20 October 2016

Return to Sergiev Posad

Sergiev Posad, Dormition Cathedral, photo by Jean and Nathalie (Flickr); some rights reserved.
The summer of 1975 was transformative for me. About a year earlier, I had received a legacy of about $10,000 from my mother's parents in Germany, most of which I used to pay for three years of my tuition at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Most of the remaining dollars went into my adventures of that summer of 1975.

I spent most of the summer in Mendenhall, Mississippi. Thirty years later I wrote about those months with Voice of Calvary. As I say at the end of that blog entry, as soon as my Mississippi service ended, I took off for the Soviet Union.

Now it's been four decades since that visit to the Soviet Union, but I still remember it vividly. Last week, thanks to a New Humanities Institute field trip, I had a chance to return to the site of one of the most powerful and formative experiences I had back in 1975.

On Wednesday of last week, our busload of Institute colleagues and students drove to Sergiev Posad, just a couple of hours away from Elektrostal, and then to the nearby artists' colony at Abramtsevo. I loved both destinations, but my memories were associated with the first of our destinations, Sergiev Posad, where the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is located, and which I was seeing again after 41 years.

Some background: There was actually a logical link between the two parts of my 1975 adventures. I went to Voice of Calvary in Mississippi as the result of a cancellation. My short-term service there was arranged through the American Friends Service Committee, who in those years offered a program of workcamps and service opportunities. When I first learned of these opportunities, I was a Soviet area studies major at Carleton, and a newly minted Quaker.

The AFSC menu included the so-called Tripartite Dialogues. These events combined seminars and travel; participants included young adults from the U.K., the USA, and a Soviet youth committee, and the Dialogues took place alternately among the three countries. 1975 was to be Russia's turn. I got in touch with Laurama Pixton of the AFSC office in Philadelphia, and signed up eagerly to participate -- only to find out that, because the Soviets had decided to dedicate their resources and energy to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tripartite series was not going to continue after all.

Laurama Pixton did not want me to give up on the AFSC's service opportunities, so she put me in touch with Nancy Duryea, who worked with the AFSC's youth programs. Thanks to Nancy, I found out about Voice of Calvary, whose summer internship program was one of AFSC's partners. When the Soviet door closed, the Mississippi door opened -- but I just couldn't quite give up on seeing the Soviet Union for myself. Into the brief period between the end of the Mendenhall period and the start of the new academic year I squeezed two weeks of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That's how I found myself staying for ten days in the Mozhaiskaya hotel on the western edge of Moscow (actually, back in 1975 it was really in the country), going into downtown Moscow every day on the hotel's free shuttle bus to see the sights. I was eager to find out more about church life in the USSR, so I signed up for an excursion to the city of Zagorsk (the Soviet-era name for Sergiev Posad), to see the center of Russian Orthodox life and education. At that time, the Patriarch's offices were in that famous Trinity monastery, along with one of the three Orthodox seminaries that had been allowed to continue functioning in the USSR.

Our excursion bus to Zagorsk was overseen by a young English-speaking woman who worked for Intourist, and who gave us an excellent talk on the architectural and historical significance of Trinity-St. Sergius. When we reached the entrance of the beautiful Dormition Cathedral, we walked from the bright sunshine into the candle-lit glow of the church -- and to our delight, the liturgy was in progress. I had an immediate sensation of being in another Kingdom, not under the control of the Soviet authorities but almost in another dimension.

Swept into this emotional state, I didn't notice right away that one of my fellow tourists was, innocently, about to cause a commotion. She had raised her camera with a flash attached, and a couple of the worshippers were hastening toward her to stop her before the flash might disrupt the service. In turn, a police officer intercepted them, telling them not to interfere with the tourists. I overheard one of them tell the policeman, "We know our rights."

Ottawa, February 1975.
By then I had recovered just enough of my wits to go over to the tourist with the camera and explain the situation: "Please don't use the flash." I then turned around and found myself directly in front of an elderly monk, who enfolded me in a big hug, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I can still feel his beard. Up to that point in my travels, I was feeling pretty lonely in the USSR, thousands of miles from anyone I knew personally, and traveling independently -- but at that moment I felt the opposite of alone.

That instant of connection opened a realization that has never left me. I knew that wherever I might be in the household of faith, literally anywhere in the world, I was among family. Last week I was able to stand in that very spot once again and give thanks for my sometimes crazy and always beautiful global family whose bonds are the golden threads of grace.

