Books

Reading the Bible the Orthodox (and Catholic) way

I'm continuing to enjoy listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast, though as the show has progressed I've noticed a few missteps regarding Catholicism that strike me as unfortunate.

That being said, Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church are farm more similar than different - and many of the differences are a function of culture rather than doctrine.

For example, the treatment of the Bible is essentially the same.  Like the Catholic Church, our Orthodox brothers do not believe that it can be taken out of context or interpreted on an individual basis.  This approach has led to schism and confusion.

Recently they did an episode specifically about this topic.  I should note that most of the podcast goes through how not to read the Bible, and various "Bible scholars" receive (well-deserved) criticism.

The core issue is people who do not understand the way in which the Bible was written, lack historical context and also an understanding of how the Church Fathers interpreted it.  One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism was the fact that all of the 'big questions' had already been answered centuries ago.  I find it terribly annoying when someone comes up with what they think is a hot new idea when in fact they've stumbled on something people figured out hundreds of years ago.

You get a lot of that in what we now call "Bible study," and it bugs me to no end.  I love that I live in a country where people have the freedom to read a simplified translation, come up with their own take and start their very own special church dedicated to what they think it says.

I don't love all the spiritual confusion this creates.

One of the Christian virtues is humility and I wish more of the people who styled themselves authorities in this area were willing to consider that the countless people who came before them were not ignorant or unintelligent and given the same problem set, likely figured out an answer well in advance of this particular generation.

The Bible has effectively been analyzed by a massive multi-century crowdsourced distributed computer system, yet some people think their single brain can compete (and even surpass) the collected knowledge of centuries because we possess an internet search engine.  That's pretty arrogant.

Anyhow, it's a good listen and as usual my only quibble is the stray derogatory remark (often based on a shocking degree of ignorance) about Catholic doctrine and practices.

 


Self-defeating Tactics 101: Attacking Catholic Churches

One of the (many) mistakes made by the Popular Front in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War was its decision to target Catholic churches and clergy.  By 1936, Spain was well on the way to being a secular society.  Mass attendance was low and falling, and there was little reason to believe the situation would change.

One of the many unique things about Francisco Franco was that he was a religious military officer, which was all but unheard of at that time.  Unless it was a wedding or a funeral, Spanish men didn't go to church. 

This changed when the Popular Front gained control of the Republic and its militias began a large-scale campaign of arson and murder.  As Stanley G. Payne has noted, in the run-up to the war and in the chaotic months that followed its outbreak, the Spanish clergy lost a higher percentage of its members than the Orthodox Church did in Communist Russia.

With historic cathedrals in flames, it was not surprising that the surviving Church leadership agreed that it was time to fight to defend what remained of Spanish Christianity. 

One could argue that this was the final straw in turning popular opinion decisively against the Republic.  As I note in Long Live Death, one did not have to be a practicing Catholic to find someone burning your home parish down and killing the local priest abhorrent.  Acts of desecration likewise stirred powerful - and ultimately homicidal - emotions.

This also had to have factored in the decision of the Carlist militias in Navarre to side with the Nationalists.  It is important to recall that the July Rising was originally to "save the Republic."  It was only later that a Nationalist ideology was developed.

The Carlists correctly reasoned that while neither side represented their interests, the annihilation of the Church was unacceptable.  The Requetes from Navarre would become the true elite of the Nationalist Army, outstripping even the Spanish Foreign Legion in their tenacity and determination.

It was a self-defeating tactic, but also an inevitable one.  Having decided to destroy traditional society, the Anarchists would also have to target the Church as well.

While the Orthodox Church was unable to mount much of a defense in Soviet Russia, history shows that Catholics often offer very effective resistance.


Even bad sources have good uses

My writing on China has slowed to a crawl because I've been so busy reading new books.  Some are excellent, while others have been questionable.

The situation is not quite as bad as researching the Spanish Civil War, where a uniform scholarly bias exists that has only recently been challenged.

With China, the situation is more complex.  The crimes of Communism are undeniable, which makes it difficult to shower the Peoples' Republic with the same sort of soft-focus fan service rendered to the Second Spanish Republic.

The language barrier is also difficult, particularly with two translation schemes.  What this does is make it much easier for modern pro-CCP scholars to obscure unpleasant facts since the English renderings of most of the place-names have been changed.

Still, I'm reaching a point where I'm getting quite good at detecting the presence of revisionist propaganda, which is particularly important as my account has now reached the modern era.

Just as the bombing of Guernica has served as a useful litmus test on a source's reliability regarding the Spanish Civil War, the treatment of China's brutal imperialist history has provided a useful guide to gauging a source's reliability in other areas.

As a sidenote, I still don't have a title.  I'm sure one will come to me...eventually.


