Monday, December 31, 2012

Patriarch Calls for World Peace in 2013

In his recent Christmas Encyclical, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has declared 2013 to be a "Year of Global Solidarity" in which he hopes that the powers that be in the world will make strides toward global peace and the eradication of hunger. While I lack the optimism of the Ecumenical Patriarch with regard to wold governments, I cannot help but applaud his sentiments and, more importantly, his audacity. Ours is, after all, a radical hope for a true ideal, one which we must pursue even in the certainty that our efforts will fail.

Let us rejoice in gladness for the ineffable condescension of God.The angels precede us singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among all people.”

Yet, on earth we behold and experience wars and threats of wars. Still, the joyful announcement is in no way annulled. Peace has truly come to earth through reconciliation between God and people in the person of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, however, we human beings have not been reconciled, despite God’s sacred will. We retain a hateful disposition for one another. We discriminate against one another by means of fanaticism with regard to religious and political convictions, by means of greed in the acquisition of material goods, and through expansionism in the exercise of political power. These are the reasons why we come into conflict with one another...

This is why, from this sacred See and Center of Orthodoxy, we proclaim the impending new year as the Year of Global Solidarity.

It is our hope that in this way we may be able to sensitize sufficient hearts among humankind regarding the immense and extensive problem of poverty and the need to assume the necessary measures to comfort the hungry and misfortunate.

As your spiritual father and church leader, we ask for the support of all persons and governments of good will in order that we may realize the Lord’s peace on earth – the peace announced by the angels and granted by the infant Jesus. If we truly desire this peace, which transcends all understanding, we are obliged to pursue it palpably instead of being indifferent to the spiritual and material vulnerability of our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ was born...

We hope earnestly and pray fervently that the dawning 2013 will be for everyone a year of global solidarity, freedom, reconciliation, good will, peace and joy. May the pre-eternal Word of the Father, who was born in a manger, who united angels and human beings into one order, establishing peace on earth, grant to all people patience, hope and strength, while blessing the world with the divine gifts of His love. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Joy to the World, the Lord IS Come

Consider the following thoughts from Leo the Great's "Second Sermon on the Feast of the Nativity." Here he draws that all-important connection which is so frequently lost in the diluted religious remembrances which limp weakly behind our Christmas festivities, that the nativity is a salvific moment. It is meaningless for us without the passion it alludes to. That the Son of God should empty himself of his divine station and become one of us has value only because we anticipate the climax of the narrative when he returns to his rightful place at the right hand of the throne of God, becoming the path by which we might follow to the same end.

Let us be glad in the LORD, dearly-beloved, and rejoice with spiritual joy that there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning, accomplished in the fullness of time will endure forever; on which we are bound with hearts up-lifted to adore the divine mystery: so that what is the effect of GOD’S great gift may be celebrated by the Church’s great rejoicings. For GOD the almighty and merciful, Whose nature as goodness, Whose will is power, Whose work is mercy: as soon as the devil’s malignity killed us by the poison of his hatred, foretold at the very beginning of the world the remedy His piety had prepared for the restoration of us mortals: proclaiming to the serpent that the seed of the woman should come to crush the lifting of his baneful head by its power, signifying no doubt that Christ would come in the flesh, GOD and man, Who born of a Virgin should by His uncorrupt birth condemn the despoiler of the human stock.

This crucial meaning of the Incarnation is lost in token sermons and fashionable invocations of "advent," but remains as an artifact in our rich tradition of hymns, however thoughtlessly they are intermingled with Jingle Bells.

"Fear not then," said the Angel, "Let nothing you affright, this day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright, to free all those who trust in Him from Satan's power and might."

O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

So remember that what happened at the birth of Jesus was far more radical than our caroling and nativity scenes and wreaths would suggest. That little baby--born to ignoble people in a stable, lauded by filthy shepherds, visited by foreign pagans, and pursued by murderous politicians from birth--came to upset the world order so that the sick might be well, the poor might be rich, the meek might inherit the earth and sinners the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Preparing for the Nativity: Archbishop Demetrios

The following are the thoughts of Archbishop Demetrios, head of Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, from his 2012 encyclical for the Nativity:

The joy and assurance that we have in our communion with God on this holy feast engenders within our hearts an enduring hope. Our joy in the fulfillment of His divine plan for our salvation and our assurance through our faith in the truth of the Gospel, give us a firm hope in His promises of eternal life, for the complete restoration of our fellowship with Him, and for the fulfillment of all things. This is a feast of hope because through it we see all that has been accomplished, and we are given a glimpse of what is to come. This Feast of the Nativity of our Lord affirms for each one of us that we can have hope and joy in any of the circumstances and conditions of life—hope in the transformation of our lives through faith and hope in the power of God’s love.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for the Nativity: George Whitefield

This passage is taken from George Whitefield's excitingly titled, "The Observation of the Birth of Christ, the Duty of All Christians; Or the True Way of Keeping Christmas," in which he reminds us that, of all things, the birth of Christ warrants celebration:

If we do but consider into what state, and at how great a distance from God we are fallen; how vile our natures were…when I consider these things, my brethren, and that the Lord Jesus Christ came to restore us to that favor with God which we had lost, and that Christ not only came down with an intent to do it, but actually accomplished all that was in his heart towards us; that he raised and brought us into favor with God, that we might find kindness and mercy in his sight; surely this calls for some return of thanks on our part to our dear Redeemer, for this love and kindness to our souls. How just would it have been of him, to have left us in that deplorable state wherein we, by our guilt, had involved ourselves? For God could not, nor can receive any additional good by our salvation; but it was love, mere love; it was free love that brought the Lord Jesus Christ into our world about 1700 years ago. What, shall we not remember the birth of our Jesus? Shall we yearly celebrate the birth of our temporal king, and shall that of the King of kings be quite forgotten? Shall that only, which ought to be had chiefly in remembrance, be quite forgotten? God forbid! No, my dear brethren, let us celebrate and keep this festival of our church, with joy in our hearts: let the birth of a Redeemer, which redeemed us from sin, from wrath, from death, from hell, be always remembered; may this Savior's love never be forgotten! But may we sing forth all his love and glory as long as life shall last here, and through an endless eternity in the world above! May we chant forth the wonders of redeeming love, and the riches of free grace, amidst angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, without intermission, for ever and ever!

I cleverly excluded the sections on how Whitefield expects people to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity: without "cards, dice, or gaming of any sort," without "eating and drinking to excess," and without taking time off from your "worldly callings to follow pleasures and diversions." Whitefield really knows how to throw a feast.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Preparing for the Nativity

Over the next few days, I would like to offer a few quotes to direct the mind toward the way the Nativity has been and still is celebrated and conceived of in the world. Naturally, in the States and much of Europe, the Feast of the Nativity has been replaced by the ho-ho-holy night when Saint Nicholas breaks into suburban homes to fill stockings with Apple products, but this turn in the observation of Christ's birth is relatively recent and largely localized. The real "war on Christmas" has been waged by those who believe that the essence of the holy day rests in public manger scenes and the shibboleth "Christmas" and who forget that the real manger was hidden away where the poorest of the poor slept on a ground of mixed dirt and livestock feces and that the baby within it was attended to only by a marginal minority whose names are forgotten.

Leo the Great is right to call the Nativity a mystery. The virgin birth, the shining star, the visiting magi, the announcing angels, the murderous ruler, and the supreme king converge in a moment that, truly understood, should bring us a joy that transcends gifts and feasts and winter ambiance and even that laudatory idol of familial affection.

The things which are connected with the mystery of today’s solemn feast are well known to you, dearly-beloved, and have frequently been heard: but as yonder visible light affords pleasure to eyes that are unimpaired, so to sound hearts does the Saviour’s nativity give eternal joy; and we must not keep silent about it, though we cannot treat of it as we ought.

For Leo's listeners, the Nativity was a familiar remembrance, one so familiar that they needed to be reminded how eternal were its joys. Now, I fear, we don't think about it at all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Demise of Sensationalism

Having given you a taste of the failed prognostications about the demise of American Christianity, let me share now an even more radical and even less true prediction from another article in the New York Times of 1927. In this case, the author is Edward P. Gates, the General Secretary of the United Society of Christian Endeavor. Unlike most powerful Christians of his day, Gates was arguing against censorship of newspapers and books. He reasoned:

In the case of the printing of the details of the Snyder-Gray murder trial, about which there have been numerous protests, I think the press is justified in doing so for the reason that the public obviously demands this type of news. By doing this the press will eventually nauseate the public on sordid cases of this sort, and the public taste will automatically right itself and demand less sensational stories.

