Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stubborn Things

Do you remember "the reality-based community"?  The phrase, horrible in its resonance, emerged from a press interview with an anonymous member of the Bush administration -- who used it as a slur against those who argued for political and military calculation based on facts, rather than pure ideology.  The phrase came to serve as a bitter example of how arrogance and fantasy were combined in the catastrophic excesses of neo-conservatism.

In the years since, as the world has come to terms with the singular destruction wrought by the Bush years, there has been a modest retreat from the strategy of inventing one's own facts.  Despite the liberal bias attributed to it by Stephen Colbert, reality has come to enjoy a bit more credibility.  Even the former Bushies -- Dick Cheney notably excepted -- have come to take a muted tone, generally expressing some regret for their most delusional decisions.

Well, says former intelligence chief Stephen Cambone, count me out!  According to Wired's Danger Room blog, Cambone, who served from March 2011 forward as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, "shocked" the Aspen Security Forum recently by declaring that, far from an ill-considered foreign adventure sold to the general public and the international diplomatic community alike with a tissue of misdirection, misinformation and outright fabrication, the Iraq invasion was in fact "one of the greatest strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century."

Now, at first we assumed Cambone meant "great" in the strict sense of "large," which the decision certainly was.  It committed a vast military force -- and a vast treasury -- to a vaguely-defined cause.  It created a region-wide political and humanitarian crisis, the latter particularly savage in the way it has endangered and driven into exile so many Assyrian Christians.  However stupid and expensive it may have been, this was indeed a big decision.

But no.  Cambone apparently believes that the Iraq invasion was a brilliant "victory" -- his word -- and is the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.  (We wonder whether anybody asked him about the Islamist undercurrent that has come to shape many of the Arab-sprung nations.)

Whatever.  It's a free country, the guy can say whatever he wants.  We can't imagine that anybody is listening; Danger Room has a list of juicy quotes from Bush and his team describing Iraq as their signal mistake, and warning successors not to repeat it. Still and all, it is sweet to know that even when the captains defect from their cause, a few bold foot-soldiers remain faithful, waving the banner and declaring their eternal opposition to the rule of facts.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

We Know What We Did This Summer

We haven't blogged much lately, and for good reason.  We've been travelling in Italy, enjoying a bit of la dolce vita.  But only a bit, since Italy in July is notoriously hot, and this year is also (like so much of the United States) brutally dry.

Still, Umbria in a summer drought is still Umbria, and that is nothing at which to sneeze.  At the moment, we're sitting at a guesthouse in the hills, typing away while children frolic in the pool, in full expectation of some indescribably wonderful supper.  Umbricelli tartufato?  Quite possibly.  Pork sausage with fennel?  Stewed wild boar, or turkey meatloaf with spinach stuffing?  Wouldn't be the first time this week.

And of course there are churches.

Little Preschooler Anonymous isn't much of a sightseer.  He found Rome utterly without interest.  We've frankly never seen anyone so unmoved by the Piazza San Pietro or the sight of the Colosseum.  Even our most extravagant tales of gladiatorial combat could not move his little heart, or silence his demand for gelato.

But he did like Orvieto, and who can blame him?  We went to Sunday Mass at the duomo, one of the treasures of Italian Gothic.  It was novus ordo, with a modest (unvested, all-female) choir (in the front pew!) and some Protestant hymn -- not so very different from our own Sunday duties, apart from the quantities of incense.  We had forgotten just how remarkable the church itself really is, especially that stunning chapel in the south transept -- Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli, opening up a clear and compelling vision the final judgment, the tortures of the damned and the joys of the elect.

There's a lot of Signorelli heareabouts, and yesterday we saw a special exhibit at the Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia.  It was a stunning effort to put Signorelli on context, showing how he shared ideas with his contemporaries and collaborators.  (The duomo, San Lorenzo, is odd-looking, and managed to leave us a little cold.)

And then today in Spello, as we entered Sant' Andrea, Preschooler A. instinctively doffed his ball-cap in respect.  We considered this a sign of excellent judgment.  Rather than trying to run up the pulpit steps or hide behind the altar -- familiar hijinks in churches foreign and domestic -- he asked to sit together in a pew, and take it all in.  Then he walked carefully through the church and its chapels, admiring the simple altar and crucifix (school of Giotto?) as well as the porcelain depictictions of famous Franciscans over the side altars.  He was especially interested in the cool, austere  and seemingly unused chapel of the Blesssed Sacrament, and in its aumbry.

Santa Maria Maggiore -- in Spello, not the one in Rome! -- interested him a little less. He found the baldacchino curious, but was otherwise content to race through the thing.  We don't really blame him; a lot of Counter-Reformation tat.  But, for reasons we cannot quite fathom and despite the best efforts of both parents, he even raced past the Baglioni Chapel with its magnificent Pinturicchio frescoes.  This makes us wonder whether his judgment is really quite so good as we like to imagine.

Anyway, it's all over soon.  In a day or two, we return to real life -- which is all too real these days, for reasons we'll describe some other time.  We have some difficult days ahead of us, and it is good to be refreshed by pasta, wild boar, and beautiful houses of worship.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Save or Be Saved?

Ross Douthat is, we're told, a Roman Catholic convert.  We are not sure he quite gets his new faith, or any other kind.  Maybe we can offer some tips.

A recent Douthat op-edder in the Times has attracted all sorts of attention.  "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved," he asks.  Basically, he reiterates the old and by now unremarkable claim that "liberal Christianity" has no future -- that it having accepted the notion that it must change or die, it will choose both: to "change, and change, and die."

He picks on the Episcopalians, probably because they are such an easy and colorful target.  (We do the same thing, as often as we can.)  But his point can reasonably be extended to the ELCA and almost all of its full-communion partners; this is the "liberal" side of mainline Protestantism.

