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Posts Tagged 'Journalism'

Christ is born! Glorify him!

nativity.jpgAnd it came to pass that Mary was enrolled with Joseph the old man in Bethlehem, since she was of the seed of David, and was great with the Lamb without seed. And when the time for delivery drew near, and they had no place in the village, the cave did appear to the Queen as a delightful palace. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.(Troparion from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Byzantine rite)

A child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder; and his name will be called, the Angel of great counsel.

(Introit of the third Mass of Christmas Day, Roman rite)

Expect the media to bring up the usual historical “problems” with the Nativity account, according to Fr. Stephen Freeman, and don’t fret about it:

Literalism is a false means of interpretation (hermenuetic) and is a vain attempt to democratize the Holy writings. If they can be read on a literal level, then everyone has equal access to them and everybody has equal authority to interpret them. […] the seasons come and go and the media cannot resist speaking of what they do not know. And so they ask those who do not know to speak on their behalf. But if we would know Christ and the wonder of His incarnation, then we would do well to listen to those who have been appointed to speak and to hear them in the context given to us for listening – the liturgical life of the Church.

photo-6.jpgIn other news, blogging has been light the last couple of days because we’ve been madly scanning and shelving books. The Delicious Library and LibraryThing system has been fantastic, but most definitely less than perfect. One annoying thing is that even if Library of Congress data exists for a book, LibraryThing won’t always find it, requiring you to find it yourself on the Library of Congress website and enter it manually. For books that don’t have LC numbers, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do; is there a way that one can divine what the number will eventually be?

What’s also frustrating is that LibraryThing is in theory able to identify new ISBNs when a list is uploaded and add only those, and it does this successfully in most cases, but there are somewhere around ten books that are always duplicated when I add a new list. This afternoon I eliminated somewhere around fifty dupes, in some cases there being seven entries for one book.

Another issue: I’ve entered 718 books into Delicious (representing probably roughly half of what we have), and I’ve exported the catalog to LibraryThing on a fairly regular basis. This afternoon, LibraryThing showed 756 books; after eliminating the duplicates, I’m down to 702 in LibraryThing with 8 ISBNs it can’t find (European books, I think). That means there are eight books Delicious is listing in its catalog that for some reason LibraryThing isn’t picking up.

Nonetheless, we’ve been able to accomplish in a weekend what would have surely taken us a month on our own, and that’s most certainly worth it.

Finally–any other Leopard users out there finding that with the latest update, searching for files within the File Upload dialog appears to be broken?

Merry Christmas to all!

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U. S. News and World Report on a return to the old stuff

With a tip of the hat to the good folks over at Get Religion, I give you an article in U. S. News and World Report by Jay Tolson entitled “A Return to Tradition: A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths.”

Go ahead and take a moment to read it—it won’t take long. On a personal note, not to mention in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met Roger Finke; his daughter and son-in-law are my godchildren, and his son and daughter-in-law are also dear friends. As converts to Orthodox Christianity, they themselves are part of this “return to tradition” of which the article speaks. (EDIT: the referents of “they” are Dr. Finke’s son, daughter, and in-laws; Dr. Finke himself is LCMS, not Orthodox.)

A few broad observations: it appears to be an article of faith for the mainstream media that Pope Benedict XVI’s liberalization of the traditional rite will ultimately have little to no effect, and certainly won’t catch on terribly well—it just means that a handful of old folks can now go back to saying their rosaries on their own while the ad orientem priest mumbles in Latin and a smaller handful of young militants can pretend to insert themselves into a tradition which was never theirs in the first place. This is not, of course, what Tolson says in so many words, but it certainly seems important to him to make sure to include a quote from somebody downplaying the significance of Benedict’s move.

Along the same lines, does the “return to tradition” mean a break from the “religious service provider” mentality, according to Tolson? Of course not. Tolson provides a quote from Finke that makes it very explicit that the cafeteria is by no means closed; it’s just that perhaps some people are trying to add a sit-down restaurant option for those who want it: “It’s a structured life, but it’s a structure they are seeking and not simply submitting to authority.” An earlier quote from IUPUI sociologist Sister Patricia Wittberg underscores this: “I think the future is with a group that is interested in reviving the old stuff and traditions in a creative way.” In other words, what we’re talking about is a group of people who are interested in tradition, but on their own terms. It’s less the received tradition and more the cherry-picked tradition; tradition-as-trapping rather than Tradition-as-authority.

