Saturday, October 31, 2009

Speaking of the Finns ...

We've heard, much of our lives, that they kill themselves in awesome numbers, most likely as an effect of months in the cold and dark, supplemented by significant quantities of hard liquor.

And that's probably true.  (Those of you who have heard Father A.'s oft-repeated story about a winter bus trip through Lapland may insert it here.  For the rest of you, the punchline is "Then I have an epiphany. 'The answer is so simple,' I said aloud.  'I'll kill myself!  That will show them all' And I was on the next bus south to Rovaniemi.")  

But the French live in a sunny Mediterranean climate, drinking wine and surrounded by masterpieces of art and culture.  Yet they kill themselves at positively Nordic rates, and their numbers are climbing.  So what gives?

Well, the Economist -- from which we stole this nifty bar graph - has a theory:  It's the economy, stupid.

You see, the French suicides have a largely corporate mise-en-scene (you see what we did there, right?  Actually using French, albeit a French cliche and without the accent which we're too lazy to find?):

A spate of attempted and successful suicides at France Telecom—many of them explicitly prompted by troubles at work—has sparked a national debate about life in the modern corporation. One man stabbed himself in the middle of a meeting (he survived). A woman leapt from a fourth-floor office window after sending a suicidal e-mail to her father: “I have decided to kill myself tonight…I can’t take the new reorganisation.” In all, 24 of the firm’s employees have taken their own lives since early 2008—and this grisly tally follows similar episodes at other pillars of French industry including Renault, Peugeot and EDF.

Holy *#@%.  Glad we work for the Church, where job satisfaction is celestially high.

The main culprit, per the Economist's columnist "Schumpeter," is the recession, which "is destroying jobs at a startling rate."  Then follow the drive to improve productivity -- "Taylorism" -- and finally, one that seems more subtle, and therefore more noteworthy:

[T]he mixed messages that companies send about loyalty and commitment. Many firms—particularly successful ones—demand extraordinary dedication from their employees. (Microsoft, according to an old joke, offers flexitime: “You can work any 18-hour shift that you want.”) Some provide perks that are intended to make the office feel like a second home. But companies also reserve the right to trim their workforce at the first sign of trouble. Most employees understand that their firms do not feel much responsibility to protect jobs. But they nevertheless find it wrenching to leave a post that has consumed so much of their lives.

This, we think, is important.  The ping-pong table in the breakroom, the fully-stocked fridge and even the babysitting service -- among the widely publicized perks of Silicon Valley -- simply do not compensate for the loss of job security.  On the contrary, because they are symbols of the extraordinary dedication demanded by those firms, they quickly become symbols of how employees have sacrificed so much of their lives for an employer which treats them not as human beings but as disposable objects.

Sing Along With Bobby Aro

Our Beloved Godfather must make the Google algorithm wet its pants.  We don't know what search terms he uses, but he does find the darndest stuff.  

Lately, he's gotten us hooked on the music of Bobby Aro.  A native Minnesotan (and we can only assume a Lutheran), Aro is the author of such classic tunes as "Highway No. 7" and "I'm Not Finnish (But My English Teacher Was)."

How to describe this music?  Our first thought was "the bastard child of Sven, Ole and the Limeliters."  The fan site linked above compares him to Bob Dylan, another Rust Belt boy with a musical gift, but that's a bit like comparing Hendrix with the Klezmatics -- hey, they both work creatively with the music of oppressed peoples, but ....  

Anyway.  Click up top and listen.  There are two albums, the latter of which contains a track called "The Moose."  OBG proposes that this is the archetype of all Finnish humor.  We trust his judgment on this, although we ourselves had been sure it was Canto 20 of the Kalevala (you remember, the one about beer).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bouman: CORE Lies to Members

For many years, Stephen Bouman served as our bishop.  These days, he is the ELCA's Director of Outreach and Mission.  It was in that capacity, more or less, that he attended the CORE wingding, and has published an open letter to the schismatics-in-waiting.

It's a good letter, and we urge you to click the link up top.  It is classic Bouman, in ways that may tickle those of us who know his style:  the eirenic (if perhaps misplaced) assurance that "my heart is with you," the wrenching anecdote about an immigrant, the preoccupation with Isaiah, and the central theme repeated so often you can chant it along with him.  But that theme is both familiar and important, as he asks CORE, over and over, whether they are serious about mission.  

