Friday, November 15, 2013

A haiku for running

No earbuds for me
Heart and feet thump against city
cadence for my prayers

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ladder for Booker T. Washington

I have seen the Martin Puryear sculpture "Ladder for Booker T. Washington" several times at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, even spent a good deal of time contemplating the piece when I visited the museum with my infant son while my wife attended a professional conference.

In a recent post contemplating the contradicitons of southern black folk art, Roger Reeves elucidates the meaning of this piece in striking relief. I am especially taken by the line he quotes from Terence Hayes' "Arbor for Butch":

This is what it means to believe in ascension and fear climbing.

I imagine that I'll spend a considerable amount of time in the kind of Keatsian rumination Roger describes in this post re-ordering my understanding of Washington, black art, and performance of identity. As Finnie might put it, "I'm still proccessing it."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Right Word

The following is a modified version of the comment I posted on Stephanie Tolan's post, "Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?"

There is so much that is right on point in this article that I don't know where to start. I'm so happy that the "Honors Education" group on Facebook shared it and that I saw it.

First, I understand and appreciate the need for a different word than "gifted," especially since it gives a lot of people a way to dismiss gifted persons' needs because they'll take care of themselves. My skin crawled to read that "Talent Development" was what was suggested, though, because it seems to dehumanize the person in favor of what they might be developed into...or what they will offer to society. The first time I realized this was reading James Borland's chapter in Conceptions of Giftedness titled "Gifted Education Without Gifted Children: The Case for No Conception of Giftedness." While I differ in opinion from Borland in that I think that giftedness is more than a chimera (I do not disagree that the construct, as it has been applied is flawed), I really like his focus on providing an appropriate education for all learners.

While I try to avoid deficit models whenever possible, Michael Rios' characterization of giftedness as "asynchronous development syndrome" (Understanding Our Gifted, 1999) is probably the best example I've seen of creating a term that understands giftedness as psychological difference (ala the Columbus Group definition) and communicates that the difference doesn't necessarily make the person better.

I also love the idea of reinforcing the idea that learning ought to be a lifelong endeavor. I work in a university environment and feel like I'm fighting a losing battle sometimes to encourage us to operate as a learning organization. Learning is messy sometimes and doesn't necessarily fit a business model.

Kudos, as well, to the young person who advocated for membership in NAGC. While we're asking questions about re-definition, how about an NAGP: National Association of Gifted Persons? Focusing on giftedness in children plays into a talent development paradigm where the push is to focus resources on developing a person's potential in enough time that they can make significant contributions to society. Broadening the scope of the organization would not, I hope, diminish the need for developmentally-appropriate education at all levels, but it might create some room for more research and understanding of giftedness as a lifelong phenomenon, which seems likely if it truly is a psychological difference.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Orthodox Synchroblog - Orthodoxy and Culture

