Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Protestant Prince 

Peter Saccio says beautifully that
"the tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is the drama of the Protestant conscience led into doubt by the puzzlements of the world and the puzzlements of the self, arriving heroically at its own convictions and then acting on those convictions."
As evidence for the Protestant Hamlet, Saccio points out that of all the young and overly-educated intellectuals in the play, only Hamlet's actual University is specifically named... as the University of Wittenburg (whose first professor is quite famous).

I'll leave it to your reading of Hamlet to determine whether or not Western literature's most famous dramatic role being yoked to the Protestant faith is a blessing or a curse.

Sunday, November 28, 2004


How come Merton gets all the attention? Sure he's quite a writer, but he's not the only home-grown American monk with a lot to teach us. I came across Father Seraphim Rose recently. Growing up in Berkeley in the 60's studying Eastern Religions could land you about anywhere - this guy landed an Orthodox scholar/monk in the hills of Northern California. His book on the afterlife is significant because it takes head on the phenonemon of after-death-experiences... a nice antidote to Betty Eadie's Embraced by the Light which has caused much confusion. Too often Christians seem to think, "You die, you're with Jesus, end of story." Rose reminds us that the Christian tradition has for quite a while understood the transition from death to the presence of God to be a much more complex experience... albeit a complexity contained within the person of Jesus Christ.

Also a product of the Sixties is musician/Catholic convert John Michael Talbot whom perhaps more have heard of. Although much has been written on the subject, I found this relatively new book of his is good one-stop-shopping for those seeking to integrate the Christian and Hindu/Buddhist perspectives, specifically their respective meditation techniques, without surrendering Christian coherence.

Talbot is very affirming of, and has in fact mastered, many of the non-Christian techniques... while able nevertheless to insist on the Incarnation over reincarnation, grace over karma, and the new creation's fullness over nirvana's nothingness as the end of all earthly pursuits.

Best of all, Talbot reatains his distinctive Catholicism without being a jerk about it. He is well able to affirm all the places (which he says are many) where non-Christian monasticism has outpaced Christian monasticism, and to learn from them. Thanks to my sis' for tipping me off to the book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

London Day 6 

After a river tour, it was off to the Tate Britain.

The Tate Brit. is Pre-Raph central. But I'd like to mention George Frederick Watts. Compare his Love and Life, where love personified gently guides the pilgrim, with Mammon, where greed-drunken followers lie slain by their master. Regarding the latter, Watts said he wished to turn the painted figure of Mammon into a scultpture and place it in the center of Hyde Park in London. He hoped that "at least its followers would be honest enough to bow their knees publically to it." A bit sentimental perhaps, but consider the other extreme...

More DAY 6...
In the modern wing of the Tate Brit. I had a painful flashback to my Modern Art History textbook. Paula Rego is a very disturbed woman. That the Art World has lionized her as it has is an indication of how disturbed the art world is. Sure they show you the nice paintings on the website, but most of her works are explicit "explorations" of such glorious themes as insest and abortion.

I watched an extensive interview with her that the Tate was playing continuously. Most of the people viewing it with me left, shall we say, a bit dejected. I stayed until the end to try to find some redeeming quality, but I waited in vain. Modern Art and the Death of Culture was right.

Pre-Raphaelites anyone?

But things changed in the next room. The most intersesting artists of the modern movement in my opinion have always been the dissenters, like Stanely Spencer. Seminary folks may recognize his work from the cover of a certain textbook. My favorite was this painting of his on the Resurrection which covered almost an entire wall. It's massive, and utterly explicit in theme: The resurrection of the body as it will occur when the Eschaton comes around to Spencers "holy suburb," his English hometown.

Now Spencer was no saint, and could get as graphic as Rego, but with massive unapologetic paintings about the resurrection I tend to be a bit more forgiving.

Then it was off to the attic of Western civilization, The British Museum. I actually went there three times while in London, and didn't scratch the surface. Having been a world empire in an age of discovery has its advantages. Want to see the Parthenon sculptures? You'll have to go to the British Museum. The real Parthenon has only imitations. As you can imagine, Greece isn't too happy about that.

