Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Off the Cuff Movie Review - The Hunt for Red October

     This week it was my pick for movie night, and I felt the boys were old enough to enjoy and understand one of my favorites, 1990's The Hunt for Red October. Based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, The Hunt for Red October is a political/military/technological action movie, set in the early 1980's. The Red October is a Soviet submarine (Typhoon class) captained by Marko Ramius, the Soviet's top submarine commander. (Of course he's the best, he's played by Sean Connery!) The Russians call him "The Vilnius Schoolmaster". His new submarine boasts a new technology that makes them inaudible to sonar, which makes them very dangerous.
     Raimius is Up To Something, and the movie's title comes from both the Russians and Americans trying desperately to find the Red October before Ramius can put his plan into action. But what is his plan?  After reading his official orders, Ramius kills his political officer, burns the orders and substitutes his own, and get the second essential missile launch  key from the dead man. He tells the crew they're sailing to Cuba by way of the American coast. The Russians are afraid he's trying to defect, and the Americans are afraid he's trying to make a sneak attack. So both sides want to find the Ramius and the Red October, and won't hesitate to sink him to stop him.
     American CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) thinks he's guessed the truth, that Ramius is trying to defect, but he has a hard time getting anyone to believe him. Eventually Ryan finds himself aboard the USS Dallas (Los Angeles class) trying to convince captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) to communicate with the Red October once they find her. The film reaches its climax in a submarine battle above one of the deepest spots in the Atlantic, with the Red October fighting to survive being pursued by both the Russians and the Americans.
     This film has a lot to commend it. It has a good exciting story line, detailed and realistic sets, uniforms and military protocols, great characters and actors [James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgaard, Fred Thompson], lots of dramatic tension, and given its Cold War setting, a lack of stereotypes of either the  Russians or the Americans. There is a 2-second shot of a Russian sailor, a Russian Orthodox Christian (who were persecuted by the Communist government), making the sign of the Cross after witnessing some of his comrades being killed. The underwater chase scenes are packed with drama; at one point the Red October is maneuvering through an undersea canyon to escape a torpedo that was launched at them. They must flee at a speed far above what is safe for the tight quarters, and you can see the fear on the faces of all the crew. An officer protests Ramius' wild maneuvering:  "Captain, if we're out of position by so much as a boat length . . ." he doesn't finish, but you can tell the rest is "we will crash into the canyon wall and die."
     The underwater scenes are dark and it is sometimes hard to see what's happening, and all the subs look a lot alike. So when the scene cuts back to a sub interior, the writers did a good job of explaining the action through the characters. Crewmen aboard both subs ask what happened, and an explanation is given first in Navy jargon, then again in plain English. For example -  Commanding Officer: "Why don't I have a detonation?"  Weapon Officer: "The weapon enabled on the far side of the target. It passed (target ship) before it armed." Ah, so that's what just happened. A few characters, Ryan included at some points, serve as the audience expy to ask the questions, and allow another character to explain.
     I always try to point out a movie's flaws, and this one does have a few. Some consider the film's near total lack of female characters to be a flaw. Most of the characters are sailors, and they talk like sailors, which means there's an amount of cussing going on. I was concerned that we would have to have a talk with the boys after the film about not using rude words, but I was surprised by my younger son. Right in the middle of the movie, he called out Jack Ryan for using irreverent language (taking the Lord's name in vain). Near the beginning, Captain Ramius kills one of his officers, who would have interfered with his plan. It's a gruesome scene, which could easily be nightmare fuel, so I muted the sound and asked the boys to shut their eyes until it was over, then explained simply what had happened. Kids who are not old enough to know some 20th century history probably wouldn't follow what was going on in this film, but my boys do, and I enjoyed watching an old favorite again, and also watching my boys go from disinterest, to mild interest, to being totally absorbed.
     My favorite line, uttered in astonishment by one of the Red October's officers: "Torpedo impact . . .now?"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wisdom from the Fathers - St Gregory the Great

Concerning the power to work miracles
Pope St Gregory the Great, writing in a letter to St Augustine of Canterbury,
as recorded by St Bede the Venerable in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People

   "Finally, dearest brother, in all your outward actions, which by God's help you perform, always strictly examine your inner dispositions. Clearly understand your own character and how much grace is in this nation for whose conversion God has given you the power to work miracles.  And if you remember that you have ever offended our Creator by word or action, let the memory of your sin crush any temptation to pride that may arise in your hear, and bear in mind that whatever powers to perform miracles you have received or shall receive from God are entrusted to you solely for the salvation of your people."

