Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marines Capture Hewlett-Packard HQ

That's the headline we'd like to see, anyway. Instead, we get this discouraging news from Danger Room:

Someday, somehow, the U.S. Navy would like to run its networks — maybe even own its computers again. After 10 years and nearly $10 billion, many sailors are tired of leasing their PCs, and relying on a private contractor to operate most of their data systems. Troops are sick of getting stuck with inboxes that hold 150 times less than a Gmail account, and local networks that go down for days while Microsoft Office 2007 gets installed … in 2010. But the Navy just can’t quit its tangled relationship with Hewlett-Packard. The admirals and the firm recently signed another $3.3 billion no-bid contract that begins Oct. 1st. It’s a final, five-year deal, both sides promise, to let the Navy gently wean itself from its reliance on HP. But that’s what they said the last time, and the time before that.

It gets worse after that. Click the link up top for the gory details.

We realize that, along with rum and the lash, buggery is an old naval tradition. Still, it ticks us off to see our military bending over and taking it like this. It ticks them off; officers joke about "HP's terrorist demands," but feel helpless:
“HP is holding the Navy hostage, and there isn’t a peep about it,” one Department of the Navy civilian tells Danger Room. “We basically had two recourses: pay, or send in the Marines.
Hmm. We think they made the wrong choice.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Illicit Sex ...

... it's not just for the vestry anymore.

Yes, folks, it seems that the clergy aren't the only ones who occasionally sleep with people they oughtn't. Apparently, even those corporate suit-and-tie types do as well. In remarkably high numbers.

A Harvard Business Review blog, linked above, reports on a survey by something called the Center for Work-Life Policy. The gist of the blog post seems to be that executives rise to the top with the help of "mentoring" relationships, and that female execs seeking to break into senior positions need to be mentored by older men, most of whom are married. This make sense. The problem is that, sometimes, this "mentoring" is actually what we specialists call "schtupping." Quite often, it would seem:

Thirty-four percent of executive women who participated in the survey that underlies the new study claim that they know a female colleague who has had an affair with the boss. (Indeed 15% of women at the director level or above admitted to having had such an affair themselves!) They also perceive that these liaisons sometimes yield a payoff: of those who know of an illicit affair, 37% claim that the woman involved received a career boost as a consequence.

This is not, mind you, dismissed as ethically neutral. The blog doesn't actually moralize -- no mention of adultery, or the abuse of power. But it does point to the damage that these relationships can do to the business as a whole:

Despite this apparent upside for individual women, illicit sexual liaisons often backfire and wreak serious damage in the workplace. For example, they are hugely demoralizing for teams. The CWLP data show that 61% of men and 70% of women lose respect for a leader involved in an affair. Most poisonous of all, when a junior woman is having a sexual dalliance with the boss, 60% of male executives and 65% of female executives suspect that salary hikes and plum assignments are being traded for sexual favors. This can have a disastrous effect on morale and productivity. Forty-eight percent of men and 56% of women feel animosity towards the involved couple, and 39% of men and 37% of women see a fall off in productivity as the team splinters. Talk about collateral damage!
This is as close to morality as the business community seems to come: an acknowledgment that certain behavior is bad for business.

Of course, for this evidence to put a stop to workplace affairs, it would be necessary for executives to put the interest of their team above that of their own careers (or in the case of the senior men, their own gratification). Absent a revolutionary change in the way executives are trained to think, not to mention compensated, this seems unlikely.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Newsflash: Obama Still President!

Here in Foreign Language Land, we are out of touch with the 24-hour news cycle that reflects creates public opinion back home. This is a good thing, in general, but it does sometimes leave us feeling out of touch.

For example, it has seemed over the last few months, that Barack Obama is no longer the President of the United States. Any number articles have come our way which take for granted the "fact" that Obama is an impotent, even hated figure, hiding behind the tightly-closed curtains of his office, now and then peaking out at the jeering masses on the lawn. He is washed up, done in, no longer in control of his bladder, much less the free world.

All this seems unlikely, at least to our old-fashioned "four-year-term" understanding of his job. But what do we know? It's on the internet, so it must be true.

Apparently, though, Obama is still president. We know this because a guy in Foreign Policy says so, and that's even truer than the internet. (Or is it Foreign Affairs that's truer? Anyway, one of them has got to be, because they sound so serious, just like anything with "institution" or "foundation" in its name).

Anyway, it's like this. In a WSJ op-ed, Fouad Ajami says Obama is washed up. But David Rothkopf, our FP guy, read Ajami's op-ed on the subject. Here's his take:
Ajami wrote that "the Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed." ... [Hi]s central assertion was that ...[d]ue to mistakes already made ... the president had sealed his own fate, couldn't recover and that he (and we) are doomed to a Carter-like descent into presidential impotence and irrelevance....

It was a well-argued, quite passionate piece. The problem with it was that it was arrant nonsense.

Then follows a droll excursus on "arrant nonsense," which phrase Rothkopf concedes "should usually be reserved for gaunt English character actors playing the Sherriff of Nottingham." (Well played, sir. We salute you.) He goes on to observe acidly that "[w]hile Ajami writes with the serious language of a scholar, it is clear that history is of little interest to him."

Rothkopf's main point is that, this early in their tenures, very few recent presidents had done the things for which they are now best remembered. Kennedy had not faced the Cuban missiles; Reagan had not talked about an "evil empire," nor demanded that it "tear down this wall." To judge -- much less dismiss -- Obama based on the results thus far is unfair, and betrays a frank partisan bias.

No surprise there. Ajami is not exactly a dispassionate observer. As Wikipedia puts it, "Eight days after [Obama] took office, [another WSJ] op-ed piece by Ajami called Obama a 'messenger of the old, settled ways,' claimed that the George W. Bush administration's diplomacy [sic!] had had 'revolutionary impact,' and chided Obama for not praising the Iraq War." In other words, Ajami needs Obama to fail, if only to keep himself from looking like a false prophet. Or a blathering idiot pandering wildly to the GOP.

