21 May 2015

May shorts

This evening Judy and I went to the "Town Hall" meeting for U.S. citizens in Russia, held at the ambassador's residence, Spaso House, in Moscow's Arbat neighborhood.

The meeting was held on an off-the-record basis, so I'm not going to report on the substance of the evening. However, it's fair to say that we appreciated meeting the embassy's senior staff and having a chance to ask them questions, and we also enjoyed our glimpses of nearly 300 other U.S. citizens. This town hall is an annual event, but it was our first time in attendance. I hope to be back.

Former ambassador Beyerle's 2010 ball 
commemorating Bulgakov's fantasy.
Part of my interest, I confess, was simply to see this famous house, both its historical exterior and its legendary interior. It became legendary owing to Master and Margarita author Mikhail Bulgakov, who attended Ambassador Bullitt's Spring Festival ball held eighty years ago last month, and who transformed that ball into Satan's ball in his novel.

The house has another connection specific to Elektrostal: it was built for, and was the last residence of, the acknowledged founder of our city, Nikolai Vtorov, Russia's first oligarch of the 20th century. It was Vtorov's industrial enterprises that were the foundation of modern Elektrostal.

Spaso House is a five-minute walk from one of Moscow's best-known streets, the Arbat. For as long as I can remember it's been a pedestrian-only street, full of buskers, caricaturists, painters, and others seeking to earn a living from the constant stream of visitors. There are two Dunkin Donut outlets at last count, a McDonald's, a Starbucks, and even a new Shake Shack, along with many eateries with local roots. To add another reference to Mikhail Bulgakov, a small hotel named after him is hidden in one of the Arbat's courtyards. It's a great street to buy souvenirs if you like overpaying. But the main reason I like visiting this street is to see the monument to Bulat Okudzhava.

Bulat Okudzhava sings about his Arbat 
I don't know how well Bulat Okudzhava is known among people of our students' generation, but for those of us who learned Russian during the later decades of the Soviet era -- and for Russians of that era -- his voice and his guitar became very familiar. Decades later, I still remember songs I first learned in Galina Stepanovna's classroom at Carleton University.

This evening, looking at his statue, I saw evidence that he's not entirely forgotten -- someone had evidently provided him with flowers. Better yet, one of the young guitarists performing on the street was proving very well that the folk-commentary genre of solo guitar music has not vanished from Moscow's streets.

On the way into Moscow this evening, I read the last pages of a novel that has held me in a tight grip for several days. Apparently this novel, Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life, has already been widely praised (example), so maybe for you this is old news: it's extraordinary.

I have had a special place in my reader's heart for novels about immigration, being an immigrant myself. I also have a fascination with the experience of war and its effects on the soul. (I guess the phenomenon of organized evil is the real target of my curiosity.) This book combines these interests.

This novel about the unlikely, fragile, feverish alliance of an Iraq War veteran and a young Uyghur immigrant woman (without ID or papers) reminded me at times of Joseph Conrad and Alan Paton, but really I've never heard a voice quite like Lish's. Aside from his amazing ability to peek into these dramatically different people's wrestlings with each other and with their own demons, his words bring the real city to life. I've never read another author who describes walking from one end of a huge city to another, as I often did in an earlier stage of my life when I was working something out in my mind -- or when I was trying to avoid working something out. Lish's New York is a character in itself, or a whole buzzing, brawling, chaotic family of characters.

Special moments of insight linger: Skinner's roller-coaster emotions, amplified by drugs and alcohol, banging him around between dependence and resentment of Zou Lei. And her despair at getting him to take care of himself, even while she wonders why she has to do all the worrying for both of them.

By the time the book ended, Skinner and Zou Lei's "next life" seems to be right here in my head. I find myself whispering to them, proposing other ways out. I try to interpret them to each other. I cannot put them away.

Can anything good come from Nazareth? Come and see.

Is nuclear weapons modernization a threat to the Nonproliferation Treaty? (Thanks to Thomas Fox, National Catholic Reporter, for the link.)

A former U.S. ambassador and three other activists respond to the question, "what is it like to be hated online in Russia today?"

Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer on Russian media. (Is it fair to lump Russia Today and Fox News in the same category?)