Poor, sweet Mr. Gates. It's almost a pity that we cannot give him a window into our time to see how inestimably wrong he was. The lack of censorship in the press did not nauseate the public; it desensitized them. Now reality is not nauseating enough, and we must sate ourselves on sensational virtual stories of an increasingly graphic and increasingly public type.

The solution, of course, is not the restrain the press but to restrain the will. Unfortunately, the former is not only more easily accomplished but more likely, even with America's vaunted freedom of the press. Humanity will let go of freedom before it will let go of sin, an irony and a paradox.

[The Execution of Ruth Snyder - Tom Howard, New York Daily Times, Jan. 12, 1928]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Demise of American Christianity

Legendary newsman Elmer Davis offered these thoughts on the nature of American anti-Christianity:

This, after all, is the most extraordinary of recent religious phenomena--the welding together of assorted disgrugtlements [with Christianity] into a new church as thoroughly regimented as any Christian body and quite as intolerant. The intolerance has to be taken out in talk at present, other religions controlling the secular arm: but if Mercurianity [disgruntlment with Christianity] keeps on going it is likely to be the State church of America within a couple of decades.

Already it is as strong in numbers and as much stronger in influence, as was Christianity at the beginning of the reign of Constantine. Like fourth-century Christianity it is the slick new city religion, still suspect on the farm; like Christianity it is a sycretion [sic] of diverse elements held together by a fanatical refusal to compromise with older creeds and a firm conviction of its monopoly on salvation. And like Christianity its cohesion is powerfully aided by a ritual language which enables true believers to recognize each other as surely as members of the Loyal Order of Moose.

On the one hand, it is remarkable that a description published in the New York Times in 1927 should remain so uncannily accurate in describing the quasi-religious expression of irreligion in America. On the other hand, it is equally noteworthy that Davis's prediction that a "couple of decades" would see positive irreligion become the state church of America has not come true. Not even close. Irreligion may be on the rise statistically, but not the kind of militant irreligion typified by groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Religious thought and behavior, and Christianity in particular, remain alive and well in America, nearly a century after Davis could foresee their eclipse by "Mercurianity." It should be a lesson against too intense an alarmist tendency in the way we assess faith in this country.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paragould: The Murder Capital of Upper Northwestern Arkansas

Here is a bit of news that proved too beautiful not to be true. Back in the great state of Arkansas, the rising crime rate in Paragould now warrants the declaration of martial law:

"[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck," [Police Chief] Stovall said. "If you're out walking, we're going to stop you, ask why you're out walking, check for your ID."

...[Mayor] Gaskill backed Stovall's proposed actions during Thursday's town hall.

"They may not be doing anything but walking their dog," he said. "But they're going to have to prove it."

A more recent press release has soften some of these statements, suggesting that officers wouldn't always be in SWAT gear. It also canceled the two town meetings scheduled to further discuss the issue. The cancellations were in the interest of public safety, no doubt in the same way that men with machine guns stopping you while you walk your dog is in the interest of public safety.

In a world where schools have metal detectors and TSA agents have x-ray vision, it's nice to know that Americans can still do paranoia on a smaller but equally intense scale.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mike Huckabee on School Shootings: Open Mouth, Insert...

Mike Huckabee has offered his wisdom on the recent school shooting:

Responding to the deadly mass shooting Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said new laws regulating guns won't deter such shootings, linking a lack of religious discussion in the classroom to increased violence in schools.

"We ask why there's violence in our school but we've systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee said on Fox News. "Should we be so surprised that schools have become such a place of carnage? Because we've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability."

It's a good thing the community in Nickel Mines doesn't have any televisions. Huckabee's theory falls woefully short of explaining why homeschooled Charles Carl Roberts IV killed those five little girls in the one room Amish schoolhouse. I would tell Huckabee not to quit his day job, but blithely politicizing evil for partisan ends is his day job.

