Friday, February 27, 2009

Bill Holm, R.I.P.

Another of my heroes and favorite writers (and perhaps also a cousin) has died and the world is poorer for his passing, but infinitely richer for his having passed through this world. Bill Holm was a giant of a Viking -- bearish in size, red-haired and -bearded -- who integrated his Icelandic heritage into this love of life, literature, music, and other people. If you don't know him, you should get to; if you have read him, I expect that you, too, will mourn his passing.

He stood for things I appreciate -- good leftist politics, catholicity of taste, classical forms of knowledge -- and for things that kind of hurt me -- e.g., he was a Lutheran, but not of the very-good sort, and he enjoyed finding the Achilles heel in Lutheranism. I only met him once, but we established a quick Icelandic bond -- stop by for coffee, he said in his breathy-smoker-high-on-the-palate voice; we'll find out who our common relatives are; stop by any time. And those who knew him well confirm that the invitation was sincere (and of course, with my well-Minneota-will-always-be-there approach to anything, I lost the chance -- to my disappointment and grief).

He was, of course, not what most people would consider a saint. He had something of a mouth, I'm told. He smoked and ate too much. He could be irrascible, I suppose -- as only children can tend to be. And he didn't seem to tolerate fools well. But what can I say? That sounds like the perfect friend.

His little book Music of Failure is, I think, my favorite. And I'll try to get it down tonight and find a little passage to post. For now, I'll link to Garrison Keillor's touching reflection on this good man.

Storing up Treasures

I think no issue is given greater attention in the Bible than is wealth, and specifically the accumulation of wealth. The prophets (Amos among the most caustic) saw in the accumulation of wealth and in the refusal to share that wealth the clearest statement possible of Israel's religion: It wasn't fear and love and trust in and of God; it was fear, love, and trust of riches. And how many times does Jesus warn of the dangers of money and its accumulation?

Keeping in mind that I think the economic challenges of the world (including consumerism, greed, graft, hording, mean giving -- to name but a few) are of far greater theological significance in the Bible than with the gender of a person one sleeps with in a committed and "faithful" relationship, you might find this commentary, which appeared on The Forward's weekly newsletter, to be interesting. I think the (note: conservative) author's call for foundations to expend themselves within 50 years to be intriguing and in the Biblical spirit!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Interesting "Read" on the Pope's Appointments

John Allen writes an interesting column for the National Catholic Reporter. Today he has a really interesting interpretation of Pope Benedict's appointment of bishops in America. Allen seems to have a good take on this matter, and I'm heartened by his analysis. If what he is saying is true, I think the Pope is doing the right thing -- OK, perhaps I'd like more center-left bishops than center-right. But these choices tend to confirm my hopes for this Papacy. I am, however, sorry about the successor to Archbishop Harry Flynn in St. Paul-Minneapolis: He seemed to be gracefully open to conversation, to respectful dissent within the Church, to ecumenical cooperation in the cause of justice and peace. His successor seems more ham-fisted, but perhaps the Spirit will move him in the direction of his predecessor.

In any event, it will be interesting to see whether the problematic episcopacy of confrontation will be less in evidence with respect to the Church's relations with the Obama administration than was suggested by the tone in the election. The issue of abortion is rightly of primary concern to the Catholic Bishops. But by the Church's own teaching (reiterated by both the prior and current popes) recognizes that in a two-kingdom world (to borrow a non-Catholic phrase), principles of proportionality must be accounted along with a concern for purity.

From a practical standpoint, the far-right conservatives have had control of the government in the recent past -- arguably all three branches. And efforts toward restricting or reducing abortions were all but absent. Perhaps the college of bishops in America will come to some consensus that if they cooperate with efforts to establish justice and community, in contrast to the recent efforts to baptize unfettered supposed market capitalism, they can turn the tide on abortion -- at least dramatically reducing the numbers of abortions. That seems to be something the center-right segment of the bishops' conference can understand.

