Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Heroic and irreplaceable journalists die

Within one week the world has lost three of its best, in the line of duty. Today, the revered American journalist Marie Colvin, working for The Times of London, was killed in Homs, Syria, along with the prize-winning photographer Remi Ochlik. Less than a week ago, the journalistic community mourned Antony Shadid, the Lebanese-American who suffered a fatal asthmatic attack brought on by allergies to the horses that transported him and Tyler Hicks, the famous New York Times photographer, after they secretly crossed through barbed wire into forbidden Syria.

Antony Shadid, a Lebanese-American, was, by all accounts, one of a kind. He was fluent in Arabic, deeply immersed in the culture of the Middle East, and a writer with an almost poetic gift. Many said, at the time of his death, that he understood the nuances of Arabic life better than any other English-language journalist now writing. He was young, only 43, and left a wife and two young children. At his memorial service in Beirut, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, recalled Mr. Shadid’s words: “He wrote something that is incredibly moving and true. He wrote: ‘No one really knows the script for days like these, and neither did we.’”

Mr. Ochlik, in his late 20s, had covered wars and upheaval in Haiti, Congo and the Middle East, and had won one of the most coveted awards for photography. His colleagues explained that he was uniquely able to tell stories with his photographs. Ms. Colvin, 55, was a veteran of many conflicts from the Middle East to Chechnya and from the Balkans to Iraq and Sri Lanka, where she lost an eye covering a civil war. She wore a distinctive black eyepatch. She also had won many awards for her work. She did not like being called a "war correspondent," insisting that what she was interested in was the human story.

Jon Snow, an anchor for Channel 4 News in Britain, which interviewed Ms. Colvin from Homs on Tuesday evening, called her “the most courageous journalist I ever knew and a wonderful reporter and writer.” She was also interviewed by the BBC, recounting how she had watched a child die in Homs. “ I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific, just a 2-year-old,” she said.
Karl Barth regularly included journalists in his prayers. The best of them are not muck-rakers, but truth-seekers. I belong to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a world-wide organization of reporters (and their supporters) who work hard to defend their colleagues--but their best, as we learned again this week, was not enough for three of their most luminous stars.

For more on this subject, see the recent column by the estimable reporter Clyde Haberman:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Human nature: should we be optimistic?

A recent book called The Better Angels of Our Nature (borrowing Lincoln's phrase) argues that there has been a significant reduction, over centuries, in violent deaths, and that we can take heart from this trend. This optimistic view has been predictably controversial. Without going into details, I would argue in response that societies can indeed be changed for the better, and we should strive for that, but human nature remains the same.

There has been a good deal of protest in recent years about the widespread appropriation of something that Anne Frank wrote in her diary: "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." That one line has been lifted out of its far more ambiguous context and made into a slogan. Many critics, Jews especially, have mordantly observed that she would not have written that from the camp where she died, but in any case, it sounds quite different in its original context.

I was struck by an interview in the NYTimes today, with the Polish director Agnieska Holland. Her new movie, In Darkness, has received excellent reviews and is nominated for Best Foreign Film. Its plot concerns a Polish sewer worker and part-time thief who takes it upon himself to hide Jews in the sewer during the Nazi era.

She was asked why she had decided to do another Holocaust movie (after Europa Europa), having sworn off the theme, but she changed her mind. This is what she says about her decision to do it again:

"The main character, this Polish guy, was ambiguous, both hero and nonhero. What was interesting was not the mystery that people can be terrible. Humanity has a tendency to be terrible. What intrigues me is that in those circumstances [the extremity of life in Poland under Nazi occupation] somebody acts in a good way who doesn't have deep reasons to do so." (emphasis added)

That is precisely what the biblical story teaches us. (The late great George Kennan was drawn, late in life, to Christianity because of its dark view of unredeemed human nature.) The deeper question is not "Why is there evil?" but "Why is there good?" Optimism about human nature is a dead end. Our undying hope is in the nature of our God, who has "created [us] in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York City has a cardinal again

What I am getting ready to say has nothing to do with sexual abuse, sex scandal cover-ups, or financial incompetence and/or corruption, all of them grave issues which the Roman Catholic Church has in plenty. This is about something more intangible—call it charisma, magnetism, joy, soul, inspiration. John Cardinal O’Connor (yes, I am using the old form) had these qualities in spades, and it was wonderful to be a New Yorker when he was around. His famous friendship with the Jewish mayor Ed Koch didn’t hurt, either—Koch even wrote an attractive biography of O’Connor.