Reading Jim Forest's article "Getting From There to Here," revised just yesterday, is what led to these reminiscences.

What did Russia's leading news agency tweet during the final USA presidential debate?

Russia's first monument to Ivan the Terrible; one reaction: "Sacrilege."

Reclaiming evangelism. My question: what specific insights might we glean for Friends?

Will Hutton: As political discourse descends into rage ...
The issues are never going to be settled conclusively: it is impossible to found a society entirely on libertarian individualism; but equally to overstress the role of the public realm in securing the common good has parallel hazards. You respect your intellectual or political adversary because you know you don’t hold a monopoly on truth – and if they are any good, they feel the same way. Battle is joined, and if common ground emerges you are ready to acknowledge it.

Most politicians of left and right in advanced democracies feel similarly. Conviction and personal life stories have led to a series of decisions that have got them elected as liberals or conservatives. But if they have any self-knowledge they know that their opponents have their own integrity and want outcomes that promote human betterment and merit respect. There may even be issues on which common cause can be made.

"No hatred will be tolerated."

13 October 2016

We've been here before

Getting ready to vote.
When Judy buys a book for her Kindle, a "household" copy shows up on mine. That's how David M. Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (The Oxford History of the United States), showed up on my electronic shelf and began insinuating itself into my every free minute.

Last week, I reached the mid-1930's, a time when people like Charles Coughlin, Francis Townsend, and Huey Long were inciting huge radio audiences against the establishment politicians and moneyed interests of their time. Here's a bit of what Kennedy says about the populism of that period:
Populism contrasted the virtues of "the people" to the vices of shadowy elites whose greedy manipulations oppressed the poor and perverted democracy. It was always a language of resentment, of raw class antagonism, edged with envy and grudge. In the charged atmosphere of the 1930s, it could easily become a language of reprisal.
Kennedy also writes about the effect of broadcasting:
Radio assaulted the insularity of local communities. It also, not incidentally, catalyzed the homogenization of American popular culture. And it promised to revolutionize politics. Scholars later employed the term "disintermediation" to describe the potential political effects of radio (and, eventually, of course, television). Radio provided a means to concentrate and exercise power from the top, to bypass and shrink the influence of leaders and institutions that had previously mediated between individuals and local communities on the one side and the national political parties and the national government on the other.
Shortly after I read Kennedy's chapters on Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the revival of populism, the second Clinton-Trump debate took place. The next day I listened to a combined Trumpcast-Political Gabfest podcast reviewing the debate. After panelists catalogued some of the debate's outrageous moments, there was this exchange:
Jacob Weisberg: ... We have a candidate running for president and a candidate running for dictator. And there's a way in which we don't want to recognize that -- that's not the American democracy we've lived with. And of course Trump is running in a democratic election. But you have to recognize that dictators who try to come to power use democratic process if democratic process is helpful to them to get started before starting to behave like dictators once they have power. There's a resistance to recognizing that we have a would-be dictator in our midst this far from the presidency and it's something different than we have ever dealt with in our lifetimes.

Emily Bazelon: That's right, and yet, our normal process makes this seem ... you know, in some ways he still has the trappings of the Republican regular old nominee and we kind of keep going back and forth between those things in a way that's giving me, at least, cognitive dissonance.
There are so many points of contact between Trump and the American populists of the 1930's. The undertones of authoritarianism and violence extend the connections, as several commentators have noted, with the Axis fascists. (And see the latest comments from Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose similarities to Donald Trump are also fascinating. "...If they vote for Hillary it's war.") Comparisons of Trump with the European dictators of three generations ago are nothing new, but there was a bracing bluntness in Weisberg's warning: "We have a candidate running for president and a candidate running for dictator. ... There's a resistance to recognizing that we have a would-be dictator in our midst...."

Maybe it's time to borrow a phrase from Trump himself and take the shackles off our political thinking. In arguing against Trump, we are not simply advocating a choice among several normal candidates. We are making a choice against authoritarianism and we should say so clearly.

I'm not advocating scare tactics. It's possible that "it can't happen here," to adopt the rose-colored title of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, given our vaunted system of checks and balances, but the very process of coping with the commands, whims, and misdeeds of a rogue president could plunge our country into constitutional crises on a weekly basis, and thereby prolong our legislative paralysis at the very point we're also destabilizing our ties with the rest of the world.

