Alexander Nevsky and Humphrey Bogart

Whenever I teach about ancient Egypt that civilization always impresses me with its “weight.”  I mean that the Egyptians expressed an utter confidence in the meaning and purpose of their civilization.  We see evidence for this in a variety of places, but I draw attention to the “Tale of Sinuhe,” one of the more beloved early Egyptian folktales.  The story recounts some impressive adventures of Sinuhe abroad, but the climax of the story is not found there.  Sinuhe triumphs when he returns home, when he receives the favor of the king, and (strange to our ears, no doubt) when the king grants him a lavish tomb.  The story concludes,

There was constructed for me a pyramid-tomb of stone in the midst of other pyramids.  The draftsmen designed it, the chief sculptors carved in it, and the royal overseers made it all their concern.  Its necessary materials were made from all precious things one desires in a tomb shaft.  Priests for death were given to me.  Gardens were made for me just as is done for the highest servants.  My likeness was overlaid with gold.  His majesty himself made it.  There is no other man for whom the like has been done.  So I was under the favor of the King’s presence until the day of death had come.

All Sinuhe ever needed was in front of him the whole time, a Hallmark card ending if there ever was one.

Of course the Exodus dramatically and deservedly shook this confidence,* and at times the “weight”and “presence” of Egypt would no doubt feel oppressive and claustrophobic  (as it does for me with the Great Pyramid of Giza), but, nevertheless, they had a marvelous run.

Recently reading a collection of tales from medieval Russia, I had a reaction not unlike the one I have with Egypt.  Russia is different than America — obviously.  But how so?  A quick look at literary luminaries reveals much.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn undoubtedly deserves its high praise, but then one reads The Brothers Karamazov (roughly contemporary works) and discovers something entirely different.  Twain bounces here and there and constructs a fanciful lark (for the most part) out of the idea of rebellion against society.  Though he is thoroughly American, there remains something of the delightful English politeness about him, making his points in circuitous fashion.  Dostoevsky writes from a much more solid, earthy foundation.  The “earthiness” of his foundation gives it all the more spiritual impact.  He writes not of ideas at all — except to criticize them and the very concept of “ideas.”  Instead he comes from a place of absolute confidence in a particular reality.  In his stories the rebels are the bad guys, who try and introduce discontent into the Russian soul.

Just as we have no particular historical roots as a nation, so our folktales take on a whimsical character and have no particular roots in history (i.e., Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, etc.).  Even when Twain makes his best points, they take the form of jokes.  Dostoevsky . . . not so much.**  So Russian folktales usually seem to have much more direct historical roots and could rarely be described as “whimsical.”

In the tale told of about the Polish king Stephen Bathory’s siege of the Russian town of Pskov (ca. late 16th century) we see all of these characteristics.  It speaks of “Holy Russia” without a trace of irony.  When the “pagan” king’s army advances past some of the outer defenses, the story turns:

. . . in the Cathedral of the Life-Giving Trinity the clergy incessantly prayed with tears and moaning for deliverance. . . . [they] began to weep with loud voices, extending their arms to the most holy icon.  The noble ladies fell to the ground and beat their breasts and prayed to God and the most Pure Virgin; they fell on the floor, beating the ground with their heads.  All over town women and children who remained home fervently cried and prayed before holy icons, asking for the help of all saints and begging God for the forgiveness of their sins . . .

After an extended poem on the power of God the tide turns, and the people rally.  But they need to stem a breach in the defensive wall.

. . . [the Russian commanders] ordered that the icons be brought to the breach made by the Poles.  Once the holy icon of the Holy Virgin of Vladimir had protected Moscow at the time of Tamerlane.  Now another was brought because of Stephen Bathory . . . and this time the miracle happened in the glorious city of Pskov,  . . . for divine protection invisibly appeared over the breach in the wall.   . . .  All the commanders, warriors, and monks cried out in unison, “O friends, let us die this day at the hands of the Lithuanians for the sake of Christ’s faith and for our Orthodox tsar, Ivan of all the Russias!

In his marvelous, Everyday Saints, Archimandrite Tikhon of the Pskov Caves Monastery related a story about a particular bishop caught in an unfortunate position amidst a large crowd.  Uncertainty reigned in Moscow in a public square during the collapse of communism in the early 1990’s.  Some soldiers came over to shield the bishop from the crowd and began to take him into their vehicles for protection.  Many in the crowd, however, thought the soldiers were imprisoning the bishop.  The Archimandrite relates that several people rushed out towards the bishop, saying, “It is happening again [i.e., the Communists imprisoning church officials]!  This shall not be!  Come brothers, let us help this good priest.  Let us die for him!”  Soldiers dissuaded them from hurling themselves on their bayonets only by careful explanation of their purpose.