This is my contribution to the Orthobloggers synchroblog on "Orthodoxy and Culture". For previous entries on the subject of culture and the Orthodox Christian faith, see Distributism and OrthodoxyAmerican Orthodox Culture, and Distractions.
Dn. Steve Hayes provided a kick-off post for this synchroblog project in which he reflects on how our perspective colors our perception of phenomena. Commenting on the Pussy Riot trial concluding this week, Steve gives a close reading of the Paschal troparion and suggests what might be the proper Orthodox response (lex orandi, lex credendi, remember?):
Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered
Let those who hate him flee from before his face.
Does that apply to Pussy Riot?
Yes, I believe it does.
But you have to come to the end of the hymn to see how it applies.
This is the day of resurrection.
Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
So what do we call the members of Pussy Riot?
And what do we do with them?
Embrace them, forgive them by the resurrection
and tell them that God loves them and we love them too.
That’s Orthodox culture.
Responding to Steve's post, Jim Forest commented that the Pussy Riot performance was "disgusting" and was "not something likely to have positive impact on anyone except those at war with the Church nor to receive support except from the most alienated." Jim noted, however, that he wished "that the Church could have responded in a way that communicated mercy and forgiveness." As has been the case every time I've read Ladder of the Beatitudes or Praying with Icons, Jim reminded me that Christ is the final yardstick of our faith. Christ told his disciples that others would know them by this sign, that they would love one another as He had loved them (Jn. 13:34-35).
Discussing the topic of Orthodox Culture suggests that we first need a shared understanding of what culture is. Most definitions of culture reference some combination of beliefs, customs, knowledge, art, food, institutions, and meaning shared by a group of people. For Orthodox Christians, some of these have very salient meanings (e.g. the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Byzantine iconography) while others such as customs and food might have strong association with faith (e.g in a strongly-ethic parish) for some but not for others. It seems that this division follows closely to the difference some describe between captial-T Tradition and lowercase-t tradition. Those things which are fundamental to our faith, then, might also be central to an Orthodox Culture. Those things are all Christological. As Steve might conclude, Orthodox Christians should have a shared, practical perspective on phenomena such as the Pussy Riot spectacle because Christ should be our common lens.
What would the world look like through the lens of Christ? Christ's work is healing, transformative, and conciliatory. The "new commandment" that He gave to his disciples was a distillation of all the law and the prophets: Love God and Love your Neighbor. Christ unites in Himself seeming opposites, and teaches us that kenotic love bridges that opposition.
Kenosis, or self-emptying love doesn't hold anything back. It doesn't consider what the press will say or how voters will react. It is a person-to-person interaction that evinces love in preferring the other to the self. Love, as Christ demonstrates it, is not an abstract emotional response but human-scale compassion in a healing touch or word*. I think that to live in "the hand" means to learn to take the time to truly see those around us and give compassionately or receive graciously (as our means allow). To live fully in the moment in such a way is orthogonal to modern American life. Without serious effort, I am too distracted to notice my own failures, much less see the need of those around me.
The lesson I take from this with respect to Culture and Orthodoxy is this: even though Orthodoxy is at odds with Western culture, it is not counter-cultural. We are called to be separate, but not insular. If we can see our way clear to re-center Holy Communion in our lives and our preparation for that mystical encounter, we are blessed to be able to demonstrate integrity, wholeness, and peace that others are seeking.

Here are links to other posts on the topic, and more will be added as other synchrobloggers post their contributions:

"Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved." - St. Seraphim of Sarov
Image courtesy of Ancient Church Arts. Get it on a t-shirt here.
* It's hard to wrap my head around, but I think that even Christ's ultimate sacrificial love is at once a universal act (in that we are all saved by his conquering of Death), but also intensely personal.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

On Distributism and Orthodoxy

Modern American culture has become really adept at manufacturing desire. This realization does not depend on any particular religious orientation, but my sense of it has certainly been focused by the Orthodox Christian teaching that we should work to "overcome our passions."

Since this ascetic attitude is normative in Orthodox Christianity, I've been thinking about this aspect of a possible American Orthodox Culture as Melinda Johnson has been discussing the topic. What is the opposite of a consumerist culture? What would it look like in practice and What would that mean for Orthodox Christians?

Wendell Berry, writing in The Progressive, notes the following:
A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs.

Berry is writing in a tradition concerned with distributive justice, or the equitable distribution of property in a society. Unlike Socialism, which seeks to redistribute wealth, Distributism would redistribute property so that it is best able to be used efficiently and provide the broadest benefit to society. The basic tenets of Distributism include pushing decision-making to the most local level possible (subsidarity), making decisions that benefit everyone (solidarity), and giving every household the tools and materials (property or means of production) necessary to make their own living. G.K. Chesterton, an English author and one of the fathers of Distributism (as conceived in modern times), providing a critique of Capitalism summed up this wide distribution of property thus: "too much capitalism doesn't mean there are too many capitalists, but too few."