In the "Where are they now?" category... Ramses II, perhaps the very man whom Moses confronted, you can find him here. Artifacts from the Assyrian Empire who sacked Jerusalem, here they lie. The Ancient Israelites however... still going. No wonder that whenWhen Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, asked the his court chaplain for an argument for the existence of God, he gave the famous answer, "Your Majesty, the Jews."

If anyone gets excited about Druidism and those home-grown faiths that inhabited the British lands before St. Augustine came along, a glance at Bog-man might be of assistance. Had he survived his having become a human sacrifice, something tells me he wouldn't have been feeling that his indigenous culture was being smothered by those imperialist Christians.

And finally, go ahead and carve a "Chi Rho" into your silverware at dinner tonight. Perhaps centuries from now that will be all that survives to tell future archealogists that you were, if you are, a Christian. At least that's what happened with this discovery, showing researchers that Christianity was disseminated in Britain a lot earlier than they had thought.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

London Day 5 

Okay, now back to the London trip. Being a specialist in foreign languages, my skills enabled Denise, Susie and I to move about freely in the city, communicate fluently with the natives, and see many more sites than would have the average tourist.

First we headed to St. Paul's Cathedral, where Holman Hunt's The Light of the World was still knocking away. Though I expected this classic Pre-Raphelite painting to be a gagger, it won me over. In a peculiarly numinous way it's a reminder that Christ truly is ever knocking to access deeper parts of our inner sanctum. If ever there was an "Evangelical" painting that was worth looking at, this would be it. The rest, frankly, is not.

More DAY 5
What struck me about St. Paul's was that essentially one man pulled it off. One man. Considering it took generations to build most Gothic Cathedrals, and that St. Paul's is somewhat as impressive, that is saying a lot. But it must also be said that the high altar canopy complete with corkscrew pillars is a total Bernini rip-off. Come on Anglicans. Be original. On second thought... nevermind.

The construction of the great Dome is not only structurally, but theologically sound. As you look up you first see the prophets. On top of them stand the four Gospel writers. Then stand the Church fathers, leading finally to the images of Paul making the Gospel known in the language of his day in Athens... a task for each generation of Christians.

After this it was off to meet a gal. The "The National Gal" that is (you can blame Rick for that). I'll limit myself to commentary on only four paintings:

1. If ever there was a painting capable of clarifying the ever-misunderstood concept of God's wrath, El Greco's Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple would be it. Meditating on the faces left me with a bizarre impression: Christ is punishing the sinners... he knows it's right and yet doesn't seem to be enjoying himself. Alternately, the sinners are being punished... they too know it's right, but strangely seem to be enjoying themselves.

Could it be that the deeper parts of our being will actually be strangely relieved when God sets right the wrong that we've secretly known all along? Might this be what it will be like on that final day? Might even the greatest of sinners, like El Greco's traders, be secretly longing not for escape, but for wrath?

2. I recieved a similar impression from Guercino's The Incredulity of St. Thomas. One could perhaps suggest that the entire enterprise of Christianity is to not look stupid on Judgement Day. Standing before this painting for a while, contrasting the light, matter-of-fact Jesus with the hardened no-nonsense Thomas left me feeling that a lot of us might look pretty silly when it all comes around.

3. Contrast Joseph Wright of Derby's Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, and his The Blacksmith's Shop. In each one humans are gathered around new kinds of light, scientific and industrial. In both men look proudly on, while children shield their eyes in fear. Now, try this for contrast. Perhaps Wright was trying to tell us something. Thanks to my sister for tipping me off to that illuminating comparison.

4. And finally, there is Constable's Salisbury Cathedral. If ever there was a painting of a Church capable of approximating the emotional and spiritual energy contained within a Susan Howatch novel, this is it. I guess someone at Random House knows what they're doing.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Christian Socrates is Female 

Just for the record, here is further evidence to counter the assertion that Christianity is a male-dominated religion (should you need some... many here do).