Please note the scare-quotes, though.  In a densely-argued post, Stynxno obliterates Douthat on several counts, chief among them the all-too-familiar confusion of political and theological "liberalism."  They are both real things, each with its own confusing history and problems of definition; they are sometimes found together.  But they are quite distinct from one another, and neither depends upon the other.  Failure to separate them makes a muddle of any argument like Douthat's.

For our part, we take issue with this remark:
Today, by contrast [to leaders of the Social Gospel and civil rights movements,] the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
This is unfair, or perhaps ill-informed, on at least three counts.

(1) Unfair to Theological Liberals -- and Conservatives.  Theological liberalism as a movement was well under way by the middle of the 19th century, and shaped the movements Douthat is talking about.  Walter Rauschenbusch's Theology for the Social Gospel begins with (well, includes in Chapter 2) a slam against those stodgy Methodist conservatives who refuse to adapt their Articles of Religion to the times, even though those very articles were adapted from the Anglican ones.  Change or die, he says; re-imagine, he says.

And to be sure, many leaders of the US civil rights movement were moved by their deep and comparatively traditional Christian principles.  But among the intellectuals, those principles were often mediated by the great liberal theologians of the time.  Notably, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dissertation dealt with, and King corresponded with, Paul Tillich.

Let's be frank:  there is a line that runs from Rauschenbusch to Tillich to King to the contemporary forms both of liberal theology and of Christian social vision.  But theirs is not by any means the only form of politically "liberal" churchmanship; Anglo-Catholic Socialism offered a compatible political vision based upon self-consciously conservative, even reactionary, theological principles.

(2) Unfair to Episcopalians.  There is a certain irony in picking on Episcopalians -- among the Protestant churches most zealous about historical study -- for ignoring history.  It is pretty clear that there are a great many things they have determined that they will offer, uncompromisingly, to the world.  These include a vision of Christianity which is normed both by the historic episcopate and by the Creeds, which is shaped by the sacraments, and which is fully realized in the care that believers take for the world around them.

Douthat says that they are "flexible to the point of indifference on dogma," an accusation that Lutherans have often made as well, and one which is absolutely true -- if by "dogma" you mean a vast body of systematic theology accepted by the church as if it were of equal value with Scripture.  But the fact is that, as Anglicans have maintained since the Elizabethan Settlement, the Creeds and prayers contained in the BCP do provide a minimalistic church dogmatic -- minimal, but still more than Jesus himself ever declared.

(3) Unfair to Historic Christianity.  This really burns us up.  In what possible world are the Episcopalians, with their bishops and their creeds, changing "historic Christianity" while the Baptists, with no bishops and no creeds, are preserving it?  In only one world, dear readers:  the world in which "historic Christianity" is not defined by what it has said through creeds, prayers and bishops, but through media spokesmen like Richard Land.

What's really going on here, obviously, is that Ross Douthat, like most of the other "dump on the mainline" crowd, has a very particular vision of what "historic Christianity" is.  In this vision, an authentic Christianity is one which supports and proclaims certain specific values; and the values in question are those which one has personally been told, by one's mother, Sunday School teacher or RCIA mentor, are ancient and unchanging.

The problem is that there are very few such values.  Close historical study shows, over and over again, that Christians have disagreed from the beginning on nearly every possible subject.  Some of these disagreements have been resolved with binding effect -- we don't ask converts to be circumcised, for example.  Others, even those supposedly "resolved" by ecumenical councils, will continue until Jesus comes.  We're thinking here of the really big things -- Arianism, Pelagianism, Monothelitism.  Never mind such petty stuff as who can marry whom or the roles of women in the church, regarding both of which there have been vast differences of practice and little dogmatic decision-making.

Christianity is not, in the final analysis, about values.  It is not about social action, any more than it is about ritual.  Christianity, in its self-understanding, is about the salvation of souls from eternal damnation.  It is about the God who chose to save souls by taking on a body.  It is about the construction on earth of a community which can mediate and interpret this salvation.  Everything else -- rituals, ethics, dogmatic theology -- grows from the fact of salvation and the reality of the community, and everything else is subject to these things.

To identify historic Christianity with one's own political preferences, even when they have been shared by many or even most Christians through history, is a categorical error. A common one, but a grave one.  Christianity is not, and never has been, a political or social movement, much less professed a univocal answer to any political question; it is the community in which the saving power of Christ is manifest, or it is nothing.

In other words, "liberal" Christianity, like any other kind, is not here to be saved.  It is here to proclaim salvation.  In a familiar bit of shorthand, to save.

So, yes, the Episcopal Church, with all its flaws -- which we will be happy to list ourselves, any time -- does offer something that "purely secular liberalism" does not.  In fact, that is all it really offers.  The very lack of dogma about which people like Douthat and us are prone to complain can be seen as a reminder of that fact.  Are you looking for quick and consistent answers to social questions?  Look elsewhere.  Are you looking for the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered?  Then you've come to the right place.

Messing With Our Patroness

Pastor Joelle has posted a nice bit of outrage over at her site.  Apparently, the liturgical geniuses at Augsburg-Fortress now transfer the Lesser Festivals, such as St. Mary Madgalene (22 July) to the following weekday.  Meaning, in practice, that nobody actually celebrates them at all.  The A-F bulletin inserts, which we despise for so many reasons, reflect this change.

Apparently, the argument is that A-F is following the lead of our ecumenical partners.  Maybe so; but if so, then wrongly so.  We'll try to explain.

By the late Middle Ages, the church calendar was a sclerotic mess, so full of saints that one could scarcely find Jesus in it.  Protestant reformers hacked away at the calendar, some with more zeal than others.  Conservatives made fewer deletions, radicals made more; the most extreme radicals had their doubts about Christmas.  Anglicans, in particular, expressed their peculiar both-and charism by issuing several successive calendars, in which Mary Magdalene's status changed.  In 1549, she was a "red-letter day," or major feast, provided with propers.  In 1552, she was gone.  In 1561, she was back as a black-letter day, the rough equivalent of a commemoration.  (The same thing happened, more or less, to  the Transfiguration and Visitation).

