Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Remembering Rowan: Crusty Gets Nostalgic

Some sad news from Crustyland last week.  The Rev Dr Rowan Greer, Walter Gray Professor Emertius of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School/Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, passed away at age 79.  Crusty always called him Father Greer, never Dr Greer or Professor Greer or, God forbid, Rowan -- and, to be honest, COD thinks Fr Greer was the only Episcopal priest he has always referred to, often even in the third person in conversation with others, as Fr Greer.  Heck as Crusty got older and became a Rev Dr himself, he increasingly has seen old mentors as colleagues; he has referred to his old field ed supervisor and the bishop who received him into the Episcopal Church and even primates by first name, but never Fr Greer.  He was an important mentor to COD, Crusty wouldn't be Crusty without him.

More on Fr Greer in a minute, but this week Crusty has been on a nostalgia trip, partly due to Fr Greer's passing but also due to some other, personal matters COD doesn't feel like sharing with the interwebz.  Got me thinking about the past, how Crusty got to where he is today, and mentors in general.  There have been many over the years, but these three in part come to mind this past week as Crusty has been pondering.

The first was my grandmother.  She was an amazing woman:  sent off to live on a farm with a family not her own, grew up without running water and electricity in rural New Hampshire.  She was the only woman in her high school graduating class; all the other women didn't finish, got married and got to work.  But my grandmother finished, and not only that, was the valedictorian.  She went off to college when it was rare for anyone to go, let alone women, graduating from the University of New Hampshire.  She was a mentor to me not just for her courage and intelligence, but as a Christian as well.  Crusty was a child of a mixed marriage. Dad was Irish Roman Catholic and Mom a New England Yankee Congregationalist, and it was still a bit of a scandal in 1950s Boston when they
Grandma circa 1935.  I still miss her.
married.  Since they were married in the Catholic Church, the deal was we had to be raised Catholic, and Crusty was.  Yet my grandmother was a proud and faithful Congregationalist; she was important to COD because she was someone I saw who seemed more interested in living out her faith day to day than in outward acts of churchly devotion and piety.  As a child COD struggled with what it meant to be Catholic apart from having to do (or not do) stuff:  go to Mass, not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and so on.  Of course there's a long tradition of Catholic social justice teaching, Crusty's just saying it didn't enter into his worldview much in 1970s Massachusetts.  My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed more interested in doing stuff in the world than in church.   As East Boston began to experience increased Hispanic/Latino immigration, she helped set up Sunday schools in poorer neighborhoods. COD vividly remembers her telling stories of chasing rats out of Sunday school classrooms in churches in East Boston when she got there in the morning.  She was also a feminist, albeit in her own way.  She went back to school after my mother went off to college, earned a library science degree, went to work for the Congregational Library and Archives, eventually becoming the director herself, the first woman and first non-clergyman to head the organization.  Over the years COD has come to appreciate her as someone who was more interested in doing than being, and as someone who was willing to openly challenge what the church thought you could or could not do.  COD has tried to do the same.  Plus, she was one of the funniest, most acid-tongued people Crusty has ever known, and had no patience for fools.  When CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) was meeting OMOCOD (Official Mother of Crusty Old Dean) and OFOCOD (figure it out) she said, "I hope your parents like me."  Crusty replied, "Forget them, you better hope my grandmother likes you."  Crusty likes to think he has inherited a bit of her acid-tongue.

The second was (is, he's still alive but retired now) a rabbi.  Crusty arrived at college in thoroughly skeptic mode.  After Confirmation, COD still went to church, not as often as before, and mostly out of a sense of obligation, and by his late teens AYMC (Angry You Man Crusty) has was skeptical of much of Christian belief and doctrine and began styling himself as an agnostic.  The church just seemed so hypocritical, Christians didn't seem to follow the teachings of Jesus and were obsessed with people's sex lives, and so Crusty's faith was in benign neglect and he becoming content with trying to do unto others as he wished they would do unto him.  However, Crusty was just a poser when it came to agnosticism, and it really didn't suit him.  For instance, while a Russian Studies major, he began taking
RBI Klein discussing I-Thou relationship with the ball with Buber.
religious studies classes.  There was something about the whole religion thing AYMC just couldn't shake.  And then he met Rabbi Roger Klein, the Jewish chaplain at the university Crusty attended.  The movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" had just come out, and we used to call him Roger Rabbi.  One of my buddies was a big fan of the band the English Beat, and instead called him Ranking Roger.   He was a tall man, with his rabbinic beard and booming voice.  He played softball on the religion department team, which earned him another nickname, RBI Klein.  He said that he was able to still play shortstop at his age because "I have an I-Thou relationship with the ball."  He was real, he was authentic, he was cool -- and he was a rabbi.  Crusty hadn't come across this combination of authenticity with faith before.  Sure, there has been hip and cool clergy Crusty had come across, but he often found himself wondering why they were clergy if they seemingly didn't believe in anything.  The rabbi was authentic but also a faithful Jew.   COD took several courses with him, and went to him for vocational advice, wondering if he should go off to study religion at the graduate level or continue with the plan to do doctoral work in Russian Studies. The rabbi told AYMC he could go become anything and probably be happy; but where might God be calling him to a life of wholeness, not just success?  Of fulfillment, and not contentment? Crusty was also very uncomfortable in the Catholic Church, but the rabbi told him to stick with it for now; he said asking questions would help me understand what I really believed; that too much change at once was too much; and to come to grips with the faith of my upbringing and make peace with it first before considering anything else.  Wise words from a wise man.  Rabbi Klein was an important mentor in showing COD you could be authentic and be a person of faith.