     Gregory reminded Augustine not to boast of his achievements, noting that when the Apostles returned to Christ saying "Lord, even the devils are subject unto us, through thy Name" Jesus chided them "In this rejoice not, but rather rejoice because your names are written in Heaven". Don't lose sight of the eternal even for good things in the temporal.
In our own age, so-called 'celebrity pastors' and those who are devoted to them would do well to heed the words of St Gregory, who signed the letter above quoted, and all of his letters "Gregory, servant of the servants of God." 
Bede's Ecclesiastical History can be found here and here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Off the Cuff Movie Review - Brave

For our Sunday movie night this week, we watched 2012's Brave.  I have now, I think, watched all of the Disney Princess films. Did I mention I have no daughters?
    Brave is Disney/Pixar's 13th film, set in semi-mythical Scotland. The plot concerns the free-spirited daughter of the king, who would rather ride & shoot than become a lady and get married. She tries to cheat her way out of it via a magical spell, and creates Big Problems. Then she has to find a way to undo what she's done before it costs her more than she thought.
      Merida, the oldest child of the king Fergus and his queen Elinor, is a outdoors loving girl who can ride and shoot very well. An archery contest in the opening act shows off Merida's skills, which are of Robin Hood proportions. Seriously, Merida pulls off one of Robin's signature arrow tricks. It is curious to me, then, that after this point her signature abilities play very little part in the plot, and none in the climax. I guess Pixar wanted her to have some ability to demonstrate her competence and independence.
      The main conflict of the film is between desire and duty, between mother (duty) and daughter (desire). This is a familiar theme in movies aimed at children, but it is not a theme that draws me in; I'm on the parent's side every time. In this film, the mother, and although he's less directly involved the father also have the clans' traditions on their side.  There is no other word than selfishness to describe Merida's attitude. She simply cannot see that the people around her have a legitimate claim on her behavior. She lives in a society, a culture, but initially insists on autonomy – taking the benefits of belonging to a community without bearing any of the responsibility.
      Merida does not seem to have a problem with marriage generally; just with being suddenly told that it's going to happen to her. I appreciate that Pixar did not make her a straw feminist whining about being 'some man's property'. Her mother is clearly not dominated by her father, nor is the reverse the case. Fergus and Elinor seem to have a loving marriage, equitably dividing the duties of leadership.
      I was glad to see that Merida got to see at least a foretaste of the consequences of her refusal. The heads of all the clans, who are vying to marry their sons to Merida, all get offended and it looks like the kingdom is going to have a 4-way civil war over who gets the right to marry the princess. This is not played as a romantic gesture, this is jealousy and war.
       At least there is a mother in this movie, and it seemed from the outset that she and the father were both going to survive the film. This is odd for a Disney film, but that's a discussion for another day. The three young men who are presented as suitors barely come into the story, as the plot revolves around Merida and her mother. Maybe this is why the three are little more than caricatures: a slacker, an Emo and a doofus.
      Most of the humor in this film comes from the father, the other adult males and the triplet brothers. I can handle that, it is a film for young people, and kids like seeing adults acting like children. I like Fergus, Merida's father. He's a boisterous bruiser, who also clearly loves his wife and children – and trusts his wife with the formal public speaking. One of the few emotional connections I felt to this film was with Fergus' terrified reaction when he thought his wife had been eaten by a bear. 
    Taken as a whole, I enjoyed the movie, but it will not be included in my Favorites list. Merida did act bravely once or twice, but I don't think that theme was explored enough to make the title fit. Merida was not introduced as a fearful child (beyond what would be normal in the flashback scenes where she very young) so she had no cause to prove that she is brave. She screamed like a girl (well, that would make sense) when confronted with the villain of the film, and ran away the first time, and was saved by her parents the second time. Hardly an exemplar of bravery. I also don't think she really changed her mind about accepting responsibility and growing up. The film concludes with Merida still unmarried and having fun like she was at the beginning. 
     The scary scenes in this film were not scary enough to seriously undermine my kid's enjoyment of the film. There is a bit of rude humor on the fact that the Scots wore no underclothes under their kilts. No private parts are seen, but a well-endowed serving woman has things dropped onto and into her bosom for comic effect. Magic is employed, but the magic user is not the villain, rather a disinterested party who performs for a fee. None of this bothers me, but the body part humor is not my style. The film is up to Pixar's standard for color, texture and visual appeal, even though much of the film happens at night, or in darkened interiors.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is a Dictator?

