I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.

 

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Monday
Jan202014

The Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (AD 634-8)

 

Priest: O Trinity, transcendent in essence, in goodness and in divinity, O Almighty, invisible and incomprehensible, who watch over all, O Creator of intelligent essences, of natures endowed with speech, O Goodness of utter and unapproachable brilliance, who enlighten every person who comes into the world: enlighten me also, your unworthy servant! Illuminate the eyes of my mind, that I may venture to praise your immeasurable goodness and your might; may the prayer that I offer be acceptable for the people here present. Let not my sins prevent the descent of the Holy Spirit upon this place, but permit me now without condemnation to cry out to You, O all-good Lord, and to say:

We glorify You, O Master and Lover of Mankind, Almighty King before eternity!

We glorify You, Creator and Maker of all!

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Friday
Dec202013

Inside Llewyn Davis

There’s much to admire, but not much to enjoy, in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, two Minnesota boys, have won great acclaim over 30 years of filmmaking, sharing a dozen Oscar nominations for writing, directing, and best picture. Their films cover an amazing range of genres, from dark and violent, like best-picture winner No Country for Old Men (2007), to quirky-funny, like The Big Lebowski (1998). You could say that, with Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens invented quirky-funny. A longtime favorite in my family is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the comic odyssey of a trio of chain-gang escapees in 1937 Mississippi.

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Friday
Dec062013

Christmas Carols Gone Awry

Updated on Friday, December 6, 2013 by Registered CommenterFrederica

 For children, Christmas is a time of wonder, if not outright bafflement, because of the archaic vocabulary and syntax of Christmas carols. This produces interpretations that our devout ancestors never had in mind. Here are some of my childhood mishearings of these songs. How about yours?

 

* “For in thy Dock Street shineth…”

                     (“Little Town of Bethlehem”)

 I knew what “Dock Street” meant, because my home town was a seaport. But if something was shining there, it was a little creepy.                       

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Monday
Oct282013

The Heart of the Scriptures

Surprisingly, the Bible treats the heart as the place where we do our thinking—we think in our hearts, not our heads. And, as Matthew 15:19 shows, those thoughts are not always noble. In our culture we regard our ability to reason as one of the highest aspects of human personhood, but forget how often we employ that faculty in less-than-noble pursuits. The biblical Greek word for thinking actively, like when you’re thinking something through, is dianoia, and it includes selfish fantasies, plotting, and scheming:

 

“The imagination [dianoia] of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21)

“He has scattered the proud in the imagination [dianoia] of their hearts” (Lk 1:51)

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Monday
Oct072013

Feminism Against the Sexual Revolution

[Further thoughts on the feminism of yesteryear, following “Enough of Anger,” National Review 9/30/2013]

 The chapter on sexuality in Our Bodies Ourselves is not so bad; it’s actually refreshing. “We are all so oppressed by sexual images, formulas, goals and rules that it is almost impossible to even think about sex outside the context of success and failure. The sexual revolution—liberated orgiastic women, groupies, communal [sex], homosexuality—have all made us feel that we must be able to [have sex] with impunity, with no anxiety, under any conditions and with anyone, or we’re some kind of uptight freak.” These “alienating inhuman expectations” are “destructive and degrading.” The authors of this communal chapter quote Robin Morgan (“a Women’s Liberationist in New York”): “Goodbye to Hip Culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves—reinstituted oppression by another name.” In short, “We must destroy the myth that we have to be groovy, free chicks.”

You have to wonder what might have happened if feminists had continued to proclaim women’s freedom from the sexual revolution.

The authors observe that the contemporary assumption is that “‘Sex’ is about being a ‘real woman’—being that ridiculous caricature of a person that this society tells us we had better  become if we are to extract even the smallest amount of security, pleasure, and self-esteem from the world. It’s a sexual achievement exam.” So it’s no wonder we feel confused. “First we’re supposed to set the sexual limits, deny our responses, and hate our looks. Then, within a few years we’re supposed to be experimental and libertine. The more [sex] we have the closer we are to being ‘real’ women. That’s a lot of confusion, and it’s no wonder that many of us still have serious questions about who we are and what we want.”

Here’s some clear thinking: “Part of the reason so many people have problems about sex is because sexual feelings are considered separate or different from other kinds of feelings we have. Sex has got to do with the body—that alien part of us residing below the neck that has needs and responses we don’t understand.” But all our feelings affect the body, whether the rapid heartbeat of fear or the headache of anger. “It’s all part of the same body that we live in every day… It can’t be mysterious or alien because it’s our own familiar house….To make sex special, different, better is to disown our bodies…[O]ur bodies are us all the time.”

