Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Number One Favorite Fake Priest

Father Arthur Scott seems like a charming rogue, doesn't he? But he's not our favorite fake priest. Not really.

So. Who is? Well, there are a lot of choices, both in life and in fiction.

There's "Father O'Shea," the missionary to China played by Humphrey Bogart in The Left Hand of God. He's really a downed airman, hiding from the bad guys -- at least until a pretty young nurse catches his eye. Great movie.

Yet we confess an even deeper partiality for the mysterious abbe who dismounts from his horse in Chapter 26 of The Count of Monte Cristo. In all the world of pulp adventure, there are very few books as dear to our hearts as Monte Cristo, in part because the book has a surprisingly powerful theological subtext, and in part because Dumas rocks. The guy just rocks. The idea image of poor revenge-bent Edmond Dantes disguising himself in a soutane and biretta as he prepares to play God with the lives of his enemies gives us a perverse and unholy thrill.

But El Numero Uno, in our book, is not a fictional character at all, except in the sense that virtually nothing he ever said about himself was true. He was a flesh-and-blood man, and a curious third-tier novelist, but he was also a man so possessed by his own inner demons that his life -- as well as his writing -- became simultaneously a sin and a confession.

We mean, of course, Baron Corvo.

Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913) was a failure by any reasonable standard. He taught school for a while, and they fired him; he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest, but was repeatedly blocked by any bishop or theological college with the least bit of sense. He wasn't even much good as a beggar -- one of his more lurid literary remains is a series of semi-pornographic letters, intended to entice a wealthy benefactor into supporting his life in Venice. They failed.

His biography is a long series of firings, evictions, inept confidence games and virulent recriminations. Rolfe was a master of the poison pen, or at any rate he would have been if his endless attacks had ever actually harmed anybody. In truth, he was so disreputable a character that we imagine a letter to the Times calling you a villain, with his name below it, probably bought you a round of drinks at the club.

As a writer, Rolfe -- who signed himself by any number of names, most famously "Fr. Rolfe" -- get it? -- was part of that crazy fin-de-siecle crowd. You know: Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans, the Yellow Book and all that. He wasn't the most distinguished, by any means. But his stories and novels were published, which is something. After his death, they began to attract collectors and readers. (The tendency to make cultic objects of "forgotten" gay writers probably didn't hurt). Over the years, he has come to be seen as a significant, if not especially important, Modernist. Think of the Sitwells, or somebody on that order. The story has been told by A.J.A. Symons and then, as more information came to light, by Cecil Woolf and Brocard Sewell. Rolfe, and especially his vengeance-seeking toxicity, is claimed as an inspiration by the occasional oddball, like Alexander Theroux. (Who, for the record, is a far more interesting writer than his more famous brother Paul.).

Rolfe -- or Corvo; he claimed that the title was legally his, after he was adopted by an Italian duchess -- liked to be photographed in clerical attire, even though he wasn't a cleric. His most famous book is Hadrian the Seventh, about an obscure Englishman who has been rejected in his aspirations to the priesthood, but who is nonethless made pope. (Papal trivium: the actual Hadrian IV was Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope). The idea is every Anglophone presbyter's occasional fantasy -- come on, admit it. Who hasn't started a sentence with, "When they make me pope," smiling wrily at the very thought? (We've caught Zulhlsdorf doing it at least once recently, but we're not even sure he's smiling wrily.) It became a stage play in the 1960s, and apparently did okay.

We at the Egg have skimmed Hadrian from time to time, but never read it through. It is slow going, and copies are hard to come by. You can read it online here, but we can't imagine reading it online. The book requires long hours on a train, or a week of savage rains beating against your remote cottage on a cliff overlooking the ocean. And somebody sitting quietly nearby who will enjoy the funniest parts, when you read them aloud.

Rolfe wound up in Venice, living in poverty and squalor, friendless, and dying very young. His story is sad, and no less sad because he seems to have inflicted every wound upon himself. But at the same time, his story is funny too, if you are the sort of person who likes to walk through an old graveyard and laugh at the cleverest inscriptions. And who doesn't?

So, sure, that forger is neat, and the fictional characters are cool. But until somebody more tragicomically grandiose comes along, we'll call Fr. Rolfe our very favorite fake priest.

About Egypt -- Seriously

Obviously, there are an endless number of reasons to pray for the people of Egypt and Tunisia. Times like this are exhilarating but also frightening; the search for liberty sometimes extends into the assumption of license. Pray that cool heads and earnest judgment will prevail.

And one thing in particular: Please pray for a young man I will not name here. He is an American exchange student in Egypt, whose parents are part of our small parish. They are understandably concerned for his safety.

"Corporate Censorship" or Free Choice?

A HuffPo headline screams: "Al Jazeera English Blacked Out Across Most of US!"

Holy cyberwar, we thought as we clicked the link. Has some Arab despot actually blocked all transmissions to the United States, the way Mubarak shut down Egypt's internal communications the other day? Are we that vulnerable?

In fact, however, the HuffPo article is a bit of nasal whining. Seems that very few cable companies carry AJE, the Qatar-funded news network. Either they don't think there is a market or, more to the point, they are afraid of a backlash from Islamophobes or the plain old xenophobes whose numbers are surprisingly high in nation where almost everybody came from somewhere else.

Wah, wah, wah, says the Po. This corporate censorship is depriving Americans of solid journalism, both on Middle Eastern and Latin American topics. (And which is apparently feared by the Middle Eastern tyrants themselves). Canadians get to see it, not because they demanded it from the providers, but because they petitioned the government to force cable providers to carry it. And look -- the couchbound masses didn't rise up from their narcotized slumber, so it must be safe for corporate kingpins!

