Constantine, Christendom, and Culture

Wichita, Kansas is something of an Orthodox hub for mid-America. A number of Lebonese people immigrated there several generations ago, and founded two vibrant Orthodox communities. Our Antiochian cathedral is there, as is Bishop Basil, and the founders of Holy Trinity church in Santa Fe were chrismated there. There’s also an excellent bookstore, Eighth Day Books, that specializes in classics and Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Inklings, etc) books and icons. I had heard of them before because their owner, Warren, sets up a book fair at St John’s College and Holy Trinity every summer.  I was there a few months ago to visit the bookstore on their 25th anniversary with some friends, and back last weekend for a conference at St. George’s Cathedral on Constantine, Christendom, and Cultural Renewal. This is their fourth annual conference, with previous topics that included Inklings, Dostoevsky, and Harry Potter.

These are my people. If I were able to triangulate my exact position within the various sub-cultures and cultural strands that I most identify with, it would end up pretty much at the Eighth Day Institute + some Southwest-ness. At one point on Friday I was in an optional session in side chapel, and was given a handout with collected quotes. The first 4 quotes were Elder Porphyrios (whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet), G K Chesterton, Wendell Berry, and C S Lewis on poetic imagination. St Maximus the Confessor also showed up. I looked at the paper and thought:  yup, these are my people. At one point someone started a lecture on Christendom with Kierkergaard. We had a St Anthony Banquet with mini lectures and wine. Someone mentioned knowing a guy who was sending people to Georgia to learn to conduct supras and bring them to America.

It was delightful, and a little disconcerting.

Most of the pillar lectures were about Emperor Constantine. They were all fine, but there wasn’t in them that I feel compelled to share. If you do care about Constantine, you might want to check out Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart, keynote lecturer and First Things blogger. He’s a solid speaker, so his writing is probably good as well. 

The part that really caught my attention was Vigen Guroian’s talk about culture. Last night I went to a lecture at St John’s by Frank Pagano, a delightfully wry East Coast tutor, on Spengler, Bacon, Western Culture, and what, if anything, is worth defending about post-Englightenment culture. Spengler was characterized as a dogmatic nihilist who says things like “thought is death,” and asserts that when a culture becomes a civilization it is in the winter of its life cycle and is already dying or dead. He also claims that the Western understanding of space and number is inconceivable in many other cultural contexts, including classical Greece, which is intriguing.

For me, the hook in these culture lectures wasn’t so much the specific claims of what our culture is or is not like, how to reform it, or the likelihood of its imminent demise, as simply looking at Western Culture as something we’re responsible for. I want to explore that at some point, but haven’t worked out how yet.

My usual upside-down basket tea table set-up


I had over 800 posts, some 50 of which were on another blog I hadn’t touched in years, so I’ve been trying to do a bit of blog curating. Ideally that would have involved more actual reading and considering, but it takes quite a lot of time simply to organize categories, since they’ve changed a fair amount over the years. I have nine years worth of blog posts (including the ones I brought over from the other platform)! That seems kind of crazy. And after deleting or condensing almost 100 posts, I still have over 750 left, which is cumbersome, but I’m not up to trying to straighten them out any more at present.

Also, there’s a Kosovo count-down.


First, I’ve got to say that tabbed browsing, for all its good points, is a terrible distraction, and I’ve got some terrible habits that I just don’t care enough about to try breaking. I just checked on Facebook and my own static web page three times in the past five minutes for no reason at all. Moving on…

At one point, when I had recently graduated and was pretty frustrated with teacher applications, where they kept insisting I put a bold face on all my insecurities regarding my own worth as a teacher, lesson planner, and employable human being, I had a vague desire to work “at a shop” where they didn’t expect much commitment, and where they wouldn’t ask me if I were a passionate change agent. I’ve since concluded that I misunderstood. It’s really difficult to spend a third of one’s time doing anything and fail to become at least somewhat invested in what they are doing. Unless it’s pretty worthless work, in which case you wouldn’t stay if you could help it.

