passed for "music" after Richard Strauss -- seriously, do people listen to Schonberg? On purpose?

So here was out discovery, made somewhere between the ages of 15 and 17: We liked old stuff better than new stuff. And, as we discovered somewhat more slowly, we found the people who liked old stuff a little easier to get on with than the people who liked new stuff. Not that they were more fun to be with -- they generally weren't -- but rather that they seemed a little less likely to be talking nonsense, at least about art. The people who liked old stuff -- aesthetic conservatives -- seemed to have a clearer sense of what was good or bad, and why. In other words, they had values.

This all became much clearer in college. We studied English during the rise of Deconstructionism, and it wasn't pretty. Our English department resisted the worst of it, but still. The idea of the author, much less an historical context, much less a meaning, was in serious danger. (And yes, we fell for all of this; the truth is that we are still a bit edgy about authorial identity). And you might as well forget beauty. So what breath of air could have ben fresher than Charles Pierce (pronounced "Purse"), who ended one class by saying, "I have assigned you two poems on a single subject, written only decades apart -- Goldsmith's Deserted Village, and Tintern Abbey. One of them is a good poem, and the other is not. Go home, read them, and then please explain in writing which one is good, and -- especially -- why."

Now, the sort of conservatism that Mr. Pierce represented -- as did the classmate who spent years analyzing Ingres' oil technique and who has remained our closest college friend -- should not be mistaken for political conservatism. It certainly hasn't worked out that way in practice, although we will argue, given a chance, that this is essentially a problem of semantics, and that our politics are conservative, even traditionalist, in a way that those of the economic neoliberals and foreign policy neoimperialists are not. But it did manifest, especially in our early adulthood, in a certain (if -- ahem -- relative) seriousness about matters of morality and personal accountability. There was a connection of some sort between our aesthetic values and our moral ones.

And we believe, although this is hard to work out in detail, that this same connection extends to our liturgical and ecclesiological vision, what in Lutheran terms is quaintly called "evangelical catholicism" (as though there were any other kind). One doesn't want to overstate the case; Pietism takes its morality seriously as a rule, despite the numerous exceptions which we bite our tongue charitably rather than describe. It is certainly not true, or not entirely true, that good art makes people good, nor that good people make good art. One wishes it were, but it isn't. Nor is "good art" necessarily backward-looking, whatever one's own preference. Nor, again, is good worship -- define it as you like, but we side with "traditional" -- a necessary indicator of good morals, or of spiritual health in a community. And yet these things are not unrelated.

All of which is why, despite our usual misgivings about City Journal, which never seems quite as serious as it means to be, we can't help but nod along with Roger Scruton's essay, linked above. The first half, at least, as he reminds us of why Clement Greenberg was an agent of Satan. In the second half, as he warms to his theme -- "art since 1750 seeks to desecrate the sacred, and target life rather than celebrate it" -- his brush strokes grow far too wide. In particular, he fails to take seriously the attempt of Anglo-European writers to grapple seriously with the Enlightenment as a challenge to traditional values, and to find at least some of those values in nature, and in the nature of human society, even if they had trouble finding them in God. Matthew Arnold, anybody?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mark Sanford: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Turns out, the soon-to-be-ex-governor charged an earlier Argentinean booty call to the voters of South Carolina.

Pretty good, sir, pretty good. But to really excel at this game, you'll need to shoot a guy in the face.

Michael Jackson is Dead

Hm. He was a big star in our late teens and early 20s, and just a few years older than we ourselves. We suppose people are going to compare this to the deaths of John Lennon or Elvis Presley, as one of those you'll-always-remember-where-you-were-when you-heard-it events.. Some guy quoted by the AP went right to the top, and compared it to JFK.

So here's Father Anonymous, checking his internal cultural-event-o-meter. And you know what?

We're just not feeling it.

At best, we put the death of Michael Jackson somewhere between those of Robert McNamara and Ted Williams. (Wait -- you mean to tell us McNamara is still alive? Talk about your cosmic injustice.)

And this isn't because we're immune to celebrity-worship. On the day that Muhammad Ali dies, we plan to weep like babies. (Ali is the man. Period.) And of course we have our own personal celebrities: we still wince when we recall the death of Walter B. Gibson, the guy who wrote 283 pulp novels about the Shadow, many of them in two weeks each. (You know, we spoke to him once, by telephone. It was a local call, so we rang him up. Delightful guy.)

And it's certainly not because the -- oh must we? Okay then -- "self-styled 'King of Pop,' " as every single obituary is sure to say, wasn't colossally famous in his time. On the contrary.

We spent months in the 1980s traveling through obscure Andean villages, and a familiar scenario repeated itself often. We would find ourselves pausing for a moment, perhaps to drink a little mate de coca in a town with one dirt road while we waited for the weekly truck that constituted the sole means of transportation. And during this pause, we would make a few minutes (or, sometimes, hours) of idle chitchat with a local. Sometimes, a young boy; others, a toothless old man or a woman wearing a bowler hat and many, many skirts. (Usually, they were speakers of Quechua or Aymara, and spoke Spanish as poorly as we ourselves. This made for a slow, confusing conversation, but you have all the time in the world when the truck runs weekly.)

At a certain point, they would ask where we were from, and we would answer New York. They would ask us how much money we earned, and we would answer that we were unemployed. And then they would ask our name, which was -- surely you know that "Anonymous" is a nom religieux -- Michael. And every single time, whether boy or viejo or senora -- our collocutor would widen their eyes, nod sagely and say, "Ahhhh -- like Michael Jackson."

Yeah, he was huge.

But here's the thing. He was nuts. He wasn't just Elvis-gets-fat-and-offers-to-narc-for-Nixon nuts. He wasn't loveable-eccentric nuts, or even overindulged-star nuts. He was creepy scary nuts, the kind of nuts that makes you wonder about the mental stability of anybody who voluntarily came near him, including especially the parents of those boys who used to sleep over at his Peter Pan-themed "ranch." Just watching him on television, even for a moment, gave us a sick feeling in the pit of our stomach. Oh, we knew he had been royally screwed up by his family and early stardom and all that; and we truly did feel bad for him. But it takes a little more than the death of a pathetic guy who'd been given a raw deal by life and whom you pitied to make an historical moment, or else we'd all remember where we were when Scott McClellan died. (Wait -- you mean Chubby is still alive too? We didn't realize.)

Anyway, that said, it's still sad. He was a human being, and a fragile one. We wish his life had been better.

"Get Out, You Homosexual Demon!"

Apparently, the Connecticut's Manifested Glory ministry doesn't mind straight demons. Watch the exorcism video, if you dare:


Justice Thomas Wants to Search Schoolgirl's Undies.

Or he wants a middle-school principal to do it. At least if there's any chance she might be carrying Advil.

This imbecile should never have been named to the Supreme Court. Thomas, like several other current justices (we're thinking of you, Little Johnnie Roberts) makes a point of throwing his support to anybody with any degree of power, no matter how slight. In his mind, society has two choices: we can let middle school principals humiliate their students, or loose mere anarchy upon the world.