The most hopeful comparison, we suppose, is to FDR. Like health-care reform, the New Deal emerged rapidly, in part because of a new president's willingness to spend down an enormous treasury political capital. The merits of the New Deal are still debated fiercely, to be sure, and we expect that those of Obamacare [shudder] will be in decades to come. Still, for better or worse, it was an enormous act of leadership. And while Obama will not serve a Rooseveltian concatenation of terms, nor win the Second World War, we still have some hope that he will clean up the atrocious military mess he inherited from Bush and bin Laden.

The most worrisome comparison, however, is to LBJ. Like Roosevelt and Obama, he scored a stunning victory early in the game. Sadly, there was more to it than that. As Rothkopf puts it,
Johnson accomplished a great deal including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act and, if defined by his first 18 months, would have been regarded as a great success. It wasn't until after 1966 that his political fortunes began to turn with the deepening involvement in Vietnam and spreading unrest in American cities.
"His political fortunes" are the least of it. Vietnam was a disaster which devastated a foreign nation, killed American soldiers, and tarnished America's reputation in the world. Little frightens us more than the possibility that Obama will make a series of military missteps which do likewise. "Little," we say. One thing frightens us much more: that he will fail to offer a firm defense against genuine enemies. However, the bloodthirstiness of Obama's war in Afghanistan and now Pakistan makes this seem unlikely.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

So How Was Paris?

Glad you asked.

A quarter century ago, Father Anonymous -- then known to his friends as Secular Humanist Anonymous -- first set foot on French soil. His budget was tight, so he lived on croissants and Orangina for days on end, supplemented by the occasional crepe au sucre et citron. He slept in the very cheapest hotels, or by preference on trains. One night, he slept in an underground tunnel at the train station in Nice.

It was utterly and completely captivating, and Paris was by no means the least of it. What could be better than city full of the things your humble correspondent loved best -- medieval and Renaissance art; great mass transit; comically pompous intellectuals? We fully intended to return soon and often, and have never quite comes terms with the fact that we did not.

So here we come, a chubby and graying paterfamilias, toddler in tow, for a few quick days of sightseeing. How was it, you ask?

Hot, mostly. There is a reason that Parisians take off the month of August, leaving their city in the hands of the tourist mobs. Who else, after all, would be willing to stand baking on a quarter-mile queue to enter Notre-Dame? Tourists, that's who. (And we did, and we don't regret it).

The perfusion of tourists wasn't really a bad thing, as long as you could imagine the city returned to normal a few weeks later. In fact, the remaining Parisians were quite decent about it, especially the beautiful young waitress who had just come back from her own vacation in New York. We only met one person who really disliked foreigners, and he was Irish. Speaking of which, did you know that "!@#$%^& Americans rule the world"? Yup. Apparently, "you can't even take a !@#$% dump anymore without some American interrupting you." Or so we were told, repeatedly and loudly, by our homeless Hibernian, who gave every evidence of being drunken and/or mentally ill.

In some ways, the city has changed. English seemed to be more widely spoken, and with much less evidence of resentment. Bad French was tolerated more readily. There are a few new buildings. But the things that mattered were still there. The art was beautiful, especially the religious art; the Metro is still an exceptionally good ride; and as for the intellectuals, well, every newsstand was offering a special edition of the magazine Philosophie devoted to Tintin. Hardbound.

On this trip, though, there were a couple of other things that mattered. A year living abroad meant that we cared less about the new things than the old and familiar ones we had been missing. Astonishingly, they were there to be had: American comic books, Thai food, smokeless restaurants (well, compared to Romania). Above all, though, the thing we valued most was the company of friends.

Yes, as it happened, about half the Egg's readership was in Paris with us, so fresh off the plane that they smelled of bagels. Although traveling without children, they were willing to indulge us in our needs, and so for two days we roamed the streets together, sweating profusely as we popped into this church or that one, admiring an especially nice touch here, or wondering about the wisdom of an odd one there. (We were all quite taken by a 19th-c. stained glass window in St. Severin, depicting this blog's patroness during her entirely unBiblical apostolate in Provence. Far from the Pre-Raphaelite harlot, she managed to look demure, but also quietly stylish.) They even sat patiently while Toddler Anonymous splashed at length in a fountain at the Place des Vosges, screaming "I am completely soaking wet," which was actually an understatement.

You don't always get to share those moments. So, yes, the museums and churches and Eiffel Tower were all nice. But what we really enjoyed were the friends. Oh, and those sugar-and-lemon crepes.

The Birds Do It, the Bees Do It

Even Buddhist roshis do it.

Since the 1960s, Eido Shimano Roshi has been the chief teacher of the Zen Studies Society, which is based in NYC but owns a honking load of property in the Catskills. There were always rumors of sexual impropriety on Shimano's part (read: schtupping the students), which were finally confirmed when the papers of another roshi, the late Robert Aitken, were opened. Aitken had interviewed many of the schtupees, and saw a consistent pattern of sexual misconduct.

(They sometimes call Shimano the abbot, a monastic title with Christian origins which may be a little misleading, since the Buddhist vows and hierarchy are a bit different, but does serve to sharpen the point.)

The Times has a story, linked above. It isn't especially deep or thorough, but it does touch on a key issue, which is that both the rules for Buddhist clergy in the US and the means of enforcement are murky at best. It also touches on the difficulty of adjusting a religious tradition from one cultural environment to another:

Clark Strand, who led Mr. Shimano’s Upper East Side zendo from 1988 to 1990, said that on American soil, Asian Buddhism’s sexual ethics, in particular, had to change.

“What you see in America is a lot of Asian Buddhist teachers coming into contact for the first time with spiritual communities that include women,” Mr. Strand said. “And they weren’t necessarily prepared for that.”

“To be blunt about it, a Japanese Zen monk could go over the wall and visit a prostitute and a blind eye could be turned to that.” In America, he added, “it wasn’t as easy to turn a blind eye to going over the wall in his own monastery.”

A statement like this is easy to make fun of: "Ah, I see -- breaking a monastic vow is okay as long as the monk pays somebody for the privilege." But the truth is that, whether we like it or not, many religious communities have difficulty adjusting to a new social environment. And why not? Passing on a tradition is almost by definition going to be at odds with adapting to change.