    We in America like to think of democracy as being ‘good’ and dictatorship as being ‘bad’. But it is worth noting that in its most basic form democracy is the ability of 51% of the population to legally rob the other 49% blind. It can be argued that dictatorship, then, is the ability of the 1% to rob the other 99% blind. That neither happens that simply points out the complicated nature of the world in which we live.

     Robert Kaplan at Stratfor recently wrote an essay (subscription required) in which he explored the phenomenon of the dictator as head of state, and makes the shocking claim that not all dictators are card-carrying members of the Club of Evil.

    Kaplan’s thesis is state in paragraph six: “we recognize a world in which just as there are bad democrats, there are good dictators.” Geopolitics is complex. Things and people don’t always fit into simple categories. The astute observer of the world will look at more than how a leader came to power. How did that leader use the power; did his use of power make things better or worse for the state he ruled? Kaplan supports his argument that not all dictators are bad with examples of autocratic leaders who have made things better. One such was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. He was clearly a dictator, but he also initiated meritocracy, good governance and world class urban planning.” Deng Xioping of China oversaw a dramatic rise in personal freedom and standard of living for the largest state by population in the world. Bashar al-Assad of Syria protected the minority Christian population from persecution by his fellow Muslims.

   Now, none of this makes these men saints or even nice people. But it does illustrate that good or bad governance can be accomplished by more than one political system. Governance, the act of governing, is morally neutral. It is what one does while governing that can be morally judged.

    One product of governance that can be achieved by either a good or a bad ruler, democratic or otherwise, is stability or order. Moammar Khaddafi, the late and unlamented despot of Libya, for all his faults or wickedness, provided a more orderly state than what Libya is currently suffering at the hands of the factions scrambling for control of the country. A steady or orderly state can carry on its business, even in conditions of limited personal freedom, and hopefully lay the groundwork for eventual improvements to the public good – personal liberty, opportunity to prosper and improved standard of living. Khaddafi may not have done this, but such things are for the time being much less possible, under a supposedly more democratic ‘system’ if such a term can be used in this case.

      Good fiction is realistic, so it helps to recognize what the real world is like when turning one’s attention to fictional worlds. There are plenty of examples of bad dictators, Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars and Sauron of the Lord of the Rings being perhaps two of the most well-known. But there are good dictators as well. The best example I know of in fiction of the good dictator is HavelockVetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork on the Discworld, created by Sir Terry Pratchett. Vetinari is unquestionably a dictator; he came to power by personally assassinating the previous Patrician (who happened to be insane). He spies on his own people and manipulates everyone. He practices the rule of “one man one vote” in that he is the Man and he has the Vote. Being in his presence makes most residents of the city uneasy and anxious, and Vetinari cultivates that climate of fear and unease, to keep the advantage. Vetinari is also responsible for the rejuvenation of the city’s banking and postal services, the reduction of street crime by organizing and regulating the Thieves’ Guild and the Assassin’s Guild. All of the city’s power brokers hate him, but they hate each other more, and Vetinari keeps it that way. The city works, and everyone realizes that a city without Vetinari would not work as well as it does, so they put up with him. Stability and the survival of the state are his main aims, and he will have them, thank you very much. So is Vetinari a villain or not?

    In the universe of Traveller, there are several Dictatorship type governments. Specifically they are the Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy (which I call Hereditary Ruler), the Charismatic Dictator, the Non-Charismatic Dictator, the Charismatic Oligarchy and the Religious Dictatorship.

     According to an article on Traveller governments I read from SJ Games, the term Charismatic refers not to the dictator’s popularity, but to the source of his authority. Kings and elected leaders have an external source of their authority – it comes from the society of which they are a part. Established law or tradition says who is the legitimate ruler, and if or when that ruler has to give up power. In contrast, rulers like Oliver Cromwell or Fidel Castro or VI Lenin appealed to personal traits, such as their moral righteousness or adherence to the right political cause or philosophy, to legitimize their rule. ‘Charismatic’ governments are all about the person(s) holding the power.A non-charismatic dictator is simply the successor or inheritor of a charismatic dictator's power - the first step in the transformation into a new tradition or legal system.

    In my Traveller universe (link goes to a page with subsector maps) there will therefore be both good & bad dictators, and good & bad democrats. There are also kings & patricians, republics and the ever-mysterious feudal technocracies (does anyone really understand what that is?).