In the interests of fairness, there is a fundamental conundrum that, some would argue, ensures that anybody who embraces a more traditional expression of Christianity is going to be engaging in a range of cherry-picking, cafeteria-esque behavior. “There’s nothing more un-Orthodox,” I’ve heard various people claim, “then intentionally converting to Orthodoxy.” In other words, if you’re converting to a faith in which you were not raised, you’re already cherry-picking; you’re already intentionally grafting yourself onto something else rather than accepting whatever tradition you received growing up. You’re asserting yourself onto an organic entity in such a way that ensures you will never be part of it. You’ve already chosen what it is you’re willing to submit to, and since you’ve already presumably left something else at least once, you’re tacitly reserving the right to do so again. It’s healthy, so the argument goes, to acknowledge that we’re all cafeteria believers of one form or another, and that there’s no other way you can be in this country, where religion is just another part of the marketplace of ideas.

I suppose to some extent this is true; I will say that for myself and people I know who have converted to either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism (or even people raised in either communion who have made a conscious choice to more fully “own” their faith), there is always a struggle to figure out how to live life more fully within the faith but also with an awareness of the reality of the world. That’s the struggle of any Christian at any point in history, really. As G. K. Chesterton might have put it, the struggle doesn’t invalidate the conversion any more than the rain invalidated the ark.

Finally—the following point is worth noting, as much as for how Tolson says it as what he says:

Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.

First of all, this assumes that there is a divide between belief and practice. This may very well be the case, but it’s a divide which would have been quite foreign to the early Christians, who were very aware that how one prayed and worshipped impacted how they believed. (Google Lex orandi, lex credendi if you don’t believe me.) As an Episcopalian praying the Rite II Eucharist Sunday in, Sunday out, in allowing myself to actually pray the liturgy, I was occasionally confronted by something in the text, and I realized that in order to keep praying it, I had to decide if I actually believed it or not. Did I actually believe the words of the Nicene Creed? Did I actually believe I was receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Did I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? And so on. The more I decided that yes, I actually believed what I was praying, ironically enough, the less tenable of a position it seemed to remain an Episcopalian.

Liturgical practice is at once both the expression and the teaching of the faith held by the community; someone actively engaging it and praying it will of course find what they believe being influenced by it. That is the whole point, and it is a point easily lost on people who think that worship is all about style, taste, and aesthetic preference.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible” (updated)

reportcard.jpgSo, the good news is that for all of my handwringing about Greek this semester, it wound up being more of a bright spot on my transcript than I would have thought. It’s still a variety of “B” rather than a variety of “A”, but it’s a better variety than I figured possible, and it’s certainly not a variety of “C”. I’m still probably going to try to sit in on third semester Greek again next fall as a refresher (since, because of scheduling issues, I can’t take the fourth semester until next year), but the unmitigated disaster I was convinced was inevitable on Wednesday afternoon appears to have been nonetheless avoided.

unchristmas.gifThere’s an article in the Associated Press about Protestants who don’t celebrate Christmas (hat tip: Dr. Philip Blosser), and it provides an interesting overview of the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States. In a nutshell, Protestant America was at best uncomfortable with and at worst hostile towards Christmas until the 19th century, when it shifted towards being more of a secular, family holiday and less of a religious observance associated with Catholics. In other words, it was largely because it took on commercial aspects (at least according to this piece) that its liturgical trappings were tolerated. Still, despite this “domestication,” certain Protestant groups retain the objection into our own time:

Christians like the United Church of God reject the holiday [because they] say divine instruction, rather than culture and society, should determine whether the holiday is appropriate.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible,” said Clyde Kilough, president of the United Church of God, which has branches all over the world. “The theological question is quite simple: Is it acceptable to God for humans to choose to worship him by adopting paganism’s most popular celebrations and calling them Christian?”

