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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Excommunication Update

Still no word on what David Piso actually did.  But here's what we could learn with a little more googling:

Since 1982, the guy has been presiding bishop of the Gutnius Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea.  This is the smaller (by far) of two PNG Lutheran church bodies. It is dually aligned with the LWF and the Missouri-centric ILC.  

So the news story linked below is a little misleading, because it doesn't explain that this is not a case in which the discipline was imposed by somebody's ecclesiastical superior -- he has none, at least no individual.  The disciplinary action must have been initiated by people who worked for the guy.

That doesn't tell us much.  It could all involve the revelation of some shocking misdeeds, or just another shabby power play.  We just don't know -- and the suspense is killing us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It Probably Wasn't About Headhunting

A Lutheran bishop in Papua New Guinea has been removed, not only from his office but from the communion of the church, for "more than 100 allegations of misconduct, misappropriation, and poor leadership," including "failure to live up to church doctrines."

The story, linked above, gives few details.  David Piso spent 29 years as bishop of Enga Province.  As of today, however, he "is no longer a Christian member of the Lutheran church and he therefore automatically loses the office of bishop that he was elected to hold,"   according to an official spokesman.

This is remarkable stuff.  Voted out of office is one thing; removed pursuant to civil or ecclesiastical discipline is another.  Sent to Partenia is yet a third.  But excommunicated?  It just doesn't happen that often.  The only cases that come to mind, at the episcopal rank, are Lefebvre (about whose followers we have already written far too much) and the wild and wacky Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo.  The latter, you will recall, not only performed illicit ordinations, but was himself married -- by Sun Myung Moon.

So what's going on here?  We don't know.  It appears the guy stole some money, but what else -- running a tattoo parlor?  A house of ill repute?  We appeal to informed readers to send us the scoop.

In other PNG church news, a Lutheran pastor there was recently imprisoned for killing his own brother.  With a shovel.  Oy, vey.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Kick@$$istan, You Say?

For about a  year, the people at indie comics house Devil's Due have been flogging their "Barack the Barbarian" series.  It concerns the leader of a savage land called Kickassistan and covers have shown the scantily-clad eponym locked in combat with no-less-scantily clad barbarian females who look suspiciously like a well-known wretched harridan who fibs about her church attendance, and more recently the ex-governor of Alaska.

Whether this works for you as satire will depend upon where you are coming from, politically and culturally.  (Delayed adolescent Fr. Anonymous finds it chuckle-worthy, but expects that the more mature Mother A. would wrinkle her lovely brow.)

But here's the thing:  Devil's Due may be on to more truth than they realize.  It turns out, according to the Economist's "Lexington," that Obama really does prove to be a savage warrior.  Debunking the customary claims of the right that Obama is tepid in his response to terrorism, he writes:

... [Although] Mr Obama is willing to admit his country’s failings, he is quite ruthless about blowing its enemies to scraps. American drones fired missiles at suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas 55 times last year, killing hundreds of jihadists and who knows how many civilians. This year, the killing has accelerated; so far more than a dozen strikes have been reported. 

Mr Obama orders assassinations at a far brisker pace than George Bush ever did. For some reason, his habit of blowing up alleged terrorists and bystanders from the air causes less global outrage than the smothering of a lone Hamas operative, allegedly by Israel, in a hotel room in Dubai. But whether you think it justified or not, it is hardly evidence that the president is “against killing terrorists”.

Whew.  Here's a case in point:

In September, for example, America tracked down a much-wanted terrorist in Somalia. Saleh Ali Nabhan was accused of helping to blow up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and was thought to have been the main liaison between al-Qaeda and its Somali ally, al-Shabab. Had he been captured and questioned, he could have been a mine of useful intelligence. But there is no functioning Somali government to hand him over to, so American helicopters vaporised him. [Emphasis added.] This seems to be the rule, not the exception. A recent Washington Post investigation of Mr Obama’s war against al-Qaeda leaders abroad found “dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions” by American forces.