Indeed, the authors say, sexuality deserves its own chapter in the book only because it is “permeated with myths and preconceptions that put the woman down, and not because sexual relations are an absolutely necessary part of a fulfilled woman’s life.” Subsequent chapters on Celibacy and Monogamy treat them as reasonable choices. But if the goal had been merely increasing sexual pleasure, “it would have been a waste of time to write this paper.” Sexual fireworks “are not that important. What is important is loving, giving, free relationships between people.”

It’s a pretty good chapter; you could clean up the four-letter words and print it in a pro-family newsletter.

Monday
Oct072013

Enough of Anger

Sorting through some old boxes in the basement, I ran across a manila envelope stuffed with 40-year-old women’s lib literature. It was right under the Earth Shoes. Back then, I was a mother-earth-type hippie, and an enthusiastic “women’s libber” (then the prevailing term of choice). In the envelope I found an assortment of leaflets protesting the nuclear family (inherently oppressive) and warning against “female hygiene deodorant,” “the myth of the vaginal orgasm,” and other threats to womankind. There were some huffy letters I’d written to the campus newspaper, and mimeographed flyers for the campus women’s group. The pride of the collection was a 1971 copy of the classic feminist guide to health and sexuality, Our Bodies Ourselves. This was the pre-mainstream edition, published by the New England Free Press, stapled together and priced at 40 cents.

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Thursday
Sep192013

What is Worship For? Part 2

Yesterday I wrote on “What is Worship For?”, but I forgot to answer the question. I said that it is not the time for evangelism, and shouldn’t be designed with non-believers in mind. But what is it for?

Worship is for God; we could expand that and say worship is for believers to offer to God. But even once we’re clear that worship is the work of the believing community, there’s a possible confusion. We might think the purpose of worship is to give believers a good worship experience.

 

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Wednesday
Sep182013

What is Worship For?

A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”

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Saturday
Aug172013

Austenland

The elements of Austenland are terrific: It has a clever premise, is based on a successful novel, has Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) in the director’s chair, and stars cute, likeable Keri Russell and funny, dependable Jennifer Coolidge. It’s produced by Stephanie Meyer who, whatever you think of the Twilight novels, should at least know something about marketability. But somehow the parts don’t come together.

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Monday
Jul292013

Final, I hope, thoughts on abstract theologizing: the Lamp

[July 19, 2013. If you want to follow the conversation in order and read all the comments, here is the original post that Rod put on his blog; and here’s the link if you’d just like to read only what I said (the original post and followup responses).]

There were a flood of comments to the post on Rod’s blog, and the discussion went in all sorts of directions, but I had the feeling my central point wasn’t being understood—probably because my original post (a hasty email to Rod) was ranty and overstated. I hope it’s not unfair to say, but I kept noticing commenters who appeared to be ignoring the point I was actually making, in favor of a point they wished I’m made, because it would be stupid and easy to ridicule. Well, what can you do. (It kind of proves my point about peer pressure, though…see below.)

On the other hand, the point I was actually making may have been so unfamiliar and strange to them that they just couldn’t grasp it. In our culture, it’s just unheard of for anyone to criticize purely intellectual theorizing. It’s an occupation that is regarded as so lofty and admirable.

I’ve tried in various ways to clarify my point and make it more briefly and accurately that I did in the initial hot-headed post. But, well, here’s one more try. What I wanted to defend was the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.

When theology is connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help (the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth,” John 16:13), it is like plugging a lamp into a socket. The circuit is made, and your mind—your receptive, perceptive mind, not the analytical one—is flooded with illumination. If your insight was authentic, it will bear fruit in your life and the lives of others down the centuries. That’s why we continue to read the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers: the insights they give continue to illuminate us.

But if no connection with God is sought, if it’s just you and your high IQ, you’re left with a lamp that may well be complicated or aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. And if you get too absorbed in studying the rivets that hold the lamp together, and arguing with other experts about the metal composition of the lamp, it can be actually detrimental to your mind. You can latch onto theological ideas that are, in fact, not accurate, and refuse to let them go. I think we’ve seen this a few times in church history.

The further point I tried to make, and maybe can’t express, is that focusing on philosophy / theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for “zinging” me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.

Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.

The bent toward purely theoretical theology is something that surprises people who come from an Eastern Christian tradition. This never took hold in the East, but theology was always conditioned by communion with God. (As Orthodox theologians participate and write in Western settings, they tend to assume the prevailing terms of culture, though.)

Many believe this change got under way with St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th c. I heard somebody say that you can notice such a difference btw St Augustine (4th-5th c) and Aquinas. Augustine does theology within a mental setting of prayer and adoration; with Aquinas, it became an objective science, based on the fallacy that you can talk about God while he’s out of the room. And, as I pointe out, at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.

Fr. Tom Hopko addressed the falleness of reason in more direct words than mine; see the accompanying post.