Peter the Great, Russia, and The Church

420px-Allegory_of_the_Victory_at_Poltava._(Apotheosis_of_Peter_I).

Although I’ve had Robert K. Massie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Peter the Great:  His Life and World” on my bookshelf for a couple of decades, I’d never gotten around to actually reading it until this year.  At 890 pages, the length may seem daunting to some readers, but Massie’s compelling narrative style and superb research make the book well worth the effort.

As a history major at the University of Central Florida years ago, I took every available class on Russian and Soviet History (all taught by the inimitable Dr. John Evans, RIP).  I found the history of the region and people fascinating; their story is complicated, sometimes beautiful, often brutal, and always intriguing.  Certainly anyone attempting to understand and analyze modern Russia and the surrounding region will be utterly lost without the essential background knowledge of this people and their unique culture.

Massie published “Peter the Great” in 1980 (and won the Pulitzer Prize in biography the following year,) so there are a vast number of fine book reviews available to potential readers.  In short, Massie wove together knowledge of Russia’s people, religion, art, architecture, literature, military strategy, and politics to create a compelling narrative of Peter Alexeyevich and his undeniable impact on Russia and the world.

Even with its pre-glasnost viewpoint “Peter the Great” provides ample fodder for discussion, and one insight on politics and religion is particularly relevant to modern Christians.  In describing Peter’s reforms of the Russian church, which included positive aspects such as clerical education, Massie suggests that subjugating the church to the state contributed to the downfall of the government and the hostile atheism embraced by the Bolsheviks and subsequent Soviet government.

Massie writes:

“In time, however, the assumption of state control over the church had an injurious effect on Russia.  Individual parishioners could seek salvation and find solace from life’s burdens in the glory of the Orthodox service and its choral liturgy, and in the warm communality of human suffering found in a church community.  But a tame church which occupied itself with private spiritual matters and failed to stand up against successive governments on behalf of Christian values in questions of social justice soon lost the allegiance of the most dynamic elements of Russian society…The church, which might have led, simply followed, and ultimately the entire religious bureaucracy established by Peter followed the imperial government over the cliff; the Holy Synod was abolished in 1918 along with all the other governing institutions of the imperial regime.  Lenin reestablished the Patriarchate, but it was a puppet Patriarchate, more controlled by the state than the Holy Synod ever was…It was the continuing passivity and servitude of the Russian church which Alexander Solzhenitsyn was regretting when he declared that the history of Russia would have been “incomparably more humane and harmonious in the last few centuries if the church had not surrendered its independence and had continued to make its voice heard among the people…”

Throughout the world, Christians continue to wrestle with their role in society and government.  In China the Vatican has agreed to let the government appoint bishops, and in the European Union churches are recognized and affirmed in some ways, but also subject to restrictions, such as those on employment and parental choices in education.  Christians in the United States are also increasingly finding conflict with government and hearing calls from within the faith to “stand down” on controversial issues.  The dilemma for some is a well-intentioned desire to focus on salvation of souls rather than engagement with prickly political issues.  And of course, there are plenty of examples of Christians who do not engage well or winsomely. But in light of the Russian example, just how efficacious and attractive is a church that has in all matters subjected itself to the state?

The same day I read the above passage from Massie, World Magazine’s daily news podcast included a segment marking the 35th anniversary of the death of Francis Schaeffer.  They played audio from a speech Schaeffer delivered in 1982, in which he warned against a complacent and silent church, and argued that even in the early church, believers practiced a dangerous civil disobedience that led to death in an arena with wild beasts.  Schaeffer argues that Christians have always “acted in the realization that if there is no place for disobeying the government, that government has been put in the place of the living God.  In such a case, the government has been made a false god.”  “Christ must be the final Lord and not society and not Caesar.”

Lessons from history, whether from the Early Church or Russia or anywhere else, can enlighten our choices for engagement. And we should be careful of the ways we define “success.”  A form of worldly success and world “peace,” may be attainable in the short-term, but what we do today may very well matter in 200 years, and will certainly matter in eternity.

 

 

Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great : His Life and World. 9th ed., New York, Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 815.