Finally, I'll be interested to see the degree to which Allen's kind of analysis will play out in the CCET's conference (being held in cooperation with the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center) on the continuing relevance -- or not -- of Vatican II. The sorts of issues that Allen raises, along with recent liturgical reforms and various reports of the current Pope's dissatisfaction with the ripples started by the Council, should underscore the importance of considering just that question during the fiftieth anniversary of the summoning of the Council. In short, the relevance of our conference on the relevance of the Council seems to increase every week. Hope to see you there. (OK, that's a shameless plug, I suppose; but that's one function I can serve for the Center.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In a Land Called "Holy"

"[T]here is no denying that the ethnic cleansing of [indigenous Palestinians by Zionists in} 1948 has been eradicated almost totally from the collective global memory and erased from the world's conscience. Imagine that not so long ago, in any given country you are familiar with, half of the entire population had been forcibly expelled within a year, half of its villages and towns wiped out, leaving behind only rubble and stones. Imagine now the possibility that somehow this act will never make it into the history books and that all diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict that erupted in that country will totally sideline, if not ignore, this catastrophic event. I, for one, have searched in vain through the history of the world as we know it in the aftermath of the Second World War for a case of this nature and a fate of this kind. There are others, earlier, cases that have fared similarly, such as the ethnic cleansing of non-Hungarians at the end of the nineteenth century, the genocide of the Armenians, and the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi occupation against travelling people (the Roma, also known as Sinti) in the 1940s. I hope in the future that Palestine will no longer be included in this list.

This is from Ilan Pappe's book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) at p. 9. It is a summary and raison d'etre for his wrting thte book. Pappe is an Israeli-born historian who teaches history in Britain. His website is here. This book is an effort to correct the "narrative" surrounding the beginnings of the modern state of Israel by means of the displacement of its Arab population. I know that the book is controversial, but so far I have only read negative reviews by those inclined to the Zionist or pro-Israel side of the story; others have been much more positive.

I think that we USAmerican Christians must come to grips with the facts in the Middle East. And chief among those facts are that we have betrayed the cause of justice and peace by our (often intentionally ignorant) support for the modern state of Israel at all costs. As Christians and as USAmericans, we should get the history straight and work for a revision of American foreign policy that will allow for a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This book is saddening me, sickening me, angering me, and judging me. I think we should all read it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I'm intrigued by intersections and coincidences, and today has a doozy: Today is the 200th natal anniversary (read: birthday) of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Most people can say nothing bad about Lincoln and an enormous number of Christians seem to be able to say nothing good about Darwin.

I'm a fan of Lincoln's: I'm not a groupie or anything like that -- although I have a good number of books that collect his writings, that analyze his rhetoric (e.g., Gary Wills' wonderful, Lincoln at Gettysburg), that look at his leadership. I think it undeniable that he is much more sophisticated that we are often led to believe and that he stands as one of the supreme American rhetoriticians. As convoluted as my thinking about the Civil War is, I have no doubt that the Gettysburg Address is dang near a perfect work of art.

I know less of Darwin, although the theological journal, Word and World, published by Luther Sem, has a nice set of essays on the significance and/or problems Darwin has for the Church's teaching. I personally have not been able to perceive any conflict between at least a humble form of natural selection and the teachings of Genesis 1. In fact, Leon Kass, I think it is, has a really nice essay in The Beginning of Wisdom, on the congruity of the Genesis accounts of the creation of the animal world and the finds of evolution scientists.

Both men had a hand in re-shaping the world, though obviously in different ways and on different stages. I wonder whether there are any lessons to be drawn or proposed on the coincidences of their birth: issues of faith, or of making one's way though uncharted waters with wide-open eyes and awe before God, or ... .

In any event, it's worth raising a glass to the two of them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Of Marginal Theological Import ...

I suppose, but if one is an Incarnational Christian, then all of creation is included in salvation (contrary to what we may have discussed in the Jenson seminar on anthropology back in the '70s). So it is not only good news to me, but worthy of others' note that an old (10-year-old) Sussex Spaniel, Stump, won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club. (I don't have cable TV, but in February, I always regret that, because I love the WKC show and I can't see it without cable.)

As I said elsewhere re: Stump's win: Old dogs don't need to learn new tricks; they can win with and teach the old ones.

I love Spaniels -- in fact, I've never met a Spaniel I didn't love. So how about a festival Te Deum for Stump?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Do you suppose ...

that I'm naive to hope that all those dogmatic-theologian-ethicists who have been obsessed with the issues of homosexuality might, with news that 600,000 people lost work in the last month alone (resulting in an under-reported unemployment rate of 7.6%) might pay some attention to the issues of run-away capitalism, idolatrous consumerism, need for contributions to food pantries, importance of seeing congregations as communities of support for the members who are less well-off than others, and pastors who can more readily (and enthusiastically) discuss the details of their retirement plans than of the Holy Trinity?

Just wondering.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

R.I.P., John Updike -- more

This is a good an obituary of and paean to John Updike as I have seen. I commend it to you.

The New Russian Patriarch

Blessings on and prayers for His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and All Russia. He was enthroned on 1 February. There is information and some nifty pictures here.

