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Getting religion, forgetting circumcision

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — some characteristicc lacunae in journalisti praxis ]

As you know, I used to work for Lapido Media, which in turn used to be a media-eductional outlet that emphasized the major role of religion(s) in world affairs, so often overlooked by typically skeptical, secular journos.

Get religion is a fine site with a similar purpose, and today it has a fine article titled With Russia all over U.S. news map right now, how fares its huge Orthodox Church? For instance:

In addition to politics, there’s a historic religious turnabout in Russia that stateside reporters could well develop through interviews with the experts. The dominant Orthodox Church, which managed to survive Communist terror and regained freedom, has latterly emerged as a strategic prop for Putin’s Kremlin.

If that election day peg doesn’t work for your outlet, another signal event comes July 17. That’s the Orthodox feast day of the doomed final czar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot to death by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918 and canonized by the national church in 2000 as saints and “passion-bearers.”


It’s not just journos who forget / don’t get religion — pols in the extreme north do it, too. How else explain this header from Iceland: Iceland male circumcision ban: MP behind plan ‘didn’t think it was necessary to consult’ Jewish and Muslim groups, amid growing anger. The subhead is (from my POV) idf anytbing even more mind-boggling:

‘I don’t see it as a religious matter,’ insists Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir

What does Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir imagine the origin of the practice was?


What else do journos tend to miss?

Well, there’s female obits, for onr thing — although things may be improving in that regard. Here’s a New York Times’ obit, belated but in a good faith effort to catch and patch up: 1932-1963 Sylvia Plath –A postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair. It begins:

She made sure to spare the children, leaving milk and bread for the two toddlers to find when they woke up. She stuffed the cracks of the doors and windows with cloths and tea towels. Then she turned on the gas.

And it quotes her poetry:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.

Okay, it’s International Women’s Day 2018.

Thank you, Anemona Hartocollis and the NYT editors. We mourn you, Mrs easily forgotten behind your husband Hughes.

Year’s End Musings

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — wry thoughts at the year’s turning ]

The best of prophetic moments of the past twelve months according to Propheccy News Watch, and a glimpse of the Atlantic’s this and that..


Prophecy News Watch:

Obvs. the right place to go for a go-to report on the year in prophetic signage, Prophecy News Watch gives us a detailed breakdown of the past year, noting:

Pieces of the eschatological puzzle continue to manifest daily. Even signs that are primarily Tribulation events are casting a shadow today. As I perused news stories of the year, I selected 15 items that tell us time is short. The King is coming soon. Don’t ever doubt that.

Zechariah 12.3 isn’t the most commonly quoted of end times verses, and it’s a bit obscure at first sight:

And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it.

Still, that’s PNW’s first and foremost of 15 notable signs of the times for the past year, and PNW signals it in context:

Jerusalem became a greater “burdensome stone” with Donald Trump’s acknowledgement that this is truly Israel’s capital and holy city. See Zechariah 12:3. Greater controversy will surround her in the year ahead.

It looks like Zechariah (who?) had a point. And whether Zechariah (yes!) was thinking of Trump’s declaration “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” on December 6th as the “that day” which PMW’s Zechariah quotation implies, or maybe December 21st when, as the Guardian put it, the UN “delivered a stinging rebuke to Donald Trump, voting by a huge majority to reject his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital” — well, that’s an open question — perhaps both..


Here’s a Christian point of view. According to al-Jazeera in a piece entitled Palestinian Christian leaders denounce Trump’s decision:

The US move is offensive to “Christians and Muslims around the world who consider Jerusalem as an incubator of their most sacred, spiritual and national heritage”, Atallah Hanna, the archbishop of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox church, said in a statement on Saturday.

“We, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims reject the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he added.

“The US gave the occupation what it does not deserve.”