Late medieval Roman Catholicism undertook a very long-term review of the saints -- last we heard, the Bollandists were still toiling away in their underground chambers, trying to separate truth from fiction.  But after four hundred years, some of their reformers grew impatient, and so in the 1960s there were some major reforms of the Roman calendar.  The entire system of duplex and semiduplex was discarded in favor of simpler categories.  Under the new system, Mary Magdalene (formerly a duplex, outranking an ordinary Sunday) is ranked as a Memorial which means that her day now never outranks a Sunday.

So, in that sense, the new regime reflects a general trend, with its roots in the Reformation and branches in post-Vatican II liturgics.  It creates a simpler calendar and one in which the flow of the lectionary is less likely to be interrupted by saints' days.  In the mind of the soi-disant Liturgical Movement, it is a very good thing that the tempus per annum at last has its true dignity.  And perhaps, if one's alternative is the incomprehensible mess of the Tridentine categories, this is true.

However, that is not the alternative which faces Lutherans.  Our use of the church calendar has often leaned toward minimalism.  The 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship presented one of the most extensive calendars in American Lutheran history up to that time, and it was still pretty short.*

What's worth noticing, then, is that the LBW, although itself largely shaped by the Liturgical Movement, took a direction directly opposite to that of the Roman Catholic calendrical reforms.  Mary Magdalene, whose name did not appear on the calendar of the Service Book and Hymnal, was placed among the Lesser Festivals, which took precedence over any Sunday for which the color was green.  (Incidentally, the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer places Mary Magdalene among the Major Feasts, which likewise outrank green Sundays).  In other words, from 1978 forward, the observance of Mary Magdalene enjoyed a higher rank in the Lutheran church than in the Roman Catholic church.

This makes perfect sense.  By the late 20th century, Roman Catholic parish liturgy was drowning in saints' days, while Lutheran parish liturgy was starving.  The question is whether, in the years since, Lutherans in the United States have somehow reversed course, and begun drowning as well.  Are there too many saints' days cluttering our summer?  If that is true in your parish, and you have a pastoral vacancy, please call us, because we need to talk.

On the contrary, our observation is that few Lutheran congregations have any real awareness of the sanctoral cycle.  Augustana XX says we "teach that the saints are to be remembered," but in fact this is the exception rather than the rule.  In a cultural moment when worship is largely confined to Sundays, the ability to remember saints in worship, to tell their stories and inspire people with their faith, depends to a large degree upon their presence in the propers for Sunday.  Perhaps not every commemoration -- although we'd be fine with that, honestly -- but certainly the Lesser Festivals, the Biblical saints or as one mentor called them "the people around Jesus."

So don't be bludgeoned into submission by some crypto-papists at the publishing house!*  Come Sunday, toss out your green-accented bulletin inserts and turn to page 34 in the hymnal (or 57 if you must use ELW), then tell the story and inspire the people.

* We're joking.  To lay lay our cards on the table here, we don't really think A-F's explanation about following Rome is honest.  Our gut tells us that what's really going on is that there was an argument between the true calendrical minimalists, who don't want any saints' days at all, and the moderates who do; this was the compromise.  Mind you, "transfer it to Monday" is like "send it to committee," a polite way to kill something off by making sure nobody sees it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Christians Practice Their Faith By Treating One Another Well"

This, as blogger Scott Gunn says, is the sort of headline we are unlikely to see.  Like "Dog Bites Man," it is the unexceptional norm.  We do well to remind ourselves of that, when it so often seems otherwise.

Gunn is writing in response to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, about the recent General Convention of the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA.  The piece, by Jay Akasie, paints an extraordinarily unflattering picture of the convention.  The impression is conveyed, quite directly, of free-spending bishops paying for steaks and whiskey from the diocesan coffers; of a "secretive and authoritarian" presiding bishop who "brazenly" carries a style of cross to which she is not entitled and bankrupts the church with vindictive lawsuits; of a church in utter captivity to political correctness; and of plans afoot to give funerals to dogs, marginalize laypeople, rewrite the Prayer Book and generally drive out "traditionalists."

This is unflattering.  It is also familiar, to anybody who has ever picked up a copy of Forum Letter or Presbyterian Layman, or who has skimmed Virtue Online.  The details vary by denomination, but the general tone is consistent, and has not changed significantly in thirty years or more.  (Although Forum Letter is generally much better-written than this, or was in the years when we still contributed.)

In fact, Akasie's little screed is too familiar to be credible.  Like a third-rate concert pianist, it hits all the customary notes, but one can sense that there is no truth behind it.  And sure enough, at least if Gunn's response is to be believed, there is not.  The cross was carried by her two predecessors; the dogs won't really get funerals; and many dioceses have rules against buying liquor with their money.  Perhaps Akasie is not lying, exactly, so much as he is presenting the most jaundiced view imaginable of the facts, and the least charitable interpretation possible of the intentions of the people and the likely results of the votes.

Gunn was there, so read his post for a corrective.  It may also be helpful to scan the comments after Akasie's piece; several are by other attendees who express polite disagreement, and a few are by very angry sympathizers who express nothing at all politely.

For our part, we were simply mystified by one bit of speculation.  Akasie is unhappy about the push toward a unicameral assembly (for which we ourselves do not much care, by the way).  He is concerned that such an assembly would be dominated by leftist bishops, who despise Thomas Cranmer and seek to defame his memory.  And yet, at the same time, he writes of these dire consequences if laypeople "are further squeezed out of ... [the] legislative process":
A long-standing quest by laymen to celebrate the Eucharist—even taking on functions of ordained ministers to consecrate bread and wine for Holy Communion, which is a favorite cause of the church's left wing—would likely be snuffed out in a unicameral convention in which senior clergy held sway.
Huh?  So the leftist bishops are trying to squeeze out the leftist laypeople?  This sounds improbable.  And in any case, unlikely as lay presidency in the Episcopal Church may be, we would think that self-proclaimed traditionalists would make common cause in a heartbeat with any change of polity designed to prevent it.  (We certainly would.)