Consider the scandals within Roman Catholicism. It seems to us that they can, at least in part, be ascribed to the same process -- the poor adaptation of a religious tradition to a changing society. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity considers moral rigorism the goal of its spiritual practice, so much as the external structure of the practice. Therefore, there are longstanding means of excusing moral lapses -- from the formality of confession and absolution to the more casual "turning a blind eye." And all of it depends upon a certain level of secrecy. Simply put, the more you talk about this stuff, the less room you leave for pastoral discretion. So, at least from the fifth or sixth century forward among Christians, the custom has been to keep it all confidential. (Protestants go even further, often reducing the conversation to one between the penitent and God, leaving the pastor out of it.)

So what to do in the modern West, which has created a novel environment of public scrutiny, not to mention skepticism about authority? The world of Wikileaks and surveillance cameras has an explicit bias against customs of secrecy or even privacy, especially among public figures. How else would we know that Strom Thurmond and Al Sharpton were cousins?

Perversely, one result of the new environment is the creation of a new moral rigorism, often enforced by people with no particular commitment to any moral code. A newspaper reporter does not necessarily pursue a gay pastor or drunken roshi because of any a priori objection to homosexuality or drunkenness, conditions at which he may smile among his own social set. He may raise a row about "hypocrisy," which is fair enough, but in fact the reporter follows the story because it will sell newspapers. The process of public revelation is almost mechanical, determined as much by economics as by ethics.

(Obviously, Aitken's private report is an exception, as are the calls for reform by expressly Catholic groups.)

Religious leaders called to adjudicate (bishops, or the board of the Zen Studies Center) are often torn between their own laxist customs -- "Well, we'd better find Bob a new parish" -- and the rigorist demands of the new environment -- "We'd better defrock this guy before the lawsuits come in." It seems to them that they are being denied the prerogatives of discretion and compassion, while it often seems to outsiders that they are simply twiddling their thumbs. At their very worst, the various bishops and other people in authority begin to turn paranoid, muttering darkly about conspiracies against their church or other community. The moment they do so, they demonstrate their failure to understand the new environment.

We offer no solution here. We most certainly do not want to take sides with Shimano roshi, nor with the Romish bishops, who have been grossly derelict by any standard but their own. But we do think that the public narrative of "religious leader with a dirty secret" has grown stale with repetition. A more interesting and fruitful story, to be told either by the press or by academic researchers, might be "old traditions meet new world."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sexy Conservative Movement Infighting

But we're taking a break, so you won't read about it here.

Father Anonymous, with Mother A. and the Toddler, leaves shortly for a few days of R&R. In about 16 hours, we expect to be checking into a quaint little two-star in the Marais, scouting around for our first made-in-France croissant in lo these twenty-five years. But we ain't there yet. There's packing to finish, sleep to fake, and the crack of dawn at which to awaken. Whence, no time for blogging.

So here's our suggestion: click the links to read a quickie about Ann Coulter, who was scheduled to speak at two different rightist pow-wows, but has been dropped by one. Apparently the Birthers just can't stand the gays, even the gays who call themselves "GOProud," and regard Coulter as the Judy Garland of their movement. Seriously.

Then, when you've finished reading, say something unkind about all parties. Extra points for funny. Super-extra points for finding the religious angle. Super-duper extra points if you feel the urge to use vulgar words of language (which is a quotation, not a solecism). And quintuple-word-score if you manage to mock the NewALC.

If you've done all that, then our mission is -- how does the saying go? -- accomplished.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What's in a Name?

John Thomas is a former general minister and president of the UCC, meaning roughly what most Christians mean by archbishop. He is also divorcing his wife, and in a "committed relationship" with a woman who used to work for him.

No word on when the affair started, nor therefore on whether he compounded the old-fashioned sin of adultery with the new=fashioned one of boinking your subordinates. The story is sad, and a reminder (should one be needed) that it isn't just Romish priests and megachurch televangelists who have trouble keeping their cassocks buttoned.

And yet, one wicked thought keeps running through our head: "Hey, UCC. What did you expect when you elected a guy named John Thomas?"

Lynne Rosenthal is a Sick Puppy

Or so we gather from the HuffPo story linked above. Rosenthal was kicked out of a NYC Starbucks recently, after showering the staff with profanities. And why?

Because they asked if she wanted butter on her bagel.

Here's the lowfat skinny:

Rosenthal, who says she holds a PhD from Columbia, told the paper she asked for a toasted multigrain bagel at the Starbucks on 86th Street and Columbus Avenue -- then blew her top when the staffer behind the counter asked her if she wanted butter or cheese on top.

"I just wanted a multigrain bagel," Rosenthal told the [NY] Post. "I refused to say 'without butter or cheese.' When you go to Burger King, you don't have to list the six things you don't want."

"Linguistically, it's stupid, and I'm a stickler for correct English."

Er, yes, perhaps. But not so strong on etiquette. She then began "yelling at the staffer to hand over her plain bagel, until the manager finally called the police."

For the record, we point out that this isn't linguistic stupidity. It is, if stupid at all, logical stupidity. Linguistically, the sentence "would you like butter or cheese" is ambiguous, in the sense that it can mean either (a) "would you like butter, or would you like cheese instead," or (b) "would you like either butter or cheese on your bagel?" Ambiguous, yes, but perfectly grammatical, and easy enough for any native speaker to understand without difficulty. In any case, such stupidity as may have been shown in the exchange really is not on the part of the barista.

Rosenthal also refuses to order using the customary Starbucks nomenclature: tall, venti, whatever. As it happens, we also refuse to do this. On our rare visits to the place, we simply ask for large or small, and have found that the underpaid young person behind the register seems to understand our quaint old-fashioned code. If he or she does feel the need to murmur venti, whether as a talisman to ward off evil or simply to be sure that the right register button is pushed, we shrug our shoulders noncommittally. We have never felt the need to hurl the F-bomb, and this despite its lamentable prominence in our vocabulary.

We do not know whether Rosenthal is truly deranged or was simply having a very bad day. But her claim to be a "stickler" makes us suspect the former. It has been our consistent observation that soi-disant "sticklers for correct English" are a pathetic bunch, who cling to their illusory and unhistorical prescriptivism as though it could save them from the dangers of an uncertain world. In this, they are like any other fundamentalists.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"The Pope is Not Gay"

That's the title of a new book by Angelo Quattrocchi, reviewed by Colm Toibin in LRB. It sounds like a stupid book, the sort of thing that refers to Benedict XVI as "Ratzy," while pointing at his Prada shoes and snickering.