A particular sense of reality is evident, and an absolute confidence.

Our heroes play different roles.  Even the golden age of Hollywood, when America supposedly bursted with confidence, gave us heroes like Humphrey Bogart — a man “in the know,” and somewhat detached.  We love the reluctant hero.^  Russians remember instead princes like Alexander Nevsky, who when attacked by the Swedes, supposedly went immediately to church, where

remembering the song from the Psalter, he said: “O Lord, judge those who offended me.  Smite those who set themselves against me, and come to my aid with arms and shields.”

Before his death, Alexander took the most strict of monastic vows, the “schema.”

Alexander’s reaction today could only be mocked by the west, just as Putin’s physicality — be it swimming in icy lakes or wrestling tigers, or whatever — becomes late-night fodder.  But Putin, consciously or not, sincerely or not, very likely taps into something deep within the Russian soul and Russian history — the fearless leader of absolute confidence with not a trace of detached irony.^^

Those who do not like President Obama sometimes don’t see that his appeal has little to do with his policies.  Rather, he embodies a certain idea of American hip culture.  He tells deprecating jokes with wry humor, a wink, and a nod.  He appears on Marc Maron’s podcast and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. So too we in the west, I think, fail to understand Putin’s popularity.  Perhaps he channels Alexander Nevsky, not Humphrey Bogart.^^^



*I favor a late Exodus date, and so see Ramses II as the beginning of the end, and not an “Indian Summer” after the decline had already begun in earnest.

**Of course Dostoevsky can sometimes be very funny.  I laughed aloud at various points in The Brothers Karamazov, and The Gambler. But Twain was known as a humorist, and while the idea of Dostoevsky as a one man show is funny, the show itself . . . would not be.

^Might Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible movies serve as an exception?  He has none of the smirks of a James Bond.  Hunt “believes” — believes in what?  Who knows?  Who cares?   We don’t watch the movies out of love for the Ethan Hunt character, but for the stunts, scenario’s, etc.

^^The Archimandrite Tikhon has been involved with some controversy and mystery due to his “relationship” with Putin.  An excellent interview with him is here — recommended.  The interviewer represents a typical western perspective and the Archimandrite shows that he is not a modern-westerner.  We should realize that a) Putin may have a sincere religious faith, and b) St. Petersburg will not orient Russia in the way that Peter the Great or other westerners might wish.

^^^Russia has experienced a dramatic rise in religious affiliation since the communist collapse, but not a corresponding rise in regular church attendance, at least according to one Pew Research study.  I don’t mean to suggest that Putin faithfully believes and practices like Prince Alexander.  If left utterly detached from the Faith, Russia’s earthiness will become frighteningly barbaric. As many have noted — Russia is a land of great sinners and great saints.


12th Grade: Constitutions for Dummies, by Dummies


Several weeks ago the Government class discussed the basics of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy.  One goal I had in this was for students to understand . . .

  • How fundamental ideas about the nature of reality, and the nature of God, help form one’s ideas about government.
  • How one’s view of the nature of humanity (is mankind a body & soul? What is the relationship between our body and soul?) impact how one governs.
  • What relationship should context & history have in a given situation?

I shared an example from my own life that illustrates some of these issues.  Many years ago I lived in a townhouse community run by an HOA.  The development placed about 5 trashcans every 1/4 mile or so.  When people walked their dogs (and we had a high population density of dogs) we commonly deposited the refuse in the trashcans.  But during warmer weather, more people walked their dogs, and the additional heat made the trashcans, well, stink.  This was unfortunate.  Was it a “problem?”

The HOA came up with a rule: No more deposited dog waste in trashcans.  This, they hoped, would solve the problem.

One can view their solution in two basic ways, from a Platonist and Aristotelian perspectives.

The Platonist would argue. . .

  •  The law is a good one because it seeks to better the condition of all.  The neighborhood would become a nicer neighborhood.
  • The people would be encouraged to accept more direct personal responsibility for their pets — taking the refuse to their own trashcans would help them be more responsible overall.

The Aristotelian might respond. . .

  • The law is foolish because people will likely not obey it.  They will either continue to deposit the refuse in the trashcans, or worse, simply not pick it up at all.
  • The law cannot be enforced.  The HOA has no mechanism to police the area.  Thus, people’s disobedience will only encourage a more hostile attitude towards the HOA than they may already have.  In other words, a good law can only be called “good” if people actually obey it, no matter how good in theory the law might be.