Then COD arrived at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 1991, 22 years old and planning to do a Master of Arts in Religion degree and eventually move on to doctoral work in biblical studies.  He walked into his first class, sat down, and in walked a man in a clerical collar with a dog trailing behind him.  COD was startled; he had never had a person in a clergy collar in a classroom!  The Catholic chaplain at the university he attended seemed rarely to dress as a priest except for Sundays.  And with a dog!  Fr Greer then opened class...with a prayer!  Crusty had never thought about beginning class with prayer before.  It was all so startling.  That was Fr Rowan Greer, and the course was Introduction to Church History.  COD took five classes with Fr Greer, and he was instrumental in helping Crusty switch from the MA in Religion to the MDiv, to begin to consider he might be called to ordained ministry, and to move from an emphasis in Biblical studies to Church History.

Academically, Fr Greer bridged New Testament studies and church history.  Crusty had taken OT and NT survey courses as an undergraduate, and some philosophy of religion classes, but it seemed that  the years from 100-1600 had been entirely skipped, and up to that point my academic work ended with the NT and picked up again with Descartes.  Fr Greer opened up all that space in-between.  His own doctoral work was in New Testament, but he bridged the NT and Patristic periods, in his writings he
Fr Greer and McGregor during Crusty's time at Yale.
focused on examining how the early church understood and interpreted Scripture.  This came as a breath of fresh air, because, as COD proceeded with his MAR with emphasis in New Testament, it had all started to feel a bit constricting.  COD wasn't sure he wanted to continue writing papers comparing the use of the hortatory subjunctive in the Pauline and deutero-Pauline corpus.  That's not a joke, that was an actual paper COD wrote. Fr Greer also made the early church come alive it all its fascinating weirdness, peppering his lectures with the bizarre oddities of the period (including sharing the earliest known evidence of a whoopee cushion) and his own shorthand mnemonic devices (the Frankenstein Theory of the Papacy; the Three Bears' Theory of the Trinity; the Mayonnaise Theory of the Incarnation).   By his third year in seminary, having switched to the MDiv, been received into The Episcopal Church, and considering both ordination and future academic work, Fr Greer became my academic advisor.

Fr Greer was an important mentor in the way he embodied being a scholar and a priest.  His priesthood didn't inhibit his scholarship, not did his scholarship overshadow his priesthood.  Crusty got to experience both sides, since Fr Greer was also the assisting priest in the congregation where COD did his field education work, Crusty got to see him in both his academic and his pastoral contexts.  He gave COD some of the best advice he's ever received, things Crusty still passes on to his own students.  One of my favorites was one of Crusty's first days assisting Fr Greer at the altar.  I was clearly a little nervous.  Fr Greer said, "Don't worry.  For one thing, if you make a mistake, just keep going.  Most of the time if you look like you know what you're doing nobody will notice.  You know, I forgot the Lord's Prayer once, and I don't think most people noticed.  Or else they assumed I probably did it on purpose, when I fact I just flipped two pages instead of one and didn't notice until it was too late."

As a seminary professor, Crusty finds himself sometimes echoing some of the things he learned from Fr Greer.  Crusty always tries to return papers as promptly as possible, like Fr Greer did.  Fr Greer would also rarely write in the margins of your paper, he would attach often several yellow lined pages with extended comments. COD can't pull this off -- he prefers papers submitted electronically -- but tries to add as many comments as he thinks are helpful.   Fr Greer always was focused on the student and learning, when at times it can feel as if you're a cog in some kind of machine.  Crusty tells every student at the seminary where he teaches, "The students aren't here for the seminary, the seminary is here for the students."  I like to think I picked that up from Fr Greer.

There are any number of Fr Greer stories.  The time his dog threw up a half-eaten bird in class and he went on lecturing without missing a beat.  While presiding at a weekday Eucharist, reading a particularly tendentious biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, then rolling his eyes and saying, "Good God this has to be one of the dreariest commemorations someone could have thought up.  Let's translate another commemoration." The way he never liked shaking hands during the peace, but would stand with his arms crossed and nod in your direction.  COD always wondered, in part, whether it had to do with the impairment on one of his hands due a childhood accident.