On the whole, Akasie's op-ed piece strikes us as poorly written and poorly thought out gibberish, factually dubious and intellectually dishonest.  We are disappointed, although not entirely surprised, that the Journal chose to publish it.

[UPDATE:  GetReligion's George Conger calls this "an egregiously bad article," and calls Akasie out on a lot of the details, including the graf above.  Conger wins the headline trophy, too, by adapting Churchill:  "Rum, Sodomy and the Cash."]

Friday, July 13, 2012

'Grats to the 'Rents

The Egg's Dept. of Felicitation offers its very warmest and most loving tip o' the biretta to friends of the blog Stynxno and Kate the Great, upon the arrival of their firstborn.  We could not be happier for them, and -- having trusted our firstborn into their hands on many occasions -- we are confident that they will be wonderful parents.

Evangelical Atheist Medical Missionaries

There was Father A., his insides packed full of that foul fluid they make you drink, lying on the doctor's     couch in anxious anticipation of his first colonoscopy.  It wasn't a banner day by any means.  Nobody, we expect, relishes the idea of having a camera stuck up his tuchis.  Moreover, a failed sigmoidoscopy some years earlier, performed by a different physician, had been one of the memorably unpleasant medical procedures of Fr. A.'s adult life.

This promised to be a better day.  The environment was tranquil, the doctor seemed calm and undistracted, and -- best of all -- colonoscopies are performed upon fully narcotized patients, a fact which by itself made this day sunnier than that of the infamous Flexible Sig.  Fr. A. calmed his anxieties and tried not to think about the gallon of antifreeze distending his tummy.

Then the anaesthetist sat down, and introduced himself.  "I'm Dr. So-and-So," he said, flipping through the papers on a clipboard.  "And you're Mr. ... Anonymous ... and it says here that you're ... oh, look at this.  A member of the clergy?  Is that right?"


"How interesting," Dr. So-and-So continued.  "I'm an atheist myself."


"I was raised Catholic," he said.  Or maybe Presbyterian, or Methodist; we don't remember, because we didn't care the least little bit.  Our attention was entirely taken up by thoughts of antifreeze and miniature cameras.  So far from prepared for a theological discussion were we then that we could likely not have distinguished between the variata and invariata, much less parsed a Greek verb.  Our god was, for the moment, quite literally in the belly.

So we responded to Dr. S&S's remarks with no more than the merest of polite grunts and murmurs, of the kind meant to show as little interest as possible.  The doctor continued, however, as though we had been rapt with fascination.

He had rejected Christianity, he said, because he was a man of Science; faith had no answers for him; the Scriptures seemed to contradict themselves; believers seemed to him like desperate children -- we're sure there was more but, as he performed his duty, we fell into the blessed respite of unconsciousness.

We awoke with a clear head and a clear intestine; both doctors had done admirable work.  But the memory lingered, of the anaesthetist offering his unsolicited arguments against religion -- witnessing, in evangelical jargon -- to an anxious and incapacitated patient.

This was not an isolated experience.  Not too long before, we had paid several visits to a cardiologist who did the same thing.  He was jolly and well-read and possibly a little bored with his work, but he was also very keen to make sure that we knew just how contemptible he found religion in all its forms, and how laughable he found a belief in God.

Mind you, we do not show up to the doctor's office in a cassock.  Not so much as a cross or WWJD bracelet (the initials, of course, for Wow-Wee it's John Donne).  We don't distribute tracts or recite the Angelus.  All we do is fill in the little space on the forms they give us.  And yet a surprising number of physicians, over the past few years, have seemed to feel that the moment of a medical procedure is just the right time to promote their opposition to Christianity.

It's not, if only for practical reasons -- patients have other things to think about, and wish that their doctors did as well.  The place for religious arguments, if there must be a place, is a cocktail party, or a lecture hall.  Or perhaps one's memoirs.  Or, if they wanted, they could team up with their fellow anti-religionists and spend Saturday ringing doorbells and passing out newsletters.  It seems to work for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Still, this is a sign of the times.  We have reached a point in history when, like Christian missionaries in Africa handing out medicine along with their Bibles, atheist missionaries in America now witness to their unfaith as they distribute medicine.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pinki Pramanik Goes Free

Indian athlete Pinki Pramanik has been released from jail, essentially because she lacks a penis.

The story, which has unfolded over the past few months, is complicated.  Pramanik's live-in lover, a woman, has accused her both of being a man and of committing rape.  She was arrested and allegedly groped by policemen.  She has been subjected to a number of inconclusive medical examinations -- one of which became a viral internet video.  Her treatment by the authorities has become a cause celebre among both fans and advocates for human rights.   Although the chromosome-test results have not yet come in, a judge has now ruled that, although Pramanik's genitalia are "abnormal," she lacks the "male organ" necessary to commit rape as it is defined under Indian law.

Superficially, of course, this may be confusing -- and it is made more so by a certain coyness in the press reports.  Many readers are still accustomed to thinking of maleness and femaleness as straightforward things, easily confirmed by a quick dropping of trousers.  But it seems that Pramanik is what people these days call intersex, meaning that her body doesn't conform to the simple a-or-b format.

This case opens windows onto several different areas in which the acknowledgment that intersex people exist has begun to challenge prevalent customs in society, law and, particularly, sports.