Good news: nobody -- not even Scalia -- sided with him on this one.

Mark Sanford IS Don Draper!

Really, this explains everything.

For those who miss the reference, Don Draper is an exec at the Sterling, Cooper ad agency, on AMC's brilliant Mad Men, which is set in the early 1960s. He is rich, talented, and good-looking; he has a picture-book family (ex-model wife, one boy, one girl). He also lies, cheats, and -- most notably -- sleeps around. And in the second season, he took a business trip, in the middle of which he simply disappeared for a few weeks. Didn't call the office, didn't call home; just disappeared, and then re-appeared one day, expecting that nothing would have changed. (And why? Because of his secret other life, obviously).

We at the Egg have watch both seasons of Mad Men with an almost morbid fascination. While Draper is the most extreme case, almost all the other Sterling, Cooper execs are ethical catastrophes. They drink and smoke to perverse excess, cheat on their wives with barely a nod. The one obviously gay character has squeezed himself into an especially tight closet: he both deprives himself of sexual satisfaction and deprives his wife of any emotional connection. The two women are ... well, they're at least as messed up as the men. Hell, we don't even trust the priest.

This makes for some pretty good TV. But here's how it goes: Father and Mother Anonymous sit on the couch, alternately chuckling and screeching at the misbehavior of the characters, wondering if the well of depravity has a bottom. Then every once in a while, they pause the DVR and ask each other whether people ever actually lived this way.

Oh, we've all heard legends of the three-martini-lunch, and we certainly remember watching our elders chain-smoke. But even that seems like another planet. The Draper-world, a combination of money, male privilege, and utter moral bankruptcy, seems so alien that it must be an alternate dimension of time/space. We may lead sheltered lives, but it hard for us to imagine that people ever lived -- or might still live -- like Sterling, Cooper and Associates.

At least it did. Until we started to think about politicians.

Self-righteous rich kid who humiliates his wife? Is that Peter Campbell or Eliot Spitzer? Self-hating homosexual who punishes himself and everybody he meets? Could be Sal Romano, or it could be Larry Craig. (Or Mark Foley.) Troubled newcomer who sells out his team for a chance at unearned power? Well, there's Duck Philips -- and Hiram Monserrate.

You can go on like this. Roger Sterling is like a trimmer Bill Clinton -- the charismatic boss who really should keep his hands off the help. It would be unchivalrous to speculate which female politician, trying to make it in a man's world, has either slept her way to the top or abandoned her own progeny, but we expect that neither phenomenon is unknown in the corridors of power.

Yes, it seems that there really is an alternate world in which reasonably talented people with too much power live bizarre double-lives, acting the part of respectable citizens while simultaneously (and with the more-or-less tacit approval of their peers) behaving in ways that would scandalize the people who pay their salaries. That alternate world is called Politics.

All of which leads us to one inevitable question: Whose body did Mark Sanford leave lying in a trench, wearing the wrong dogtags?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oh. It Was a Girl.

Mark Sanford was in Argentina with his lady-friend. No big deal, apart from the fact that it violates his marriage vows (and the Ten Commandments), and that it will probably destroy his chance of ever becoming president. Oh, and the fact that he has publicly humiliated his wife and children.

Still, a governor really committed to causing a scandal could have done a lot better. The commenters at Wonkette have a number of suggestions, most involving a combination of cocaine and Argentinean boys. Oh, and the bodies of his victims, that one was good, too.

Lamentably, we missed the press conference, which Pastor Joelle assures us was bizarre -- and notably missing the customary stiff-lipped spouse. But we do understand that the FoxNews onscreen text managed to mis-identify the governor as a Democrat. Because, given the number of Republican sex-scandals in the past few years, they felt it would only be fair to balance it with a Democrat. Even an imaginary one. (Apparently, Fox has already forgotten John Edwards -- which is funny, considering how much most Democrats despise him, even as his wife has become a bestselling author and folk-hero).

New Anglicans to be Purpose-Driven

Or so we gather from the fact that the new Anglican Church in North America chose Rick Warren to give a speech at its first provincial assembly.

By the way, this new Anglican church is composed of dioceses, parishes and priests who have broken away from the Protestant Episcopal Church in North America, but who hate it when they are called "breakaway" dioceses, parishes and priests. But do you know what, dear readers? We at the Egg are not afraid to take a stand here, bold and courageous: breakway, breakaway, breakaway. There, we said it.

The name -- Anglican Church in North America -- sounds more reasonable than it really is. Although the name properly lacks a definite article, one can scarcely speak of it without adding one. And the minute one does, the minute it becomes "the ACNA," an invidious implication is made, suggesting that some other body may not be the real Anglican church.

Where is the World Is Governor Sanford?

The Mark Sanford story gets weirder and weirder.

For those who missed it, the South Carolina governor disappeared for a few days last week. Off the grid, no cellphone, no email. His security detail, staff and family had no idea where he was -- or so they said. (Neither did his lieutenant governor, who has been more than happy to repeat the fact, nightly, on MSNBC. No love lost there, we imagine.)

It is strange and unsettling for the chief executive of any organization to be out of touch for an extended period. During his own summer vacations, Father Anonymous has noticed a distinct pattern of enhanced anxiety around the parish. (Imagine how crazy things would get if a bishop were to leave town for a while -- especially if he didn't have his new staff in place yet!)

Well, the good news is that Sanford turned up yesterday. That is good news, we hasten to speculate, primarily for his rivals. Here's why:

First, because during his absence, his staff had originally claimed to have spoken to him, then admitted that this wasn't true. The problem here is not that somebody in the governor's office lied, which they obviously did, so much as the distinct appearance of a confused, amateurish cover-up.

Second, because when Gov. Sanford did re-appear, his staff announced that he had spent four days hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Really? And nobody at home saw you pack your bags for a four-day solo camping trip? That seems unlikely. Moreover, it is accepted practice among solo hikers to always let somebody know where you are going. Failure to do this on the part of, say, a single twnrty-something might be a sign of youthful recklessness; on the part of a middle-aged, married man, it is much worse. And on the part of a governor, it's just crazy.

Or it would be, if the hiking story were not another amateurish lie by his staff.

Third, because today's story is that Gov. Sanford was in Buenos Aires. And he just doesn't know what the fuss is all about.

The GOP thought this man might be a 2012 presidential candidate? Seriously?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No Good Deed ...

A few days ago, we mentioned Malcolm Morgan and City Church, Belfast. We were quite pleased by their efforts to protect five "Romanian" families who had been harassed by thugs. We were less pleased by the press, which failed to provide much information about the church, or to identify the families as Roma. (It's a bit like saying that people painted "symbols" on the home of some Polish immigrants, and neglecting to mention that the immigrants were Jews and the symbols were swastikas. Or that "some" Irishmen attacked "some others" in Belfast, without mentioning that some were Protestants and some were Roman Catholics.)

Anyway, the church was vandalized this week:

"I arrived this morning to find windows smashed at the front of our church and our main doorway smashed as well," [Morgan] said.

"Stones were lying scattered on the floor inside and outside, and ... broken glass was everywhere.

