Saturday, January 30, 2010

Japan's Hidden Christians

Some time ago I wrote a post about Japan's Kakure Kirishitan, the "Hidden Christians" who maintained an underground Church for two centuries, in spite of persecution and with virtually no clergy, using clever methods such as disguising their statues of Our Lady as Kannon (see left).

Since then I discovered that The Lion & the Cardinal has written about them as well, also posting a passage from Christal Whelan's The Beginning of Heaven and Earth: The Sacred Book of Japan's Hidden Christians.

Enduring persecution is always impressive, but I am even more impressed by these Christians' willingness and ability to carry on without a hierarchy, the texts of the faith or open rituals.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Less is More

Last night a friend passed along a link to this blog. In spite of the wall-to-wall news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and the subsequent relief effort, a brief blog post more pointedly described the human loss than any of the news I have seen. Take a look.

If you are interested in helping, here is one place to do so.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Best Line of Defense

In the aftermath of the Christmas Day attempted terrorist attack, there has been a flurry of articles and blog posts criticizing TSA (and various other government agencies). This one confirmed what I've long suspected: "What this, Flight 93, and the Richard Reid incident have shown us is that the best line of defense against airplane-based terrorism is us. Alert, aware, informed passengers."

That, in turn, got me thinking. Why not do away with the hassle of TSA screening by simply having all passengers sign the following statement before they fly?

So long as I live, I will make every effort to ensure that no terrorist hijacks or harms the aircraft on which I fly.

Given that TSA has an annual budget of nearly $7 billion (and likely to rise), this would be a great way to save money as well.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Pardon me if I do a little bragging here, but I would just like to announce that I've now finished reading a really long book: Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

How long a book is it? My single-volume edition is 1150 pages.

What makes the book so long? The book is a record of the author's six-week journey through much of Yugoslavia in 1937, including her reflections on everybody she met and everything she saw, and just about everything that popped into her head--with lots of historical background. What preoccupied West most during her travels--and what drew her attention to the Balkans in the first place--was the political situation in Europe. West could sense a new world war in the offing, and was writing to warn her British audience of the imminent threat from the Nazis and Fascists. The danger posed by Germany and Italy colors much of her account. For instance, many reviewers have remarked on her nearly pathological hatred of everything German, Austrian, or Italian. She does not encounter a single good German in the book, except for some of the (dead) classic German authors and composers. This bias is understandable, given the time when she was writing, but does become tiresome after a while (especially for a Germanophile like myself). This bias perhaps also explains why she does not bother visiting Slovenia--that region of the former Yugoslavia was the closest geographically and culturally to Austria and Italy.

Moreover, her love of everything Serbian seems misguided in light of the civil war in the 1990's, though again it is understandable, given that at the time a strong Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the direction of the Serbs might have slowed down Hitler and Mussolini. The best characters in the book are Serbs, but she also seems blind to the faults of individual Serbs. Did Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand cause problems? Of course, World War I was a disaster! West nevertheless writes in glowing terms of the young terrorist, even lamenting the poor treatment he received in prison (the Austrians did not execute him because he was under 21). West also seems to be in constant search of the "Slavic essence," which she finds in the proud, indomitable, yet mystical Serbs.

The root of these skewed views is most likely her basically Romantic outlook. The quest for national and ethnic "essences" seems quintessentially Romantic. However, one would think that some German Romantics' obsession with "authentic Germanness" would have cured West of this sloppy habit of thought. She further reveals her Romantic attitudes in her "orientalist" treatment of the Turks. Her description of the savage, yet sensuous and urbane Turks sounds like it came straight out of 1,001 Nights. Finally, she focuses--like a good Romantic--on the "magical" element in religion. I nearly put the book down during the chapters devoted to Ohrid, when she kept using the word "magic" to describe the liturgy in Serbian Orthodox monasteries (picture right).