The Democratic punching bag against which Trump seems to believe he is running bears little resemblance to the actual candidate, Hillary Clinton. Nor are his dire warnings about the IS taking over the USA after her victory, or any number of other totally over-the-top charges and warnings, at all linked with reality. Two possibilities, and only two: He's either making this stuff up and amplifying it on the fly, perhaps intoxicated by the encouragement of adoring crowds, or he really believes it all, thus demonstrating how weak his ties are with objective reality. But, in any case, the abusive and resentful tone is consistent with classical populism.

Clinton is an example of another well-known model of politician: an experienced Democratic centrist who has a record of caring about domestic policies and how they affect people. Her foreign and defense policies, however, seem trapped within the conventional wisdom of American empire. A Clinton victory this November 8 means the peace movement simply must wake up and get engaged again. Maybe one of their first priorities could be to identify which of Trump's supporters are also genuinely concerned about imperial over-reach and the dangerous lack of accountability of our national security system. These dangers seem to me to be a potential point of common cause among liberals and conservatives alike.

A few years back I commented on our presidential choices in light of Barack Obama's performance:
As a Christian citizen of the USA, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have an enthusiastic and consistent evangelical man or woman serving as president, committed to nonviolence, social justice, acceptance of immigrants, and environmental stewardship. I think the powers that be would arrange an impeachment on about day two. Realistically, in most of our presidential elections, we're probably trying simply to discern who has the combination of broad empathy and executive competence that might help us get through the next four years. Competence is, of course, an ethically mixed blessing: in Obama's case, he helped save our economy, and on the other hand, he pursues al-Qaeda with a refined, extraterritorial ruthlessness that puts Cheney to shame.
"Broad empathy and executive competence" are not the heady stuff of inspiring vision, and they do not serve the beguiling goal of wholesale "change in Washington." But they certainly beat dictatorship.

At least some Liberty University students have had enough of their president's association with Donald Trump.

Bob Dylan's "Hype" links.

Looking back at the notorious Princeton report of two years ago ... is any presidential candidate ever going to face our "economic élite domination"?

Walls: Which side will you be on? And growing up German under the Russians.

Lazy Lester with Eve Monsees:

06 October 2016

Post-Christians and the Bible

Sources: www.albertmohler.com/about; www.andystanley.com 
Last week I linked to this article on the disagreements between Albert Mohler and Andy Stanley concerning the centrality of the Bible in Christian faith. Since then, someone forwarded me Andy Stanley's Outreach Magazine article, "Why 'The Bible Says So' Is Not Enough Anymore," so I decided to look a little deeper into their dispute.

First of all, Josh Daffern, the author of last week's linked article, warns us that the two men involved are indeed "heavyweights." If you don't believe, it, just go to their own Web sites! Mohler's site informs us that Dr. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "has been recognized by such influential publications as Time and Christianity Today as a leader among American evangelicals. In fact, Time.com called him the 'reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.'" His site then provides us with an impressive list of the newspapers and television programs that have featured him, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution and The Dallas Morning News and television's Larry King Live, NBC’s Today Show, Dateline NBC, ABC’s Good Morning America, and the list goes on.

Andy Stanley's site is also not shy about listing his credentials. "A survey of U.S. pastors in Outreach Magazine identified Andy Stanley as one of the top 10 most influential living pastors in America. "That's not surprising in view of his audience stats, according to his home page: "In the digital world, his success reaches well beyond the Atlanta area. Each month, nearly 1.5 million of his messages, leadership videos, and podcasts are accessed from North Point’s website." His television program Your Move with Andy Stanley gives him "an even wider audience with which to share his culturally relevant, practical insights for life and leadership. Currently, over five million episodes are viewed each month through television and podcast, underscoring his impact not only as a communicator but also as an influencer of culture." Plus there are his live-audience events: "In high demand, he speaks to nearly 200,000 people at various annual events before audiences of both church and organizational leaders...."

Now that their "impact" has been "underscored," perhaps we're in a suitably respectful mood to evaluate their arguments. And it turns out to be much ado about rather little. Albert Mohler, whose education and position locates him in a very specific tradition regarding the Bible, naturally defends that tradition is being totally adequate and indispensable. If he or his institution deviate one degree from that position, his market evaporates.