"It would be easy to conclude it was carried out by someone who didn't like our response to the Romanians, but that is only guesswork."

He said the church had been "thrilled that we were able to respond to the Romanian situation ... these broken windows wouldn't have stopped us anyway".

The Guardian article, linked above, is still a bit vague on the name of the church or ethnicity of the families. That doesn't keep it from making one's blood boil.

"Once I Am Thoroughly Drunk ..."

It seems that President Obama enjoys Urdu poetry.

This is no surprise; he is a cultivated man, and there is a lot of extremely fine poetry in Urdu. We ourselves are deeply moved by the works of Fakrhuddin 'Iraqi, the brilliant 13th century poet whose Divine Flashes often use the language of wine and drunkenness to describe the believer's experience of God:

Once I am thoroughly drunk, what matter if I wind up in a church or in Mecca?
Once I've abandoned myself, what matter if I win Union -- or separation?

By the standards of Muslim orthodoxy, it's daring stuff -- as if Charles Bukowski were telling the Christmas story.

Nor are we surprised by the Politico report which, without ever quite saying so, seems to treat the president's recent claim to read this stuff, in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper, as something between an eccentricity and outright pandering. Politico, like many similar organizations, seems to be run by the kids who worked their tails off to get good grades, so that they could get good jobs. They were not the kids who, say, did well in English because they liked poetry, or in history because they liked stories, or who visited museums because they were full of beautiful objects. They are the kids grow up to run much of the world, and they run it with vigor and enthusiasm -- they were smart kinds, and unlike the poetry-lovers, they were actually hard workers. They wind up in Congress, in business, and in the media. And yes, they go to the theatre, they go to museums -- hell, they sit on museum boards, they'll remind you in a heartbeat. They've been to cocktail receptions at the Temple of Dendur.

But all these years later, they still can't quite believe that anybody likes poetry. At least not without seeking some advantage from it.

And that's why the piece, by Ben Smith, begins with this inane lede:

If you want to make high-brow small talk at one of President Barack Obama’s cocktail parties, don’t bother brushing up your Shakespeare. Try reading Urdu poetry.

See, that's what poetry is for: high-brow small talk. And you have to pick one genre, the way people pick sports teams. Smith can't -- quite -- believe that a bright, ambitious person might also be well-enough rounded to enjoy both the poetry of both Renaissance England and medieval Pakistan. Nor, despite the obvious pains he took to google "Urdu poetry" and learn that "the ghazal is the most common form" and that "One of the most popular poets was [sic] Mirza Ghalib," does Smith imagine exploring the ways that his taste for poetry, especially poetry rich with philosophy and religion, might have shaped Obama as a person or as a leader.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ah, College Days

Check out Veritatis Praeco, a newish blog by a group of anonymous students at an unnamed Papist university.

We can imagine them -- a team of overly-serious young men, kind of conservative and kind of pretentious, some actually wearing corduroy jackets and one guy smoking a pipe. It's like a morally-serious Harvard Lampoon. Well, not really. But there is a recent post called "Why We Drink."

It all takes us back to our own undergraduate years, or it would, if you read through the posts and substituted "poetry" for "religion," "library" for "church," and maybe "Renaissance" for "God." (Never mind what you'd substitute for "smoking a pipe.")

But the part about drinking is pretty similar.

O, Peter Steinfels ...

... you've done it again. Your columns in the Times are often the most interesting thing we read about religion all week, at least in a secular publication. You are a sharp observer of Romish events, and even if you occasionally seem a little fuzzier when dealing with other religious traditions, we still race through the front page section a bit until we hit your byline.

And last Saturday, you outdid yourself. Surely you remember -- it was your response to Jillian, who e-mailed you from Marie Claire, the fashion magazine, breathlessly promoting the current issue, which includes

... accounts by 'five modern career gals' of 'how their belief in faith helped them through the hardest of struggles.'

You quickly signaled the most problematic part of the story:

The article is titled “Cheaper Than Therapy.”

Oh, there were other problems. Several of the women don't seem all that devout -- the Jew eats pork, the Catholic claims to be "recovering," (and still seems surprised that her parish priest isn't an ogre). The whole religion-as-therapy angle is tired and misleading. And, although you didn't mention it, "belief in faith" is a strange expression. We at the Egg believe in thousand-dollar bills, but that doesn't mean we possess any, or that they do us much good.

But "cheaper than therapy." Ah, now there's a phrase we hope we never hear again. And we expect that the clergy of many religions will say "Amen."

First, the therapy: it's not what we do. Oh, a few may, perhaps -- those who are trained as psychotherapists. And, lamentably, a few others may pretend to, using expressions like "pastoral counseling" more broadly than is wise -- or ethical. (Those people should be avoided like the plague, by the way).

And second, the "cheap": it's not what we are. Or, at least, it oughtn't be. You make the obligatory reference to Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace," although it seems a bit off-point here. But then you come back, roaring, with this remark to Jillian and the team at Marie Claire:

[The word "cheap"] doesn’t appear a lot elsewhere in these pages. This is not to complain about the items surrounding your article about the effect of today’s hard economic times on our sense of hope — the $4,100 skirt or the $4,995 dress or the $1,250 clutch or the $315 diamond-dust-based body treatment at one spa or the $250 head-to-toe feng shui scrub-down and massage at another.

And perhaps you're not complaining, but we are. Because the underlying gimmick of the article (or at least its offensive title) is that the overindulged can find in religion a less costly alternative to one more of their indulgences. And that's just nonsense.

What the overindulged will find in religion -- virtually any religion, except Scientology and the Prosperity Gospel -- is a challenge to their indulgence. A regular churchgoer may very well want to own a $4,100 skirt; she may even have one in her closet somewhere. From a Christian perspective, there's nothing inherently wrong with beautiful and extravagant things, and much that is right with them. But in church, she will find herself challenged, over and over, to explain how the aesthetic beauty of that skirt is greater than the moral beauty of an equally lavish gift to the poor, or to the other ministries of the church.

She will find that there was indeed a cost to her churchgoing -- not necessarily a financial one (although hope springs eternal in the clerical breast), but certainly an emotional and intellectual cost, as she was asked to reconsider her entire system of values.

And we're saying "church," here, but believe us that there are other religious communities in which the challenge would be phrased more sharply still. Orthodox Jews don't dress that way because they have no taste; they dress that way because they have a commitment to modesty. And does Jillian even want to talk about Buddhist non-attachment? Too much of that would wreck her business model.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Taliban's In Trouble Now

'Cuz the Finns are on their way.

Don't laugh. Finland hasn't actually fought a war in generations, but they're always ready. And the last one they fought was against a vastly larger and better-resourced opponent. Also one who was as evil as any evil dictator ever. Perhaps you've heard of Stalin? And they beat the bastard.

The 110 Finnish soldiers serving in Afghanistan will soon be joined by 86 more. According to the Helsingin Sanomat, the participation of Finnish "peacekeepers" in the conflict hasn't been entirely successful thus far:

The Sheberghan women’s prison, which was financed by Finland, and which proved to be a brothel where the inmates were compelled to have sex with customers, is one extreme example of how sharply Finland’s good intentions can be with everyday life in Afghanistan.