Blues dessert from Russia:

14 May 2015

Other people's patriotism

Peace doves, Catherine Park, Victory Day 2015
I'm wearing a St. George's ribbon, Victory Day 2010
Greeting Elektrostal's veterans, Victory Day 2010
Catherine Park, Victory Day 2015
Catherine Park, Victory Day 2015
On May 9, our Friends meeting couldn't use its normal meeting place because of the Victory Day holiday, so we met in a theater near the Dostoevsky museum. Afterwards, we walked to the nearby Catherine Park. Since this was a major anniversary of the Nazi capitulation -- 70 years -- we saw patriotic messages and symbols all around us. A military band played. Souvenir stands were doing a booming business in badges, t-shirts, pilot caps, and flags; practically everyone already had an orange and black St. George's ribbon.

You may have seen coverage of this year's Victory Day celebrations in Russia, particularly in Moscow's Red Square. You're less likely to have seen pictures of peace doves, such as the ones (above) I saw at Catherine Park. The peace doves don't tell quite the same story to nervous Western viewers as those ranks of soldiers and their tanks and planes. (However, the doves do link back to the politicized peace movement of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) Nor do the pictures of children feeding ducks or playing in the water quite fit the cold-war-revival stereotypes.

Most of the time, I feel right at home here in Elektrostal. Obviously, in any new country, some things just take some getting used to. (We've just been through three days of scheduled hot-water shutdown. There'll be two more weeks of the same in July. And why don't the government offices that demand forms from you make those forms easily available, along with clear instructions?)

These days of heightened patriotism are another matter. For pacifists like me, the unquestioned linkage between nationalism and militarism is troubling. Stalin's negatives are going down and positives are going up in pollsters' statistics, although over half the country still has major doubts about him. More than that, it is clear that, particularly in light of today's international tensions, dissenting views on history, and particularly the details on Russia's participation in all the phases of World War II, are not always welcome.

But here's the thing: shouldn't one's own native patriotism be looked at just as critically? Aren't Americans generally inclined not to question the link between patriotism and the armed forces? Are we as critical about the massacres and forced displacements of our own history as we expect others to be about theirs? As for World War II, are Americans generally aware that over half of ALL deaths in World War II, worldwide, were deaths of Soviet citizens? And that 80% of Germany's casualties were on the Eastern Front?

At its best, patriotism is a positive quality, providing an emotional investment in learning the best qualities of one's own country and seeking to preserve and extend those qualities. Here in Russia, I tend to worry more about students who don't seem to have any patriotism at all than about students who are "too" patriotic. And, again, maybe all countries have their share of super-patriots who prefer to see the world in terms of us-and-them rather than thinking about how to bless the global community. We have our messianic Americans, and Russians have their own equivalents, each seeing the outside world as threatening sabotage and contamination. But, parades and politicians aside, Russia on May 9 looked a lot more like the USA on July 4 than you'd guess from news clips.

For Christians, there's another dimension to all this noise about patriotism -- despite the efforts of some politicians to exploit faith for their own political ends. God is the one who can "bring the mighty down from their thrones"; countless empires have come and gone while God's people have endured, and we have no biblical warrant to believe our present-day systems are immortal. Countries and their armies and hierarchies are our own elaborate human versions of animal territoriality, and only our conceit keeps us from realizing how little separates us from the rest of the zoo. The one advantage we might have is that we creatures can come to know the Creator and thereby begin to live by Gospel order, forsaking the butcher's bench of empire for a chance to build our lives with God at the center. But as soon as we start thinking that this makes us better than those other benighted people who wear ribbons and march in parades ... we've slipped right back into the old imperial mentality.


An extraordinary ordinary story for Russia's Victory Day: The story of a long life.

A case study on politicians talking about faith: Jed Bush's eloquent defense of Christianity, according to Kathleen Parker. How do you think Bush did?

Ravi Zacharias on worship and emotion (a video): "What you win them with is what you win them to."

Religious conservatives, "nones" and interfaith dialogue: "Too often, interfaith programs fail to attract broad participation and have little social impact. One major reason for this is that they tend to take place in an echo chamber of religious progressives."

Music's crisis, and how to fix it: "If you want to use music, you've got to pay for it."

Friday PS, the sad news via the Guardian: BB King dies in Las Vegas aged 89.