But the review is, by itself, an excellent if rambling essay. It is as thoughtful and sensitive a treatment of its subject -- Rome and the gays -- as one is likely to read in periodical literature.

One passage, however, struck us with particular force. It is easy to lose, since it occurs well into the piece, and isn't especially controversial, so we will quote generously. Toibin shares his own memory of seeing John Paul II's 1991 visit to Jasna Gora, the monastery of the Black Madonna:

We all watched entranced as Wojtyla walked up to the altar where he would address the crowd and say Mass. He moved slowly, hesitantly. There was one moment when he looked as though he could go no further, and when he turned he had that strange melancholy expression which was one of his signature looks, that mixture of bemusement and power. He walked as though he were in a state of reverie and contemplation, and then he turned and waved, not as a celebrity might wave, but rather as someone briefly distracted, oddly bewildered, with larger things on his mind. This spellbinding mixture of strength and weakness, the softness of his eyes against the hardness of his jaw and mouth, the power of his office and its burden, worked on the crowd, worked on all of us.

For six hours that night the pope sat at the altar with television lights beaming on him. He sat at first on his throne with his head in his hands, as if he were alone in prayer and contemplation. When he finally spoke, he was funny and welcoming. Later, in his sermon, he was serious. ‘During this night vigil,’ he said, ‘so full of feelings and enthusiasm, I would bring your attention, my dear young friends, boys and girls, to three terms that are our guides: “I am,” “I remember,” “I watch.”’ He did not mention sex once, or sin, or Church rules; he made no reference to what these young people must or must not do. He did not hector us. His words were suggestive, at times poetic. There was hymn singing; there were blessings in Latin; a large cross was solemnly carried to the altar.

Twice Wojtyla spent long periods with his hands over his face. The crowd below watched him, fascinated. All the lights were on him. It was hugely dramatic and unexpected, the pope unplugged, as it were. He was offering an example of what the spiritual life would look like; his message was mysterious and charismatic. If you did not know anything about the religion he represented, you would say that it was one of the most beautiful ever imagined, wonderfully speculative and exotic, good- humoured and sweet but also exquisite and exalted. While he lost nothing of his strength and power, the glory of his office, Wojtyla seemed at times almost sad about his own elevated position, suggesting that his real life was the one he spent alone in prayer and contemplation, the one we had seen when he sat without moving, his face covered. He was offering this rich private life of his to the crowd as the life they could have if they followed him.

This is a shockingly powerful moment, a reminder of what evangelism can look like. One thinks of Philips Brooks' idea of preaching as the communication of "truth through personality," a notion that is easy to mock, but only when it goes south. One also thinks of George Herbert, advising that the defining character of his Country Parson's sermon is "holiness."

Of course, the spell is broken when the liturgical moment ends. The next day, John Paul held a press conference, for no reason other than to declare that a woman had not slept in the monastery, recently or ever -- in other words, to assure the world that his church had remained faithful even to the most pointless of its rules. The spell is far more broken now, as both world Christianity and the world itself contemplate the freedom with which the Church's real rules, the essential ones, were violated, and the violators protected, and the victims denied justice, by prelates under John Paul's own leadership.

We have no special brief for John Paul, as we have no special animus against Benedict. Their job is incomparably difficult, and they are merely human. Many pastors, we imagine, are more impressive behind the pulpit than at a vestry meeting. Probably most.

We just can't help wondering what it would all be like if, through some miraculous reconfiguration of reality, what Toibin has seen at Jasna Gora had not been merely the truth (which we believe it was) but the whole truth. What if there were no more to it than that, than the communication of holiness, of "larger things," things "exquisite and exalted"? Parishes might run riot, what with all those otherworldly holy men running things. But the Church would surely be a better place.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Religious Relativism in a Nutshell

A trail marker in Scotland, from Doug Lansky's list of the eight most insanely obvious signs of all time, at HuffPo.

= ≠ =

Much ink is spilled wondering why American students seem to grasp mathematics so poorly, at least when compared to students in China or Korea. Researchers at Texas A&M offer an interesting hypothesis:

They don't know what the "equals" sign means.

Seriously. Not a joke. American students are more likely than students in the control groups to solve 4+3+2=( )+2 with a 9 rather than a 7. That is, they misunderstand the entire question, and get the wrong answer.

The Science Daily story gives more detail, but we are fascinated by the possible ramifications of a nation in which many people cannot correctly interpret a single, unambiguous symbol. What other symbols do people not understand? A stop sign? A yellow light? And if they can't interpret these, what about more densely encoded but only marginally more ambiguous forms of symbolic speech -- a politician's obfuscation, for example? Or the teachings of a church?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mitford Update: Free the Monks!

A week or so back, we whined about the ludicrous caskets in which most Americans wind up buried. Enormous constructions of steel or hardwood, heavy with brass fittings and silk linings, not to mention extras like an adjustable mattress, we complained that they looked like spacecraft on the outside, and bordellos on the inside. (Yes, we are repeating ourselves, just to enjoy the remark).

We proposed a traditional Jewish casket, which is often more simply made and, not incidentally, much less expensive. A kindly reader steered us toward the world of caskets manufactured by monks, several of which are comparably modest (here, here, here). We were impressed.

We were also impressed by the subtext of the discussion, which is that, despite its wicked history, the funeral industry has taken many steps toward honesty and transparency, among which is the comparatively recent phenomenon of price-shopping for caskets. Used to be that they came as part of the package, and could only be purchased from the funeral home -- which was free to jack its rates up as high as it wanted. Laws which created a more of less free market were understandably unpopular with the funeral directors, but a smash success otherwise. They added a dose of competition to the business, and established a new niche for any number of small businesses, ranging from CasketXpress to the good brothers.

Except, of course, in Louisiana.

There, per Fox News, the Benedictine brothers of St. Joseph Abbey, in Tammany Parish, have recently filed suit against the state regulators, asking for the right to continue selling the caskets that they make (some, incidentally, with wood salvaged after Hurricane Katrina).

