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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

From Our Crypt to Your Crib

Well, this isn't good for the supposed anonymity of our blog, but -- let's be honest -- that has always been more of a headscarf than a genuine veil. So merry Christmas from the Egg!

The not-so-Anonymi are pictured here at the improvided altar where they have presided these past two Sundays, in the art gallery below the Lutheran church in Cluj. (When you have 8-10 people in worship, the nave of even a modest cathedral is simply overwhelming).

We'll post a bit more concerning Christmas in the near future (here's a preview: thanks a million to Fr. Griffin of Punta Verde).

And by the way -- a bunch of new pictures have been posted to our un-anonymous website, Pietati. Please check them out!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Book Review #2: "The River of Doubt"

After an interview with Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain wrote that "the President is clearly insane, and insanest upon war and its supreme glories."

This opinion was widely shared during TR's lifetime.  Although it not taken seriously now -- remember how both  Republicans and Democrats stumbled over themselves in the last campaign to claim his mantle -- one cannot walk away from reading anything at all about his life without understanding why his opponents might have doubted his sanity, and even wondering whether they were right.

Now, a personal aside.  We ourselves feel a certain deep affection, even kinship, for the Rough Rider.  The Dutch ancestors of his family and ours owned farms only a mile or two distant in Manhattan.  We have lived near to both his birthplace and his Long Island estate.  We are longtime members of the American Museum of Natural History, outside of which is a massive equestrian bronze of TR.  Our chosen vacation spot is in the midst of the Adirondack State Park, which Roosevelt helped create.  For that matter, Baby Anonymous shares a first name with the president.

All that said, we still have our own doubts about his sanity.  Roosevelt was brilliant, his personality virtually a force of nature, as elemental as gravity or magnetism.  But he genuinely did seem to love war, not just the idea but his own limited practice of it.   We have always been troubled by the idea of a wealthy dilettante organizing his own semi-private military unit and leading it into combat, then using his exploits as a springboard into public life.  Never mind that this "combat" was in a war of pure aggression, made palatable to the public only by spurious "evidence" of evil intent on the other side.  (Sound familiar?) 

At the very least, TR seems to us to have suffered from what Gary Wills called, speaking of the Kennedy brothers, as "the imprisonment of toughness."  By this we mean a constant need to demonstrate his own courage and fortitude, both in arduous physical tests and in the tough-guy school of politics.  This is not necessarily a sign of mental impairment, but it does hint at some scary demons below the surface.

Well, Candice Millard's The River of Doubt will do nothing to resolve the question of Roosevelt's sanity, although that question surely lurks beneath the surface of of the story.  But setting aside the question, which Millard touches upon only once, and gently, the story itself is a ripping yarn if ever we have read one.

It goes like this:  Having lost his 1912 third-party presidential bid (during which he was shot in the chest, and proceeded to give a speech wearing his bloody shirt and with a bullet buried five inches in his flesh), Roosevelt fell into one of his periodic slumps.  His customary remedy for these bouts of depression was a physical challenge, and so -- encouraged by some friends -- he signs on for an Amazonian expedition, to run a previously unmapped river in the heart of Brazil.

But, some friends!  Among the key organizers of the expedition is a priest on the faculty at Notre Dame, whose previous experience in South America was very slight indeed.  The priest hires as his quartermaster, responsible for outfitting the expedition, an explorer whose reputation had been ruined by the utter failure of his own single expedition -- to the Arctic. 

The Roosevelt expedition is poorly conceived and wrongly equipped.  It has the wrong food, the wrong boats, the wrong people.  But it also has a few of the right people -- the tough-as-nails explorer Candido Rondon, who has charted more of the Amazon forest than any man alive, losing hundreds of soldiers in the process; George Cherrie, a smart, solid naturalist who wants nothing more than to get home to Vermont.  A bunch of camaradas, essentially enlisted men in the Brazilian army, who at every turn demonstrate unbelievable strength and courage.  (All but one .... )

At the center of it are Roosevelt and his son Kermit.  Kermit is the most introverted of Roosevelt's children, but also the most reckless in his pursuit of danger and glory.  Recently engaged, Kermit doesn't want to be there at all; but he has come along to protect his father.  Does does his father need protection?  This is Teddy Roosevelt, the Colonel, the Bull Moose.  What kind of protection does a man like that need?