Then we got Edward Cardinal Egan, a certified cover-upper and Vatican insider, who, although he managed to show up in Bill Cunningham’s Evening Hours feature in the New York Times on a regular basis, registered zero on the personality scale. His was an oppressive presence. I don’t remember him shining a single ray of light on the city in his decade as cardinal, although no doubt he got its financial house in better shape by doing something O’Connor could not bear to do—closing parish churches and schools. (Egan's most egregious recent action was to retract the apology he once made concerning the sexual abuse scandals.)

Today, even the ever-vigilant anti-Catholic (at least it seems that way to me) New York Times is back on track with New York City’s new cardinal, Timothy M. Dolan. As in days of yore when John Paul II made his first visit, the reporters seem smitten, even though Dolan's elevation in Rome this week is smack in the middle of the contraception controversy, a cause with which one can safely assume the journalists have no sympathy whatever. Read this wonderful account of his welcome to the group of reporters traveling with him:

A friend of mine who, like me, is Protestant and Reformed to the core, once asked me if I could ever be a Catholic. I said, well, if there was no other choice I would have to be, but it would be very difficult. He agreed. But it is not at all difficult to admire and appreciate—and pray for—the Roman Catholic Church sub specie aeternitatis. It will be a joy and a blessing to see Timothy Cardinal Dolan in his red hat. Let us pray that he will not mess up. He certainly is a powerful presence for Christ on the current scene.

Another friend, from one of the breakaway “Anglican” churches in the US, spoke movingly a few days ago of his wistful longing for the Anglican Communion to be like the Roman Catholic Church with its capacity to hold together in spite of painful and even fundamental divisions. There is a cost to being monolithic, of course, but for those of us who used to think of the worldwide Anglican Communion as the best alternative to the Roman church, today’s situation is heartbreaking to behold.

On a related subject, it is annoying to see the born-and-raised-Catholic Maureen Dowd, in this same issue of the Times, engaging in one of her frequent rants against her own church. She never misses an opportunity to say something snarky on the subject. I used to love her work, years ago, and wrote her a couple of fan letters, but she has become intolerable in more recent years. She seems to delight in making Catholic-bashing a favorite journalistic sport.

Here's another fun article about the new cardinal (my mother would disown me if she saw me using "fun" as an adjective!):

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A plea on behalf of the King James Version

There have been a great many articles about the King James Version of the Bible during and since last year's 400th anniversary, but to my mind none more eloquent and convincing that the one by Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian (!) Literature at Stanford, which appears in the Feb. 9 issue of The New York Review of Books. (You can't read the whole article unless you subscribe, so I will append a few excerpts.)

I suppose it is no use trying to persuade anyone--even St Thomas Fifth Avenue seems to have given up consistent reading from the KJV--but it is important to note that so many of the eminent thinkers and literary critics who have lamented its passing have appealed not only to the aesthetic quality of the great translation but also, and even more important, to its role in shaping our American culture at its strongest points. Prof. Harrison does a particularly good job of presenting this argument. He says, for example, that the "style of the King James Bible, which resonates so deeply in Martin Luther King's most distinctive speeches, conveys in its linguistic texture values and sensibilities that have permeated America's sense of its moral and spiritual identity." He quotes Robert Alter, writing in Pen of Iron, who observes that Cormac McCarthy, in The Road [not incidentally, one of my most favored books] "draws on the structures and something of the diction of the KJV to forge without pathos a reality whose harshness beggars the imagination." Harrison continues, "Yet [The Road] also draws on those same sources to envision restoration and renewal." [This is also true of McCarthy's lesser novel No Country for Old Men.]

