Saturday, August 27, 2005

Did You Forget about St. George?

The Bourgeois Wife pointed me here, where I found a statement from my church's annual convention denouncing

support for same-sex marriage, support for abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders . . . , and the labeling of other faiths and their leaders with hateful terminology.

All fine and good. However, the part I elided was not so good:

support for the concept of war which is "pre-emptive" or "justifiable."

In the document, support for any of these things is unequivocally called an "extremist position," and any Christian group that supports them is un-Orthodox and promotes positions "contrary to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Faith." (The RCC is extremist!?)

Why this clause is even included among the others is puzzling. To see why, consider the support from the Bible and tradition for (1) same-sex marriage, (2) abortion, (3) ordination of women, (4) pre-emptive and/or justifiable war, (5) calling others hateful names. I suggest that there is no evidence for (1), (2), and (5), and exeedingly scanty support for (3). (Though it seems that the ancient church had a role for the deaconess; so one would like some clarification on "Holy Orders." Note: in the Orthodox church, the position of deaconess is a good way down on the ladder. It is not the same as a deacon in a Baptist church where the deacon is responsible for a good deal of what goes on in the church and where the deacon board is often the final authority in the church, perhaps only beneath the self-rule of the people.)

The evidence of support for number (4) on the other hand is at worst ambiguous and at best supportive. As a case in point, St. Vladimir's Theological Journal (the premier journal of Orthodox theology in America) recently had an issue in which Orthodox theologians debated the concept of just war.

I can't imagine any Orthodox theologian even debating whether or not abortion or same-sex marriage is legitimate. Debate is beyond the pale. On the topic of just war, however, debate is not beyond the pale, and the convention should have noted this distinction instead of lumping just war in with abortion. Defense of just war, in any case, is certainly not an extremist position within the Orthodox church. My fellow Orthodox might disagree with it, but it is not extremist.

(To go on a bit more, how can it even be debated that pre-emptive war is not a defensible concept? Perhaps the pre-emptive war in Iraq was not justified, but that does not entail that the concept of pre-emptive war is indefensible. Pre-emptive strikes are first in temporal sequence, but defensive in nature.)

For a good rundown of the evidence that there is a concept of just war in the Orthodox church, see Alexander Webster's The Virtue of War.

The Edges of the Lord

I've never really been able to write one of those clever don't-give-anything-away-but-make-you-want-to-watch-it movie reviews, so I won't pretend to try. So, I'll call this a movie analysis: if you want to watch the flick for the suspense of the drama, stop now.

The Edges of the Lord is written and directed by Yurek Bogayevicz, who does indie stuff. The DVD box says "In the tradition of Life is Beautiful" which I think means its about Jewish redemption/survival in the midst of WWII. It was released in Europe in 2001, but in the US went straight to DVD and only recently came out (in my Blockbuster it was in the new releases section!). It is set in WWII rural Poland, post Blitzkrieg.

A Jew struggles to retain his identity (which literally means to not lose his life). Romic (Haley Joe Osment)'s Jewish parents find a polish farmer who is willing to take him as a cousin "from the city" and hide him by integrating him with his family. The story centers around the ongoing dramatic tension of avoiding discovery by the Nazi's and the struggles of Romic to be accepted by the other children of the village.

There are a lot of things that the film makes the viewer think about. Most bothersome to me is the issue of a movie on "disturbed children". Not only was there a "fast forward" scene (the female child lead gets raped), ie., bothersome for one to watch. But in these sorts of movies, all I can sit there and think about is the fact that these kids have now role-played raping, getting raped and watching it. Nice. It makes me ill to think about the effects of that on anyone's development, especially now as a parent: "Dear, lets send Johnny to role play in this nice movie with a few murder and rape scenes, I think he'll get a lot out of it, and it will probably help him to develop into a better person." This parent would, of course, think my spanking my child is also the greatest sin I could possibly commit upon their psyche. But, enough on the ethics of child-actors.

Let me say positively about the movie that it is set in (I assume filmed where it pretends to be) the Polish countryside, which is really beautiful. I have only had one Polish friend with an authentic polish accent (ie., not raised in either US or UK), and it was delightful to hear the accent again (though I think the actors attempted to reflect a more countryside way of speaking). The acting itself was also quite good, especially for a movie that centers around kids. We recently watched (don't ask) 5 Children and It which had a lot of those moments where you feel like you need to help the kids say their lines, this one didn't have any of those.