Besides tracing some of the ethnic tensions at work in pre-war Yugoslavia, West also sought to trace the underlying spiritual causes of the European crisis between the world wars, which she locates in the black lamb and grey falcon of the title. (I was more than 800 pages into the book before I found out what the black lamb referred to, and more than 900 pages in before I came across the poem about the grey falcon.) Europeans of all religions and ethnic groups--Christians, Jews, and Muslims; Serbs, Croats, Gypsies, and Albanians--are obsessed with death, and trying to bring good out of death, especially through bloody sacrifice. She even alleges that the Christian doctrine out of the Atonement is a result of this misguided urge. Her case is not convincing, and comes across as a confused, quasi-Freudian analysis of Thanatos.

But, here is the real question: Given all the book's flaws, why did I insist on finishing it? Am I just a glutton for punishment? First, West is a wonderful writer, with a true talent for description. For example, she meets a landlady in Montenegro who is a rather stern, majestic widow, and remarks that the landlady's husband seemed "specially dead." Second, despite all the disagreements I had with her, I must admit that West often raises good questions. She may not be answering these questions correctly, but at least she is asking them. In a way, she reminds me of Faust, who must err as long as she keeps striving, and is therefore saved in the critic's eyes. Finally, this is a travel book, and a good travel book is a lot of fun. This book let me imagine that I was taking a six-week journey (because that's the time it takes to finish the book) with a friendly, intelligent author, and discussing politics, history, and culture with her. Any travel book that can achieve that is worth reading.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two Distinctions Regarding Art

Art has a two-fold function. First, it should reflect the times, the zeitgeist, the present state of things. Second, it should be normative, describing how things ought to be. (These are, of course, two sides to the same coin, both manifestations of the Truth, but in practice they are fairly discreet functions.) Modern art, while embracing and more or less fulfilling the former function, has all but abdicated the latter. The films of Ingmar Bergman, the paintings of Pablo Picasso: these and other works are capable of describing - in often powerful and poignant ways - the alienation that modern man often feels from his work, his neighbors, his environment, his God and himself. Such works frequently convey the disorientation experienced in the modern age. But what they frequently fail to provide is a normative direction, an orientation which can remedy the disorientation of modern life.

This shortcoming, though unfortunate, is not entirely surprising. Providing both descriptive and normative content not only requires doing two things at once, but can have an added difficulty. In an age that frequently lacks direction, those in touch with the zeitgeist are themselves all too often lost; those with a sense of direction can sometimes be jarringly out of touch with those around them who lack such direction.

Without a normative dimension, descriptive art risks becoming self-referential. This happens for the simple reason that people look for and implicitly assume normative content. Thus, if someone sees a work which describes modern alienation, they are liable to assume that alienation is the proper response to the age. And they, in turn, will then produce works which describe their state of alienation. Without a normative dimension which can depart from the present state of things, descriptive art becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When, or how, did this state of affairs come about? Though no art historian, it seems to me a key turning point happened in the move from impressionism to expressionism, the second distinction I would like to make. Though there is sometimes a sort of middle ground between them where they can look similar, the concept behind each is quite different. Classical realism sought to depict things as they are, in literal physical detail. Impressionism - such as Monet's Impression, Sunrise, pictured right - was a kind of Kantian development of this approach, still representing physical things, but adding the subjective quality of depicting them as they appear to the artist' senses. Expressionism changed this approach in a radical way, turning art in upon itself and making the artist the subject.

There is, I think, I real connection between the descriptive/normative distinction and the impressionism/expressionism (world as subject/artist as subject) distinction. Unless one adheres to a philosophy that the answers to all life's questions and problems lie within one's self, normative statements must acknowledge the world around us. "I am miserable because my wife berates me all day, as a consequence of my treating her like I would a fork or knife." "My business is about to be ruined because erosion on the hill above us is triggering a mud slide which will soon envelope us." "The little birds that sing outside my window put me in a good mood." "My soul finds rest in God alone." All of these statements, though about the self, connect one's state of being - unhappiness, failure, happiness, tranquility - to things outside the self. All of these statements are, in fact, descriptive, but by taking into account some aspect of the world that surrounds us, they imply normative behaviors: The husband should quit objectifying his wife. The businessman should work to end the erosion, or move his business quickly (or both). The listener should continue listening to the birds. And the Pslamist should place his full confidence in God.