Frankly, we don't know a thing about Al Jazeera English. It might offer the best journalism since Cronkite, or it might be a peanut-butter sandwich. It isn't carried on Romanian cable, either, although we do enjoy the charms of France24, Russia Today and something from China that is completely unwatchable. So nothing we say next should be taken as either a recommendation or a slam.

Now, that said: Unless we have missed something, businesses are supposed to make business decisions. That's why they're called "businesses," not "charities," or "public agencies." So cable providers get to decide which channels they'll broadcast. Yes, the government has a right to place some public-service obligations on the broadcasting industry -- equal time, limiting what products and services can be advertised, requiring them to carry public-access TV even though it is wretched and nobody watches except the SNL writers looking for parody material.

But come on. If people want AJE, let them ask for it.

In which spirit, we at the Egg are hereby asking for it. As it happens, we'd like to watch AJE, and would happily choose a cable provider who offered it.

While we're at it, here are some other requests for the cable bigwigs:

1. No more sports. At least not on basic cable. Licensing makes that stuff incredibly expensive, and drives up our bill. We don't care which team wins the big playoffs, and we're tired of footing the bill for those that do.

2. Bring back Nick at Night. The old Nick at Night -- Bewitched, Father Knows Best, My Little Margie. Because, guess what, Fresh Prince isn't classic TV.

3. Move Fringe back to its old slot. That show is great, and Fox switched it to the Friday Time-Slot of Doom. Technically, this has nothing to do with cable TV, since Fox actually uses airwaves. But come on, guys, you've gotta have some pull.

4. Where's the Comic Book Network? Seriously. Between the seventeen Superman-related series, a million cartoons, and the almost-success of Heroes, The Cape and No Ordinary Family, there's plenty of stuff out there. No, it isn't good enough for the Tiffany Network -- but you're cable. Come on, people, you devote whole channels to the weather.

5. More religion. Why isn't there a network for Lutherans? Specifically, for high-church Lutherans living in central Europe? Especially those under, say, 5'4"? And while we're on the subject, do you have a minute to hear our pitch?

Anyway, we're off topic yet again. Here's the point: Al Jazeera English has quickly developed a reputation for solid reporting, and we'd like to see if the rep is deserved. We don't think the government has any business forcing broadcasters to show it, but we do think consumers should start asking.

And either way, calling the companies' lack of interest a "blackout" is like saying consumers "boycotted" Betamax.

One to Watch

Keep an eye, if you please, on Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She is the co-chair of England's Conservative party, and deeply engaged in questions surrounding religion and the public square.

Briefly, Lady Warsi was born in Pakistan, but raised and educated in Britain. She is young, wealthy, and located near to the center of political power in her adopted nation. She is also Muslim. Or, perhaps just as important, she is overtly religious in a society which in recent years has become markedly more hostile to public displays of any religious faith (making allowances, of course, for neopaganism and Jedi).

Warsi has made a series of notable speeches on the intersection of religion and society. The first was to the Conservative Conference in 2009; the second, to the CofE Bishops' Conference in September 2010, and the most recent was the Stamberg Lecture at Leicester University. She has made the point that (a) religious faith, despite its detractors, remains a powerful fact of British life; (b) the Conservative government takes this seriously (or "does religion"); and most recently, (c) that Britain must guard against a rising tide of anti-religious bigotry, especially but not exclusively represented by Islamophobia.

The speeches are extremely interesting, although by no means above criticism. For example, she said to the bishops that

[i]n Britain the resilience of religion gives us the confidence to reject the intolerance of secularist fundamentalists. It should also give us the confidence to recognise fully the huge contribution of believers everywhere.

And to do that, we need first and foremost a government which understands faith, which is comfortable with faith, and which when necessary, is prepared to speak out about issues of faith.

The first claim, about the "resilience of religion," is important and worth quoting. But the second -- that the government must not only recognize this but "speak out about" it, will make many Americans uneasy. Because it is one thing to acknowledge religious communities, and even to work deliberately with them for the common good; it is another to dictate to them, exploit them, or -- in a worst case scenario -- to offer them special privileges.

The most pressing danger, in this speech, was exploitation. Warsi promotes an idea called "the Big Society," which aims to "build a culture where we don't just look to government to solve all our big problems." Indeed, Warsi says that her team wants to give faith groups and other volunteer organizations "the chance to do even more good." Uh-oh. Any American can see where this is going -- toward Bush Sr.'s "Thousand Points of Light" or Bush Jr.'s "Faith Based Initiatives." It goes, in other words, toward the familiar effort of a government to pinch pennies by farming out to churches the onerous tasks of caring for the poor and otherwise needful. The fundamental idea may have some merit -- partnership between church and state can be very powerful -- but in practice it rarely works well. The government never ponies up enough cash, and only a few religious organizations have the skill and accountability to do the job. (There is also the difficult question of favoritism and accountability. Elected governments feel, at least in theory, an obligation to the entire electorate; faith communities, especially marginal ones, often work very hard to serve "their own people" first. Pastors hate this, but we see it all the time.)

Her speech to the bishops apparently provoked readers of The New Humanist magazine to call her the fifth-most dangerous enemy of reason, just after Prince Charles and before Terry Jones.

It is the Stamberg lecture which has received the most press. One might not think that a protest against anti-religious bigotry would offend many people, except for course for anti-religious bigots. And, honestly, much of the speech had us pumping our fist and crying "Here, here." She argues, for example, that "faith and reason go hand in hand," and cites both the Prologue to John and Benedict VXI's speech at a mosque to support her case. Her argument against facile caricatures of religious believers will be familiar to any one. And in her comments on the evil of religious extremism, she quotes, at some length, from The West Wing's Jedediah Bartlett, who after all these years is still our personal president. Her final call for an end to "religious illiteracy" is far too brief, but it is important if Britain is to become, as she suggests, "a more open, inclusive and, frankly, a more grown-up society."

