It Is This Which Has Sweetened the Fragrance of Humanity

The humble man approaches the wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as to their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. The scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity.

St. Isaac of Nineveh

A recurrent theme in Christian hagiography is the interaction between saints and animals- particularly wild animals. The saint- who is often seen going into the wilderness- encounters animals as a matter of course, since he goes to the places most associated with wild creatures. However, unlike other people, he often finds the animals to be his friends and companions, not his enemies or his prey. Often times animals aid the saint, as in this episode from the Venerable Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert:

It happened, also, that on a certain day he was going forth from the monastery to preach, with one attendant only, and when they became tired with walking, though a great part of their journey still lay before them ere they could reach the village to which they were going, Cuthbert said to his follower, “Where shall we stop to take refreshment? or do you know any one on the road to whom we may turn in?”

“I was myself thinking on the same subject,” said the boy; “for we have brought no provisions with us. and I know no one on the road who will entertain us, and we have a long journey still before us, which we cannot well accomplish without eating. ” The man of God replied, “My son, learn to have faith, and trust in God, who will never suffer to perish with hunger those who trust in Him.” Then looking up, and seeing an eagle flying in the air, he said, ” Do you perceive that eagle yonder? It is possible for God to feed us even by means of that eagle.”

As they were thus discoursing, they came near a river, and behold the eagle was standing on its bank. “Look,” said the man of God, “there is our handmaid, the eagle, that I spoke to you about. Run, and see what provision God hath sent us, and come again and tell me.” The boy ran, and found a good-sized fish, which the eagle had just caught. But the man of God reproved him, ” What have you done, my son? Why have you not given part to God’s handmaid? Cut the fish in two pieces, and give her one, as her service well deserves.”

The meaning behind such stories is not simply to demonstrate the saint’s holiness or ability to perform miracles- though obviously that is part of it. However, the more important aspect of such stories is their demonstration of the saint’s partaking in a new order of creation, as St. Isaac describes, and as Bede himself says a little later in his Vita of St Cuthbert: “For it is no wonder that every creature should obey his wishes, who so faithfully, and with his whole heart, obeyed the great Author of all creatures. But we for the most part have lost our dominion over the creation that has been subjected to us, because we neglect to obey the Lord and Creator of all things.”

In the story of the Fall of man, man is not only severed from God- he is also separated from other humans, and from the whole of creation. God is made to be a hostile Other; because of this, all of creation becomes a hostile Other to man. Even individuals find themselves at war within themselves- a war, a pattern of violence that carries itself out into the entire world. Only in Christ is this disordered humanity made right, as Christ forges a new humanity, and within it, a New World, St. Isaac says, in which the Other is no longer a hostile enemy or competitor, but a subject to be loved. This extends to all of creation, for as man is reconcilled to God he finds himself reconcilled to other humans and even to non-human creation, as his disordered relations are restored to ones of peace and love. While the full realization of the New World in Christ must wait until the Eschaton, the saints display in their lives in the world a glimpse of this New World, and encourage us to participate in it, that we might express the all-embracing compassion, peace, and love of Christ.

Real Ale, Distributivism, & Ron Paul

Via The Ochlophobist:

From the Campaign for Real Ale, a most worthy British organization devoted to some very distributist-amiable ends:

Second, via The ChestorBelloc Mandate, a newish (no pun intended here) distributist site: The New Distributist League.

Finally, via Arts & Letters, a pretty sympathetic look at Ron Paul: The Antiwar, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Drug-Enforcement-Administration, Anti-Medicare Candidacy of Dr. Ron Paul 

Whatever the campaign purports to be about, the main thing it has done thus far is to serve as a clearinghouse for voters who feel unrepresented by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. The antigovernment activists of the right and the antiwar activists of the left have many differences, maybe irreconcilable ones. But they have a lot of common beliefs too, and their numbers — and anger — are of a considerable magnitude. Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States. But his candidacy gives us a good hint about the country the next president is going to have to knit back together.