Rose, who now has a NEW SITE -- the Earthlink Torg-us-borg is dead due to financial considerations (free versus not free)--and I spent over an hour discussing the central message/philosophy of the movie, and it is that which I will try to communicate.

The religious conflict of the movie is the Jewish boy trying to appear to be a Roman Catholic Pole. In that conflict, the two religions are presented in charicatures, which play out the theological theme of salvation. "Judaism" is a pratical religion which attempts to save by physically saving (ie., you literally save someone by stopping them from getting killed, or keeping them fed, etc.). This is set up in the initial scene when Romic's father is making him memorize the Rosary:

Fader, how can I say dis?

Do not vorry, Got vill unterstand.

Very practical: God is interested in preserving lives.

Christianity, on the other hand, is a very non-practical system. Early in the movie, Wilem Dafoe (the priest is never given a name in the movie besides "Fader") is instructing the children in the catechism when someone runs up saying that Germans are about to kill one of the kids' (Maria, the child female interest) parents. Apparently at this time you can get killed either for hiding Jews or for having pigs: this is a case of the latter. The priest rushes over, and the Nazi commander offers him a game: he has one minute to catch a pig: if he does, one of the parents live. If in the next minute he catches another pig the second parent can live. Dafoe feebly tries to catch a pig the first minute, fails and is so overwhelmed when the first parent is shot, he simply sits and stares as the second minute ticks by. In the next scene, Romic (Haley Joe's character, the Jewish boy) sees the priest whipping himself in penance. The priest may in some mystical sense be able to save his soul, but when it really matters he has no power (or will) to save his flock, his people, his family.

This is also played out by the youngest child in Romic's adopted family, Tolo. In the catechism class, the priest assigns a role-play and Tolo ends up being Jesus. He literally takes on the role, convincing the other children to let him baptize them (which of course Jesus never did but whatever) and then to crucify him (no they don't kill him). Tolo is innocence, or purity of heart, incarnate, which seems to be the writer/director's vision of the Christian message. But the whole point is that innocence really can't be incarnate: the priest is ethereal, and Tolo is half, if not fully, mad. More on how this plays out later.

On the other hand "Judaism" looks to the family and tries to save the family, again literally. I have "Judaism" in quotes because it is the writer's vision of, and because the Polish Farmer who adopts Romic lives out this vision, despite his creedal Catholicism. This father is shot by a neighbor in a complicated episode involving the sale of a contraband swine, but suffice it to say that he died trying to protect his family (it was getting too dangerous to keep the pig any longer) and feed his family: literal salvation. He only failed because he was betrayed by someone who should have been a friend. [[Aside: an interesting parallel to Judas: when you're really trying to save someone, a Judas can really stop you.]]

This neighbor family is the embodiment of the evil parallel to "Judaism": envy (whereas the Nazi's are the evil parallel to "Christianity": blind adherence to an ideology). They set up much of the story's drama, especially the final scene, which I will now skip to.

The two boys in the neighbor family spend their evenings hiding out by the train tracks, watching for Jews jumping from the concentration camp trains that go by. They then sneak up and rob them. When Vladek (the older brother in Romic's new family) learns that it is these boys' father who killed his own, he gets a gun and hides out also by the tracks. A robbery of Jews commences, Vladek steps out of the trees and demands that the Jews be let go, and ends up shooting the neighbor boy, partly in vengence for his fathers' death.

Romic is horrified and realizes what this will mean when people come (having heard shots). He grabs the gun and tells Vladek to run. In a quick series of events, the Nazis show up, but think that Romic has been robbing the Jews. He is acclaimed as a hero. The next day, Romic must choose between literally saving himself and robbing more Jews for the humor of the Nazi commanders, or spiritually saving himself and admitting his race. He chooses the former, which immediately puts him in a situation to save Vladek who had been mistakenly caught as a runaway Jew.

Romic has thus, like his father and like Vladek's father, decided that "Judaism" is superior to "Christianity": you are responsible for your family and it is they who you must at all costs preserve from death. This is salvation. The littlest brother, Tolo, on the other hand volunteers for no reason to be a Jew (he has now fully accepted his role as Jesus the Jew) and goes off to concentration camp. He saves no one, but his spiritual innocence is absolutely perfect.