Andy Stanley is also anchored within that tradition -- note how he uses famous mentors and documents to represent that anchor -- but his place in the religion industry involves attracting an audience whose upbringing, education, and employment may have no connection with the centrality/infallibility tradition at all. Mohler cannot afford to alienate the traditionalist audience; Stanley cannot afford to confine himself to that audience. I'm not saying that Mohler is limited only by his tradition, since it is also his sincerely held conviction. It is the flag that flies from his watchtower. Stanley, on the other hand, knows that this flag is an incoherent and incomprehensible symbol for post-Christian people. For both men, the Bible serves as God's provision for discernment as well as wisdom unto salvation, but somehow Mohler seems not to be able to believe that Stanley is as dependent as he should be on this provision.

Where am I in all this? (Forgive me if I leave out my super-impressive list of credentials!!) It seems to me that Quakers generally have a functional theology rather than a metaphysical theology. On the one hand, most Quakers clearly believe in the supernatural. Many of us are mystics, and most of us understand that the founding events of our faith -- the incarnation, the resurrection, and Pentecost -- are entirely beyond mechanical explanations. But, on the other hand, we don't tend to spend time creating metaphysical doctrines that explain those miracles, or require believers to hold to those explanatory doctrines.

In the case of the Bible, we honor its self-descriptions, observe how it functions as our family history and a unique resource for discernment, and we read it with prayer, asking to be in the same spirit as its writers were. We realize that the Bible was gathered and assembled as a work of the Church, ratified by the Church, and preserved by the Church -- in other words, it is a living collaboration between the Holy Spirit and the people. We totally rely on this miraculous and earthy (i.e., functional) understanding of the Bible, because we continue to base our present-day church government on the same understanding: the people can still gather and collaborate with the Holy Spirit to understand our Godly tasks for today. We cherish the Bible as the pre-eminent expression of this miraculous collaboration, but we emphatically do not make the Bible a fourth member of the Trinity.

I can honor Mohler's commitment to the Bible, but his white-knuckled defense of the Bible's inerrancy relies on supernatural qualities that the Bible itself never claims -- and furthermore can be incoherent to someone outside his tradition. However, Stanley's willingness to de-link doctrines about biblical authority from the Gospel's core message has hazards of its own. A kind of drift could set in where the Bible's family-history and discernment functions could eventually be lost as we become (as Mohler warns) "dependent upon historians (among others) to tell us what parts of both testaments we can still believe."

To me, the stubborn defense of biblical authority and the post-Christian imperative to communicate the Good News outside the traditionalist camp is an example of the dynamic division of labor in the Church. We have the mind of Christ, but NOBODY can comprehend all the vectors and tangents and facets of that Good News simultaneously, or apply it with total adequacy to every situation, every audience. We simply must consult, compare, and, if necessary, dispute!

One more thing: we're not just talking about theoretical doctrines or comparative piety here. Every day we hear about new occasions of suffering and cruelty -- or we fall into such situations ourselves. We are either watching people searching for refuge, or we are ourselves refugees. How does the authority and inerrancy of the Bible relate to these situations? Quakers in Burundi, trying to understand their tasks after the civil war, read Nehemiah in a new way, seeing themselves in the text. When the death squads invaded the University of Central America in 1989, killing six priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper's daughter, the Bibles too had bullet holes. U.S. president Obama, addressing the plight of undocumented immigrants, read Scripture to the nation: "[We] were strangers once, too." If we cannot figure out how to apply biblical authority in confronting violence, bondage, racism, despair in those concrete instances where we are present and have influence, we should not be surprised if biblical authority means nothing to those around us.

Albert Mohler is "embarrassed by past support of women in ministry."

Svetlana Alexievich and today's militarism.

Karen Greenberg on what actually keeps Americans safe.
When civil libertarians defend their side of the liberty-security debate, they usually claim that liberties are just as important as security. Perhaps what they should be saying is that protecting our liberties means ensuring our safety; that surveilling everyone produces more but not better information and is not a national security measure; and that the informed interrogation of prisoners who have rights, including the right to a fair trial, is not only more consonant with the American way, but more effective than secret prisons and physical abuse.
Parker Palmer at Yale Divinity School urges soul work to animate social change.

Forget the bingo: in Chicago, a parish priest who's an unruly model of biblical urgency.

