Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Molly Ivins, R.I.P.

I just learned that columnist Molly Ivins died after a long struggle with breast cancer. I'll miss her. In the darkest days of the Bush ascendancy, Ivins told us the truth and made us laugh at the same time. She reminded us in her folksy Texas humor that not every Texan accords divine status to George W. Bush. I never met Ivins, except on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune and the website. When I commuted on the South Shore line between Michigan City and Chicago, I made sure I brought home a Tribune on the day her column appeared. I'm glad she lived long enough to see GWB repudiated at the polls.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"A Christmas Church?"

I've just started reading Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality by Richard D. Schmidt (Grand Rapids: Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). It's a collection of short biographies of 29 Anglicans from Thomas Cranmer to Desmond Tutu, and the sort of book I've been wanting to read for some time. Along with the biographies are brief selections of the Subject's writing, such as the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne, and gems from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Madeleine L'Engle.

And while I recommend the book, I'm troubled by a passage in the introduction, in which the author attempts to answer, "What is Anglicanism?" Schmidt rejects the idea of Anglicanism as a "middle way" (via media in Latin) between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism because Catholics and Protestants have "found each other and begun discussing all sorts of things--without benefit of our bridge. The whole idea of via media also omits Orthodox and Pentecostal Christians, so perhaps it's time to drop it."

Schmidt also dismisses William J. Wolf's definition of Anglicanism as a "pragmatic church," as opposed a "confessional" or "experiential" church. "Anglicans, Wolf says, are a pragmatic church. Individuals may hold various doctrinal positions and may or may not have had a conversion experience. What makes us part of the church is simply that we do what the church does." But Schmidt writes that "the usefulness of Wolf's comparison is limited, because most churches, including Anglicanism, contain elements of all three 'manifestations,' and no such categorization can be absolute."

Instead, Schmidt proposes the following:

"If we are going to compare ourselves with other Christians, I prefer a comparison based on the major holy days stemming from the life and ministry of Christ. For many Christians, the central event was Christ's death on the cross for the sins of the world. The Roman Catholic Church and most Protestant churches are Good Friday churches. Other Christians see the resurrection of Christ, signifying his victory over Satan and sin, as the central event. The Eastern Orthodox are Easter churches. A third group focuses on Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit as the chief event. These are the Pentecostal churches. Anglicans--and this will become clear to anyone reading the essays in this book--focus on the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made flesh. Anglican churches are Christmas churches. ...these distinctions are not absolute; all four groups recognize the importance of all four events. But there are unmistakable emphases, and there can be no doubt about what theological doctrine vibrates most strongly within the Anglican soul--it is the Incarnation."

I asked my wife, a Roman Catholic, whether this passage made sense to her. She said no. And I agree. In my experience, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Anglican Church focus on the Triduum--the three days beginning with the evening of Holy Thursday (Anglicans usually call it Maundy Thursday) and ending with the evening of Easter Day .

Anglo-Catholics, when reciting the Nicene creed, bow at the words, "by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man." But so do Roman Catholics. And these words refer more to the Annunciation than to Christmas. But the Annunciation, a major celebration during the Middle Ages, is a decidedly minor one today. If the Incarnation were the central focus of Anglican worship, one would think the Annunciation would be a major holy day.

Christians did not begin celebrating Christmas until the fourth century, though it had become a major celebration by the time the Church of England broke with Rome.

In the seventeenth century, Puritans opposed the trappings of Christmas as popery, and Parliament under Cromwell banned its public celebration. Even after the restoration of the crown, Christmas was not a major feast day among Anglicans. It took Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and the marriage of of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, to turn Christmas into the British holiday it has become. (Albert was German and the German celebration of Christmas, including the Christmas tree, came with him.)

The Incarnation and Christmas are important to Anglicans. It's just that I don't see Schmidt's distinction as helpful to Anglicans or anyone else. I still see the Great Anglican Compromise, the middle way, which allowed most Protestants and Catholics to worship together, as the communion's unique strength. I believe that spirit of compromise and inclusiveness will get us through the current controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians.