Now, there's is a cost to this muscularity.  Specifically, since Obama has been readier than Bush to hand prisoners over to the [repressive, authoritarian] governments of the nations in which they are apprehended, Lexington notes both the howls of anguish from human-rights activists and the the urgent need for a coherent detainee policy.

Those last bits are important, and will become more important as time goes by.  Here at the Egg, our editorial board has just concluded a bitter internal debate over the rights and wrongs of Obama's apparent defense policy.  Once the foam was wiped from our mouths, we came to this bipartite conclusion:  (1)  That we aren't exactly sure how we feel about living in Kickassistan; but (2) that as former residents of lower Manhattan, we like it more than living in Get-your-ass-kicked-istan.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Introducing the "Power Schvitz"

A gift from the Finnish Embassy, and taking DC by storm.

It's a bipartisan, invitation-only event. But "bipartisan" doesn't mean "immune to intra-Nordic rivalry." Oh, no. Watch the last line:

[Embassy spokesman Kari Mokko] says ... "I try to be civil and benevolent." He regales guests with a barrage of Finnish sauna facts ("We have more saunas than cars," "When Finnish peacekeepers are sent to Africa, the first thing they do is build a 190-degree sauna") and argues tirelessly for the superiority of Finnish saunas over Swedish ones. ("Theirs is a lot milder: 130 degrees. It's just like a hot room.")

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When "Total" Ministry Means Broken Relationships

What to do when your parish cannot sustain a resident pastor?  Whether because the members are too few, too poor or simply reluctant to tithe, it is not (nor has it ever been) an uncommon situation.

Historically, the customary solution has been circuit-riding priests.  Among Lutherans in North America, the names of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and Justus Falckner spring immediately to mind; these heroes of the faith traveled vast distances under frontier conditions, preaching the Word of God to small and scattered communities.  When they arrived, we imagine the occasion was celebratory:  there would probably be a party; there would certainly be a chance for those troubled by sin to confess and hear the promise of pardon; and there would undoubtedly be a rare chance to receive Holy Communion.

But there are certain things that a circuit-rider cannot easily provide.  The weekly Eucharist, for example.  Or pastoral care in an emergency.  So churches have adapted themselves, and their ideas of what ordained ministry should look like or even be.  Among Roman Catholics, one reads that nuns have begun to provide "routine" -- meaning non-sacramental -- pastoral care in many parishes, leaving the poor harried priest free to run around, saying Masses, baptizing babies, administering last rites and doing precious little else with his time.

Among Lutherans and Anglicans, there has been a quite different custom, of longer duration, by which lay people are authorized to perform sacramental duties, especially the celebration of the Eucharist.  The rights and wrongs of this are complicated to spell out, and would require a much longer post than this one.  Not to mention a complex exegesis of the so-called "general priesthood."

But latterly, there has been another practice as well, which more nearly parallels the "nun-as-pastor" model.  This is to divide the work up so that, while the ordained person retains responsibility for the celebration of the sacraments, a team of lay people do virtually everything else.  For reasons that escape us, it's called "Total Ministry."

Liturgically, as Bosco Peters points out on his excellent website, linked above (and tip o' the biretta to Pr. Joelle for it), this has turned into leading the whole first part of a Mass, so that the priest may drive maniacally from his last appointment and rush in just in time to sing "Lift up your hearts."

It is often hailed as creative response to changing circumstances, even a powerful sign of an empowered laity.  We disagree, for many reasons, and Peters has put his finger on one that we had never quite considered:

“Locally Shared Ministry/Total Ministry” has severed the link between pastoring, preaching, and presiding for priesthood, dividing up the tasks that need to be held together to prevent a priest’s presiding from appearing like magic. 

In many ways, that last part of the sentence should be in the forefront of many people’s reflection. 

What is left in many communities who would articulate a “low” view of ordained priesthood is in fact a rubrical fundamentalism that gives the appearance of the priest being a sort of magician who is brought out to do those bits of a service a lay person cannot lead: the absolution, the consecration, the blessing. What is lost in this is both an appropriate understanding of lay ministry which has been clericalised, as well as an appropriate understanding of priesthood which has been reduced to a magician.