‌Photo: By Unidentified painter – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5705235
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“We Call this Friday Good”

shutterstock_757883431 Christ

I once met an associate pastor who surprised me by saying he found wearing a cross repulsive.  To be fair, he was not a seminarian, but worked in an administrative position.  He asserted that a cross was an ugly thing, a symbol of death and suffering, and he did not understand why anyone would wear something reminiscent of so much pain.

In some variations of the Christian faith, I think there’s a tendency to skip over the events of Good Friday, and the reality of the crucifixion of Jesus.  After all, to understand the meaning behind the suffering of that day, we must fully embrace the depths of our sin: not a popular pastime in a culture for which the highest values are good self-esteem and tolerance of anything and everything.

To understand the Cross, we must acknowledge that we are not “good,” and therefore not acceptable to a perfectly perfect and Holy God.  While these are not pleasant meditations, without this awareness and understanding, the Resurrection of Jesus and the Easter celebrations are meaningless and empty.

While the above-mentioned pastor was certainly correct about the original meaning of a cross, I think he had not yet fully embraced the truth that through Christ’s suffering and death, that which is ugly is made beautiful.  Not only is the symbol transformed, but also those who embrace The Cross, and the sacrifice, mystery, and overwhelming love of the one true God.

After his conversion, 20th century poet T. S. Eliot wrote many lines expressing the deeper truths of Christ’s sacrifice and what it means to embrace Christianity.  Among his powerful “Four Quartets,” is a profound passage from “East Coker” which describes the Passion of the Christ in a modern context: a wounded surgeon who will heal us, but who must first destroy our sin.  On first encountering these lines, I found them ugly and repulsive, but deeper study and meditation of their meaning has changed my mind.  They are about a truth that is both good and beautiful; they are about The Cross.

For your Good Friday meditation:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

                                                               T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets, East Coker”

 



			
					

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Asks for Record-Breaking $1.76 Billion Bond

shutterstock_1332560216 texas spending

On May 4, 2019, Texas’ third largest school district will ask voters to approve the largest school bond debt package in state history.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, located northwest of Houston, reports a student enrollment of 116,249 for 2018-19.  The district has grown significantly over the past few decades, although growth has slowed recently, with an increase of about 3,000 since the district’s last bond election in 2014.  CFISD officials predict the district will grow by another 3,000 to 4,000 students by 2025.

Earlier this year, the CFISD Board of Trustees voted unanimously to hold a new bond election requesting a record-setting $1.76 billion in new debt.  If approved, CFISD ballot language states that the funds will be used for a variety of construction and renovation projects, purchases of land and buses, as well as improvements to security infrastructure.  The CFISD website indicates that the bond package will only fund two new schools, but also a new performance center and an instructional support center.

Despite the unprecedented amount of tax-payer debt requested, there does not seem to be any organized opposition to the nearly $1.8 billion proposal.  The district seems to be promoting the bond with its taxpayer-funded website, and as with the 2014 bond election, a number of contractors, businesses, and individuals have funded a political action committee entitled “Say Yes for CFISD Kids” in order to pay for campaign materials promoting passage.  Many of the 2014 contributors are again listed on the PAC’s 2019 website, and some of those 2014 supporters were awarded ISD contracts related to the previous bond.  ICI Construction Inc. listed as a 2014 “Say Yes for CFISD Kids” PAC contributor, was awarded $16.87 million in contracts by the district just last September.

The 2014 CFISD bond set records at the time, successfully obtaining approval for $1.2 billion in new debt.  As of February 2019, the district had yet to issue $158.8 million from that package, but chief financial officer Stuart Snow indicated the district would sell the remaining amounts in the fall of 2019.

CFISD’s 2014 bond was infamous for more than breaking the billion dollar mark; the board of trustees authorized the use of controversial “rolling polling,” which significantly suppressed voter turnout and provoked state scrutiny.  During early voting, the district moved voting locations daily, creating an inconvenient and chaotic scenario for citizen participation.   Consequently only 7,266 of more than 200,000 registered voters participated in that election (with only 5,909 voting to approve.)

The controversial strategy used by both the Cypress-Fairbanks and Frisco districts prompted the Texas Legislature to outlaw so-called “rolling polling” the following year.  As bill sponsor Greg Bonnen (R-Pearland) noted in 2015, the practice could allow school districts to “essentially harvest votes.”  Bonnen stated, “That did not seem consistent with giving all the voters an equal stake in the election.”