And the major celebrations of Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection do not define the way a Christian is to live his or her life, for Anglicans or any Christians. Perhaps the best short description of the Christian way can be found in Rite I of the Holy Eucharist service in the Book of Common Prayer. (Rite II, in contemporary English, does not include it--which I believe to be a mistake.) Here it is:

"Hear what the Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

I can't say I come close to living up to the Two Commandments, but it's my goal.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Whisper Returns

My Spanish dictionary defines "susurro" as a whisper, murmur, or rustle, and susurrar as its verb form. So "susurra de luz" literally means "She whispers of (or about) light." I use the feminine, because sururradeluz is the blog name for Susan of "a line cast, a hope followed."

In the spring of 2005, when I had just started this blog, Susan put me on her blogroll and encouraged me to keep posting. Virtually all those who have found this blog have done so, directly or indirectly, because Susan was gracious enough to list me on her blogroll.

She describes herself as " a 46 year old female residing in Portland Oregon
Single mother of two kids, 3 cats, Joey the hyperactive border collie, 2 anoles, and Thistle the pygmy hedgehog
I love to travel, in person, through others' stories, in my imagination
Sometimes poet and oftentimes bird watcher
I put chiles in everything and vote strictly liberal
Collector of used Sting tshirts and trashy religious art."

When I began reading her blog, she was in the aftermath of a messy divorce. She gave us a "warts and all" picture of herself and her family. And we regular readers loved her for it.

Last year her posts became fewer. The sad news was that her beloved father died. Profound grief and the business of having to deal with the estate made blogging virtually impossible. The happy news was that she finally found a man who would give her the love and support she deserves.

Just recently, Susan has started blogging again. She and her boyfriend have bought a property near Portland, and are in the process of tearing down the old ramshackle house there and building a new one. There are some bizarre twists to the move, which make for a very intersting story. Check her blog out, if you haven't already. It's on my blogroll.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Risk: Why I gave up games

I just learned that George W. Bush and I have something in common: in our college days, we both were avid Risk players. I finally gave up the game for my own mental health, but the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue appears to be playing it on a much grander scale.

For those of you not familiar with the board game Risk, it's an American version of a French game called "The Conquest of the World." The board is a map of the world, with continents divided into regions. Each players have markers, which represent armies, and cards, which represent the various regions. Without getting into detail, the objective is to conquer the world.

I often used a defensive strategy, building up my armies in Australia, which could only be attacked from one country, and then going on the attack after the other players had exhausted their armies against each other. I started taking the game seriously. Much too seriously. In a game in which your friends are your enemies, the line between the game and the personal is too easy to cross--at least, it was for me. I stopped playing Risk and have tried to avoid games. I'll play Scrabble, but I don't play to win. I just play to get some unusual word, like syzygy, even though I'd have to use blank spaces. (I've never gotten to spell syzygy in Scrabble, but perhaps someday I will.)

George W. Bush was apparently very good at Risk. But playing the game, even too seriously, risks only a friendship. He's now playing Risk with real armies, and risking real lives. And he's not even particularly good at it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Was Santayana Wrong?

The philosopher George Santayana wrote many books, but he is best remembered for one sentence: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. " It's been quoted and misquoted, and used to promote the study of history, an altogether worthwhile goal. Yet the application, or misapplication of the lessons of history has been responsible for two of Amerca's most disastrous wars.

I'm listening to the audio book version ofThomas E. Ricks's Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Ricks gives this account of Paul Wolfowitz at Gettysburg:

"One day in 1996, Paul Wolfowitz toured Gettysburg with a group of specialists in military strategy from Johns Hopkins University's school of international studies, where he became dean, after his service under Cheney at the Pentagon.

"Later in the afternoon, as the sun dipped toward Seminary Ridge, Wolfowitz stood at the center of the battlefield, near the spot where the soldiers of Pickett's charge had hit the Federal line and were thrown back by point-blank cannon blasts. Pointedly, Eliot Cohen, the Johns Hopkins professor running the tour, had Wolfowitz read aloud to the group the angry telegram that President Lincoln had drafted but never sent to the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade. Why, Lincoln wanted to ask his general, did you stop, and not pursue your enemy when you have him on the run?"