Just so.  While a priest is ordained to a ministry of Word and sacrament, those two activities, at least narrowly defined, do not describe his (or her) entire ministry.  We are not glorified Pez machines, dispensing by turns sermons or wafers.  We are called to live in relationship with God's People, and although this relationship is created by the Word, expressed both in preaching and in sacraments, it extends  -- as the Word extends -- to every aspect of the community's life, often including the most intimate.

When priesthood is reduced to mere sacramentalism, the priest becomes a magician, performing tricks.  Worse yet, when church rules are shuffled about to provide weekly Eucharist at all costs -- whether the cost is a priest who misses most of the service, or a lay presider "authorized" without a vocation -- the the Lord's Body and Blood are themselves turned into a sort of idol, or at best expressions not of a relationship between God and the whole Church but rather of one between God and the individual believer, which is given precedence over the wholeness of the Church.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Synod Councils Now Playing Hardball

For several years, Father Anonymous had the distinct displeasure of watching pastors accused of sexual misconduct (and, indeed, convicted under the church's disciplinary policy) leave the ELCA to join micro-denominations, taking their parishes with them. He also watched pastors who simply didn't like the synod anymore do likewise -- with no regard for how much the church they were leaving might have invested in their education or their parishes. Time and again, both bishop and synod council stood by and said, not just in effect but sometimes verbatim, "We want to be your friends. Come back when you need us." Regular readers probably have a sense of how much this experience rankled the poor little blogger.

Apparently, that is beginning to change.

Per the ELCA's news service, a Florida congregation (St. Peter, Fort Pierce) has taken the two votes canonically required for former LCA parishes to leave the ELCA. However, there is another requirement as well: synodical approval.

And the Florida-Bahamas Synod Council just said no.

The article is a bit oblique, so it's hard to tell just what was going on. "Missional reasons" are cited, since apparently there is no other ELCA parish in the area, and the council didn't want to lose its presence in the area. The church's pastor, Theodore Rice, raises the logical question of how the synod hopes to work effectively with a parish that clearly doesn't want to participate.

But -- and again, regular readers will have guessed our sentiments on this matter -- we barely care. Oh, make no mistake: we care, in the sense that we urgently want to hear about a reconsideration and a reconciliation, about hearts softening as the members of St. Peter realize that they can continue in fellowship even despite a deep theological disagreement.

What we don't care about is whether, absent such reconciliation, the pastor and members of St. Peter like it it. If they don't like their mother church, they can leave -- individually. They can join a Missouri congregation. They can start a new congregation. They can do anything they want except steal a congregation.

And yes, we understand that they don't think they're stealing; they have contributed immense amounts of time, treasure and talent to St. Peter, and feel like it is their own possession. But they are mistaken. It belongs to Christ, whose lordship of the church is made real not just in transitory assemblies (as some Lutherans have been known to say) or in individual parishes (as others have often held) but through the larger body.

The story goes on to mention parallel decisions by the synod council upon which we once sat for a few months, keeping a friend's seat warm:

The ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod Council has acted on three requests from congregations to terminate their relationships with the synod and the ELCA, but its approach was different. The congregations are Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New Rochelle; Advent Lutheran Church, Elmont; and St. James Lutheran Church, Stewart Manor. In each case, the synod council adopted a resolution "respectfully" requesting each to "remain in the fellowship of the Metropolitan New York Synod," according to the synod's records.

We aren't quite sure how this is different, apart from being a bit more polite. It depends upon whether a "respectful request" really means yes or no. In the former case, it is meaningless; in the latter, it might have been phrased a bit better.

This is all very difficult and painful. We wish it weren't happening. But if it is, we warmly applaud councils (and their bishops) for showing some spine. The bad news is that it will lead, inevitably, to painful and embarrassing lawsuits. We desperately wish that were not so. But the good news is that it takes a stand against the ultra-congregationalism and individualism which run rampant in American Christianity. Against "cafeteria Lutheranism," if you like.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cardinal Schönborn Still Has a Job!