So I’ve been working at this credit union. And it’s a good one: most everyone there genuinely wants to do right by their members. They want to help them make good choices and use their money well. And I’m pretty sold on lending being a good tool when used well (of course it’s not always used well), and think it’s worth teaching people how to save, use credit well, and so on. So when I encounter passionate anti saving and lending articles like this one, I find his conviction admirable, but am not at all sold. Not even if “the Church consistently anathematized lending-at-interest for over 1000 years.”

But that doesn’t mean that I necessarily want to write about financial stuff when I can help it. Make a goal. Make it SMART. Yup, that’s an acronym. Make a plan. Stick to your plan. Build your credit. Here’s how. It’s solid enough, and worth saying, but not by me. Not here.


Bookstore Road trip

I spent this past weekend about equal parts in a car, and at a bookstore in Kansas, celebrating the 25th anniversary thereof. I had encountered the owner thrice in book fair form, but never in person. While it is an excellent place (specializing in Orthodoxy and classics, like if you put the bookstores of St John’s College and St Anthony’s Monastery into a lovely old two story house, with a children’s hole in the basement and attic office), I mostly wanted to go on a little adventure with some friends (one of whom used to work there, and so had actual reasons for celebrating their anniversary). Which was lovely. I also got to visit the Wichita art museums and our diocesan cathedral of St George. Also, I wound up with a book called Person and Eros, by a prominent Greek philosopher who, unbeknownst to me, is interested in Heidegger, and so produces sentences like “personal otherness (otherness of existence or energies or ‘deeds’ of the energy), as starting point and recapitulation of an integral mode of existence, proceeds any intellectual definition of essences or phenomenological onticities.” My friend (the one who worked there) likes him very much, and I’ve no doubt that he has something worthwhile to say, if only I can get past stuff like that and figure out what it is he’s talking about.

I’m still going to poetry class, and still failing to write any poems for it. Today was about concrete poems and haiga (a short poem paired with an image). I got there a third of the way in, while the teacher was showing examples of concrete poems, and then some art supplies were pulled out and we were invited to make a haiga of our own, with a drawing or collage. I wrote self-diagnostic stuff on the theme of “why am I not making a collage?” It would have been more fun to have made a collage with some words on it and found some excuse for naming it Phenomenological Onticities, but apparently I wasn’t up to it. Or about our bookstore road trip, but I wasn’t even up to that. Ah, well.

More poetry class

As I got off work this afternoon, I was thinking about how we think about money, because that’s something that comes up a good deal at a credit union. So I got in my car while thinking about that, and drove to the grocery story, continuing to think, meaning to write. Then I went to poetry class. There aren’t a lot of poems about how people think about money, so everything fermenting in my brain oozed out and evaporated. Also, poetry class has mostly been stressful and unproductive lately. I suppose that, as a very timid poet, I ought to be writing about very obvious things, like trees and sunsets and summer days. Because those things are universal and concrete. Also, I’m pretty literal.

In class, we’re given assignments like this: “here’s an example of a ballad. Here’s a well translated page of Beowolf . Here’s an example of a blues poem. Write an anglo saxon poem with two strong beats in every half line and a caesura in the middle. You have ten minutes. Ok, your ten minutes is up. Who would like to read? Now you’ll do a collaborative ballad. You have ten minutes.

This seems to work for some people. Some people, meanwhile, have no idea whatsoever how to do anything of the sort. Apparently I’m one of those people. My notebook for today is a stream of consciousness ramble about how I’m supposed to be making an anglo-saxon rhythmic poem with two beats on every half line and three alliterative beats in a line if I can, and how I’ve got nothing to work with here, inside my head. Our teacher is perfectly fine, but although this is “intro to poetry,” it seems like I need to start in “remedial poetry,” where we start with trees, sunsets, and seasons. Not that there is such a class.

The other day we had an exercise where we were supposed to compare someone to something in nature. It was a fine exercise as such things go. It was also painful and stressful for me. I kept going down a list of people I knew and trying to pair them with natural things, and I hated all of them. C is a… volcano? M is a… swamp? G is a… bird? Gah!