My mini-China film festival

To focus my thoughts on the China book project, for the last several weeks I've been watching Chinese-centric films.

I started with Curse of the Golden Flower, which is supposedly set in the Tang Dynasty.   I have to admit that when I first watched it, I found it a bit odd but the themes now make a lot more sense to me - both in terms of its ending and also the time in which it was set.

Jumping ahead in history, the next film in the sequence was 55 Days in Peking, which is about the Boxer Rebellion and stars Charleton Heston as, well, himself.  I suppose it's biased against the Boxers, but then again, they were trying to kill all the diplomats and their families which was not very nice.

Props to Flora Robeson as the Empress Dowager.  Ah, for the days when people were allowed to play folks from other races and cultures.  I'm old enough to remember when our betters told us that race was only skin deep, not the defining human characteristic.

After that, I watched The Last Emperor, Super-Long Director's Cut Edition.  Whew!  This should have been a miniseries.  I get why the guy wanted all the extra footage added in, but he should have also included an intermission.  Ah, for the days when data compression required two disks for a movie of this length. 

The big takeaway for me was how deeply weird late Imperial China was and Henry Puyi was also a bit off. 

For a change of pace, we jumped to the 1920s for The Sand Pebbles, a movie that got Steve McQueen and Best Actor nomination.  It's a good film, well done, and covers the forgotten topic of US gunboats sailing around in China.  Hard to believe that Candace Bergen was once mild-mannered and sweet rather than middle-aged and caustic.

Closing out my journey was Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, which is set in Hong Kong as the Chinese Civil War comes to a close.  It's a fascinating snap-shot of Hong Kong before it was entirely paved over with skyscrapers and run by the Chi-Coms.  Jennifer Jones does a great job of being a half-Chinese doctor (or as she insists, "Eurasian").  William Holden plays his usual lecherous self.  Funny how that guy so often ended up portraying a writer on the take.

Anyway, I think the "off duty" attention paid to China kept me motivated to hit my goal of 40,000 words by the end of March.  I am definitely over the hump on this book.  Going forward, the sources are more plentiful, clearer and the lessons of military operations become far more clear. 

I've set a very ambitious goal of having 60,000 words by the end of April and a draft done by the end of May, so we'll see how that goes.


Is the peace movement extinct?

My decision to tune out the news for a few weeks has been a fruitful one.  Instead of fuming over various "hot takes" or arguing in comment sections, my China project has been moving at its fastest pace since December.  At this point, it's a given that it will be longer than Long Live Death, but even if it equals my longest book, I'm at least halfway there.

All of which is to say that I haven't tuned out the news entirely, and one thing I've noticed is the complete absence of any kind of peace movement.  With the exception of the Catholic Church and other religious leaders, everyone seems to be demanding that the combat become fiercer and bloodier. 

I've never seen anything like it.

All my life there have been vocal and high-profile politicians and activists whose response to any form of violence has been to call for immediate cease-fires and negotiations.  Again, I'm not following this closely, but even my cursory glances would have noticed something.  Where are the streets-filling "peace marches?" 

I don't think a single interventionist has been denounced as a war monger or had their office occupied by protestors. 

Did all those people change their minds?  Is violence now the answer?

I'd love to talk with someone who carried a "no blood for oil" sign and find out what they think.

 


Giving up the news for Lent

I hadn't planning on giving up following the news for Lent, but I think I will.

There's so much nonsense going on in the world, it seems like a waste of time to try to follow along. 

Maybe it's not a formal vow, but I can think of three reasons to stop following the news:

1. It's usually wrong.  Time was people got fired for getting stuff wrong.  Not so much these days.  So long as the lie agrees with the narrative, people are fine.

2. There's nothing I can do about it but worry.  Whatever happens in the wider world is going to happen with or without me.  Better to focus on my family and community than wring my hands about events on other continents.

3. Every word I read about world events is a word I could be reading in support of my book project.  I've gathered a lot of sources, and if I'm going to keep this thing on track, I need to focus on my research.

Again, this wasn't something that really occurred to me until Monday.  I had been making good progress on my China book and it was then that I realized I couldn't write more until I dug into all these books I've bought.  That sealed the deal:  less posting, less news, more research which leads to more writing.

I really want to have at least a rough draft by May.  I think if I cut out the time-wasters, I can do it.


On the brink of Lent 2022

With Ash Wednesday coming up, I've been thinking about how to approach Lent this year.

Normally I give up things - usually sinful stuff, but also something I enjoy to remind myself of Our Lord's sacrifices.

However, Lent also calls for additional acts of charity, things we do for others, and so I want to participate in that as well.

In fact, I don't think I'm going to give anything up (other than what is required of all Catholics).  Instead, I think I will try to do more, pray more, give more.