Europe is playing catchup with the United States, but in a game no sane person enjoys. From Ireland to Germany, public accusations of sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy are being made, in previously unheard-of numbers. We gather it's a bit of a shock over here; they haven't had a decade or so to become inured to the pain.

This is all hard to talk about, for many reasons. First, there is the sheer awfulness of it -- the betrayal of a sacred trust, the psychological and spiritual harm done to the victims as well as to the church at large. But then there is the cascade of lesser difficulties: the matter of distinguishing predatory behavior from "mere" (and sometimes consensual) vow-breaking; of separating genuine claims from spurious; of treating both accusers and accused fairly; of how far church discipline can be trusted and when the civil authorities must be involved; of just how transparent a church can stand to be. And on and on, always ending at the same neuralgic and perhaps unanswerable question: Who was really to blame?

"Who" is not -- entirely -- the right question. Oh, these crimes, like any others, are the actions of individuals, and those individuals must be held responsible. But as Americans have learned, over and over, the abusive priests were abetted (if not inadvertently encouraged) by a complex network of persons, practices, and even theological convictions which made their crimes unlikely to be prevented or punished.

But here's a curious part of the puzzle. Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, has taken a couple of recent steps to sort out the strands of this network, and among those he has named is one usually off-limits to priests of any stature: clerical celibacy.

In his archdiocesan magazine, Schonborn called for an examination of the root causes of the abuse, including

... the issue of priests’ training, the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the Church and of society as a whole.

Needless to say, the official response was swift. Both Cardinal Hummes (of the Congregation for the Clergy) and Schonborn's own spokesman have said that the Cardinal does not in any way man to question the celibacy rule, as indeed he may not.

But on the other hand, consider this:

He is an ordinary — or bishop — to Austria’s Eastern Rite Catholics, whose priests are allowed to marry ... Last year in Rome, Cardinal Schönborn, who has always been close to the Pope, presented a petition signed by leading Austrian lay Catholics calling for the abolition of the requirement for priestly celibacy.

Cardinal Schönborn told Vatican Radio last year that he did not agree with the petition’s conclusions, which also included a demand for women deacons, but added: “It is important for someone in Rome to know what some of our lay people are thinking about the problems of the Church.”

So the cardinal is clearly keeping some distance between himself and the ideas in the petition. And yet somebody who was truly appalled by the idea that mandatory celibacy somehow contributes to the problem of wayward priests might very well have rejected the petition outright, and refused to be connected with it at all. And a less prominent churchman -- say, a teaching theologian who promoted these ideas -- might find himself deprived of his faculties, canonically speaking.

It may seem obvious to members of the Reformation churches, who dispensed with the celibacy rule quite near the beginning of things (and who are heir to generations of scurrilous-but-amusing propaganda stories about randy friars and bawdy nuns). We take for granted that human beings possess sexual drives which, if denied their customary outlet, will sometimes find alternative outlets which are inappropriate at the least, and destructive at the worst. (See Augustine, keyword "concupiscence.")

But this idea is not readily apparent to much of the Roman Catholic world, and especially to the hierarchy. Doctrinal decisions, after all, are made by celibate men, the vast majority of whom have succeeded in remaining celibate or, if not, in having consensual relations with uncomplaining partners. "If I can do it," you imagine them mumbling, followed by, "and maybe the guy slipped once or twice. But he knew it was wrong, gave his confession, and is moving on." And they keep saying this, until all evidence from all over the world accumulates, suggesting that their idealism and naivete have done vast harm to the cause of the Gospel.

So if one of the brightest and best-respected (not to mention youngest) members of the College of Cardinals is trying to slowly and carefully put the question on the table, even in the face of naivete so idealistic that it is nearly disconnected from reality, we wish him the very best of luck.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Hey, This Prison Has A Really Nice Chapel"

It is fairly common, these days, to assign community service instead of jail time, and people often find it easy to serve their community by serving a church.  A few years back, we had a nice young man paint our church fence rather than spend a few days in the slammer after what we gather was a drunken brawl.  Well, okay, he painted half our fence and then disappeared, but we still appreciated the effort.

