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These rough and undisciplined thoughts begin in politics, touch on art, but ultimately, I hope, plead for thoughtful engagement on persuasion to a more beautiful way of living. They have been catalyzed by the dismaying outcomes of the political processes of this election year. But they have been a realization that has been dawning for some time. Though I am going to attempt to be as charitable as I can in their expression, I doubt I can utterly diminish the deep frustration and irritation I feel at the state of the conservative movement and, relatedly, traditional, or small-o orthodox, conservative Christianity.

First, let’s just starkly admit the truth: political conservatives (and their conservative Christian allies) long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the young. We bolster ourselves with this or that poll which shows millennials more opposed to abortion on demand than at any other time since its legalization, or with this or that sociological study that similarly promotes a view of our youth as politically more conservative in this or that area of political life, which we most desperately want to be true. And to be sure, there are plenty of youth who are conservative politically or are devout adherents to traditional forms of Christianity. We ought to be heartened by these studies and polls, for they are heartening. But let us not lose sight of the larger reality that our society by and large is sharply opposed, and growing more so each day, to conservative political thought and to traditional Christianity.

Traditional, or conservative, Christians and political conservatives have lost the cultural and political battles. We have lost because we foolishly agreed to fight the battle on the one area that progressives will always win: moralism. Moralism is, fully and completely, the core of our civil religious life. Moralism is, simply put, the external adherence to a particular code of belief and behavior. Moralism is politically a more powerful weapon than reason and argument. It is more powerful because it relies on feeling and connotation, it is evocative. Moralism is entirely binary: this not that, good or evil, love or hate. And it is always a tool of comparison, to be used against an opponent. By comparison, we can free ourselves from condemnation: “I’m a good person, I’ve never murdered anyone.” We can even condemn someone with our faux humility: “Who am I to judge someone else?” Moralism always turns upon the personal, and always uses comparison and judgment as a tool for division and conquest. That is why it is so powerful politically.

So it is, that if a political group can fight on the ground of moralism, the more progressive side will always win the battle and the more conservative side will always lose. Conservatives cannot judge a moral act, because moralism makes such judgment personal–the political is always personal. Thus if we disagree with a particular action, then we condemn not the act but the person. Responses which run along the lines of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” are completely unpersuasive, because in a moralistic framework that is not possible.

There is no way for conservatives and traditional Christians to win on these moralistic battlegrounds. Conservatives and traditional Christians have tried by pitting one group of persons over against another: transgendered persons who want to use a particular bathroom versus young girls who are vulnerable to exploitation and assault, or unborn babies versus the mothers bearing them. And while sometimes these tactics work, temporarily, in the long run they will all ultimately fail because the battle is being fought within a paradigm that guarantees conservatives and traditional Christians will fail.

Part of the reason for this political failure (and the exacerbated acceleration of the fragmentation of the conservative movement in this election cycle) is due to the ceding of ground by conservatives and traditional Christians in the social and cultural life of our nation. Traditional Christians, among whom I list evangelicals (though clearly I am not using the term “traditional” in any technical sense), either simply have retreated from the public square (such are my fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians), or they have separated out into their Christian ghettoes with substandard and bastardized forms of media expression (and such are the evangelicals among whom I once considered myself a member, with their Christian rock bands, their Christian publishing houses, and their bald imitation of pop culture in their services and ministry efforts).

This laziness in engaging our public square and mainstream culture–or if not laziness, cowardice–has become, in part, the downfall of the conservative movement. Conservatives delighted to argue and form think tanks and advocate for this or that policy–if they were able to resist the lure of gilt and power and privilege in the hallowed halls of our bloated government. And while millionaire and billionaire donors were wont to give to this or that super PAC to prevail in this or that political contest, little of that money was invested in cultural and artistic endeavors. There were, of course, a few notable documentaries that were nothing more than the same morality tales that progressives told in their own documentaries. Bowling for Columbine or Hilary’s America? Opposite sides of the same moralistic coin.

And progressivist moralism will always feel better than conservative moralism. Both are the same form of binary legalism. Both have their own forms of damnation; with conservatives it’s Kafkaesque government that swallows up the individual, with progressives it’s being conservative.

But American Christianity (and here I want to exclude the Eastern Orthodox, which I will explain), is itself to blame for this moralism. American Christianity made a false dichotomy between law and grace. It wrongly excluded ascetic endeavor from grace, calling it works righteousness, and thus paved the way for its own expulsion from civic life. Ironically, however, what you did mattered a great deal as to whether you were truly a Christian or not. You could not make yourself one by doing this or that, but you sure could prove you were one if you did do this or that. Thus was born the moralistic framework that progressives used to dominate the cultural and political landscape.