Speaking of Chicago (again!),

29 September 2016

Secondhand patriotism

Ambassador John Tefft and the "town hall" meeting for U.S. citizens.
Spaso House, Moscow, September 19.

Professional USA football player Colin Kaepernick has been sitting or kneeling during the national anthem ritual at preseason games, explaining that "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." The management of his football team has defended his free speech rights, but many other Americans have criticized him for his lack of patriotism. Among those who piled on was presidential candidate Trump, who suggested that "maybe he should find a country that works better for him."

Kaepernick responded to Trump a couple of days ago: "He always says make America great again. Well, America has never been great for people of color. And that's something that needs to be addressed. Let’s make America great for the first time."

At first I ignored this whole controversy, since the behavior of well-paid athletes at sporting events has less than zero interest for me. But finally this most recent exchange, including Kaepernick's apt rephrasing of the campaign slogan "Make America great again," drew my attention.

I'm surely not the only one whose memories went back to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign -- specifically to the controversies around Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright, and Michelle Obama's observation that, because of the political revival her husband's campaign had inspired, "... For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country...."

Each time a prominent black American has compared the country's actual performance with its ideals, based on the actual experience of real people, have their harshest white critics actually bothered to engage with that comparison? Are these critics suggesting that Kaepernick, Wright, and Michelle Obama did not actually remember American history correctly? Or did it just not matter?

Maybe some of those critics privately understand the incongruity and nevertheless pretend to be outraged because that outrage has a political payoff. The exception that maybe proves the rule: I remember that Mike Huckabee actually defended Wright ("and I’m gonna be probably the only conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this"), based on a recognition of the racism that Wright endured growing up.

I would hate the blatant cynicism behind such fake outrage, but it's equally galling to put up with militant ignorance. When angry white people sincerely require literally everyone to shut up and join the ritual praise of the country and its flag, what are they afraid of, and why on earth would we pander to that fear? That kind of idolatrous secondhand patriotism betrays the actual values which should make the USA (as John Gunther put it) "... the only country deliberately founded on a good idea."

A Quaker perspective on Colin Kaepernick ... and Obama to Kaepernick: "Listen to the pain...."

Natalia Antonova's life advice for when the mind is full of scorpions.
I hadn't stabbed a sleeping guest to death in cold blood, nor executed a potential political rival's family and servants, but those were details.
One of Sean Guillory's most interesting interviews: The American mission to save Russia.

A branch library in Chicago becomes a neighborhood lifeline.

Josh Daffern on Albert Mohler, Andy Stanley, and the Bible ... "The heavyweights are at it again." ("Fights like this might only interest denominational geeks like me, but believe me this is a heavyweight fight.")

Gospel/blues from the Kobe-Osaka area where my mom grew up:


22 September 2016

Be realistic

Our entryway's notice board on election day.
Cynicism is cheap wisdom; unfortunately too many of us love a bargain! Here in Russia, we have a post-election season full of glib commentaries along the predictable lines of "what, you expected a genuine election?" Despite a recent report stating that our environment cannot endure even one more fossil-fuel source coming online, Exxon tells us that banning such fuel is "unrealistic." We are urged to be realistic about the number of refugees wealthy countries can afford to admit. Realism, as it turns out, is a handy wet blanket to smother goo-goos and their wacky ideas of social justice and environmental concern.

But is realism itself realistic? Ten years ago I wrote about Gordon Hirabayashi's experience when confronted with the U.S. government's decision to put Americans of Japanese descent into forcible internment. He testified that, for him, idealism was realism, giving him the strength to endure his own legal ordeals and imprisonments.

If by asking me to "be realistic," you're simply asking to survey the horizon and count the cost, I've got no objection. But too often, this advice has additional tacit assumptions:
  • Why do you think you're right when everyone else seems to have made peace with the way things are?
  • You might be right, but the system is rigged against you
  • You might be right, but the market has spoken and finds your position without measurable merit
  • You might be right in the long run, but decisions are made on a short-term basis.
In the face of all this so-called realism, what's a Quaker to do? Let's start by seeing if the Bible has anything to say....