The Republic of Georgia has taken this a step further.  They are letting criminals serve out part of their sentence in monasteries.

By way of background, it helps to know that incarceration rates have been surging in Georgia, and jails are overcrowded.  So monasteries are handling the overflow.

Well, that just shows how backward those Georgians are.  In the US, we have figured out that prisons are a boon to the economy, which is why we build so many of them

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sex Makes You Smarter

Actually, no.  But it's a catchy header, huh?  And in fact, new research suggests that the nature of somebody's most private fantasies does have an effect, not on intelligence, but on the specific kind of thinking that a person does.  

Basically, people who are asked by researchers to fantasize about coitus with a stranger become better at detail-oriented analytical thinking, while those who are asked to think about a romantic walk with their chosen partner become better at the sort of creative thinking which brings together disparate ideas.

Our first thought:  This explains a lot about science-fiction writing, and especially about the math-heavy, research-based sub-genre known as (ahem) "hard s/f."  

Our second thought:  What does this say about the masters of logical, analytical theology -- the systematicians?  Hmmm?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Communism Was Really Bad

That may not seem like an especially daring statement, and we suppose it's not. Several generations of North Americans were raised to take it for granted, and at least one young generation of Eastern Europeans does too.

On the other hand, as recently as twenty-one years ago, somebody sitting in the exact spot where Father Anonymous is now sitting, were he to type those words -- "Communism is bad" -- or even to say them aloud, would have been making a statement of enormous, and life-endangering, moment.

Tonight, we attended a presentation by an historian who has spent years poring through papers of the Securitate, the former Romanian secret police. This gentleman has made a special study of one narrow range of papers: those pertaining to the Securitate and its relations to the Lutheran church. He has done this at the behest of the church itself, which wants to understand its own story. (And by the way, the Romanian government gets high marks for its willingness to make a vast archive of sensitive intelligence documents available for research, without redaction.) Although his public presentation wasn't comprehensive, it was certainly detailed enough.

He showed us, courtesy of Powerpoint, samples of the dossiers that the police kept on church leaders. They are just what you would expect: long, banal, bureaucratic, and largely worthless. Even in their own time, it is impossible to imagine that anybody cared, or had reason to care, what a particular bishop or pastor ate for lunch, or where he ate it. Often, during the presentation, we wondered who could stand the sheer tedium of reading these reports.

And yet an authoritarian state found the Church terrifying, so much so that it made astonishing efforts to infiltrate, co-opt and even destroy it. After all, the Church (not merely the Lutheran church, but Christianity taken as a whole) was and remains a challenge to every form of idolatry, and governments specialize in creating idols. The Lutherans, as part of the Hungarian ethnic minority, were that much more of a challenge. They spoke an incomprehensible language, had friends and colleagues abroad, and seemed, to the paranoid and unintelligent apparatus of the security state, inscrutable.

It is said that in Romania, at one point, roughly one person in ten was an informer. Within the bishop's office, the percentage was far higher. In the 1940s, Argay Gyorgy's home was searched, and a map of "greater Hungary" -- that is, one which showed the borders before World War I -- was discovered. Based upon this, he was sent to prison. However, he was released and continued to serve as bishop until his death in 1974. During that time, no fewer than three of his closest advisors are known to have been filing detailed reports on his daily routine.

And -- because national-security bureaucracies are above all bureaucracies -- every report was filled out in triplicate.

Imagine your own diocesan office, dear reader, if the bishop's assistant, secretary and attorney were all writing notes and sending them to an unmarked office in Washington. How much ministry would get done, even under the best of circumstances? Imagine the atmosphere of distrust, and try to imagine an entire society in which this atmosphere prevailed for decades -- and in which it has by no means entirely dissipated all these years later.

There is much more to the story. Seminary professors were encouraged to spy on their students, and vice-versa. Church diplomats were sent to Geneva, to some ecumenical gathering, with specific instructions to spread lies about the well-known defector, Richard Wurmbrand. And on, and on.