To be sure, the progressivist worldview is an Enlightenment prejudice, the Enlightenment itself being an antithesis to Christianity, and into the vacuum created by the western schism (and the various schisms within Protestantism) the Enlightenment worldview rushed to become the predominant cultural view which then ate away at western Christianity from within. Thus progressivism is in many ways little more than the Enlightenment packaged as a form of civic religion, with Christian vocabulary (though increasingly less of that).

This progressivism infected artistic endeavors, with each successive transition in the arts seen as a progression, a forward evolution from what came before. From realism, to impressionism, to expressionism and onward, each new development somehow “more” than what came before. And while at various periods this or that artist (painter, writer, composer) held to one of the forms of Christian faith, such faith less and less informed that art form. After Bach came Wagner. First Milton, then Whitman.

This is why the ersatz “art” of twentieth century conservative American Christianity became so utterly banal, and is so utterly a failure. It appropriated art forms it did not understand, which had long ago left their Christian moorings, and inserted a moralistic “Gospel” into it without understanding how or even whether such things fit. And while western society moved further and further into the late Enlightenment (or postmodernism), conservatives (political and Christian) remained stuck within earlier forms of the Enlightenment, and progressives merrily sailed along on the currents of social mores. Both still utilized the tools of the Enlightenment, but conservatives used such things to construct, whereas progressives utilized them to deconstruct. And since progressivism won the cultural and political battles, conservatives were left speaking Anglo-Saxon in a land of twenty-first century slang.

So the arguments, art forms and speech of conservatives, political and religious, don’t communicate, aren’t persuasive and therefore are ineffectual. We are shouting at ourselves, but we are not making a dent in the public discourse, let alone transforming our cultural forms.

But the answer is not to become more postmodern than the progressives. We’ve already lost those battles with our Christian glam rock and our Kirk Cameron movies. The answer is not to fight a losing battle. Which means not to fight the battle as determined and as outlined by progressives.

This is where the pro-life movement can be illustrative. Rather than allowing itself to be shoved into the either/or box of moralism, the pro-life movement became the both/and way of life which loved the baby and loved the mother. Advocating for adoption of babies into loving homes so that they would have the resources and support and love they needed, or providing homes for expectant mothers to live in and be cared for while bringing their babies to term. Abortion on demand groups attempted to paint such endeavors within the either/or paradigm of loving or hating the women (and still do). But the quiet way of living exemplified in this way, powerfully affected the younger citizens in our society. And yes, reasoned arguments in the public sphere helped as well. But it was the powerful witness of people like these, including the courageous witness of Mother Teresa as a further example, a witness that did not allow the fight to continue in the either/or battle of moralism, that is prevailing.

Earlier, I excluded the Eastern Orthodox for two reasons: the first of which is that Orthodoxy did not participate in the Enlightenment, which was primarily a western phenomenon, and thus has been able to preserve its categories of thought and terms and practice across various languages and cultures; and the second of which, more negatively, is that Orthodox have been largely ghettoized by the manner in which Orthodoxy came to the United State via immigration. Orthodox comprise at best perhaps just under a million adherents here in the United States, and have not been in a position to have much cultural impact, as a group. Further, the Orthodox manner of enculturation is typically to embrace various aspects of a nation’s culture that are amenable to the Christian Gospel and from those leverage points to then transfigure the culture from within, such that it’s expression of the Orthodox Faith, while the same in substance to all other Orthodox churches, is yet culturally located. Unfortunately, however, the “culture” of the United States is neither monolithic nor really a culture in the traditional sense.

That is to say, at the root of all of this must be a way of living that eschews a binary moralism for a maximal experience. In Christian terms, it must be a way of life in which grace changes what we do and frees us from the bondage of moralistic legalism. It must be a way of life in which ascetic endeavor (caring for expectant mothers and their babies, say) is itself motivated from a previous transfiguring grace. Our artists must be disciplined by their art, and freed by their faith, expressing a view of a fallen world which is yet sustained by grace. Our politicians must have the courage and the will to resist the easy moralism of political discourse, rejecting its terms and making new arguments. This will mean the exploration of new forms of media, and the discipline to understand the media. It will mean hard, hard work to speak to shattered and fragmented audiences. It will mean the rigorous application of humility to engage constituencies hostile to the message. It will mean the discipline of learning how to communicate in new ways beyond binary moralism, and to do so with far less shouting and rancor. It will most assuredly mean the formation of new political parties, as the binary moralism has most definitely benefited specific entrenched groups to the determent of our political process.

