fragments of an attempted writing.

Because of another writing project, I am taking at least a month off of blogging at this blog.  I'll be back around Thanksgiving, or not.

I've reverted to draft all of the prior posts on this blog.  In December of this year, perhaps, I'll be restructuring my new media work here and elsewhere and don't want to have to think about that for the time being, nor do I want to have to manage comments on old material.  Thank you for your patience.  Until we meet again in pixels, or not.

I love shrimp tacos.  This image might have inspired a trip to Taqueria Guadalupana today.

“With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!”

I've read this poem through several times since sancrucensis put it up, and each time I read it I like it more.  It is a perfect expression of its subject.  In it is a perfect rebuke of certain converty aesthetic puritanisms.

The poem is right there in the Collected Poems, but somehow I missed it when reading through Betjeman some years ago.  

It's been a long while since I've read any ethnomusicology, and I'm too lazy to look it up, but I sometimes wonder if there has been a study comparing Welsh and Russian male choral traditions.  Because to the untrained ear they sure seem to have some (superficial?) affinities.

Pew it stinks out there.

A lot is being made of the new Pew numbers out, showing continued declines for churches and the now one in five Americans who don't affiliate with religion.  One thing I see a lot coming from traditionally oriented Christians is the taking of the opportunity to yet again mock the fish in the barrel that are "spiritual but not religious" persons.

Every day when I go to work I get in the car, pass the JW Kingdom Hall on the corner of my street, then pass an Islamic center, then pass two decidedly health and wealth (you can tell from the messages on the signs out front) black pentecostal churches, and that is within a mile or so from my house.  I probably pass 30 or so churches on the way to work (12 miles - Memphis does have the highest number of churches per capita of any city in the country).  Sometimes I take an alternative route which runs me by 15 different churches than the usual route.  So let's call the total number of churches 45.  From what I know of these churches via things heard about them or their signage or their folks coming to my house and leaving literature and/or talking to me, I would rather my kids grow up to be "spiritual but not religious" than attend any these churches, with the possible exception of one of them.

In my adult life, I have visited many hundreds of parishes - Mainline Prot, Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker, Unitarian, etc.  I suppose I'd rather my kids grow up to be "spiritual but not religious" than attend approximately half of the parishes I have visited in my adult life, and that includes some particularly disordered Catholic and Orthodox ones.

Of all the bosses I've had in my life, the worst have been the practicing Christians, with the possible exception of one who was a mix of incredibly benevolent and patient and incredibly condescending and dysfunctional.  The best boss I've ever had is my current one - a philandering agnostic who brags about the number of abortions he paid for when he was in the local rich kid Evangelical high school.  The "spiritual but not religious" bosses I've had have generally been level headed and competent and fair.  My wife's best boss ever is a liberal Catholic - one of those most trad and conservative Catholics I know would rather not be in the RCC and one who sounds, when she talks about faith matters, like she is "spiritual and not religious"  -- she likes to "thank the universe" for things and send out "positive energy" and so forth.    Every Prot Christian my wife has ever worked for has been a royal pain in the ass.  So was the one Orthodox boss she briefly had (though that doesn't really count because he was a convert and his "boss style" was decidedly conservative Evangelical - he was also a monkabee who espoused the most overt antinomianism I've ever heard from an Orthodox in person, but when it came to running his business, whew - then he was all scruples and rigidity and micromanagement and dotting every i and crossing every t and yelling at you if you put too much mustard on the sandwich, and let me tell you, if my wife thinks you pay too much attention to detail and are anal about it when doing a job, you are one seriously fucked up freak).  My wife told me once that she plans on only working for liberal Catholics from here on out.  They drink a lot, they throw good parties, and they are generous.

We've shared this with my mother, and with a number of friends of ours, and sure enough, a sizable chunk of my friends seem to agree with my mother that "Christians make the worst bosses" (usually they mean by that Evangelicals, fundies, and other conservative Prots).

In every school setting I have ever found myself in, the "spiritual but not religious" folks were the sort that were more likely than the overtly hostile-to-spiritual-things or overtly religious to be reliable without being annoying.  Those that made a point of letting you know that they were practicing Christians were, 7 times out of 10, not the sort of people most of us would want to spend much time with, whereas most of the folks I have known outside of more alternative-ish (wannabe hippy - hippies younger than the age of 50 tend to be irritating as all get out) circles who self-identify as "spiritual but not religious" have been fairly easy to work with and get along with and benign enough in their spouting interpretations of life and the world, etc.