First of all, we might actually be right despite being in the minority. We are not required to compromise:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in God there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, God's Son, purifies us from all sin. [1John 1:5-7, NIV, adapted.]
It's not surprising that some people nevertheless urge us to compromise:
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Timothy 3:12-15, NIV.]
Likewise, the Bible isn't shy about describing rigged systems:
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. [Ecclesiastes 5:8, NIV.]
The Bible's imperatives in the face of these realities are very clear:
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8, NIV, adapted.]

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke? [Isaiah 58:6, NIV.]
Biblically-centered resistance to conventional realism doesn't necessarily come naturally to us. Even those who are born into the church are reminded (through Paul's second letter to Timothy) to avoid those who "have a form of godliness, but deny its power." (2 Timothy 3:5.) Somehow, as we learn to trust God and to trust the cumulative wisdom of our church community, we learn a different definition of realism: the most real thing we can do is to be in God's will. There will still be risks -- in this world there are always risks -- but the risks we take in God's service are uniquely worthwhile.

If we envision the world of policies and options as a marketplace of ideas, then it may well seem that conventional wisdom too often has a near-monopoly. But look how many conventional ideals lost their previously unchallenged dominance as persuasive new ideas -- perhaps ruthlessly marginalized at first -- began displacing them. The divine right of kings, child labor, slavery, forced segregation, and other forms of once-respectable bondage, no longer have the power they once had. These demons are still roaming the world, but millions have been mobilized into the Lamb's War against them. Ethical values, persuasively presented and represented, do have weight in the marketplace.

One of the jobs of prophets and evangelists is to help in this marketing of ethical values by telling stories that connect the dots. For me, as I've mentioned before, it was the Christmas 1969 issue of Reader's Digest that connected dots for me, in a way probably unintended by the editors: the magazine's cover art celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, while the contents urged us to continue killing and wounding Vietnamese communists faster than they could be replaced. I couldn't square Jesus and killing, and suddenly my own internal marketplace of values was turned upside down. Apparently I was just one of millions experiencing the collapse of conventional wisdom about Viet Nam -- popular support for the war was already evaporating.

Maybe the short-term vs long-term argument is just a specific case of this imperative to tell stories and make connections. Somehow we need to convey the unwelcome lesson of history -- that, ultimately, all empires succumb to some combination of internal degradation and external assault. In the cast of the environment, we ourselves may be triggering an assault of rising oceans and destabilized weather patterns. For some, it seems politically convenient right now (despite near-universal scientific consensus) to deny that climate change is an alarming reality, but does anyone seriously believe that today's nation-states are immortal? Can such a fantasy be labeled realism?

In the face of these challenges, I'd hate to see us becoming elitist proclaimers of environmental sensitivity at little personal cost to ourselves, utterly ignoring those whose livelihoods today apparently depend on old-fashioned extraction and burning of fuel. What would it be like for our churches and meetings to be come laboratories of an alternative future? Could we imagine a different division of labor -- some of us reaching out to workers in unsustainable industries, some helping the corporate world face reality (it's already starting), while others focus on the politics of environmental sanity, and still others form the evangelistic message that links the Gospel invitation with ecological stewardship? I'm especially eager to see activists and evangelists work together to create a more accessible, engaging language that goes beyond the in-group references beloved of both groups.

Of course I may be nuts, but this sounds realistic to me.

A Life Overseas: The truth is somewhere in the middle, in the space between victory and defeat...

Peace pipes, not oil pipes.

Two New Republic articles on surveillance of our communications: The CIA road show; the Feds can read your e-mail. (Here's my own take on this subject.)

Sign of the times? Anti-evangelism law used against foreigners who speak in church.

An article we're discussing in class: Women ask for raises as often as men .... (Russian version.)

The blues time machine goes to Poland, 40 years ago, when Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins took the audience to Kansas City:

15 September 2016

Pokémon GO to church!

A video blogger in Yekaterinburg, Ruslan Sokolovsky, is under house arrest, awaiting trial for catching Pokémons in a church and posting a video of his activity. Church representatives told the press that if he had just kept his exploits to himself, it would have been spiritually risky for him but no harm to anyone else. It was the fact that he posted the video online that required a severe response.

Church authorities charged Sokolovsky with, among other things, cynically insulting the memory of martyrs in the service of self-promotion. He now faces the possibility of up to five years in prison for insulting the feelings of believers and stirring up social hatred.