We would all it "Kafkaesque," or "Twilight-Zone-y," except for one thing. Lives were at stake. Lives, families, and freedom were all in constant danger, which means that trite comparisons to literature are not really appropriate. The story that we heard tonight, as much as we could hear in whispered translation, isn't really a "story" properly so-called. It is one fraction of an extraordinarily grim history, one which was extraordinarily painful to live through, and which is surely no joy to write -- but which must be written, so that it can be known, and remembered, for generations to come.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Family Sing-A-Long

Supper tonight reminded Father Anonymous of how ill-equipped he is for actual parenthood.  Or, if that seems a bit too self-critical, of how freakin' old he is to be the father of a toddler. 

What do two priests of almighty God sing around the table with their son in his most malleable years?  You're probably thinking the Te Deum or the collected translations of John Mason Neale (to which, indeed, we are partial).  But no.  Tonight's playlist went like this:

At Baby A.'s request:

Followed immediately by:  

But then Fr. A. suffered the agenbite of inwit, and wondered aloud whether his own preoccupations hadn't excercised a corrupting effect on the poor boy.  "Could we try something less, um, comicky?" he asked meekly.

So Mother A. launched unbidden into her idea of family classics:

(And yes, we actually decided, while singing, whether to use the Season One or Season Two variant). This was followed inevitably by:

Hawaiian Eye was actually stuck in here somewhere, too.

After all this, poor Fr. A -- who had welcomed his kid home from the hospital with the words "Arma virumque cano," etc., and who still occasionally tells adulterated bits of Hesiod and Ovid as bedtime stories, wondered whether we couldn't just sing something more ... traditional?  And immediately, Mother A. complied.  Here's "traditional":

And yes, the whole family sang along.  We know these things by heart.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Vatican Scores Its First 100 "Anglican" Parishes

One hundred "Anglican" parishes in the United States have moved decisively to enter the Roman Catholic Church.  In formal language, they have requested "the implementation of the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus in the United States of America by the (Vatican's) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith".

But please do take note of those inverted commas.  These parishes are the Anglican Church in America, a small splinter group.  Technically, in fact, it is a double-splinter:  in 1991, two splinter groups, the Anglican Catholic Church and the American Episcopal Church, held some union discussions, which were only partially successful -- there is still an ACC, it is just now much smaller.  Whatever.

The point here is that the 100 parishes to form the first "personal ordinariate" are not in communion with the Anglican Communion or the See of Canterbury.  Their claim to "Anglicanism" is based upon institutional history (including, we imagine, the historic episcopate) and upon their use of the Prayer Book, in some form.  But it does not include actual participation in the life of that communion of national churches which the world means when it says "Anglican."

(As for whether they teach an identifiably Anglican doctrine, which would be the defining question for Lutherans or the Reformed, well -- first pin down "Anglican doctrine" and then let's talk.)

So when you read in the papers that "Anglicans" are signing up with the Pope, you might take a grain or two of salt.  A modest number of people who call themselves Anglican are signing up.  It's still a net gain for Christian unity, we suppose, but a fairly small one.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Three Good Reasons Not to Fly

Number One is obvious:  airplanes make an astonishing contribution to global warming.  

But the other two may be less obvious.  To wit,

Number Two:  Air France 447 could happen anytime, to any plane.  The investigation has "brought to light a safety flaw that affects all jet airplanes currently in service."  You did catch that, right?  Every jet plane in service.  Including the one you were going to take on your next family vacation.

Number Three:  They let kids run air-traffic control at JFK.  Just try not to think about it.

All this creates a bit of conundrum for Father Anonymous and his family.  Unless steamship fares drop precipitously, or the Atlantic Ocean freezes over and becomes walkable, it appears we may have to stay on the far side of the pond ... forever.

Breaking News: "Elfland is Not Poughkeepise"

In an extremely interesting essay, linked above, Michael Weingrad proposes that by and large, Jews have not written fantasy fiction, making it one of the only areas of literary endeavor to which Jews have not made prodigious contributions.