The Fox story is brief and well-written, so we won't repeat everything. (But more detail here). The bottom line is that the regulations only permit funeral homes to sell or store caskets. The monks aren't licensed funeral directors, and don't want to be. The board that oversees the funeral homes consists of four embalmers, four funeral directors, and "a citizen member at least 60 years old."

The attorney for the abbey says that the board's goal is "to protect the profits of a powerful industry." This is obviously true. The board's attorney says it is "simply enforcing the law that's passed by the Louisiana legislature." This may very well also be true. If so, it's lousy law. It is a lousy law because it creates a monopoly where none needs to exist. It hurts small businesses and prevents entrepreneurship. In this particular case, it also restricts the ability of the Benedictines to pursue their monastic vocation, which includes self-support. (Ora et labora, and all that).

We urge our, ahem, many Louisiana readers to exercise their constitutional right to petition the government. Free the monks!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Newt Wanted a Chevy

But he was married to a Jaguar.

Basically, we all know that Newt Gingrich is the sort of politician who makes a lot of noise about virtue, honor and family, while living lives of vice that bring shame to their families. Anybody who has followed Newt's career already knows that he is a serial adulterer, and humiliator of wives, in the Giuliani mold. But where Giuliani simply despises the teachings of the church in which he was raised, Gingrich has actually chosen to enter the Roman Catholic church, as if to highlight his lifelong mockery of its moral teaching.

But for those who doubted, his second wife, Marianne, has given an interview to Esquire. It's woven into a long and unflattering portrait, well worth a quick read, but a few choice bits deserve to be shared.

For example, the relationship between Gingrich and Bill Clinton:

[Newt recalls:] "Clinton and I used to talk like it was a graduate-school session," he says. "We both like books, we both like ideas, we both like exploring language and exploring concepts and trying to find solutions."

But then in 1998, Monica Lewinsky exploded and war broke out between the parties. Of all the ironies in Gingrich's paradoxical career, this was certainly the most bitter — at the very moment when he tried to rise above the ugly partisanship he had done so much to foster, it dragged him back down. ...

One night, Marianne says, Bill Clinton called from the White House. She answered the phone and the president asked if he could please speak to her husband. Could the Speaker come over immediately? After he hung up, Newt summoned his driver and went in the back door to the Oval Office. During that meeting, he would tell her later, Clinton laid it out for him: "You're a lot like me," he told him.

Whatever else happened at that meeting, Newt Gingrich was muzzled in the critical run-up to the '98 midterms.

Someday, that late-night meeting will make a great scene in a TV movie.

But the part that grips us, from our clerical perspective, is the picture of the couple as their marriage dissolves, and they seek pastoral counseling:
She called a minister they both trusted. He came over to the house the next day and worked with them the whole weekend, but Gingrich just kept saying she was a Jaguar and all he wanted was a Chevrolet. " 'I can't handle a Jaguar right now.' He said that many times. 'All I want is a Chevrolet.' "

He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused....[But he] told the press that he and Marianne had an understanding.

"Right," Marianne says now.

That was not true?

"Of course not. It's silly."

During that period, people would come up to Marianne and tell her to settle, that she was hurting the cause.

All of this simply proves some awfully common folk wisdom. This one: Politicians are lying cheating dogs. Or this one: If, like Marianne, you are having an affair with a married man, and he says he'll leave his wife for you, one of two things is true: (a) he won't; or, (b) he will, and then he will leave you for the next one. Or maybe this one: Newt Gingrich is a dirtball with no place in American public life.

Let's Not Tell Joelle

Apparently, New Yorkers eat cats.

At least crazy, gross, evil New Yorkers, like this guy in Buffalo. Ick.

That Woman

You know, the, ahem, other Mary.

We do hope that you will observe next Sunday's commemoration of St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. Trusting as we do that our readers are both theologically astute and internet-enabled, we will bother you neither with any "defense" of the occasion (good God, what has become of us, that anybody feels the need to defend a remembrance of St. Mary?), nor with many references. We offer only a few teasers to provoke the preacher's imagination. We invite your contributions as well.
  • From Luther's Explanation of the Magnificat: "One should honor Mary as she herself wished and as she expressed it in the Magnificat. She praised God for his deeds. How then can we praise her? The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God's grace . . . Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ."
  • Luther and Zwingli disagreed about the Eucharist (or hadn't you heard?), but they agreed about the perpetual virginity of Mary. So did Heinrich Bullinger. And John Wesley. All believed it, and Zwingli wrote a book on it. Zwingli!
  • Apparently, Anglicans dig Mary, too. There are more churches named for her in England than in any other country, and 206 PECUSA parishes (among +/- 7,500). Out of roughly 10,200 ELCA congregations, we count ten named for the BVM, one of which may be misleading because it is in the town of St. Mary's, Pennsylvania.
Newman, in his Anglican days, gives a very Protestant spin:
[T]he more we consider who St. Mary was, the more dangerous will such knowledge of her appear to be. Other saints are but influenced or inspired by Christ, and made partakers of Him mystically. But, as to St. Mary, Christ derived His manhood from her, and so had an especial unity of nature with her; and this wondrous relationship between God and man it is perhaps impossible for us to dwell much upon without some perversion of feeling. For, truly, she is raised above the condition of sinful beings, though by nature a sinner; she is brought near to God, yet is but a creature, and seems to lack her fitting place in our limited understandings, neither too high nor too low. We cannot combine, in our thought of her, all we should ascribe with all we should withhold.
His case is that the Anglican calendar only observed Marian occasions that are also events in the life of Christ -- Annunciation, Purification, etc. In other words, no Dormition or Assumption, which of course is the root of our Sunday observance. We assume the future cardinal rethought his conclusion, but we are also struck by how he here describes Mary's powerful grip on the imagination, a "danger," perhaps, but then so is fire if used unwisely.

Of course, there are other perspectives, typically represented by the deepest thinking and classiest writing. One Episcopal preacher observes,
I don't think I have ever seen a clearer example of this than a friend of mine, a very devout and one-eyed evangelical Protestant, who positively refused to buy any Christmas cards with "that woman" pictured on the front.
(Somebody has to say it: We thought "that woman" was "That Girl" after she married Donald, had some kids, and moved back to Scarsdale).