In the end, it won’t be reasoned argument that ultimately persuades. Only beauty and goodness can do that. If we can’t make beautiful art, our fellow citizens will not leave their glittering images to hear us. If we can’t speak in beautiful ways, our fellow citizens will not stop shouting long enough to listen. If we fail to manifest the beauty of our way of life, our fellow citizens will not stop moving to behold that which is good. All we have done so far is to join with progressives in a war of coercion, in a contest to see who can exert their political will on another. We must, for the love of God, cease doing this. The will to power is satanic. Whoever lives by the will to power will die by the will to power. This is not the way of Christ. We must first, middle and last, be beautiful creatures of a glorious Creator. Not in the worldly way of beauty. But in the beautiful way of Christ our savior.

Because all politics is penultimate. But beauty is forever.

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If you DVR’ed the finale and haven’t watch it yet, do not read further. Spoilers ahead. And one bit of a disappointed rant on the finale.

(more…)

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You can read about it here and here.

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Facing the Giants

I recently watched the film Facing the Giants, that little underdog of a movie put out by Sherwood Baptist Church down in Albany, Georgia. For a 100G outlay it made 10 mil. It’s got all the pluses and minuses of such films, but I enjoyed it. I will always love that straightforward, ya-need-Jeezus-as-yer-Savior preachin’ that is all over the film.

Some things it brought home to me are:

  • Football is a divinely ordained sport
  • Smalltown high school football is the purest form of football
  • If the Desert Fathers had known of high school football, it would be all over the Philokalia
  • The “Death Crawl” is a forgotten asketical discipline recovered just in time for the making of the film (see clip below)
  • There’s just something deeply satisfying about that sound of the smack of shoulderpads and helmets, the screaming of coaches, the gruntin’ and the trashtalkin’, the familiar catchphrases–mmm, yeah, breathe it in.
  • Generally speaking, Smalltown USA is where it’s at
  • Sometimes religious cliches are deeper than they appear
  • Music is powerful–which is why the first things I “memorized” in Orthodoxy were the hymns sung every Sunday
  • God answers prayer–and prayer changes us
  • Scripture really is meant to be quoted in the midst of everyday life–even if the application is a bit stretched
  • Psalm 17:1-3 [18:1-3] rocks
  • In life, it’s all about praising God when you win and praising God when you lose
  • One-sentence sermonettes belong in the midst of everyday life
  • Sometimes God will go ahead and honor reckless, shameless faith–which is why sometimes football teams win games
  • The power of prayer is in a humble cry
  • I think more Christians should feel more led more often to say something for the Lord to their fellow Christians: and the story about the farmers and the rain is always a good one
  • Nothing is impossible with God
  • God has a redneck accent

Don’t quit and it’s all heart:

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poster.jpg I have been watching Ostrov (The Island) again (link is official movie site in Russian only). I’ve written about it before. It had a powerful impact on me in the beginning (last fall), and it’s impact has only grown, particularly during this past February.

That impact, put simply (and it joins nicely with the feast day of St. Elijah): the Christian life is more about what is not seen than what is seen. So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:1,3 NKJV)

In the movie, itself a piece of fiction, Fr Anatoli “sees” that the young woman standing before him is pregnant, though she has just found out herself and has not told him. He “sees” that the old woman’s purportedly dead husband is alive though unwell in France and wants her to come to him. He “sees” that the woman who brings her son to be healed need not go back to her job, because the company is on a three-day furlough due to busted plumbing. He “sees” the spirit inhabiting the young woman’s body, and, in a marvelously depicted scene, wages invisible battle against it as he casts it out. There is an aspect of reality that escapes most of his fellow monks, but one which, due to his dedication to God and to his own ascetical struggles, Fr. Anatoli apprehends. Even knowing ahead of time the day of his own death.

This isn’t the only, but it is, I think, a main difference between most of us Christians and the saints: the eyes of such saints see more than the empirical reality that is the sole focus of most of our days; these saints see the invisible reality that makes the visible possible. Saints like the Prophet Elijah. St. James tells us Elijah prayed and it ceased raining; and he prayed again and it started raining. The writer of the books of the Kings tells us of St. Elijah’s raising of the dead boy to life. And there are all the pyrotechnics: Mt. Carmel, the two fifty-man squadrons, the horses and chariot of fire. The Prophet Elijah saw what most of us do not see.