As an Orthodox Christian (albeit a convert), I find the emphasis on local authority in Distributism to be resonant, as is the emphasis on the community caring for everyone in it especially those most in need. If we American Orthodox Christians are to realize a unique culture through authentic praxis, the idea of distributive justice might be useful in understanding where dominant American culture is orthogonal to Orthodox teaching, and how we might "come out from among them and be...separate" as St. Paul exhorted the believers in Corinth (II Corinthians 6:17). Lest we think this exhortation cannot possibly be relevant to us, consider the words of St. Nilus of Sora:
It is my conviction that if it is by God’s will that we are gathered together, then we should be faithful to the traditions of the saints and the Holy Fathers and to our Lord’s commandments, instead of seeking to exempt ourselves by saying that nowadays it is impossible to live according to the Scriptures and the precepts of the Fathers. We are weak indeed, but we must nonetheless follow, according to the measure of our strength, the example of the blessed and memorable Fathers, even though we are unable to become their equals.

In a primer on Distributism for Orthodox Christians, David Holden writes, "Christ came to make people partakers of the divine nature, not institutions, agencies or businesses." Just so my position isn't mistaken: I don't expect that the establishment of an American Orthodox Culture would bring about paradise on Earth (though, to the extent that we are given the grace to experience the world already transformed by Christ, we can participate in a shadow of paradise this side of the Parousia). As Holden notes, a nation cannot be Christian, and that ought not to be our goal.

As I contemplate my role as an American Orthodox Christian, specifically with respect to exercising our freedom advocate for economic justice, St. Basil's words seem incredibly timely:
'But whom do I treat unjustly,' you say, 'by keeping what is my own?' Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common -- this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.

Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets for your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?

Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.
 - Homily 6, On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great (with thanks to Jonathan for publishing this excerpt in his review at Amazon).

While Distributism is often seen as a Roman Catholic invention, and as such might be viewed with some distrust by (some) Orthodox, American Orthodox Christians can look to the success of Distributist ideals in the native Orthodox culture of Romania.  , writing about Distributism in Eastern Europe for the Distributist Review, makes the following observations about how the human-scale economy envisioned by Distributism comports with Orthodox theology:

In Eastern Christianity, the unity of Christ with Church follows the model of personal unity of the Holy Trinity. Dumitru St─âniloae, a most distinguished Orthodox theologian, calls the Church a ‘pluripersonal symphony’: a multitude of instruments with particular patterns of notes combined to create a unity which is ever so much richer for its multiplicity. Each person plays his notes, but all is conducted, coordinated, unified under the direction of Christ. Being made in the image of God, the Trinity, each person realizes his true nature through mutual life; each person is autonomous and unique and yet he is not able to have life except in community with others.

“The community of persons” is spelt out in terms of “sobornicity”: Sobornicity (from the Slavic sobornaya, which means both “universal” and “conciliar”), writes Dumitru St─âniloae, “is not unity pure and simple: it is a certain kind of unity. There is the unity of a whole in which the constitutive parts are not distinct, or the unity of a group which is kept together by an exterior command, or formed into a union of uniform entities existing side by side. Sobornicity is none of these. It is distinguished from an undifferentiated unity by being of a special kind, the unity of communion. The unity of communion is the sole unity which does not subordinate one person to another, or in which the institution is not conceived as something external to or superior to or repressive of the persons involved.”

In the Orthodox East, Distributism needs to partake of the iconographic conception of the human person because “sobornicity” is grounded in the person as an image and likeness of the Trinity. Made in the divine image, human persons are not to be instrumentalized–they should be regarded as unique subjects, not as interchangeable objects. Each must be treated as an end in his or herself and not as a vehicle to some further end. There is no “sobornicity”–no trust, reciprocity and fraternity—where the economic and political power is removed from the level of the person and transferred to an increasingly oligarchic concentration of ownership. Distributism is best equipped to oppose the dehumanizing schemes of both neo-liberals and neo-communists since it never subordinates ends to means. In Romania, neo-liberals, socialists and bureaucrats from Brussels all plan to destroy the “unproductive” peasants, turning them into wage-slaves or commercial farmers, that is, into something other than peasants. The distributists, like the agrarians of yesteryear oppose such a “market revolution” in the village. They offer instead their own economic model, based on co-ops and other forms of voluntary associations.