Last night I noticed that the Myspace page of Hattiesburg’s finest pub/music venue, and one of the few places in Mississippi where hearing klezmer or Celtic punk or other diverse musical styles is fairly common, The Thirsty Hippo has Ron Paul up on the top tier of top friends. The Hippo’s patrons probably don’t include too many card-carrying Republicans; but then that is, as the article above notes, exactly Dr Paul’s appeal.

Doublethink in Iraq

Something I’ve noticed lately: there is a newish and rather important instance of US doublethink going in regard to the war in Iraq. I’m refering to the labeling of the ‘true enemy’ in the ongoing occupation of the country. On the one hand, we hear continually of the presence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that it is the true enemy. Invariably in both official press releases and in mainstream media coverage, ‘insurgent’ translates into Al-Qaeda. A truck bomb, a roadside bomb, anything of the sort is blamed on Al-Qaeda. Yet, as various commentators have pointed out, Al-Qaeda in Iraq is only responsible for some of these things: the conflict is terribly complex. However, blaming a group that bears the name ‘Al-Qaeda’ is on one level necessary for the Administration- it lends weight to the widely broadcast fear that ‘they will follow us home if we leave,’ and that surely fighting Al-Qaeda is something we should be doing, what with September 11 and all that- right?

 Yet at the same time the Administration is committed to blaming its troubles on an entirely different actor: Iran (and to a lesser extent, Syria, but even then mainly as some sort of vector for Iran, the true enemy). Resolutions are passed, condemnations issued, indignant press releases released- Iran is supplying the insurgents with all manner of perdiferous armaments, and it is these arms that are killing US troops! Such an allegation is a tacit admission that perhaps other groups than Al-Qaeda are involved, including, say, Shi’a militias. But the focus is upon Iran: Iran is in essence killing US troops. If Iran could be eliminated as a threat in Iraq, all would be well in Iraq. 

Yet this is an immediate contradiction: Al-Qaeda and Iran cannot both be ‘the true enemy,’ the prime cause of all that ails the US in Iraq (and elsewhere: Al-Qaeda is the global threat; Iran seeks regional if not world domination). A possible resolution might be that in fact Iran is supplying Al-Qaeda, and there are signs that this tack is being taken- witness allegations that Iran is arming the Taliban (something strenuously denied by military personel on the ground in Afghanistan). There is still the problem that no one can, right now anyway, seriously deny that the bulk of alleged Iranian support, military and otherwise, is going to Shi’a groups, not Al-Qaeda (a group that likes to kill Shi’a). Hence two Enemies Number One, both of which must be sustained in their current narrative positions- not for the sake of understanding the actual situation, but for the sake of fielding justifications for the Administration.

Eros and Ideas

If there’s one god our culture worships as piously as sex, it’s children. But sex and children, sexual intimacy and familial intimacy, have something in common — beyond the fact that one leads to the other: both belong to us as creatures of nature, not as creators in culture. After Rousseau and Darwin and Freud, and with evolutionary psychology preaching the new moral gospel, we’ve become convinced that our natural self is our truest one. To be natural, we believe, is to be healthy and free. Culture is confinement and deformation. But the Greeks thought otherwise. To them, our highest good is not what we share with the animals, but what we don’t share with them, not the nature we’re born with, but the culture we make from it — make, indeed, against it.

From Love On Campus, via Arts & Letters Daily.

Imperialism Is Destructive On Both Sides

“I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, ‘A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi… You know, so what?’… [Only when we got home] in… meeting other veterans, it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, then.”

Specialist Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry. In Baquba for a year beginning February 2004

“I felt like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people. The only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys that I was with, and everybody else be damned.”

Sergeant Ben Flanders, 28, National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, 172nd Mountain Infantry. In Balad for 11 months beginning March 2004

Interviews with US veterans show for the first time the pattern of brutality in Iraq  


“With one part of my mind I thought the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like there are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.”