For example, is a "male organ" strictly necessary to commit rape?  What about an inanimate object, of the kind employed in a decidedly loving and non-violent manner by many couples?  (One doubts that Boys Don't Cry was a big hit in India, or that the judge has seen it.)  What, when you come right down to it, constitutes rape?  In this case, the judge ruled that, because the complainant had lived with Pramanik for three years, she had effectively consented to ... whatever happened.  Such a ruling would not withstand scrutiny under most contemporary American laws.

Then there is the question of how the police treat prisoners, and especially prisoners accused of sexual crimes -- and most especially, prisoners who don't conform to the customary sex and gender roles.  To begin with, where are they housed, in jails made to accommodate either men or women?  But beyond that, how are they handled, physically and otherwise?  Pramanik's repeated humiliation reminds us of the way the police routinely violated the rights and dignity of gay people prior to Stonewall (and in many places, long afterward).

And of course, there is the matter of sports.  Most athletic competition is segregated by sex; to do otherwise would give men an enormous advantage, if only by virtue of muscle mass.  Similar logic informs anti-doping rules, of course.  Less well-known is that international authorities also regulate the naturally occurring hormone level of female athletes.  Women who don't conform to the "standard" profile are required to undergo surgery and/or hormone treatments.  Such is the case, for example, of South African runner Caster Semenya, who has female genitalia but, instead of a uterus, was born with undescended testes which, according the The New Yorker, provide her with "three times the amount of testosterone present in the average female."

The more one looks at it, the more complicated it gets.  Is a person's sex determined by external genitalia, by internal organs, by chromosomes or by hormone levels?  Does "sex" even exist upon close inspection, or is it really -- as transgendered writer (and ex-Scientologist) Kate Bornstein says -- all just "gender," a sort of mutually-agreed-upon convention, like grammar?

Meanwhile, Pinki Pramanik's trials have not ended.  The days she was released from jail, the government also brought new accusations against her, having to do with an alleged illegal land deal.  Legitimate charges or continued harassment?  Like so much else, it's hard to tell at a glance.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Byzantium, Slouching

Lest you missed it, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America just kicked out its primate, Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen.  Read about the ugly details here.

Jonah was a former Episcopalian.  He had previously been suspended by his peers, and asked to sumbit to a psychological examination to determine his fitness for office.  At that time, he also admitted that his first three years in office had been "an administrative disaster." 

Mark Silk, writing a column at RNS, places Jonah among those Americans who have converted to Orthodoxy, seeking both "an uber-authentic form" of Christianity (whatever that means) and an ally in the culture wars.  Silk sees Jonah's removal as a response by the "old-timers," whose vision of Orthodoxy is less beholden to American theoconservatism.

Meanwhile, theocon converts to Orthodoxy Terry Mattingly and Rod Dreher are up in arms.  Naturally.  Dreher calls the Holy Synod "a pack of ravening wolves," "dirty, filthy," and so forth.  Also claims they have signed their church's "death warrant."  Mattingly calls Jonah and the converts "the authentic voice" of the OCA, which is likely a hard claim to sustain against "old-timers."

But we really don't know.  Maybe Jonah is the greatest thing since canned beer, and the other bishops are just a bunch of KGB plants.  Stranger things have happened, not least in Orthodoxy.

The Infidel Particle

The Higgs boson, long predicted, seems to have been identified by experiment.  This is enormous news in the world of physics, since it validates the so-called Standard Model of the universe.  The press loves it, because of the name inadvertently given to the thing by a Leon Lederman, when editors rejected the original title proposed for his book, which would have been "The Goddamned Particle."

As an aside, we note the different situations in two neighboring nations, each with a partial claim to Higgs-related glory.

The word "boson" was coined by Paul Dirac, giving credit to the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974), who worked with Einstein and directed the physics program at Dacca University.  The Indian press (here, here, here) has been eager to make sure that we all know this, and just a bit miffed that this Higgs fellow is getting all the press.

Mind you, a Pakistani physicist also deserves some credit, which his homeland prefers to deny him.  Abdus Salam (1926-1996) was one of the two physicists who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, and shared his Nobel prize with Steven Weinberg, the other.  He was an important figure in Pakistani science and government until 1974, when his religious community, the Ahmadi sect, was declared to be heretical, and subjected to intense persecution.  Salam left Pakistan, and could not return safely.  Even after his body was returned for burial, the tombstone -- reading "First Muslim Nobel Laureate" -- was defaced.

Please do note the difference between life, culture and religion in the world's largest democracy, which wants to make sure that one of its heroes gets a place in the world's textbooks, and Pakistan, which has literally had one stricken from its own.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From the Gossip Columns

So let's say there was a mixed marriage in your parish.  A nice little Lutheran girl married, and we're just spitballing here, a Buddhist.  In fact, he was a prominent member of his zendo or sangham or whatever.  Before the wedding, they had agreed that, whatever Mom's personal inclinations, the family would look Buddhist:  Mom would tell people who asked that she was "studying" the sutras, the kids would go to Lama League meetings, and so forth.

Then, like so many couples, the parents broke up.  Mom got custody, Dad got visitation.  And religion, never far from the surface here, became the apple of discord.

Mom had never really gone for non-attachment, and made a beeline for St. Olaf's, looking for her lime jello fix.  But then you discover that her divorce agreement specifies that the kids can't come with her.  No Sunday School for little Luke and Leia; no new acolytes to swing their feet and snap their gum behind you during the sermon.  Mom didn't want them growing up Buddhist, and Dad didn't want them going up Christian, and so the decision was that they would grow up Nothing.  At some point, as they got older, maybe they could be initiated into the various mysteries of their parents' faiths, but not until they were ... ready, as defined by the lawyers and family-court judge.

Family arrangements like this have been common for generations, and not only where there is a divorce.  How many times have you heard, "I'm [Christian], my partner is [Jewish], but we don't teach the kids anything yet.  We'll wait until they're older, and let them make their own decisions."  And how many times have you snapped, "Make their own decisions based on what?  A lifetime's experience of not being told anything about their parents' beliefs?"