Pastor Hagee sees it differently, attributing “biblical timing of absolute precision” not just to the President’s December 6th proclamation, but to the actual movement of the embassy, which should occur in the next couple of days, or miss the once-in-fifty-years nark:

He [Hagee] also talked with the president about the significance of moving the embassy in this “Jubilee Year.”

“…I told him that God measures everything in modules of 50 years,” Hagee explained to CBN News. “And I said this is a principle that’s carried out in Leviticus, the 25th chapter.”

“I said, ‘If you look at 1917, it was a Jubilee Year, and the Balfour Amendment came, and then in 50 years, it was 1967, and Jerusalem was reconnected to Israel,'” he continued.

“‘And you add 50 to 1967, and you’re in 2017.’ I said, ‘This is the year to move the embassy and make that declaration because it is a biblical timing of absolute precision,'” Hagee said. “Thank God, he’s going to do exactly that.”

If 2017 is tthe Jubilee Year, we have two Jubilee Days remaining to us for moving the embassy, today included!


Ah, yes — the Atlantic!

The Atlantic has also been recapping past events and articles at year’s end. It struck me as wryly amusing that they made The Case for Humility in 1918, just before the end of WW I — with some surprisingly prescient commentary:

Before our educational system can furnish us the help that it should, the Humanist must learn … to abandon his faith in the mechanical and quantitative methods which belong to science, and to set about the task of reinstating the past in the present.

And again:

Examine the record of the nineteenth century, of the epoch which closed three years ago, and you will find that it is a record of increasing absent-mindedness on the part of men and nations who imagined that they were doing one thing but who were actually engaged in doing something else. They imagined that they were making the future secure by their feverish activity; they imagined that they had only to devote themselves to science and to industry in order to be happy. But, as a matter of fact, the whole tendency of their activity was to make the future insecure; and their blind faith in science and industry is being repaid by the unspeakable misery of war.

The Atlantic then brought us up to speed in 2014 with The Case for Corruption: Why Washington needs more honest graft:

Once upon a time, the budget process was reasonably regular. In fact, it was conducted under what was called regular order. The budget-committee chairmen would do some horse trading to build a consensus within each chamber, the House and Senate would then pass those budgets without too much ado, and the two chambers would work out their differences in a conference committee. Then the appropriations committees would do more or less the same thing, making sure to spread around enough pork-barrel goodies to get their friends paid off and the budget passed. The president and the congressional leaders would be involved throughout the process, every now and then calling a budget summit, but most of the real work would go on behind the scenes.

In the past few years, by contrast, regular order has been replaced by regular chaos. Public ultimatums supplanted private negotiations, games of chicken replaced mutual back-scratching, and bumptious Republican House members took to dictating terms to their putative leadership. Last fall, after one tantrum too many, Congress seemed exhausted. As part of a deal to reopen the government, it returned the task of setting the next fiscal year’s budget to the budget and appropriations committees, sending them off to a smoke-free smoke-filled room to cut a deal.

Sigh — one can’t help smiling at that phrase, “a smoke-free smoke-filled room” — beautifully, concisely, evocatively boustrophedonic!


Boustrophedon — to and fro, as the ox ploughs — oh joy!

Happy New Year to all!

The contiguity between churches and mosques in the early Islamic Bilad al-Sham

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

[ by Greg McMurray — a gest post hosted by Charlws Cameron ]

It’s ny pleasure to offer ZP readers who may be interested in early and surprising Christian-Muslim relations this essay by our friend Greg McMurray. It is admittedly long, and hey, gets richer as it goes deeper. Enjoy. — Charlws Cameron

Sometime in the mid-7th century, the powerful Umayyad warlord Muawiyah traveled with his family to a simple Christian monastery. Nestled along the Great Zab River in the old province of Adiabene, the monks of Bar Qoqa were well known for their works of wonder. During the Arab conquest, the monastery was a refuge for surrounding villagers who miraculously escaped death because of the prayerful intercession of the holy men. The great Arab commander’s visit was to employ some of that same divine protection for his own family and probably for his own imperial power.