· House Dirata (Dormarc-Ostrander) is all under the control of the Dirata family. Turf wars among the extended family are the cause of its instability.
 · The Talaveran Empire (Dothan-Talaveran) is ruled by a Hereditary Monarch, but benefits from input from the people through the aristocracy. Plus, it is one of the most religion-tolerant states.
· The Union of Socialist Worlds (Union Subsector) is run by a dictatorial council, filled by ranking members of the only official political party. The Union is officially atheistic, and endorses religious persecution.
· The Patrian Concordiat (Daktari Nebula) is a dictatorial autocracy under the control of the Patria family. The Concordiat is rife with all manner of corruption and abuse. Power is all that matters to the Patrians.
· The Kingdom of Onaji (5 Worlds-American)is ruled by the King, period. The king manages the centralized economy well and is tolerant of religion.
· The Litton Confederation (Solaris-Litton) is a stagnated bureaucracy. Regional interests trump effectiveness in Littonian politics.
· The Alliance of Dormarc (Dormarc-Ostrander) is ineffectual and corrupt. Its parliamentary system all but guarantees gridlock and a bloated bureaucracy.
· The Kamarov Republic (Solaris-Litton & Union) is for the most part an open society that encourages education. It is stridently secular-materialist, and is hostile to all religion.

Examples from the Independent worlds:

Mavramorn (Holtzmann’s Corridor 0605) Independent C-34374A-10 50 million people
The Mavramorn system is potentially very rich in natural resources but the local government isn't developing them. They are very jealous of their sovereign territory, and won’t let anyone else in to develop them. Figurehead president is a glorified bureaucrat, the real power is the Army & Navy Chiefs of Staff, who own or control most of the industry and public services. Mavramorn & Stavanger fought a brief war 100+ years ago, and the military heads came to power under wartime rules. The civil leadership is maintained in place to placate the populace with meaningless ‘reforms’.

Tucloas (Weitzlar 0308) C-2316A5-10 Independent 8.5 million people
Tucloas’ current King took the throne after a short but bloody civil war against the reigning monarch. He was an aristocrat and a distant relative of the ruling line, but thought himself the more competent administrator. After wiping out the royal family in a series of bomb attacks, he led his forces (stiffened by a large number of mercenaries) against the next closest relative of the former king, whose claim to the throne was distant enough to cause doubt and division within the armed forces. The new king is having trouble keeping his mercenary forces under control, and there are still loyalist forces at large.

Drexell (Daktari Nebula 0204) C-9327A5-12 45 million people
Drexell’s head of state is a figure known only as El Supremo. "El Supremo" is arguably insane. The listed law level applies to only some upper-class autocratic types. For everyone else, it's level 12. El Supremo is managed by his aristocratic 'secretaries' and 'ministers'. Off-planet visitors are restricted to the southern continent, away from the main bulk of the population.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Biblical Interpretation

One day some of the brethren came to see Abba Antony,[St Antony the Great, the father of Christian monasticism] and among them was Abba Joseph. Wishing to test them, the old man mentioned a text from Scripture, and starting with the youngest he asked them what it meant. Each explained it as best he could. But to each one the old man said "You have not yet found the answer". Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, "And what do you think the text means?"
He replied, "I do not know".
Then Abba Antony said, "Truly, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said: "I do not know".
From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

   I take Abba Antony's point to be that the starting place for understanding the Scriptures is understanding our own limitations and ignorance. Without proper humility, we will not 'find the way' to a right understanding of Scripture, as our pride will lead us instead to interpretations that make us feel clever, or give us license to do the things we want to do.

   Pope Francis, the current Bishop of Rome, in a recent interview, spoke of the necessity of doubt and uncertainty to our faith, because it leads us to humility. He says, "If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself." Read an article discussing the Pope's words here:

   While Pope Francis was not speaking specifically about Biblical interpretation, I think that what he says certainly applies. Many Christians in the West, under the influence of the Reformation dogma of Sola Scriptura turn to the Bible as a sort of substitute prophet; starting with an idea or intention of their own, they comb through the Bible and pull verses out of context to build support for that idea or intention. The same tradition that concocted Sola Scriptura also invented the idea that each believer is capable of correctly interpreting the Scriptures on their own. The result is obvious and all around us - disagreement, division and individualized faith are the hallmarks of American Christianity. This is the result of our insistence upon individual autonomy. We assume that we know, or can deduce using logic and reason, the mind of God.