While pro-taxpayer advocates successfully banned CFISD’s problematic election structure, state bills proposed to improve transparency and voter participation have not prevailed.  Texas school districts and other local government entities are not required to display existing outstanding debt information, including principal and interest.  There is also no ballot language requirement for displaying estimated principal and interest of the proposed bond, nor the estimated tax impact.

Even without a ballot language requirement, such information is difficult to find.  The Texas Comptroller’s “Debt At A Glance” site is woefully out of date, and only includes data from August 31, 2017.  The site does note that a portion of the district’s debt is due to capital appreciation bonds: controversial and costly non-voter-approved borrowing that was finally restricted by the state in 2015.  CFISD’s CAB debt includes a principal amount of $505,000, but a maturity amount of a staggering $6.64 million.

The Texas Bond Review Board site is a little more helpful, reporting the following for CFISD, fiscal year 2018:

Principal:  $2,517,955,000 ($2.5 billion)
Interest:  $1,338,864,254 ($1.3 billion)
Total Payment: $3,856,819,254 ($3.8 billion)

Reformers argue that any business or individual seeking loans would have such information scrutinized by lenders, but Texas does not require similar information to be provided to voters.  Nor is relevant debt data readily discoverable on the CFISD website, although the 2018-19 summary of the proposed budget does report that debt service will be more than $205 million this year alone.

Supporters of the bond have produced the usual arguments about increases in student enrollment and need for updates.  No doubt these are legitimate concerns.  But fiscal responsibility advocates note that while Texas student enrollment increased 48% between 1993 and 2015, the number of teachers increased by 56% and non-teaching staff by 66% over the same period.  Watchdog groups also note that many school districts have spent generously on upscale stadiums, performance centers, and even water parks.  (CFISD spent $84 million on the touted Berry Center stadium in 2006.)  They note that such spending increases do not correlate to improved student outcomes.  CFISD’s archives indicate Grade 3-8 reading and writing achievements have actually declined slightly since 2014, and the Texas Education Agency reports that in 2018 43% of the district’s students were performing “below grade level.”  While the bipartisan Texas House Bill 3 calls for districts to conduct third-party “efficiency audits,” CFISD is currently not obligated to provide such an efficiency-in-spending audit to the public.

While claiming need for increased spending and debt, CFISD continues to use taxpayer funds to lobby against expansion of charter schools, which often help districts absorb student growth and can be more successful in improving student outcomes, all while spending less per pupil.  CFISD also spends taxpayer money to lobby for dismantling the state’s new school accountability ratings and reducing objective student achievement measures like standardized tests.

Due to the anticipated low voter participation rates typical of May elections, along with PAC spending on promotional campaign activities, and a lack of organized opposition, CFISD’s record-setting bond is likely to pass.  As with the 2014 bond package, the district has tried to reassure voters that they will issue bonds slowly and to try to mitigate the inevitable tax rate increases.  They are also counting on rising property values and growth in the tax base to increase revenues, but there are no guarantees regarding future tax increases.  Even if the Texas Legislature comes through with currently proposed reforms, both the 2014 and 2019 bond packages give CFISD the leeway to increase taxes to pay for its ever-growing debt burden.

Find voting information for the CFISD 2019 Bond Election:

Early Voting:  April 22-30, 2019

Election Day:  May 4, 2019

 

Education Myths Hinder Learning

7 Myths                                      A Mind for Numbers

“We’ve got to drop rote memorization and teach critical thinking!”

How often we hear the above sentiment or some variation thereof.  Unfortunately this popular anti-memorization cliché is one of several education myths that may actually prevent the kind of critical thinking educators claim they want to teach.

In her book, Seven Myths About Education, UK educator Daisy Christodoulou analyzes several destructive trends in modern schooling, many of which are related to an antipathy to memorization and core knowledge.  She provides examples of how myths like “facts prevent understanding,” or “you can always just look it up” permeate schools in both the U.S. and the U.K.