He doesn't just mean building new congregations, but also -- and this is another favorite theme -- about the witness of the church in the public square.  For example:

You seem ready to engage our African and Latino brothers and sisters and their growing outreach in the life of the ELCA. Again I want to ask you, are you serious? Speakers made fun of Bishop Hanson for his call to "public church," but how dare we welcome our immigrant brothers and sisters and ask them to leave their issues and vulnerability in our society at the door? 

All this is good.  What caught us off guard, though, is a note of genuine accusation.  He says that the CORE leaders lied about a matter of policy, and would not let the truth be heard:

During the meeting, ... [it] was said [by two mission pastors] that the ELCA is and will punish mission pastors for their convictions of conscience through withholding of funds for their mission. After these untrue statements were made, people passed the hat for these ministries in order to make up funding that the ELCA would withhold. 

As executive director for the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I want to say as publically and as strongly as possible that exactly the opposite is true. ...

I was not permitted to speak and correct these allegations.

This surprised us, largely because it is unlike Bishop Bouman to point an accusing finger at anybody in a public forum.  But he did it.  And rightly so.

And wow.  They just plain lied.  Then they refused to let the mission director of their own church correct the lies.  Delightful.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Deus Lo Volt?

There is an impossibly stupid Times op-ed piece by Ross Douthat, linked above, which tries to put a Crusading face on the new "personal ordinariate" for Romanizing Anglicans.

Douthat suggests that    

"What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe," by which he means Islam.

He doesn't actually explain how this might happen, mind you.  Instead, he (1) asserts that both churches are threatened by the growing confrontation with Islam, both in Europe and in Africa; then (2) asserts that where Rome has chosen confrontation (e.g., the Regensburg speech), Canterbury has chosen appeasement (e.g., Abp Williams surprisingly dumb hint that shariah might work in Britain as an alternate legal system).  From the apposition of these two claims, he seems to conclude -- we say "seems," because there is no real connection --  (3) that Benedict is not so much kicking the Anglicans while they are down, as marshaling his forces against the Turk.

Let's be clear about what Douthat is really doing, rhetorically:  he is trying to paint Benedict as a new John Paul, whose apparent intractability on theological matters is now frequently pointed to (mostly by theocons) as part and parcel of a long-term plan to undermine Communism.  This by itself is a popular historical trope, but bad history.  It seems pretty clear that Communism was brought down by its unsustainable economic policies, which left the USSR too fragile to maintain a security state, etc.  Reagan helped a little, both by forcing the Reds to keep blowing rubles on their military and by giving Gorbachev a partner in the West.  But how many divisions has the Pope, and all that.

Meanwhile, his assumptions about Islam are, if not cartoonish, at least debatable.  Certainly, the world's two largest religions are now in one another's face as they have not been since the Middle Ages.  Philip Jenkins may be a darling of the neocons, but we do not doubt his contention that the next half-century will be tense.  

Still, the idea that Islam threatens Christianity and Christian values, while certainly not entirely false (they are different religions, and it is the nature of different religions to hold different values), is misleading.  The real challenge afoot today is not Islam vs. Christianity, but Islamism (or, per Hitchens, Islamofascism) vs. Western democracy -- the ideas of individual autonomy, human rights, and specifically the sort of freedoms outlined in the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.  And it is worth remembering that, little more than a century ago, many Western thinkers believed that Roman Catholicism was intrinsically incompatible with these values -- and that Pius IX had given them cause to think so.

As to his characterization of the two church bodies, we don't think Douthat is especially well-informed.  Oh, sure, the spirit of Neville Chamberlain is alive in the CofE; but Bp Michael Nazir-Ali serves as a pretty effective Churchill these days, and some people are paying attention.  And has Douthat actually read the Regensburg speech, or the backtracking follow-up statements from the Pope?  To us, he seemed less like Charles Martel and more like an academic deer caught in the political headlights.

Another sign of Douthat's ignorance, or at least a sign that his biases are conditioned by the usual theocon rant, is his characterization of the ecumenical movement:

Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.

This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.

This is, again, a popular trope -- and again, bad history.  In fact, the modern ecumenical movement began (half a century before Vatican II and the "optimism of the early 60s," by the way) with the deliberate effort of Protestant missionaries to coordinate their efforts and approaches, rather than competing.  It expanded into something much greater, a sweeping re-evaluation of the separation between churches, studied both with regard to their faith and order and to their life and work.

Along the way, there were certainly some public statements on subjects which may not have seemed like the work of the church.  We think, for instance, of the call for Sunday School curricula dealing with birth control and sex education, delivered by the Council of Christian Churches in the USA -- back in the 1930s.