Let us say, up front, that we think he's mistaken.  But let us also say that the essay is well worth reading anyway.  First off, it begins with a beautiful and touching anecdote:

Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and—ever the professor of philology— lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

Moving on:  Weingrad's point is not, of course, that Jews don't write fiction about fantastic themes.  He has read Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, and in fact his essay is in part a review of two recent fantasy novels by Jewish writers, both of which sound remarkably good.  He doesn't show much familiarity with "genre" writing -- the stuff you buy in paperback at the drugstore, or latterly the comics shop.  This gives the commenters over at io9 some occasion for fun, as they point to the brilliant and trendy Neil Gaiman, or murmur that "Of course there is a complex Jewish fantasy world.  It's called Marvel Comics."  (We'd add that this is just as true of DC, but never mind). 

His main argument is that there is no Jewish Middle-Earth or Narnia, a fact (if it is accepted as a fact) which he explains in several ways:
  • A fictionalized Middle Ages holds little appeal for Jews.  Not their best era.
  • The genre as a genre emerges in Victorian England, as religious response to rationalism, Darwin, etc.  Again, not a big concern for Jews.
  • Judaism is "much warier about the temptation of dualism" than Christianity."
  • After the Holocaust, the very idea of magical powers at work in the real world "must have made redemption seem too easy."
Of these, only the first strikes us as entirely defensible.  A much longer post would be required to explain why, however.  He also attempts to argue that Judiasm is somehow rooted to real-world specifics of person, place and time ("its halakhic core") in a way that Christianity is not, an assertion which actually reveals a deep misunderstanding of Christianity.  It in this context that he quotes Ursula Le Guin to the effect that fantasy, by it's nature, is about otherness:  "Elfland isn't Poughkeepsie."  It's a brilliant remark, but misguided in this application.  

Still, in an attempt to illustrate this false thesis, Weingrad does offer one suggestion which gets us thinking:

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. 

Bluntly put, Christianity has been conditioned by its history to be more tolerant of pagan imagery than Judaism -- almost certainly true.  After all, Christianity decisively routed the cosmologies from which those images sprang, and did so early in its history, which made co-opting them for its own purposes easy.  Probably too easy.   And it made its most profligate use of pagan imagery in the early Middle Ages.

But one good point doesn't make a case, at least not a case this broad.  Weingrad is disproven by the sheer volume of fantastic literature created by Jews, over a long period of time and now in many media.  He is disproven, at least, unless one accepts the narrowest conceivable definition of the "genre" in which he says Jews haven't contributed.  Because his essay clearly takes Tolkien and Lewis as the defining authors of "classical fantasy" (his expression, and misleading in many way).  In which case, the question of why there are "no Jewish fantasy writers" has to be rephrased as "why are there no Jewish writers of Christian allegory and apologetics?"  And that, of course, is a silly question.

So the real essay -- the one Weingrad should have written, and to which he has taken an extremely useful first step -- is on a different subject.  It is an essay that asks what the differences are between the use of fantasy, either as a device or as a genre, by Jewish and Christian writers (or, of course, by writers who have been formed by one or the other culturally, but like Philip Pullman disavow faith in either). 

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bush's War on Christianity Continues

Of course, it is Obama's war now, at least in the sense that he has not yet ended the American involvement in it. But Bush started the war, for reasons which will be debated for decades to come, and so in that sense Iraq will always be his war.

And if it is not technically a war on Christianity, it is certainly a war in the course of which Christians have been systematically slaughtered with the express intention of creating a new nation in which they no longer exist. Substitute "Jews" for "Christians" and see if that reminds you of anything. In fairness, the analogy is imprecise -- the government hasn't orchestrated the violence. It simply declines to stop it.

The latest, according to Le Monde (above, in French) is from northern Iraq -- Karakosh, Nineveh, and in this case Mosul:

On Feb. 14, a kibbeh-vendor was killed in the city center. The next day, a seller of fruits and vegetables was targeted in his shop. The day after, it was two students on their way to the university who were victims of an armed attack that killed one of them. And the same day, the body of a schoolteacher was found in the street, riddled with bullets.