The article goes on to say that Finns, both in the street and in the corridors of power, are a little unclear about just why they're in Afghanistan these days. It's easy to get confused, since "Afghanistan" and "Iraq" are easy to say in the same breath, but we hope they can remember: because that's where the enemies of civilization are.

This Will Show Those Mozarabicists

Among the services provided by the blog New Liturgical Movement is its occasional biographical tidbits concerning famous Papist liturgiologists. They recently ran a not-so-interesting sketch of Adrian Fortescue, and today ran a more informative piece on Edmund Bishop.

Bishop (who was not one, nor a priest, nor a fully-professed monk) is the author of many interesting minor works. It is also he who coined a deathless description of the Roman Rite, saying that it is historically characterized by "soberness and sense."

If You are Preaching Tomorrow ...

It may be useful to observe that the NRSV doesn't do its best work on St. Mark 4:40-41. It has Jesus ask "Why are you afraid," and the disciples "filled with great awe."

As usual with arguments over translation, these are certainly defensible renderings. "Awe" does indeed get at one aspect of phobos, the sense of an encounter with vast force. But it misses the intense emotional content, the urge to flee.

We would be happier -- and we think the evangelist's point would be better served -- if the Lord asked, "Why are you acting like cowards," and the disciples, having witnessed a display of divine power, responded by "fearing a great fear," or, in colloquial English, being terrified.

They are terrified, it appears from a close reading of the text, less by the storm (which has already been stilled) than by the power they have seen manifested. They are terrified of Jesus.

Can You Subscribe to "The Economist" in Romania?

A week or so back, Father Anonymous was at a local newsstand, searching for something to read while he ate lunch at a diner. His principal requirements were that it would (a) open flat, and (b) not insult his intelligence.

The papers had all been sold out for the day, which left him with glossy magazines. Most of the choices failed one or both tests -- People and Us lie flat, but actually subtract a few IQ points as you read them. Marie Claire does have some interesting makeup tips, but the pages will flip over if they are not weighed down. Esquire, despite those alluring covers showing naked ladies with headlines projected on their bodies, fails miserably on both counts; after all these years, it remains the most consistently disappointing magazine in America.

Father A. had narrowed his choices down to The Ring ("What is happening in the world of prizefighting?" he often wonders), or Inked ("Although," he reflected gloomily, "none of those tattooed youngsters seems to have taken seriously the relevant passages of Leviticus 19.")

"But wait," he said aloud, startling a few of his fellow-customers. "Here's The Economist. That should get me through my BLT." And then, standing at the register, he gasped audibly, realizing that, at $6.99, the magazine would cost about twice what he planned to spend on a sandwich. Literally.

Still, he bought and began to read, and well before his lunch was served he found himself muttering, "I always forget what a good magazine this is. I really should subscribe. Wonder what it costs in lei?"

As Sinatra would have said, had he been more bookish, it was a very good read. The reporting on and analysis of US and British affairs was solid; of more use was the coverage of matters in the non-English speaking world, that quaint patch of Earth located to the south and east. And west. American news magazines rarely have much to say about, say, the purges in Kazakhstan, or the financial problems facing Morton Tsvangirai -- or even, closer to home, Canada's ailing nuclear industry. And yet these are all stories worth reading.

Turns out that Father A. isn't the only one who thinks it's worth the splurge:

Virtually alone among magazines,The Economist saw its advertising revenues increase last year by double digits—a remarkable 25 percent, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Newsweek’s and Time’s dropped 27 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
This is from an admiring, although not uncritical, piece in The Atlantic, by Michael Hirshorn. (Another magazine we hope ships copies to Eastern Europe, come to think of it. ) Turns out that, while newspapers are dying left and right, and the news-magazine business is scrambling to reinvent itself, The Economist is doing quite nicely, thank you.

And why? Hirschorn has a number of ideas, and can;t bring himself to believe that it boils down to the simplest: "quality will out." But we think it does, if you are willing to define "quality" in terms of breadth, rather than snappy prose or even originality.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Jon Stewart is a Menace to National Security

Such, at least, is the apparent reasoning of Jeffrey Smith, a lawyer for the Justice Department.

The Obama Administration is in the process of disappointing us by trying to keep secret the records of an FBI interview with Dick Cheney, regarding the treasonous leak of Valerie Plame's CIA job. The need for transparency in the executive branch has grown so pressing that, so far as we are concerned, virtually everything needs to be public, unless there is an urgent national security matter at stake.

And Smith claims nothing of the sort. Instead, his argument is that politicians should be protected from ... Jon Stewart. Literally:

Justice Department lawyers told the judge that future presidents and vice presidents may not cooperate with criminal investigations if they know what they say could become available to their political opponents and late-night comics who would ridicule them.

"If we become a fact-finder for political enemies, they aren't going to cooperate," ... Smith said during a 90-minute hearing. "I don't want a future vice president to say, `I'm not going to cooperate with you because I don't want to be fodder for 'The Daily Show.'"

Sigh. Do we really need to explain that (a) everything a president says or does is fodder for political satire, pretty much by definition; or (b) people quickly lose trust in leaders who keep secrets, which means that if your boss doesn't want to leave office with 23% approval ratings, he'd damn well better distance himself from a policy of lies and evasion? All of which, remember, is why in a democracy there are many strong arguments in favor of transparency, and few against.

All that said, of course, we can't imagine that the records, if released, would include Cheney saying to the man with the recorder, "Oh, yeah, I did that -- my bad." It just doesn't seem like him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iranian Regime Doesn't Watch MSNBC

For days now, the streets of Tehran have filled with unhappy people protesting what looks very much like a fraudulent election.

And for days, US Republicans -- being safely out of office, and not having to worry about the consequences of their actions -- have berated President Obama for his failure to denounce the election, and take sides with the supposed reform candidate, Mir Hossain Mousavi.

But for days, Obama, and the rest of his administration (even Biden) have stayed on message. Like a longish yogic mantra, they have repeated that (a) it is not the business of the US to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation; (b) that American interference, in this case, would surely provide political cover for the regime as it cracked down on protesters; and that (c) there was no strong evidence that replacing Ahmadinejad with Mousavi would make a difference in US/Iranian relations, which are ultimately shaped by the clerics anyway.

And for days, MSNBC has rebroadcast the administration's mantra. (Just a thought, but are Rachel Maddow's ratings really good enough to justify running her show for 18 hours a day?)

But it turns out that the Iranian government doesn't actually need American interference to provide cover for a crackdown, especially not when it can simply lie, and claim that such interference has already taken place. Which it is now doing.

We hate to say this, but there may be an important lesson here for Obama and his team. Republicans learned long ago (from Reagan, if not McCarthy) that the age of mass media obviates reasonable discourse. In a rapid news cycle, among people with short memories, there is remarkably little political penalty for saying anything that sounds good, no matter how false, stupid or illegal. You can lie, bluster, and even threaten, without ever being called to account. (Although there are some limits: you can't claim military victory in a flight suit onboard an battleship.)