There was one incident at the monastery where, while under siege from invaders, the rising flood waters of the river almost swept the Christians away until the surge was stopped by prayer at the last critical moment. Another story has the Arabs chasing the Christians into a church with no provisions except for a jar of water. The monks blessed the water, and it was transformed into a limitless supply as the Arabs were driven off by other divine actions of fire and fury and phenomenon.(1)

Perhaps the region’s most famous miracle working monk was the Assyrian saint Rabban Hormizd . According to the ancient accounts he had a habit of baptizing “heretics”, which was how they referred to the Muslim Arab invaders. When criticized for it, he responded that baptism was not for believers but for the non-believers. To prove it, Hormizd blessed some water to baptize two children, one Christian and the other Muslim. When he approached the Christian child, the water was mysteriously lost, but when he approached the Muslim child the water miraculously returned to the vessel. Vindicated, he continued baptizing that Muslim child and other Arab “heretics”(2)

Hormizd was also extremely proficient at combining baptism with raising the dead. One particularly fortunate soul was the son of the governor of Mosul. At or around the year 640 AD, he healed the young boy while washing him with blessed baptismal waters. The Governor was so grateful that he immediately submitted to be baptized with this “baptism of repentance… as John gave the baptism of repentance unto the people of the Jews.” The Governor then built the famous monastery bearing the name of Rabban Hormizd.(3)

It was amidst this whirlwind of wondrous baptisms and revivifications that the Caliph Muawiyah entered a few decades later with his daughter. According to the old chronicles she was suffering from a withered arm. After being baptized and prayed over by one of the monks, she was healed as well, confirming for the entire Muslim world the miraculous efficacy of Christian baptism.(4) The “Commander of the Faithful” (as Tom Holland reports him to be called), who counted his Jacobite Christian subjects as full-fledged members of the Faithful, understood that, since the majority of the people he now ruled over were Christians, it would be helpful to work with them and with their beliefs. It was also a shrewd policy to use their theological grievances with the Byzantines to pull them closer to the Arabs and to expand his empire.(5)

Now that we’ve reviewed this brief foray into early Christians baptizing Muslims, we have sufficient background to meander through another related topic which Charles and I briefly discussed this week. That would be the relationship between churches and mosques in Syria after the Islamic conquest, as studied by art historian Professor Mattia Guidetti. Guidetti has observed that early mosques in the major cities often were located alongside churches, and, in some rare cases, inside churches. For our purposes we should direct our attention to the city in western Syria, known to the Faithful as Emessa, but now referred to these days as Homs. Guidetti writes,
“Modern scholars have included the early Muslim house of worship among those obtained by requisitioning a portion of a late antique church. Following the evidence offered in the written sources, the church in Homs is said to have been divided into two parts: one area kept by the Christians and the other used as a mosque. (…)

An octagonal Christian structure has recently been discovered near the Friday mosque. This discovery confirms that the mosque stands on an earlier Christian site but does not help to clarify what really happened after the conquest.”(6)

Professor Guidetti doesn’t want to draw any conclusions here, but it just so happens that we here at Zenpundit are known to do just that on occasion. We can perhaps offer some clarity on this subject. The octagonal structure was obviously a baptistery. There is a hint at this a little further down in the paper where the church is described by an 8th century Christian pilgrim as “the large church built by St Helena, in honour of John the Baptist”. That would be the same John who offered that healing baptism of repentance, and this healing baptism was the avenue on which Muslims made inroads into the culture of the defeated Christians.

Baptisteries have a long history as part of churches. The one found in Emessa probably resembled the picture at the top of the page. This is the Palaeo-Christian Baptistery of Santa Maria Maggiore in southern Spain. It was built in the 6th century in the style of the Byzantine architecture of the day. The eight-sided architecture not only provided sound structural integrity. It provided a spiritual scaffolding as well.