Video from the Tedeschi Trucks Band:

07 May 2015

Margaret Fell's words to us

One of our Russian Quaker colleagues showed me a brief text in Tom Hamm's anthology Quaker Writings and said, "I want to translate this."

The words she wants to translate are from Margaret Fell, the powerful organizer of the Friends movement and, in later life, also the wife of George Fox. Towards the very end of her life, Margaret apparently realized that many Friends were slipping from dependence on the Holy Spirit in favor of "forms," and issued a strong caution to the Friends movement. I believe she speaks with amazing directness to the full variety of Friends today, and not just to Friends but to organized religion everywhere. In part, here's what she said:
So let us keep to the rule and leading of the eternal Spirit, that God hath given us to be our teacher, and let that put on and off as is meet and serviceable for every one's state and condition. And let us take heed of limiting in some practices, for we are under the Gospel leading and guiding and teaching, which is a free spirit, which leads into unity and lowliness of mind the saints and service of Christ, desiring to be established in the free Spirit, not bound or limited. Legal ceremonies are far from gospel freedom; let us beware of being guilty or having a hand in ordering or contriving what is contrary to Gospel freedom, for the Apostle would not have dominion over their faith in Corinth, but to be helpers of their faith. It's a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into the observance of outward things, which may easily be done, for they can soon get into an outward garb, to be all alike outwardly, but this will not make them true Christians: it's the Spirit that gives life. I would be loth to have a hand in these things. The Lord preserve us, that we do no hurt to God's work but let him work whose work it is. We have lived quietly and peacefully thus far, and let's not for God's service to make breaches.
I'm thinking about putting some of my thoughts about this diagnosis/prescription in a future post, but for now it might be enough to let Margaret speak for herself. What is she saying to you? To your church or meeting? To the unity-promoters and the breach-makers in your own community?

Dorothy Day: The cause for canonization.

Ron Sider's Top 5 Books on Nonviolence.

Bodies of Lenin. (Or, how Lenin became Leninism.)

The peacemaking Palestinian evangelicals of Israel.

Al Green:

30 April 2015

Jo Nesbø reminds me of ...

Jo Nesbø. Photo (c) Stian Andersen, source.
Well, I'll get to that in a minute. Actually, the answer is contained in an article on The Week's Web site, Jo Nesbo's 6 favorite books. But I've been diverted by a puzzle: why does this six-book list contain seven books? (Or eight, or twelve, depending on how you count the last item.)

You may have already spotted the answer among those seven books: he reminds me of Dostoevsky. Specifically, he reminds me of how Dostoevsky's characters think out loud about the contradictions and dilemmas they face, especially within themselves.

Take the novel I just finished reading, Blood on Snow. The typical crime novel goes something like this:

1. (or 2.) Some context, including at least a somewhat likeable detective.
2. (or 1.) The crime.
3. Collecting and sifting evidence.
4a. The detective's personal life gets in the way, or colleagues do.
4b. Or maybe the criminal speaks obscurely in italics.
5. Wrong suspect no. 1.
6. More evidence.
7. (Optional.) More wrong suspects.
8. Thrilling chase.
9. Etc.

To tell you the truth, this is more than adequate to entertain me satisfactorily if the writing is serviceable. I'm always surprised by how pedestrian the writing is in the novels of highly-acclaimed mystery writers, but somehow I read the books anyway!

Blood on Snow is a bit different. In Nesbø's opening scene, we meet the murderer on the job, so to speak. As he finishes up a contract, Olav explains to us why he chose this line of work, having failed at several others. "Driving a getaway car [for example]. I can drive fast, that's fine. But I can't drive inconspicuously, and anyone driving a getaway car has to be able to do both. They have to be able to drive so they look just like any other car on the road. I landed myself and two other men in prison because I can't drive inconspicuously enough." So Olav reports back to the contractor and gets another commission. This time, to his dismay, the target is the contractor's own wife.

Of course, there is no way this is going to end well, but to get to the end we must walk along a typical Jo Nesbø path, meaning that we will become well acquainted with the family and relational factors that made Olav who he is -- all of which he tells us in his own modest, semi-detached voice. We will learn about his morality (yes, it does exist) and his loyalties (not very many!).

