If gymnastics is coming from your soul, then you will be an unforgettable gymnast…
~ Natalia Yurchenko
During this past summer’s Rio Olympics there was discussion on Facebook about the women’s gymnastics competition. The stature and physical strength of the gold medalist American women was noted in contrast to the skinny, underaged appearance of their opponents. And their powerful tumbling skills wowed everyone.
While I laud the American victory, I wasn’t wowed. I found the competition aesthetically displeasing. While men’s gymnastics continues to evolve with riskier acrobatic skill, the women’s side of the sport, placing the same emphasis on acrobatics, has lost something. Twitchy, bouncy, bounding, it’s hardly women’s gymnastics anymore. Given the general drift of Western dominated culture this is probably unsurprising. But I don’t like it, and I didn’t withhold my two cents from my teens while watching the events on television. As a kid who watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports religiousl, I’ve followed the sport since the mid ‘70s. In my opinion women’s gymnastics reached its efflorescence at the 1989 World Championships when the Soviet Union — two years from disappearing from the map — fielded the greatest team in the sport’s history. From artistic standpoint it’s been mostly downhill from there.
I’ve been listening to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it struck me that ambient bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood’s incidental arrangements have the tone and texture of old Soviet documentary soundtracks. Some YouTubers have loaded training footage of the classic Soviet gymnasts onto their channels, so I was prompted to take a look.
The Soviet team trained at a secret facility outside Moscow called Ozero Krugloye, “Round Lake” (a moon-shaped lake, if you will). In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cameras went inside this gym which, like everything in the old Soviet Union, looked well-worn with faded panels and browned, oily ballet bars. The footage is unsparing, hardly the stuff of propaganda. With a training regimen as strict as Marine PT, some of the girls have a look of panic as they repeat attempts at mastering moves. There are fun moments: a toga party, practical jokes, and laughter. But mostly clouds of chalk, wrist tape, t-shirts in English over leotards, disheveled hair held back with ribbons of red and white yarn, and facial expressions serious beyond their years.
Those faces are familiar from Saturdays in front of the TV: Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Stella Zakharova, Elena Mukhina, Natalia Yurchenko…names as obscure to most Americans as a list of cosmonauts.
If the name Yurchenko rings a bell it’s because this gal, born above the Arctic circle, reinvented vaulting in the early ‘80s with a round-off back handspring onto the springboard. Three decades later both male and female gymnasts are doing variations of the Yurchenko. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame described Yurchenko’s performances as, “hypnotic for their unhurried beauty” and “paradoxical.” In the documentaries “Natasha” is captured mentoring younger gymnasts, playing a somber piece on the gym’s old upright piano, and exchanging icey stares across the tumbling floor with her gruff and burly coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, her eyes cold and blue as the Arctic sea.
Like all coaches under the Soviet regime Rastorotsky was under the gun to produce champions. The girls felt the “form and pressure” of the time: between 1952 and 1992 Soviet women won all but one of the Olympic team titles in gymnastics. Medals aside, there was an overarching commitment to doing the sport the right way, and they produced routines through strain and sorrow that solved the problem most worth solving: how to express beauty. Theirs was a synthesis of daring acrobatics and sublime artistry. The toe point, the subtle hand gesture, the extension of the limbs into space, the balletic expression — all exuded what Cathy Rigby called amplitude.
In one of the documentaries, choreographer Emilia Sakalova exhorts Stella Zakharova, “Your hands are your language. You speak about life with them…You protest against death and it won’t overcome you. It won’t!”
Years ago my two oldest girls and I attended minor league hockey games with a pair of Russian-Ukrainian friends, a father and son. One evening after a game Sergei (the son) needed to stop by the hospital where he worked to check his schedule. The kids and I waited outside with his dad, Viktor. At length Viktor stood on the concrete parking stop block and began balancing, leaping, pirouetting — as if he were on the balance beam, laughing and smiling and challenging my girls to give it a try. Maybe balancing the human form on the precipice is perhaps a deep-seated Russian thing, as natural to them as picking up a ball and glove to us.