Pastorally, we have always believed that children, and frankly the world, will benefit from More rather than Less in the matter or religious experience, at least when what they are given the opportunity to experience people they love and trust living compatibly with different religious commitments.  Peace begins at home, right?

Now, obviously, this pastoral vision falls apart when you are dealing with fiercely sectarian forms of religion, of the kind that feel a need to build up their own community by running down somebody else's.  The world could do with a great deal Less of that.  Ditto the closely-related phenomenon of cults, in the pejorative sense:  closed communities using "religion" as a tool to control the lives of their members.  Much Less of that, please.

All of which brings us, at last, to the story of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  Lawyers being what they are, we may never know what's really going on in that divorce, as it seems we will never know much about Cruise's divorce from Nicole Kidman.  But there has a been a lot of speculation that the religious upbringing of their daughter Suri is an important part of it all.

What we do know is that Holmes has registered with her local Roman Catholic parish, and that according to gossip site TMZ,
The custodial provisions of the agreement are extremely detailed, and religion is one of the topics.  ... [T]here are restrictions on what Tom and Katie can discuss with Suri on the subject of religion, including Scientology, however, those restrictions are eased the older Suri gets.
This is actually better than Nothing, since it at least includes a structured process for teaching the child about her parents' respective religions.

Or at least it would be better than nothing, if Cruise were a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or a Unitarian. The theological problem here, and we suspect it is a very large part of the marital problem, is that Scientology is not one of those ancient, historic religious traditions, which exist in many and diverse forms and about which so much information, scholarly and popular, is available to anybody who is curious.  On the contrary, it is a recently-developed movement notoriously passionate about secrecy and control:  the virtual definition of a cult, in the most pejorative sense.

So Holmes is well out of it, although we suppose she will never be quite free of the movement's litigious clutches.  We regret that there will be legal restrictions on Suri's religious education, and that Christianity will need to be treated pari passu with Scientology.  Still, it could be worse:  mother and daughter could both have stayed in the Hubbardite orbit forever.

And perhaps, in the infinite mercy of the Almighty, Tom Cruise will eventually return to the church of his youth -- or, failing that, start studying the sutras.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Support Mitt Romney!

That, you might think, would be the message the GOP was spreading among its faithful.  Right?  Wouldn't you think they'd build up to November by telling us what great guy Romney is:  devoted family man, business whiz, years of government experience, all that sort of thing.  Sure, they might soft-pedal the whole Massachusetts health-care thing, not to mention the dog on the roof rack, but there are lots of other things they could say about Mitt.  Surely more than just, "He won the primaries, so I guess -- ho, hum -- he's our candidate."

Yeah, you'd think.

Instead, when asked by a Republican voter to "make me fall in love" with Romney, John Boehner's answer was "No," adding "I wasn't elected to play God."  Apparently, it would take God to make the Republican base passionate about their presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch tweeted that unless he ditches all his old-time friends and advisors, Romney can't win, and the Wall Street Journal started picking on Romney for talking about the economy.  And for riding jet-skis, which apparently prove he's rich and out-of-touch.

Obviously, we now live in Freaky Funhouse Mirror World, the place where Sinead O'Connor was elected Pope and John Mason Neale used to tour with the Masonettes.  Does nobody remember Ronald Reagan's Eleventh Commandment?

Fortunately, there is Gawker guest columnist "Mobuto Sese Seko," no Republican by any means, who comes rushing to Mitt's defense, reminding us that plenty of rednecks own jet-skis.  Of course, he then proceeds to destroy both Romney and his Republican critics, in one of the funniest attack screeds we've read in a while.  (Bill Kristol is "avidly wrong about things with a compulsion we usually associate with drug addiction;" Romeny himself is "Chauncey Gardiner in reverse ... a smart man who keeps saying profoundly stupid things.")  Still, at least Mobuto's trying to help out.

Anyway: we'd fully expected that, as the election year heated up, Romney would get slapped around a little.  We just thought it wouldn't be by his own team.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

We're Worth $60,000!

The (D&FMS of the) PECUSA is meeting in its General Convention.  If our Facebook friendships are to be trusted, the sermons have been good, including that of Bishop Schori.  No word on her vestments.

Of particular interest to Egg readers may be Resolution A036, addressing relations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  It reads:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 77th General Convention give thanks for the full communion agreement between The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2011; and be it further
Resolved, That the Church acknowledge that there exist areas of theological divergence that hinder the fullest degree of communion possible; and be it further
Resolved, That the Church commit itself to address those areas that hinder this relationship, including but not limited to the diaconate and lay presidency of the Eucharist; and be it further
Resolved, That the Church invite the ELCA to a new season of bilateral dialogue to discuss and address these matters; and be it further
Resolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $60,000 for the implementation of this resolution.

(An alternative text is a bit different, commending the work of the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee and asking it to "enjoin the areas of of our common life where our ecclesiological practices differ, including lay presidency and our understanding of the role of deacons." We're not quite sure the authors know what "enjoin" means.*)

Well.  And here we thought that full communion was the "fullest degree of communion possible" between two distinct church bodies.

Needless to say, we are well aware that CCM, as finally approved, punted on a couple of questions, these among them.  And, as it happens, we side with our Episcopalian friends on the matter of lay presidency, something that in a rightly-ordered world would be recognized as a contradiction in terms.  As to "the" diaconate, well, they have two, transitional and vocational.  For our part, we have so many that we've lost count (AIMs, diaconal ministers, synodical deacons, parish deacons, whatever other kind of deacons some well-intentioned Lone Ranger wants to invent and "consecrate").  It seems evident that some clear discussion would help both teams, ours rather more.