It's not as complex a plot as some of Nesbø's novels. For one thing, there is no detective at all -- but by the end of this laconic tone-poem-in-prose, justice is nevertheless served, more or less.

Now I'm just starting to read another Nesbø novel, The Son, in which we meet a corrupt prison warden, a veteran prison chaplain in the midst of an attack of conscience, and a heroin-addicted convict who is paid in heroin to plead guilty to crimes he didn't commit. I'm only a few pages in, and already the opportunities to hear his characters consider guilt, shame, and redemption seem unlimited. And as significant as these reflections will be, I'm confident that they will not slow down the plot.

Aside from Jo Nesbø's many excellent Harry Hole novels, I can recommend another stand-alone Nesbø novel, Headhunters. As a pure plot-driven thriller, its characters may be less cerebral than Olav and Harry, but it's still pure Nesbø: human relationships are the surprisingly decisive factor.

Amazon's Jo Nesbø page.

Transforming the World: Russian Avant-garde and Russian Studies at University of Oregon. Opening seminar tomorrow!

How can you resist a title like this? ... Archbishop Visits Boiler Room to Explain the Dangers of Prayer.

Bill Yoder on church relations in Ukraine: Cutting the Power Chord in Two.

Revisiting an earlier article on Baltimore and the USA in light of the current disorders: David Simon, "There are now two Americas." By the standards of an earlier era, an earlier social contract,
Labour doesn't get to win all its arguments, capital doesn't get to. But it's in the tension, it's in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

Dessert: Keith Richards and James Cotton rehearse "Little Red Rooster."

23 April 2015

Home, part two

OK, you may have noticed that during our recent travels I've developed the habit of heading these posts with scenic photos from the places we're visiting. The photo below is equally authentic -- my load of clean dishes this evening:

To tell you the truth, I get just as much pleasure from this scene as I do from beautiful landscapes and seascapes. I'm no Brother Lawrence; dishwashing is not a time I usually spend in conscious prayer. Instead I totally enjoy the physical process of scrubbing and rinsing and placing the dripping dishes in the drainer as compactly as possible so that I can do as many dishes as possible in one session.

Two things are especially helpful: first, I use rubber gloves because the water is extremely hot. I like the way that our hot water makes light work of dirty dishes, but not at the expense of my skin. Secondly, with the right music in the background, the job can go by almost too quickly!

One thing I like very much about our kitchen: the working area is a straight line from the sink on the left to the stove on the right, with a decent length of countertop in the middle. In many small kitchens, it's hard for two people to work together without getting in each other's way, but we work easily side by side. When Judy is making a lot of things for our guests and needs to use the same bowls and implements over and over again, it's super-easy for her to hand them to me for a quick cleaning.

In many American homes, the kitchen is definitely a work area, distinct from the more social parts of the home. Many ways have been developed to make sure there is plenty of open space between the kitchen and the dining area so that those in the kitchen can join in the social life going on in the dining room. But ours is a Russian kitchen, the heart of our social life. Although our relatively rare formal dinners take place in the living room, we've been known to fit ten or eleven people into our kitchen on a regular basis. (Truthfully, when they're all sitting it's a bit hard to open the refrigerator, but it's totally worth it!)

During the Portland-Amsterdam flight I finally saw the Russian film Leviathan, one of the foreign-language nominees in the last Oscar awards. Aware of the controversies around this film (sample one, sample two), I've put off watching it. One reason is my sympathy for the irritation expressed in Pushkin's famous words, "Of course I detest my homeland from head to toe -- but it really bothers me when a foreigner shares this feeling with me." Is there any other country where the capacities for thorough self-criticism and fervent patriotism are so tightly interwoven? And how do I interpret this complexity to westerners accustomed to having to choose between vilifying or romanticizing Russia?

In actual fact, the film serves neither vilification nor sentimentality. On a perhaps more trivial level, it is a master-class in film-making. Its sheer stunning quality is a good enough reason to see the film and celebrate what a good director and team can do. But to go beyond its stunning quality, it is very much NOT a "Russia is crap" film as some of its critics here have charged. Its themes and dilemmas are universal. The heroes and villains are very complex -- certainly the main hero's own flaws contribute to the mess he's in.