How did he do it? Well, by grace. But that grace came to him, as Father Patrick related in his homilies of Vespers last evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning, in that Elijah had a single-minded devotion to God. “Seek first his Kingdom,” says our Lord. Or, to say it another way, we see that for which we look.

In other contexts, this is called confirmation bias, or the believe-see-believe loop. We filter what we see, accepting what we expect to see, and failing to see (mostly unconsciously) what we do not expect (or want) to see. This loop is broken only by trauma or by careful conscious self-reflection. That is to say, either we willfully examine what we see and attempt to look beyond our expectations, or events pile up on one another, creating enough pain and dissonance that we are forced to reevaluate our paradigm, the grid by which we filter our experiences.

This is why, it seems to me, we encounter suffering and pain with such sharp feelings of disorientation. For us, what is real, what is true, is that which we can see and feel and taste and touch and hear. And so long as those things go along pleasantly enough, we are not forced to reconsider whether or not, as Christians, our attention to our reality is properly anchored. But when, either because of random human acts or natural events or because we finally realize that the consequences of our paradigms are not getting us our good but our pain, we are confronted with the shifting sand of tangible reality, then we have the opportunity to refocus our gaze and to look for things not seen, that bedrock of our daily reality.

This is a most difficult step. On the one hand, to immerse ourselves in the invisible reality of God and his saints which underlies the universe without also taking care of the visible reality, can lead us to madness and self-delusion. But on the other hand, to immerse ourselves in the visible reality of our lives and to fail to take care of the invisible, can lead us to faithlessness and despair.

One needs one’s feet firmly planted in, if I may say it this way, both realities. And this is not, we have it on the words of the saints who practice this, difficult to do, for both realities, the visible and the invisible, interpenetrate one another. We believe, after all, in the Incarnation: that the divine is one with the human and the human is one with the divine. We consume bread that is also Christ’s Body, and wine that is also his Blood. Ours is not a two-sided reality: as though one could separate the visible from the invisible. It is, rather, one reality consisting of two things, just as the Incarnation is about one Person and two natures.

So, one takes care to attend to the visible reality which is integral to our moment-by-moment living, and not to let it go. But one also takes care to attend to the invisible, also essential to us, and to seek it first. So, while there is no dualism or separatism here, there is an order, a priority. It is the invisible which founds our visible. It is the Kingdom we must seek first. And to this will be added that which is visible.

Such an orientation, such a single-minded focus will have us looking the fool to the world. But there comes a time when one has one’s fill of worldly wisdom which fails to account for the divine. This wisdom, so-called, is the language of power and leverage and compromise and winning and self-preservation. But there is another language, another wisdom, which orders and prioritizes the wisdom of the world. It goes by the name of Calvary and Golgotha. Against all human reason, that wisdom resulted in the Resurrection, the rebirth and renewal of all things.

Note:
For what it’s worth, here are some links that fill in some other details about Ostrov‘s lead actor, Pyotr Mamonov:
The Wikipedia article
An article from the Washington Post, which gives some biographical details
An article from The Moscow Times, which blends some film summary with biography

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This comes perhaps four years late. But such a tardiness is not without design. I have been quite resistant to viewing The Passion, to some degree from “purist” notions. Not purist in the sense of the silly spats among Orthodox as to whether such a bloody portrayal of the Passion was in keeping with “true” Orthodoxy. Rather purist in the sense of what images I wanted my mind to hold of Jesus’ suffering and death. I wanted such images to be those of the icons and the Church’s hymns. And so, having watched The Passion once after Pascha 2004, I did not watch it again.

I cannot speak as to whether such intentions have been fulfilled, but I do think it accurate to say, I did not as fully appreciate the movie in the early summer of 2004 as I appreciated it this past Friday (when I watched it again for the first time since then), and, unless I am mistaken, as I will further and perhaps more deeply appreciate it in the future. I suspect that such a greater and more understanding engagement with it is due in no small measure to the fact that I have come through more of life in the past four years, including the birth of our second daughter, more Liturgies and worship, more Holy Weeks, and, if I may, more sorrows.

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Into Great Silence

digrossestille.jpg“Into Great Silence” (auf Deutsch: Die Grosse Stille) became available on Netflix, and so it arrived to our home in the mail today. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m really excited. As I did for Ostrov, I’ll probably try to get some of the parish guys together to see it.

I visited Grand Chartreuse back in the summer of ’97, when I joined my wife (who’d been studying in Grenoble all summer) for two weeks of touring through France and Italy. Saw some of the grounds external to the monastery. I brought home some of the good green stuff and a nice postcard or two of Carthusian monks, but of course, that was about it.

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