What a world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Abortion is Murder, Rabbi

In an ill-advised recent article, Rabbi Boteach attempted to argue in the Huffington Post that the Catholic Church ought to abandon its stance on abortion because it is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew in the Septuagint. There are countless reasons--logical and illogical--why the Catholic Church, not to mention other "Bible-believing" Christians, can ignore Boteach's argument, not the least of which is that the very last Christian denomination that would take doctrinal advice about its tradition from a rabbi is the Roman Catholic Church. There are better reasons of course, including that the Catholic Church does not view the Septuagint with the same disdain that modern Jews do (the opinions of late-antique Jews notwithstanding). It is also worth noting that even if the tradition were based on a faulty reading of the text in question, the Catholic Church has traditionally been loathe to interpret Scripture without tradition as a hermeneutical lens. Wrong or not, the tradition gives the normative starting point for reading the sacred text.

The best reason, however, for ignoring Boteach is that the Christian pro-life tradition does not spring exclusively (or even primarily) from the verse in question. Boteach rightly identifies a passage in Exodus as the prooftext to which many contemporary Christians turn to ground their opposition to abortion in Scripture:

The Hebrew Bible makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: "And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman's husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, though shalt give life for life."

He even goes through the trouble of tracing the Catholic tradition of interpretation for this verse back through Byzantine law to the writings of the second century Latin father Tertullian--a noble effort for a HuffPo article. Not being in a position--nor thinking it particularly relevant--to challenge this historical account, I grant it to him, arguendo. I will even grant him his exegetical work on the meaning of the original text. In both cases the points are moot. 

What truly matters is that Boteach fails to consider a Christian tradition against abortion that antedates even Tertullian and is based on another text in the Hebrew Bible which references abortion by implication: "Thou shalt not kill." Outrage is sure to follow at the suggestion that the commandment can be simply construed to prohibit abortion, but the argument being made here is not an exegetical one. It is historical. I need not demonstrate that the prohibition on murder extends to the unborn, only that the text was not corrupted in its translation to the Septuagint and that an early Christian tradition construed the verse to prohibit abortion.

If anyone seriously doubts the first point, I will be glad to argue it, but for my purposes here, the latter point is the more novel and more contentious. Yet, had Boteach bothered to dig only a little deeper he would have found an earlier contemporary of Tertullian, Athenagoras, writing passionately against all murder, including abortion. The following is from his A Plea for Christians, specifically from a section when he is answering charges that Christians kill and eat babies as part of their "love feasts:"

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

The passage is interesting for its implications both for the Christian position on capital punishment and our modern delight in virtualizing our love of torture. For the moment, however, consider that abortion falls into a single category, "murder," considered here by Athenagoras: execution, abortion, infanticide. They are all equally beneath the broad heading of murder which, naturally, Christians abstain from. All these are not only opposed by Christians on the grounds that all are murder, but Athenagoras thought them so central to Christian belief and practice that anyone who knew a Christian would know that he abhorred execution and opposed abortion and that on those grounds could be freed from any suspicion of infanticide. There is no complex exegetical wrangling, no attempt to define the way Hebrew law applies to Christian ethics. Just the simple maxim Christians do not murder and the obvious (at least in the second century) implication that this includes abortion.

The precedent goes back even farther than even Athenagoras. The late first century Didache includes a clear statement on abortion and it links it again, not with the passage Boteach cited, but with the general prohibition on murder:

Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued

Here the connection with the Ten Commandments is even clearer, as the various applications of the commands are interspersed haphazardly with quotes from the Decalogue. Not only does the general command not to murder apply, but it applies specifically to murder of "a child by abortion" and, as with Athenagoras, infanticide.

The two passages offered provide wonderful avenues for further contemplation. The language of creation and the perception of the fetus as a child as early as the first century would seem to lend legitimacy to much of the rhetoric used by the pro-life camp. More important, however, at least for my purpose here is the fact that the anti-abortion stance of Christianity, the tradition that Boteach ties specifically to the Catholic Church, is neither bound to the passage Boteach considers nor is it as late in its articulation as he imagines. The belief that God has tasked his people with the preservation of life--in all the richest, theologically-informed meanings of the word--is not something the exegetical acrobatics and critiques of tradition can remove, especially not ones that fail by their own critical criteria.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Walt Whitman on War

The quotes that authors elect to head their chapters with are almost universally more interesting than the chapters themselves. Take this quote from Walt Whitman found atop "The Argument (and Its Limits) in Brief" in J. R. McNeill's Mosquito Empires:

[The] whole damn war business is about nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.

