Peter the Great, Russia, and The Church

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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
No Copyright:  This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

“We Call this Friday Good”

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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”

 



			
					

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.

A Picture Paints A Thousand Errors in Judgment

By now surely everyone in the country has heard of the confrontation between Native American veteran Nathan Phillips and a Catholic school student Nick Sandmann that occurred last weekend. While the initial news stories portrayed the younger Sandman as a hostile actor invading the space of the elderly Phillips, longer videos and additional testimony illuminate a more complicated narrative. Mr. Phillips himself seems to have initiated the contact and engaged the students in a confrontational and antagonistic manner. Some pundits have suggested that Sandmann could have done more to defuse the situation, but even so, it is clear that the teen was not the evil monster the first reports portrayed. By Monday morning, many people had apologized for erroneously condemning Sandman, but there are still a few clinging to a preferred narrative despite contradicting evidence.

Those first reactions were largely based on a still photo and very short video clip. “A picture paints a thousand words,” the old saying goes, but this picture encouraged a thousand incorrect assumptions and confirmations of bias.

For one thing, many of those who immediately condemned the student, and who now continue to justify his condemnation, are incensed by his “Make America Great Again” hat. Since he is a supporter of the President, they reason, he must be an evil person.

Likewise, Mr. Phillips is an elderly Native American, whose ancestors endured great injustice at the hands of white Europeans. As such, he is immediately an object of compassion and sympathy. Therefore, some reason, he must be a victim of the above-mentioned evil person.

But the reality is that both Phillips and Sandmann are human beings whose actual lives and motivations defy our gross generalizations and stereotypes. In his written public statement, the teen describes his confusion at the confrontation, and his idea that being still, quiet, and smiling would convey a non-aggressive and friendly attitude. As for Mr. Phillips, additional video evidence contradicts his testimony, and there are numerous questions about his previous activism and military service. Neither man can be effectively judged based on a still photo or 20-second video.

In seeking the truth about this situation, or any other, we must go beyond first appearances and prejudices. The chain of events, or history, prior to the moment in question, matter very much. In addition to history and context, we must consider the humanity of each participant. Instead of seeing them as “Trumper” and “Noble Native,” we need to understand that each man is a unique creation, made in the image of God, but also imperfect and prone to error. As such, each has the capacity to behave prudently or scandalously regardless of their ancestry or political viewpoints.

donatello,_maddalena_nella_nuova_collocazione_03[1]In pursuing truth, we often find our initial perceptions were misguided, especially those formed on the basis of appearance. In an example from the world of art, on first exposure to Donatello’s sculpture “The Penitent Magdalene,” we might recoil at the physical ugliness of the wretched woman portrayed. But the story and idea behind the sculpture is that even the most sinful and afflicted life can be redeemed by life in Christ. The Magdalene’s hands moving to prayer tell us that her ugliness is not the end of the story. It is only in pursing the history, context, and ideas behind the image that we can appreciate the truth and beauty of Donatello’s exquisite rendering.

Although this week many pundits are repenting their reactive critique of Nick Sandmann, there is little doubt there will be many future occasions in which we will be tempted to make a hasty judgment. The initial “picture” may be ugly, but over time additional information and testimony will bring a more accurate perspective and greater understanding. Perhaps we all need to exercise the somewhat lost virtues of prudence and patience while we seek the truth about any matter. This will take great self-discipline and maturity, but these virtues are essential elements in restoring civility to American public life.

Update: A reader noted that I had used the British spelling: “judgement” instead of “judgment.” I’ve corrected to the American spelling.

Eighth Day of Christmas Resolutions

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I’ve been told that New Year’s resolutions are garbage, so I’m making some Eighth Day of Christmas resolutions to pursue during the next 365 days.  Hopefully these won’t be garbage.

Among the goals regarding my spiritual life and physical health, I have resolved to return to writing on a regular basis.  For a variety of reasons, I had taken a hiatus from public writing that was supposed to be a year, but stretched into nearly four.  Now I believe it is time to begin again.

My goal has always been to tell the truth.  Unfortunately, the truth does not always make people happy, and it certainly doesn’t engender affection for the speaker.  Like most humans, I do enjoy being approved and liked, but I also suffer from a strong inclination to question popular mantras and seek underlying reality.  Deconstructing a popular mantra makes one, well, unpopular.