George Orwell, Shooting An Elephant

Book, Film, & Music

Some stuff I’ve had the pleasure to peruse lately:

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea: The Monastery of St. Antony was established upon the site St. Antony, the venerable Father of Monasticism, lived upon his withdrawl to the Inner Desert; both his tomb and the cave he inhabited are preserved there. Very early in its history a little oddly domed church was built, which still stands at the core of the monastery complex- which has survived all manner of travails down through the centuries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the monks commissioned wall paintings, which over time were heavily obscured by smoke and grit buildup, and some less than artful overpaints. Recently, however, a team of art conservationists, working in sync with the monastery, restored these wall paintings. Part of the project included the publication of this book, which is a real jewel (though out of my price range at present; I merely checked it out of a library). Besides the numerous photos of and commentary on the incredible iconography, the book also details the history of the monastery, includes an essay on the role of icons in Orthodox life by one of the monks at St. Antony’s, and an essay on the role of the monastery in contemporary Coptic Orthodox life in Egypt. The writers approach the monastery and its icons not as mere artifacts to be looked at but as part of an onging tradition of spiritual life, for both the monks themselves and the wider Coptic Church.

Turtles Can Fly: This film by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi had been recommended to me some time ago; I only lately got around to purchasing and viewing it. Set in a village on the Iraq-Turkey border in Kurdistan, the film opens with a visually stunning- and quite comic- scene of Kurdish villagers hoisting aloft TV antennas, trying to get information on the impending war between the US and Iraq. In the midst of this scramble for news is an orphaned refugee boy nicknamed Satellite, after his knack for manipulating information technology. The story revolves primarily around his experience within a war torn society on the verge of yet another conflict. Thus the narrative view is that of a child and his fellow refugee companions (many of whom he has organized into brigades to collect and sell land mines). It would be easy enough for such a film to falter in sentimentalism, but Ghobadi carefully avoids both sentimentalizing and propogandizing. Instead, the pervasive impact of war is, in turns, brutally and hauntingly portrayed- though actual combat scenes only enter in flashbacks. Despite a very limited budget and less than optimal conditions- it is the first film made in Iraq after Hussein’s overthrow by the US- the cinematography is excellent, and the story’s development and movement works very well, with only a few detours and misplaced pieces. In all, Turtles Can Fly is a superb, emotionally challenging and rewarding work.

Amassakoul: Southern Saharan folk music meets Mississippi blues. The second album by the group Tinariwen, hailing from the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, the group- composed of musicians from the traditionally nomadic Touareg people- roll out some simply incredible music, that is at once set in the traditional music of the Touareg and the electric guitar riffs of the blues. Chorus repitions and a smattering of traditional instruments join some pretty rousing electric guitar work in what comes out as a very nearly seamless ‘fusion’ of styles and influences. The musicians that make up Tinariwen spent some time in training camps run by Khadafi, then fought in a rebellion against the government of Mali, before settling for peace and playing music full time. They were eventually discovered by a French band and through a series of events ended up on the world stage. Great stuff- my favorite album right now.

I have to mention in closing a somewhat similar group, Afrissippi, which I got to see perform live a few months back in Hattiesburg. Taking a similar tack of style fusion, the band formed after Guelel Kumba moved from his native Senegal to North Mississippi, met some area musicians, and started playing with them. The result is a blend of West African trad and North Mississippi hill-country blues. Some really fine and surprisingly beautiful, even sublime music.

Through This Blood Alone

‘Let those who are listening hear and understand that when the Father saw that Adam and his children had fallen into sin and were being jostled about in it as if by waves and that through it destruction had overwhelmed them, he said to his Son, “I see that Adam, who is in our image and likeness, as well as his offspring, have come under sin’s dominion. The just claim of sin that stands against them has excluded them from the state of blessedness for which they were created. The law cannot be made void, however; it must receive its claims in full, from every single human being. Come, take a body. Through it, manifest yourself in the world and expose yourself to the punishments that human beings merit because of their sins. Let those punishments befall you, for when this happens there will be forgiveness of sins for those who, for their sins, offer to me your pains. For them there will be an escape from every punishment they merit because of my law. In this way, you will have nullified the just claims of sin and the devil its sponsor and fulfilled the claims of my law without its becoming null and void. At the same time, you will have opened the door for all of Adam’s offspring who wish deliverance for themselves, preparing for them a forgiveness that they will be able to obtain without trouble, by faith in you and by the offering of your pains… when you have suffered for their sakes just once the punishment merited by them an innumerable number of times, you will have caused the law to receive in full its claims on them and infinitely more as well.”