Whitman was being generous.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Road to Hiroshima Is Paved with Good Intentions

Mark Fiege's Republic of Nature is a work of sufficient size and importance to warrant a full review of its contents. William Cronon, rock star of the environmental history world, offered significantly more effusive praise in his foreword: "It is surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago. No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with "nature" or "the environment." No one who cares about he American past can ignore what Fiege has to say." Nor should they. Fiege's work--which takes nine standard topics in American history and refashions them to include environmental history--demands engagement from scholars and its easy style invites it from the general public. Necessarily, a work which is linked by a common methodology rather than a common chronology or theme will be somewhat uneven, but Fiege succeeds more often than he fails in challenging the standard historiography and revolutionizing the way environmental history applies to more "conventional" history. But, as much as Fiege's work demands full engagement, a particular chapter has so seized my attention as to compel me to stop the general review there and turn to a more particular issue: the development of the atomic bomb and Fiege's attempts to justify it or, at the very least, mitigate the responsibility of the scientists involved.

In a chapter entitled "atomic sublime," Fiege directly challenges the traditional historiography of the Manhattan Project. The interpretation of the scientists as cold, rationalists with an instrumental view of nature has dominated our collective memory of the makers of the atomic bomb. Instead, Fiege proposes to proceed from the assumption that "the atomic scientists and their families felt a deep affinity for all that was human, natural, and good." This is, not in itself, an objectionable conclusion. In fact, the assumption that natural scientists should have a love of and fascination with nature is admirable. The problems arise, however, with Fiege moves beyond this to argue that the drive of the scientists to make the bomb proceed from this love of the natural and the good rather than in spite of it. Thus, at the close of the opening section of the chapter, Fiege drops this bomb (so to speak):

Perhaps a powerful attraction to nature in all its guises, whether pine trees or submicroscopic particles, encouraged intellectual processes that enabled the scientists to imagine and design the bomb. Perhaps--and here is a truly unsettling thought--the bomb was the fulfillment of all that was human, natural and good.

That is, sure enough, a deeply unsettling thought. It is, in fact, one that I find acutely unsettling given my prejudices against violence in general and against the bomb in particular. That anything which is inherently good can lead to something so unequivocally evil as the atrocities perpetrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems to me so impossible on its face as to be easily dismissed. And yet, as a historian, I compelled myself to give, as far as I was humanly able, a fair reading to Fiege's argument. I hoped that perhaps, at the end, I would find that the scientists had been coerced into creating the bomb by the government(which I am always happy to cast as the ultimate enemy) or that they had had been duped by the military about the applications of their new technology, that it would function only as a deterrent. Unfortunately, Fiege only convinced me that the scientists fooled themselves.

Fiege offers a very compelling, if sentimental, portrait of the love of the scientists for nature. Each had been drawn into science through some love of and curiosity about the natural. Fiege likens scientific research to the explorations of Victorian adventurers (whitewashing over the imperial designs of both). He tells of the times at Los Alamos where, when they were not engulfed in creating weapons of mass destruction, the scientists hiked the canyons and searched for rare cacti and waxed poetic about desert sunsets. At Los Alamos "the scientists fashioned a community that embodied their life-affirming values." It was these very values that led them to collaborate on the atomic bomb.

How is that possible? Fiege stresses that the scientists sincerely believed that a single use of the bomb would be so dramatic, so devastating, that it would inaugurate an era of world peace--ultimately saving more lives than it took--and fling the doors of society open to allow a utopian global community. The description would be comic had Fiege intended it as a farce, but he truly believes that the scientists, through purely humanitarian motives, were compelled to create the most destructive weapon in human history. Never mind that anyone with a high school level grasp of history could have easily demonstrated that bigger weapons make for bigger wars, not peace. The scientists, as the day of completion drew nearer, began to have these same realizations but, rather than abandoning the project, instead convinced themselves that a benign demonstration of its power would be sufficient to establish their idyllic society.

These were among the most brilliant men and women in history, and what Fiege has demonstrated is not their pure motives but the ability of brilliant people for brilliant rationalizations. It is impossible to deny the obvious confluence of the greatest successes in atomic science and the most destructive global war in history. What's more, it is difficult to not assume that the one caused the other, especially since the specific purpose of the scientists at the Manhattan Project was to develop a super weapon for use against the Germans and Japanese. What motivated the creation of the atomic bomb was precisely what motivated World War II: fear and self-interest. Fiege notes that in spite of their humanitarian concerns, scientists flocked to Los Alamos to create the bomb. In spite of their moral qualms about its use, they completed the project.