Regardless of how hard the Soviet coaches were, the girls wanted to be at Round Lake. They had expressive aspirations as most people do. The system aside, they were hardly hardened communists (not a few of them have since come to the United States). When I watched them on Wide World of Sports years ago I began to apprehend a humanity “over there” capable of things noble, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. These girls lead me to think about “other” people in terms beyond the geopolitical narrative.
In Moscow, an orphaned girl was taken to the CSKA sports club, “Central Red Army,” known for its soccer and ice hockey teams. The girl wanted to be a figure skater, but jumped at the chance to do gymnastics. Years later, in 1978, Elena Mukhina destroyed a filled-out and less focused Nadia Comaneci at the world championships in Strasbourg, France. If there was one Soviet gymnast who exemplified the ideal, it was Mukhina: tumbling runs on the floor and death-defying moves on the bars and balance beam previously unseen, without compromising a single detail of the graceful line of the studied dancer.
A broken leg kept Mukhina out of the ‘79 championships. In the run-up to the Moscow Games her coaches pushed too hard. At practice, running on a leg not properly healed, she under-rotated a dangerous Thomas salto and snapped her spine.
Lena Mukhina spent the first half her life extending the range of human motion and floating through space; the latter half she spent paralyzed. Bitterness gave way to acceptance and faith. “Everything good in my life comes from God,” she told a magazine. She added that she would do even greater things, and “the world will see.” I can’t be sure, but my guess is that she was referring to resurrection and the age to come. Her body stilled, her large eyes were as alive and contemplative as those of the saints whose icons lined the bookshelves and walls of her apartment.
So as the Rio games fade from view; as the tenth anniversary of Lena’s passing from this present world approaches; as this world seems destined to rekindle a Cold War…here’s to beauty.
In 1993 Contemporary Christian music artist Rich Mullins released his magnum opus, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. The flagship song from that album was “Creed,” a hammered dulcimer-driven recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, punctuated by Mullins’ own affirmation: I did not make it / no, it is making me / it is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.
As a hardcore evangelical (which I still am) and an amateur student of theology (still that, too) I was, at the time, wary of words like “liturgy” and “creed.” My, uh, credo was,
My faith has found a resting place / Not in device or creed / I trust the ever living One / His wounds for me shall plead…
Turns out the late Ragamuffin was onto something a decade or so before the rest of a restless band of evangelicals, exhausted from the culture wars and endless schism, caught up with the value of a liturgy and a common creedal legacy.
Enter a man for the moment. Michael Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley College, an evangelical Anglican theological school near Melbourne, Australia. Bird’s own life has followed a trajectory that resonates with many a Western evangelical: an unbeliever as a youth, a machine-gun toting paratrooper in the Australian military (the Aussie version of Bear Grylls), converted in a Baptist church, then discovering the Anglican tradition. With a Ph.D. in New Testament studies Bird is a prolific author of scholarly articles and books, and maintains the popular blog Euangelion (link in the right column). Writing from a “post-post-modern” perspective, Bird is keen to speak to an audience of believers and skeptics alike trying to figure out which end is up.
His latest book, What Christians Ought to Believe, serves to help the scattered ragamuffins get on the same page as their world becomes increasingly post-Christian:
Know this: the world of our parents and grandparents is no more. We have to realize that the Western world has changed; it either already is or else is very quickly becoming decidedly post-Christian and radically secular. The church is no longer the chaplain for Christendom; it is now a recalcitrant resistance to a secularizing agenda. The church is no longer the moral majority; it is now the immoral minority with offensive views on everything from family to religious pluralism and sexuality. The church is no longer the first estate but more like an enemy of the state through its unflinching devotion to God and its uncompromising refusal to bow the knee to cultural and political lords of the land. [p. 203]
Written like an Ignatius of Antioch — or a soldier who’s slept in some trenches and eaten a few bugs.
His book explains why the Apostles’ Creed is indispensable to shoring up the faith of the faithful, and shoring the faithful together.