‘…Do you not see that forgiveness is through Christ’s blood and that those whom God purified from sin through this blood were justly purified, for, as we have said, this Son’s death fulfilled each of the law’s claims against us? If in the divine scriptures of the Old and New Testaments you hear of forgiveness or mercy or penance, know that it took place only through Christ’s cross and the shedding of his blood. If this were not so, the law would be void and God would be one who does things in vain. Far be this from him! The fulfillment of the law’s claims took place through this blood alone, which was shed for the living and for the dead.

‘…It is thus that his summons is called the “gospel,” that is, the “good news,” for it proclaims to humanity the good news about how Christ saved them from that from which they were unable to save themselves. We give praise to Christ for his immeasurable grace.’

Theodore Abū Qurrah, On Our Salvation

Theodore Abū Qurrah was the late eighth-century and early ninth century bishop of the town of Haran, outside of Edessa, overseeing a congregation of Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians. He lived in a diverse environment of cultural cross-currents and competing religions: from the newly ascendant Muslims to the various Christian groups to a handful of practitioners of a blend of paganism and neo-Platonism. His writings are heavily concerned with, as we might put it, the problem of living in a highly pluralistic world.

However, I selected the above passage for a different reason- while it does not deal with the problem of religious pluralism, it does contain an argument of considerable interest for contemporary Christians, both East and West. Upon reading it without knowledge of Theodore or his ecclesiastical and historical setting, one might assume it to have been written by a Western theologian, not terribly far from the line of thought used by St. Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. Yet the above selection was written- in Arabic no less!- by an early ninth century Eastern Christian, operating in a decidedly ‘Eastern’ theological continuum. In presenting an argument often labeled as ‘Substitutionary Atonement,’ he does not seem to expect his readers to react with shock or surprise: he is simply unfolding what his readers are expected to understand: Christ died for our sins; the shedding of his blood brings salvation, and this salvation is intrinsically tied into the Law, as contained in the Torah, but which is a manifestation of God’s will, is a divine Law.

Theodore’s concern is in carefully delineating why Christ’s death had to happen, as understood through a decidedly ‘legal’ perspective. Yes, he is concerned with issues of law, of merit (gasp!), even of justification. There is a Law to be satisfied, and God simply cannot override it by fiat. The Law is Law and must be dealt with. The punishment of the Law must be carried out; we have all of us broken the Law, and all our penance in the world cannot save us from that Law. Only the perfect Son of God can take upon Himself the punishment we merit and in so doing fulfill the Law and bring us under the mercy and forgiveness of God, without ignoring the Law of God.

All of this is, of course, fairly common discourse in the West. Yet how often is it stated that such a view is unknown in the East- the abode of an allegedly more ‘spiritual’ (read: less concerned with ‘law and order’) Christianity? Whether advanced by detractors of the East or its defenders, it is very common to suppose that a view anywhere near that of St. Anselm or other Western theologians is either unknown or flatly rejected east of the Bosporus, and simply has no currency in Eastern Orthodoxy. This is interpreted sometimes to mean that the Eastern Church is incomplete in its theological understanding, or dreadfully ignorant of Scripture; on the other hand it is taken to mean the Eastern Church is spiritually wise in its supposed rejection of Substitutionary Atonement, accepting in its stead a Christus Victor model or something else (or simply focusing on the Resurrection to the near exclusion of the Crucifixion). All of these arguments draw upon a sort of Christian ‘Orientalism’ in which the mystical, spiritual, rather anarchic Eastern Church is the antithesis of the orderly, law-based, rational West. In reality, while the Substitutionary Atonement (a term I am using here as broadly as possible to embrace the more ‘judicial’ or ‘legal’ interpretations of Christ’s death) is not nearly as common an idea in the East as in the West, it is by no means foreign to the East, nor is it somehow repugnant to Eastern Orthodox thought or doctrine (nor is the neat antithesis of East and West quite so neat and orderly- but that is another issue). Theodore is a fine example: he is about as far removed from the Western world as any Chalcedonian Orthodox of his time could be, living in a Muslim-ruled state and writing primarily in Arabic, working in an environment about as thoroughly ‘Eastern’ as one could ask for.