In another exercise, we were asked to make a list of words that didn’t quite rhyme, trade them with a neighbor, and then make poems where the list of words ended the lines. I had:

I glared at the list for ten minutes, until our time was up. Apparently it was not in my zone of proximal development. Of course, the class is of mixed skill levels, and most of my classmates have much more ready faculty with these things. Nevertheless, I must stick up for literalists and say that if a beginning poetry class is too hard for people who don’t already know how to write poems, then that’s a problem. Things have mostly been downhill since the prosish poem about C’s room, and a description of my parent’s kitchen that was just straight up textured prose, without line breaks or anything.


A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt

Quick summary: Pagitt has totally valid concerns about the strain of Christianity with which he is primarily interested, and a really wonky understanding of the history of the Faith, which is  difficult to get past.

I’ve got to say, right from the start, that I am not the ideal audience for this book. The main thrust is that the author has been told or believed all sorts of things about Christianity, and the content of our faith, which lots of people do, in fact, believe and teach, and which Orthodox vehemently do not. However, Orthodox generally have a very strong sense of having a corporate history with people, places, and events where the Church stood up for those things we do believe, and rejected those things which we don’t. Not only do we believe that icons are right and proper — we have a holiday celebrating that and name it “the triumph of Orthodoxy,” where we process around the church each holding an icon and conclude “this is the faith that has established the cosmos!” Not only do we believe Arius to have been wrong — we talk about St Nicholas punching him and God smiting him. Not only do we believe material objects and bodies to be good — we kiss the bodies of the saints and have myrrh that gushed forth from their bones. Most of the positive things Pagitt has intuitions about, we have songs and holidays about — most of the negative things we have anathamas against. But, as happens over two millennia, we have some other things too. We have theological distinctions that he would no doubt find unnecessary, and customs he would find antiquated. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they still have important reasons, which we happen to have forgotten for the time being.

There is a certain strain in Christianity that emphasizes dualism, tends towards radical predestination, goes on and on about “truth claims,” is inclined to say that at the time of the Crucifixion “the Father turned His back on the Son,” and is very into a kind of “justice” that is not just at all, while brushing past this by saying it’s simply a kind of divine justice we don’t understand. It’s a strain of Christianity that does not have a well defined label at present. Orthodox often call it “Western.” David B Hart often calls it gnostic. Western Christians who don’t believe it might say something about John Calvin or the Enlightenment or Reformed. I’ve never heard a term for it that is entirely satisfactory. Pastor Pagitt’s term for this thing is even more unsatisfactory, to the point of presenting a significant distraction. He calls it “Greek.” Only someone deeply ignorant of the position of Greek Christianity toward that understanding of God (the term “blasphemous” comes to mind) could ever use that label for that heresy. This is, again, deeply distracting, and infects the rest of the paragraph it appears in with cognitive dissonance — and, as of half way through a 230 p book, it’s been about every third page for the past 60 pages. It’s not a fluke, because, again, it happens all the time, and he brings Plato, Aristotle, and (of all things) Zeus into it. It’s like reading a supposedly factual book about the Southwest where the author keeps describing Phoenix but calling it “Santa Fe,” occasionally saying something that is actually true of Santa Fe — just enough to make you realize that they must really have conflated the two cities (while being utterly ignorant of the existence of the other major players in the area). They complain about the brutal heat and massive, flat stretches of Santa Fe, where the homes of 3 million people sprawl in a valley 80 miles wide, ringed by the Sangre de Cristos. Unless what you’re going for is alternate history, this is not alright. Just because the Jews were known to call everyone else Greek, that doesn’t mean a modern American can show the same lack of proper discrimination. I do have the same complaint against the sloppy use of “Western” in Orthodox circles, but at least the phenomenon that’s being described really has been highly influential in Western Europe.

A friend who’s very interested in Emergent Christianity lent me “A Christianity Worth Believing” by Doug Pagitt, and suggested I read it. Ignorance concerning Greece aside, it’s not a bad book. He encountered a lot of the same things that so many thoughtful Christians have: people are going around trying to defend God’s actuality, sovereignty and justice in all kinds of crazy, heretical ways, and that’s no good. He grew up agnostic, never even hearing the Gospel until he was 16, when his friend invited him to an Easter Passion play. He “wanted in on it,” and became a Christian. They subjected him to the standard battery of “spiritual laws” booklets and metaphors involving chasms, trains, and probably cars (though he hasn’t mentioned that one specifically).