Hard to argue with any of that. And yet, Warsi has been accused of, for example, of placing religion -- and especially Islam -- "beyond critical debate." The idea is that her case against bigotry is also a case against voicing any criticism of a religion or its faithful. Frankly, we didn't see that in her speeches, but we aren't party to the whole discussion in Britain, and therefore to any political nuance. In our experience, there certainly is a kind of political-arena "call for respect" which includes a call for relaxed scrutiny -- whether of a a racial or ethnic group, a religious community, or of people who share an unpopular hobby or predilection. And obviously, in a an open and grown-up society, nothing is beyond reasonable and peaceable. debate.

The speeches aren't especially well-written. Churchill's ghost has nothing to fear. But they are timely and interesting, and they mark Lady Warsi as figure worth paying attention to in years to come. They also raise, as a side issue, a question for Americans: who is the highest-ranking Muslim in our own government? (Besides the president, obviously.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Second Favorite Fake Priest

... is Father Arthur Scott, S.J. He is a curious little fellow, with large ears and poor attention span, who drives a cherry-red Cadillac and likes to donate rare works of art to museums. Donate, mind you -- at no cost, in memory of his beloved parents. The only catch is this: both Father Scott and the art are completely bogus.

His real name is Mark Augustus Landis, and he has spent years on what the Financial Times calls "the longest, strangest forgery spree the American art world has ever known."

The story, by John Gapper, is absolutely fascinating. Briefly, Landis is the well-educated son of a Navy officer, who wants to honor his parents by making donations in their name. He doesn't have the money to buy and then donate genuine works of art, so he fakes them instead. It seems likely that he suffers from some sort of impairment, whether psychological (schizophrenia, BPD) or neurological (Asperger's). And, obviously, he's got nimble fingers and a good eye.

The museum people, and the FBI, are angry about him, and would like him to stop. He's wasting their time and such money as they may choose to lavish on him, after all. The problem, from their perspective, is that the legal definition of fraud seems to require that he try to sell them something, which he doesn't.

We at the Egg feel that the curators and Special Agents are missing the point. Landis is an artist, and of the most exciting kind -- an outsider in the purest sense, a monomaniac possessed by a vision which he will spend his life trying to make real, and from which he cannot possibly be dissuaded. His medium isn't painting, exactly, so much as the place where painting and performance come together. Or memory and imagination, if you like. Even hope and ambition. That his vision has a classical Trickster element to it hardly separates him from other artists -- does anybody remember J. S. Boggs?

Frankly, we'd like to own a few pieces of Landis-art. And if we were a museum curator, and he offered us some, we would take it in a heartbeat, and buy or borrow as much more as we could get from our colleagues elsewhere. Then we'd mount an exhibition, publish a book, and make a name for ourselves. And for Landis. And for his parents. And for Father Scott.

As for our favorite fake priest, well, we'll get to him next.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"A Miserable Goddamn Kid"

That was Jack LaLanne's self-description, when he looked back on a childhood of eating bad food and getting fat. He might as well have said "I once was blind," or "unworthy to be called an apostle." His story was one of those Damascus Road jobs. (According to Jack, at least; GR's Brad Greenberg knows better.)

When Jack LaLanne died, a couple of days ago, it struck a strange chord for us. We wouldn't have thought we cared all that much, but we sorta did.

In 1967, Father A.'s parents won a television in a church raffle. Or some kind of raffle; anyway, they didn't pay for it, because they had no money. But there it was, sitting in Mom & Dad's room: a big, white television set. The kind that also had a built-in radio, just in case the whole TV thing didn't take off.

Living in a remote area, reception was iffy. So while the little Father no doubt wanted to watch Archbishop Sheen -- Uncle Fultie, as he's called around the rectory -- he actually wound up with a more eclectic viewing schedule. If memory serves, The Cisco Kid was rerun Sunday mornings, a guy named Mr. Goober showed cartoons on weekday afternoons, if the wind was blowing west from Hartford. During the day, we hung with Barnabas and Quentin Collins, and on weeknights, we fell in love -- permanently and to this very day -- with Samantha Stevens

But weekdays mornings belonged to Romper Room, which so far as we can recall was a cinema verite drama about life in a nursery school. And right after Miss Lisa came some old guy in a jumpsuit, telling ladies to lift their legs.

"Old," mind you, meant anybody over ten, and we figured this guy was about the same age as our parents. In fact, he was more twice their age. And he cold have bench-pressed both of them. For that matter, we expect Jack LaLanne could have bench pressed a couple of adults well into his eighties or nineties -- and he would have, given half a chance. The man loved a good stunt.

LaLanne was one of the great bodybuilder/entrepreneurs, with a place in the pantheon somewhere between Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actually, probably ahead of either one. For the generations who have grown up thinking of him as the guy selling his juice machine on an informercial, it is easy to forget what he was really about. (Gizmodo has a good retrospective here). During his entire 96-year-long life, he was a vocal champion of rigorous exercise and good nutrition.

It is also easy to forget just how buff LaLanne was in his prime:

(For those who think this blog doesn't have enough about sex, click here for some nude poses, including full frontal. Apparently, LaLanne was later embarrassed, and tried to have these taken out of circulation. Harumph. If we had ever for one day of our life looked like that, the picture would be on the masthead of this blog.)

Now, on one hand, our aged Grandmother is also 96, and she has never lifted a dumbbell in her life, much less towed boats full of wood pulp or done 1000 pushups. (Well, never to our knowledge -- Gammer is a Presbyterian, and she doesn't like to brag.) So it is possible that bodybuilding per se has less to do with longevity than regular clean living.

Still. We're staring 50 in its ugly face. Our belt is a little tight these days, our joints ache more than they should. We wonder what it would take to celebrate the half-century mark swimming through to Alcatraz, pulling an oil tanker with our teeth? Probably not going to happen for us, but ... it did for Jack LaLanne.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is That a Sex Book?