As Bird shows in his helpful appendix, the creed was developed from a series of catechetical questions attributed to Hippolytus of Rome around 215 A.D. Each line reads almost identically to the “Do you believe…?” questions from the catechism. As a Western document the Apostles’ Creed never caught on in the Christian East, though it predates the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by more than a century. But as a compact statement it marks the key signposts of the faith identified by the early church.
Bird expounds on the significance of each line of the creed. For example, only three humans are mentioned: Jesus, Mary, and Pontius Pilate. Why the latter? Because Pilate’s inclusion places the central event of the Christian story within recorded human history, as if the creed dares the reader to look into the writings of Philo and Flavius Josephus to ponder whether the events of Christ’s life were historical or fictional.
Bird gives four reasons why the Apostles’ Creed invigorates believers’ faith:
1) In a liturgical context, its recitation marks a logical transition from the ministry of the Word to the Lord’s Supper. “We recite the creed after sermons to remember that we weigh all teachings against the fabric of Scripture as it has been taught in the churches.”
2) The creed promotes unity and fellowship among believers, “a faith that transcends denominational divisions.”
3) The creed places us within the story of God’s plan to usher in the new creation. We are situated with other believers of the past, present, and future.
4) The creed helps strengthen one’s devotional life. Quoting Thomas Oden, “‘I believe’…is to speak from the heart, to reveal who one is by confessing one’s essential belief, the faith that makes life worth living.”
Or, as the Ragamuffin sang, I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am…
In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul reminded his readers that, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth… God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” This was in keeping with Jesus’ dictum that the least in the kingdom of God is the greatest: the last shall be first.
In that same letter Paul also cautioned his readers to be careful with their bodies, viz. sexual immorality, because these are temples of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, these bodies will be raised again. The body — the physical creation — matters greatly; in keeping with the Creator’s righteousness it will be restored and renewed.
Heaven knows I love sports, and over my life I’ve tried my best in football, basketball, baseball, cross country, tennis, golf. But I sucked as an athlete. It made no difference how hard I practiced. I wasn’t endowed with speed or agility or finely-tuned motor skills. So my empathy and sympathy have always been with the underdogs, the losers, those brave enough to participate despite the inevitable fact that they will be destroyed and humiliated on the playing field, the court, or the pool.
Yet, there comes those times when an athlete appears whose abilities are so off the charts, so devastatingly marvelous that you cannot help but sit in awe, as if God were giving us a sneak peak of the physical perfection that will adorn the age to come.
Washington Post writer David Sheinin has taken a beating in comment threads for having compared Olympic and World Champion swimmer Katie Ledecky to a Lamborghini. I won’t be surprised if I “trigger” somebody (such is the state of American culture is these days) by drawing a comparison between this incredible young athlete and the greatest racehorse that ever lived. Frankly, I can come up with no other. What Katie Ledecky did in the recent Olympic 800 meter freestyle event is perfectly reminiscent of Secretariat’s mastery of the field at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. It still tingles the skin to her CBS announcer Chic Anderson’s call as Secretariat put on the after-burners in the back stretch, leaving Sham and the other now forgotten horses in the dust:
“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by twellllllve…Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn…”
Maybe the social justice keyboard warriors should take a chill pill. Sheinin wasn’t intending to “objectify” Katie Ledecky with the Lamborghini comparison. The speed, the elegance, the precision and power of Ledecky’s performance — it all evokes something beyond the reach of humans.
Reflecting on Secretariat’s Belmont run, Pat Lynch said,
It was like the Lord was holding the reins…Secretariat was one of his creatures, and he maybe whispered to him, “Go.” And that horse really went. It was really almost a supernatural experience. It really was.”
Secretariat sailed down the home stretch before a crowd 70,000 spectators, whose collective panic over his breakneck pace gave way to delirium as he crossed the finish line 31 lengths in front. He destroyed the track record by 2 and 3/5’s seconds — an achievement that will likely never be topped.
George Plimpton recalled that teenage girls leaning against the rail wept as “Big Red” blew by.
Steve Crist summed it up: “You’re not supposed to win majors by a dozen strokes; you’re not supposed to score a hundred points — and you’re not supposed to win the Belmont by thirty-one lengths.”