Another example for this sort of thinking on the crucifixion comes from the considerably later St. Symeon the New Theologian- another writer who could hardly be accused of extensive intercourse with Western thought. In one his homilies he offers an understanding of the Atonement virtually the same as Theodore’s- and very resonant with Western interpretations. I would offer some excerpts here, except that I accidentally left my copy of the homily on a flight between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and have yet to purchase a new copy. It is contained in this selection of St. Symeon’s homilies: The First Created Man

Now, as I mentioned above, the sort of argument Theodore here employs is not common in Eastern Orthodoxy when compared to certain other perspectives on the Atonement: but it is not unknown, and it is entirely compatible with the general scope of Eastern thought and theology- which itself is not monolithic at all, anyway (nor could it or should it be). It does not conflict with other understandings of the Atonement, for the simple fact that an act so complex and deep as the Atonement admits numerous interpretations that are non-exclusive. Think of it as viewing many different facets of the same jewel: each facet reveals something different, yet related, connected to the previous facet. The strength of this particular ‘facet’ is its taking into account the very important reality of the Torah and its focus upon law and sacrifice. A cogent Christianity must deal directly with the entire corpus of Scripture, on its proper terms. This includes such things as law and sacrifice, and all the ‘legal mechanisms’ entailed therein. Further, the New Testament uses decidedly legal language- alongside all sorts of linguistic forms and metaphors. By incorporating all of these metaphors and interpretations, we- East and West- deepen our understanding of the mystery of the Gospel, giving us yet more cause to ‘give praise to Christ for his immeasurable grace.’

The Foundation and Beginning of All That Is Good and Beautiful

Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and beginning of all that is good and beautiful.

For whenever someone realizes and percieves that he is truly and indeed weak, then he draws in his soul from the diffuseness which dissipates knowledge, and he becomes all the more watchful of his soul.

But no one can percieve his own weakness unless he has been remiss a little, has neglected some small thing, has been surrounded by trials, either in the matter of things which cause the body suffering, or in that of ways in which the soul is subject to the passions. Only then, by comparing his own weakness, will he realize how great is the assistance which comes from God.

When someone is aware that he is in need of divine help, he makes many prayers. And once he has made much supplication, his heart is humbled, for there is no one who is in need and asks who is not humbled. ‘A broken and humbled heart, God will not despise.’

As long as the heart is not humbled it cannot cease from wandering; for humility concentrates the heart.

St. Isaac of Nineveh

Eight Random Things About Me

I was tagged by Steve at Khanya

Here are the rules…

1. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
3. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are eight things about me:

1. I was born in Meridian, Mississippi, but my parents were living at the time in Shuqulak, thirty miles up the road in beautiful (no really!) Noxubee County.

2. A few months ago I was bitten on the nose by a random dog in a park. He ran away before I could properly admonish him.

3. The dog’s hostility was perhaps not unwarranted, as I once ate dog stew at a restaurant in Southwest China. It wasn’t that great really. I’ve never really liked dogs.

4. I was the very first undergraduate graduate from William Carey University, as the school changed its title from ‘College’ to ‘University’ last year. My last name being Allen I was the first in the alphabetically aranged line of graduates.

5. My one and only case of altitude sickness was on a mountainside soccer field in the central Andes of Peru. It was pretty bad.

6. As a child I would get into trouble with the neighbors for digging replica Civil War trenches in their woods.

7. I am sometimes asked if I am a Mennonite (mainly because of my hair and beard style, I think). I’m not, though I almost volunteered for a Mennonite-run teaching program in China.

8. I almost never eat the part of the french fry touched by my fingers whilst eating it, a habit I picked up from being a busboy at a catfish house and having pereptually dirty, grease and general-filth caked hands as a result- especially at dinner time at the end of the night.

Now, since pretty much everyone else has been tagged for this meme, I’m going to excuse myself for being lazy and not tagging anyone else.