And the reverse is true: an exercise in self-discipline is wasted energy. If you want to do something mischievous, why not go ahead and do it, since your enemies will claim that you have in any case?

At least, these are the things we imagine Dick Cheney whispered into W.'s ear, late at night. He clearly got the advice somewhere, and followed it. And we all know how that worked out.

Sex Scandal Is Good News for GOP

By now, you have surely heard that Senator John Ensign (R-Nev) has admitted to an extramarital affair. He's married, she's married. Ickier still, she worked for him and so did her husband. Droit de seigneur, anybody?

You have probably heard some crowing from the Democrats, since Ensign had positioned himself as a Defender of Marriage. He called upon both Bill Clinton and Larry Craig to resign after their various capers came to light. He was part of Promise Keepers (anybody remember them?). He supported the (silly) effort to add a definition of marriage to the US Constitution, and he did so in language that now sounds painfully ironic:

“Marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded. For those who say that the Constitution is so sacred that we cannot or should not adopt the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would simply point out that marriage, and the sanctity of that institution, predates the American Constitution and the founding of our nation. Marriage, as a social institution, predates every other institution on which ordered society in America has relied.”

You may also have heard that Ensign is a "rising star" in his party, and has now "destroyed his chance at a 2012 presidential run." But we beg to differ! We at the Egg believe that the current scandal will only serve to raise John Ensign's public profile, and strengthen his chances of becoming America's forty-fifth president. Here are a few of the reasons why:
  1. John Ensign is Tough on Crime. Seems the wronged husband was trying to blackmail him before he went public. The confession put an end to that. So you see what this was, right? A sting operation! Ensign had sex with the guy's wife as a means of defeating a criminal conspiracy.
  2. John Ensign Doesn't Have to Pay for It. Unlike that mama's boy David Vitter. And think about this -- Ensign is from Nevada, a state where prostitution is legal. And he still doesn't pay for it.
  3. John Ensign Likes Girls. Hah! Take that, Larry Craig, you moral degenerate.

What They Don't Tell You

We at the Egg have been alternately chilled and heartwarmed by the news from Belfast this week.

Chilled, because the BBC has reported that more than 100 Romanians living in Ireland have been harassed and threatened in a series of escalating attacks, some of them accompanied by the usual symbolism of racist thuggery -- swastikas and so forth.

Warmed, because many of those frightened, vulnerable Romanians have been given shelter in a local church, and are now en route to temporary lodging in a college dormitory.

Two points, however, are not made clear in all the news reports:

First, that the Romanians in question belong to one particular ethnic group -- the Roma, or Gypsies. (It's in the article linked above, but was most certainly not in the radio report we heard last night). This is significant. The Roma are surely among Europe's most abused peoples, surpassed (if they are surpassed) only by the Jews. Like Jews, the Roma suffered under Hitler; anywhere from a quarter to half of of them were killed. It may be that the press avoids mentioning the ethnicity of the Belfast victims from a misplaced sense of political correctness, but it is in fact an important part of the story. (Imagine reporting the attack on Mumbai without mentioning its anti-semitic aspects.)

Second, that the church in which the displaced Roma found refuge has an identity as well. The press speaks warmly of "Pastor Malcolm Morgan and his team," but seems loathe to say much more about that team. It took some googling to discover that Morgan serves City Church, Belfast. So far as we can tell from its website, City Church is an Evangelical congregation with no specific denominational affiliation. It doesn't seem like an especially large operation. Their YouTube newsletter seems a little earnest, but sweetly so.

But here's the part that matters: City Church jumped in where the surely-more-numerous established churches of the city did not, to care for sojourner in their midst. We doff our birettas to them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Honking Big Lutheran Parish Defects

Community Church of Joy, in Glendale, Arizona, has announced that it plans to "re-align," by which it means leaving the ELCA. It intends to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, the same "association" that, as we mentioned last week, our colleague Mr. Slope intends to join.

(LCMC, since its inception, has insisted that it is not a distinct denomination, but rather an association of like-minded pastors and congregations, united by a common statement of faith, to maintain discipline and organize missions. We aren't entirely sure we see the difference. LCMC has about 220 congregations, and depending upon their average size, it is quite possible that the addition of CCJ will double its net membership figures.)

CCJ is an extremely large congregation, by Lutheran standards. Its senior pastor, Walt Kallestad, may not be a household name along the lines of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, but he is something of a celebrity. During the 1980s, he turned CCJ into the fastest-growing Lutheran congregation in the country, if not the world. In 2002, CCJ reported 10,716 baptized members, making it second only to the titanic Mt. Olivet, Minneapolis in the ELCA. Kallestad himself claims that membership topped out around 12,000. But since then, it has changed dramatically: In 2008 CCJ reported 6,834 members, and today it reports 5,282 members. It may not be the fastest-shrinking congregation in the country, but it must be close.

So what's going on here? What's going on with the staggering membership decline, and how does it relate to the decision to jump ship? We don't know enough about the place to say for sure. But ignorance has never kept us quiet before, and we don't see any reason it should begin to now.

According to Kallestad, the membership decline is the result of deliberate decisions growing from a re-evaluation of CCJ's ministry. The congregation was built on "entertainment evangelism," a model in which people were attracted to worship not by the promise of personal transformation, or even community with the like-minded, but by services that came to seem like professional variety shows. After a heart attack in 2002, he started to wonder whether this was the path of wisdom:

[S]omething was missing. We’d become an organization competing for market-share with other program-driven churches, but that wasn’t accomplishing our mission—we weren’t creating empowered disciples.

We’d put all our energy into dispensing religious goods and services, and as a result we were not empowering our people to transform their community. If our church, with the sheer power of its numbers, was populated with empowered disciples, they would be feeding the hungry and building deep, meaningful relationships with their neighbors. In short, they would be involved with community transformation. We were neither salt nor light—we were mere consumers.

And so he scrapped plans for the new "worship center" with its retractable roof (!), and took a sabbatical to study "transformational" churches. This means:

Instead of counting people and offerings, now we look for evidence that people are breaking out of their private, cocooned lives and fully engaging with God and his people. We want them to do more than grab a cup of coffee in the lobby or meet someone new during worship gatherings; we want them to go deep with one another ....

In the old days, we protected people’s anonymity; today we thrust them into community, living life together.

And as that happened, the people who had been coming for a show stopped coming. In droves. But that's okay, because pruning makes a tree healthier.

It's a good story, and we hope it's true. We do have a couple of minor reservations: (1) If we're reading the documents right, the membership decline actually began before Kallestad's heart attack; (2) he claims to have taken a cue from Robert Schuller, about "dying as a church to be reborn as a mission." Nice words, but ... Schuller? Is he really your best authority on this? And (3), every pastor of a declining church has, at some point, fallen back on the "pruning" metaphor, if only to salve his own fragile ego. Still, this trajectory and these goals mirror recent events at, say, Willow Creek, and we consider it all to be for the good. We at the Egg certainly value discipleship over entertainment as an ecclesiological goal. It's Pietism writ large, but the truth is, dear readers -- brace yourselves -- we have a great affection for Pietism, so long as it is a reflection of real piety.

