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Recently one of my posts was featured on my favorite Evangelical blog, Internet Monk, which was started by the inestimable Michael Spencer, who has been gathered to the Lord and to His saints, both of whom he loved intensely. I cannot tell what a privilege that was, but I was asked the question why Orthodoxy? Why this church? What is special about this particular Church?
I want to keep this as brief as possible, because there are countless better places to go and hash out these kinds of issues than Internet Monk, and a lot of times there is more heat generated than light. Touching divine matters, John Wesley said that in order to be effective we needed cool heads and warm hearts. Alas, I have a cold heart and a hot head, and on this Lazarus Saturday, the eve of our descent into Orthodox Holy Week, I want to keep both of these in check.
There are two propositions that I have come to believe:
The Church is visible, and it is One
Heresy is crueller than murder
Whatever you may believe about the truth value of the first proposition, there was a time when it was true. From the time of Constantine until the Fourth Council at Chalcedon in 451, the Great Church was visibly and organizationally united.
About fifteen years ago, I had a strange dream. I was working in a homeless shelter/soup kitchen, and Saint Patrick came in dressed as a modern homeless man. His sanctity, though, was apparent to all of us and he preached an impassioned sermon. Many of the homeless men accepted Christ. Afterwards the saint asked me where the Church was so that he could baptize the new flock. I asked him which church.
Which Church? the saint replied. The Church, of course. Where is it? Point me the way. In my day, you could point me there.
Now, there were Arians in south of France in Patrick’s day, but we won’t go there for now. when I awoke from the dream I was convinced that what I had been taught all my life about the Church of Christ, that it was basically a sort of a roll call of the redeemed, was false.
The second proposition is a little touchier. Orthodoxy means “correct glory” , not “correct belief” or “correct administration”. There needs to a place where everything fits in its proper place. Ideas have consequences and they also try desperately to reproduce themselves in other minds. I am doing this right now.
“Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? As for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet and drink what you foul with your feet!” (Ez. 34:18-19)
When I was in South America as a Protestant missionary, I came across a small, isolated church where the pastor had sort of cobbled together the most odious portions of the doctrines of several Protestant sects and was preaching them vociferously. His flock wasn’t large, but it was fervent, and very, very sad. He was himself more miserable than Sylvia Plath baking her last batch of cookies, and his followers, practically all women, reflected his pathologies. They alone were the bulwark against which Antichrist in his pluriform manifestations raged constantly.
“Fear not, [vanishingly] little flock…”
‘Why did this guy ever leave the Catholic Church?’ I thought to myself. ‘He’d be better off walking up a mountainside on his bleeding knees to kiss a statue of the Virgin than he is infecting other people with his neuroses from the pulpit every Sunday. Hell, he’d be better off drinking beer and listening to a lot of 70s R&B.’
Fortunately, God is good, and most of us, the effects of heresy are pretty minimal. Most heresiarchs are not as culpable as my South American example. A heresiarch is like a doctor of podiatry who believes his club foot is normal, and attempts to reproduce it in all of the patients who come to him.
Since all things come from God and all things are in the process of returning to God, there always manages to be some sweet water mixed in with all the foul. But why not seek out the fountain of living water that flows unmixedly and uninterruptedly from the Throne of God?
Maybe I am deceived, and worse yet, attempting to deceive all of you. That is a possibility. My South American pastor certainly operated with a degree of self-assurance I have never been able to achieve. Maybe I have just found a heresy that is nourishing my own sinfulness. If that is true, let each man guard himself as best he can, and for Christ’s sake, since we are all in such a perilous predicament, let us cut each other some slack.
I know this doesn’t answer the specific question “Why did you become Orthodox, rather than Catholic, or stay Pentecostal, or return to neo-Calvinism, or go emergent like your brother?”
All I can say is that since my earliest thoughts, I have only ever wanted Jesus the Christ, even though I may not have known it at the time. You can find a lot of Him in a lot of places, but the fullness, the pleroma, of Him who fills all is the Church [Eph. 1.23], and I am convinced that that Church is the Holy Synod of Orthodoxy.
Essa moça sabe desenhar sim senhor.
She’s Brazilian, and her blog is in Portuguese, but that shouldn’t deter you from a visit. Google Translate is kind to her site, but the real pleasure is in her drawings. By turns whimsical, fantastic, and sensual, Cynthia França wields a pencil like Logen Ninefingers can wield a sword, and it cuts just as deeply. I wasn’t able to determine if Miss França has ever published any of her drawings professionally, or if anyone had ever tapped her to illustrate a book. There were several drawings on her site that seemed to come from a fictional source; Soccertown kids, all appropriately named, a set of drawings entitled Les Reines D’Autobus, but I was frustrated by my total ignorance of Brazilian popular culture.