He was refreshingly blunt without being cynical or snarky or mean, there was a sincerity and honesty to his bluntness.  In particular Crusty remembers telling him he was going out to meet with a couple of parishioners at the congregation where I was doing field ed and he was assisting priest.  He rolled his eyes and I asked what that was about and he said, "Tom, you need to know that in every congregation there are a handful of people whose sole purpose is to undermine and destroy every single thing you want to do.  X and Y are two of those people."  He paused, then added, "The funny thing is they are sometimes really nice people otherwise."

While at Yale, and thanks to mentor and friends like Fr Greer and others, Crusty wanted to grow up to get a PhD in Early Church but also teach in Anglican Studies, which, astonishingly, Crusty has ended up doing.  In 2002, Crusty was absolutely floored to be one of the finalists for the Walter Gray Chair in Anglican Studies that Fr Greer has held (and BTW they chose the perfect candidate, COD's former classmate, while honored to be a finalist I would have picked the current incumbent over me).  I sent Fr Greer my dissertation when I finished it, attached a letter thanking him for helping crystallize my academic interests, but also thanking him for being such an important mentor and model of what it means to be a priest and a scholar and a teacher.  With typical graciousness, he send a hand-written reply several pages long and commented (favorably, I might add) on several points in the dissertation, demonstrating he had taken the time actually to read it.

So it's been a sad week for Crusty, not just with Fr Greer's passing, but, as noted above, with some other things he would rather not share.  Crusty felt a tinge of guilt he hadn't kept in touch with Fr Greer, or even let him know how important he was in COD's personal and vocational development.  Someone's passing often leaves us with regret for things unsaid.  But alongside this nostalgia and sadness there is also a bit of hope and encouragement.  Crusty has been pleased to see the outpouring of remembrances of Father Greer as news of his passing spread.  It made me remember what a privileged position it is to be a teacher on any level, to walk with people on their journeys.  Amidst challenges of preparing for accreditation, keeping an eye on the seminary's investment portfolio, and changing batteries in smoke detectors -- all the glamorous elements of being a seminary dean -- Fr Greer's passing has reminded Crusty that the seminary is here for the students.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Worse than a Tatar: COD on Crimea

There's an old Russian proverb: "Незваный гость хуже татарина," or, "an uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar."  Typical Russian black humor, comparing the nuisance of an uninvited guest to the Mongols, who invaded what we now call Russia in the 13th century, slaughtered inhabitants and sacked a number of cities, and subjected the area to paying tribute for centuries before the "Mongol yoke" was thrown off in the 15th century.

Today the Crimean autonomous region of Ukraine voted for independence in a referendum condemned by much of the international community.  Actually,  as he writes, COD admits we don't have the results yet, but you can bet your a*s this is going to be the result.   You may ask, WTF is COD doing commenting on stuff in Ukraine?  Well, in Crusty's past life, he was a Soviet and Eastern European studies major.  Crusty studied Russian language for four years in high school and four years in college, along with
Yes, COD used to have a thick head of jet black hair.  Sigh.
Russian literature and Eastern European/Russian/Soviet history.  Crusty lived in the Soviet Union for the summer of 1987 for two months (and spent a week in Kiev), and for five months in 1990 (decided to go to the Baltic countries for spring break that time, and had the train turned back at the Lithuanian border), as part of language immersion language programs, studying alongside Soviet, Eastern European, and Western students, living in dormitories at Soviet universities.  Look, here's a photo from my Soviet student ID, a mop-haired Crusty Old Dean at age 20 in 1990.  Don't click on it; you might get Rick-rolled.  Crusty also studied Eastern Orthodox Christianity, he received a Master of Theology degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where he also, coincidentally, was the only non-Eastern Orthodox student enrolled at the time.  COD later went on to work as ecumenical officer for The Episcopal Church, in part helping to coordinate relationships with the Orthodox Churches (though admittedly those conversations were on the wane by the time COD arrived).  Crusty was last in Moscow in 2002 as part of the official Episcopal Church delegation to the Moscow Patriarchate.  While far from an expert, Crusty does have a little background and experience in Eastern Europe.

Crusty is not terribly surprised at the turn of events in Ukraine.  Crusty refused to watch the opening or closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, tweeting that in 20 years we may look back on them with shame similar to the 1936 Olympics:  as giving the opportunity for a thug and a dictator to try to buff his image on a world stage.  What is happening right now has not dropped out of the sky, but rather been building for going on 15 years now.

There have been several things Crusty has been pondering in the past few weeks.