We mentioned Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 the other day. Now it's confession time: we've never actually read the thing. So much for our geek cred.

But years ago -- in grade school, so pushing forty years ago -- we read another science fiction story, one short passage of which has stuck in our brains ever since, as a sign of the sort of world that right-thinking book-burners will eventually give us.

We forget the details, but some guy wakes up from a long Van Winkle-style sleep, and goes to the library. Why does he go to the library, when he could be checking on his investments? We have no idea. Maybe to look for some old friends. And this scene ensues:
"What was that name again?"
"Edgar Allen Poe."
"There is no such author listed in our files."
"Will you please check?"
She checked. "Oh, yes. There's a red mark on the file card. He was one of the authors in the Great Burning of 2265."
"How ignorant of me."
"That's all right," she said. "Have you heard much of him?"
"He had some interesting barbarian ideas on death," said Lantry.
"Horrible ones," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Ghastly."
"Yes. Ghastly. Abominable, in fact. Good thing he was burned. Unclean. By the way, do you have any of Lovecraft?"
"Is that a sex book?"
Even as a child, we cherished the dark humor of those last two sentences, and over time we longed to read them again. But we had forgotten the rest. Who wrote that scene? In what story? Where could we find it again? We assumed that we would never know. But thanks to the WonderNet of Possibilities, we have found the excerpt posted on this guy's blog.

"Pillar of Fire." By -- we should have guessed -- Ray Bradbury. The man is a prophet.

Speaking of the Dark Ages

Seymour Hersh is a great journalist. From My Lai to Iraq, he has broken some of the biggest stories ever reported about the American military. He has spent decades building up what seems to be an enormous network of sources in the military and intelligence services. That is all the more surprising since, if we had to attribute a bias to Seymour Hersh, we would unhesitatingly call it a liberal one. Still, a great journalist and a servant of the free society.

Who, at the moment, seems just a little kooky.

Speaking in Qatar this week, Hersh delivered what Foreign Policy calls "a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe ... expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy."

Nothing particularly kooky there. A lot of people (although not at the Egg!) are less than enthusiastic about the president these days. But here's the kooky part. He said that, both in the Cheney era and today, the wars in Asia have been conceived (on the part of American policy makers) in explicitly religious terms:

"We're gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That's an attitude that pervades, I'm here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command."

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal ... and his [JSOC] successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta." ....

"Many of them are members of Opus Dei," Hersh continued. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

First off, if that's true, they're incompetent. Because in the chaos created by our invasions, the Christian populations of central Asia have been pounded savagely. Far from protecting them, our troops have put them in significantly greater danger, and in Iraq may well have assured their eventual extirpation. Second, and needless to say, the Pentagon denies it all. And they sound pretty credible doing it, which is more than Hersh can say.

Now, there is some stuff that isn't kooky at all. When Hersh talks about a military in which religion is used as a tool for motivating the troops, he is on to something we have heard elsewhere, and often. Hersch goes on to say this:
"They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins," he continued. "They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”"
We don't know whether it is true, but it does match up with other things we have seen. In case it needs saying, this is -- if true -- a bad thing for many reasons, ranging from military strategy to the First Amendment.

But. The Knights of Malta? Opus Dei? This is the stuff of conspiracy nuts, the same people who put on tin-foil hats to block the CIA transmission through their fillings. The actual Knights Hospitallers of St. John etc. are a charitable organization, and Opus Dei, while certainly sinister enough if one is a liberal Roman Catholic still nursing the dream of a new John XXIII, isn't that kind of sinister. (And of course, they've been a huge boon to the small guild of craftsmen making hair shirts. Joking.)

In fact, so far as we can tell, the religious wing-nut contingent in the US armed forces is largely run by neo-Protestant fundamentalists. (Here, here, here, here, for starters.) It is vocal and aggressive, but not especially well-organized. Less a conspiracy than a movement -- although a very wicked movement indeed.

But please do note our qualifiers here: If. So far as we can tell. The fact is that Hersh does not sound credible, and has yet to lay out any evidence. We suspect him very strongly of having turned an unfortunate emotional corner, much like the former Lutheran former theologian Bob Benne. But the other fact is that he has been, for many years, a reliable reporter of facts which might otherwise seem unbelievable. So let's see if he's got some now.

The Incredible Shrinking Dark Ages

Nothing in my many years of reading about the Middle Ages had led me to suspect that the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day.

Nor was his science just a sidelight. According to a chronicler who knew him, he rose from humble beginnings to the highest office in the Christian Church “on account of his scientific knowledge.”

To my mind, scientific knowledge and medieval Christianity had nothing in common. I was wrong.

This is from a fascinating Religion Dispatches interview with Nancy Marie Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, a biography of Gerbert d'Aurillac (c. 946-1003), who reigned as Pope Sylvester II.

As regular readers know, we at the Egg are fascinated and impressed by the importance which traditional Christianity attaches to the systematic study of the natural world -- in other words, to science. You know: churches as solar observatories, Galileo on the pope's payroll, that sort of stuff. As we have often pointed out, the existence of the Vatican Observatory is an anomaly only to those who don't really get what Christianity was about before the rise of Fundamentalism.

Brown is a science writer with an interest in the Middle Ages, and even she was surprised by the extent of Sylvester's scientific interest. A Frenchman sent for advanced training in Barecelona, and therefore exposed to the wonders of Islamic science, he

... was the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero. He devised an abacus, or counting board, that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. ...

Like a modern scientist, Gerbert questioned authority. He experimented. To learn which of two rules best calculated the area of an equilateral triangle, he cut out square inches of parchment and measured the triangle with them. To learn why organ pipes do not behave acoustically like strings, he built models and devised an equation. ...

