26 August 2010

Reading, smelling good, and other seasonal consolations

Judy and I are not usually with our adult kids at Christmas time, so we take liberties with the calendar. The Daily Show's John Hodgman inspired us last year with his "Emergency Christmas" idea--declaring an extra Christmas to boost the economy--and so for two years in a row, we've timed our own "emergency Christmases" for when we can get together as a family.

A couple of weeks ago, three of us celebrated emergency Christmas 2010 in August in Oregon, but I was "left behind" here in Elektrostal. To my total surprise, Judy told me over Skype that my present was hidden in our closet. She'd planned ahead with our friend Elizabeth in Newberg, Oregon, who had brought my gift during her July visit to Elektrostal so that Judy could hide it in preparation for revealing its location during our transatlantic emergency Christmas celebration.

I might blush to reveal what the main gift was, except that I've already confessed in this blog how much I like Roger & Gallet carnation-scented soap, and why. The thing is, she must have arranged for this long before we realized that the peat-bog fires around Moscow would spread a smelly smog around us, an odor that got into our clothes and curtains and is still noticeable weeks later. Along with the incense sticks that our friend Rina gave us, this soap is turning out to be a wonderful blessing.

Among my favorite categories of gifts is books. I just visited LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania, where theology professor Stephen Dintaman told me about Stanley Hauerwas's new book, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir. After our conversation, I decided that my emergency Christmas would be truly complete if I had the book. So I stimulated the economy to the tune of $14.84 (Kindle edition) and was soon engrossed in the book.

For some people I know, Hauerwas is frustratingly hard to categorize. How many theologians do you know who have a radical critique of militarism and violence that is rooted in a commitment to liturgical integrity and orthodox theology? How many "high-church Mennonites" count Methodism and Catholicism as formative influences? The ability to stay loose to categories while forming deep attachments to specific congregations and specific faculties (particularly Notre Dame and then Duke) is explained in this memoir, at least in part, by the decisive importance of friendships and dialogue in Hauerwas's life. Friendship is in fact a central theme of the book:
What it means for me to be a Christian and to be a friend has become so intertwined that I cannot untangle one from the other, nor do I wish to. Given Aristotle's and Aquinas's influence, I had thought about friendship as integral to an emphasis on the virtues, but increasingly friendship was becoming for me an existential necessity. I had learned much from Aristotle's account of character friendships, but I knew his account could not be the last word because I found myself becoming friends with those called mentally disabled.
We learn a lot about the writer from his wrenching account of his first marriage--his wife had a severe form of bipolar disorder. He lays bare the agony of those years undefensively, without false piety. My own mother was also mentally ill and similarly capable of suddenly causing private and public chaos; I experienced Hauerwas as an ally in the difficult task of describing what that kind of life is like. But I escaped at age 18 (when she literally threw me out of the house), whereas the author was a high-profile academic. Maybe my situation was more like Hauerwas's son, whose importance in his life is also an important element of the memoirs.

In this and many other matters--including the awkward subject of academic politics--Hauerwas is served well by his blunt and salty way of putting things. He is clear and explicit about his working-class origins as the son of a bricklayer, putting in many hours as child and youth serving as a bricklayer's assistant in Texas. His liberal use of profanities continued into his theological career--although when he became aware that he was gaining an unhelpful reputation as a "foul-mouthed theologian," he made deliberate efforts to moderate his language.

He is fascinating and generous in crediting those who inspired him and mentored him over the years. John Howard Yoder's influence is a great example--and as generous as Hauerwas is in describing that influence and the resulting colleagueship (at Notre Dame) and friendship, he also gives an account of Yoder's fall from grace and restoration as a result of inappropriate relations with women. I'd heard about the accusations and was glad to read the rest of the story.