1)  First there's the almost utter ignorance in the West of the complex dynamics of the area.  We're dealing with over 1000 years of history, here, people -- and, if anything, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to the West knowing even less about Eastern Europe.  If we aren't locked in a life and death ideological struggle, why learn anything about anybody else?  For instance, the Russian language program at Crusty's high school has been discontinued in favor of Chinese.  So, that said,

2)  There's the complexity to "Ukraine" itself.  The name, literally, in Russian means "on the border/edge."   Well...of what?  Of Russia/Muscovy of course.  The very name applied to the region defines it in terms of its neighbors, which has been Ukraine's lot for most of its history.  It was split up between Poland-Lithuania, the Crimean Khanate, and Muscovy in the 1500s, and its borders redrawn several times in the past hundred years.  It's been torn between East and West, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in a more dramatic fashion than Russia (more on this below).  In Russian, to say "in Ukraine" uses a different preposition than is used for other countries.  In the more modern Soviet period, Ukraine suffered bitterly.  There was widespread resistance to the policy of forcing farmers onto collective farms, resulting in a catastrophic famine in the 1930s that killed millions.  During the Soviet period its western region was romanticized as the agricultural heartland of the country (kind of like many view the American
The dance sequences they were filming were pretty awesome.
midwest), with its Eastern region industrialized.  This is, after all, what the hammer and sickle symbol was all about:  the coming together of the oppressed agricultural and industrial workers to throw off capitalism and build a worker's paradise through the dictatorship of the proletariat.  There's a famous statue in Ukraine which captures this, the industrial worker with his hammer linking together with the female agricultural worker with her sickle.  When COD was in Kiev in the summer of 1987 they were filming a huge musical set piece for state television in front of the statue, if he could find the photo albums in his basement (still unpacking from the last move he made) COD would dig up the pictures he took.  Until then, here's a stock photo of the statue.

3)  There's the complexity to "Crimea."  The old Soviet Union was, on paper, technically a voluntary association of independent republics, which, in turn were theoretically based on all power given to local councils.  "Soviet" comes from the Russian verb "to advise, counsel" and during the revolutionary period local revolutionary councils of advice were set up in many cities, called soviets.  All power to the soviets! was the Bolshevik rallying cry.   Hence: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Within these theoretically independent republics were regions which were for various reasons granted a degree of autonomy.  This is all "theoretical", of course, since the USSR was a single party totalitarian dictatorship -- but these definitions existed on paper in the USSR constitution and in constitutions of the republics.  Crimea was an autonomous region within the Russian Soviet Federated Republic, but was transferred to the Ukrainian Socialist Federated Republic in 1954 by Nikita Khruschev, so has been "Ukrainian" only a little longer than Alaska has been a state or rock and roll has been rock and roll.  The inter webs will sometimes say Khruschev did this "while drunk,"
Khruschev's grave in Novodeviche cemetery, not the Kremlin.  COD visited.
but this is utterly ridiculous and part and parcel to efforts to discredit Khruschev as a buffoon.  There are various theories as to why Kruschev did this (while an ethnic Russian he was party head in Ukraine), all about as good as any other.  This was, however, just a formality at the time, since this was all part of the Soviet Union.   Crimea, in turn, was home to probably the third most famous and hallowed battle during the Second World War.  Though not getting as much historical ink as Leningrad or Stalingrad, the siege of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula lasted years and was as devastating as the other battles.  The Second World War is revered as a national touchstone in the Russian conscience akin to adding the American Revolution and the Civil War and multiplying it by infinity.  It's referred to not as World War II, but the Great Patriotic War.    So Crimea itself, let alone Ukraine, has a complex dynamic within the region's history.  Further, with all the talk about whether Crimea is "Russian" or "Ukrainian", there's the fact that if anything, you could argue it is Crimean:  it had an independent existence for 400 years prior to being conquered by Russia as an independent khanate from the breakup of the Mongol empire (though it was in essence a vassal of the Ottomans).  The descendants of the Mongols and nomadic invaders, the Crimean Tatars, currently make up a large minority of the population, which leads to...

4)  How so much of what is happening are hangovers from events in Eastern Europe during World War II.  Just like the Civil War, and the battle to shape its historical understanding and legacy, define much of American politics and especially in the American South, so was World War II a defining event for much of Eastern Europe.  For one thing, parts of what we now call Ukraine didn't become part of Ukraine until after World War II: as part of the redrawing of national boundaries, the Soviets kept much of the parts of Eastern Europe they divided with Hitler.  For another, Crimea itself was changed by the war: while many Crimean Tatars served in the Red Army, many also collaborated with the Nazis, seeking to throw off the Soviet yoke.  This led to Stalin's retaliation by deporting  almost the entire population at the end of the war.  When Crusty was living in Moscow in the summer of 1987, he was taking a tour of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square when suddenly groups of police officers came in, ordering the thronging tourists to evacuate the church by the back, the exits facing away from Red Square.  Trying surreptitiously to look back and see what was happening and not get his head cracked by a police baton (not the only time this almost happened, but those are other stories), COD saw police hauling people out of Red Square.  Later Crusty found out they were Crimean Tatars, occupying Red Square to demand the right of return to their homeland.  The Soviets had technically permitted the Tatars to return in 1967, but did nothing to facilitate repatriation.  The Crimean Tatars would return by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1980s and 1990s, but still are nowhere near as numerous as they once were in their homeland.