Gerbert made sighting tubes to observe the stars and constructed globes on which their positions were recorded relative to lines of celestial longitude and latitude. He (or more likely his best student) wrote a book on the astrolabe, an instrument for telling time and making measurements by the sun or stars. You could even use it to calculate the circumference of the earth, which Gerbert and his peers knew very well was not flat like a disc but round as an apple.

Sylvester sounds remarkable, and Brown's enthusiasm for him seeps through the interview. Even if you plan to buy the book tomorrow, though, read the interview, if only for her fascinating description of what it takes to look at a rare manuscript in a French library.

Here, though, is what all this has us thinking about: the "Dark Ages."

Anybody who reads history knows that this term is unpopular and misleading. (Regine Pernoud's book on on why this is so, published in 1977, remains in print and is especially popular with religious conservatives.) But the term lingers in the popular imagination, and not without some cause. After the eclipse of Roman power, the societies of Western Europe certainly did have a rough time of it compared to, say, Byzantium and the Caliphate. For beautifully-imagined description of how this may have felt, read Iain Pears's Dream of Scipio.

When Fr. Anonymous was a boy, his sixth-grade textbook still spoke of the entire period between about A.D. 500 and 1400 as the Dark Ages, teaching us tots that all was ignorance and barbarism until the Renaissance. We quickly learned that this was nonsense; history is full of little "renaissances," like those of Charlemagne and especially of the 12th Century. For a long time now, we have seen historiography divide the period into "Low" and "High" Middle Ages, with the pretty clear implication that the "High" Middle Ages -- basically, starting in the 11th century -- were the period of the glorious Gothic churches, the advent of Aristotle upon the Christian world, and polyphony. In contrast, the "Low" Middle Ages were, umm, still pretty dark.

Sylvester's story confuses the picture a good deal. Consider this:

Pope Sergius IV, who had been Gerbert’s papal librarian, wrote his epitaph [posted at St. John Lateran]. It reads, in part: “The emperor, Otto III, to whom he was always faithful and devoted, loved him greatly and offered him this church of Rome. They illuminated their time, emperor and pope, by the brilliance of their wisdom. The century rejoiced.” Upon Gerbert’s death, Sergius said, “the world was darkened and peace disappeared.”

How prophetic those words, written in 1009, now sound. Less than a hundred years later, a pope would launch the first Crusade, and The Scientist Pope would be branded a sorcerer and devil-worshipper for having taught the science that had come into Christian Europe from Islamic Spain.

"The world was darkened." That says a lot, dunnit? One of the great scientists of the tenth century was branded as a sorcerer in the 11th -- and, by the way, the brand stuck; only recently has Sylvester's reputation begun to recover.

In the same way, we have sometimes observed, the Renaissance gets a free pass. Witch-hunting, for example, was not (as some people still imagine) a product of the early medieval era; it began slowly in the 1300s and reached its fever pitch during the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, during the Reformation, and among Protestants as much as Papists.

So when were the really dark ages? We suppose it depends upon definition. But the era of the Crusades, especially the period from 1202 forward, look pretty damn dark. So, much as we hate to admit it, the Reformation -- at least when considered as a run-up to the Thirty Years' War. For that matter, the brutalities of the colonial period, which began in the Renaissance and continued until 1960, are dark as a dungeon. Nor do Nazism, Sovietism and the two World Wars look really bright. And, hey, the endless peril of nuclear and biological terrorism is no day at the beach, either.

So, really, we're living in the Dark Ages right now, aren't we?

Yup. That's what sin gets you, friends. All ages are dark, more or less equally so, because we human beings are what we are. But then, all ages are bright and full of new life, too, because God is what God is.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Out, Damned Huck Finn

One of the most persistently banned books in America is now to be released in an expurgated edition. Various words which, quite rightly, offend delicate sensibilities will be replaced with others less likely to offend. The objective of this edition, presided over by a passionate Mark Twain scholar, is to make the book more easily taught in schools.

This isn't an easy matter. The New Jersey Star-Ledger collects some online responses, including this very touching one by "Rose" at Feministing:

I am a product of a school system where Huck Finn was required reading. Having the book read out loud in my 8th grade classroom, where I was the only black person in my grade, was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. Classmates snickered and jeered as the n-word was repeated and repeated, some seemingly reveling in the fact that this exercise gave them the opportunity to use a word that a few of them had used against me.

Worse, the readings didn’t accompany any conversation about how the use of this term complicated the relationship between Jim and Huck.

Nonetheless, delicate though our sensibilities may be, we just can't get behind a bowdlerized Huckleberry, any more than we can a Shakespeare bowdlerized by Bowdler himself. ("Out, crimson spot" indeed!).

Whether or not "all modern literature comes" from this one book -- and it may, but it may not -- there is no question that Huckleberry Finn is among the most important novels of its time, and a critical text in the work of one of the few essential American writers. And it is, as Hemingway understood perfectly well, modern. It is not a work which comes from the dim mists of prehistory, laden with the prejudices of its time, which must simply be forgiven in order to appreciate its beauties.

On the contrary: the central beauty of Huckleberry Finn is its readiness to offend. It offends the racial assumptions of Americans, both Southern and Northern. And it uses offensive language to do that, sharpening the point in order to drive it home. This, for the most part, is why people get upset about it these days.

But even beyond race, it offends the easy Victorian sentimentalization of family -- Huck's father is a violent drunk, remember? It offends anybody who wants literature to be "nice," and it offends in particular anybody who makes the mistake of considering Huckleberry Finn as "children's literature." At one time or another, most of us are fooled by the fact that Huckleberry Finn includes characters borrowed from Tom Sawyer. But then we read a few chapters, and figure it out: this book is no more intended for children than Moby Dick or The Turn of the Screw. (The author himself made this point, and was much funnier than we will ever be.)