It comes as little surprise then that modern art, for all its descriptive power, is so rarely normative. Would we expect anything different from navel-gazing?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel

A few weeks ago this blog post came my way. It's a brief plug for the latest book in the publishing empire of Shane Claiborne, which, at last count, consisted of eight books (either individually authored or coauthored with others) and four DVDs. Claiborne is a Christian activist, a key player in the New Monasticism movement and a self-proclaimed Christian radical. As you might have guessed from the tone, I'm not much of a fan.

But before I get off criticizing Claiborne, let me say this: I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or his personal holiness. Claiborne says he is striving to follow Jesus, a claim I do not dispute. Indeed, if the world had more people like Shane Claiborne, it would be a better place.

But...? you ask. But in spite of his sincerity, I think there are problems with some of Claiborne's writings. Mostly they are faults of omission, emphasizing one part of Scripture or one kind of vocation, but downplaying another. We can't all talk about everything all the time, so this is not a damning criticism of his work, but I would caution readers to remember that he describes some ways of living out the Christian life, but not all.

My other major criticism of Claiborne is his unhistorical approach. For example, Claiborne likes to contrast the generosity and nonviolence of early Christians with the greed and violence of the Roman Empire. His conclusion? The Church is at odds with political power. This view, however compelling, is unhistorical. A quick look at some primary documents like those found in Hugo Rahner's Church and State in Early Christianity, reveal that early Christians, though skeptical of the Empire's abuses and pagan practices, were not categorically opposed to it. In fact, Christians prayed for the emperor and fought in his armies. This should not come as a surprise; the Gospels themselves do not preach the kind of political radicalism that Claiborne suggests. In fact, they seem rather ambivalent about politics. When asked by some soldiers what they ought to do, John the Baptist replied, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:14). Nothing about laying down one's arms or rejecting the emperor's authority.

But one also finds yet another kind of unhistorical approach in Claiborne's writings, the kind that struck me in the above-mentioned blog post: a general neglect of Christian tradition. Perhaps it is the product of a Protestant background which looks only to Scripture and tends to ignore the interpretation of Christians through the ages. Below you'll find the bit of video that post included, where Claiborne explains the importance of leadership and followership:

What I found rather amusing was the fact that Claiborne ever had the hope of building a leaderless community. I don't mean to make light of his idealism or naivete, but even a cursory reading of the literature of Christian communities - notably the "old monasticism" which he seeks to revive in a new way - would reveal the importance of leaders and followers in fruitful relationship with one another. Ever taken a gander at St. Benedict's Rule? The person of the abbot comes up all the time. Having studied other communities and lived community life himself, Benedict knew what he was talking about. Moreover, the fact that his Rule continues to bear fruit in monasteries around the world today is a tribute to its wisdom.

I am glad to see that Claiborne has moved beyond the failed experiment of a leaderless community, and I hope his latest book - which I have not read - is full of wisdom and insight and will be a blessing to Christians who read it. But one might ask: why reinvent the wheel, when 2,000 years of Christian history already hold these same insights?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bureaucratic Infighting: Yes, Prime Minister

For a more humorous look at the phenomenon I tried to describe yesterday, I heartily recommend the 1980's Britcom Yes Minister, and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister.

The show follows a fictional British cabinet minister, Jim Hacker (who becomes the prime minister in the sequel), as he tries to reform the Department of Administrative Affairs and trim the vast bureaucracy. At every turn, however, he is resisted by Sir Humphrey Appleby, the head civil servant in the department, who sees it as his mission to rise in the bureaucracy himself, to protect the jobs of other civil servants, and to deflect all accusations of misfeasance in the civil service. Over the course of 38 episodes, the show was able to cover the entire spectrum of British politics and bureaucracy.