Quite a bit, because Roosevelt is hiding an old injury, which threatens his life under the best of circumstances.  And these are the worst of circumstances:  a group of men, fighting their way down savage rapids in unreliable boats, fighting infection and disease, watched by Indians with poison-tipped arrows, racing time as their provisions run out and they are in danger of starvation.  And there is a murderer in their midst.

Yeah, this is a great story, and Millard tells it well.  She has pulled out a ton of information, from archival material to interviews not only with modern-day experts on Amazonian ecology but also with some of the Cinta Larga Indians, who have passed on their own ancestral memories of the expedition.  

Honestly, friends.  We at the Egg read a lot of thrillers and tales of derring-do, but few of them actually thrill us.  This one did, as few books have since we were ten years old.   Poor Mother Anonymous is actually tired of hearing us shriek in horror or delight at the best scenes.  (She threatened to take the book away if we woke her up again).  So if you are feeling a little cooped up underneath the winter snow, or if the daily grind has ground you down, consider this for your midwinter escapist vacation.

And as you read, ask yourself:  Was he brilliant?  Or was he insane?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Book Review # 1: "DIssolution"

Yes, we know.  These are parlous times; the climate is changing fast, the international economy is in the tank, churches are losing ground in society (and resorting to ever-more-desperate strategies in an effort to cope).  The Episcopalians elected a lesbian bishop and all heck is breaking loose over that way, and we're fairly sure there's a new child-molestation scandal about to pop up in the Roman church.  (We have no evidence; it's just statistically likely).  Time and Newsweek have probably already prepared their usual holiday cover, with Bart Ehrmann asking if there really was a Jesus. Not to mention that both Europe and the East Coast are really, really cold right now.  

And we know that's what Egg readers come here looking to read about.  But what do we have to offer instead of sober analysis and smart-alecky remarks?  Book reviews.  A short series of 'em.  Because this is the time of year that church people need to catch up on their reading.

Never fear; we won't subject our friends and readers to a tedious list of everything we've read lately. Nobody needs an amateur review of Jane Eyre, and if you do, there's always Amazon.  But there area couple of books that might otherwise escape notice, and but may interest regular readers.

So.  Submitted for your approval:  Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom.

Ooooh, one thinks.  Murder mystery, set in a Renaissance monastery, written by an actual historian.  Could it be the next Name of the Rose?  The short answer is No.  This is a straight-up genre piece, with the functional but unadorned prose and workmanlike characterizations that are the norms of the craft.  Published in 2003, it is the first in a series featuring the same detective.  (And yes, it's pretty easy to guess the killer.)

So why mention it?  Here's why:  the history.  The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer, working for Sir Thomas Cromwell -- the fellow Henry VIII put in charge of dismantling the monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions, and transferring their massive wealth to the Crown.  The impact of this transfer cannot be overstated; it so enriched the British royals that their nation went, quite suddenly, from a remote backwater to a critical power player in European politics.  Bulgaria to Germany, inside a generation.

What was it like, then, to be a part of this epochal change? What was it like to be a monk, or an abbot, and to see the institutions which had given you power -- but also hope and security -- crumbling?  What was it like to be a zealous young reformer, and to see the way genuine high ideals, including theological ones, can often have a crushing effect upon the lives of people living in a less than ideal world?  Those are the questions that really interest Sansom, far more than who killed whom.  Do we need to mention that such questions are of perennial interest, and especially in these aforementioned parlous times?  He sets out to answer them, and does well, within the limits of his genre and his talent. 