The Eastern distributists should also adopt a liturgical view of life. For St. Maximus the Confessor, the world is a “cosmic temple” in which man exercises his priesthood. Man not only lives in and uses this world but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift and offering it back to God in thanksgiving “Thine own from thine own we offer to thee, in all and for all” (The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

American Orthodox Culture

Melinda Johnson at St. Lydia's Book Club has posted a question about American Orthodox culture: why we don't have one and what it might look like. There have been a couple of good responses so far. I began writing mine, then decided that I should just make a blog post of this rather than clutter her comments.

I think that Katherine makes an excellent point in her comment to the effect that other countries that have a distinct Orthodox culture have had centuries to form them. We also have to think about a temporal difference in how culture is incubated now versus in the past. In the past, when all effort was geared toward essential functions (growing, harvesting, preparing and preparing food; building essential tools, etc.), recreation had more of a utilitarian aspect. Barn raisings, quilting circles, cooking, etc. provided an opportunity to reinforce values through direct mentorship and apprenticeship. The food and materials available locally to a group of people and the pattern of their use incubated what we think of as cultural practices.

With the rise of industrialisation and a population shift toward urban areas, people lost connection with the practices and stories that made their heritage unique. Many of our jobs do not require the same kind of consuming attention that a homestead and a skilled craft would require, so we have to create diversions such as television, movies, sports, music, etc. We have created a "permanent present" where there is "no organic relationship" to the past; our understanding of the past is not experiential, it is factual or declarative. Engaging in traditional cultural practices, now (for most of us), is almost voyeuristic because the practices aren't essential to our way of life.

St. Moses the Black
St. Moses the Black - image from the
Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black
Since Orthodoxy is experiential in nature, to think about an American Orthodox culture would require that 1) we agree on what it means to be Orthodox, and 2) those values would permeate our living and not just be window-dressing. There are a lot of cultural movements I see around me that seem to be harmonious with what I understand to be an Orthodox lifestyle, such a shift away from consumerism, a movement toward a plant-based diet, caring for our communities (especially for those most needy), building a culture that affirms and protects Life for everyone (and all of the implications here: abortion, war, death penalty). These don't map neatly onto the way that people assign themselves to social/political opinions. Indeed, most of us make very clear distinctions between our work lives, our home lives, our social lives, and out church lives. To create an American Orthodox culture (presuming we want one), the Orthodoxy will have to permeate all the facets of our lives.

As I've written before, I think that an American Orthodox culture would mirror broader American culture in the way it is formed. Borrowing from cultures all over the world, Americans (at our best) select the best of what everyone brings to the table and reinterpret it as part of a pastiche. Since culture is (in my opinion) primarily a way of teaching value, what I find most exciting to think about is the great wealth of examples that such a pastiche culture could offer. Not only do we have the ancient mother churches and their traditions to draw on, but we also have enterprises such as the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black and the Ancient Christianity and Afro-American Conference that draws on the redemptive suffering of American chattel slaves. Matthew Namee's work with the Society for Orthodox Christian History in America and the podcasts he does for Ancient Faith Radio are a wonderful way to help discover this past and incorporate examples (good and bad!) in our understanding of ourselves as Orthodox Christians and Americans (for example, were you aware that the first naturalized American was Orthodox?).

Melinda Johnson has done an excellent job helping to create a groundswell of Orthodox artists and writers who are expressing their Orthodoxy in their work. Her guidance with The Sounding blog at OCN has also created an opportunity for Orthodox commentary on the whole range of American experience. I hope and pray that we continue to see this work grow!