Many of the references are uniquely British--such as Sir Humphrey's snobbish references to the "two universities" and the personal secretary's conern for niceties of Greek syntax--but can be picked up after a little background reading.

More importantly, although the show was made in the 1980's and thus contains a few out-dated references (e.g., the Soviets), it remains surprisingly topical today. For instance, the episodes about scandal in the City (the London equivalent of Wall Street) and bank bailouts could have been filmed this year. Here's the beginning of one episode--ignore the cheesy intro music:

(Here are part 2 and part 3 of the episode.)

But most amazingly in my opinion, everything about the foibles of politicians and bureaucrats rings so true. Yes, Prime Minister can be viewed as a sociology of bureaucracy. Quite an amazing accomplishment for a TV satire.

As a final aside, Yes, Prime Minister also touched on other topics. Here is a very funny explanation of the Church of England, which might explain the need for Pope Benedict's promulgation of Anglicanorum Coetibus:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bureaucratic Infighting: The Underwear Bomber

A few days ago, there was a headline on Shadow Government that read: "Someone's head should roll, but whose?"

The article was about the enormous bureaucratic mess-up that allowed the "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, to nearly blow up an airplane on Christmas Day. Somehow, despite several red flags--such as his stay in Yemen and warnings from his own father, a Nigerian diplomat, that his son had become a radical Muslim--Abdulmuttalab was allowed to board a plane into the U.S. Fortunately, it was Abdulmuttalab's own mistake which (apparently) saved all the passengers from death in the sky. It is a depressing story of mistake after mistake by various governmental agencies. President Obama has called the underwear bomber affair a "systemic failure" and promises to find out who was responsible for it. The article from Shadow Government posits one possible cause for this sytemic failure, besides individual stupidity: bureaucratic infighting.

In the U.S. intelligence community, there is an alphabet soup of agencies responsible for detecting and investigating these matters: FBI, CIA, NSA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security, and probably some others that I am forgetting. But, even though they all share the same mission of protecting American security, they do not all get along. Each one is jealous of the others, distrusts the others, and is generally nasty toward the others. And whenever something like the underwear bomber happens, they point their fingers at each other, never taking the blame themselves.

But, such is the nature of bureaucracies. Nearly every government agency wants more power and influence. The key way to grow in power and influence is to fight other government agencies for a larger share of the operating budget and of decision-making power. This is the classic example of a turf fight. Yet, each agency also tries to insulate itself from responsibility for its actions (or inaction, as the case may be). One way is to institute procedures so complicated and arcane that a failure to act can be attributed to a small mistake in procedure, over which it would seemingly be unfair to fire a bureaucrat. Moreover, there is in most bureaucracies an instinct to protect one's own, and never question someone from inside the agency. A related way to deter being held accountable is to blur the lines of communication, to make it unclear who has to report to whom.

But, whenever a big mistake occurs and lands the agency in the news, we are confronted with the essential question: "Whose head should roll?" However, the question of responsibility is not nearly as easy a question to answer. This is where Congressional investigative committees get involved. Independent investigations supposedly give the public a chance to find out the answer to this question. In reality, these investigations really give the chance to the different agencies involved in the mess to take their fight directly to Congress; they get to play the blame game in public, while making the public think that someone's head is going to roll.

And that, after all, is what we individual citizens demand from those in a position of authority: we want to see heads roll--at least metaphorical heads. In other words, we demand personal responsibility. However, bureaucracies are a maze of anonymous procedures, guidelines, and goals, and often real people are manipulating the twists of the maze to avoid responsibility. It's this use of anonymity to avoid responsibility, more than the sometimes epic bungling, I would venture, that we find most disturbing about bureaucracies.

A tad cynical? Perhaps. But, at least we can have a good laugh about all this tomorrow.