The most common interpretation is that the octagonal shape represents the resurrection of Christ. St. Ambrose is purported to have inscribed on the 4th century baptistery found below the Milan Cathedral:

“Eight-niched soars this church destined for sacred rites,
eight corners has its font, which befits its gift.
Meet it was thus to build this fair baptismal hall about this sacred eight:
here is our race reborn” (7)

A symbol of rebirth that the Arabs used to great effect for their Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem and with their baptistery-like bank vault at the Damascus mosque.

A symbol of the highest ascendency of the select Faithful as in Matthew 25:31-32

And when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats.

by the intercessions of the most symbolically powerful number in Revelation 8:2-3

And I saw seven angels standing in the presence of God; and there were given to them seven trumpets. And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God.

Echoed explicitly in the Quranic 69th sura’s “Inevitable Truth” of conquest:

And the angels are at its edges. And there will bear the Throne of your Lord above them, that Day, eight [of them].

The Arab conquerors appropriated architecture and scripture, so it isn’t surprising that they also seized onto sacramental rituals. As we saw in Assyria, the mystical powers attributed to baptism were attractive to the point of bewitching. History professor Jack Tannous writes in his magnum opus dissertation “Syria Between Byzantium and Islam” that sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist were thought to bestow on the recipient supernatural powers and protections.

“People were taking the wooden naqusha — or semantron == and were baptizing it in baptismal waters, a practice Jacob [of Edessa, bishop and monk who translated the Greek bible into Syriac] decried as not even being Christian. The naqusha was being baptized to make it more effective against hail-bearing clouds: people would take it outside and bang on it to prevent hail from falling. They would do the same thing with the cross from churches and the Eucharistic elements. Jacob did permit the use of the naqusha, cross and elements for these purposes, so long as it was done in faith and so long as the naqusha had not been baptized…’Let rather only the waters which are blessed on the night of Epiphany be given for healing and blessing.’”(8)

The baptismal festival of Epiphany, or Eid al-Ghitas in Arabic, became a celebration for Muslims as well as Christians. The Orthodox feast of Christ’s baptism possFaoes doribly has roots in the pre-Christian world. A mid to late winter washing ritual that is performed after the temperatures in the Near East would’ve begun to rise, with rivers still at their nadir and holding the purest waters of the year. It was normal for Arabs to join the baptismal feast because it was a practice that was already ingrained in the peoples of the region.

It became so widespread that by the 12th century a special baptismal rite was established specifically for Muslims. According to Tannous, “Miaphysite Bishop John of Marde prescribed that Muslim children were to be given a different baptism, one for the remission of sins—what he called the ‘baptism of John [the Baptist]’:

There shall only be for them a service of
repentance, that is: a cycle and a prayer and a hymn of repentance, etc. Let the priest baptize the children of the Arabs as he says the following: I baptize this so-and-so in the name of the Lord with this baptism of John for the forgiveness of trespasses and the remission of sins. Amen. And let them anoint them with ordinary oil.

What we have here is an attempt to regulate and control what must have been a very widespread practice.”

It may sound strange to us in the modern West, but considering the political and cultural dynamics of the day, sharing sacred spaces and sacred rituals wasn’t all that unusual in Late Antiquity Syria and Mesopotamia. The region was a crossroads for many cultures in the first place. Islam was a new religion that, despite the beliefs of its most fervent adherents, took several centuries to fully develop while ironically soaking up influences from the tribes it was conquering. Christians who were already divided by obscure theological issues, found themselves cut off from the Byzantine Oikoumene. Some welcomed it, some mourned it, but for all Christians their remaining identity was intertwined with and dependent on their religious community and its rituals. Leaning on them, sharing them, and even wielding them was their key to survival.