The title and central image of the movie has to do with communion. Verbally, throughout the beginning of the movie, communion is discussed with the emphasis that it is the literal body (the priest cuts himself in the catechism class to drive the point home). This is further developed in a beautifully shot scene: in the sacristy amid shafts of light, Romic and the priest discuss his situation while the priest makes communion wafers. This is done (I had never seen the process before) by taking perfectly square sheets of wafers and using a cookie cutter to press the circles out of them. This leaves behind funny shaped little crosses, x's, or stars from the left over bits. The priest casually offers one to Romic, who in great fear refuses (he has very carefully learned the lesson of real presence).

Don't vorry, I never bless de edges.

Romic then lays out a little piece of wafer (from the Edges)for all of those who have died so far: his parents, Vladek and Tolo's father, etc. etc. (Interestingly, this is a visual parallel to the Eastern rite preparation of communion). What is important is that all of these have lived in the category of "Judaism". At the end of the movie, in one of those scenes where the director slows down the frames to signal that he thinks this moment is really important, Romic is offered communion and the priest gives him one of the "star"-shaped Edges: keeping him on the Edge (ie., preserving his Judaism), another visual parallel to his Jewishness: being marked with a star.

Thus the point: Innocence, even innocence incarnate--in Jesus, Tolo, the Priest (though hes a bit questionable) and the Wafers--is inadequate to do anything in the world, and actually serves to indirectly damn people by convincing them that these ethereal rites have any meaning. Those who actually save others are not innocent: they have to make real choices, and select those they can save (primarily their family). But they can and will save you from untimely death by the sweat of their brow.

Of course the dichotomy that the director sets up is a false one, created by limiting Christianity to ideology. To use the terms of Jaroslav Pelikan, the Priests' Christianity is one of "traditionalism" rather than living tradition. Or put another (visual) way, the director sees the Priests' Christianity as worshipping an idol, because what is there is what is there: if you don't see how a wafer can save you from the Nazis (or from starvation or from murder or from rape) that's because it can't, and that is what matters.

Therefore, the pure essence of "Christianity" (ie., living like Jesus) is comprimised when you try to save anyone through blood sweat and tears: therefore such salvation is called "Judaism" as it can no longer be that of Jesus. The presentation is coherent but unfair because it entirely relies on its (debateable) premise: Christianity is an ideology, and like all ideologies (Nazism) it blinds one to the brotherhood of men and the implications of that.

As Rose pointed out to me, this presentation of Christianity is the same as that of those who said to Jesus, "If you claimed you could save others, why don't you come down and save yourself?!" Christianity has real-world power--the ultimate: resurrection--but it also has other-world concerns and goals that at times madden even those who profess the faith. This does not relegate Christianity to the mere ideological, but is the reality of the sacramental: divine and human.

An artisticly brilliant film that should be seen as a challenge (in both senses of the word) to believers in an Incarnate God.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Real Reporting from Iraq

You've probably already seen Michael Yon's latest dispatch, "Gates of Fire." If you haven't read it, do so. Wow. One of the best lines: "I was going to run into the shop and shoot every man with a gun. And I was scared to death."

LTC Kurilla was wounded in the firefight Yon describes. He is currently doing well, but no word on when/if he'll return. Here is one of the speeches Kurilla gave at a memorial for some of his soldiers. (HT: Blackfive)

Where does the courage exemplified by Yon and Kurilla come from? It is an amazing thing.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Unexpected Part of the Democracy Learning Curve

From a CNN story about a television show in Iraq modeled on "COPS" (cue "Bad Boys" music). A portion of the show is devoted to answering calls from viewers. However,

It took Iraqis a while to master the art of the phone-in.

Further skills to focus on in the burgeoning democracy:

(1) Getting low introductory rates on credit card balance transfers.
(2) Checking out books from local library.
(3) Ordering pizza delivery.
(4) Learning the characters' names on "The Simpsons."

But these could wait until they figure out how to draft a constitution. Amid all the clamor that "the process is taking too long," have people forgotten how long it took to draft the American constitution? (Here's a hint: more than a month. And though there was some pressure at the Constitutional Convention to develop some rules that worked (i.e., not the Articles of Confederation), it wasn't anything like the unrest in Iraq today.)