There's also the dynamics in Ukraine during the war:  Ukrainian nationalists, headed by Stepan Bandera, proclaimed an independent Ukrainian republic and were involved in a tactical alliance with the Nazis (somewhat like Finland, which shared no particular ideology with Nazi Germany, but fought with the Germans against the Soviets to try to reclaim territory seized by the Soviets in the 1939-1940 war).  The term "fascist" which is being thrown around by the Russian propaganda machine is in part mudslinging -- like in American when people call
Babi Yar memorial, outside of Kiev.
someone a "socialist" but without really meaning the person is calling for nationalization of industry, just as an insult because it's considered an offensive term -- but also a conscious effort to revive the taint of Ukrainian nationalism with Nazi fascism.  The shadows of 1939-1945 period stretch over this area of Eastern Europe. The most powerful experience COD has ever had (really defies description in terms of the emotions generated) was visiting Babi Yar, the site of mass executions of over 100,000 during the war by the Nazis, with some collaboration by local Ukrainians, including over 30,000 Jews in a single day.

5)  There's also the hangover from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  The bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 (anyone in the West even remember it?) was bitterly opposed by the Russians.  There is lingering animosity that it was only the Serbians who were punished with western military intervention; any atrocities committed by Croats or Slovenians or Albanian Kosovars, in their understanding of events, is whitewashed and Serbians blamed solely for the destruction that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, which, by the way, was an arbitrary nation drawn up by the Western powers themselves after World War I.  Kosovo is particularly a sore spot.  There are many in Russia who feel the partition of Serbia and recognition of independence of Kosovo by the West is as illegal as what the West is saying about events in Crimea; for many in the Russian leadership, this is just an example of Russia and the West both being part of the same hypocrisy, like Michael Corleone and Senator Geary in The Godfather.

6)  And there's the religious component: the areas annexed and incorporated into Ukraine after World War II were largely areas with a "Greek Catholic" component.  Ukraine sits square in the boundary between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  In the 1500s, a number of Orthodox Christians entered into a full communion arrangement with the Pope and the Catholic Church, while allowed to retain many aspects of Orthodox liturgy and practice (such as married parish clergy):  Ruthenians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, and others.  Lviv, in northwest Ukraine, is the cultural and intellectual center of Greek Catholic Ukrainian culture.  After World War II, with the redrawing of boundaries, Lviv and a number of Greek Catholics came under Soviet rule and were bitterly suppressed.  Nearly the entire hierarchy of bishops were arrested and sent to forced labor camps, and the property was confiscated by the state.  In addition to the East-West tensions (Eastern Ukraine having higher proportion of Russians, western Ukraine higher proportions of Ukrainians), there is also a Catholic-Orthodox element of this division.  The religious component was a significant aspect of Kosovo as well, almost nearly universally absent in discussion in the west.  Although populated by majority Muslim, Albanian Kosovars, the area of Kosovo is the historic center of Serbian Orthodoxy -- Pec is the ancient home of the Serbian patriarchate and where many former archbishops and patriarchs are buried.  A post-Christendom, secular west consistently fails to understand the impact of religious elements underlying current struggles.  (To give another example, Crusty Old Dean was taking an American Religious History course when the FBI stormed the Waco compound of the Branch Davidians in 1993.  We watched on TV in class.  The professor, visibly angry, said, "Nobody who knew anything about American religious history and the place and role of religious sectarianism would be surprised at this result.  This is what happens when we're ignorant of history.")