This guy hates Mary, and he hates Luther, and he probably hates you, too. But he's pretty funny about it:

The heresies of the Lutheran FALSE religion can be traced back to the heretic, Martin Luther. I realize that Luther made a public profession of faith in Christ, but he also publicly ADDED the holy mass and baptism to his faith as well.

According to the Bible, Martin Luther is burning in hell today. ... [M]artin Luther in his large and small catechisms blatantly declared that NO ONE could go to heaven without being baptized or partaking of the holy mass.

The Lutheran church in NO church, but a bastard child of the Mother of harlots (Roman Catholicism). Luther prayed..."O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you..."

Listen folks...if you hail Mary, you are hailing Satan!

Err, yes. That was what we meant to say.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To Build or Not to Build?

Is the proposed Ground Zero mosque something like the convent at Auschwitz?

This question occurred to us the other day, and has been rattling about in our heads despite the lack of any clear answer. (Foxman says yes, Zakaria says no.) Let us begin by mentioning that the subject is personal for us. Father Anonymous used to live quite near the Word Trade Center, so near that his morning jog took him past the towers. He knew people who were in the buildings when they were attacked in 1993 and 2001. Some of those people died. All were emotionally scarred.

So the site of the disaster holds a special emotional power in Fr. A.'s life. To this day, when out-of-towners announce their intention to visit the site, he gives them a cool response, and suggests a trip to Ellis Island instead. Or the Statue of Liberty. Or Staten Freaking Island. If they insist, he takes them to them to the Chambers Street subway stop, points them south, and then goes shopping at the Fountain Pen Hospital on Warren Street. Great little shop, if you like pens. Plus it wasn't the site of a mass murder.

That said, is the mosque like the convent? Our current thinking is "a little yes, a lot of no."

The Carmelite convent, which existed from 1984 to 1993, was always and explicitly about religion and national identity. Poles thought of Auschwitz as a site of Polish suffering, and wanted to cleanse it, with with Pope John Paul II's 1979 Mass, and then with a permanent community of prayer. Jews thought of it as a site of Jewish suffering, and wanted to keep it free of religious symbolism (especially symbols of the majority church which had been instrumental in that suffering). Between these two communities lay vast misunderstanding, some of it cultural, some bluntly ideological. For years, Jews seem not to have known that Polish Gentiles also died in the camp. More astonishingly, many Poles were never told that the vast majority of the dead were Jews.

The proposed Cordoba House is something quite different. Far from being a place set aside for perpetual prayer, it is conceived as a community center, modeled on the 92nd St Y, which will include a prayer room among its other facilities. You know: hit the pool, buy a book, catch a lecture. Then say your prayers. It isn't really a mosque at all, any more than a hospital with a chapel is therefore a church. And although the project's publicity is all about mutual understanding, there is no explicit notion of cleansing, nor -- explicitly -- any connection to 9/11.

On the other hand, if the story were all about what is explicit, there would be no controversy. In fact, the story is all about what is not said. It's about the subtext, the things that nobody would ever say because they are not quite rational, but which hide just beneath the surface of the rational remarks. This is the world of emotion and symbol, both more powerful than reason can ever hope to be. In the case of the convent, one side said "You -- Gentiles, Catholics, Poles -- did this to us. Leave us alone to grieve." The other side said, "We suffered too, and this is how we grieve."

In the case of the community center, the first statement is actually quite similar: " You did this to us. Go away." But the second statement, coming from American Muslims, is a little different. It is less "We suffered too," although of course there were plenty of Muslim victims, and rather more, "We have a place in this society. Your freedoms, including freedom of religion, belong to us as well." The problem, of course, is that although this final statement may be made at the level of emotion, it can only be accepted at the level of rationality. It requires a commitment to the rational Enlightenment ideals which underpin American laws, which immediately removes the non-Muslim supporters of the initiative from the realm of subtext to that of text, and (paradoxically) makes them less immediately intelligible to the other sides.

At the rational level, of course, virtually nobody thinks that the little old nuns were Nazi sympathizers, or that liberal Muslims in America are Al Qaeda sleeper agents. Thinking people know better, at least with the part of their brain that actually does think. But our brains have other parts as well.

A related fact is that Cordoba House, despite the publicity, will not be built at the site of the Word Trade Center. It will be two blocks away, on a side street called Park Place. (It might as well be called the City Hall Mosque, or the Fountain Pen Hospital Mosque.) At the rational level, then, this is not at all what it is at the symbolic level. Rationally, it is a community center a couple of blocks away; only symbolically is it a "mosque at Ground Zero."

So -- are they alike? There is, obviously, a structural parallel between two institutions with a religious perspective, both placed in near proximity to the sites of terrible crimes against humanity in which religion played a significant role. At the level of symbolism, there is another parallel, since in both cases one side seeks to respect the dead, and yet the other side feels disrespected if not actually threatened.

Yet in other ways they are not the same at all. A community center is not a convent; two blocks away is not the very site; Eastern Europe is not the United States. Call us nominalists if you like (since we are); we do say that the parallels are artificial constructs, and only the thing itself is real. Meaning that each case is inevitably distinct.

In any case, whether we are confident of a parallel or not, we have no doubt about the right course of action. The Foxman/Zakaria correspondence, linked above, pits "the feelings of the families" against "freedom of religion," and while we value both, we do not value them equally. Or, to put it in our own way, we are moved by symbolism and emotion, but we hope that when called to act, we will do so on the basis of reason.

Einstein Versus Jesus

Do you remember Stephen Colbert's remark that "reality has a well-known liberal bias"? Seems he was right, at least according to Andy "Son-of-Phyllis" Schlafly, and the masterpiece of rational thought that is Conservapedia.

Per TPM, we learn that Schlafly has helped to author a Conservapedia page called "Counter-Examples to Relativity." Its argument is that Einstein's theory of special relativity is unreliable. Among the reasons: "the action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54."

Uh-oh. Here it comes, the cage-match smackdown of the century: Einstein versus Jesus. In the octagon. And this time it's personal.