Well that’s that. I could probably go on and on about this subject, but I’ve said too much already. Thanks to Charles and Mark for letting me share my ramblings. One addendum that might be of interest to Charles is another bit of comparative culture from Tannous’ book on Sufism,

“Sufism: Massignon pointed out that a number of ‘theological and ascetic’ words used by Sufis were of Aramaic (Jewish or Christian) origin and also pointed to various ‘structural analogies’ between elements of Sufism and Christian and Jewish parallels as well as the fact that ‘a certain number of ascetic Islam’s early works seem to be free transpositions of Christian writings;’ this should come as no surprise, for there is evidence for widespread contact between early Muslim ascetics and Christian monks; in this vein, early Muslim ascetics were fond of quoting Jesus; indeed, the word ‘Sufi’ itself is said to refer to woolen garments worn by Muslim ascetics, perhaps in imitation of the Christian monks whom they interacted with; Muslims themselves made this connection in the early medieval period: ‘Hammad b. Abi Sulayman went up to Basra,’ ‘Abu Nu‘aym al-Isbahano (d. AH 430/AD 1038) reported, ‘and Farqad al-Sabakhi [d. AH 131/AD 748] came to him to him and on him was a garment of wool (thawb suf), and so Hammad said to him: ‘Remove from yourself this Christianity of yours!’; that the first Sufi ribat was established in the hotbed of monasticism that was Syria has been pointed to as another point of contact with Christianity.”(9)

Evidence that fundamental elements of Sufism predate Islam, possibly also predating Christianity.


(1) Wilmshurst (2000) The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East 1318-1913 (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium) p.11
(2) Patrologia Orientalis 13 (1919) p.597
(3) Budge (2009) The Histories of Rabban Hormizd the Persian and Rabban Bar-Idta pp.101-103
(4) Patrologia Orientalis 13 (1919) p.594
(5) Holland (2012) In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire p.365
(6) Guidetti (2013) The contiguity between churches and mosques in early Islamic Bil?d al-Sh?m p.10
(7) Bowersock, Brown, Grabar (1999) Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World p.333
(8) Tannous (2010) Syria between Byzantium and Islam: Making Incommensurables Speak p.301
(9) Ibid pp.497-498

Sunday surprise — Orthodox choral music, and Lutheran

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — for Kristen and J Scott Shipman, Tim Furnish, Mark Osiecki, and whomever it may delight]

Note the words:

Music has certain remarkable qualities, which even the spoken word does not possess. Music does something that words can’t. It goes to the deepest point of who we are, the center of our person, it is a quintessential part of what it means to worship God, to be able to sing to God, to be able to pour our hearts in thanksgiving, praise, Orthodox worship cannot take place without singing.

You know, I have very few things to offer back to the world in thanks for the many, many things the world has offered me, but this remark reminds me of another from John Eliot Gardiner, spoken after Sara Mingardo‘s recitative in his rehearsal DVD for Bach‘s cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63. Gardiner quotes Bach:

Nota bene: Bei einer andächtigen Musik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart. Now I find that very, very significant. That he’s saying wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is present. Which, from a strict theological point of view is probably heresy, heretical, because it’s saying that music has an equivalent potency to the word of God. And I think that in essence is why Bach is so attractive to us today because he is saying that the very act of music-making and of coming together is, in a sense, an act which invokes the latency, the potency, the potentiality of God’s grace, however you like to define God’s grace; but of a benediction that comes even in a dreadful, overheated studio like Abbey Road where far too many microphones and there’s much too much stuff here in the studio itself, that if one, as a musician, puts oneself in the right frame of mind, then God’s grace can actually come and direct and influence the way we perform his music.


And so, once again, here is Sara Mingardo, incomparable:

Guest Post: Impressions of Easter 2017, Rural Russia

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

[ by Mark Osiecki — posted by Charles Cameron ]

I found this semi-private post by my friend Mark Osiecki quite wonderfully written, insightful as to mood in rural Russia, and deeply moving.

In my mind, the arches formed where religion and science meet are among the loftiest in the “hundred gated cathedral of kind” that Hermann Hesse wrote of in his novel Magister Ludi, aka The Glass Bead Game, and this post, with its arch between engineering and eucharist, strikes me as a fine example of the possibilities. With Mark’s permission, I’m reposting it here.