But in fact, the more serious products of the ecumenical movement have been just the sort of consolidation that Douthat imagines Benedict to be proposing:  both institutional mergers that created "uniting churches" in India and the Americas, as well as agreements of "full communion" between historically-rooted partner churches (such as the Lutheran-Reformed Leuenberg Agreement in 1973, and many others since then, including the recent agreement between Lutherans and Methodists in the US).  It is such agreements, in which divided churches recognize in one another the elements of a common faith, which have slowly begun to forge a common witness.

Roman Catholic participation has been a tricky thing.  After a long period of utter indifference, came another -- roughly 1964 to 1978 -- during which it seemed to lead the way.  Since then, we have seen some fits and starts, and in fact Roman Catholic ecumenical efforts have often seemed to focus on good works rather than common faith, meaning, for instance, that they offered significant leadership on the very campaign against third-world debt that Douthat derides.  In discussion of doctrinal matters, and in the difficult work of hammering out agreements, Rome has largely ceded leadership to another late-in-the-day entrant in the ecumenical sweepstakes, worldwide Lutheranism.

There is one significant exception to that remark, however, and it is massively significant:  the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in 1999, and by Methodists in 2006.  In the realm of faith and order, this may well be the crowning achievement of the ecumenical movement to date, and it is a far cry from the sort of politically correct bureaucratic exercise Douthat imagines.  It is a doctrinal statement, growing out of prolonged encounter between two deeply estranged communities, which identifies the common foundation of their faith and points the way toward a recognition of their unity in Christ.  If you are looking for the base upon which to erect a common Christian witness, both against secularism and against Islam, you will find it in JDDJ -- and not in a ham-handed effort to meddle in Anglican affairs.

Douthat wants readers to believe that the "personal ordinariate" is a bold effort by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up the messy house of Western Christianity, and rescue it from threats inside and out.  He has no evidence to support this, and the claims he makes are false.  If he wants to speak publicly about the complex affairs of the church, he should stop reading First Things and start reading church history.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Our First Contest

So, the Pope is going to establish a uniate order for refugees from Anglicanism, the "personal ordinariate" announced yesterday.  While this may be a new low for ecumenical relations in the modern era, we have to admit that it offers some exciting possibilities for drollery.  With that in mind, we at the Egg announce our first-ever online contest:

Name That Ordinariate!

Look, it's going to need a name.  And our Romish brothers have some great ones, don't they?  Where the rest of us have corporate-sounding departments and units, they have congregations, vicariates, and apostolates.  We have representatives, they have nuncios.  

But it is the names of their religious orders that really knock our socks off.  Some are pointedly quaint:  Benedictine Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration, Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra.  These are the names that are endlessly, and tediously, satirized by playwrights who didn't enjoy parochial school.  But other orders possess names that make bold, even (upon reflection) somewhat tendentious claims.  Society of Jesus?  So what does that make the rest of Christianity?  Lovers of the Holy Cross?  Count us in!

So what will they call the new personal ordinariate (for now, here, "the PO," rhymes with Hugh)?  The Pope is a busy man, and doesn't have time to think this sort of thing through.  But we trust that Egg readers will come up with suggestions to help him out.  After all, what are friends for?

Our first thoughts on the subject include:  

Congregation of Romish Anglicans, Worshiping Laud ("admiring Laud" would be more charitable, but would lose the abbreviation which serendipitously describes their locomotion Romeward).

Order of Guy Fawkes, although we would just call them the Fawkesians.  Or "the Gunpowder Boys."  (In fact, their drinking song might include variations on "remember, remember, the fifth of November," with special attention to"treason and plot.")

The Hooker-Haters.  Actually, that's just a nickname for the Society for the Repeal of Article XIX.  It sounds more impressive in Latin.

Confraternity of the Absolute Truth, a name which neatly demonstrates their distance from the Anglican branch of Anglicanism.

Well, these aren't worth much.  But we know you can all do better -- so keep those cards and letters coming!

"The Gloves Come Off"

That's Fr. William of the Beach's curt summary of the new "personal ordinariates."  He's right on target.  It hurts, and we're not even Anglican.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oh No They Di'n't!

Oh yes, they did.

That Vatican has announced its intention to organize new non-geographic jurisdictions which will offer a home to disaffected Anglicans, allowing them to enter communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining their distinctive rites and practices.  (Those would be, we suppose, the BCP, married priests, and sherry).

The new jurisdictions will be called "personal ordinariates," a phrase which purposefully echoes the term used for the existing jurisdictions designed to serve soldier.  The idea is to create a diocese without borders, headed by a bishop (or some leader with comparable authority) and answerable through him to the pope.