Among Hauerwas's most valuable contributions to theological conversations are the ways he links social justice and nonviolence with the nature of Christ, of the church, and of history. For example:
When you are trying to change the questions, you have to realize that many people are quite resistant to such a change. They like the answers they have. People who reacted so strongly against my work thought it unthinkable that I would criticize H. Richard Niebuhr's types in Christ and Culture, or that I would question Reinhold Niebuhr's theological legitimating of "democracy." Over time it was probably the case that many such critics had not even read Richard or Reinhold, because their answers had become the air and water that sustained mainstream Protestantism in America. I wanted to change the questions because i thought these answers were suffocating the church. 
Yet I was teaching in a seminary [at Duke University] created and dedicated to the continuation of mainstream Protestantism. I saw no reason to bite the hand that was feeding me, but neither did I want to lick it. I was not trying to tear down the liberal Protestant establishment, an unnecessary task in any case. It was doing such a good job self-destructing. Rather, I was trying to help Christians begin to develop the habits necessary to sustain the church when most people assumed that "being religious" was a good thing only if you did not take it too seriously. I was trying to suggest that Christianity is a good thing only if you do take it seriously, which means, at the least, that Christians should raise their children to understand that they are part of a people who have a problem with war.

*  *  *

The worship of Jesus is the central act that makes Christians Christian. It is that center that connects everything together. My work is about such connections. I have tried to show that how we live together in marriage, how and why we have children, how we learn to be friends, and how we care for the mentally disabled are the ways a people must live if we are to be an alternative to war. To find alternatives to war will take time. The effort to abolish war presumes that we have all the time we need to persuade others that war can be abolished. War is impatience. Christians believe that through cross and resurrection we have been given the time to be patient in a world of impatience.
Speaking of war, Hauerwas describes how, given these commitments, he understood the role of a (reluctant) public theologian in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist acts. I'll end these notes by quoting from a remarkable article he wrote for Time magazine in 2003:
G.K. Chesterton once observed that America is a nation with the soul of a church. Bush's use of religious rhetoric seems to confirm this view. None of this is good news for Christians, however, because it tempts us to confuse Christianity with America. As a result, Christians fail to be what God has called us to be: agents of truthful speech in a world of mendacity. The identification of cross and flag after September 11 needs to be called what it is: idolatry. We are often told that America is a great country and that Americans are a good people. I am willing to believe that Americans want to be good, but goodness requires that we refuse to lie to ourselves about the assumed righteousness of our cause. That the world is dangerous should not be surprising news to Christians who are told at the beginning of Lent that we are dust. If Christians could remember that we have not been created to live forever, we might be able to help ourselves and our non-Christian brothers and sisters to speak more modestly, and, thus, more truthfully and save ourselves from the alleged necessity of a war against "evil."

The question "why" has been a big part of my understanding of Quaker discipleship. Today the question's importance coincidentally got two confirmations. #1: I had a wonderful traveling companion in my train compartment on the overnight train from Riga to Moscow. He was a World War II veteran relocating from Latvia to southwestern Russia, not far from Samara. He was refreshingly direct about war and ordinary soldiers--"Both Stalin and Hitler used us young men as cannon fodder. But why? For what? When the war ended, we had no problems getting together with German soldiers as friends, as ordinary humans. ... Leaders are always trying to make us fearful and suspicious of each other. You have to learn to ask 'why?'" ... "Most people just ask 'how'--I want to know why. Curiosity is what makes life interesting."

#2: Then, back home this afternoon, just a few hours later, I turned on the computer and saw this article on Donald Miller's blog.

"Mr. Karzai's Promises"--note the string of wishful "must" statements: "Afghan and American government contracting procedures must be streamlined and made more transparent. Afghan institutions must be strengthened. Programs must be audited. And leaders more interested in good governance than self-enrichment must have a place at every level of Afghanistan’s government." Again: WHY? Whose "musts" are these, anyway? (And we peace people are accused of being unrealistic!) Do they represent our requirements for staying in Afghanistan, or our requirements for leaving Afghanistan? Is there an "or else"?

Four views on the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian talks. In the meantime, "Captain, where is your sense of decency?"

Here's something you don't see every day: A Russian Orthodox blogger quotes J. Gresham Machen. Barbara-Marie Drezhlo's blog is often inspiring, sometimes infuriating, never boring.

"Gifts and grunt work."

"Don't touch the gringos."

Buddy Guy--"Mustang Sally"

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