Since reading L. Sprague De Camp’s planetary romances of the Viagens Interplanetárias in my earliest adolescence, Brazil has always seemed like a mythical country in its own right. I don’t mean to disparage the tremendous challenges faced by the average Brazilian in navigating the real world, but when I visited there, I felt more like I was living inside a legend than I have anywhere else. There has to be some compensation for living in a country where there is so much poverty and injustice, and oddly, there is. Nature is exuberant there, beyond anything we know in North America away from the redwood groves on the West Coast. Taking the bus from Santos on the coast to São Paulo was like dreaming with my eyes open. Music, better music than you can pay to hear in most venues, wafts out of the windows and down to the street.
Because of this I’m surprised Brazil hasn’t produced more fantasy literature. Some of the tales of the bandeirantes, with which Brazilian schoolchildren are as familiar as American children used to be with the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, definitely had a mythopoetic flavor to them. Miss França has a fantastic side to her as well. In her online portfolio there are drawings of Conan, Dejah Thoris, and Desire of the Endless, as well as numerous sketches from what Miss França refers to as her “pocket mythology”. I learned that the phrase Portuguese would use for the Endless is os Perpétuos. From one Gaiman fan to another Gaiman fan, I salute you.
Miss França also has produced an occasional series of sketches of Biblical women. You should really go see these, because they are not likely to see the light of day between the pages of your Zondervan Purpose Oriented Planner Bible. Mary and Martha are here, as are Herodias and a slightly older Salomé, three of David’s wives, Jezebel and her daughter Athalia. Even though Miss França appears to have a soft spot for the bad girls, there are plenty of good girls; Ruth and Orpah are here, as are the three daughters of Job. My favorite, however, is the sketch of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob. Miss França takes the liberty of depicting Leah not as strictly plain, but just frank and transparent as opposed to Rachel’s smoldering and mysterious glamour.
Now, I know I have maybe thirty two nanoWarhols of artistic critical influence, but I would dearly love to see Miss França exercise her considerable talents somewhere where she could be more widely appreciated.
That’s me on the left. When did I become evil, and at just whom am I pointing that gun?
My life took a turn for the better when I stopped listening to too much AM radio. My bad habit started before 9-11-2001 actually. At first, I looked at it as a sort of a harmless hobby, entertainment. I lived in Miami at the time and Miami was kind of a hothouse for political radio, both in English and in Spanish. The Spanish side of the forum was obsessed with Fidel Castro, and who hated him the worst. If you thought Fidel Castro wasn’t entirely evil, say, maybe like Idi Amin Dada- or Joseph Stalin-level evil rather than Satan-level, the Spanish media in Miami couldn’t say enough bad about you. The English-speaking media was a little more subtle. English-speaking Miami was always heavily Jewish, and their patron saint was Neil Rogers, an old-school agnostic, openly homosexual Jew who gleefully skewered everybody, left or right, who held themselves above the common corruption that covers all of us, as Willie Loman said it, “from the stench of the di-dee to the shroud of the grave”.
Neil Rogers passed away from cancer in 2010. I am not alone in saying that I miss him. Already in his heyday in the first Clinton administration, though, strident conservative voices were vying for recognition. Rush Limbaugh was syndicated, and we in Miami had the unparalleled blessing of having G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame to listen to five days a week. My favorite broadcast of his was where he instructed his listeners on how to conduct themselves in a knife fight. I have not had to use that information yet, but you never know when it will come in handy.
What was a pastime before the attacks on the Twin Towers became an obsession afterwards. I needed an answer for the question “Why did these men do this? Why did they hate us so much?” Now, I had travelled abroad in Latin America and Spain, and had encountered the endemic anti-Americanism there. I also remembered the rhetoric that issued from the Iranian Revolution after the overthrow of the Shah and during the hostage crisis about America being the “Great Satan”. That didn’t puzzle me as much as it did many of my compatriots, though, because I remembered the role that Britain and the US played in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and the subsequent tyranny of the Shah and his family. Don’t ask me how I learned about this, an event that took place when I was two, but I knew about it even in 1978 when Jimmy Carter decided to toss the Shah to the geopolitical Devil by refusing him military aid. “Good riddance” I thought back then, and still believe, although I am no fan of the Islamic Republic that followed him.
It may seem cruel for me to point this out, but what I remember the most about 9/11 was the great sense of relief everybody seemed to feel. After the initial shock wore off (during which the churches were full, something that hasn’t happened since), there was something of a carnival attitude. Like the Fourth of July, the American flag was everywhere. People started greeting each other on the streets again. It was like the past fifty years had been erased and we all woke up in Mayberry one morning. All of the Medician post-Cold War moral ambiguity of the Clintons vanished overnight, replaced by the resolute and vigilant Proconsul Bush, Junior. America could breath easily again.
We finally had another enemy to replace the late, lamented Communists.