None of this is a proof of anything, of course, or an argument, or meant to sway anyone's opinion about anything.  It's just anecdotal ephemera from my life.  And it probably has something to do with why, when I hear the Pew numbers, I think, "well, of course."

Some post-Pussy Riot brand reconstruction.  I remember this Orthodox blogger who used to bitch and moan all the time about how this was the direction Orthodoxy was headed.  Maybe he was right.

the political economy of bullshit.

Not bad overall, but the first few minutes is a fine start for a talk of this nature.

words, antiquities, water, looking back.

It's National Poetry Day in the UK.  For such, I repost an old post from an old blog, with a couple of poems in it, a post that was mentioned in the comments here recently.  Here it is:

on Marah, the salt of the earth.


And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound…
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

- Anna Akhmatova

- from this excellent post by Margaret, which offers her conversion story, of sorts.

The Turning of Lot's Wife
As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.
- Genesis 19:23-26

First of all, she had a name, and she had a history. She was Marah, and long before the breath of death's angel turned her to bitter dust, she had slipped from her mother's womb with remarkable ease, had moved in due time from infancy to womanhood with a manner of grace that came to be the sole blessing of her aging parents. She was beloved.

And like most daughters who are beloved by a mother and a father, Marah moved about her city with unflinching compassion, tending to the dispossessed as if they were her own. And they became her own. In a city given to all species of excess, there wer
e a great many in agony - abandoned men, abandoned women, abandoned children. Upon these she poured out her substance and her care.

Her first taste of despair was at the directive of the messengers, who announced without apparent sentiment what was to come, and what was to be done. With surprising banality, they stood and spoke. One coughed dryly into his fist and would not meet her eyes. And one took a sip from the cup she offered before he handed it back and the two disappeared into the night.

Unlike her husband - coward and sycophant - the woman remained faithful unto death. For even as the man fled the horrors of a city's conflagration, outrunning Marah and both girls as they all rushed into the desert, the woman stopped. She looked ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms were taking them safely to the hills; she saw, farther ahead, the old man whom she had served and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.

- Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. - Matthew 5:13

Reading the Akhmatova on Margaret's site reminded me of the Cairns poem, and while I have read both poems before I don't know that I have ever considered them in light of the red words Ye are the salt of the earth. What of these poems? What of this notion that Marah was the holy one, looking back upon the damned, a feminine image of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Lot having the night before offered those daughters to men looking for a different kind of action?

One of the things I love about these poems is the intuition they give that the image of salvation in the Scriptures so often eludes us, and is replete with nuances. When a modern adopts a christocentric hermeneutic, our prior fixed hermeneutic points are often revealed as impoverished, even childish approaches to the text. Rote narrative didacticism is sometimes used in the NT reading of the OT, but often enough this is not the case. In the fathers you can find a host of different approaches to reading the scriptures.

When I first began to attend Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (OCA) in St. Paul, not my first Orthodox church by any means, but the first where I found very good Orthodox preaching, I was simply astounded by what I heard, and, as I have related before, I felt a bit cheated that I had never heard this sort of biblical interpretation before, having devoted a fair amount of time in my life to the study of the Bible. I have done my best to reconstruct a sermon Fr. Jonathan gave many years ago, a sermon given on theophany a number of years ago, not long after the death of Fr. Jonathan's daughter, and I offer it again here as an example of what I mean:

Father Jonathan asked us to consider Jesus' baptism. Consider who Jesus is. We know that He is fully God. We know that He is rightly called prophet, priest, and king. We know that He not only represents, but in a certain sense is the true and holy Israel of God. It should not be lost on us that God's people are now called "the Body of Christ." This Man who is God walks up to the River Jordan. And what happens? What should we expect to happen? Well, a man who is versed in the Old Testament and who also knows Who this Jesus is might have a very reasonable expectation. In the Old Testament when the people of God, the Israel of God, come up to the waters while running from pharaoh, the waters part. In the OT when the prophet of God comes up to the river Jordan, the waters part. In the OT when the ark of the covenant, which was God present to His people, came to the river Jordan, the waters part. This man well versed in the OT, when seeing Jesus come to the waters should have every expectation that they too will part. Jesus is the fullness of the presence of God, He is the fulfillment of all prophecy, He is the true Israel of God, all people of God are in Him. But the waters do not part. Instead, God enters into the chaos and death of the water, and He is covered. With Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. God is now not seeking a people for whom to part waters. He is seeking a community of the drowned.