7)  Lastly, there's the whole concept of Russian self-understanding that is frankly lost on many in the West.  Crusty will not try to parse the mind of Vladimir Putin (if anyone can) he'll leave that to others with far more experience and guffaw at Jon Stewart's relentless mocking of Putin, because if there's one thing dictatorial thugs despise, it's mockery.  One thing to keep in mind, and which may be hard for the West to grasp, is the way Russia sees itself as a unique nation (if anything, this is one area of commonality between the USA and Russia).  It sees itself as unlike other nations.  It's neither Eastern nor Western, sitting between Asia and Europe.  It has the largest Orthodox Church in the world.  It's the largest Slavic nation and sees itself as the cornerstone of Slavic culture and protector of the Slavic peoples.  These understandings have been developed over the centuries, from notions of Russia as the "Third Rome" and successor to Constantinople after its fall to the Turks, to the "sobornost" philosophy of Alexander Khomiakov in the 19th century, to Pan-Slavism, to current writings by people like Alexander Dugin.  Sure, there are the geopolitical concerns, with Putin seeking to counter NATO and the West.  But also underlying this is the notion that Russia has a different calling and a special destiny.  Lacking any cohesive ideology for his dictatorship other than oligarchic kleptocracy, Putin has been turning to these aspects of Russian exceptionalism.  This, in part, underlies Putin's strategic alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (the Patriarch now has an office in the Kremlin) and increasingly anti-Western propaganda.  Russia's anti-LBGT legislation is an extension of this:  Russia must not be infected by the West and its decadence but preserve its purity and its identity.

8)  We should also keep in mind the West's own complicity in all of this.  The West has done nothing as Russia has intervened repeatedly in its former Soviet republics.  George HW Bush did nothing over Moldova; George W. Bush did nothing over Georgia, which as an actual shooting war, in 2008.  There is, of course, the question of what we "can" do. At least during the good old days of the Cold War there was the threat of mutual assured destruction.  The West is complicit as it swims in a sea of Russian money:  Russian oligarchs bank in the City of London and Germany sells Russia trucks and other exports.  A cynical Putin knows that the West won't want to walk away from all that money over a tiny peninsula nobody knew about a month ago.  As one commentator put it, under Putin the oligarchs "rule like Stalin but live like Trump," and they couldn't do that without the West's involvement.

The 1990s were often talked about as the "end of history," to the bipolar Cold War dynamic that dominated the world since the end of World War II.  If anything, one could argue the 1990s were an anomaly rather than the inauguration of a new world order.  As we sit and listen to bloviating TV talking heads argue about who "lost" Crimea, we're facing the fact that admitting our own ignorance and dealing with complexity are two things politicians are not very good at.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Confessions of a Lent Madness Hater: Commissioned Clowns and Reptition

Now when all of the clowns you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you're sick of all this repetition
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited is surely one of the greatest pieces of American art ever produced, in Crusty's opinion right up there with Leaves of Grass, Copland's Appalachian Spring, Richard Wright's Black Boy, the paintings of George O'Keeffe, and the music of Nelson.  It was a masterful fusion of folk, Americana, blues, rock and roll, and pop, creating a sound no one had ever heard before; oft-imitated but never equaled.  Perhaps The Band in their finest moments, or the Waterboys' Killing My
If COD had a heart, Gunnar and Matthew wouldn't turn around and break it.
Heart, or the best of Ryan Adams' Whiskeytown, have come closest; and Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy both did something similar, fusing a swath of influences to transform hip hop like Bob did with popular music.  Combine this with coming about at the cusp of transformative changes in American society in 1965, in the midst of civil rights, escalation in Vietnam, and one is hard pressed to come up with a work of music so transformative which also arrived at precisely the right kairos moment in history.  Perhaps best known for "Like a Rolling Stone," Crusty's favorite track has always been the first song of side 2 (yes COD knows CDs and Spotify playlists don't have "sides" but he grew up listening to Highway 61 on LP): Queen Jane Approximately.  Though often noted for being whimsical, prophetic, mysterious, or angry in many of his songs, Dylan could also be profoundly moving in his melancholoy (the aching heartbreak of "To Ramona" from Another Side of Bob Dylan).  Queen Jane Approximately stood out for COD in how it is irrepressibly melodic (the man can write a catchy tune when he wants to) but also disconsolate.  Conventionally interpreted as
Before he was a mumbling corporate shill for Chrysler.
referring to the end of his relationship with Joan Baez, like all Dylan songs it can stand on its own apart from whatever context that birthed it.  In addition to its melody there is also something about the dispirited resignation in the song that COD finds himself enveloped in.  "Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you/And the smell of their roses does not remain/And all of your children start to resent you/Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?"  When Queen Jane's hopes, dreams, plans, and life does not turn out as they should, will Dylan be there when Queen Jane comes to see him?  If she does?  If for some reason you can't find your copy of Highway 61 Revisited (COD cannot imagine someone does not own a copy) listen to the song itself here.  Interestingly enough, it may not even be the best song about someone named Jane, as COD can never decide between this one and "Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground (and "Jane Says" by Jane's Addiction is no slouch, either).