We can now add: You’re not supposed to shatter a world record (your own) while swimming a qualifying heat. You’re not supposed to beat the next closest swimmer by eleven seconds — a distance in the pool as eternal as 31 lengths.
Katie Ledecky is the greatest swimmer in the world. Perhaps the greatest ever. But in an Olympics where the media buzz was focused on Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, Ledecky wasn’t granted the singular attention Secretariat commanded in the summer of ’73 when nothing else was going on besides baseball and Watergate.
Secretariat never had to do post-event press conferences, grant interviews, sign autographs, or pose for selfies with giddy fans. But you could tell he was a proud horse. Somewhere in that equine mind he knew he was a bad ass, and he wore it regally.
Ledecky has done several interviews during and after her Olympic feats. She is impossibly unassuming, taken aback somewhat by the accolades yet taking it all in stride. In an interview CBS’ Nora O’Donnell, coach Bruce Gemmell said that Ledecky’s success is a mix of training, technique, and genetics (ah, don’t I know it) that makes her a “rare breed.”
O’Donnell asked Ledecky, “What do you eat?”
“Ah, um,” [laughing] “whatever my mom makes me.”
So modest, so ordinary, so human, it brought tears to my eyes.
Rapt fans at a Queen concert, 1973
Four decades ago this summer I attended a pool party for our eighth grade class – our last splash together before becoming lowly high school freshmen. We were invited to bring our favorite records to play on the sound system. I brought along Queen’s latest LP, A Night at the Opera, featuring the iconic finale, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a hit. Of the records brought to the party mine got played through a couple of times. My cool factor rose several notches. Cool enough to have an actual girl sit on my shoulders for a round of “chicken fight” with another boy-girl pair.
The first time I heard Queen on the radio (’75) I was drawn to their dense and unique sound. I went to the drug store and bought the single “Killer Queen,” with its scintillating B-side, “Flick of the Wrist” featuring some exotically Middle Eastern guitar leads. A rocking band with some tight female harmonies – or so I thought. Turns out those high-pitched vocals belonged to Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor.
When “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the definitive rock anthem of the spring of ’76 I scraped together seven bucks to buy A Night at the Opera. After immersing myself in it for weeks I turned to collecting their older albums – a good exercise, because in my evaluation everything Queen did after Opera was marked by steady decline. By the ’80s they would become unlistenable to my ears.
Side 1 of Sheer Heart Attack (’75) is Queen’s high water mark. Book-ended by two sizzling rockers by guitarist Brian May (“Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here”), the middle section is comprised of “Killer Queen” and a three-track suite: Taylor’s proto-grunge “Tenement Funster,” featuring a guitar break that nods to David Gilmour on “Time”; the frenetic “Flick of the Wrist,” and the classically infused “Lily of the Valley.”
To say Queen II (’74) is excessive is an understatement. The tracks are so busy and overwrought there’s hardly one I can nowadays listen all the way through, though each has its moments. “Ogre Battle,” for example, opens with shredding, Hendrix-like backwards riff that preludes speed metal.
But the self-titled Queen (’73) has some real jewels. Best known for the single “Keep Yourself Alive” and the AOR favorite “Liar,” the album has lyrical depth to match a musical range that keeps the listener guessing. It includes a dark and obscure track buried at the end of side one. The more I hear it the more convinced I am that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its counterpart, or aftermath.
“A band is a like a sausage factory”
In a 1985 interview with Los Angeles DJ Mary Turner, Freddie Mercury cautioned listeners not to read anything into Queen’s music. There are no hidden messages, no political stances; they were not out to change the world. For Mercury, pop music is a business aimed at satisfying consumers. He categorized Queen’s music as “escapist.” Moreover, the songs were like sausages to be eaten and then, well, you know. He especially didn’t see the need for people go prowling around the band’s old material, or cling to it. They should move on to enjoy new things. For Mercury, exploring other genres and making different kinds of music prevented boredom. Anything and everything was possible, acceptable.
Well, perhaps that aesthetic had been at play all along. So much so that Mercury left space for rather looming figure to make three appearances on Queen.