So. Is all this connected to the decision to join LCMC? We expect it is, if only indirectly. CCJ identifies three main reasons that it is dissatisfied with the ELCA: Sex, hermeneutics, and Israel.

None of these is particularly original. CCJ apparently doesn't want to be part of a church that recognizes gay pastors; no surprise there. It doesn't like Biblical interpretations that tend in that direction, including some from something called the "Lutheran Study Bible," of which we have never otherwise heard but into which we will look, first thing, upon our return from Romania sometime in the coming decade. And as for Israel, it doesn't think the ELCA is sufficiently "supportive."

The net effect of these complaints, it seems to us, it to put CCJ squarely in line with standard-issue American Protestantism, on the conservative side of the mainline. There's nothing terrible about that, and much that is attractive.

On the other hand, we aren't entirely sure why CCJ -- and Kallestad, who is surely the driving force here -- felt that it couldn't simply remain a large, conservative congregation within the ELCA. The congregation has always been well outside the ELCA mainstream anyway; despite what you may have heard, Father Anonymous has no immediate plans to build a worship center with a retractable roof. It doesn't mind bucking the ordinary rules of a denomination, as for example by calling a second pastor (the unfortunately named David Tombs) who is not rostered with the ELCA. And those rules are pretty flexible anyway. No matter what happens at Churchwide this summer, it isn't as though congregations will be forced to call gay pastors. Or read the Lutheran Study Bible, whatever it actually is.

Anyway, it's all a bit odd. And sad. We wish them well, of course, and hope that they stop shrinking.

Crazy Mother of the Day: Beccah Beushausen

Per the LA Times, linked above, somebody calling herself "April's Mom"has spent the last two months writing nightly blog posts, sharing the emotionally-wrenching story of her pregnancy. Her child, she wrote, had been diagnosed in utero with a terminal illness, but she was determined to carry the baby to term.

Its easy to see why a story like that would compel readers, especially Christians with an interest in parenting and the pro-life movement. And they came to her in droves; her blog got more hits in one day than, say, the Egg has received in its four years of existence. (We're not jealous, mind you; we're just envious.)

The story had a sad ending, though. Actually, it had two:
  • First sad ending: April was born, survived a few hours, and then died.
  • Second sad ending: It was all a lie.
The blogger, now revealed as Beccah Beushausen, posted a picture of her putative daughter, which a sharp-eyed reader recognized as a doll. Needless to say, fans have been outraged.

Now, look. We could jump all over this in some pejorative political way, and suggest that the anti-abortion movement is driven, at least in part, by the mentally unstable leading the gullible. (And in fact, we have long suspected as much). But deceit and credulity aren't restricted to any one of America's cultural ghettoes. Jayson Blair, anybody? James Frey? Bernie Madoff?

But, at least in this case, we are struck with sadness by the (apparent) psychological backstory of the hoaxer. It seems she did lose a son, a few years back -- a terrible thing, which we would not wish on our worst enemy. And it seems that she started the blog in an effort to deal with that trauma.

In fact, her losses and traumas may run deeper than the article suggests. Here's Beushausen's own rambling apology-cum-explanation. In it, she says (among many other things): ... I am no stranger to losing a baby. I have suffered this type of loss, more than once, to varying degrees, and while the circumstances and times vary (spanning from between my college years through just this last year), the pain is very constant.

We believe her. But we are wondering about "more than once, to varying degrees." What exactly does this mean? The LA Times mentions one loss, which is bad enough; but what are the others? Miscarriages? An abortion? (She does also mention having been "a young, scared woman who didn't know how to handle an unplanned pregnancy," which is often how abortion stories begin.

Anyway, it is a reminder not to believe anything one reads on the Internet. Why, for all you know, Father Anonymous himself could be a strapping six-footer with a lush baritone and Pietistic bent.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Newsflash: Not All NYC Cops Tell the Truth

This is, how shall we say it, about as new as the idea that some LA cops like to play rough. Still, the most recent case is especially disturbing.

In early January, 2008, undercover narcotics officers entered a bar and looked around.  Moments after they left, and acting on their word, a team swept in and made six arrests.  We're not sure about four of those arrests, which -- for the moment -- we will assume were valid.

But here's the problem.  Two of the arrests were entirely bogus, and depended upon deliberate and complete lies.

Officer Henry Tavarez and Detective Stephen Anderson testified that they had observed a fairly complicated little dance.  Tavarez claimed that he asked a patron where to buy some cocaine; the patron steered him toward Max Colon, who then patted the officer down to see if he was wearing a wire, took $100 from him, and handed a bag of cocaine to a confederate, who handed it to another, and then another, before it wound up in Tavarez's hands.  

Yup, that's a narcotics crime, alright.  Or it would be, if it weren't completely fabricated.

Turns out that there was a security camera running.  And the tape, which Max Colon and his brother Jose were clever enough to track down and get to an attorney, shows what actually happened.  The brothers spent two hours sitting in their chairs, having a few drinks and wishing the pool table were open so they could play.

As reported (somewhat confusingly) by the HuffPo:

What the tape doesn't show is striking: At no point did the officers interact with the undercovers, nor did the brothers appear to be involved in a drug deal with anyone else. Adding insult to injury, an outside camera taped the undercovers literally dancing down the street.

In the religion business, we call what those cops did "bearing false witness," and it's actually on God's top ten list of really bad things.  The brother's lawyer, a former prosecutor named Rochelle Berliner, says:

"I almost threw up.   Because I must've prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases ... and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don't mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick."

And there's one part of the problem.  Misconduct this egregious does reflect upon the department as a whole and narcotics investigators in particular.  This ticks us off, because we know some square-shooting, honest-as-the-day-is-long drug investigators, and we don't want to see their work get any harder or more dangerous.  Specifically, this case casts doubt upon every piece of testimony ever offered by either policemen, and leads to the likelihood that many of the people they have imprisoned -- quite possibly including some guilty ones -- will now go free.  Thanks, guys, for making our streets so much less safe.

But there's another problem.  The Colon brothers were arrested in January.  The charges against them were dropped in June.  But during those six months, their lives were ruined.  Their standing in the neighborhood (which is adjacent to our own, by the way) has been ruined.  Worse,  they owned a convenience store, but lost their license to sell tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets.  The store closed just before the dismissal.  

Augustine, on Schism

In the 4th century, the Donatist schism in North Africa -- essentially an argument over the moral purity of the clergy -- prompted St. Augustine to make this reflection on St Mark 4:21-34, our Gospel for tomorrow:

In the same manner, then the catholicity of our mother [the Church] becomes palpable when others who are not her sons make war on her.  It is a fact that this little branch of worshipers in Africa has been broken off from the great tree which embraces the whole world in the spreading of its branches.  She is in labor with them in charity, that they may return to the root without which they cannot have true life.

