Friday, December 29, 2006

Better Than In Byzantium

I'm currently reading through a three volume history by Lord John Julius Norwich. For enjoyable reading, it has plenty of everything one could want in history: wars, riots, intrigues, treachery, betrayals, palace coups, greed, debauchery, strange turns of events, strange peoples, unexplained mysteries, religious tumults, murders, mayhem, tortures, mutilations, parricides, fratricides, suicides, and regicides.

The history of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration? Hum, No.

Actually, it's Lord Norwich's Byzantium. I just finished the first volume, "The Early Centuries", and have started the second, "The Apogee". I am at the point where Basil the Macedonian, in a plot to grab the imperial Byzantine throne, has finished murdering his buddy and friend, the last dynast of the Amorians, Michael III (aka "The Sot"). Actually, Basil wasn't Macedonian but instead an Armenian; he had only lived in Macedonia for a short time, and he spoke Greek with a heavy Armenian accent.

Confusing? Well, let me put it this way: when reading Byzantine history, one has to pay very close attention.

So far my only complaints about Lord Norwich's history are: firstly, his contempt for Xnty is barely disguised — although he is, for some reason, more laudatory of Islam — and secondly, he simply makes no serious effort to help his reader fully understand the reasons behind some of the religious controversies in the eastern church, controversies which were so important in Byzantine history. Like a good Modernist, he simply throws up his hands and says it's all quite "impossible" to understand. Furthermore, there were a couple of spots where I thought he was getting things simply flat-out wrong. For example, he mistakenly labeled the Paulicians a Xtian sect, when in fact they were just another recrudescence of Gnosticism, an altogether different thing, which back in the Middle Ages would pop up in various times and places, decked out in different styles and flavors. Gnosticism is still around even today and has never really gone away — just check around the local big-chain bookstores to see what I mean. Academe and writers of cheesy novels especially love Gnosticism. However, understanding the distinction between Gnosticism and Xnty was just too subtle for Lord Norwich apparently. But other than that, I found his Byzantium to be well written and very engrossing.

[addendum] I finished the second volume, but I am going to take a short break before tackling Lord Norwich's third book in the series, "The Decline and Fall". One can overdose on this stuff. I do have something to say to those in the Catholic and Orthodox churches who still are hankering for a return to the old Constantinian amalgamation of church and state: sorry, but no, thank you. Byzantium was where that old arrangement existed in spades, and besides corrupting the church, it never really worked right.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

They Did Not Mix

I do keep a dream diary, a noctuary. I try to record any dreams that seem particularly noteworthy. Here is one that I continue to vividly remember, which occurred sometime during the summer, although after checking my noctuary it appears I neglected to record it:
It was evening, and I was standing outside the entrance to a church. The doors were open, and I could see inside a service going on, with many people inside. At first I felt reluctant to enter. Next, I was inside the church, but I don't recollect whether there were any other people there. The inside was very beautiful and well lit. The walls were a light greenish-blue in color, and there were beautiful windows. But what was important was this: I looked up and there on the wall, above the windows, was a large, broad mural depicting a scene. The mural showed a large group of men lounging in a grassy field on reclining chairs of some kind. Their appearance indicated that they enjoyed their leisure. They were leaning back very nonchalantly. Next, I look at a different part of the wall, above the windows, and I see a different scene, one showing a large herd of very woolly sheep. But there were no shepherds attending these sheep.
Here is what I think is the interpretation. It might concern the Church in general, or perhaps just the particular church that I attend. But I really don't know for sure whether the dream is specific or general. But what it did show, paradoxically speaking, was that the sheep and shepherds didn't mix. The lounging men in the dream were the shepherds, but these were concerned only for their own ease and comfort. They seemed satisfied with things as they are. The sheep on the other hand had no one watching over them. They were in a flock by themselves, unattended by anyone. The sheep didn't relate to the shepherds nor the shepherds with the sheep. They seemed to be in different worlds, that are apart from one another.

So I wonder. Can pastors really empathize with the concerns of their people? Do they actually relate to them? Or do pastors view themselves as a specialist class of some kind, up in a lofty tower surrounded by a wall of professionalism, being the people with all the answers and possessing the correct procedures; and down below are the sheep, who are merely their clientele or customers?

The world already has plenty of professional classes of various kinds. We recognize them immediately, and we know exactly what to do during our encounters with them: We take a number and get in the queue. When we get their bills in the mail, we dutifully pay them. But professionals can never be our friends, not really. Therefore, professionals are not like us ordinary folks. They are above us. We might talk to them, but there is a strange albeit polite silence across the table, as though there was an ongoing calculation happening. Professionals calculate because they're professional. They compute their answers before they respond. On the other hand, Sheep lack guile and they bleat stupidly.

Perhaps, initially, the shepherds didn't start out intending to become professionalized. Most professionals have good intentions. But being around sheep can get one's clothes dirty. Sheep are grubby creatures. Perhaps, after a while, the shepherds underwent a process where they begin to distance themselves mentally, and a wall went up, a diplomatic demeanor maintained, a certain distance kept, because it's "professional."

Anyhow, it was an very odd dream, and I cannot help but remember it. Perhaps, this dream is showing a ongoing problem in the Church. Perhaps, the act of looking upwards indicated that it represented the heavenly perspective on what is happening on earth below. I don't know. Interpreting dreams is a very slippery business. And, of course, nobody is going to pay any attention to this anyhow. It's just a silly dream.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Unnerving Hobo

On Friday night I finally watched "Polar Express". The idea of a magical train was interesting, and the movie was very dream-like in places. In fact, some parts bore a resemblance to some of my dreams, especially the urban landscape of Santa's North Pole metropolis. The Hobo on the carriage roof was unnerving in a Stephen Kingish sort of way, but apparently he was not malevolent as he rescues the main character at various points in the story. However, Santa's Elves at the North Pole seemed downright creepy to me, more like midget, shopping-mall versions of Nosferatu. The Conductor's final admonition, which ran something like "it doesn't matter where the train is going just as long you get on", was just about the most stupid advice ever given out in a Hollywood production.