“Great King Rat” (side 1, track 3) is about a “dirty old man” who leads people into destruction. After a tempo change the voice become first person; he beckons people not to believe their Bibles, and reminds them that when “the great Lord when he died, sinners knelt at his side.”
“Jesus” (side 2, track 5) is highly visual, depicting crowds “going down to see the Lord Jesus,” in search of healing. It’s impossible to determine the slant of this song: curious historical sketch or mocking satire: an “unclean” leper kneeling at Jesus’ feet “rang his bell.”
But the innermost track — the one an impatient listener might skip while flipping the vinyl to get to “Liar” — is no joke.
Bismillah, no! We will not let you go…
“My Fairy King” is Queen at their theatrical best, encapsulating the ground they would cover over their first four albums in four minutes and four seconds. Lyrically, it depicts a land brimming with childhood imagination. Its king “can see things that are not there for you and me.” Lions lie down down with deer; dragons fly like sparrows through the air. In this world the king “can do right and nothing wrong.”
Then came men to savage in the night
To run like thieves and to kill like knives
To take away the power from the magic hand
To bring about the ruin to the promised land
The scene turns to “burning hell with screaming pain,” and a voice calls out in the cacophony, “Son of heaven set me free and let me go.”
A plaintive section follows with a piano line and lyric that anticipate the theme of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Someone, someone…has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
O Mother Mercury
Look what they’ve done to me (yeah)
I cannot run I cannot hide
The denouement of guitar and piano builds in intensity before subsiding in a pool of dying notes, like the light fading from a Maxfield Parrish painting.
As if to say, nothing really matters.
I had every intention of writing about the new Monkees album, Good Times!, currently sailing up the summer pop chart fueled by songs penned by Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Noel Gallagher (Oasis)/Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Perfect for the earbuds while watching the kids at the splashpad. But so much is being said and written about it that adding my own two cents seems pointless.
Moreover, I got side-tracked. While very much in a ’60s frame of mind I noticed that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I mentioned this on Facebook, noting how I admired Watts for eschewing the hedonistic rock n’ roll lifestyle while adding, “I can count on one hand the number of Rolling Stones songs I really like.” Which got me wondering: is that really the case?
So for fun I got on Spotify and scoured the billions of tracks the Stones recorded over a 43 year span to see if I could find enough material to comprise a playlist — an album’s worth of “greatest hits” for a band I really don’t like. I wanted a baker’s dozen, 13 seeming an appropriate number for the Stones. I couldn’t even find 12. But throwing in a couple for purely sentimental reasons I came up with eleven. Nigel Tufnel’s cardinal number.
Here they are in the order I would listen to them:
- “Mother’s Little Helper.” I gave this song to my youngest daughter as a guitar exercise for working on chord changes — and to watch her expression when she heard Keith Richards’ cackling crow call slide on the electric 12-string. She was unfazed. “I like it. But unless I capo it I won’t be able to sing it.” You go, girl.
- “Honky Tonk Women.” This one reminds me of a tall blonde babysitter my brother and I had over the summer of 1969. My bro and I were four and eight, respectively, and she was 14, but very much grown-up to me. When she came over to watch us she would play football with me in the vacant lot next to our property. I remember tackling her once — actually, she ran over me. My face collided with her collar bone and, after a flash of light, the sensation of her frame raking over me: hip, knee, ankle. I opened my eyes to a bouquet of mown grass, perfume, and girl-sweat. Toward the end of that summer our families met at a lakeside park for an outing. She and her sisters sat around me at the picnic table in their swimsuits like sea nymphs, and “Honky Tonk Women” came bursting over the park’s PA speakers. Not that she was ever that kind of girl, mind you. But these memories from summers ago are summoned whenever I hear that cowbell and drum intro.
- “Factory Girl.” Tracks from side two of Beggars Banquet (1968) make up over a third of my list. Both waggish and wistful, this acoustic work finds the band handling the old-time country idiom with a reverence that would win Ralph Peer’s approval. It ranks with Zeppelin’s “Going to California” among tracks you’d least expect from a British rock band. Mumford can’t touch this.