At the fountainheads of both the Western and Eastern streams of Christianity, it needs be admitted, stand men. Augustine for the West, and the Cappadocian Fathers for the East. But while it is common knowledge that behind Augustine stood Monica (his mom) who "prayed him into the kingdom," as some like to put it; not as much is known about the parallel phenomenon in the East.

Yet, behind the intellectual powerhouse of the Cappadocians (who essentially wrote the Nicene Creed) there also stands a woman, Macrina - the sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. In Nyssa's On the Soul and the Resurrection, which is the Christian answer answer to Plato's Phaedo, not only is Macrina, like Monica, revealed to be the spiritual force behind these very well educated men, but she's shown to be clearly smarter than them.

In the Phaedo, Socrates pontificates about death before he drinks the Hemlock. In On the Soul , Socrates has been replaced not by one of the Cappadocian fathers, but by, you guessed it, Macrina. She also pontificates about death, but rather than the separation of the soul from the body, posits their ultimate reunification in the physical resurrection, contra the Platonic tradition.

Now, could someone please go tell this to The Guerilla Girls?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

millinerd world premiere 

Every white man with dreads has to, at some point in his career, come to terms with Rastafarianism. On account of the trip I was on (see below), I had to turn what would have been an oral report for class on Rastafarianism into video format (using the ever-evolving I-Movie program). This means, should you care to, you can watch it as well. (thanks to Ed for the help in getting it online.)

As the video presumes a knowledge of the basics, this brief article on Monophysitism may be of help. Should you not wish to watch a 20 minute video, here's the punchline:

No, I do not think Haile Selassie is the Messiah. In fact, neither did he. But yes, Christians who thought slavery was permissible are to some degree responsible for leading people to that unfortunate conclusion.

Monday, November 15, 2004

When the Tear Gas Dissipates...  

I interrupt my retrospective London itinerary yet again to bring you news of a fantastic organization dedicating to introducing "future religious leaders" to people who really know what they're talking about when it comes to public policy, ecomomics and globalization: The Acton Institute (web-site well worth exploring). I just got back from a conference they held in Seattle, which must mean they have me confused with a "future religious leader."

Though I could go on and on about how very instructive it all was, I will limit my commentary to the following: How ironic it is that one would learn about the realities of economics and global politics in a subtle and nuanced way in Seattle.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

London Day 4 - Cambridge and Charismatics 

Cambridge - This day involved a train ride to the more pastoral of the U.K.'s two favorite Universities (they call Oxford the other place). Now I see what every college town in the U.S.A. is grasping towards. I felt like Harry in Hogwarts (there was even a full moon). Princeton is quite a town, but going from Princeton to Cambridge is like going from the shadows of Plato's cave to the forms themselves (no offence, Princeton).

More DAY 4 - And I can't believe I'm going to put it this way, but yes, in Kings College Chapel the fan vaulting is to die for. And in a way, the choir that sung evensong in Kings College Chapel was what every chuch choir is grasping towards. Not only was the singing superb, but the Scripture reading and short meditations were flawlessly delivered (usually one expects one or the other to be good, not both). The theme for the evening was "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet," and the lector simply commented towards the close of the service,
"The Scriptures say the God's word is a lamp unto our feet, not necessarily a blazing light showing the whole way forward."
A good word to anyone coming up to a crossroads in life.

And finally, the pub's in Cambridge seem to be what every bar/pub I've ever been to is grasping towards. Good to know someone is pulling it off. "The Eagle," where we ate, is the birthplace of the concept of D.N.A. (or at least of its human comprehension). Ahh... Platonic Cambrige - all else is but a shadow. Now I see what these guys were getting at.