The true nature of their motives is apparent enough in their language and behavior. Just as it is apparent that wartime fervor drove the scientists to Los Alamos in spite of their theoretical reluctance, the reaction of the community at Los Alamos to Hiroshima testifies to their true feelings whatever their theoretical moral turmoil. "When news of Hiroshima reached Los Alamos, the atomic community celebrated. The revelry was spontaneous and intense. 'We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other,' Richard Feynman wrote." The party continued on into the night, was formalized in a meeting in the town auditorium where Oppenheimer gave a speech received by resounding cheers, and repeated itself when the bomb fell on Nagasaki, though Fiege is careful to point out that, for Nagasaki, "the spirit just wasn't there." The scientists could convince themselves they were for world peace not victory, but when success and victory were at hand, they gave no thought to life or peace or morality. Instead, they indulged in the self-delusion typified by David Bradbury, child of Los Alamos, who later advocated the use of atomic weaponry for population control but insisted that he was "not pro-war. I'm most strongly pro-nature, pro-earth, pro-tree."

It was a beautiful and thorough deception, no doubt, but it was still false and ultimately incomplete. The scientists, history remembers, went on to regret their mistake, to see the atomic bomb for what it really was. A horror, both in principle and in its tragic application in Japan. An enormity of the modern mind that is without justification and without legitimate purpose. That this realization hit only when the war was over and a cessation of hostilities (but by no means peace) was won demonstrates the true root of the scientists motives. They were engaged in an epic struggle for nation or, if you prefer, self-preservation. They were not, as Fiege concluded, pursuing the good, the beautiful, the true with an innocent curiosity and in a context of "openness, toleration, and democracy."* As much as Fiege may wish it were so, the heart of war is not "deep moral ambiguity" and the scientists are not absolved by their good intentions. In fact, Fiege neglects to entertain the seemingly logical conclusion that they had no such benign intentions, only convincing rationalizations. It is in the clear distinction between motives and justifications that Fiege's interpretation flounders.

Republic of Nature is worth every penny of its price, both for the times when it is compelling right and the times when it is unnervingly wrong. The success of any historical work is in provoking critical reaction, and while Fiege is unsuccessful in redeeming the Manhattan Project through environmental history, he is at least capable of forcing the reader to reconsider it. The final judgment, however, remains the same. Fiege's is a wonderful book, even if at times it has a perverse logic. The reader ought to find repugnant (and blatantly hypocritical) the attempt to sanctify the atomic assault on Japan with the passing observation that most of the civilians killed had acquiesced to Japan’s “military conquests, slaughter of civilians, and suicidal resistance,” but it is this same willingness to challenge conventional interpretations that convincingly reinterprets the Salem witch trials as a conflict between the ideal and the real in nature. The reader simply must keep in mind that not all history is in need of revision.

*(Here Fiege is at his most disturbing and his most inadvertently brilliant when he points to the dark fact that democracy allowed the US and Britain to create the bomb and authoritarianism prevented Germany from achieving the same end. Suddenly it seems that if ever their were a critique of democracy, the atomic bomb is it.)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Wisdom of Niels Bohr

I recently came across this quote from Niels Bohr in an environmental history of the United States. It is apparently quite a famous quote, but, not being a scientists, it was entirely new to me. Here, succinctly, one of the greatest physicists in history accurately removes science from essentialist pursuits and relegates it to its proper, observational sphere:

It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature

Friday, December 7, 2012


I recently had the opportunity to watch the film Detachment, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The ensemble cast, led by veteran Adrien Brody and accompanied by Sami Gayle in a stunning film debut, presents us with a picture that is quirky and unexpectedly funny, but, overall, deeply unsettling. Most importantly, Detachment condenses into a startlingly plausible caricature all those problems which can and do coincide to make the American educational system so frequently and deeply prone to disaster: underfunding, absentee parenting, unchecked bullying, an undeserved sense of entitlement (for both students and parents), teen depression, promiscuity, the conflicting priorities for educators and administrators, sexual paranoia, disciplinary impotence, the practical application of ideologically conceived legislation, the inevitable bleeding in of teachers' personal lives into the workplace, violence, a culture which promotes disrespect, and, finally, almost inevitably, teacher burnout. As could be expected, Detachment is gritty and vulgar, meaning that those whose sensibilities or ethics would be violated by the foul language, the violence, or the nudity should forgo this particular film. But since real life isn't suitable for broadcast on ABC Family, Detachment takes the reality, actual or merely potential, and slaps the viewer across the face with it. It is a necessary service.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lipscomb and the Fiscal Cliff