Sansom is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, and is surely aware that one recent school of English historians has presented a notably dim view of the Reformation.  Eamon Duffy, in The Stripping of the Altars and Voices of Morebath, has documented the resistance of local parishes and their clergy to the successive waves of "reform" and "restoration," as they attempted to simply continue living, and worshiping, as they always had. He has argued that, far from the tyrannical and soul-killing spiritual wasteland described by Protestant triumphalists, the Church in late-medieval England was in fact a strong, vibrant institution serving the needs of the people across a range of social strata.

Dissolution doesn't offer a partisan evaluation of the Reformation.  On the contrary, it lays out cases in every direction:  some monks are in fact hypocrites and tyrants; others are truly trying to live Godly lives.  There is a genuine need for reform -- and yet that need is also exploited by the high and mighty.  (The book's title is a pun.  It refers both to the "dissolution" of the monasteries and to Shardrake's "disillusion" with his patron, Lord Cromwell).

So.  As a mystery, it's workable -- good for the train or the beach, with eye-comforting large print.  But where Dissolution really comes through is as a painless encouragement to reflection upon the Reformation in particular, and upon the conflict between intentions and results that is part of life in a broken world.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Whew! What a Relief!

Per the Concordia Journal:

We do not sell seminary graduates ....

If nobody else will stand up and take a position, we at the Egg surely will:  Courageously said, gentlemen!  And fie on those yellow cowards at other sems -- they shall remain nameless for so many reasons -- who have taken to selling their graduates, often at a discount or even a loss.  Sadly, white slavers and the like don't pay what one might hope for newly-minted M.Div.s these days.  (Nor do parishes).

Joking aside, the line is from -- and the link points to -- an interesting article in the CJ, called "Stress Test."  (You'll have to scroll a bit to find it).   The main point to the article is no surprise, to be sure.  After a few years in the black, Concordia, St. Louis expects to run a $3 million deficit this year.  Honestly, all one can do is shrug one's shoulders and say "Welcome to the club."  So far as we can tell, every single American institution, right down to the candy shop on the corner, will be a six to twelve zeroes in the red come Christmas.

Still, we admit to a modest surprise here.  We had somehow imagined that conservative schools were insulated from the decline.  Honestly, it seems crazy, but we had just assumed that Richard Mellon Scaife or the LCMS's own Schwan Fund would ride in to the rescue.  (Liberal foundations, of course, don't fund theological education, because they don't see why theologians matter to their various other causes.  Which is another story).  We were apparently, um, wow-we-hate-to-say-it, wrong.

In fact, the article strikes a note sadly familiar to most of the old mainline, by ending the sentence quoted above "... and even if we did, tight placements in recent years show that our declining church is a tight market."

What makes the article interesting is its analysis of how things got bad, at least at this one school.  We won't try to summarize it here, except for the critical point:  Seminary funding patterns have changed dramatically over the years, and the people in the pews rarely know how much.

And of course the LCMS has two seminaries. The ELCA is larger, but not so much larger that it is likely to need eight.  We have already expressed our concern for the school in Chicago, when and if McCormick does pull out.  But how are the others doing?  Does anybody know?

Sarah Palin is a Philosopher

Because who else routinely makes such razor-sharp distinctions between speech and meaning, langue and parole?

Recently, she went on a radio program and declared that the "birther" movement, which claims President Obama's birth certificate is somehow invalid, is "rightfully making {Obama's citizenship] an issue."

However, Palin afterward went onto Facebook "to say that, while she may have said she supports others questioning the president about his citizenship, she herself has not raised such questions."

So.  Let's get this right.  She'll use the mass media to say that the crazy people have a good point, but she isn't actually trying to make that point herself.  Or, to put it another way, she thinks that her voter base should be mollycoddled and pandered to whenever possible, but isn't personally pandering.  Derrida couldn't have sliced it thinner.  Although perhaps Heidegger, the thinking man's Nazi, is a more apt comparison.