This verse from Queen Jane Approximately has been rattling in Crusty's head this week.  Because Lent madness has started, the annual Hunger Games-like faceoff between 32 different 'saints', but with voting instead of battling to the death.  We will witness the death of many commissioned clowns in their brackets, and Crusty is already sick of all this repetition after only a few days.  Yes, COD is a Lent Madness Hater.  Before he unpacks this in any more depth, first two disclaimers:

1)  COD does not like Lent Madness.  However, this does not mean he dislikes any of the people who are part of it.  Crusty considers Scott Gunn and Tim Schenck colleagues and friends, thinks they're brilliant people and a couple of the finest priests he knows.  They've done more for The Episcopal Church than Crusty  ever will, and COD admires and respects them. Likewise COD is amazed at the erudition and dedication of the volunteers who provide biographical blogs to the Lent Madness website, he knows most of them personally and thinks they're talented and fantastic people.  All too often in the church we overpersonalize our opinion:  because I think something is bad, the people who support the thing I think is bad are either bad, or misguided, or ignorant, or led astray by bad, misguided, or ignorant people.  That's simply not the case; while COD doesn't like Lent Madness, he likes those involved and doesn't even think they're responsible for what he dislikes about it.

2)  COD does not like Lent Madness.  But he is not going to rain on the Lent Madness parade.  This is his one statement about it for this year.  Students and faculty at the seminary where COD teaches are filling out brackets and raising money for charity and really
This will be my one Lent Madness "hah-hah"
getting into it:  good for them.  Seriously.  Lent Madness gets lots of people energized, creates community, and makes people happy, and those are all wonderful and laudable things.  This blog post is all Crusty is going to say about Lent Madness in the twitterblogoinstavinesphere, and in his personal interactions will politely and circumspectly not engage Lent Madness.  COD will not be growling in the corner or rolling his eyes every time it is mentioned.  This is the only turd Crusty is throwing in the Lent Madness punchbowl. Having said my peace, after this blog post, Crusty will move on to other things.

But first the genesis of how this all started.  Back in 2012, Philander Chase was up against Thomas Merton in the first round of Lent Madness.  All well and good; Crusty is dean of the seminary that Philander Chase founded (Bexley Hall Seminary) so knows a little about him,  we have letters and diaries and notebooks in our archives from his time as bishop of Ohio and dean of the seminary.  COD encouraged students to vote for Philander, and figured that was that.  But when going to check on the voting results, Crusty began to be flummoxed by the comments he had read.  People were saying you shouldn't vote for Philander because he didn't treat his wife well, callously dragging her all over the country to his various pastoral calls so that she died.  People said you should vote for Merton because he appealed to Catholics and Protestants, that he was a forerunner in the area of interreligious dialogue, while Philander had narrow appeal to evangelical Episcopalians.  It made Crusty angry:  these were caricatures of the individuals involved.  Chase actually adored his wife; tuberculosis was a fatal, incurable disease; and by moving from the fetid swamp of New Orleans to the fresh air of Ohio he thought he was helping her.  Merton and Chase were so wildly different they could not be compared, but yet here we were.  Lent Madness learned not to mess with COD.  So Crusty pretty much did everything he could, reached out to the Lutherans at our sister seminary, had students get in touch with people at Kenyon College (which Philander also founded) and helped orchestrate, with others, a stunning upset.  Philander Chase was a complex and maddening person, a transformational leader, and an important voice in the early Episcopal Church and Lent Madness was just making him a commissioned clown to be stepped over on Merton's march to the next round.  Crusty would not have it.

Crusty outlined some thoughts on Lent Madness last year here and here.  Some of what follows is a distillation of some of those thoughts, but also with some additional reflections.  Having laid out my conversion experience from 2012, here's why doesn't Crusty like Lent Madness:

1)  As he has said previously, COD feels Lent Madness is like the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel:  an idea made out of gold but built on the clay feet of the Episcopal Church's utter paucity of a theology of sainthood.  How can we debate saints when we don't even have a common idea of what one is? Are they neat people for us to emulate, or cool people we wish could be our Facebook friends, or are they truly Holy Women and Holy Men, possessing sanctity and grace?  This is, of course, part of a much larger issue that Anglicanism and The Episcopal Church has struggled with one and off for centuries, and reflected in much of the debate around Holy Women, Holy Men, the proposed revision of the liturgical calendar suggested in 2009 and now undergoing another thorough overhaul, which COD thinks is a step in the right direction (read more about that here).The Episcopal Church has seems to have absolutely no clue at times, including on its liturgical calendar Baptist missionaries who would be horrified they are on an Episcopal liturgical calendar and non-Christians and persons with no historical veracity along with people considered exemplars of miraculous holiness by the church universal.  Debating voting for 'saints' in Lent Madness in the Episcopal Church at times seems like trying to argue physics but without quantum mechanics having been developed.  How to have a debate or a vote when there is no underlying theology?  How in God's name can we compare Frances Perkins and Martin Luther King, which was the matchup that incensed Crusty the most last year?  Crusty got a fresh perspective when sharing this matchup last year with an African American clergy colleague, who blurted out, half in shock, half with anger, "On my campus we would consider it insulting to put Dr King up against anybody for a golden halo."  Which leads to my next point...