Following is an excerpt from his enthronement address to those gathered (including the Russian President and his string-puller, Vladimir Putin

To combine Orthodox faith and the moral of the Gospel with the everyday thoughts and hopes of people means to help them answer the most difficult philosophical and ethical questions of our time. Faith will be understandable and in real demand, irrespective of the variety and discrepancy of views and convictions in society, only when people realize and feel deeply the unquestionable rightness and power of the message which God Himself is sending to people in His revelation. Human thoughts and human words cannot be stronger than the Word of God. If this obvious truth is not evident to many people, this means that the beauty and persuasiveness of the Divine Word is obscured by that what we today call the ‘human factor.’

The witness of the Church to the world presupposes not only the sermon in church, but also an open, friendly and interested dialogue, in which both sides are both speaking and listening. The truths of faith become at least understandable through this dialogue, as they come into creative and living contact with the thoughts and convictions of people. The Church enriches herself through this dialogue with the knowledge of what contemporary people are with their way of thinking and their questions to the Church.

This kind of dialogue facilitates a greater understanding among people of different views and convictions, including their religious beliefs, and promotes the consolidation of peace and accord in our societies and states. The relations between the Church and the State should develop in the framework of a friendly dialogue and cooperation on the basis of the Constitution to serve the good of the Church and the state and the good of people.

The Primates of all Local Churches are called to care for the unity of Universal Orthodoxy together with their brothers from other Churches. I thank the first hierarchs and representatives of the Holy Orthodox Churches present here for our common prayers, and I state that I shall always be open to dialogue with the sister Churches and to common efforts which would help us strengthen and improve all-Orthodox cooperation and to attain more coordination of our pastoral and missionary efforts.

For the most part, not bad, I think. (I recognize that I may overly optimistic in my interprestation of the Patriarch's reference to the "sister Churches." Does he mean only those Churches gathered around the Eastern patriarchs, or does he implicitly acknowledge an ecclesial reality in the other traditions, too?) It's reminiscent of some of the sentiments of Vatican II's readiness to engage in conversation with the "separated brethren," with the Church's cultured despisers, and with those who just don't get what the Church stands for. Principled and respectful dialogue is the way to go (also in secular foreign affairs, if I may inject a political note -- but then Patriarch specifically addresses his nation's political leaders, so I can't be too far inappropriate).

As the World Intersects

Does anyone share my suspicion that, with his recent move to de-ban the Lefevrites and his problems with cabinet nominees' choices of really bad tax accountants, the Pope and President Obama may soon be meeting for mutual consolation (and perhaps a glass or two of Limoncello)?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Anti-War Films

I'm interested in developing a list of high-quality films that deal with themes of opposing war and/or violence, peacemaking, and the like. After my wife and I saw Joyeux Noel (which bowled us over), I began to look around -- sort of haphazardly, I admit. Now we have seen the 1956 (!) Japanese film, The Burmese Harp, and I'm urged on in my mission.

Harp is set at the end of World War II -- in Burma, as one might expect from the title (although most of the filming was done in Japan). It "chronicles a Japanese soldier's transformation after coming face to face with the human cost of war" (to quote the Netflix jacket). Corporal Mizushima is sent to persuade a hold-out company of Japanese soldiers that they should surrender, since Japan herself has surrendered. But when they refuse, he ends up the sole survivor of a British rocket attack on the soldier's fortress. On his lonely trip back to his regiment, which have been interned in a POW camp to await their return to Japan, he is overwhelmed by the carnage he sees. And he changes his path in order to serve a higher purpose.

In addition to the touching story line, there is amazing black-and-white photography (the director has clearly studied Kurosawa), lovely character development -- and music (also perhaps not surprising, given the title). Mizushima plays a Burmese-styled harp with grace and beauty with the encouragement of his company commander, who is himself a trained musician who turns the troupe into a choir. So there is gorgeous male-chorale singing (involving both Japanese and British/Indian troops). And the score includes a most effective use of what came to be Bach's "O Sacred Head Now Wounded."

Kathy cried through much of the last half hour of the movie -- with good reason, I admit. And I heartily recommend it.

Next, I'm planning to revisit All Quiet on the Western Front. I read the novel way before I could make sense of it, but was moved by it to think about the immorality of war even in middle school. So I need to see the movie again.

But I'm wondering what you think should go on the list. I've seen lots of pro-war movies that have made me understand the insanity of war, and I suppose they could go on the list. And I know of movies that accurately portray the horrors of war, and those are valuable, too. But at this point, I'm especially interested in pictures that are or seem to be explicit in their criticism of war as a solution to anything or that promote a self-conscious (or maybe I mean self-aware) pacifism.

Here's your chance to help me out.