He was also introduced to the kind of Christianity Fr. Stephan Freeman calls the “Two Story Universe.” That’s the rigidly divided sort of place wherein God is “up there,” and every once in a while comes down to hit one of the kids who’ve done something wrong. Proponants of this view like to stress that God is “omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent” and so on, and ignore the way in which He is also “everywhere present and filling all things.” He found out about Holistic stuff, Quantum stuff, and other integrated sorts of things, and was floored by them. Later in the book I think he’s going to also talk about how, no, really, we should try to “bear one another’s burdens.”

I’m totally sympathetic to Pastor Pagitt’s understanding of all this. That whole gnostic mess is a mess, and isn’t true. He has a nice writing voice, tells some good personal anecdotes, is pleasant to read, and is spot-on that “God’s ways are not our ways” does not mean it’s right to follow a god that makes creatures some of which are predestined to eternal damnation, some of which only get out of it because an innocent victim is punished instead, and call that just. It’s easy to empathize with his own story and those of some of the people he knows, and in generally the things that he finds repugnant in (for want of a better tern) gnostic Christianity, really are problematic. I don’t believe them to be true either. The emphases he ran into that didn’t make sense to him didn’t make sense to me either.

However, Pagitt is appallingly bigoted about the ancients. The chapter entitled “When Different Was Good” (p 38-50), which presents his account of orthodox Christianity, makes my brain go all squishy. For instance:

By the time Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, it was so deeply a Greek expression that not only had the Jewish heritage faded, but many Christians were fearful of the Jews, and a deep conflict between Jews and Christians was common. This marked quite a change. The influence of telling a dynamic Jewish story in and through multiple cultures was replaced with a Greek monocultural expression of Christianity. It is from within this fully Greek worldview that much of our “official” modern Christianity arose.

He writes like someone who has never read the book of Acts, where the development of the conflict between Jews and Christians, especially Greek Christians, is not exactly subtle. And also like someone who has never chanted Psalms at Vespers, to mark the beginning of the new day (as the Greeks did, an adaptation from the Jews). And what of Egypt, that great center of Christian philosophy? And what about what those Greeks actually said — about hypostatic union, theosis, energy and essence, Christ as “Theanthropos,” the “Spirit of Truth who is everywhere present and filling all things,” noetic vision? What of “God became man that man might become god?” What about St John Chrysostom preaching on our responsibility to the poor?

Of course, I wouldn’t do so well if I had to write a ten page account of the history of Christianity from memory, either. And, yes, there were Greek gnostics. Sometimes a lot of them. Still, this is a public book, which did not have to be written from memory, and deserves better than an overview of Christianity that suggests that the author has never given serious thought to anything the people he’s mentioning actually said, because he can’t get past the fact that a lot of them belonged to a particular culture.

My mind has become a little gloopy, both because my own understanding of history is not terribly precise, but much more because what gets lost in all these assertions about what ancient Christians may or may not have been like is the assertion that those beliefs, whatever they were, was perfectly right and fitting for those people, then, but not for us, now, simply *because* our culture is different in certain undefined ways. Which is an assertion liable to gloop up brains, because it’s pooling a lot of different things, some of them historically inaccurate, into the same basic pool. It’s pulling together things like “the world is flat” (which the Greek philosophers *did not* believe), “spirit is good, matter is bad” (which the gnostics believed, and the Councils did not), “Christ is fully God and fully man,” along with things like the custom of reserving the balcony at the cathedral for the empress’s entourage, or using certain poetic forms for prayer rather than others, or what style of singing (or chant) is most appropriate for worship. The distinction between the universal assertions about God which were either right or wrong then, and are either right or wrong now, and which couldn’t possibly have been right then and have gradually become wrong (like gnosticism), and the things which were customary then and not now, and which it’d be well not to insist on (like speaking Greek) is often signified as “Tradition” and “traditions” in Orthodoxy. Orthodox sometimes go to far in insisting on every tradition all the time. As far as I can tell, Pagitt doesn’t even think it worth distinguishing at all.