Now, recent cutbacks forced the Egg to trim its Maths department down to the bone -- sorry, all you fans of "Physics & Phaith" -- so we may get this wrong. But we aren't entirely sure that Jesus healing a kid in Capernaum is quite the sort of ftl propagation of information that Einstein was concerned about. Oh, plus, we thought that general relativity resolved the speed-of-light problem with its whole non-Euclidean space-time doohickey.

Truth be told, and contra TPM, we don't actually think that Schlafly's problem with relativity has a whole lot to do with Jesus, who plays a very small role in the entries. We think it has to do with the [imaginary] relationship between relativity and relativism, of the moral and cultural varieties. Hence, the "Counter-Examples" entry begins:
The theory of relativity ... is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.
And the main "Relativity" page says
Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of "curvature of space" to promote a broad legal right to abortion. As of June 2008, over 170 law review articles have cited this liberal application of the theory of relativity to legal arguments. Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common.
Ahh. Now we get it. Jesus doesn't like relativity because it leads to abortion. perfectly reasonable ... if you're nuts.

Although, in fairness, enlisting Einstein to defend abortion is as reasonable as using Darwin to defend capitalism, and conservatives did that often enough, back when they still liked Darwin.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Performance Artist or Cruise Director?

Reflecting on clergy burnout, a UCC pastor proposes that the problem isn't the need for rest and relaxation, but "congregational pressure to forsake one's highest calling."

Burnout is no joke. We have seen plenty of it, among colleagues and also -- in our youth -- among schoolteachers. It often affects the most seemingly gifted, too, rendering their bright eyes dull, their creative approaches mere rote, those in their charge resentful and unhappy. Not to mention the secondary evils that accompany the condition, such as boozing and getting fat. Everybody is served by finding the roots of burnout, and the remedy.

G. Jeffrey Macdonald, in a Times op-ed piece (for which the biretta tips gratefully to Fr. William of the Beach) writes that burnout occurs because of "consumer-driven religion," in which "churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them," rather than challenge, admonish or lead. The claim is broad, but not without evidence. He points to the mass defections from a few extremely large congregations "when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles."

But, as Scott Fitgerald said, mega-churches are different from you and me. Macdonald's most compelling evidence is his own experience: "In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves."

Yikes. This is theology of glory in the purest sense. And yet it does ring true. A seminary classmate once described the entire churchgoing experience of his denomination, which shall remain nameless, in similar terms: "They just want to to hear how great they are."

He's surely on to something. Years ago, we sat with an especially acerbic and counter-cultural priest of the PECUSA, who warned us that only the clergy itself could protect its call to the cure of souls. He explained that people don't want pastors anymore, but rather that "half your people want you to be a performance artist, the other half want you to be a cruise director." We saw his wisdom immediately.

Yet we aren't entirely convinced by Macdonald's analysis. In our own experience, a very significant number of parishioners have come to church looking for more than entertainment. They come willing, sometimes even eager, to be poked and prodded -- so long as the poking is done carefully, and with many assurances of love. (We have also found this to be more true in the city than the suburbs.) But perhaps this simply means that the new school of religiosity has not yet obliterated the old.

One thing we know for sure is that the need for rest and relaxation isn't the source of the burnout problem. At most, it is a symptom. The most convincing explanation of burnout that we have ever read was in (of all places) New York Magazine, a couple of years ago. Quite compatible with Macdonald's piece, the article proposed that burnout occurs when the disparity between expectations and reality becomes too large. As a result, it is people who set out with the highest ideals -- teachers and pastors -- who are prone to the deepest despair.

Dept. of No Surprise: Self-Mutilation Office

Headline in Science Daily: "Tattooing Linked to Higher Risk of Hepatitis C, Study Finds."

Well. Didn't see that coming, did we? Oh, wait, we did, and so did anybody who gave it five minutes of thought.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

It's Not a Belt, It's a Hat

The other day, Father Anonymous mentioned that, in addition to his trusty cassock, he also owns a biretta. Among subscribers to the Conf. Aug., the latter is considerably less common than the former, and may bear a little conversation. We also mentioned a droll story, although the degree of drollery may depend upon who's listening.

First, the hat itself. Ours is a traditional Roman-style cap, three points and a pom-pom. Left to our own devices, we would have chosen something else, since this is a style that only became routine in the 16th century. Even today we are told that Germans prefer four points. A small soft cap seems to us more authentically Lutheran in any case. But we claim no expertise on this matter.

Indeed, left to ourselves, it is unlikely that we own a biretta at all, in this style or any other. It is the most useless thing in the world: a hat that neither keeps the sun out of your eyes nor keeps your head warm. (Well, okay, in a draughty old church or refectory, it might help a little bit with heat loss.) It isn't remotely waterproof. During Mass, you are only supposed to wear it while sitting, and even then to remove it at the name of Jesus, which -- while a snap when visiting a Buddhist temple -- must be a colossal nuisance when worshiping with Christians. The thing exists, insofar as it does still exist, primarily as marker of identity.* Far more than the cassock, it screams "traditional." Or rather, it screams "traditionalist," in the sense of gruff old people and strident young ones, trying to rehabilitate customs that have died a respectable death.

Father Anonymous considers himself just such a traditionalist, presently making the awkward transition from stridency to gruffness. (The depth of his traditionalist eccentricity will become apparent one of these days, when he releases his Latin breviary for Lutheran use. Seriously.) But, paradoxically, he finds the company of many people like himself irritating beyond words. It's not about that trite and misleading "dead faith of the living" remark, either, so don't quote it to us. There are simply too many people for whom "traditionalism," or even "conservatism," is a codeword for preening poseurs, who gather to smoke, drink, and bitch about all the ways in which the church was better in their youth. (Never mind the number of them who were raised in some other church). For a long time, they vented their spleen against women; now that so many of them actually are women, they vent it against gays -- which is funny, considering how many of them have always been gay. Always. Been. Gay. But perhaps we digress.

Still, one hears reference to "the Biretta Belt," occasionally spoken of in hushed whispers, as though it were a vast and powerful conspiracy, or else with casual confidence, as though its existence were a demonstrable fact, no less obvious obvious than the existence of New Jersey. We have long grated against this expression, because it is misleading. There is no such thing. There are liturgical and theological conservatives -- not always the same people, mind you. Some of them do wear, or at least own, birettas. But they disagree amongst themselves as much as any other group of people, have no particular gift for organizing (at least without help from the Scaife foundations), and far from being a Dan Brown cabal, are for the most part sad, fat and mildly addicted.