The pedagogical solution, then, is not to dumb the book down for the use of our wee widdle kiddie-widdies. The solution is to teach the book to adults. And, if a child does happen to stumble over it -- not in the classroom, from which it is exiled, but perhaps in the musty stack of paperbacks at a yard sale, alongside Macbeth and Billy Budd and Fahrenheit 451 -- snatch it from the little brat's hands at once, and lock it away until she is old enough to drink, smoke and vote.

Bonhoeffer's Conservatism

Bottom line: plotting to kill a Fascist doesn't make you a liberal, and there's no particular reason to think it should.

This is the easiest takeaway from Alan Wolfe's very readable TNR review essay of the book by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. The book sounds interesting enough, although Pastor Joelle points us toward this Christian Century review, which accuses Metaxas both of unremarkable scholarship and, more important, of "hijacking" Bonhoeffer, enlisting him as a foot soldier in the cultural combat of our own time.

Wolfe, however, likes Metaxas' version of Bonhoeffer, and not without cause. Because Bonhoeffer's story is so dramatic -- he would have been a hero even without his participation in the assassination scheme -- it is easy to speak of him in terms that are glowing but perhaps imprecise. Like other heroes, and especially religious ones, his appeal is greatly broadened if the specificity of his witness is understated. (Many people find St. Francis is easier to deal with when they imagine him attempting to convert the fuzzy animals rather than the Muslims, for example). Wolfe's essay pulls in the other direction.

Consider Bonhoeffer's remark about about Christianity in America, and at New York's Union Theological Seminary in particular:
[T[here is no theology here.... They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.
Ouch! Or on his preference for the then-fundamentalist Broadway Presbyterian over the iconically liberal Riverside:
[Broadway Pres] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal.
Double ouch! Despite this, he accepted a job at Union, which was offered at Richard Niebuhr's insistence as a way to keep the brilliant young theologian out of a concentration camp. Here is his expression of gratitude, in a theological evaluation of Niebuhr:
“No thinking in the light of the Bible here,” he wrote in his diary during his second visit to Union.
Triple ouch!

Wolfe's point is that Bonhoeffer was not an American-style theologian, torn between fundamentalism and liberalism, but rather one deeply rooted in the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. (Wolfe doesn't mention the Confessions per se, but it is worth remembering that the Ethics has a separate index to citations from the Book of Concord.) He goes on to describe the Confessing Church in terms of the [complicated and difficult, but essentially medieval] Lutheran teaching about church and state:
Like any good Lutheran, Bonhoeffer believed that states were necessary to secure conditions of social order. ...

... Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions left no place for pluralism. He was anything but a believer in the separation of church and state, or in the need for the state to be neutral between religions, let alone between religion and non-religion. The church should be allied with the state but it had to be the right church and the right state.
This is all useful, especially for anybody who is tempted to claim Bonhoeffer for the causes of liberalism, relativism or pluralism. For all the pre-post-modern profundity of his writing from prison, he was not so far from his grounding in the very pre-modern traditions of Lutheran theology.

(Come to think of it, a splendid essay -- or book, or dissertation -- could be written upon Lutheranism and its difficult relationship with the "modern" intellectual world. On one hand, it was Lutherans who created a great deal of it. Try to imagine the historical-critical school of Biblical studies without the contribution of Lutherans from Johann Semler to Adolph von Harnack to Rudolph Oh-Must-We Bultmann, or the evolution of modern religious philosophy without Kierkegaard, Hegel, Kant and even Rudolph Otto. And the list, of course, goes on. On the other hand, though these thinkers continue to cast a long shadow over Western culture, they are largely dismissed by regular churchgoing Lutherans, in preference to our various lesser-known Pietistic and Evangelical Catholic heroes. We'll see your Nicolai Grundtvig and raise you a George Lindbeck. Perhaps it is our imagination, but it seems that the Reformed and even Anglican churches live more easily with their Enlightenment legacy. Readers, any opinion?)

Anyway, Wolfe attempts to go deeper than his meditation upon Bonhoeffer's Biblicism and Lutheranism, and to propose that although these things may have shaped Bonhoeffer personally, they were not essential to the anti-Nazi resistance. He seems to be pushing toward that great Enlightenment goal, the privatization of religious faith, and its exclusion from the realm of civil discourse. Here he is less convincing; indeed, he seems to be making a point about Bonhoeffer that Bonhoeffer would have rejected vehemently. One of the first comments on his essay observes that he treats the White Rose rebels as secular, when they were largely motivated by religion.

Still, it's a provocative read. Check it out, if you haven't already wasted too much time on the Internet today.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Small Is Beautiful

The Rev. Keith Newton, formerly an Anglican bishop, now a Roman Catholic priest and the first Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, held a press conference the other day, transcribed by The Anglo-Catholic here and here. It's worth a read.

One funny bit, both peculiar-funny and ha-ha-funny, occurs when Newton is asked about the particular charism of the Ordinariate. What, in other words, will make it distinct from Latin Catholicism of the Roman Rite?

Obviously, he doesn't have many traditional markers of Anglican identity upon which to fall back. There will be no 39 Articles; there will be no legal establishment, or royal chaplaincies. So one naturally expects an answer which goes immediately to the customary favorite marker, a liturgical tradition extending from Sarum to Cranmer to ... well, best not to think where that sentence ends. And Newton does indeed address the matter of liturgy, somewhat obtusely:
I’m very honest: I am not a liturgist. My colleague Andrew Burnham is a liturgist and he is looking with others around the world at what an Anglican liturgy might be for the Ordinariate. ... But we need something that will be acceptable throughout the world. In England it will be used by some but not certainly by everyone in England — not, at least, for the Eucharistic rite. Some of the priests in the Anglo-Catholic world and who will join the Ordinariate already use the Roman Rite and will continue to do so.
Well. That clears things up, dunnit?