   This stands in contradiction to the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and their interpretation. The Church as a whole (body) interprets the Scripture in and through the lens of our Holy Tradition. An individual may (and probably will) err, but the Holy Spirit, which is the Mind of the Church, guides the whole into all Truth. Many of the big heresies that have plagued the Church throughout her history were instigated by a person pulling his/her own interpretation of a verse or passage and insisting that everyone but them got it wrong. See Arianism for the uber-example.

"19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: 20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." 2 Peter 1: 19-21 (emphasis mine)

"The prophets hear God speaking to them in the secret recesses of their own hearts. They simply conveyed that message by their preaching and writing to God's people. They were not like pagan oracles, which distorted the divine message in their own interest, for they did not write their own words but the words of God. For this reason the reader cannot interpret them by himself, because he is liable to depart from the true meaning, but rather he must wait to hear how the One who wrote words wants them to be understood."

St. Bede the Venerable, On 2 Peter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What I'm reading - The Revenge of Geography

The Revenge of Geography

By Robert Kaplan

Robert Kaplan is a realist. This book is about the physical facts of the world we live on and what those facts mean for cultures and nations. Take for example, the two oceans that insulate the isolationist United States from any credible threats and compare this with the non-existence of any mountains or other barriers around Russia that make its’ land easy to invade and the Russians perennially insecure.

Just as a child growing up is influenced in his development by local immediate factors like the composition of his family and his neighborhood; cultures exist in the context of their interaction with the geographical surroundings and their cultural neighbors.

America is the product of its European and specifically British ‘parents’. With coastlines on two oceans and abundant natural harbors on both coasts, America could hardly have done otherwise than become a sea power. Given our abundance of resources to export, it simply was in our national interest to be focused on maritime trade and the protection of the same.

Contrast this with Russia, which is not a sea power and can hardly become one, no matter how much it wishes to do so. Russia is almost completely cut off from the sea lanes by ice to the north and the expanse of South Asian nations in the other direction. Even Vladivostok, which does sit on the Pacific coast, is not as useful as it may seem as it sits thousands of miles away from 90% of Russia’s population. Distance matters as much as elevation and climate.

Difficult climates like the Russian steppes, Kaplan says, lead to more centralized authority – because that is what works for the survival of the nation. Humans have an appetite for power, but their environment shapes how easy or difficult it is to acquire it.

Kaplan applies these kinds of lessons from geography to all the world’s inhabited regions, looking for the physical factors that have shaped and continue to shape the life of the peoples & nations. For example, the Asiatic steppes produced nomadic horse clans because nothing else made sense there – the solitary homestead of the American Midwest could not have survived the poor soil and lack of navigable rivers.

However, Kaplan is not a determinist; geography is not fate. Persons and nations can choose how they will respond to the world, but they will be influenced by geography whether they realize it or not. What your piece of the globe looks like tells us something important about you and the savvy observer will not let the modern talk of ‘One World’ obscure the enduring realities of geography.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

76 Patrons Writing Contest 2nd Place

BeRKA over at The Zhodani Base has announced the winners in this year's 76 Patrons Writing contest. I've won 2nd Place (second year in a row!) with my entry "Chapel Bells Chime"!
You can read it at the Zhodani Base, along with all the other fine entries, but I present it here for my readers.

76 Patrons – Chapel Bells Chime



Patron: the Betrothed
Skills required: Carousing, Liaison, Streetwise
Equipment required: none

Location: Titan,  Foreven 1429   A-642ABA-D  J    Hi In Po Capital

    A friend or relation of one of the PCs is getting married, and the PC and his/her associates have been invited to the big event, which promises to be a major event on the social calendar of Titan's capital city. The PC with the connection may, at the referee's discretion, be asked to take part in the planning of the reception, which will be a very large affair, with many hundreds of guests as well as media coverage.  A week prior to the wedding, the bride-to-be comes running to the PCs for assistance. The wedding might not happen, because her betrothed has disappeared! The patron is in a state of panic, and turned to the PCs because they “have experience with this kind of thing”. Local custom on weddings is very specific, owing to property transfer laws on Titan; a wedding is also a real estate contract. Therefore, it is imperative that the wedding happen on the scheduled date; rescheduling a wedding is a contract violation, which requires someone way, way up in the government or religious hierarchy to approve in order to avoid messy litigation. The PCs must work quickly to get the happy couple reunited in time for the big day.