- “Lady Jane.” Keeping it acoustic we go flipside of “Mother’s Little Helper,” from a song redolent of Appalachia to one featuring Brian Jones on Appalachian dulcimer. I read somewhere of Mick Jagger (I think) saying this instrument was used in the olden days of England. But the lap dulcimer is actually German in origin. Regardless, this stately yet fragile piece, done in a modal Renaissance form, stirs like dawn light through stained glass.
- “Stray Cat Blues.” This is an instance where Richards’ maxim on “weaving” guitars actually works. Later in the ’70s some of his and Ronnie Woods’ live duos sounded to my ears like cats fighting; here, the coordination, the energy between the guitars and piano is scintillating. The extended, hi hat-driven outro anticipates Led Zeppelin II.
- “Dandelion.” No apologies to Stones purists here. As a Syd Barrett fan I’m a sucker for a musical childhood frolic with hints of darkness crouching in the willows. The Stones could never write like Barrett, but this comes close. I remember hearing this song as a youth late at night on an AOR station and thinking, “Hmm. So the Stones did some spacey, psychedelic stuff? I need to check out more of them sometime…”
- “Street Fighting Man.” This. Not only is this unequivocally the best Rolling Stones song, it’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Period. It came out the summer of ’68 on the heels of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the donnybrook of a riot at the Democratic National Convention. What amazes in this song is that the only electric instrument present is the bass. The rest is a tour de force of compressed acoustic guitar thrashing, Watts pounding on a toy drum kit, Jones’ sitar hanging over the mayhem like clouds of detonated white phosphorous, and Nicky Hopkins’ reverb-drenched piano galloping off in the left channel. Add to this Jagger’s best vocals of his career: “Heeeeeyyyyyy! Said my name is called Disturrrrbaaance…”
- “Ruby Tuesday.” A song so lovely even Jagger liked it. “Who could hang a name on you?” Well, a Maryville, TN-based restaurant chain liked it enough to hang its name above their doors. As on “Dandelion,” this features Watts’ jack-hammer drumming blasting its way through one side of a dream pop soundscape framed by Jones’ classically-inspired recorder.
- “Under My Thumb.” The most conventional pop song of this lot, it sounds like the sort of thing Major Nelson’s square friends would get up twisting and contorting to during an after-dinner shindig on I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not a Brian Jones groupie, but something I like in common with these other tracks is his incorporation of unconventional rock instruments — in this case, the marimba. I’m convinced that after his tragic departure the group could only move in a garage band direction.
- “Gimme Shelter.” This is the song that launched my search through the Stones catalog. I was familiar Richards’ minacious intro — that spooky, foreboding 40-second annunciation of the end of the ’60s era — but I couldn’t remember the name of the dang song. Apocalyptic is an apt description. This song points not only to the violence that marred the Altamont Free Concert (Dec ’69) but to our age of neoconservative and “humanitarian” interventionism and perpetual war.
- “Prodigal Son.” The final track finds the Stones paying homage to their blues roots. Jagger sounds remarkably like a wayfaring Charley Patton — who always ended his sets with a gospel number — with the ill-starred Jones slashing on slide guitar (he wouldn’t live a year past this recording). Listening to this familiar biblical story we hope that by the end these boys have found their way back home.
So that’s my Stones playlist. It seems to touch all the stylistic bases they covered between ’65-69 — the years I regard as their true golden period. The more I listen to these tracks the more I discover and appreciate about the band. And that’s something coming from a hater.
Syria symbolizes quite a shift in my understanding of a number of things.
In 2003 I reluctantly supported the Iraq invasion. For most of the ’90s I had been an apolitical pietist. Then 9/11 happened, and we were all red-blooded Americans now. Having studied economics in college and despite being registered an unaffiliated voter I tended to support Republican candidates, assuming (wrongly) they were pro-market and agreeing with their hawkish policy prescriptions, especially with the U.S. under a seemingly existential threat.
But in 2006 I became aware of Ron Paul. His speeches and writings sent me back to the ideas I had embraced as a student: free markets instead of crony capitalism, free trade and diplomacy instead of managed trade enforced by aircraft carriers, sound money instead of inflation and debt, and respect for the sovereignty of individuals, states, and foreign countries.