But in fact, what he seems to fall back on as the distinctive characteristic of the Ordinariate is "mission," which is funny enough by itself. By mission, though, he seems to mean pastoral care:
I suppose it will be a very English form of Catholicism. It might have a particular way of getting into the communities that perhaps Catholic priests have not had. ... We have an attitude to the wider community, an attitude to mission that we bring. It's not that the Catholic Church has not wanted to do this, but by nature of its numbers its impossible. It’s very different if you’re ministering to a congregation of 50, 60, 70 or ministering to a congregation like the one where I worshipped recently, where the normal Mass attendance is 1200 on a Sunday.
Umm. Wait a second. Did he just say, translated into American, something like, "Our churches will be special because they will be so small"? And because we're all accustomed to small churches? Talk about making a virtue of necessity!

Teasing aside, however, we have to give Newton credit here. He is in fact onto something. In the highly Romanized environment of New York City, we have often observed that Lutheran churches are able to offer both a liturgical style and a theological proclamation that are comprehensible to former Roman Catholics, supplemented by a dramatically more intimate and individualized form of pastoral care. This is purely a matter of numbers; there are a lot of them, and not nearly as many of us. We expect that a Roman Catholic priest in Scandinavia can give his flock a lot of individual attention, too.

Still, the one thing that comes through in this interview is that things are developing fast, and that nothing is especially clear. At point, asked whether he should be called Father or Bishop or Monsignor or something else entirely, Newton may say more than he means when he answers, "I'm not quite sure what I am." But we imagine that life as an Anglican prepared him for that, too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oedipus in Alabama

The early Christians were, as readers surely know, accused of cannibalism, incest, and odium generis humani. The charge of cannibalism came, in all likelihood, from a misunderstanding of the Eucharist; that of incest, from the custom of calling each other "brother" and "sister." The hatred of people in general seems to have been a catchall slur. All the charges, needless to say, were false.

Right? But it does seem that the metaphorical use of family-language among Christians remains somewhat problematic. Consider, if you will, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama.

An hour or so after he was sworn in, Bentley spoke to a church group. He spoke warmly of his plan to be the governor of all Alabamians -- Republican and otherwise, white and otherwise.

But then, unfortunately for himself and perhaps many other people, he kept talking. As the Birmingham News reports:
"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit," Bentley said. ''But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."

Bentley added, "Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
Oops. That may not have come out quite right. You're not my brother. You're not my sister. Or, more bluntly, If you don't share my faith, convert.

Yes, we get what he was -- probably -- trying to say. The governor is a a dermatologist and a Baptist deacon, and he was surely urging the unconverted to turn their hearts toward Christ. Good Baptist deacon kind of sentiment, but not perhaps the sort of thing that the government officials of a secular and pluralistic nation are supposed to say.

Now, we're not suggesting that Alabamians, willing to elect this guy, enjoy Oedipal marriages and Thyestean banquets. (Although, come to think of it, [cue the theme to Deliverance].) Nor even a hatred of humankind in general.

Bentley and his spokeswoman have tried to be clear that "we weren't trying to insult anybody" and Bentley "is the governor of all the people, Christians and non-Christians alike." But we can't help thinking that, for better or, almost certainly, worse, the message has now been sent and received. Christian exclusivists have heard the governor take their side. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists have been put on notice. Despite the governor's disclaimers, he has given them reason to fear that they are second-class citizens, who do not enjoy the fullness of the governor's "brotherhood." It may not be odium, exactly, but it isn't warm fuzziness, either.

While it will be hard, deep in the Bible Belt, to document any chilling effect on the free exercise of religion (or irreligion), this is one more small nail in the coffin of the First Amendment.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

So. Now the Ordinariate is Real.

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsingham,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?

We thought of this old song today, when we came upon a statement from the Holy See's Press Office, announcing the establishment of the first ex-Anglicans club. It "will be known as the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and will be placed under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman." And it even has members!

The press release helpfully reminds us:
For doctrinal reasons the Church does not, in any circumstances, allow the ordination of married men as Bishops.
Well, no surprise there. But it goes on:

However, the Apostolic Constitution does provide, under certain conditions, for the ordination as Catholic priests of former Anglican married clergy. Today at Westminster Cathedral in London, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, ordained to the Catholic priesthood three former Anglican Bishops: Reverend Andrew Burnham, Reverend Keith Newton, and Reverend John Broadhurst.

Also today Pope Benedict XVI has nominated Reverend Keith Newton as the first Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Together with Reverend Burnham and Reverend Broadhurst, Reverend Newton will oversee the catechetical preparation of the first groups of Anglicans in England and Wales who will be received into the Catholic Church together with their pastors at Easter, and to accompany the clergy preparing for ordination to the Catholic priesthood around Pentecost.

Actually, no surprise anywhere. They said they were going to do it, and they did. Nor will we be surprised when a few dozen -- or even a few hundred -- disgruntled CofE priests join up. They've been talking about it long enough, haven't they? The release includes a de rigeur insistence that the ordinariate is entirely consistent with ecumenical dialogue, which is true only if you accept the premise that ... well, it's true. No credibility there, but no surprise, either.

Here are the things that we wonder about, though:
  • The numbers. A few dozen priests, or a few hundred? And a few thousand of the faithful, or many more? We have no way to estimate.
  • The communities. Will we see whole parishes switching en bloc, or just a slow papalist dribble weakening already-challenged parishes?
  • The property. If there are whole communities leaving, will they try to keep their buildings? And will they get away with it? While we rejoice that interchurch relations have, since the 17th century, moved well beyond guns, we expect that lawyers and money may still be involved. We certainly hope so.
What we wonder about most, though, is whether they will be happy -- meaning by "they" both the clergy and the laypeople as individuals, and also the new community they form. Surely, at first, they will be giddy with excitement. There is nothing like separation with a purpose to create group adhesion, or so the sociologists of religion keep saying. But will it last? Will it last long as the pioneering excitement fades? Will it last long as the laity and, especially, the clergy begin to understand that "regular" Roman Catholics -- meaning those who were never Anglican at all -- have a hard time accepting them, or even taking them quite seriously? Will it last into the next generation, of (as we gather) celibate "Anglican" priests?