When you enter through baptism and chrismation the Orthodox faith, and are therefore baptized into Christ, do not think that God is in the business of going about separating waters for you. No, this is not the path you have chosen. You have chosen to hold fast to the One for whom the waters do not part. You die with Him, in Him, through Him, as Him, for Him. Orthodox Christianity is the exact opposite of "health and wealth" spiritual economics, which infects not just Pentecostalism, but much of American Christianity. God will heal whom He will, God will allow the deaths of those whom He will, but in a real and certain sense, friends of God, as those who are the dead in Christ, you have given up any right to claim that God must part waters for you. As Bonhoeffer said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A dead man can claim nothing as his own.

The mystery takes us further. That day not only does Jesus come up to the water and the waters stay still to swallow Him up, but it is this very day that for the first time God reveals Himself in His fullness: Father, Son, Holy Spirit to humankind. The threefold nature of the Godhead is revealed to us at the moment in which God reveals Himself as the God for Whom the waters do not part. In the feast of Theophany we learn that God reveals Himself formally and most clearly in the very midst of human suffering. Indeed, we may even speak with St. Cyril of this mystery of the suffering of the impassible God.

Throughout Christian history so many faithful have been led to seek some sort of magic help potion from God or his agents, or at the very least thought that God would give them a statistical advantage, as if they were a bit more likely to have things go well if God were in their corner. Both are lies. Of course we pray that God bless us, and we have faith that he will. But we may seek blessing in a different spirit when the waters have already passed over our heads. Most Holy Theotokos, joy of all who sorrow, pray for us.

I had never heard anything like this before.

In another homily Fr. Jonathan was dealing with the Gospel reading concerning the healing of the lame man by Jesus at the Pool of Siloam in John chapter 5. Fr. Jonathan spoke of recent archeological evidence which suggested that the Pool of Siloam is the very place where there was an ancient water shaft - perhaps the water shaft used by David and his men when they took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The Jebusites had mocked David saying that their defenses were such that even the lame and blind could defend the city against him, and when David entered the city through the water shaft he killed the lame and the blind. In those very waters (perhaps) Jesus, Himself in John 5 having just entered Jerusalem, heals a lame man. Again, with Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. Fr. Jonathan does not espouse a Marcionism here, he simply asserts that when the veil comes off we see things very differently. Whether or not the archaeology supports the precise connection is somewhat irrelevant - we see that when Jesus and David come into Jerusalem there are salvations of different sorts brought about by way of water, and quite different signs of the Kingdom vis-à-vis the lame and the blind. With David, the lame and blind are the first to be killed, with Christ, the lame and the blind are the first to be saved.
In another homily of Fr. Jonathan's, sent to me on cassette (these cassettes are among my most prized possessions) by Benjamin, Fr. Jonathan, preaching on the widow of Nain (Luke 7), compares the widow of Nain to the Church in the world, seen by those outside her as in desperate, pathetic shape because of a (in the case of the Church, presumed to be) dead son. If we are honest, we spend much of our lives walking through this life as if in a dirge, with nothing long-lasting to claim for ourselves, with little hope, with a legacy of fear and trepidation. “Do not weep.” The Church is robust in its demand of a hope in the midst of spiritual and material realism - hope when despair seems the most sensible position. Our construct "Christianity" is diminished when it plays spiritual games and seeks to present the widow to the world as something she is not - the warrior or the businessman or the philosopher, etc. Actual little Christedness is hope wearing the form of sorrow. What an audacity in such a context - “Do not weep.”

In another homily which some of us have heard Fr. Jonathan give time and again over the years, on the Publican and the Pharisee, Fr. Jonathan defends the Pharisee in his sermon. It is done in the manner in which a priest might defend someone who has given their confession before the icon of Christ - the priest standing before God and pleading to God that God remember the limitedness of our lives, that we often must go with what we've got, that we have tried with the resources available to us, and as the sermon progresses the magic of it, more than any other sermon I have heard on the topic, is that the hearer is made so fully aware that he is the Pharisee (many sermons on this topic assert as much, but I have never encountered another sermon on this topic which induces an intuition of as much, and as I have talked to a number of others about this sermon, I am convinced my experience with it is not unique). When I think of that sermon I am reminded that the Marco's of this world will walk away from God justified, while I am busy scraping for another angle by which to posture myself.