Yes, corruption is very much part of the plot, but as a Chicago boy I cannot claim that Russia has a monopoly on corruption! Furthermore, the elemental decency that is so characteristic of the Russians we know is portrayed with lovely directness in this story. Finally, while it's true that the film confronts puzzles of church-state enmeshment, it doesn't do so in a simplistic or tendentious way, and it's also true that the Gospel is preached very directly. As in every country where the church has a toehold, and every real ethical situation confronting believers worldwide, the issue of faithful implementation of the Gospel message is left unresolved, or rather it's left for the viewer to resolve.

Good marriage advice. Don't try to be humble. Just Try to Be Yourself. At some point I may blog about my own experience, but not just yet....

A Jolly Quaker writes thoughtfully about Ben Pink Dandelion's Swarthmore Lecture at the Britain Yearly Meeting sessions last year. (This post is the third in a series of reflections on that lecture; there are links at that page to the two previous posts.) I've not read the lecture, but watched the video of the lecture on the same flight as the Leviathan movie! --  and that lecture provided a very interesting commentary on Ben's QuakerSpeak video I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my post on "The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention."

More about ecstasy in worship: we sang this unusual song at Twin Rocks last week.

Two Hound Dogs, nearly fifty years apart -- one with Buddy Guy in the audience, the other with him on guitar:

16 April 2015


Pastors from many of the meetings of Northwest Yearly Meeting are here at Twin Rocks Friends Camp, a few miles north of Tillamook, Oregon. Yesterday evening MaryKate Morse led us through an exercise of naming the values we cherish in our Quaker community, and Bob Henry drew up a sort of minute in the form of a cartoon. Some of the references might be obscure if you didn't hear the stories that evoked the images, but I think many are clear enough. They help me understand why I feel so much at home in this specific community of believers.

Today Becky Ankeny, our superintendent, spoke about the preciousness of home -- whether it's our church, our yearly meeting, our vocational community -- and about the risk of letting that beloved home become an idol, obscuring the reality that our only true and constant home is in God. It can be incredibly painful when we're separated (by our choice or by someone else's) from one or another of the places that we've grown to call home, where we've found shelter and anchored our identity, but which ultimately cannot be home.

For me, this year in the USA, away from our home and work in Elektrostal, has made me think about what home means to me. I'm not a nest-builder and could live pretty much anywhere there are books, music, and friends. (Judy jokes, with some justification, that I really define home as "where Judy is.") I've lived in six countries and seven states. My father was Norwegian, and my mother was a German born and raised in Japan, so I come by my portability honestly. What makes things complicated is that all of these places have claims on my heart.

Elektrostal and the Moscow community of Friends, however, have a peculiarly powerful claim at the moment. Maybe it's because of the international tensions that have grown over this past year, and in our absence we've been mostly powerless to work for mutual understanding and Christian reconciliation. And we're missing a whole year of our students' progress; some of them will graduate without our being there to cheer them on. I even miss the rhythm of shopping and visiting our landlords and celebrating the holidays and washing the holiday dishes.... I miss the music and subtleties and endless humor of the Russian language.

It's a good discipline to remember that God is a constant home, a home that puts distance and boundaries and alienation in their place.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:13-20, NIV.)

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. (John 14:2-4, NIV.)

How churches can prepare for disasters.

The short, secret life of academic articles. "What articles have influenced you or do you return to the most?"

Conversations on race ... What "national conversations" actually need to cover.

The problem with hating Rob Bell. "We forgive people an awful lot when they don't come from within the camp."

"The EU's technocratic approach to Ukraine sleepwalked us into a crisis." Bring the humanities back! Here's more from Vsevolod Samokhvalov's article:
The institutionalist and technocratic approach cannot answer the question why, despite all our efforts, Ukrainian society tolerates controversial and mutually exclusive modes of existence: to aspire for European values, but to ignore Europe's advice on how to build a European way of life; to accept Europe's technical assistance, while returning to authoritarian rule. To make sense of these contradictions, Europe needs an ethnographic insight into societies like Ukraine in order to understand what they value, what they dream of and how these and other conditions transform our policies in these regions.
Oops. When it comes to untrustworthiness, the US trumps Iran. Is this a fair article? Why or why not?

Last week's taste of Otis Spann's piano just made me want more.