Referee's Information
    This scenario will work just as well with either the intended husband or the wife doing the disappearing. The referee can impose tasks on the PC group to help with wedding preparations before the main event occurs – setting up security at the reception would be good camouflage for the actual mission. The PCs may be motivated by affection for the patron & intended, but reluctant PCs will be encouraged by members of either family offering cash incentives to find the missing person. However, if the PCs ask for cash payment, this should have social consequences for them once the word gets out. In any event, part of the PCs assignment will be to keep a lid on the fact of the disappearance while they investigate. The referee will determine what impact there will be on the six variables below if the news of the disappearance gets out.
Reasons for the disappearance:

1    The intended spouse has had a change of heart, or wimped out, and is now in hiding, waiting for the date to expire in order to get out of the marriage. The PCs can attempt to reason with the intended, but the intended will try to convince the PCs to not expose him/her, including offering bribes.

2    The intended has been in an accident (vehicular or recreational) and suffered a loss of memory or is in a comatose condition. Persons at the scene of the accident got the intended to hospital, but other than a routine police report, the accident did not make the news. The intended did not have his/her identification on hand at the time of the accident, so the hospital does not know who the person is. There are several hospitals in the capital city.

3    As in number two, but the intended died in the accident. The referee will determine whether the intended's remains have been located, and whether the accident was a natural disaster or a man-made accident. If the accident was caused by another person, that person may try to hide the body and disguise the accident scene to throw off suspicion of fault.

4    The intended has been kidnapped by a jealous rival who wants the a shot at the patron him/herself. The intended is unharmed for the time being, and is held in a location far from the capital. Once the intended is found, getting him/her back to the city in time for the wedding will be difficult. The referee is encouraged to engineer the trip as a race against the clock on the day of the wedding.

5    The intended has a nasty secret (financial trouble, previous marriage never ended, he/she is actually a spy) that suddenly is in danger of being exposed, and the intended is trying at the last minute to handle it. Once found the intended will ask the PC's help in clearing up the matter before the wedding date.

6    The intended has been kidnapped by a jealous rival of the patron, who wants the intended for him/herself. The intended may be brainwashed by the rival.  The rival may threaten violence against the intended or as leverage if confronted by the PCs. If the intended is rescued the kidnapper may attempt to break up the wedding.

In all cases, the referee must determine the flow of subsequent events.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wisdom from the Fathers - Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus

Selected passages from Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church

   For Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the Living God.

   For the Divinity has no need to manifest its perfection either to itself or to others, it is the Trinity and this fact can be deduced from no principle.

   Men have therefore a common nature, one single nature in many human persons. This distinction of nature and person in man is no less difficult to grasp than the analogous distinction of the one nature and three persons in God. Above all, we must remember that we do not know the person, human hypostasis in its true condition, free from alloy. We commonly use the words persons or personal to mean individuals, or individual. We are in the habit of thinking of these two terms, person and individual almost as though they were synonyms. We employ them indifferently to express the same thing. But, in a certain sense, individual and person mean opposite things, the word individual expressing a certain mixture of the person with elements which belong to the common nature, while person, on the other hand, means that which distinguishes it from nature.

   A person who asserts himself as an individual, and shuts himself up in the limits of his particular nature, far from realizing himself fully becomes impoverished. It is only in renouncing its own possession and giving itself freely, in ceasing to exist for itself that the person finds full expression in the one nature common to all. In giving up its own special good, it expands infinitely, and is enriched by everything which belongs to all. The person becomes the perfect image of God by acquiring that likeness which is the perfection of the nature common to all men . . . for as St Gregory of Nyssa says; Christianity is an ‘imitation of the nature of God.’

   Made in the image of God, man is a personal being confronted with a personal God. God speaks to him as to a person, and man responds. Man, according to St Basil, is a creature who has received a commandment to become God. But this commandment is addressed to human freedom and does not overrule it. As a personal being man can accept the will of God; he can also reject it. Even when he removes himself as far as possible from God, and becomes unlike Him in His nature, he remains a person. The image of God in man is indestructible. In the same way, he remains a personal being when he fulfills the will of God an in his nature realizes perfect likeness with Him. For according to St Gregory Nazianzus, ‘God honored man in giving him freedom, in order that goodness should properly belong to him who chooses it, no less than to Him who placed the first fruits of goodness in his nature. Thus whether he chooses good or evil, whether he tends to likeness or unlikeness, man possesses his nature freely, because he is a person created in the image of God.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Help Him Tell the Story of Christian Refugees in Syria