Maybe not. Here, by the way, is another section of that old and cynical song:

Know that Love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.

His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy:
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.

It could go that way, as the dew fades from the morning rose.

Or maybe it won't. In a few days, as we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we will worship at the Greek Catholic cathedral here in town. They are have been united with Rome since 1700, when an Orthodox metropolitan led his troops over the Ponte Vecchio, metaphorically speaking. They are greatly outnumbered by the Orthodox, as well as by the Latin Catholics, but they are also widely respected. Their laypeople and especially their leaders suffered terribly under Communism, but that didn't stop them from being who they are and doing what they do. Maybe the ordinariate(s) will have a similar experience, ideally with much less suffering.

We can't know, but we are curious.

Diamond in the Rough

Here is another little Latin gem, which in our opinion is still waiting for an English translation.

Peter the Venerable was the Abbott of Cluny from 1122, and from all accounts one heckuva guy. These days, he gets talked about for his interest in studying Islam using its own sources. He was also the friend and counselor of Peter Abelard and Bernard of Cluny, and on occasion Bernard of Clairvaux's fraternal antagonist. There's a swell story about the time that a group of monks was attacked by robbers; Peter pulled out his sword and laid them flat. Personally. (Can your bishop do that?) Under a comparatively gentle rule, he built Cluny form 300 to 10,000 monks. And, yes, he visited Spain, commissioned a Latin version of the Qu'ran, and wrote a refutation of the same.

We stumbled on this Easter hymn today, and were struck at once. The rhyme scheme is practically dizzying -- apparently the monks of Cluny liked that sort of thing. It makes the best possible use of Latin's economy of expression. And those virtues are what make it so difficult to translate; English just doesn't work the same way. Our own feeling is that John Skelton, he of the ultra-terse line, is the only poet who could have done the job. Although Auden might have, too.

Or maybe you, dear Reader. Why not give it a try?

Presented here are the Latin hymn and two English translations. The first, by S.W. Duffield, is more literal; the second, collected by Orby Shipley but apparently not his own work [EDIT:  it seems to be the work of Elizabeth Rundle Charles], is more metrical. They both have their charms, but neither seems to capture the combination of gravity and playfulness that we see in lines like Hinc Creator, ne peccator / Moreretur, moritur.

So we invite Egg readers to waste a few hours of their copious free time on this. Translate, paraphrase, parody if you must. And post any results worth posting. It may be that together we can give this old standard a place in the English canon.

Peter the Venerable
S.W. Duffield
Orby Shipley
Mortis portis fractis, fortis
Fortior vim sustulit;
Et per crucem regem trucem
Infernorum perculit

Lumen clarum tenebrarum
Sedibus resplenduit;
Dum salvare, recreare,
quod creavit, voluit.

Hinc Creator, ne peccator
Moreretur, moritur;
Cuius morte nove sorte
Vita nobis oritur.

Inde Sata victus gemit,
Unde victor nos redemit;
Illud illi fit letale,
quod est homini vitale,
Qui, dum captat, capitur,
Et, dum mactat, moritur.

Sic decenter, sic potenter,
Rex devincens inferos,
Linquens ima die prima,
Rediit ad superos.

Resurrexit, et revexit
Secum Deus hominem,
Reparando quam creando
Dederat originem.

Per Auctoris passionem
Primus redit nunc colonus:
Unde laetus fit hic sonus.
The gates of death are broken through,
The strength of hell is tamed,
And by the holy cross anew
Its cruel king is shamed.

A clearer light has spread its ray
Across the land of gloom
When he who made the primal day
Restores it from the tomb.
For so the true Creator died
That sinners might not die.
And so he has been crucified
That we might rise on high.

For Satan then was beaten back
Where he, our Victor stood ;
And that to him was deathly black
Which was our vital good.
For Satan, capturing, is caught,
And as he strikes he dies.

Thus calmly and with mighty thought
The King defeats his lies,
Arising whence he had been brought.
At once, to seek the skies.

Thus God ascended, and returned
Again to visit man ;
For having made him first, he yearned
To carry out his plan.

To that lost realm our Saviour flew,
The earliest pioneer,
To people Paradise anew
And give our souls good cheer.
Lo! the gates of Death are broken
And the strong Man armed is spoiled
Of his armour which he trusted,
By the stronger Arm despoiled.
Vanquished is the prince of hell,
Smitten by the Cross he fell.

Then the purest Light resplendent
Shone those feats of darkness through,
When, to save whom He created,
God willed to create anew.
That the sinner might not perish,
For him the Creator dies,
By whose death our dark lot changing,
Life again for us doth rise.

Satan groaned, defeated then,
When the Victor ransomed men;
Fatal was to him the strife,
Unto man the source of life;
Captured as he seized his prey,
He is slain as he would slay.

This the King all Hell hath vanquished
Gloriously and mightily;
On the first day leaving Hades,
Victor he returns on high.

Thus God brought man back to Heaven,
When he rose from out the grave,
The pure primal light bestowing,
Which creating first he gave.

By the sufferings of his Maker,
To his perfect Paradise
The first dweller thus returneth --
Wherefore these glad songs arise.

  • Latin: William A. Merrill, ed., Latin Hymns (1917), p. 46.
  • English: Samuel Willoughby Duffield, The Latin Hymn-Writers (NY & London: Funk & Wagnall's, 1899), p. 220.
  • English: Orby Shipley, Lyra Messianica (London, Longman, 1864), p. 291; reprinted from [Elizabeth Ann Rundle,] The Voice of Christian Life in Song.