But contrary to popular belief, these so-called new ideas for “21st Century” education are actually rehashed, re-packaged educational theory from the 18th and 19th centuries, including theory from the problematic architect of the American public school system, John DeweyDewey although often vague, essentially set up a false dichotomy in which facts and knowledge (bad) are diametrically opposed to critical thinking (good).  He also promoted the idea that students should learn transferable skills instead of knowledge.  Applying Deweyan ideas, some modern curricula have literally called for “lessons in walking, digging and planting wheat” to replace rote learning in traditional academics. *

While digging and planting wheat may certainly be valuable skills, (and one hopes walking skills can still be acquired sans government-approved curricula,) memorization of traditional academic knowledge is not only not antithetical to so-called critical thinking, it is essential to it.

In her book, “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science,” Professor Barbara Oakley uses neuroscience to explain the role of rote memorization.  With few exceptions, the working memory can only juggle about 4 pieces of information at a time, but sufficient information stored in the long-term memory supplements the thinking process and allows for greater flexibility and understanding of new information.  Rote memorization is the process by which we put necessary background information into the long-term memory, and which consequently allows for more advanced processes in the working memory.  Without those background facts, students are unequipped for higher level thinking.  And as for the myth that students can just “look up” missing information, to borrow another but better supported cliché, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Christodoulou and Oakley both emphasize that more lessons from neuroscience need to be applied to improving education.  Unfortunately, as Christodoulou notes, modern pedagogy seems more heavily reliant on unproven (and sometimes disproven) social theory.  She includes this ominous quote from Nobel Prize-winning researcher Herbert Simon:

New ‘theories’ of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common-sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support.

By contrast, Dr. Oakley offers scientifically proven techniques for improving learning and memorization, such as the “memory palace,” mnemonic strategy, or just taking old-fashioned hand-written notes.    While neither Christodoulou nor Oakley eschews technology, both authors recognize that technological devices are mere tools that offer limited value, and may actually interfere with learning.  Recent studies indicate that reading on electronic devices not only reduces comprehension, but may reduce the brain’s ability to read, and might negatively impact learning as early as the toddler years.  Apparently unaware of these studies, many K-12 educators have been positively giddy about providing E-devices to “teach technology” for the “21st Century.”  Meanwhile, a growing number of professors and enlightened teachers have banned laptops,  tablets, and smartphones from their classrooms due to reduced achievement and the constant distraction such devices seem to create.

Parents exploring their educational options would benefit from reading both Seven Myths About Education and A Mind for Numbers before choosing a school.  School leaders who understand the difference between education myths and proven scientific studies on learning can make a significant difference in student success.  Ironically, classical education, which rejects edu-fads in favor of the ancient trivium of learning, correlates with what the latest neuroscience suggests.  The classical model provides younger students with various techniques to memorize facts about math, history, culture, geography, science, etc.  In the middle school years students learn about and begin to apply logic to the knowledge they’ve stored.  Finally, in high school, or the “rhetoric stage,” they engage in discussion and analysis.  That latter rhetoric stage is where critical thinking can really take place, but it would not be possible without the core knowledge students stored in long-term memory during the first two stages.

In evaluating educational models, parents, educators, and legislators should reject the misguided myths outlined by Christodoulou.  The truth is that the 21st century did not “change everything.”  We may have new tools at our disposal, but neuroscience shows that the human brain hasn’t morphed into some new unknown creature.  Memorization and practice are still essential elements of learning and prepare students for the kind of higher level thinking we all claim to value.

 

 

*Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education (New York:  Routledge 2014), 17.

Following Christ: Lessons from Japan

Silence and Beauty

In his book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, artist Makoto Fujimura explains that the Japanese ideogram for “beauty” is a combination of two other symbols: one representing a sacrificial “sheep” and the other meaning “great.”  This concept of beauty as “great sacrifice” not only brings insight into Japanese culture, but can also deepen our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

Fujimura’s book is a wide-ranging reflection on Japanese culture, history, and art, and is based on another book, Silence by Shūsaku Endō.  Originally published in 1966 in Japanese, Silence is becoming recognized throughout the world as a “great book,” a work of literature that conveys timeless truth.  Fujimura’s exploration can further assist readers in understanding the meaning of Silence, Japanese culture, and how the story of the Japanese Christians might provide an antidote to more worldly versions of Christianity.