Having heard more than my fill of partisan bickering over the fiscal cliff, I am reminded of the wise words of David Lipscomb:

The staple of Northern politics is abuse of the South, of the Democratic party and men. The staple of Southern politics is abuse of the North, and the Republican party and men. Now, if all were to unite in abusing Mexico and its President, or were they to take in Mexico, and with it, all unite in baying the man in the moon, and vent their spite and spleen upon him, they would be just as happy, as free, as wealthy, as they are now in abusing each other.

There is not and never has been any principle involving the moral or material good of the people in politics.

Sectional party alignments have changed since 1880. The nature of politics has not.
For whatever reason, the above quote reminds me of this much later witticism by T. R. Burnett about the Spanish-American War that I've been meaning to share:
Congress has decided to tax beer $2 per barrel, to raise money to fight Spain. Now if Congress will tax Spain in order to raise revenue to fight beer, the thing will be evenly adjusted. Beer is a worse enemy of American than Spain can possibly be.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Representative Democracy in Action

Back when the Arab Spring was just beginning to realize itself and Egypt was being thrown into chaos, I worried that the Coptic Christians would be caught in the crosshairs and that they might be tempted to respond in a way unfitting of the call we have received in Christ to take up a cross for his sake. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, I was right on both counts. I also expressed a certain uncertainty about the intrinsic value of representative democracy when compared to authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, three decades under Mubarak did not see the Coptic church thrive in an open environment of religious freedom, but there is perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the times when the primary complaint was the inability to get government clearance to build new churches.

An Egyptian court convicted in absentia Wednesday seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor, sentencing them to death on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that had sparked riots in parts of the Muslim world...Egypt's official news agency said the court found the defendants guilty of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information—charges that carry the death sentence.

Chances are that none of the defendants convicted of capital "spreading false information" will ever meet with justice at the hands of the Egyptian judicial system, which may explain why the story is buried in the middle of a religion in brief article. (Although I understand that Fox is making a big deal about it, undoubtedly for all the wrong reasons.) But if anyone thinks that the fact that these eight delinquents are safe means that this verdict is a paper tiger, they're deluding themselves. Pause for a moment and consider being a Copt in Egypt and learning that at any time the accusation of something as vague as spreading false information or harming national unity might carry with it a death penalty. It should unnerve every Christian to realize that by Muslim standards the very confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is both the ultimate falsehood and a direct assault against Islam.

Perhaps it won't be that direct, that obvious an abuse of the law and a persecution of Christians. Perhaps it is merely the construction of a culture of fear to keep Christians in their place in a society that is deeply inimical to them. Regardless, it would appear that the will of the people truly is being enshrined in their government, and it may be a government less willing to capitulate to the pressures of the pluralistic Christian West. My hope, however, continues to be less that the church will not be persecuted (the Great Physician did not come to treat the healthy) but that it will respond to whatever persecution may come with a meekness which deserves the inheritance reserved for it.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


When I began this project, it took me more than a year to reach one hundred entries. My rate of posting has increased dramatically, not because I have more to say but because I have had the opportunity to allow others to speak with greater frequency. The commemoration of the numerous quotes shared here has become something of a personal tradition, and so, on this my five hundredth post, I offer you once again my favorite ten quotes from the numerous insights shared in previous ninety-nine posts.

10) The absurdity of the news is a recurrent theme here, and the past six months has offered no respite from the onslaught of ridiculous news stories. The election stands out as a year long tribute to this insanity, from which numerous quotes might be drawn. Yet, it was this understated, now forgotten story of a couple suing over a baseball injury:

A New Jersey woman who was struck in the face with a baseball at a Little League game is suing the young catcher who threw it.

Elizabeth Lloyd is seeking more than $150,000 in damages to cover medical costs...Catcher Matthew Migliaccio was 11 years old at the time and was warming up a pitcher.