     As an Orthodox Christian (although not an Arab) I am very concerned about the continuing civil war and instability in Syria. Our Patriarch, John X, has his Episcopal seat in Damascus, and his brother, Metropolitan Paul, has for months now been a captive of one of the 'rebel' groups. All of the Christians in Syria, whether Orthodox or not, are under threat from the jihadist groups now at large in the country. Many are fleeing their homes and churches, where they and their ancestors have worshiped our Savior Jesus Christ for centuries. 
     Here is a YouTube video from a journalist who plans to go into Syria, and get the word out to the world about what the Christians of Syria are facing. Please watch the video and consider giving him your assistance. I don't know if this man is a Christian or not, but his mission is an important one.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

This is NOT an Off the Cuff Movie Review. But maybe I will do this one some day. This is a modern 'trailer' for the classic British comedy, done over to make the movie look like an awesome action epic. Enjoy.

For those of you who have never seen this film, please consult the IMDB page. and then go rent this movie immediately.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Memoriam: September 11th

Let us pray for the departed of September 11, 2001:

O Father of all, we pray Thee for those we love but now no longer see. Grant them Thy peace; let perpetual light shine upon them; and in Thy loving wisdom and almighty power work in them the good purpose of Thy perfect will. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

O God, Maker and Redeemer of all those that believe; grant to all Thy servants a merciful judgement at the last day; that they in the face of all Thy creatures may them be acknowledged as Thy true children. Though Jesus Christ our Lord. 

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Photo By Jeffmock (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Things that Go On in a Library - Stuff Found in Books

     I have recently begun a condition survey of a portion of our collection. A condition survey looks at the physical appearance of the books, and notes ones which are in disrepair or otherwise in need of 'cleaning up'. It is slow and laborious, but very worth it in that I get my hands on the books, instead of sitting in my office swilling metadata about the books.

       As part of this project, I am opening and inspecting a lot of books. It should come as no surprise that I occasionally come across an object that has been inadvertently left in the book. People use all  manner of expedient items to mark their place. In my own experience, I've used playing cards, business cards, paper clips and sheets from notepads to mark my place. Twice in my life I've found dollar bills in books; and many years ago, while working in a public library in North Carolina, I discovered a cashier's check in the 4-digit $$ range left stuck in a book. We were able to determine to whom the check belonged and it was returned. The owner was both embarrassed and grateful.

Things I've found in books in my library in the course of this project:

no money so far. Drat.
a rock
a paperclip
checkout slips (lots and lots of these)
a blank postcard
a sympathy card
interlibrary loan slips
a hairpin
a quality control card
a list of call numbers
a post-it with a comment on one of Nietzsche's works
an outline of a biography of Sigmund Freud
an iTunes gift card from Starbucks for a band I've never heard of
the pull-to-open portion of a tissue box top with "I love Jesus" inscribed on the reverse
a syllabus for an English Literature course
a bibliography on post-it notes
index card notes on the psychology of emotions

a boarding pass stub with an email address written on it
a receipt for overdue fines ($0.55) paid - but from another library in the area
an invoice for over $600 paid to a student - but from another library in the area
a note card with an encouraging message to the recipient

      I am not finished with my survey by any stretch, so I may be updating this list if I come upon anything else unusual or amusing. Check back every so often if you're interested. 

    What I haven't found yet is an actual bookmark - a paper or cloth slip designed for marking a place in a book. Our library, like most, prints out all manner of bookmarks and makes them available for our students to take. I think I'll be an optimist and say that they are being kept and used in the student's own personal books, instead of being returned to the library with our books. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Life Lessons from Chess

     Over the weekend my younger son and I played a game of chess. It lasted two hours, which in itself is a testament to my son's improved concentration and focus. I started teaching my boys to play chess two years ago. I'm not a great player but I do all right if I can remember to always look down the board for the likely response to my move. I can't count the number of games that I've lost because of a hasty move that cost me a key piece, usually the queen. As I reflected on this defect in my own play, I got to thinking during a short break about the lessons about life one can learn from chess. Below are few things that came to mind. I can't really claim any special insight or wisdom, and probably better chess players could add a lot to this. All the same, this is my blog, so here's what I think one can learn about life and living from chess:

Be patient. Chess is not like arcade games. You have time to think, use it.

Consider the consequences before you make a move; and its' corollary: Everything you do will have consequences.

Cooperation is better than going it alone. Ask any Knight or Bishop that has been sent to die on the enemy's line all by itself.