Silence is historical fiction based on real missionaries who followed the Biblical command to spread the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” as Japan seemed to the Europeans.  These efforts to teach Japanese about God sending his son to atone for human sin were initially successful in a culture that had already connected beauty with sacrifice. But 17th century Japanese authorities instituted a harsh and effective persecution that forced even the most dedicated believers to publicly renounce faith.  This public renunciation required Christian leaders to trample on “fumi-e,” images of Christ or the Virgin.

Fumi-e
A Fumi-e

Convicted Christians, if not martyred, were required to trample on fumi-e not just once, but at the onset of each year. The missionary priests were not permitted to leave Japan, but kept under house arrest and frequently paraded to the people as examples of the failure of Christianity.

A number of American Christians who’ve read Silence have described it as dark and depressing, and have condemned the fictional character Father Rodrigues as a failed witness.  But while the book is certainly haunting, Fujimura helps readers to see that Rodrigues is much more like the Apostle Peter, and perhaps even more like Christ than we first perceive.  In the modernized, Western church, we prefer more comfortable versions of Christianity.  Some adhere to a politically correct and respectable church that stays relevant by keeping up with cultural trends and progressive values.  Others overtly or subtly embrace forms of prosperity gospel, in which the right prayers and behavior lead to material and social success. We boast of faith heroes like Billy Graham, who led many to Christ and was popular, well-loved, and respected.

In contrast, Father Rodrigues, loses everything.   Despite his prayers, God remains silent and does not spare Rodrigues from suffering.  Like the Apostle Peter, Rodrigues denies Christ at the crucial moment.  He becomes a despised apostate of the church and a target of ridicule for the Japanese.  Even the children taunt and throw rocks at him.  And yet, in a completely broken and disgraced way, he retains his faith and nurtures the faith of others.

As Fujimura explains in Silence and Beauty:

“By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace…” (p. 147)

Fujimura asserts that Rodrigues only then really sets aside his former identity.  He is no longer a Portuguese priest, but one of the broken and oppressed Japanese.  (The authorities even require him to assume the name of a dead Japanese man and become husband to the dead man’s wife.)  Rodrigues truly becomes one of the people he came to serve, and shares in their lives, sufferings, and temptations.  Rather than attaining worldly glory,

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”  (Isaiah 53:3. ESV)

While Rodrigues and the Japanese Christians appear to have failed by worldly standards, the final pages of Silence indicate that Christian faith inexplicably survived in Japan, both for Rodrigues and for a covert group of hidden Christians. In fact, groups of Kakure Kirishitan, or “Hiding Christians,” were rediscovered by priests visiting Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.  (p. 44)

Perhaps many modern American Christians do not understand Silence due to cultural and historical differences.  Sometimes American Christians are like those who greeted Jesus by waving palms and cheering at his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, but who misunderstood his mission. They expected an earthly kingdom resplendent with glory and prosperity.  But when the events of Good Friday came, they scattered and turned away.  It is fitting that in the traditional Ash Wednesday observances, which emphasize confession and repentance, the ashes consist of burned palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.  How appropriate to repent of those misguided Palm Sunday ambitions before entering the season that will include remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross. As Americans, we would rather ignore Good Friday in favor of Easter, but Endō’s story presents a stark reminder of the role and reality of earthly suffering.

As Fujimura explains:

“Show me my cross” may be a statement that every Christian needs to say to the world.  In chapter 16 of the Gospel of Matthew, Christ warns his followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV).  For each follower to “carry his own cross” means to expect persecution, betrayals and exile from the world.  The values of the “world” conflict with the key message of Christianity. (p. 46)

In Silence and Beauty, Fujimura helps us to further “translate” the lessons of Silence.   He helps us to understand Endō’s message that God does speak in what seem to be silent times, places, and cultures, but we must be ready to accept that what God values is often in sharp contrast with what the world values.  Living out a Christian faith requires taking up our own crosses, but suffering and sacrifice are essential to God’s beautiful plan for our sanctification and eternal joy.   In this we have hope.

 

Postscript:  While I am not typically a fan of “abstract” art, I have fallen in love with Makoto Fujimura’s paintings.  There’s a lovely, short video about his work at his website, as well as more information about him, his work, and his faith.  He’s also launched Fujimura Institute, which “spearheads broad initiatives that integrate art, faith, and beauty.”   

Fumi-e Image credit:  This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_on_cross_to_step_on.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.