As a preacher I have special interest in the shaping of sentences for maximum impact, and Prof. Harrison has a lot to say about this. For example, "...[the King James Bible] ends most of its verses with emphatic metrical stresses or resounding words..." I have struggled to impart some of this to students of preaching, but with limited success because most of them have never heard sentences like the ones Harrison is describing. He illustrates with verses chosen "more or less at random" from God's address to Job in chapters 38-39 [almost any verses from those chapters will do] and then comments,

Compared to the strong lineaments of verses such as these, most [writing] in English today shows precious little [strength] in its phrasing. Some of the factors that have contributed to the drastic decline of the art of bringing phrases to closure are clear enough. They include... our dogmatic insistence on open-endedness and the bland tones of everyday language; our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display; our aversion to affirmation and our cult of the whisper.

I have added italics for emphasis. I feel certain that these particular ailments have had a noticeably deleterious effect on preaching in our time, and I see little hope of that changing unless someone decides on a massive infusion of reading from the King James (and The Pilgrim's Progress is another source for learning powerfully constructed sentences--not to mention Thomas Cranmer's Prayer Book).

Harrison continues:

[Robert] Alter declares that all the subsequent, more “accessible” English translations “happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects.” Coming from someone who has published highly acclaimed new translations of many books of the Hebrew scriptures...that statement says quite a lot.

And I will just quote one more paragraph:

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became part of America’s sacred scripture because the sonority of its words, the dignity of its diction, and the cadences of its sentences reprised and incorporated the rhythms and tones of the King James Bible. Lincoln’s deliberately archaic opening phrase—”Four score and seven years ago”—in its echo of the King James Bible’s “three score and ten,” gives a rhetorical weight to the span of time that had elapsed between the Republic’s founding and its Civil War, in a way that “Eighty-seven years ago” could not have conveyed. Likewise his closing phrase, “shall not perish from the earth,” with its echoes of Job, Jeremiah, and Micah, confers on the sacrifice of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg a moral elevation that their cause, in the American psyche of the time, could not have derived from any other source.

The essay continues with an astonishing assessment of the way St. Paul uses language. Indeed, what Harrison writes about I Cor. 1 is extraordinary coming from someone who, as far as I know, has had no theological training. If this analysis is any guide, Harrison understands Paul a lot better than many who have had such training.

It is my hope that these few reflections and quotations from a remarkably impassioned and well-argued essay will persuade at least a few to rethink our wholesale abandonment of the King James Bible.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The English language at prayer

I went to an evening service recently which was conducted entirely according to Rite One (Thomas Cranmer's prayer book, or a presentable version thereof). However, the cumulative effect of the great cadences was marred by the Scripture readings from the wooden NRSV and other modern translations which I did not recognize. This sort of mixing and mingling seems mistaken to me. If we are going to have a (rare) service from Rite One, it should be all in one register. (Especially in this 400th year of the KJV! OK, OK, the 401st--)

Yesterday, St Thomas Fifth Avenue offered a Requiem for Gerre Hancock, beloved former organist and choirmaster who died recently. As one expects from St Thomas, the readings and the liturgy were all in one register. I was not there, but I read the order of service online. There were many edifying selections, but for me the best of all was this prayer by one of the greatest masters of the English language ever to live, John Donne:

AT THE OFFERTORY, ANTHEM William H. Harris (1888-1973)

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.
John Donne

Some two hundred-odd years after Donne, some nameless lowly slave on the other side of the ocean took hold of the same language and, in a very much plainer but in its way equally powerful fashion put it to work to evoke the same hope and the same faith:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Deep river, my heart is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
To that promised land where all is peace?
African-American Spiritual

Thus was Gerre Hancock laid to rest with the riches of some of the best music and best words to be found anywhere. What a blessing.