The story is that the Vatican was approached two years ago by a smallish schismatic group called the "Traditional Anglican Communion," which objects to all the usual stuff:  female priests, the 1979 Prayer Book, yadda-yadda.  They claim to number 400,000, of whom 5,000 are in the US.  Needless to say, behind this story lies the far more important story of Gene Robinson, Peter Akinola, and the unrest within worldwide Anglicanism.

It is tempting to shrug this off.  After all, as among Lutherans, so individual Anglicans, both lay and ordained, have often found a home east of the Tiber.  Those in orders have not infrequently continued as priests.  And we aren't just thinking of John Henry Newman here, either; years ago, our dental hygienist remarked that her new priest was a former Anglican, married with children, adding, "My husband and I are okay with it, but we don't know how to explain it to the kids."  And indeed, in the US, there has even been a "Pastoral Provision" establishing "Anglican Use" parishes since 1980.

But this is different, and quite remarkable.  Those former Tiber-jumpers wound up Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite.  Their Masses, and ultimately their religious lives, were governed by the same rules which obtain at St. Malachy's down the block.  The wives and kids were an oddity, but not much more.  Now, the Pope has created a sort of "Anglican" church within the Roman Church, in which a different set of norms apply.  Although parishes of this new ordinariate will not be truly Anglican -- the point is argued, but we hold that Anglican identity is inseparable from the Archbishop of Canterbury and at least some nod toward the 39 Articles -- it will look and feel Anglican.  Which is enough for many people.

Surely, this will have an impact -- and not a good one -- on Roman/Anglican relations.  Reading between the lines, one can't help suspecting that there has been some heady debate within the Vatican.  The move was announced at a press conference, held in Rome by the prefects of two congregations:  Doctrine and Worship.  Not present, as the Times notes, were people engaged in high-level dialogue with Canterbury. 

 And indeed, not only did the Vatican deny some rumors in early 2009 of just such a move, but the National Catholic Reporter quotes ecumenical point man Walter Cardinal Kasper as saying, just a few weeks ago, that "We mare not fishing in the Anglican lake."  Um, lose a fight there, Wally?

All of which begs the question of what the papacy is up to.  Why?  And why now?

The obvious conclusion is that, seeing Anglicanism in disarray, Benedict has decided to take advantage, and poach a few hundred thousand members.  In Vatican-speak, that would be rendered as "the Holy Father, compassionately answering the request of certain faithful souls among the separated brethren," etc.  

Spinmeisters on both teams are already trying to steer us away from the obvious conclusion.  The official announcement actually says that "The provision of this new structure is consistent with the commitment to ecumenical dialogue...."  It must have been for the scribe who wrote that to keep the smirk off his face.  If he even tried.

Far more surprising, however, is a joint statement by Vincent Nichols, the [Papist] Archbishop of Westminster, and Rowan Williams, the [Anglican] Archbishop of Canterbury.  It is a notably brief statement, which attempts to put the best face on the move, claiming it as a victory for ecumenism.  It must have been hard for Williams to keep the grimace off his face when he signed it.  If he even tried.

This is true, in a small way.  If the goal of ecumenism is considered to be the reunion of the Church, then this might be a microscopically small step toward that goal.  On the other hand, it is also a step likely to defer the actual arrival, because it further estranges far more people than it proposes to welcome.

Let's put it bluntly:  this is a clear case of malicious meddling in the affairs of a different church body.  It looks for all the world like the classic Vatican overreach of days gone by -- from an index of prohibited books to kidnaping Jewish children who had been baptized by their nannies.  We had thought that decades of earnest ecumenical encounter had put us beyond this sort of thing, but apparently they have not.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Footnote Regarding the Post Below

True story:  

A year or two back, Father Anonymous and some friends, having spent the morning at the General Seminary of the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA and having delivered there a learned discourse on gluttony, adjourned to a nearby diner for French toast.

After they ordered, but before their food came, an elderly gentleman with thick glasses sat down at a nearby table.  He was accompanied by a small party, which included a couple of people who were kinda-sorta fawning on him, and one woman who clearly wasn't.

"Holy *!@%," exclaimed the reverend Father.  "That guy is R. Crumb."
The rest of the table seemed, shall we say, less than bowled over.  Which is funny, since had the sentence following the profanity gone more like, "That guy is George Lindbeck," they would probably have all lost their composure in a mad scramble to have him sign their clerical collars. 