I hope students enjoyed this unit.  I then wanted to have the students see how some of these ideas applied in the making of our own government.  To that end we spent the last few days reading Madison’s diary of the constitutional convention debates. We see that different people had different perspectives, different notions of what “liberty” meant and how to achieve it.  They wrestled with the big ideas, referencing key political texts, but also worried how those ideas would apply in the current political climate.  Some of there more lengthy debates seem immediately relevant today, others quite arcane.The decisions they reached sometimes came from unanimity, but more often came through compromise and disagreement.  And despite their brilliance, they failed dreadfully in not foreseeing a popular presidency, and what this meant for the Vice-Presidency.

I had a few main goals with this particular unit:

  • I wanted students to see that political agreements required a great deal of compromise.  I don’t mean to use compromise as a word of praise or derision.  Some compromises achieve great things, others, like the compromises made on slavery, condemn the future to deal with an issue that has had time to fester.
  • I wanted students to consider whether or not the many compromises they made had roots in their agreement on fundamental principles, or whether America was built on band-aids to the deep divisions between Americans at that time (and now).  If they agreed on fundamental principles, what were they?  If they had no agreement on such principles, why not?
  • What did the Constitution do particularly well?  In what areas did it fail?
  • Many of the men at the original Constitutional convention had years of experience in law and government, and an education that rooted them to the classical world.  And yet at times the decisions made seemed based more on arbitrary circumstance than profound guiding principles.  Should this worry us, or is this the way of the world?  Or perhaps it’s a gift, a reminder that we are all in need of God, that none of us, however intelligent, will ever have all the answers or the stamina to decide them fairly?


Thanks again,



Death by Abstraction

“A theology without practice is the theology of demons.”  So said St. Maximos the Confessor.  Abstractions have never held any weight within Christianity.  The devil believes, and it makes no difference.  The Incarnation explodes the possibility of the efficacy of “abstraction.”  God became a particular man at a particular time in a particular place.*

We see this theological truth spill out into other areas.  Beware, for example, of vague descriptions of “Human Rights.”  Without application in a particular context, such “rights” have no meaning.  Hence France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man” declared in 1789 gave absolutely no protection to anyone during the Reign of Terror in 1793.  The Committee of Pubic Safety interpreted such rights as they pleased to do what they wished.  Beware the man with grand visions of glory who cares nothing for the actual human cost.  On such foundations were the great tyrannies of the 20th century built.

A great deal of debate exists as to the question, “What is America?”  Different answers have been given to this question, but we don’t often stop to question why we have so much debate about our identity.  I think the root of this problem lies in the commonly accepted idea (whether it is true or false) that America has its origin in certain ideas about liberty, freedom, and so on, not in any particular experience in history.  In a few other posts on this blog I muse on this question (see here and here if you have not wearied of me quite yet:).

Some historians argue that America took a decided turn with the victory of the North in the Civil War.  Proponents of this do not necessarily assert that the South was “good” and the North “bad,” though some may argue this.  Some in this school of thought, like Clark Carlton from Tennessee Tech, don’t even put the focus on the good of one side vs. the other, or on state’s rights and federal power, but rather on culture and the idea of what America actually is or should be.

Carlton argues that the two sides in the Civil War represented two different ideas about America.  The North, dominated by a New England ethos, believed that America had its roots in certain ideas that should have application everywhere for all men.  The South, rooted in a very different migratory pattern (discussed brilliantly by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, by far the best book I’ve read on colonial America), saw America as a place to transplant a certain kind of Anglo-Celtic way of life.

I lack the wherewithal to discuss the merits of this theory, except to say that it has enough plausibility to deserve consideration.  For the moment let’s assume its core proposition and explore its possible merits.  For the theory to hold water, we would need to trace the development of abstract ideas throughout the history of New England and see its pernicious effects.**  Of course this means that we find that they did in believe such abstractions.

Recently I read the The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase, written in 1821.  The book tells of the shocking attack and sinking of their ship by a sperm whale, the inspiration for 51-cWJypx5L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Melville’s Moby Dick.  Most American whaling crews hailed from the New England area, as did the Essex.  The account held my interest all the way through.  For our purposes here, I couldn’t help notice, however, how the author spoke about God.  I don’t believe he ever used the word “God,” referring instead to “Providence,” or “the benefits of the Creator,” or something like that.  Certainly they never made any reference to Jesus Himself.  Such language left me cold.  Whether or not the author and his crew believed in Christ I cannot say, but this impersonal and ultimately abstract language is certainly not a Christian way to speak about God.  It seems to exactly mirror the Transcendentalists like Emerson, who of course hailed from New England.^

As their journey in the lifeboats continued, their supplies of food obviously dwindled.  At first when crewmen died they buried them at sea decently.  But after several weeks they grew more desperate, and fell to eating parts of the deceased crew’s body before burial.  They did so even though they still had small amounts of bread left, so they had other options.  One of the lifeboats even eventually drew lots to see who would be shot, so his flesh could be consumed.  A man named Owen Coffin drew the short straw and apparently submitted to his fate willingly.