Actually, we now had two enemies. The exterior, but least dangerous enemy, was “Radical” Islam. It is to the credit of whatever propaganda machine coined that phrase that the “Radical” has remained in place for over a decade, presumably to differentiate it from the tepid sort of Islam practiced by the family of the girl my son is currently dating, which is curiously like the Christianity practiced by my family where time spent in the detritus of Asian popular culture, playing video games, responding to Facebook status updates, or watching TV outweigh by a factor of ten or so attendance upon divine services [if any of my family reads this, you know me as the worst offender] .
The worse enemy was the internal one. Almost overnight after 9/11, on AM radio, the Real Enemy became the Donkeys who, depending on who you were listening to, were traitors worse than Benedict Arnold or Vikdun Quisling. Now, this was puzzling to me. I came to consciousness in the highly politicized atmosphere of the late 60s, and there were a lot of Democrats around then. They drew a lot of criticism, then as now, but there was never any sense that they were actually traitors. That kind of rhetoric has been left for our day, although it is hard to get a bead on just who is the target of this treason. It always seems to be “people like me”, you know, Christians if you are a Christian, small business people (“the backbone of our nation”, as both sides delight in calling them, although given the way they have been treated another body part would be more accurate) if you are a small business person. White if you are white, although this is usually couched in high sounding phrases about “European Christian civilization” standing against the onslaught of “illegal immigration” and “multiculturalism” .
And that, Dear Constant reader, is how your humble Mule ended up on a book cover as the symbol of evil, with a pistol pointed at the head of dear old Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam, whoever he represents, appears to be returning the love. I used to wear a jacket that looked exactly like that in 1971 with the peace sign, the Have A Nice Day face, the Yang-Yin symbol. It was as if the artist had been rummaging through my attic.
I don’t wonder that there isn’t a good amount of paranoia and hate on the other side. Half an hour spent at places like the Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com/) or Democratic Underground (http://www.democraticunderground.com) should convince you that there is little love showered there upon the knuckle-dragging “racist” “Dominionist” troglodytes who vote Republican. The same spirit is at work there; the Re”thug”licans are subhumans whose agenda is to ‘get’ “people like me”; agnostic if you are agnostic, gay if you are gay, sexually permissive if you are…, well, you get my drift. You are hated. They hate you. To be fair, this kind of Manichaean hatred may be an outgrowth of our two party system, but I don’t know whether the Canadian system that seems to require thirty five contending parties on the Left to ensure the election of Stephen Harper is any improvement.
Now we come to what I really want to say. There is nothing that can result from this sort of polarization except violence. Marshall McLuhan stated that all violence was an attempt to establish an identity, which dovetailed precisely with some of things Fr. Stephen Freeman discussed recently on his blog concerning the distinction between the True and the False Self (this post would be a great place to start). The True Self is who were are in Christ, and the Church defines this a being a person in communion with other persons and ultimately, in communion with the Persons of the Trinity in the community of the Church. Over against this is the False Self, the Individual, who stands in opposition to other individuals who, in the jostling of everyday life, are generally experienced as being obstacles, as being In My Way.
The False Self, since it has Nothing at its core, needs an Enemy. Only against the Enemy can the false Self begin to coalesce and direct its energies and experience something akin to life. This is Who I Am, says this poor ragged construct of ten thousand conflicting thoughts, impulses, lusts, and passions. They hate me: the preps, the hipsters, those goddamned sophisticated arugula-eating atheists, the smug religious hypocrites, the bullies, the hucksters, those self-congratulatory heteronormative cisgendered privileged bastards, the multiculturalists, the academics, the favored, the envious. Oderunt ergo sum. “I am hated, therefore I am” And as the pressure drops at the core, the winds around this non-existent center pick up speed until a perfect storm of violence erupts.
Worse than that, this rootlessness this centerlessness seems to come with the territory as an American. Someday, when the story of humanity on this continent is fully told, something accurate may be said about my country, the Country With No Real Name, with an algorithm where its heart should be. When we arrived on the shores here from Europe, we experienced the Other as Heathen and Savage, and this predilection has never departed from us. From this corelessness and the inevitable fury that surrounds it proceeded the genocide of the Native Americans, the dismemberment of Mexico, Sherman’s March Through Georgia, the Sacco-Vanzetti Trials, the Red Scare, the McCarthy Hearings, Vietnam and I don’t see it ending soon. Will my son and daughter have to live in a landscape of Bed Bath and Beyonds and Applebees deteriorating into a moonscape of Title Loan shops, Pawn shops, liquor stores and Buy Here/Pay Here used car lots as our common life and wealth is siphoned off to pursue another interminable war in some other unpronounceable place?
We need Jesus. Not the American Jeezus who saves the false Self, but the real Jesus who kills it. I am capable of Newton, of the Boston bombing, even of 9/11. How many times have idly daydreamed about these or worse events in which I can get rid of all those bad people who do all those evil deeds so that the good people, like me, can get on with their good lives? Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. I am no longer capable of discerning between good and evil, I want to put the fruit back on the branch.