So we explained, as forcefully as possible, that this old man with the Coke-bottle lenses was a superstar of Linbeckian proportions, in the small obscure world of culture that is actually popular.  "He drew, you know, the album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company.  You know?  Janis Joplin?"  The looks were blank; apparently, the late Ms. Joplin had doomed herself to obscurity by never recording a Buxtehude chorale.

"And I think that's Aline," Father A. went on, showing off the way his scary fanboy familiarity extended beyond the man's work to include his wife.  "And the young one, that could be their daughter."

"Um, well," said one of the presbyters, clearly more concerned about when her French toast would arrive.  "If you like his cartoons, why don't you go up and tell him so?"

Father A. spluttered, "Go up and -- and -- oh, no, I couldn't.  I mean, hound the guy while he's trying to eat lunch?  That's just -- it isn't done."  Which was a small untruth; it is done all the time, to anybody who has ever had so much as their Warholian fifteen minutes.  Even minor celebrities are routinely hounded to madness and violence by the importunacy of starstruck admirers, so desperate to experience even the faintest brush with greatness that they cast dignity to the winds and crazedly pretend to an undeserved familiarity.  You remember Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?  She's real, and you don't need to actually sleep with her to get the treatment.

And we could only imagine that the effect is worse when the person hounding you wears a black suit with a Roman collar.  To much of the world, those people look crazy to begin with.

So, muttering "Get thee behind me, Mother Anonymous," we resisted the temptation.  We ate our French toast, and tried to eavesdrop, and can't have passed by on our way to the bathroom more than fifteen or sixteen times.

All of which leads to this little note, put in a bottle and set adrift on the waves of bloggery:

Mr. Crumb, if you ever happen to read the Egg, we don't expect you to remember that one glorious day we spent together in Chelsea.  We're sure it can't have meant as much to you as it did to us.  But please know that, somewhere in the world, there is a short cleric who just cares ... a little too much.

Oh, and here's a PS on a related note:

Dear Pete Seeger,  Do you remember that flight to Rome, in 1993 or thereabouts? You were in coach, about halfway back?  And a short guy maybe ten rows up who had to pee all the time, so he kept walking past your seat?  Yeah, well, funny story ....

Books We Fully Intend To Read

You know how the movie is never as good as the book?  Except for Casino Royale?  And you know how comic-book adaptations of movies -- even movies adapted from comics -- are so comically bad that you can barely stand to read them?

Well, there have to be exceptions, and if that's true, then R. Crumb's Genesis is a likely candidate.

Crumb, of course, is a brilliant auteur, most closely associated with the "underground" comics of decades past -- Mr. Natural and all that.  In later years, he has been celebrated by a bio-doc, moved to the south of France, while his work has gone establishment, and  begun appearing in the New Yorker.  And, indeed, excerpts of his Genesis appeared there over the summer, and were immensely tantalizing.

It's out now, and a review in the Forward, reprinted in Ha'aretz, makes it sound like all that and more.  It starts with three particular points of interest.

First, this is a serious effort to interpret the text:

Crumb's "Genesis" is ... perfectly serious and the author wants us to know it. As he says on the cover, "Nothing Left Out!" Every "beget" from the King James Bible can be found here, along with plenty of scenes censored from previous graphic adaptations. 

And more prose, in the final "Commentary" segment of the book, than non-writer Crumb may have put on the page anywhere, aside from his published letters. ...

The commentary on his visual choices and his broader interpretations explores and explains his few intentional deviations, not only in the name of narrative clarity but artistic intent. Mainly, his notes drive home how he struggled to interpret the text in suitable graphic form, chapter by chapter, sometimes even character by character. There is no doubting the artist's integrity or hard work, in no small part because he redrew again and again, trying to find historically accurate clothing and scenery. The Old Testament of cinematic Charlton Heston, so to speak, became the Genesis of lived and perceived experience, socially real and super-real. Clues are provided with translations of specific Hebrew names within the visual text, essentially metaphorical in meaning. These clues may be the closest to footnotes that Crumb has ever provided. 

(Crumb also explains that his reading of Genesis has been reshaped by feminist analysis, which will appeal to some readers more than others.  But the others probably weren't going to buy this book anyway.)

Second, Buhle picks up on something that a Gentile reviewer might have missed, or neglected to mention for fear of insulting somebody:

More striking for anyone but the seasoned Crumb fan: unlike previous Biblical comic adaptations, including some published and drawn by Jews, Crumb's characters actually look Jewish, the women even more than the men. ...

Close readers will see Crumb's wife Aline Kominsky, to whom the book is dedicated, again and again, in various guises; perhaps only Chagall drew his beloved wife so often and with such varied imagination. 