So all in all eight crewmen survived, but at what cost?  I do not judge them too harshly.  They endured severe trials and privations.  After several weeks I’m sure they had nothing left physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I have never endured anything remotely akin to their ordeal.  Yet in the writing of the account itself I expected some remorse, some second-guessing of their practices, especially given the time proximity of their rescue to their cannibalism.  In hindsight, such horrors probably were not even necessary for their strict survival.  But Mr. Chase has no such reflections.

I can’t help but wonder if their cold and distant manner of speaking about God might contribute to their cold, impersonal view of each others lives and bodies.  This surprised me because earlier in the book he wrote touching passages about the attachment of the crew to each other.  After the ship sunk the crew found themselves in three separate lifeboats.  Chase talks movingly of losing sight of their fellow ships at night and their frantic efforts to find each other lest they be separated.  But in the end, I suppose, their abstract notions of life won out.

But this crew did not invent such a way of speaking.  These abstractions must have had their roots somewhere.  We might start with the New England Puritans.  Initially, it seems that the Puritans were anything but abstract in their views.  They practiced a very particular way of life and belief.  But a second look tells otherwise.  I have no wish to “pile on” the Puritans, who get a lot of bad press, much of it undeserved.  I admire certain things about them.  But their strong Calvinism does lead one to a kind of abstraction regarding God.  God’s abstract “will” often asserts itself to the fore in Puritan theology, pushing more personal characteristics such as love, mercy, etc. to the periphery.  Their conception of the “will” of God swallowed up all individual personality.  So I think we can say that abstraction had its roots in the foundation of New England society.^^

The American Revolution had many of its roots in New England, and there again we can say that they had an attachment to abstractions.  They began by charging the British with violating their rights as British citizens in 1765, but ended by conceiving of Lady Liberty (a goddess?), and human rights that should apply to all men everywhere.

This abstract seed has grown many branches, some good and some bad.  The root issue seems to be the idea that once a certain group of people latch onto a particular incarnated meaning of “liberty,” they seek to apply to all everywhere.  So we have the New England abolitionists on the one hand, and LGBT rights on the other.  Both have very different seeming applications, but both might have the same root.+

In the end I’m not sure “abstraction” was a distinctly New England problem.  Carlton sees the Civil War as a turning point for American ideals of abstract liberty, and here I disagree.  Perhaps New England held to such “abstractions” more than others, but by 1800 at least these ideals had spread most everywhere.  Where I agree with him fully, however, is that latching onto abstract propositions to guide us has resulted in many theological and civil problems.

As we end the Christmas season, may the truth of the Incarnation lead us in a different direction.



*Hence the importance of the prologue of St. Luke’s gospel, the historical books of the Old Testament, and various other portions of Scripture.

**I don’t mean to leave aside the possible pernicious effects of Anglo-Celtic culture.  For his part I don’t believe Carlton means to glorify this culture.  Rather, he seems to assert that the culture was uniquely their culture, and thus they (and not anyone else) had ownership of its strengths and sins, slavery obviously among them.  Their moral life remains their responsibility and not those of other states/countries, or the Federal government.  Perhaps he might continue to argue that taking it out of their hands in a way absolved them of ownership and responsibility — creating a pernicious distance between themselves and their political and cultural lives.  Did this then lead to actually more mistreatment of blacks?  It seems hard to argue this, as slavery ended because of the Civil War.  But . . . perhaps this “distance” gave them more subconscious permission to continue subjugating blacks as an act of defiance?  This would be a pretty radical idea, one that we could not test and can therefore only speculate.  But it does seem a bit of a stretch to me.  Still, I am only speculating as to his argument.

^Such manner of speaking about God is not only confined to New England, however.  Washington, Jefferson, and other southerners spoke in a similar  way.  This may cast doubt on Carlton’s thesis.

^^We can find other examples, I think.  The Puritans did not really grow a local culture, but rather “imported” and imposed a large measure of it from the Old Testament — or at least their interpretation of it.  We might argue that Puritan culture was the byproduct of abstract theological ideas.

+On the issue of slavery Carlton argues that the New England abolitionists accomplished nothing in part because of their abstractions.  They had no roots in the culture they critiqued.  They merely espoused vague notions of liberty.  He wanted southern abolitionists (such societies did exist, at least in the upper South) to solve the issue — alas, they did not.  But neither, I suppose, did northern abolitionists.  They both failed alike to avert Civil War. As to why America could not solve this issue legislatively, as England did, I’m not sure.