In Poltava, Ukraine, a local Orthodox priest responded to the news about Sokolovsky's arrest by announcing on his parish's Facebook page that Pokémon hunters were welcome to enter the church, as long as they don't go behind the altar. The archbishop commented that players can ask the priest to catch Pokémons hiding there.

Yes, I'm a stranger in these parts. It's a good idea to observe tact and good sense before presuming to comment on the legal issues involved, a tension and caution I also felt during the Pussy Riot controversy. After all, my American experience includes full-throated campaigns against Madonna and others perceived as insulting religion, controversies over public prayer, Nativity scenes, tablets of the Ten Commandments, and attempts to block the construction of mosques. So, as an American, I can't judge from some higher-than-thee platform.

As a member of the Body of Christ, however, I do have a voice. I do get to comment on the church demanding that this young atheist lose his freedom because he trespassed on the church's sacred territory with his game. The very fact that, thanks to his video, all this is so very public (a supposedly aggravating circumstance), gave the church's evangelists a free chance to demonstrate what grace is all about. Instead, the world sees church authorities adopting a very different priority. As one YouTube commenter wrote, "... they should hang him until he understands the essence of the forgiving and humble nature of christianity."

I can't help returning to the words of the Russian Orthodox priest, Anthony Bloom, who said (as I quoted in this earlier post), 
It seems to me -- and I'm deeply convinced of this -- that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. The Church must not be one of the powers operating in this or that government; she must be, if you like, just as powerless as God, Who does not coerce, Who only calls us and reveals the beauty and truth of things, but doesn't enforce them on us; Who, similarly to the way our consciences work, points out the truth, but leaves us free to listen to truth and beauty -- or to refuse them. It seems to me that this is how the Church should be. If the Church takes its place among those organizations that have power, that are able to force and direct events, then there will always be the risk that she would find power desirable; and as soon as the Church begins to dominate, she loses the most profound thing, the love of God, and an understanding of those who need salvation rather than the works of destruction and rebuilding.
As for the Poltava priest, one prominent Orthodox commentator here in Russia, with whom I usually agree, criticized the announcement concerning permission to hunt those creatures in the church. He said that there were actually no Pokémon hunters visiting the church, so the announcement was just "showmanship." (He might be right about the lack of activity; at the moment, I see only two creatures in Poltava, according to this map.) What I cherish about the announcement is its implicit kindness and humor and confidence.

I do not play this Pokémon GO game personally, nor do I exalt the freedom to be silly and trivial, or even insulting, in places that are precious in the minds of believers. What I want -- what I (with my puny voice) demand -- is that the church remember WHO it claims to represent in the world. In the short run, church authorities can win turf wars: they can call the police, they can unleash the rhetoric of pious outrage; they can show the young atheist who's boss. Many will cheer them on. And then, yet another beloved child of God walks away utterly confirmed in their cynicism, that much farther from the Good Shepherd's tender invitation to repent and believe the Good News.

I just rechecked the map. Now there apparently are no creatures at all in downtown Poltava. The church is safe.

(The same map site revealed ONE creature in Elektrostal.)

Christianity Today: The best way for churches to 'capitalize' on the game...play it!

Meanwhile, in the U.K., the government treats religion as just fairies, goblins, and imaginary friends.

And in the USA, Getreligion wonders why a reporter covering an outreach to Millennials in Washington, DC, didn't ask more questions.

Novels aren't necessarily political -- but they're not apolitical, either.
Is Shriver a refreshing voice of reason, calling out the anti-free-speech excesses of the literary left? Or is she just the latest novelist-provocateur whose attack on political correctness is a thinly veiled defense of her privilege?
Bringing Studs Terkel (one of my heroes in my high school years) into the 21st century, asking those "Terkelish" questions, "What do you do all day?" and "How do you feel about it?"

During my walks to the Institute and back, and on the fitness center's treadmill, I listen to a variety of podcasts, including Slate's Culture Gabfest. Just after the one-hour point on the most recent Gabfest, the program's regulars began their weekly round of "endorsements." Dana Stevens endorsed the recent addition of the Beauty Is Everywhere series by Bob Ross to the Netflix catalog. The group's comments on Bob Ross (and the brief clip they played of his familiar voice as he began a painting) brought back wonderful memories from our early years of parenting -- including a family trip to Muncie, Indiana, to meet Bob Ross in person.

More from James Harman -- not from Chicago this time but from Frederikshavn, Denmark.