The challenge of course is in presenting perspectives in a way that does not alienate and which might be persuasive.  While I am certain that photo-shopped memes and personal attacks do little to persuade the persuadable, even presentation of cold data can upset readers.  This problem has accelerated in the past few years, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” many young people see themselves as fragile and interpret any intellectual challenge as a literal, physical threat.  Not only do many of them expect to be kept “safe” from diversity of opinion, they perceive challengers as “evil” individuals who must be silenced by any means.

I would suggest that even before the trend described by Lukianoff and Haidt, many of us have been guilty of over-generalizations.  If we hear certain headlines or bumper-sticker-length mantras frequently enough, we begin to accept them as facts, even the “truth.”  We may not only believe in them, we actually invest in them on both an intellectual and literal level.  Therefore, a challenge may not just interrupt a mere perception, but an entire life-path.  Hence the animosity towards those who challenge our beliefs.

But I am resolved on this Eighth Day of Christmas to try to tell the truth anyway.  Sometimes, of course, I will get it wrong, and I can only beg for grace in those inevitable circumstances.  Sometimes my readers will disagree with my assessments, and I hope they will engage in non-personal, open-minded debate of any issue on the table.  Although it may be at times with fear and trepidation, I am resolved to write about what I have learned, and what I see.  To paraphrase Thomas Merton, if a writer is too cautious to write what may be criticized, he (or she) will never write anything that can be read.

If you want to help other people, you have got to make up your mind to write things some men will condemn.
Thomas Merton

My prospective readers will no doubt criticize, but hopefully find my offerings worth reading.

May your Eighth Day of Christmas be blessed.

 

In Defense of November

 

In which I stand athwart November yelling, “Stop!”

The day after Halloween I was horrified to discover some of my social media friends announcing that it was time to start playing “Christmas” music.  Some of these friends are even putting up a tree, baking cookies, and enjoying hot chocolate.  Sure enough, on November 1st some stores began blaring the musical news that “Santa Claus is coming to town,” and rushed to deck the retail halls with boughs of imitation holly.

Bah, humbug.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not really a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  I love the season as much as anyone else.  But here I raise my Ebenezer: in order to really keep Christmas, we need November.

In the years before Halloween became a multi-billion dollar industry, November 1st was the day most Americans packed away costumes and sent the jack’ o’ lanterns to their eternal rest on the compost heap.  Some of the less-desirable candy may have lingered for a few days, but for the most part, we moved into the next season, which was not Christmas.

But it was more than “not Christmas.”  Although I grew up in central Florida, which features little, if any, seasonal change, our school teachers punctually changed the bulletin board decor on November 1st to reflect the natural beauty occurring in more northern regions.  Out were pumpkins, bats, and ghosts, and in were colorful leaves, turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans.   We learned about our history, both good and bad, and prepared to celebrate an official day of thanks-giving.

In addition to Thanksgiving celebrations, in some years November general elections bring at least a temporary reprieve from political campaigning (unless you live in Broward County, Florida), and we pause to remember our service men and women on Veteran’s or Remembrance Day.  The month seems to be filled with opportunities for reflection on less material values.

We might consider November as a kind of fast.  Although fasting has a negative connotation, it has many benefits.  Scientists have learned that fasting from food improves health, and when I’m fasting from social media and ‘screens’ I’m very productive in other ways.  Without the smart phone in hand, I experience quality time with real live humans, read good books, and think out my next article.  When we fast, or set something aside, we do not enter a void.  Rather we replace one thing with another; fasting can lead to deeper contemplation, insightful prayer, greater appreciation of nature, and cultivation of our relationships.

And when our fast is completed, our celebration is so much richer and genuine.  The Christmas celebration is for the birth of a savior.  But unless we recognize our need for a savior, perhaps through remembrance, contemplation, or metaphorical time in the wilderness, the Christ-mass is reduced to a meaningless, materialist celebration of consumption.  If you want to really understand Christmas, you need to set aside a November.

Properly observed, November allows for a more thoughtful, reflective, and thankful season; a much-needed pause between the excitement of Halloween and Christmas.  Please don’t Christmas our November; November is a rich and beautiful time of year filled with its own observances and customs.  And if we keep Christmas in its rightful place, we can truly keep Christmas in our hearts.