I'm also going to try to push hard to finish my book.  That may not sound like much of a Lenten sacrifice, but it means that I'm going to limit other activities.  When the weather finally breaks, I know I will want to go outside and enjoy it.  Now is the prefect time to drive forward and finish the first draft.

 


Will Amazon's Lord of the Rings show stink?

When Amazon announced the purchase of the television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary estate, I was no optimistic.

To be sure, the family had demanded certain assurances that the work would not be corrupted in the way the film versions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that only goes so far.

As I've noted before modern writers seem to have very high opinions of themselves and this leads them to "fix" classic literary works to make them more in accordance with the views of the moment.

The result is inevitably hot garbage, and instead of turning a known property into a "sure thing" financially, it ends up damaging the property itself.

Examples of this are legion, and I've written about them so many times that instead of giving a pile of links, I will direct the curious to simply look up the posts tagged for Star Wars.

What sets Amazon's gambit apart is the sheer scope of the project, which was undertaken when Game of Thrones-mania was at its height.  The failure of that enterprise should have provided an object lesson in the dangers of poor storytelling and the recent disastrous live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop provides further warnings.

Suffice to say, I'm not optimistic.


The new old concept of a "general strike"

When you study history enough, nothing seems new.  It's always an echo of an earlier time.

Recently I was reminded of the old notion of a "general strike," wherein the working classes would simultaneous refuse to work.  I've not lived through any, but the 1926 general strike in Great Britain features in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

The main character, Charles Ryder, was too young to have fought in the Great War, but he and his peers eagerly embraced the opportunity to test their manhood, even though the strike only lasted little over a week.

Of course, even aristocrats were made of sterner stuff back then.  The degree to which our standard of living has improved is staggering to think about.  Setting aside electronic gizmos or medical advances, the fact that we can control room temperature to the exact degree is a staggering (and generally ignored) achievement.

What is interesting is that as great as the gap between rich and poor, noble and commoner was back then, it is far greater now.  It is possible for the wealthy to live in an entirely self-contained world, beyond the reach of the unwashed masses.  This renders them completely indifferent to the fate of those outside their (sometimes literal) bubble.

Waugh lamented the end of the great manor houses and their supporting retainers and tenants because as much as it may have galled observers that the yeoman farmers pulled their forelock to the landlord, the fates and circumstances of both were intimately linked.

That's no longer the case, and it's fascinating to see people so removed from day-to-day life that even simple tasks elude them.  To give an alarming example, upon purchasing a new car, my daughter was given a series of brightly-illustrated documents explaining regular maintenance was and how often it should be done.  This was in addition to the owner's manual, and was clearly designed to help the mechanically ignorant.

What is more, several letters soon followed, reminding her that oil changes weren't optional and that the warranty could be voided if these tasks weren't carried out in a timely manner.

I suspect there are people now of age who are so coddled that they have no idea what goes into maintaining an automobile.  So far as they knows, you turn it on and it goes.

What adds to the irony is that this same generation fancies itself the most conscientious, most moral, most exquisitely sensitive people that have ever lived.  They ceaselessly boast about the past injustices based on race, class or gender, and yet they have even less understanding of these things than the people they condemn.

Even the most stuck-up duke understood the proper care of horses, and would often take a personal hand in the care of particularly prized steeds.  Similarly, the ladies of the estate had an extensive knowledge of fabric and the techniques used to secure it.  Otherwise, how would they know quality garments from rags?

To put it another way, being an elite required extensive knowledge of the signifiers necessary to be elite.

That knowledge seems entirely lacking today.

This in turn means that our elites are also uniquely vulnerable to a general strike.  Not knowing how to do an oil change is one thing.  Not knowing that it is required creates a whole new level of dependency.


Cats and cold winter nights

I've been writing on various topics over the years, but tonight I realized that I never mentioned that much of my work is done with a cat sleeping contentedly on my legs.

Yes, I'm a cat person.

Okay, I'm not really that into pets.  I had a cat when I was younger, and from time to time our family has had cats ever since.  Right now we have two, who don't much care for each other.

The elder cat belongs to my middle daughter, but in truth she prefers me to everyone else.  Probably because I'm the one who remembers to set the food out.

In any event, I think cats are particularly conducive to writing because in addition to keeping one's feet warm, they also give their owners insight into non-verbal emotional cues.

Dogs are pretty much out in the open as to who they are and what they are thinking.  Dogs are the opposite of mysterious.  This is why so many people like them.  If you want a friend, get a dog.

Cats are far more independent and they do not overtly advertise their moods.  True, with practice, one can tell when a cat is agitated, curious or playful.  However, cats have a high degree of variation in terms of personality and behavioral signals.  I think the patience and observation required to learn this is of great benefit to authors.

I cannot recall including cats in any of my writing.  Still, they are always present, lurking in the background and keeping my feet warm.