Wolfowitz thought the first George Bush made the same mistake in Iraq. He should have pursued the Revolutionary Guard into Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. And when Wolfowitz became Deputy Secretary of Defense under Bush II, his was the leading voice for war against Iraq.

And here is David Halberstam writing about McGeorge Bundy at Harvard in The Best and the Brightest:

"His Munich lecture was legendary at Harvard, and when word got out that it was on the day's schedule, he played to standing room only. It was done with great verve, Bundy imitating the various participants, his voice cracking with emotion as Czechoslovakia fell, the German tanks rolling in just as the bells from Memorial Hall sounded. The lesson was of course interventionism, and the wise use of force."

Here are two "lessons of history" which were certainly important factors in bringing us into two wars. When Bundy joined the Kennedy administration, he applied the Munich lesson to Vietnam. Never mind that Ho Chi Minh was essentally a nationalist leader, fighting first against the French and then the American-backed South Vietnamese government. To Bundy, he was a potential Hitler, and had to be met with force.

The Munich analogy was applied to Saddam Hussein as well. Wolfowitz, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, muses about "What if Europe had intervened earlier against Hitler?" But it is his Gettysburg analogy which is the most telling. Again, the circumstances were different: Lincoln had to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia in order to reunite the nation, while Gerorge H.W. Bush's objective was to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein may have admired Hitler, but he was not Hitler. Nor was he Jefferson Davis.

America's two biggest military mistakes in the last 50 years were made not by people who could not remember the past, but by those who remembered it too well, and applied the lessons of one era to the different circumstances of another. Santayana's adage may still be true. But the indiscriminate use of historical "lessons" can surely be as dangerous as ignorance.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Scythian Beasts, Stealth Folk Songs, A Pass on the Third Day, and the Trouble with New Year's

Every year about this time I learn about some after-Christmas treasure Kathleen has found on the bargain shelf. Last year it was a mountain. I never got to see the mountain until this year. I had this idea of something big--maybe three feet by four feet. But it was just a little mountain for our nativity set--something the Magi could pass by on their journey. It was perhaps ten inches square. This year, Kathleen said she had bought a pair of Scythian beasts. They were stainless steel deer whose antlers were candle holders. And they may very well have been inspired by the 5th Century B.C. Scythian deer in the Hermitage. Her degree in art history may not give her a lot of employment potential, but it does give her amazing insights.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is "In the Bleak Midwinter." I first heard it on WFMT Radio's "Midnight Special," which is basically a folk music program. (WFMT Chicago syndicates it, so you can hear it on many stations.) So I figured it was a folk song. This Christmas, the handbell choir at St. Matthew's, Bloomington, played it, and I looked it up in the hymnal. Christina Rosetti wrote the lyrics, and the music was by Gustav Holst. Not exactly a folk song, but it still brings shivers up and down my spine when I hear it.

I'm afraid I never even learned the selection for the Third Day Book Club until January 3. I've been spending a lot of December working double shifts and "rest" days. And while I'm getting a lot of overtime pay, there's not much time for reading. It looks like January will be a lot like December. An agent in Champaign suffered a massive stroke. Thankfully, his chances for recovery are improving. But since he was six months away from retirement, he won't be coming back. For me, that means being held in Bloomington-Normal longer than I expected--probably until two more agents are hired. I hope that by February I'll be able to make my transfer back to Indiana, but I'm not holding my breath.

Kathleen and our daughter Sarah decided that the trouble with New Year's is that it has only one song. Actually, it has at least two. Along with "Auld Lang Syne, there's "Come Fill Up Your Glasses, by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. It's another song I heard on the Midnight Special." It even includes a toast to railroaders:

Here's to the drivers and firemen and the rest of the team,
Who keep the stock rolling by diesel and steam,
To the cleaners and shunters who work night and day,
And the track laying gangs on the permanent way.

It's a little archaic, quaintly British, and there's nothing about ticket agents. Still, I'm impressed that railway workers get mentioned.

There probably are other New Year's songs, though few that measure up to those of Robert Burns and Seeger-MacColl. Best wishes for the New Year for all who visit here.