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Willard on Science & Religion

Dallas Willard’s Web site is a treasure chest for Christians of any stripe (and non-Christians, too). This is from an article on science and religion.

The impasse of authorities confronting authorities (or intimidating others) begins to dissolve when prepared and thoughtful people devote themselves to the humble examination of facts and evidence rather than to defending their positions. It is difficult to imagine anything more necessary and Godlike than this. We must escape the cultural deadlock that is turning universities—and churches—into places of “right views,” rather than thought and knowledge, and producing a Christian personality split into a religious side and a professional, intellectual side which never come into contact.

Reppert on Motives of Christians and Non-Christians

Victor Reppert has an interesting post on the motives for belief and nonbelief. It addresses the question Do Christians or non-Christians have more nonrational motivation for their belief?

One of the commenters rightly noted: "The truth is permitted to have psychological advantages."

There's a related post from a while back at Bill Vallicella's site. Be sure to read all the comments (esp. from Reppert).

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Philosophers Who Know How to Party

The Maverick Philosopher has a post on why he likes parties:

I like parties. I derive considerable satisfaction from not attending them. There is such a thing as the pleasure of conscious avoidance, of knowing that one has wisely escaped a frustrating and unpleasant situation. If others are offended by my nonattendance, that I regret. But peace of mind is a higher value than social dissipation -- which is no value at all.

I agree with him, but I think it's important to point out that parties and peace of mind are not mutually exclusive. Consider the example of Socrates.

So Agathon was getting up in order to seat himself by Socrates, when suddenly a great crowd of revellers arrived at the door, which they found just opened for some one who was going out. They marched straight into the party and seated themselves: the whole place was in an uproar and, losing all order, they were forced to drink a vast amount of wine. Then, as Aristodemus related, Eryximachus, Phaedrus, and some others took their leave and departed; while he himself fell asleep, and slumbered a great while, for the nights were long. He awoke towards dawn, as the cocks were crowing; and immediately he saw that all the company were either sleeping or gone, except Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates, who alone remained awake and were drinking out of a large vessel, from left to right; and Socrates was arguing with them. As to most of the talk, Aristodemus had no recollection, for he had missed the beginning and was also rather drowsy; but the substance of it was, he said, that Socrates was driving them to the admission that the same man could have the knowledge required for writing comedy and tragedy -- that the fully skilled tragedian could be a comedian as well. While they were being driven to this, and were but feebly following it, they began to nod; first Aristophanes dropped into a slumber, and then, as day began to dawn, Agathon also. When Socrates had seen them comfortable, he rose and went away -- followed in the usual manner by my friend; on arriving at the Lyceum, he washed himself, and then spent the rest of the day in his ordinary fashion; and so, when the day was done, he went home for the evening and reposed. (Symposium, 223b-d; trans. Fowler)

Socrates, the consummate philosopher, is the only one left awake at the end of a raucous party in which he has given a beautiful speech (outdoing all the other speeches) on love. He had gone eagerly to the party (though he had been distracted by something on the way) and had even dressed up for the occasion. Here we see Socrates as both the paradigmatic party animal and rational animal.

However, at least in my case (and perhaps in the Maverick Philosopher's case, too), I am too feeble a soul to be both; so I try to live up to my nature as a rational animal and leave the partying to others.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Feeling Old?

So my twenty-ninth birthday is coming in a month or so. And the other day someone asked me what happened on a certain day (August 5, I think) fifteen years ago. So I started thinking: fifteen years ago . . . hmmm . . . that would be 1980 . . . not much happened that year . . . except wasn't Reagan shot that year? . . . so, yeah, I'll go with Reagan getting shot.

Then I realized: fifteen years ago was 1990. Saddam had just invaded Kuwait. I'm stuck thinking that everything that happened more than ten years ago happened in the 80s. I'm not sure I feel old, just confused.

But I can console myself with the knowledge that I now know more about, say, Reagan than any highschool student, not because I've learned something new; they just don't know. I'm starting to figure out how my parents knew so many of the right answers (er, questions) to Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit. They knew the answers to the questions involving Nixon and the 1970s because they were alive then. I used to be amazed at their knowledge; now I'm confused about how I came to know so much stuff without trying (and still amazed at my parents, mom).