Charismatics - But before this day began, I enjoyed an interesting early morning prayer meeting at one of London's most thriving churches which I've mentioned already, Holy Trinity Brompton. Imagine a 7am prayer service packed out with over 100 people from all walks of London life (and of all ages) and eager to worship (well led contemporary stuff) and fervently praying for any and every international situation you can pull off the headlines. The reason I say "Charismatic" is because the Church certainly has some "Vineyardian" elements (by which I mean the use of "spiritual gifts"), but in good Vineyard fashion, they keep it all within decent perimeter.

It's nice especially when an Anglican Church takes advantage of the dynamism of the Pentecostal movement mentioned below, because Anglicans have the classic structures within which to contain such vitality. But one thing was unfortunate. The communion area was filled with Audio-Visual equipment, and from what I understand the regular communion service they have on Sunday is sparsely attended. In my experience, all that is sought in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements - which (one hopes) is the presence of God, is normatively available in the bread and wine. But that being said, H.T.B. is still quite a Church.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Holy Split? 

I interrupt my London itinerary yet again to bring you deep thoughts:

Pentecostalism, especially in the Southern Hemisphere seems unstoppable. A scholar of the movement, David Martin, spoke here last night. He was very hesitant to make the following statement, but made it nonetheless: "In the Church, schism may be a good thing." What he meant of course, was that God providentially uses division in the Church quite effectively to further unfurl the message of the Gospel.

Now good Catholics may shake their heads at that statement as characteristically Protestant. But let me share with you another quote,
"Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise..."
I got that one from a book by a Catholic. Perhaps you've heard of him?

London Day 3 - War, Walls and Westminster 

Contrary to my Marxist pal, I like Winston Churchill, as I've discussed before (surely you recall). The Cabinet War Rooms are the very rooms he used to lead fight against Germany, and walking through them is a brutal reminder that there was a time in history when it seemed that Germany would prevail. Meaning Elie Wiesel's Night would have been quite a bit longer. I am not going to judge British anti-war protesters on their signs, but I will point out an irony: I took the picture below in the park right outside of Big Ben. Here's a closer look at the statue rising above the blue sign. Discern who it was, and perhaps you'll agree that at least in that case there was a bad peace, and a painfully necessary war.

More DAY 3 - But leaving heavier subjects behind, also on this day we visited the Courtauld Institute, home of Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere. Some paintings you have to press your face up against to really appreciate. Late nineteenth century works such as these where the brushstroke really matters are among them. And if ever there was a perfect feminist painting by a man, this is it (you have to imagine that you are the man in the mirror to the right making the waitress miserable). Incidentally, I wonder if Manet got royalties for this painting from Bass and Veuve Cliquot? I had no idea product placement went so far back.

But the best part of this Monday, and what made it really London, was evensong in Westminster Abbey. Interesting that as you walk in the newer north entrance, staring down upon you in stone stand are not ancient saints, but Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer along with other 20th cent. martyrs. And being inside the most magnificent church in the English speaking world was uplifting to say the least. Go to "Panoramic Views" on this site and you can basically see what I saw, only better. Darn internet. Did I even need to go?

Yes, because you can't pray evensong on an internet site. How fitting to recite evening prayer (Cranmer's best service) right next to "Poet's Corner," where either in sculpture or engraving most of the great English writers and poets and musicians are commemorated. Westminster also has prominent icons. A reminder that beauty (literary, musical or visual) finds its home in the Church... or at least it would had the Protestant Church not sent her packing. Cheers to the Anglicans for keeping that nasty Reformation iconoclasm from becoming an enduring trait.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Day Purgatory 

Does anyone else find it ironic that election day falls on All Soul's Day (the traditional day to pray for those in Purgatory)? Nevertheless, I interrupt my London intinerary to bring to you the last paragraph of a brief sermon I had to give tonight an our P.U. ecumenical prayer service:
And of all the benefits that we receive as citizens of heaven, there is one in particular that is of great comfort to me especially on a night like tonight. That is that as citizens of heaven, we do not get to vote. Jesus Christ has always reigned, he does not need to campaign to continue that reign, and he always will reign. And to a great extent, perhaps even to an extent that makes us uncomfortable, the welfare of this nation is not as much dependent on who we voted for today, as on the extent to which we demonstrate that reign of Christ in our Church and in our lives. Amen.
Now, if only I didn't have to practice what I preached.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

London Day 2 - Marxinerd? 