Not only are the characters Jewish here, they are all ages and sizes. If, for instance, there are more drawings of Jewish elders in any single volume of comic art anywhere, I have never seen them. The women here are beautiful when young, heavily busted with large, muscular thighs. The men are strong, their beards full and noble.

To a secular reader, and Crumb will have many, this is enough.  To Egg readers, however, it may sound almost beside the point.  What about God, we ask plaintively.  We may be put off a bit by the revelation that, per Buhle, "the deity has a really big beard."  But God also "retains his notoriously bad temper," as well as his demand for absolute loyalty.   Well, that's good.  Buhle sees a greater depth, however, and even a new humility to Crumb's treatment of God: 

 Crumb treads with a caution all the more remarkable for an artist, who, short decades ago, allowed himself the full run of his imagination, heedless of the consequences. 

Well, yes, but not that humble.  This is a risky endeavor, and the likelihood of failure is high.  Granted, Crumb's source material is among the most richly textured and yet elliptically-told narratives in world literature.  But, far from guaranteeing success, that fact just raises the stakes.  They are raised again by the fact that, to a vast number of readers all over the world, this is not mere narrative, but Divine Word.  It takes a certain lack of humility even to consider it.

So, whether the book is as good as Buhle thinks or not, it is certainly worth a look.  And we will take a gander, as soon as we can. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"An Outrageous Conclusion"

Another gem from Antonin Scalia, the dumbest smart guy we know:  the Cross is not a Christian symbol.

The issue at hand is  the propriety of a big cross in the Mojave Desert to honor the Great War dead.  Here's how it plays out in oral argument:

“It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead,” Scalia said of the cross that the Veterans of Foreign Wars built 75 years ago atop an outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve. “What would you have them erect?…Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”

Peter Eliasberg, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case [and whom Father A. is almost certain he worked with, years ago], explained that the cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and commonly used at Christian grave sites, not that the devoutly Catholic Scalia needed to be told that.

“I have been in Jewish cemeteries,” Eliasberg continued. “There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

There was mild laughter in the packed courtroom, but not from Scalia.

“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” Scalia said, clearly irritated by the exchange.

Bloomberg columnist Ann Woolner asks, reasonably, whether Scalia could possibly have believed his own words.  And well she might.  Scalia seems to argue that this grave marker does not violate the separation of church and state, not because religious symbols may sometimes be appropriate in public venues (an argument we might support) but rather because the cross a deracinated symbol, no longer the reminder of Christ and his sacrifice for our sake, but rather something closer to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, public emblems rooted in Christian heritage but not in Christian faith.

This is, to put it mildly, a betrayal of the Cross.

Fulton Sheen, if we remember correctly, claimed that a Christ without a Cross is powerless, and a Cross without Christ is blasphemy.

So please, Andy.  Puh-leeze.  You pretend, as jurists are generally required to pretend, that you are a dispassionate observer, committed only to abstract ideals and the pursuit of capital-J Justice.  But stories like this remind us that you, rather more consistently than anybody except your doltish henchman Clarence Thomas, are in fact single-minded in pursuit not of Justice, much less of Truth, but rather of your own damn way. 

Dept. of No Surprise: Health Care Division

Love the WaPo headline:  "Health Insurers Emerge as Obama's Top Foe in Reform Effort."

Really?  "Emerge"?  Did anyone ever doubt that they were dead-set against any change to the system (except, of course, a law requiring everybody to buy their overpriced products).  

These people have grown rich and fat through a system -- if that is not too generous a word for our ad-hoc mess -- which rations health care forcefully, and has increasingly put it beyond the reach of many small businesses, independent contractors, and churches.  They have been aided in this by easily-purchased politicians and the legion of frightened and somewhat dim older Americans who already have a government-run plan and don't want to share.

So here's what the coming months will bring:  more of the same.  Politicians, especially but not exclusively Republican ones, will continue to do the bidding of their corporate masters. (A few will continue to talk about socialism, but most will begin trying to look somber as they say, straight into the camera, that what they want is "real" reform, by which in fact they mean "not a damned thing.")  Meanwhile, a tidal wave of advertising (including "advertorials," some of which will actually be delivered by the supposed "reporters" on a few popular cable networks) will be directed at old people, warning them that if anything changes -- anything at all! -- they will no longer be able to see a doctor or buy their medicine.