There's lots more like this. The family of a priest, murdered in their own home. Convents turned into emergency dormitories for families unsafe in their neighborhoods; the police standing by uselessly.

It has cost us more than $700 billion dollars so far, and this is the nation we have created. And yes, we are fighting against the bad guys. But we started the war.

Paging Casey Jones!

There's a train wreck a-coming.

Or so, at least, suggests the blog Spirit of a Liberal, linked above. We ourselves have pointed out that the New ALC and our old friends at the almost-400-church strong LCMC will soon have two denominations for not quite 600 congregations. "Liberal" goes into more detail, teasing out some of the confusing relationships and the inevitable public posturing that has begun, as the groups try to poach form one another while both poaching from the ELCA.

We admire the guy's (or girl's? We aren't sure) perseverance, because keeping tabs on this stuff must mean surfing through an unbelievable number of badly-written documents, online and off, churned out by the power-hungry and the merely malcontent. We couldn't do it.

Monday, March 01, 2010

This Blog For Hire!

But first, we'll need $11,000 in the bank.

That money will just about pay the fine levied by the Federal Trade Commission on bloggers who endorse products, at least if the FTC intends to follow its new guidelines.  According to an article by Jack Shafer in Slate, the idea is to crack down on "the growing blog-for-money business."  Unfortunately, the guidelines are hopelessly vague, and could easily result in crippling penalties for your average Joe Sixpack (or, in our case, Joe Case-of-sacramental-port).

The idea is that if a blogger reviews a book, whether the review is good or bad, and if the book was provided free by the publisher, then the blogger is considered to have endorsed a product.  And if the said endorsement isn't labeled clearly enough, the FTC gets a pound of flesh.

Never mind that this is how publishers have gotten their wares into the hands of reviewers for centuries.  Or hasn't the FTC ever been to the Strand Bookstore, and waded through the thousands of half-priced "review copies" of books nobody ever reviewed?

Shafer calls this "a mad power grab," and goes on to say:

Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don't apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don't apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow's blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.

Nobody likes deceptive advertising or fishy bloggers. But I'd rather wade through steaming piles of unethical crap on the Web than give the FTC Javertian powers to pursue shady advertorial. This is one of those cases in which the government's solution is 10 times worse than the problem.

We're with him, to be sure.  Free speech is very important to us -- longtime readers may remember a series of posts mocking Britain's libel laws, not to mention our continuing disdain for the Islamicist "don't draw cartoons of our Prophet or accuse us of terrorism or make fun of us or say anything else we don't like" movement.

But you know what?  Shafer and the free-speech absolutists have missed the really important part of this story:  SOME PEOPLE GET STUFF FOR BLOGGING!  And you know what?  We at the Egg really like stuff.  Especially since we now live in Central Europe, where stuff tends to be wildly overpriced, if you can even get it.  Like Shredded Wheat.  Man, do we miss Shredded Wheat.  And the Times crossword puzzle.  And -- well, you get the idea.

So here's our new policy:  You have stuff?  Send it to us, and we'll "review" it for you, in the most glowing terms that are available to us ethically or stylistically.  There are two small caveats:  (1)  we will announce that the stuff was provided free, because, hey, we're not stupid and $11k is a lot of green; and (2) it has to be stuff that we actually care about.

Thus, for example, the manufacturers of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are cordially invited to keep their phosphorescent goo to themselves (although Mother Anonymous would review it with pleasure, if only she had a blog).  Likewise, the New ALC and WordAlone Network should probably save themselves some postage and handling.  (And do click those links if time permits).

But if you, dear reader, happen to work in the marketing department of Continuum Books, Liturgical Press, Slabbinck, King of Shaves or Fruit of the Loom, give us a call.  Also Victorinox, LA Police Gear, DC Comics or any manufacturer of high-end military watches.  (We're looking at you, Sinn, Orange and Marathon).    But especially Fruit of the Loom, because -- at risk of sharing too much information -- we miss our American undies.