"Without which they cannot have true life."  We hope that those words, when they are read aloud on Sunday, will chill the blood of the SSPX, not to mention the WordAlone movement, which after years of pretending to be a "loyal opposition" is getting closer and closer to becoming ... something else.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Detroit, In Retrospect

The Economist reminds us of what, exactly, we have lost with the gradual collpase of the US automobile industry:

At the height of its success, GM was proof of capitalism’s ability to deliver the American dream to the average Joe. Young men could walk onto the assembly line fresh from high school and live a life that was the envy of most of the world. 

They earned enough to support a wife and family; the company provided them with top-notch medical care; they could retire with full benefits after just 30 years of work. In the mid-1950s Detroit had the highest median income and the highest rate of home-ownership of any American city.

Kids with a high-school education earning enough to support a family, buy a house, and retire their 40s?  In retrospect, does that sound sustainable? 

Telling "Right" from "Left."

James Von Brunn, a convicted felon, took a rifle into the National Holocaust Museum this week, and began shooting.  He killed a man named Stephen T. Johns.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this incident.  There is never anything funny about terrorism, nor about racism, nor about murder.  There is nothing funny about the fact that we live in a country where convicted felons are able to walk the streets with their rifles, either.

But here's what is funny -- in a dark, dark way -- about the events since then.  A series of conservative commentators have started identifying Von Brunn as a "leftist."  In their topsy-turvy world, the Nazis were all leftists; Muslim extremists are all leftists; and black is no doubt white, up no doubt down, and war no doubt peace.

Their argument, such as it is, boils down to the claim that since "Nazi" means National Socialist, Hitler was basically indistinguishable from Charles Fourier, Bronson Alcott, or those hippies who lived down the hill from us when we were kids.  (Here's another way to get that the same thing:  Hitler was a vegetarian; PETA supports vegetarianism; ergo, Bob Barker is a genocidal mass murderer.)

Underneath this stupidity, we hope, lies an honorable desire:  to distance conservative principles from the actions of a crazed gunman.  We will happily stipulate to this distance.  After all, there is nothing about free markets or small government that leads logically to mass violence.  (States' right, by the way, may be another matter).  The Von Brunns of the world do not act on the values of William F. Buckley; they act because they are demented.

But having so stipulated, we have three concerns:

First, that the right does not extend the same courtesy to the left.  There truly does seem to be a contingent which believes, or at least argues for rhetorical effect, that market regulation and government services lead inexorably to Stalin and the gulags.  They would be wise to abandon this line of argument, at least until the pro-lifers stop murdering people.

Second, and somewhat abstractly, the limitations imposed on this discussion by a simple-minded description of political thinking, in which "left" and "right" are opposite poles, separated by a spectrum of intermediary positions.  While racial segregation -- like sexism, or an aversion to gay rights -- may, technically, be a "conservative" value in the sense that it seeks to conserve a traditional ordering of American society, it really bears no connection to the more thoughtful discussion of markets or government.  Likewise, the "liberals" who defend the right to free speech even of those who ideas they despise cannot recognize in this act of principle any relationship to Herbert Marcuse's railing against "repressive tolerance."  Their "leftism" is nothing like his.  All commentators, of whatever conviction, ought to reconsider this scheme.

Third, and most important, that the contemporary conservative establishment refuses to acknowledge how thoroughly integrated into itself the rhetoric of hatred has become, and how therefore its unofficial leaders do, even if inadvertently, prod the mentally defective to acts of violence.  The leadership provided by entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter may in fact lead to violence, not because they counsel it directly, so much as because their language is designed to excite the base passions, and so inevitably excites the base passions of the crazed.

[Liturgical] Information Wants to Be Free!

A thoughtful piece over at NLM, linked above, points out that many ritual texts are protected by copyright.  This will come as no surprise to any parish pastor (or music director) who has ever made a few photocopies from a hymnal, and then lain awake wondering when the lawyers would call.  We do tend to be a scupulous bunch.

The piece, by Jeffrey Tucker, makes a few observations:
  1. That this system is deeply beloved of publishers, such as ICEL and GIA (or Augsburg and Concordia) who make a lot of money from it;
  2. That scholars in medicine and the natural sciences have begun to move away from a system of copyrights and fees, both because it keeps much of their research buried, and because they believe that lives may depend upon the rapid dissemination of that research;
  3. That the work of liturgical scholars and translators is no less vital to the life of the church;
  4. That so long as the current copyright regime continues, "People will continue to circulate compositions and books and publications in secret, fearing lawsuits and crackdown." 
We at the Egg have mixed feelings about copyright and patent protections, but for the most part we are in the camp that considers them excessive.  While we certainly do believe that authors and artists have a right  to profit from their work, for example, we don't think that those rights should endure much beyond death.

Liturgical materials are somewhat different, but not vastly so.  A publisher certainly deserves to profit from the work it puts into a new service-book; but if it is a church publisher -- especially, like Augsburg or Concordia, the official publishing house of a denomination -- it seems to us that the publisher has a duty to forgo certain protections, at least with regard to its own community.

(That said, we do use and highly recommend Augsburg's Sundays and Seasons online liturgical library, which for a modest annual fee provides access to most of the material available in their hymnals.  Most, we say, because we can't seem to find the WOV Eucharistic Prayers, or any psalm prayers.  Somebody get on that, wouldja?)

But we wonder if the current laws, as they fall behind the emerging technology, don't create one of those mother-of-invention scenarios.  Tucker points to some monks who, rather than pay for the copyrighted GIA psalter, are using the public-domain psalter from the Anglican BCP.  All this is surely disconcerting to  Roman Catholic, among whom there are specific rules governing which texts and translations are acceptable in a given language and nation.  But for some of the rest of us, this opens up the prospect of a new world.

 Among Lutherans, after all, nobody is ever quite satisfied with the hymnal (which for us conventionally includes the service-book).  It is too high, too low, too modern, too antiquarian, etc.  We wonder how long it will be, then before every congregation has the capacity to create and publish its own book, customized to reflect its needs?  Print-on-demand services certainly exist, although they are a bit expensive.  But the cost is almost certain to diminish over time.

And if custom hymnals become widespread, two things will naturally follow:  
  1. A certain amount of copyright violation, answered by some legal action; and then
  2. A strong move toward public-domain resources.
Since public-domain resources tend to be older, it is natural to expect the new POD hymnals to take on an old-fashioned look.  We can expect older translations of ritual texts, reliance on hymns which -- even if they are not necessarily familiar -- were written and composed long ago.  While there will also be an explosion of creativity, from local worship leaders working for the benefit of their own immediate community, much of the underlying material will inevitably look and sound old.

We at the Egg are quite pleased by this prospect, since we long ago decided that we prefer the Jacobean language with which we were raised, and that we have at best mixed feelings about hymnody since 1930 or so.  (In fact, one of the little projects that Father Anonymous works on in his spare time is a Latin/English Daily Office, using the texts and rubrics of the Common Service Book.  He's odd that way.)

But we also have to confess a sense of loss.  Custom service books will mark, decisively, the end of the era in which liturgical uniformity was at least a nominal goal for churches of a particular confession.  In our childhood, it was possible to walk into any Lutheran church on Sunday morning and know, more or less, what to expect.  The ritual details might vary, but the words, the tunes, the songs would be the same ones you used at home, or very close.  While we never quite achieved Muhlenberg's dream of "one church, one book," we were for a few generations -- roughly 1888 until 1995 -- pretty close.