I have to say, there’s a part of me that has absolutely no problem with this attitude. What reason do Christians who reject the liturgical calendar as a whole have to keep Christmas as an observance? Aren’t they trying to have it both ways? Here’s the follow-up question, though—do these same groups reject Easter? If not, why not? It seems to me they’d have to, to stay consistent.

Here’s what is, for me, the money quote:

[T]he mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

Christmas benefited from a 19th century “domestication of religion,” said University of Texas history professor Penne Restad, in which faith and family were intertwined in a complementary set of values and beliefs.

Christmas became acceptable as a family-centered holiday, Restad said, once it lost its overtly religious significance.

At the same time, aspects of the holiday like decorated trees and gift-giving became status symbols for an aspirant middle class. When Christmas began its march toward dominance among holidays, it was because of a change in the culture, not theology.

“In America, the saying is that the minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister,” Restad said. “This was more of a sociological change than a religious one. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church (emphasis mine).”

The minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church. That’s a mouthful, folks, and one that strikes me as bearing some real consideration.

All that said, I have to say I’d love for the guys at Get Religion to offer their thoughts on this story; I’m sure there’s a lot here I’m missing.

UPDATE: Fr. Stephen Freeman has some words which are directly applicable to the matter at hand:

…[T]radition is not only normal – it is inevitable… We cannot, without great violence, declare that there will be no traditions. This has been sought through the centuries by various iconoclast regimes (Puritans come to mind the easiest). But they never completely succeed. Today, the descendants of Puritans will seek Christmas trees whether they believe in God or not. The tradition is stronger even than the belief. But the tradition wasn’t given in order to destroy the belief, but to live it out.

“…prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents”

Darrell Bock at Christianity Today posted an article today entitled, When the Media Became a Nuisance: How to respond to the next blockbuster book/documentary/movie that questions traditional Christianity. He makes points similar to mine about the Gospel of Judas fiasco, essentially saying that commercial media and serious scholarship don’t mix terribly well—but also saying we need to get used to it and adapt:

We need to understand that public discussion of the Christian faith has changed—permanently. So the next time you hear an earth-shattering announcement about Jesus from the media, don’t get angry. Rather, take three deep breaths, sit down with your Starbucks coffee, and watch how the announcement is treated on blogs and other media. Above all, prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents.

One of the main opportunities he posits, and I wholeheartedly agree with this, is the opportunity for Christians to really educate ourselves about our history and our origins. If someone comes up to us and starts talking about the Gospel of Judas and we’re able to tell them about how St. Ireneaus of Lyons was arguing against this document back in the late second century, and then explain who St. Ireneaus was and who the Cainites were and why we care about what St. Irenaeus had to say about them, that’s going to be a much more powerful answer to somebody than just, “Well, that’s not what my Bible says so it has to be wrong.”

And make no mistake—we’ve got to know our stuff better than the people who want their name on the next Newsweek cover story, and that’s true at every level. I have to know, for example, what Nestorius said better than somebody who would claim that Nestorius was simply persecuted by the institutional church (and I don’t—this is why I’m going to grad school). If I don’t, I’m gonna get my lunch eaten, and it’s going to be a poor witness for the faith. (Maybe not as bad as claiming that nothing predates Christianity, but still not good.) I’m sure we all know people by this point who think that the Council of Nicea decided on what counted as Scripture by taking a vote and burning everything that didn’t make the cut; we’ve got to be able to answer that, clearly, authoritatively, and lovingly, in a post-Da Vinci Code world.

Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan are on speed-dial for anybody in the media covering stories like this. It’s not that there aren’t necessarily good reasons for this; there is good scholarship that has come out of all of them—the problem is balance. If we can actually take advantage of the opportunity to engage people and interest them in real Christian history and not the Enquirer version, if we can get them interested in J. N. D. Kelly’s or Jaroslav Pelikan’s version rather than Dan Brown’s, then maybe eventually Susan Ashbrook Harvey or Fr. John Behr or Dn. John Chryssavgis can get on the “to call” list as well—but we have to educate ourselves. Ignorance won’t give us credibility. We have to engage from an informed stance.