Please, people -- for the love of God and the love of your neighbor -- call their bluff.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

And Here Comes the Proof

Months ago, reviewing the constitution of the new schismatic "Anglican" organization ACNA, we pointed out that it permitted women to serve as priests but not, apparently, bishops.  This, we suggested, was a compromise between "traditionalists" who didn't like women or gays, and those who merely didn't like gays.  (The scare quotes here are used to mock the idea of an Anglicanism that turns its back on canonically regular bishops and diocesan boundaries.  Or an Anglicanism without gay priests.)

More recently, our friend Pastor Joelle, commenting on the developments of CORE (they had a big, heavily publicized meeting at which they decided to ... do nothing, really) suggested that the development of a gay-free Lutheran church (if, again, they ever get around to it) might not bode well for ordained women in the ranks of same.  And we heartily agreed.

And here comes, if not proof, then powerful evidence:  The Church of England, which began to ordain women fairly recently and which as yet has no female bishops, is considering steps to remove certain powers from those female bishops, when and if any are ever enthroned.

Here's a useful quotation:

While Anglicans in the United States, Canada and Australia already have women bishops, conservatives in many other parts of the Communion strongly oppose them. They say there is nothing in the Bible or church history to support women bishops.

Well, yes, they would say that.  They always say that, about everything.  There's nothing in the Bible or church history to support church organs, either, apart from the fact that they're beautiful and some churches have them.  Whereas the Scriptures take a pretty firm anti-tattoo line, suggesting that Navy men should be excluded from the priesthood, if not excommunicated altogether.  (S0 there, late John Cardinal O'Connor).

Anyhoo.  None of our business what the CofE does, really.  Nor the Lutheran schismatics.  But were we a woman, and a priest, we would certainly avoid joining either.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Apparently, My Toddler Wasn't Available

President Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Seriously.

After nine months in office.

We suppose it was awarded for his most extraordinary accomplishment to date, keeping the Clintons usefully employed and out of the limelight.  Because -- and we say this as great admirers of the guy, who nourish comically immense hopes for his future success -- what else has the guy actually done yet?  

In a few years, when the Taliban has been crushed, Iran and North Korea have agreed to give up on nukes and pursue decent relations with the West, when Africa is stable and headed toward prosperity, when there are two tiny little nations living peacefully together on the banks of the Jordan and every American has affordable, effective health care -- at that point, the President will deserve every conceivable medal, trophy, badge and laurel wreath.

Right now?  We're waiting.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Matter is Not Simple

It has been Father A.'s observation that both zealots and dimwits -- categories which often overlap, but by no means always -- share a favored strategy.  They like to declare that a given matter is really very simple, and that those who seek to complicate it do so out of either folly or malice.

In politics, tax codes and the true sense of the US Constitution are often subjected to this treatment.  In religion, it is nearly always the Bible.  Never mind, for example, the stunning obscurity of Exodus 24-26, or the ethical complexity of the Akedah, which has generated not a mountain of rabbinic exegesis, but a range.  After all, the Bible is easy to understand.

So for example, our acquaintance the Rev. Mr. Slope has recently taken time away from his various schismatic enterprises to join the small army of bloggers who have re-posted a passage from Kierkegaard:

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any word in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. "

This passage is extremely popular on the Net these days.  We aren't sure of the original essay or journal entry which is being quoted, but the citation is to Provocations, an anthology edited by Charles E. Moore (Plough, 2002), page 201.

Read in isolation, these remarks sound as though Soren the K were entirely on the side of the Bible-spouting sectarians so thick on the American ground.  He, like they, seems ready to reduce everything to simplicity.  To heck with scholarship!  To heck with textual problems or moral conundrums!  God said it, I read it, let's do it!

But really, does this sound like Kierkegaard to you?  Oh, part of it does -- the cleverness, the call to an excruciating ethical standard, and yes, the biting contempt for "official" Christianity and its chosen tools.  But the claim of simplicity?  From a man who published under more than a dozen pseudonyms, and insisted that each one reflected a different (and contradictory) perspective?  How seriously are we to take the claim that reading an anthology of ancient religious texts ought to be more straightforward and intuitive than reading one's own publications?

(It is worth noting that, in the passage cited, Kierkegaard actually restricts himself to the New Testament.  The author of Fear and Trembling certainly understood those rabbinic conundrums.)

There is another passage from Kierkegaard also making the interweb rounds these days.  It is from his journals, dated 1848.  We wonder whether Mr. Slope and the Simpletonians would want to embrace this one as quickly, and to take it so readily at face value:

Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope. All that about the Bible has developed a religion of learning and law, a mere distraction. A little of that knowledge has gradually percolated to the simplest classes so that no one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm; where life is concerned its existence is a fortification of excuses and escapes; for there is always something one has to look into first of all, and it always seems as though one had first of all to have the doctrine in perfect form before one could begin to live that is to say, one never begins.