Augsburg-Fortress put an end to this era, pretty decisively, with the publication of With One Voice, a "supplement" to the LBW which started the process of replacing it.  (In fairness, congregations had long since begun shopping around for their own supplements, often from non-Lutheran publishers.)  The current profusion of texts available from this single publisher already means encourages, and practically requires, each congregation to make a series of liturgical decisions -- Confession or Thanksgiving for Baptism?  Which combination of of ten musical settings, fifteen Eucharistic Prayers -- which result in a highly customized service.

So the next logical step will be a radical localization of the liturgy.  There is much to be said for this idea, but also much to be said against it.  But this can certainly be said about it:  those musicians and  liturgical scholars who want to see their work widely disseminated in this new world will do well to forgo the protections of current copyright law.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sex. It's Always About Sex. Except When It Isn't.

So there was Father A., sitting at his desk wondering whether he would have a quorum at his council meeting, when the phone rang.  It was a fellow-presbyter whom we'll call Mr. Slope. (You know -- like the chaplain in Trollope, whose style of churchmanship is so unlike that of our own hero, Mr. Arabin, "fellow of Lazarus, late professor of poetry at Oxford, and present vicar of St Ewold.")

We have a delicate relationship with this fellow Slope.  It shouldn't be mistaken for friendship, because it is not; it is rather a determination to remain civil, despite our profound disagreements on everything not covered by the Augustana.  Scratch that; by everything not covered by the first four articles of the Augustana.  (If it were a friendship, Father A. would feel no particular obligation to be civil.  One of the privileges of real friendship is the right to badger mercilessly.)

Anyway, he called, and we talked about this and that.  Then Father A. asked some innocent question -- Missed you at the synod assembly?  Aren't you on such--a-committee? -- to which Mr. Slope gave the offhand reply, "Oh, we're leaving the ELCA."

Ah.  What is one to say to such a thing?  The little fellow in the penguin suit asked a few polite questions.  Slope is dragging his congregation into one of the Lutheran micro-denominations, over what he calls "matters of Biblical interpretation," but which are not.  They are theological convictions regarding sexuality, which are certainly related to hermeneutical matters, but extend far beyond into other things. 

Father A. politely observed that this was not a step he favored -- "I won't bother telling you how bad an idea it is," he said quietly.  To a friend, he might have been more blunt:  Thou charlatan!  Thou coward! How can you cut your people off from their church and its ministries this way?  How can you cut yourself off from the church in which you were nurtured, educated and to which you have bound yourself by solemn vows?  Is a disagreement over genital matters more important to you than the integrity of those relationships?  To a friend, he might have said, You know, I recall playing a game of pick-up ball, once, on the playground.  [Already a lie, but one says these things for rhetorical effect]  I thought I was playing well, but I lost anyway.  And you know what I didn't do?  I didn't take my ball away from the other guy and run home to play with myself.  

And then, as the conversation meandered -- Silesian children's revivals, anybody? -- Father A. asked a few questions.  Casting about, somewhat desperately, for a topic that would not involve vituperation, he thought of a mutual colleague, located up in Slope's neck of the woods, who is well-known for his intense conservatism on matters by no means restricted to sexuality -- and who, if rumor is to be believed, has reached one of those junctures in ministry at which he could use a friend.

"So, what about Padre Falangisto?  You guys ever talk about this stuff?"

"Him?  Eww, no.  I -- uh -- I used to go to Bible studies, but they were all full of liberal @*##$%*!.   So we never see each other."

This was clearly non-responsive, since Padre F. has no use for liberal @*##$%*!  Heck, the man petitions small colleges to re-name the liberal arts.  So your humble correspondent tried again:  "But, you guys, I mean, uh, you've got stuff to talk about."  In truth, we wondered if our old friend the Padre might not also be shopping for a micro-denomination.

And then it all came out:  Questions about the poor fellow's high-handed pastoral style, complaints about the size of his vestment closet, and all the usual tawdry arguments over Victorian divisions of the Church.  ("Why, he walked right up to me and said that Pietism is the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity!"  Clearly untrue -- Pelagianism, anybody? -- but we had to chuckle as we imagined the conversation, two zealots squaring off, red-faced and huffy).

Later, though, we started to wonder.  How much of the schismatic urge is really about the supposed matters at stake -- sex, primarily, but also the pension plan, the quota system, the Episcopalians -- and how much is really about a gut-level sense of not feeling at home in your own church?  The rage of Caliban, not seeing his face in the mirror?  And, in that last category, how much of that sense is rooted in reality, and how much in the personal neuroses of the faithful, and especially of the clergy who lead them?

We aren't proposing an answer here, nor do we think there is an easy one.  But the question seems worth asking, doesn't it?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Strom Thurmond Will Never Die!

Some Republicans have taken to saying that Sonia Sotomayor is a racist.  We don't know, but we're inclined to trust them -- they are the experts.

Emanuel to Press Corps: @#$%&*!

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, "despite his legendary personality flaws — his penchant for profane mockery is now so well documented that you sometimes have the sense he’s cursing at you so as not to disappoint — is freakishly well suited to the job."

Funny line, right?  But also revealing?  Matt Bai is a darn good political reporter.  He digs deep and writes well.  You want proof?  Read his article in today's Times Magazine, describing President Obama's strategy for working with Congress on health-care reform.

As Bai says, "Designing a new health care system ... is a legislative goal that has eluded every Democratic president since Harry Truman and that Obama repeatedly vowed to accomplish during last year’s campaign."  So apparently the new team is taking this challenge as seriously as, um, a heart attack.  And they have a great new strategy:  Show Congress some respect.

The way Bai tells it, Clinton's health-care plan failed, in part, because the policy wonks in the Executive Branch came up with a brilliant, detailed plan, then dropped it off on Capitol Hill with a note that said "Pass me."  Seems this bothered the lawmakers, some of whom actually think that making law is their job, not the President's.  Comically, this was also Bush Jr.'s strategy for the 2005 Social Security reform -- because if you were looking for a guy who would give any bad idea a second try, provided it were high-handed enough, Bush was your man.

Obama's strategy is a little less ... stupid.  He has made it clear that he wants a bill to sign, but is letting Congress put one together.  To help make that dream a reality, his administration is heavy with former Congressional aides and other inside players; his staff doles out White House goodies; and the President himself does something that traditionally makes aides tremble -- he meets privately with Congressional leaders.  [Here's what trembling looks like among the tough and disciplined:  "When I asked Emanuel if he would prefer that the president have someone around while negotiating with individual lawmakers, he smiled tightly. 'I prefer whatever he prefers,' the chief of staff said, sounding uncharacteristically diplomatic.]

Hmm.  When you add the factors together -- popular president; new strategy; majority in both houses, not to mention fresh interest from business community and massive pressing urgent need for a health-care system that covers the poor, the unemployed and freelancers -- it looks like we might actually see this happen.