And in any case, no piece of clothing -- least of all this one -- can serve as a thoroughly reliable guide to anybody's actual beliefs. To wit, our story:
A senior colleague and dear friend owns a biretta, or at least he did for many years. Since life offers few occasions to wear such a thing, he put it on a shelf in his study. This kept it from being crushed in a closet, or forgotten at home.

One day, when the parish was hosting an ecumenical service, our friend offered his study for visiting clerics to use as a vesting room. One of the visitors was an Episcopal priest, a woman, who scanned the room, pointed at the biretta, and said loudly, "Does that mean you are opposed to the ordination of women?"

Our friend was taken aback, but was able to respond, in a reasonably reasonable tone, "No, actually, my eschatological understanding of the Church and its ministry, coupled with my reading of Galatians 3 and John 20 means that I support the ordination of women. That's a hat."
Kind of smart-alecky, we admit; our friend is a little embarrassed by the tale. But we applaud him, because he made a point worth remembering: the deliberate choice of some old customs does not commit a person to the adoption of all old customs. How could it, when there are so many to choose from? Benedict XVI wears the camauro, the fur Santa Claus cap that few people ever expected to see again; that does not commit him to, for example, keep a mistress or kidnap babies. Sure, popes have done it before, perhaps even while wearing the same headgear; but the Church moves on.

All this is why when, years ago, we found a predecessor's biretta in the closet of our new parish, and suitable permission was asked and given, we adopted it as our own. We don't wear it, although we would if invited to at a suitable occasion. We leave it on our shelf, as a reminder to ourselves and an advice to passers-by, that our love of tradition does not require us to live in the past.
* Nor is the identity in question sacerdotal. Secular academics wear, depending upon their university, their own versions, some of which overlap with the ecclesiastical styles.

Friday, August 06, 2010

We're Also Number Ten

And that's a crime.

Those same bozos at the Princeton Review also put together a list of America's ten most beautiful college or university campuses. Obviously, this list is based on the buildings and grounds. If it were about "beautiful people," in the pejorative sense (i.e., snotty pampered socialites), our own college would have no meaningful competition. If it spoke of spiritual beauty, we suppose Berea or someplace would rate. But really, who rates that?

Still, we're number ten, and it's a crime. It is particularly galling, for cultural reasons, to rank behind Sweet Briar or Holyoke -- and for purely aesthetic reasons, to fall behind the desolate Communist-inspired concrete parking lot that is Florida Southern. (Okay, yeah, it's Frank Lloyd Wright, but on a really mediocre day.) Do those people have any idea how much money Frances Ferguson pumped into those golden hundred acres in Poughkeepsie, back when the markets were booming and endowments were actually worth something?

Incidentally, we are also ranked behind Princeton University, a campus with which the Egg staff is intimately familiar. This is an obvious error! In a straight-up contest of chapels, mind you, Princeton crushes us. Otherwise, however ... mehhh.

Wear Your Cassock!

Father Bruce Mitchican is a young priest of the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA, who wears his cassock often and explains why. His blog post is extremely good, and we encourage you to read it all. Here, however, are our favorite bits:

The cassock was once the standard article of dress for Christian priests. Long after the Great Schism divided the east from the west, the cassock remained a symbol of priesthood that was acknowledged by Catholic and Orthodox alike. ... The cassock was a symbol of the priesthood in the way that a white coat is a symbol of medicine or a tie is a symbol of formality and professionalism.

But all of that is over now, at least in the west. At age thirty, I’m the product of a post sixties, post sexual revolution, post Vatican II world. There’s no room for the cassock in the world in which I’ve grown up. I’ve never seen a Roman Catholic priest wear one, outside of the movies. ... To wear a cassock when not officiating at liturgy is to paint one’s self as a stuffy traditionalist who is pining after the nineteenth century, a clueless old fuddy duddy who is still trapped by the oppressive social norms of yesteryear.

In fairness, we have a couple of older colleagues who wear their cassocks as daily attire. They aren't old fuddy-duddies, strictly speaking; they are making a deliberate countercultural statement, and we have always admired them for it. And yet two things are true: (1) they do spend a lot of time in the company of old fuddy-duddies; and (2) admire them though we may, we don't join them. (For the record, we have indeed seen Romish priests wearing theirs, occasionally, and not merely at formal occasions. But we are noticeably older than Mitchican, and have lived in some awfully old-fashioned places.)

Mitchican proposes that cassocks are one of the "universal symbols" which, once upon a time, helped to construct and define a human community. He places it alongside he badge, the lab coat, the butcher's smock. But alas --

The universal symbols are gone, replaced by the universality of brand names and box stores. In the process, that which is unique to each local expression of community has become obscured. ... Every time I move to a new place, I’m asked by the locals, “How do you like living here?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, and for the longest time I didn’t know why. And then one day it dawned on me, I couldn’t answer the question because I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between one place and the next. I ate at the same chain restaurants and bought my clothing at the same strip malls everywhere I went. ...

We need symbols, not just brands. We need symbols that speak to our hearts and that communicate deep truths about who we are and how we live. We need to know that there are differences between us that go beyond whether or not we happen to prefer PCs over Macs or Cheerios over Corn Flakes. We need to learn again that there is such a thing as calling and vocation, that each of us can be called upon to serve our communities in a special way, not simply by consuming but by producing the goods that hold our communities together, whether or not those goods are tangible.

We think he's right, although we wear our own cassock quite rarely -- the rare-these-days church service without a Eucharist, or at which we do not preside, and a few days on retreat each spring. In services, we almost always wear a surplice, which is the truly liturgical garment. So, when you boil it down, we really never use the thing the way Mitchican is talking about. We doubt our fragile ego could stand the mockery.

On a similar note, we actually do own a biretta -- the one we tip to our occasional correspondents -- but we have never once worn it in public, or even in private for more than few seconds. We'll explain why, and tell a droll tale, in another post.