Still, some Lutherans are likely to be nonplussed reading this.  "The authors," they will say, "have evidently never grasped the considerable price paid by the ELCA, then still a very new body, for its decision to join ranks with the Episcopal Church.  We paid a deeply personal price, as friendships old and new were broken at the highest levels of our church; we paid an institutional price, as the internal dispute laid the groundwork for a future schism; and we paid a theological price, as we traded a permanent exemption from subscription to the Augustana in exchange for a temporary exemption from the Ordinal."

Well, let them say that, if they like.  We certainly won't contradict anybody.  Others will murmur darkly about deck chairs on the Titanic, or the Ottoman Empire waving its arms at Austro-Hungary, circa 1914.  Again, no objection.

 For our part, though, we are simply tickled that the Episcopal Church thinks relations with the ELCA are worth $60,000.  We doubt that, at this point in the history of either ecumenism or stewardship, the feeling is reciprocated.

[UPDATE:  Here's a convention delegate's blog post describing ELCA PB Hanson's remarks, as well as the subsequent amendment and vote on the resolution.  It's all a bit vague, but we gather things could have been worse.]

* "To enjoin," which in modern English has become one more showy legalism, means either (1) to direct with authority, or command, as when the attendance of the faculty is enjoined by the trustees; or else it means (2) to prohibit or forbid.  We assume they are trying to express the latter sense, but -- as a matter of good usage -- enjoin requires a preposition, as in "the judge enjoined him from seeing his children."  (See, for example, Brian Garner's Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.) Speaking of  "areas of common life," it would have been far better to have written "inhibit" or, best of all, "separate" or "disentangle."

Thursday, July 05, 2012


Apparently, the Vatican's Sistine Choir has a reputation for singing less beautifully than one might hope.  In a 2010 blog post, "Pastor in Valle" tells the following story, with its Conradian preamble:

Some twenty years ago, I heard a story in Rome, from an official then high up in the Secretariat of State, which is presumably true. 
General Noriega, the dictator of Panama, having recently fallen from power, famously holed up in the Apostolic Nunciature, claiming sanctuary, or something of the sort. The Nunciature was promptly surrounded by hordes of gum-chewing GIs with guns trained on every window. Their war of attrition was prosecuted by loud American rock music (BAWN in the USA and the like) being directed at the Nunciature round the clock from powerful loudhailer systems.
In insomniacal desperation, the Nuncio contacted the Vatican Secretariat of State, and some high-up there telephoned the US embassy to the Vatican, threatening to send the Sistine Choir to sing under his windows unless the rock music was silenced.
There was tranquillity in Panama within the hour.

A few days ago, Fr. Ray Blake repeated the story, less whimsically, and updated it with some video to suggest that the choir has since improved.  Somewhat.  Click if you'd like to investigate, but we cannot recommend the Tallis.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ad Multos Annos

If the last weekend went as planned (and we trust it did), John Hunwicke has just been ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood.  We congratulate him.

Whatever our doubts about the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, we have great respect for Fr. Hunwicke, and have gained much from reading his blog.  When his ordination was deferred, we were shocked and saddened on his behalf.  It relieves us that whichever authorities over see such things have set things right.

Summer Superheroes, Part 2: Merrily Watkins

Maybe you don't like adrenaline.  Or maybe, instead of ruthless killing machines, you prefer to read about thoughtful, reflective people struggling to cope with family, friendship and faith; say, about a widowed Anglican priest, trying to raise her daughter and tend to the needs of a small and difficult rural parish, all while holding onto some vague semblance of a love life.

Oh, and casting out demons.  Did we forget the demons?

If this sounds good, we recommend the adventures of the Rev. Merrily Watkins.  She is the rector of a church near the Welsh border, and her life as mother, lover, priest and diocesan exorcist (or "Deliverance Consultant") has unfolded in eight long novels by Phil Rickman.  They are truly remarkable, and we'll try to explain why.

First, they are mystery novels.  Most involve crime and police investigations, to which Merrily often becomes a party.  The cover blurb on one calls Rickman "the best English crime writer in the genre today," and we wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that were true.

But Rickman is far more than just a crime writer.  His earliest novels were supernatural thrillers -- ghosts and psychics and whatnot.  Merrily's work as an exorcist allows Rickman plenty of room to work with those subjects as well, as well as more conventional matters of faith, doubt and spirituality.  Indeed, there are quite a number of characters, most of them rock musicians, who figure prominently in both the supernatural thrillers and the crime novels. So he crosses genres easily.

Indeed, these books participate in a third genre, one less well known than the mystery or horror.  They are "priest novels," part of an odd lot that includes everything from Barsetshire to Middlemarch, from J.F. Powers' wry solemnities to Susan Howatch's theological bodice-rippers.  In this company, Rickman is far from the least distinguished practitioner.

Above all, though, Rickman is a writer, and a serious one; genre, one suspects, is just a way to get paid for writing the stories he cares about.  These are about the imaginary community he has built up in the west of England, with its priests and policemen, its crusty old ditch-diggers and wealthy Londoners seeking a rustic fantasy, its folklore and its economic struggles.  Egg readers will be able to confirm that Merrily's parish, Ledwardine, is led by entirely credible laypeople:  the blowhard with a sense of entitlement, the know-it-all attorney, the backstabbing weasels and the  loyal salt of the earth.  Its struggles -- shall we put a cell tower in our steeple? -- are familiar, as is Merrily's own constant sense of being evaluated by the people, torn between her desire to make herself acceptable and her commitment to do what is right.  Her daughter Jane is probably the best-realized PK in all of literature.

That said, though, make no mistake:  these books are thrilling.  In places, they can be scary as hell.  They may not move with the rattling pace of a Jack Reacher novel (what does?), but they offer rewards that are deeper and more satisfying.  They can make you think, feel and shudder, all for characters who seem as real as the ones around you.

Sadly, the Merrily Watkins novels can be hard to find in American bookstores.  We suggest ordering them online.