2)  Lent Madness taps into some of the worst elements of the way the church processes things.  What should we do about anything in this world?  Have a debate which only scrapes the surface of something and then take a vote!  It works so well in General Convention, where we've solved the Israel-Palestine situation and racism and voted on the revision of ministry canons in 2003 and 2006 (arguable some of the most important legislation, which also got some of the briefest debate) with the most cursory discussion because we'd frittered away so much time elsewhere.  We, of course, never do this in Vestries, where we always engage issues of our local community in depth and come to consensus and never spend too much time debating what color to paint the parish hall.   To return to the Perkins-King matchup, a decent portion of the debate in the "church" focused around whether Perkins was more important because the New Deal "helped everyone" while Dr King and civil rights was mainly outreach to African Americans.  This is such an absurdist (if not insulting) take on things Crusty sometimes thinks Terry Gilliam would be perfect to direct "Lent Madness: the Movie." Gosh, what could go wrong when we take complex things and put them to a vote and debate them in an online forum?  This leads into my next point...

3)  Far from helping people learn more about fascinating people in the life of the church, oftentimes it ends up reducing the 'saints' to talking points for our own particular peccadillos and opinions on various matters, nothing more than images in a mirror reflecting our own personal, political, and spiritual contexts; the "new tribalism" that Crusty feared last year. Take the Philander-Merton contest from years ago.  Did anybody learn anything lasting about Chase or Merton from that?  No; because these confluences of factors - oversimplifying complex situations; reducing everything to a legislative process; and the lack of a cohesive theology of sainthood - makes it impossible.  Crusty isn't  sure if Lent Madness even does the job of getting us to know more about awesome people in the life of the church, and doesn't accomplish that at the expense of fostering a series of tangential conversations that often demean ourselves and the very issues these saints devoted their lives to.  Dr King should not be up for a
Sadly Football in the Groin was not one of his Oscar wins.
vote against anyone.  George C. Scott refused to pick up either of his Best Actor Academy Awards, in part because he thought the whole concept of actors from wildly different films competing against one another was ludicrous; COD thinks Lent Madness is equally ludicrous.

4)  Rather than learning anything about saints, we often just end up projecting ourselves and our time and values onto them.  Today, as Crusty writes, Alcuin and Ephrem of Edessa are being debated.  One person has stated he can't vote for Ephrem because of some of the anti-Jewish writings of his. As though Alcuin was a member of the Anti-Defamation League?  He was probably as anti-Jewish as anyone else in his own time, just because we don't have extant writings similar to Ephrem's doesn't somehow exonerate him.  The debates in Lent Madness at times get so pedantic Crusty rarely needs to follow the debates themselves.  Mark my words, COD bets you the Charles Wesley-John Wesley matchup with revolve around, "John was an uptight evangelical obsessed with theology and didn't Charles write some beautiful hymns so everybody vote Team Charles!"or "Charles would never has been able to write all those hymns with John being the theological force he was so vote Team John!"  In fact, most Anglican hymnals bowdlerize Charles' hymns to remove things Anglicans find suspect (just go look up "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" in any hymnal other than an Anglican one), fully shared his brother's evangelical theology and understanding of a theology of Christian perfection, and in some ways was *more* conservative than John.  But he'll win because people love singing 'Jesus Christ is Risen Today' on Easter Day, even though Charles only wrote the doxological fourth verse and the first three are an ancient Latin hymn, and nobody will know anything more about Charles and John than they did before this all started, since both were complex figures with enigmatic legacies who birthed a diverse, complex family of theological traditions.  But vote Team Charles, not uptight John, and let's throw in a few sneering Methodist jokes along the way.

COD isn't a Luddite and has consistently pushed for Christianity to use social media to engage a culture that increasingly has no clue what Christianity is.  If the whole point of Lent Madness that we use innovative ways and social media to engage the society around us in order to let an increasingly post-Christian culture know the Episcopal Church exists, and  that Christians have saints, COD wishes we could find a way that didn't demean many of the things these 'saints' represented and died for by reducing this all to talking points for online voting.  

So, I've said my peace.  Y'all go back to enjoying Lent Madness, roll your eyes at this blog post, and tell me to lighten up.  Really, I mean it, enjoy Lent Madness.  I don't like jazz, but I've got nothing against people who do.  I love show tunes but don't expect others to.  I don't like Lent Madness, but I don't impute anything about anybody who does and hope everyone has a great time.

Enjoy.  I'm good for another year.  I've got Bobby on Spotify right now.  As he once sang elsewhere,

I’d forever talk to you
But soon my words
They would turn into a meaningless ring
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring
Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you