Respect everyone, even the little guys. A lowly pawn can take down the King, and a pawn that sneaks to your back line is suddenly a very BIG problem.

Whether you win or lose any particular game, it is always an opportunity for you to learn something. It can be about your play, your opponents, or about life above the board. Every game can make you better.   

Planning is a good thing. Having no plan leaves you at the mercy of an opponent who does have one. 

You can wish for a perfect setup if you want, but the setup you have to deal with is the one on the board. Take life as it comes and make the best of it.

You will have to change your plans if your opponent doesn't cooperate. Which he probably won't.

You always have to make a move on your turn, so make the best one you can. Even if it is not an ideal move, do something. No one wins at anything by being frozen in place.

Opponent is not the same thing as Enemy. When you're playing for fun, play to win, but shake hands and be a good winner OR loser. No one should lose a friend over a chess game.

Expect some losses along the way. No one wins a chess game with their whole army intact. Everyone will face some defeats in life, but as long as you're alive you can keep playing. (Yes, I know there's the Fool's Mate, but seriously, how often does that happen?)

Abandon your plan as soon as it is clear that it won't work. Evil Overlords throughout history have lost it all by clinging to their Evil Plan that isn't working.

Skill and patience, not luck will get you to your goal. Sure, you will get lucky sometimes, but you have no control over when and how often. It is the same as not having a plan.

Every move entails some risk. You can manage it with good planning, but never eliminate it. Learn to live with uncertainty.

And let me conclude with what is our unofficial family motto:

Latin - “tardus stabilis laborque, finis obtineatur”  

English - By slow and steady labor the goal is achieved.

If you've got Chess advice for Life, please add it in the comments section.  

For the record, my son did not beat me (this time) but he did have me on the ropes once or twice. I expect that he will beat me in the not too distant future. If I've taught him to play chess, great. If I've taught him how to live life, even better

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Just Across Town has been published

     My second work of short science fiction, Just Across Town, has been published in this month's issue of Gallery of Worlds, published by Lantern Hollow Press! The journal is available as a Kindle e-book, which you can purchase at Amazon.com.  I made up a book cover with the help of the Pulp-o-Mizer. The cover is not available with the Kindle edition, it is available only here on this blog. Enjoy.

     A while back I wrote up short descriptions of the main characters, which you can find here:

 an excerpt from Just Across Town:
      As Alex was speaking, Consul Tellis dashed out onto the balcony and crouched next to Alex and Eddie. “Captain Howard, I am going to need you and your crew to help me. I'm sure by now you've observed that we are under attack. I need you to . . . .” Several flashes of light played on the palace walls, followed a fraction later by a stutter of booms, mixed with cries of pain from below and frightened screams from the guests on the balcony, who fled in panic. Alex peered through the balcony railing to see squads of Jorabite guardsmen forming up on the hilltop to face the invaders. They were terribly outnumbered, but stood their ground  . . . as Alex watched, most of them fell before the flash-and-boom of the strange guns. The survivors retreated back to the palace through a side door, behind the cover of the cloud of gray smoke the guns produced. Somewhere above them, a bell rang out.
      Consul Tellis tried again, “I need you to get me to the military headquarters building. If we are to stop this invasion, I have to get there.” Alex looked at Eddie, who was looking out at the soldiers advancing towards the palace. The first of them had reached the doors, and had forced them open. As they began to file inside, Alex counted heads, and wished he had brought even his sidearm with him.

and later on . . . 

     Meanwhile, Eddie, Alex and the Consul had made a dash across the street to the shadow of another house. Eddie leaned against the wall, gasping for air. “Gehenna, I wish I could breathe,” He panted. “Yeah, that would be nice,” Alex nodded agreement and sank to the ground. Eddie managed a wry smile. “You know, I always said I wanted to see the universe, but this wasn't what I had in mind.”
      Consul Tellis gave a short laugh, “So why did you buy your ship, then, Captain Howard?” Eddie puffed a few more times and then answered. “I spent twenty years in the Space Patrol, right? Never once in that whole time did we ever leave the Kingdom. We just patrolled the same places over and over again. I wanted to get out and explore. That was what I thought I'd be doing when I joined the Patrol. I saved up all the money I could and got out and bought the Not Yet. I like the name, right? It reminds me there's still more to see. 'Have we seen everything?' 'Not Yet.'” “Well,” Alex remarked, “if we want to do any more exploring, we've got to get this business finished first. Let's get moving again as soon as Jake and Scott catch up.”