It is with these sermons in mind that I consider these poems on Marah. In Christ, I do not think it is always so simple as a turning away from God which results in what seems a rather petty wrath. Could her image not be what is suggested here by Akhmatova and Cairns? The image of a woman whose concern and love becomes a sign of a small mercy - one small spot on the plain where her salt preserves the soil from the mechanisms of violence and the self-destruction that almost always reigns in human affairs? Could she not be a feminine counterpoint to the wandering patriarchs that wandered with and sometimes against God? One who looks back, who faithfully and lovingly keeps her heart centered in her place even when that place is brutal? Could it be that the salt of the earth are those who sometimes turn in love even toward that which is not supposed to be loved, at least according to our various rote theological and moral constructs? Is Marah an icon which stands against petty triumphalisms and easy appeals to wrath and justice? Could it be that Marah's pillar of salt, when read as hidden with Christ in God, is no less an image of salvation than Jacob limping out of Peniel?

I'm not sure. But I know I have heard these sorts of thoughts before. There is an Orthodox posture with regard to Scripture which can often be loosely talmudicish, so to speak. Instead of formal Tannaic and Amoraic positions we have this tension with the texts that paradoxically knows what to do with them because of Christ, and in a sense doesn't know what to do with them because of Christ - the image of Christ crucified, died, and risen is such a complete image, is such an end of all hermeneutic structures save itself, that meaning is often left grasping and rambling. What seems clear is that the rules of the game have changed, and in Christ the thing you used to think was your damnation is the very thing that saves you. By Marah's prayers, perhaps.

* -- icon, Lot Forefather, written by Lasha Kintsurashvili. This icon depicts Righteous Lot watering the tree which he planted, which according to church tradition, was the tree the Cross was made from. There is a Georgian Monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to the Holy Cross on the site of this ancient tree.

The last one a sculpture in front of his basilica in Assisi, which depicts that point in his life when he was in a very depressed state, having left the crusades because of a vision in which Christ tells him to leave the army and go home to await another vision.

The top photo reminds me of my father, who is a lover of birds.

burn baby burn.

Who knows who created this thing?  It could just have easily been an Obomber supporter.

I sometimes wonder if there is or has been any other modern nation whose people have found so many different ways to hate each other.  Why can't people be more like me and just hate the rich, and theology grad students (other than you, of course, dear reader), and people who play video games (other than Kyle H and Teena's family), and those jackasses who put Chimay in the fridge, and monkabee clerics (which is very distinct from monks, mind you), and the folks responsible for canceling the show Arrested Development?   Focus people, focus.
I don't feel like writing.

---because, after all, the center of the universe is Georgia.  I'm not entirely kidding.  Once, when in my high school library reading National Geographic because they had nothing worth reading which I hadn't already read, I read a long article on Georgia which convinced me that I was born in the wrong nation.  It impressed me enough that I have a daughter with that name (OK, I had a grandmother named Georgia too; whatever).

On that note, there are no religious images in this world which haunt me more than this one:

Righteous Lot.

spa Mass

I've seen this going around amongst Orthodox (first in blogdom, then on FB) who seem pleased at this example of Rome getting its act together.  The archbishop here is the man about to take over the helm of the San Fran RC diocese (its got him a bit stressed out).  He is a conservative, and the diocese is not, and this has created some spectacle.  Anyway, this video has folks moderately excited for some reason.  I'm not sure why.  The musical performance is so so, and the liturgy is spotty with a fair amount of awkward moments when the players don't seem to know exactly what they are supposed to be doing.  But it ain't a clown Mass I guess.  Though a spa setting seems pretty clownish..

I find it somewhere between fitting and ironic that this is being presented as an indicator of a healthier Rome.  This Mass took place at a Napa Valley resort spa.  The Meritage Resort and Spa to be exact.  According to the Napa Institute registration page, to attend the Thursday through Sunday conference of conservative American Catholics preaching to their choir, you had to pay $1500 to the Institute, in addition to accommodations and travel costs.  There was a group discount for conference attendees (probably 10-15% off), but the normal July rates at that spa are $322 - $702 a night for a room, so you have another grand a night to drop on a room, not to mention meals, drinks, and and so forth.  Do we even have to ask the question anymore - who is conservative ("neo-Cath") American Catholicism for?   Make fun of SSPX and other trad groups all you want.  Their conferences cost like $45 plus Super 8 accommodations.  I'd love to hear Mark and Louise Zwicks' take on this.

But more on this later, when I return to my current post series, and recollect the days when I met Tom Monaghan and his crew that has done so much to remake white American Catholicism.


Eric Hobsbawm.  Guardian obit, Jacobin obit, [update: another Jacobin],with other (a few among the many) notices here and here and here.