9) Not all sports news was so amusing or so obscure. Since the last top ten, the drama at Penn State has continued to unfold in ways that I continue to find indefensible. The NCAA handed down what were supposed to be program destroying sanctions (never mind that the Nittany Lions have marched proudly on to have a respectable season), but the Paterno family continues in the level-headed tradition of its now deceased patriarch:

The point of due process is to protect against this sort of reflexive action. Joe Paterno was never interviewed by the University or the Freeh Group. His counsel has not been able to interview key witnesses as they are represented by counsel related to ongoing litigation. We have had no access to the records reviewed by the Freeh group. The NCAA never contacted our family or our legal counsel. And the fact that several parties have pending trials that could produce evidence and testimony relevant to this matter has been totally discounted.

Unfortunately all of these facts have been ignored by the NCAA, the Freeh Group and the University.

8) Many of the quotes shared here relate to issues of war and peace, indicating my distinct preference for the latter. To an already extensive catalog, I was able to recently add the collective wisdom of several Nobel laureates protesting, of all things, a reality show that trained celebrities in the art of war:

Real war is down in the dirt deadly...Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.

7) Historians, as a rule, affect me less profoundly than do theologians, philosophers, and ethicists. Eugene Genovese is an astounding exception to this rule. Much to my dismay, he died not so long ago, but he has left us with a tremendous body of work that will continue to live on and continue to stimulate. This quote was offered as a sample as we said goodbye to Gene Genovese:

Southern conservatism has always traced the evils of the modern world to the ascendency of the profit motive and material an idolatrous cult of economic growth and scientific and technological progress; and to the destructive exploitation of nature. Thus, down to our day, southern conservatives have opposed finance capitalism and have regarded socialism as the logical outcome of the capitalist centralization of economic and state power...

What goes largely unnoticed is that, on much of the American Right, the conservative critique of modernity has largely given way to a free-market liberalism the ideal of which shares much with the radical Left’s version of egalitarianism.

6) Germany, it was discovered recently, could benefit from a greater sensitivity to history. Ignoring the obvious perception it would create, a German judge effectively outlawed religious circumcision. As an advocate for the responsibility of parents to make medical (and religious) decisions on behalf of children, I was delighted when the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on the issue:

"It's not a verdict from on high," said policy co-author Dr. Andrew Freedman. "There's not a one-size-fits-all-answer." But from a medical standpoint, circumcision's benefits in reducing risk of disease outweigh its small risks, said Freedman, a pediatric urologist in Los Angeles..."The benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for those families who choose it."

5) Meanwhile, there was real religious strife going on in the world:

We will not encourage our people to carry arms against anybody whatsoever the situation may be. For those that are behind Boko Haram, you come to us with AK47, bombs, charms and other dangerous weapons, but we come to you in the name of God.

I want to assure Christians in Nigeria that Christ has always been with his people. He will never give victory to those persecuting Christians and the Church. Whoever is trying to exterminate Christians and Christianity from Nigeria is neither pleasing God nor his people.

4) Having prophetically (and oh so modestly) argued that the solution to the education crisis in America was to pay teachers less, the atavistic Chicago teachers went on strike and proved themselves better fear-mongers than educators, tragically unaware of their own disastrous behavior:

"The mayor and his hedge fund allies are going to replace our democratically controlled public schools with privately run charter schools. This will have disastrous results," union president Karen Lewis wrote in an opinion column in the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.

3) In the run up to the election, we explored the nature of the news and freedom of the press, including this insight from a letter sent to George Washington:

Judicious and well-timed publications have great efficacy in ripening the judgment of men in this quarter of the Continent.

2) Even as my academic focus, and consequently my focus here, shifts from the Orthodox Church to indigenous American Christianity, I can never forget my first academic love. Here is a teaser for a particularly amusing bit of satire that I was directed to:

Hipster Christians, I'm going to help you out. I see you are grasping at something, trying to find the ironic Church of your dreams, where men can grow beards of foolish proportions and women can dress like their grannies' grannies, a place where scarves are worn in every unfashionable fashion imaginable, a place where people do shots and eat hummus at community gatherings, enjoy rooms filled with a fog of incense and prefer to read books that pre-date industrialisation.

I would like to direct your attention to "The Orthodox Church."

1) But, of course, the best news recently...the best news always...was cow news:

Would protection against the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) make you willing to give up your vegan lifestyle? New research from Australia’s Melbourne University suggests that a type of treated cow’s milk could provide the world’s first HIV vaccine.

And now, let us rush headlong together into many more hours wasted merrily in reflection and sardonic commentary.