10 January 2013


"The Greeks put Truth at the center, the principle of Truth, and for the sake of that principle you can destroy a man. I have no need of a truth which destroys a man. More than that, anyone who destroys a man destroys God also. The Church bears a guilt toward the Jews!"

This is the voice of a fictional figure, based on real life. The Carmelite monk Brother Daniel, supposedly summoned to Rome to answer charges of heresy, is having tea with his old friend from his Polish years, Pope John Paul II. Novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya has Daniel trying to convince the Pope that by emphasizing Hellenized doctrine and Roman dominance over Christianity's Hebrew roots, the Catholic Church has distorted the Gospel and marginalized itself in its own original homeland.

For over a month, Brother Daniel has been just one of the voices I've been hearing in my head, thanks to Ulitskaya's utterly fascinating book Daniel Stein, Interpreter,based on the life of an actual historical figure, Oswald Rufeisen. The book is not exactly a conventional novel, but rather a scrapbook of documents, letters, transcripts, police archives, sermons, lectures. All of these disparate elements are in a kind of nonchronological Brownian motion, but they all share threads with Daniel, this Jewish resistance worker, collaborator with World War II partisans fighting the Nazis while working for the Germans as an interpreter, who found shelter in a convent at a crucial moment, leading to his conversion and his ultimately becoming the priest for a wildly diverse little Catholic congregation in Israel. And that is about as compact a description as you'll get for these 416 pages. The voices tell us that Daniel is wonderful, crazy, a scary liberal, a hero, a heretic, a defender of the faith, a wise pastor, a dangerous influence,  ... but nobody seems indifferent.

This book is as contradictory as the voices that keep poking at you from inside its pages. (If you could imagine this book as a box with rubber walls, you'd see the surface pulsing here and there with the cries and debates of the characters.) On the one hand, it is absolutely riveting. I've literally never seen important conversations about faith and culture brought to life--not even in seminary--as effectively as Ulitskaya manages to do with her characters as they plead and grouse and proclaim and denounce and grieve and lecture. For example, Valentina, a Christian translator in Poland, visits her old friend Teresa, a former covert nun, now living in Israel with her Orthodox priest husband Efim, and then writes to her hosts about what the trip was like for her:
Perhaps the most amazing discovery for me was the enormous diversity of the Christian trends in Israel. Theoretically I, who all my life have been translating Christian literature for samizdat and only in recent years have seen my translations brought out by official publishing houses, on good paper and with my name as the translator, should have been well acquainted with the diversity of opinion which exists on any theological question. But it ws truly during these two weeks that I saw for myself the diversity of Christians--Greeks, Copt, Ethiopians, Italians, and Latin Americans, messianic churches, Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals. The history of all the splits and schisms came to life. There are neither conquerors nor conquered, the Monophysite and the Aryan, the Pharisee and the Sadducee coexist in the same time and space.

I am full of joy and perplexity. What puzzles me most of all is the fact that all this fire-breathing diversity is situated in the heart of active and self-sufficient Judaism, which appears not to notice the immense Christian world. Furthermore, all this is embedded in the domain of Islam, for which Israel is also one of the centers of life and faith. These three worlds appear to exist in the same space but almost without intersecting.
Efim answers angrily, having forbidden his wife Teresa any further contact with her old friend:
The principal and most fruitful path is that of Orthodoxy. I do not want simplified Christianity. Those of whom you speak, all those hosts of reformers and popularizers, are seekers not of God but of an easy path to God. ... You talk of a diversity which delighted you! Valentina Ferdinandovna, do you not really realize that a sumptuous, immensely rich fabric is taken, a little snippet is cut out of it, and people say, look, this is entirely sufficient! It is for this reason that I broke completely with Father Daniel Stein. His search for a narrow, minimal Christianity is a deleterious path. In that scrap which he has defined for himself as "necessary and sufficient" is contained one thousandth, one millionth part of Christianity!
Given that this same criticism has sometimes been aimed at us Quakers, I thought long and hard about this passage. Likewise, I read Daniel Stein's eloquent critique of the doctrine of the Trinity, which echoes that of William Penn--not denying the reality, but questioning both the necessity and the antiquity of church dogma's pseudo-precise formulations. Brother Daniel himself always seemed to err on the side of compassion--the role of "interpreter" writ large--including the time when he was called on to rock-climb his way to a remote cave to bury an ascetic who seemed to have founded a church that was so pure it only had three adherents.

So, again, on that one hand, it's an absorbing book. But on the other hand, it's not easy going. It took me over a month to finish. I found myself reading a couple of chapters, and then finding it necessary to dip into lighter fiction or to share an episode of Foyle's War with Judy while considering at length what I'd read. After all, Ulitskaya's book sits squarely in the middle of some of the most violently contested geographical, psychological, confessional, and intellectual territory of the past century--conflicts that cost tens of millions of lives and set new records for sheer organized cruelty. And even today, at those same intersections, we have so many eager volunteers for the role of combatant, and precious few Brother Daniels to interpret the gospel of peace.

Photo Andrei Ribakov; source

Among all the documents and texts in Ludmila Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein scrapbook, there are even letters in the author's own voice; they represent cover letters for sections of the manuscript she's sending to a friend (perhaps an editor?). Self-referential devices are risky in any work of art, but here they serve to anchor the reader in reality, pointing gently to the line that separates fiction from history, and giving us a sense of what writing this book cost the author. They also give us a baseline reading of the author's own point of view. For example:
Poor Christianity! It can only be poor. Any victorious Church, whether of the West or the East, totally rejects Christ. That is an inescapable fact. Would the Son of Man in his worn sandals and poor raiment accept into his circle that Byzantine pack of greedy and cynical hangers-on at court who today comprise the Church establishment?

Two views of the real-life model for Brother Daniel, thanks to the Wikipedia article linked at the top of this post: "The Strange Case of 'Brother Daniel'"; "Daniel Rufeisen Carm."

Now that Oscar season is upon us, "Learning to love torture."

"Speedy Delivery": "Gerard Depardieu’s rapid naturalization as a Russian citizen has raised ire inside and outside of Russia." Read this whole article attentively, and then ask: What about the little matter of adoptions that were about to be finalized when the fatal hammer came down? We now know how fast the bureaucracy can work when truly important issues are at stake.... (Finally, a few related links here.)

"Manifesto--the Case for An American Diaspora." Read this and help me think about whether there's something healthy in what first struck me as a tricky new variation on the old "White Man's Burden." (Thanks to the School of Russian and Asian Studies, via Facebook, for the link.)

Christianity Today's "Most Redeeming Films of 2012." (Personally, at this point I've only seen #10, plus one of the honorable mentions. Guess which one?)

"Evangelicalism is worth saving, but only if it can be reshaped." By the way, the image of a "pastor" in this article brought Ulitskaya's Brother Daniel back to mind!

Update on an old story: "Judge Weighs Sanctions Against Russia in Dispute over Religious Texts."

Consider yourself warned: "(For Real) Reality Christian Programming, Coming Soon."

"Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?"--an important case study. Thanks to Patricia Stewart for the reference.

Darrell Jackson interviews Mike Frost: "What does it mean for a church to be 'mission-shaped', 'missionary', or 'missional'?" (Mike Frost's book Exiles was my book of the year in 2006.)

Dessert tonight comes from Barcelona:

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