As many Protestant Christians of my generation seems to be crossing either the Thames or the Tiber (shorthand for becoming Anglican or Catholic), I found it of great interest to do a little swimming in both while in England. So on this Sunday I went to two churches right next to each other, The Brompton Oratory (which produced the Newman statue) and Holy Trinity Brompton (which produced the very popular Alpha course). But more on the differences between Catholic and Anglican London later. The most interesting Sunday experience involved a whole different kind of faith.

More DAY 2-John Updike once said that the problem with communism is that it's so far removed from the natural order that it doesn't work, whereas the problem with capitalism is that it's so close to the natural order that it's cruel. I think he was right, and find myself therefore increasingly committed to supporting capitalism because of its necessary concession to human nature, with the additional (and all too easily forgotten) element of a vigorous Church that calls attention towards and serves the poor. Until I am convinced otherwise I'll maintain that position - but what could be better than the chance to be convinced otherwise on such beautiful Fall day in London?

While in college I attended several demonstrations and marches in Chicago which were populated mainly by hard-core Marxists. At some of them in attendance were even members of (what's left of) the Black Panther Party. So I've had my conversations with the Reds - but never on the scale as I did this Sunday in London. As is well known, Speaker's corner near Hyde Park is a hopping place, and this day was no exception. Amid the throngs of predictable anti-Blair/Bush rhetoric, and fundamentalists of both Christian and Islamic persuasion, I was drawn to an acutely intelligent speaker whom I listened to for quite some time, and even engaged in a little friendly debate (which is welcomed). The speaker was a representative of this website, and make no mistake - this guy (and his significant entourage) are true believers. His basic message: America and England are built entirely on stolen land and slave capital, amounting to disproportionate disbursement of wealth, and it's time the people rise up and get get it all more evenly distributed. Marxism 101. But I really liked this guy, and got to talk with him a bit one on one afterwards. The following are some questions I posed to him publicly, and his very public responses.
Q. So you're saying history was a just dark abyss before Karl Marx?
A. (without missing a beat and very emphatically) Yes.

Q. What is your best case scenario in 50 years?
A. We live in a paradise on earth.

Q. How could that happen?
A. It already is happening in places like Venezuela. It can happen overnight.
Now I know those questions make him sound less than intelligent, but intelligent he was. At least for the regulars at Speaker's Corner, their rhetorical skills tend to be honed not in the safety of a classroom, but on the literal streets with lots of opposition - and the results are impressive. What the answers to those questions highlight for me the is the faith aspect of his commitment. Marxism has been called a secularized eschatology - and whatever your eschatology may be, faith is a necessary ingredient. This is because the essence of eschatology is that you don't see the evidence yet, and faith is "the evidence of things not seen." The man I spoke with converted to Marxism at 17 and hasn't looked back since (he must be about 35). I can safely say that I (and the Church) could certainly learn from, and be convicted by, his passion for justice. But the stumbling block for me in regards to Marxism remains to be the 20th century... because in Russia, China, Cuba, etc. we have, in my reading of history, evidence that certainly is seen.

Among the things which he said which prevented the birth of marxinerd (and there were several) was, and I quote, "Winston Churchill was the biggest [insert British expletive] who ever lived." My walk through the Cabinet Warrooms which I'll describe later left me with a distinctly different impression. Another was when our speaker thought to end on a "light note" he would recite a limerick about a topic as "light" as 9-11, describing the incident with what was for me, a bit too much zest. I never considered that perhaps, for a Marxist, the destruction of such a major symbol of capitalism, the "World Trade Center" was a good thing - But maybe for them it is. Personally, I though it was a very, very bad thing.

The zinger was when in private I asked him whether violence was justified in bringing about such a revolution... the answer was, this time in a roundabout and qualified manner, but still with conviction... "Yes."

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