The Gospel of Judas and the need for languages

I’m late to this party, but Prof. April DeConick of Rice University has gotten a decent amount of attention lately with her critique of last year’s National Geographic story on the Gospel of Judas. Mollie over at GetReligion has some interesting things to say about the warning journalists should take from this:

When going for a scoop, reporters risk sacrificing the quality of their work. This revelation about the allegedly shoddy work of National Geographic couldn’t get a fraction of the publicity of the original story, which is why we should be careful the first time around.

It seems to me that there are a couple of important things underscored here for academic wannabes like me, too. First off, it strikes me that the popular media is a questionable initial venue for scholarship, and the central reason is that the aims are different. The goal of an academic book or journal is to disseminate research; the goal of a popular publication is to make money. Along the same lines, exclusivity, a hallmark of commercial publishing, appears to work at cross-purposes to peer review, a necessity of academic publishing. To this end, signing non-disclosure agreements preventing peer review and publishing photos of a manuscript just large enough to prove you have it but not large enough to be useful for other scholars in verifying claims is, to put it charitably, not exactly best-practice scholarship.

Something else this communicates to somebody like me—and doubtless this will be a point so obvious to somebody who’s been in grad school for any length of time, me saying it is going to be like a three year old proudly shouting, “I’ve discovered one and one make two!”—is the importance of knowing the languages for your primary sources. If you don’t know know the language well enough to not only translate a text but to be able to discern where colleagues may have made errors, you’ve got work to do, and the published translations of other people are no substitute for putting in the work yourself. As Dr. DeConick says here, acknowledging that Coptic is not as accessible a language to New Testament scholars as Hebrew: “Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.”

An object lesson from my own past brings both of these points together. A couple of years ago, when I was first coming to the conclusion that I’d make a better scholar than an opera singer, I saw a call for papers for a graduate student conference which was going to be relatively nearby. The theme looked interesting; I brainstormed some ideas, did some preliminary research, wrote an abstract, and submitted it. Lo! and behold, they accepted it, and now I had to actually write the paper.

First of all, I’ll point out the obvious mistake: I submitted an abstract for a paper which I had not yet written. I’ve since been counseled that, in practice, this is a horrible way to go. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, I’m told, but it’s a bad idea.

The two real problems, however, were that I had to rely exclusively on translations from Welsh, Latin, Greek, and God only knows what else, rather than being able to look at those texts for myself, and that one of my main sources was a popular book rather than an academic work. I didn’t realize the importance of the former, and I had no idea at the time that there was any real distinction regarding the latter. In other words, what I did would probably have been okay for an undergraduate, at least in some classes, but it was not acceptable by any means for somebody trying to present what they do as graduate-level research, and I have no doubt it made me look bad to people too kind to tell me so. I still have a hunch that some of the things I noticed in that paper might be valid, but until I’m able to read Welsh (since now I can at least muddle through Greek and Latin), I don’t feel qualified to talk about the texts. Not only that, but until I can independently verify the claims made in the popular work I used through my own examination of the sources involved, I’m not going to use those arguments (which is part of why I’m not talking at all about the topic of the paper itself).

By contrast, I wrote a paper a few months ago that deals with sources in Greek and Syriac. I was able to successfully avoid using popular books as sources, but I had to deal with the Syriac text in translation, which the professor said was all right, but having learned my lesson with the other paper, I agreed that the paper wasn’t going to be used for anything outside of the classroom until such time as I could at least verify that textual arguments I made based on the translation weren’t rendered specious by the actual Syriac text. Spot-checks like that are within my reach at this point (as long as I have Jessie Payne-Smith by my side), so I’m going to submit the paper to a conference.

The moral: Learn Coptic. And Greek. And Latin. And Syriac. Maybe Ge’ez, too, and Arabic and Armenian and Welsh and Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Is it a lot of work? Sheesh. Um, yeah. On the other hand, as my dad used to say, the cheapest way to do anything is to do it right the first time. The overhead you think you’re saving by going with a translation won’t actually be a benefit if you’re relying on the efforts of people who have signed non-disclosure agreements and who are rushing to meet a deadline.


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