Feodor and I.

Nearly identical in age, we arrived essentially simultaneously into this existence, but within parallel universes…his The Cold War Soviet, mine The Cold War United States. But we laboured professionally within a common belief system…his sect, nuclear physics and reactor-powered plants, mine mechanical engineering and heavy industrial process. Despite our governments’ endeavoring to differentiate their brands of benevolent service to us, we moved in remarkably similar worlds.

The Engineering, after all, is united in its own universal mysticism.

Therein reside incantations…rich in their use of sigmas, alphas, rhos, thetas… symbology universally recognized by all trained congregants. On our respective sides of this planet, we would re-contrive those classical formulae with ritualistic rigor, condense the results into icon-like drawings and present them to sage masters who would ask us “Will this work? Can persons walk under or past this without peril? Is this for the greater good?” We were trained to curtly answer “yes”, of course, confident in our interpretation of The Commandments as bestowed by a Euclid, a Newton, an Euler, a Moore, an Ohm perhaps. Sadly, though, we plied this belief system with the knowledge that it had all too often been deployed not in fact for the greater good but rather to release the great unseen forces hidden within those incantations into enormous, physically destructive effects, eventually bringing grievous harm and agonizing death to many.

But we, we rationalized, incantated for some greater utility. After all, the greater people somehow desired and benefited from the results of our labours. And thus, we and those consuming the products of our work were able to sense no complicity in the release of such destruction.


The Supreme Soviet, one day, stopped.

The Engineering continued despite that passage, but The Orthodoxy – a disallowed belief system – somehow immediately re-emerged adjacent to The Engineering despite the Soviet’s travails over many generations to erase all sentimentality for it. One day soon thereafter, it occurred to Feodor that his inclination towards incantation and application of Commandments could be deployed via The Orthodoxy, also towards the greater good. Thus, he abruptly refocused his faith towards a new set of Unseeable Phenomena, got educated in it, and got to work.

So now, this Easter’s eve in a tiny rural chapel bounded only by hovels and two cemeteries, my friend Feodor is working. It’s 3:30am on what began as a blustery Saturday night, and we are gathered in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred or so consumers of his work have assembled before him in a space where a certificate next to the front door declares its legal capacity of 60. Half of the congregants – people of my generation or older – had come to this belief system after the collapse of the Supreme Soviet un-disallowed it. The rest, mostly younger, were born into it. Now, we here are compressed together, so tightly that we are slightly deforming each other. Every time the person in back of me waves her right arm in signing The Cross – once every thirty seconds or so over several hours – she caresses that image onto my back. My pelvis is in warm, intimate contact with the back of the person in front of me. Were the man next to me attempt to reach in his pocket, I would feel every nuance of that movement, as though his wriggling fingers were en route to one of mine.

Group confessions were jointly said earlier this evening, but this compacted mass of believers is not static. Folks come and go. Most will stay for the entire five-hour fete, with an overflow crowd cresting just about now. A cantor announces that if anyone missed the earlier confession, they may step forward and Feodor will somehow work them in during the balance of the service. If you have ever studied fluid dynamics and observed images or videos of how temperature difference diffuses through a dense medium, you would recognize a similar visual phenomenon here. The contrite shimmy their way forward but you don’t actually see them. Rather, you see the reactions of those already-confessed souls parting to make way for them…a glance over a shoulder, a twist of a torso, a fluttering open of normally closed eyes.

The service, despite its playing out in a language I struggle to grasp, is at least structurally familiar to me. Readings from testaments are performed, a consecration is rendered, praises are sung. A cleansing remorse is conveyed and then sensed as accepted. I take refuge in that familiarity. As the night passes to morning, a subtle crescendo of hopefulness builds within… this certain, family-given sense of being, communicated via a belief couched in the unbelievable.


Thanks you, Mark.

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