Briefly noted

roasted-potato-green-chile-salad3Some churches have Baklava bakes. We have green chili peeling parties. Ah, New Mexico.

Prior to the green chili peeling we celebrated the Birth of the Theotokos, the first great feast of the liturgical year, which started on September 1st. The second feast follows closely, with the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross this coming Saturday. Father John gave a homily referencing several of those given by Byzantine saints. I can’t remember for certain which ones. Here’s such a homily by St Andrew of Crete, which may of may not have been among those mentioned. Just in case you’re interested.

I also got to meet up with a fellow Teach and Learn With Georgia English volunteer, which was lovely.

I read about half of Rachel Held Evans’ blog posts, because she has a nice writing voice, and talks about things I understand, even if I’m not much involved in them. Today she posted an extremely favorable review of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. I have no intention at all of reading it, but did enjoy watching the author, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, present her testimony. She’s an engaging speaker, and I was struck by how much easier it is to enjoy hearing other people’s life journey tales when one isn’t preoccupied with feeling terribly boring for never having even wanted to rebel in the ways described (and mostly repented of) by the speaker. I like that I can disagree with her on a lot of things, and that’s alright — I don’t have to, and am not expected to, especially as our churches aren’t in communion — and I don’t think she would be upset about that in the least. I especially liked her description of her introduction to Lutheran liturgy.

Things look different mostly because I’m trying to be more tablet friendly. Not that anyone is necessarily trying to read this on a tablet, but I tried a couple of times on an e-reader, and it was tiny and caused errors. Should be better now, though the other theme was rather more attractive in general.

On Friday St John’s had a lecture on Solzynitzen and the need to actively and even violently resist “radical evil.” The quotes are there because everyone’s thinking about Syria at present, and the awful mess they’re in, and also how both sides in the conflict apparently have a fair amount of evil to them. The Christians I met there preferred President Assad, because at least he didn’t want to harm the minorities that presented no threat to his power, as the Christian communities don’t. Which certainly isn’t a hearty endorsement, but the fear was and is that the opposition could be far worse. And their actions haven’t done anything to suggest otherwise. In any event, at the lecture I learned that Solzynitzen wrote a 5,000 page book in multiple volumes on the theme of the Russian Revolution, called The Red Wheel. ‘Tis a metaphor. I’m supposed to be on the lookout for metaphors, for poetry class. The book is still being translated into English and is not in print yet, because… 5,000 pages. The image is apparently one Lenin used, of an accelerating train wheel; Communism with the weight of history and inevitability behind it. The speaker contrasted Tolstoy’s belief in the inevitability of history, which had largely been adopted by the Russian court, and which led to innervation in much of the Czarist army, especially its commanders, and Solzynitzen’s critique of that mentality, personified in The Red Wheel in a great Russian General who was assassinated before the revolution, but whose name I didn’t write down.

Saturday morning I went to an educational training at a small school and tutoring center where I would like to tutor if I can. It was good. Three hours long, sensible, with some interesting information. They specialize in teaching students with “learning differences,” specifically in the core studies of reading, writing, and math, especially dyslexia. That is indeed a euphemism, but may be a helpful one. My favorite part was about how some students need to be explicitly taught “executive functioning skills,” like planning with a calendar, keeping track of time on a clock, organizing their backpacks, flagging their planners, and so on. It reminded me of being an extremely unsuccessful study skills teacher, because I didn’t have anything explicit to teach or insist on. In general, I like their insistence on being very explicit, systematic and concrete with students who are struggling, and not trying to be innovative in unhelpful ways. I have often felt at educational trainings that “research,” usually poorly described, is being used as a bludgeon or an extra burden on already overwhelmed teachers, and was pleased to find that while neuroscience and educational research underlies many of their strategies, they take responsibility for translating that into concrete lessons, rather than using it to imply vaguely that you’re a bad teacher, and therefore a bad person, for not doing so yourself. As has often happened to me before.

Leslie Hansard has written an article about this year’s trip to Moldova (the same one I went on last year), which I would recommend, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. It’s well written and not hyperbolic.


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