Summer Superheroes, Part 1: Jack Reacher

If you're heading to the beach this summer, and aren't sure which paperback to bring, let us make a suggestion:  any of Lee Child's novels about Jack Reacher.

Briefly, Jack Reacher is an ex-MP who, since mustering out, hitchhikes around America using his distinctive skills to fight injustice and defend the oppressed.  The skills in question include a razor-sharp  intellect, years of experience with an elite police unit, and a startling capacity for violence in all its forms.

Reacher himself is every man's midlife-crisis fantasy:  immensely large and strong, blithely confident of his own ability to solve every problem, and unencumbered by family or possessions -- forget the mortgage; Reacher has no credit card or bank account, and routinely wears one suit of clothes until they fall apart, then throws them in the trash to buy more.  He has a few modest shortcomings,  such as a big man's fear of enclosed places and a little confusion behind the wheel of civilian autos, but these just remind us of how big he is and of how he has been shaped by a life as a warrior.

The books combine elements of straight-up action with hard-boiled detection; Reacher is a compelling mixture of James Bond (or, maybe better, a Tom Clancy hero) and Philip Marlowe.  Like Marlowe, incidentally, he is the creation of a British author -- and like Raymond Chandler, Lee Child has created a character who seems intrinsically American.

And, like the best hard-boiled writers, Child has mastered a sort of surreal tough-guy tone, in which both Reacher and his antagonists are able to come up with clever, intimidating trash talk on the spur of the moment.   Our favorite example, quoted from memory, is a scene where Reacher is menaced by two burly ex-football players, now working as enforcers for a bad guy.  Warning them off, he says something like, "Look, guys.  I spent thirteen years in the Amry, learning to kill people.  You spent four years in college, learning to play a game.  So how scared are you now?"  (Regrettably, they aren't scared enough, and he cripples them both.)

Child's prose is unremarkable on its face.  It seems plain and workmanlike.  (He has a peculiar fascination with the physics of violence, and spends an arguably inordinate amount of time describing the momentum, spin and trajectory of a punch from Reacher's turkey-sized fists, or of a bullet or a thrown rock.)  And yet this plainness is coupled to an astonishing gift for creating suspense and moving a plot forward, so that the Reacher books are as thrilling any any thrillers we have ever read.  Honestly, we should keep a doctor standing by when we read them, to monitor our surging adrenaline.

For what they are, these books are incredibly good.  Our only complaint is that, for a huge muscular guy with a keen intellect and good relations with women, Reacher has comparatively little sex.  This actually seems odd, but we take it to be a reflection of the pop-fiction marketplace, in which lovemaking is more fraught with commercial danger than murder and mayhem.

Those among our readers whose vacation reading is more likely to be George Lindbeck or Joseph Addison may be unfamiliar with Reacher.  This is unfortunate, but easily remedied -- the books have been enormous bestsellers, and are available easily in airports all over the world.

However, we do ask that newbies resist one temptation, which will be to make Reacher's acquaintance via the forthcoming movie, One Shot.  Oh, it may be a fine picture, for all we know, and as true to the spirit of the books as a movie can get.  But it stars Tom Cruise, and this practically demands that the character be changed in ways that really matter.

Don't get us wrong; Tom Cruise may have some odd religious views, but we think highly of his acting.  For every piece of unwatchable junk (Mission Impossible 3:  Ghost Protocol may actually be the worst film ever made) he has done something ambitious or even remarkable (Rain Man, Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July).  But Cruise is small and pretty, two things that Reacher cannot be and remain Reacher.  He may be able to make us believe his fists are deadly weapons, but they are Cornish game hens, rather than butterball turkeys.

A trailer floating around on the net (watch it here in Russian, with wry commentary) shows Cruise in a classic Reacher situation, taking on an entire gang of ruffians.  He looks grim enough, but lacks the sense of overwhelming superiority that Reacher brings to these encounters -- he's a scrapper, not a brute.

We're not knocking the picture, which we fully intend to watch.  Just read the books first.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Whither the Seminaries?

Egg-reader and master photographer Mark Christianson offers some thoughtful reflections on the ELCA's budgetary priorities, and especially on how much (or little) it apportions for seminary support.  This well worth a read, and some sober reflection.

He also suggests closing and/or merging several of the ELCA's eight seminaries.  The idea is hardly new; we've heard variations of it for years.  The reason it has not taken place already is that each of the seminaries has its own constituency, militant in support of its particular history and minutely-nuanced variation on the common mission of all seminaries.  Fair enough.

But let's be frank.  Eventually, seminary closure is going to happen on its own, most likely through catastrophic failure.  Worse yet, it will happen slowly, as individual institutions wither away.  Some readers may recall the cautionary tale of the Hartwick Seminary, which helped to divide and embitter the New York Ministerium for several generations.

The real question, then, is whether the eventual closure of some seminaries will be directed deliberately, or left to chance.  This is, not incidentally, the question that faces many other church institutions, not least individual congregations.

At least in the case of seminaries, an argument can be made either way.

There is obvious logic to a denomination-wide master plan, such -- for example -- as one which would leave the ELCA with seminaries distributed geographically -- one east, one west, one north-central, one south-central.  (Since there is nothing fitting that last description, such a strategy actually involves the expansion of an existing extension program in Texas to the rank of a seminary.)

On the other hand, the invisible hand of the market is a powerful tool for discernment.  If it proves that there are not enough students and benefactors to support a new seminary in Dallas (or an old one in fill-in-the-blank), then perhaps it is best to accept that such a seminary does not really need to exist.  To the counter-argument that this leaves the ELCA lopsided, and unprepared for mission in a certain geographical region, one can only respond that Americans are wildly mobile, and that other graduate students routinely travel across the country to study.

We're not really sure what to do here, and nobody is asking us anyway.  But the merger of Southern Seminary with Lenoir-Rhyne and the situation which resulted from McCormick's threatened  withdrawal from LSTC both press the point.