The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity’. 

The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 150.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Revenge of the Woozles

Among the pleasures of relocating one's family to a foreign country is the respite it gives from the media flood.  In the internet age this is, to be sure, a very modest respite.  The same device which lets Father Anonymous write this blog also lets Mother A. use Facebook to stay in touch with Back Home, and Baby A. make Skype videocalls to Gammer and My Old Pa. 

But still, the waters do recede a bit.  Sure, the cable TV still has plenty of channels, but they're all in Romanian or Hungarian (except the steamy Mexican telenovelas, which are in undubbed Spanish).  Baby A. forced us flip channels the other day, and finally settled on what was, apparently, the most toddler-friendly thing showing:  Orthodox Mass from the Patriarchal Basilica. 

So we fall back on Old Media,  the handful of books shoved into our bags as we boarded the tramp steamer.   You know, the ones we couldn't live without:  Nestle-Aland, Concordia Triglotta, and the Aeneid.  That's for the kid, of course.  For the tired clergy couple, there are other classics:  H.A. Rey, Beatrix Potter and -- to be sure! -- A.A. Milne.  Because, after all, who doesn't love Pooh?

Besides Disney, we mean.  By our reasoning, they must hate the Silly Old Bear with some special, and deathless, passion.  

Now, mind you, we like Disney.  Mickey and, especially, Donald actually bring us more delight now than they ever did in childhood.  Among the happiest vacation memories of recent years was a trip to Disneyland, when -- after we were forced to board a mechanical boat for a ride we especially dreaded -- the lights went out and the robots began to malfunction in comically terrifying ways.  (We emerged from the tunnel lustily singing "It's a Westworld after all.")

It's the adaptations that bother us.  After doing fair work on the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, Disney got mixed results from their next phase, the reduction to celluloid of various modern works.  The Jungle Book is probably the best of the bunch -- King Louis indeed!  Their version of Alice adds nothing and loses the math.  Peter Pan will break the heart of anybody who has ever enjoyed the book, and as for Uncle Remus, well, nobody under 40 will ever know, because it ain't for sale in the US.

But Pooh?  Oh, the movie is watchable enough, although markedly inferior to -- say -- sitting on a parent's lap with your eyes closed, listening to the original chapter-by-chapter. Saccharine, sure, but consider the source.  The problems set in afterward, with the sequels and merchandising, all of which became progressively worse.  The Milne estate tried to reclaim the rights, and failed.  (Well, sort of failed).  Which brought us, in due time, to the monstrous infamy called My Friends Tigger and Pooh.

This piece of carelessly animated mouse excreta, shown on Disney's junior channel, has replaced Christopher Robin with a girl named Darby, who romps through the woods with her puppy dog.  Pooh and Tigger are turned into "detectives" wearing purple uniforms -- in other words, rent-a-cops, no doubt a cynical comment on the highest professional aspirations Disney can imagine for children raised on a show like this.

This is the sort of thing -- okay, this is the very thing -- which makes you throw up your hands in despair and say, "Hang it all, I'm moving to another continent, and praying that this drivel doesn't follow me."

So you can imagine our concern, dear reader, to hear that an "authorized" sequel to the Milne books is forthcoming.  It is called Return to the Hundred-Acre Wood, and written by an elderly gent named David Benedictus -- whose name, we should observe, makes us want to rise at dawn with a song on our lips.  Now, mind you, it was authorized by the Milne estate, not by Disney.  (That's where the "sort of" comes in -- technically, Disney only owns merchandising rights.  How the Darby show qualifies as "merchandising" is a matter best left to the lawyers, or to Satan.)  This may offer some hope.  Benedictus is an accomplished author.  An illustration by Mark Burgess, reproduced in the Times, is more Garth Williams than E.H. Shepard, but there's nothing wrong with that.

We are apprehensive, because Pooh has been treated so badly.  We would rather that he dropped out of sight for a generation or two, forgotten except by a modest cult -- pretty much what is happening to Wind in the Willows, and that despite Mr Toad's Wild Ride.  But if Pooh stories must be told, by somebody besides the parents of small children, we suppose it is best that they be told by anybody -- anybody -- except the Walt Disney Studios.

PS:  Midway through this post, Mother A. sweetly informed us that Baby A. has already found My Friend etc. on local TV, broadcast in Hungarian.  There is no hope for the human race.