When war broke out in Syria over the spring and summer of 2011 it marked the first time in my life I would resolutely oppose a U.S. intervention. I was a youngster during Vietnam and heard only the side of the story one could hear in Southern Appalachia. In my home and community there was as much contempt for draft-card burners and student peace protests as the North Vietnamese communists themselves. But by the time the Syrian conflict erupted I had a new-found skepticism, especially when talk of supporting the “rebels” began to circulate in the media.
Ah, the media. In 1968 Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet offensive. He returned with a sobering assessment: we had done the best we could, but only a negotiated settlement could end the war. In other words, Uncle Sam wasn’t going to win this one. He should settle for a draw.
Fast-forward to our day. We have no correspondents on the ground in Syria. Rather, Wolf Blitzer faithfully reminds us that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has murdered 250,000 of his own people.* And barrel bombs: a primitive instrument of death used by an army that, until the late fall of 2015, had no access to precision weapons, fighting an insurgency swarming apartment buildings in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Darayya like cockroaches. But Western news services, including Reuters, are relying on a dissident living in a London suburb calling himself the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” A generation removed from the Vietnam era, American media seems to have become adjuncts of the State Department.
Alternative media, as well as the U.S. Defense Department’s own declassified documents, present a different backstory. Wikileaks revealed that in 2006 political counselor William Roebuck sent a cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus outlining a strategy to destabilize the Assad regime, to prod it into over-reacting. Western sanctions have inflicted misery on ordinary people, and the Syrian pound has lost purchasing power at an alarming rate. Charles Glass, a journalist who is no apologist for Assad, has spent ample time on the ground in the country and wrote in his 2015 book Syria Burning that from the early days of the conflict the CIA was escorting “armed men” across the border from Turkey. The Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in 2012 that conditions along the Syrian-Iraqi border had ripened for the emergence of a salafist “Islamic state,” and that such an entity, while unsavory, could be useful to the West and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar) in pressuring the Assad regime to fold.
It amounts to what political economist Tim Anderson calls a “dirty war on Syria.” One doesn’t have to be an Assad fanboy — as I am not — to detect the gross impropriety of the interventions in that country.
What do Americans in general think? As Cronkite would later point out, the U.S. government realized the impact the media had on shaping opinion about foreign interventions and after Vietnam restricted access to the field. Americans relying on the major networks and new channels don’t have enough even-handed information to hold informed opinions on Syria. My perception is that many of them are in a 1972 mindset. They don’t really want American boots on the ground to establish democracy there; but given what they’ve been shown about ISIS they would be content for B-52’s to bomb Syria into oblivion and “let God sort ’em out.”
In the winter of 2015 I visited a Bible study at a small, rural Reformed church in my community. The topic of ISIS came up during prayer requests, and one visibly agitated older gentleman said, “I think we ought to do to them what we done to Japan.” Of course, it was civilians who died in overwhelming numbers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I think his sentiment betrays the American public’s deep inability to differentiate the people of the Middle East. We are, after all, in a post-9/11 America where Muslims are viewed with more suspicion than during the Iran-hostage affair of 1979.
Aye, there’s the rub. Not all Syrians are Muslims, and most Syrian Muslims aren’t Islamists. Syria is home to over two million Christians: Orthodox, Catholic, and Assyrian, with sprinklings of Anglicans and evangelical Presbyterians. These folks stand by the regime and the Syrian Army in spades — not so much out of love for the regime as for their country, and because for now their very survival depends on it. I knew this much when the uprising first began, and for this alone I couldn’t support the armed opposition, whatever its shape or color.
Syrian Muslims, apart from the Islamists, present an interesting challenge to the fairly us-and-them world of American conservative Christianity. As they say, knowing people makes a difference. I taught Syrian Muslim students in community college. I have befriended several more, including Christians, through social media.
What I’ve learned? That being Syrian is the thing.
Religious identity, while important, takes a backseat in their society — the hallmarks of which are lavish hospitality (tears if you don’t accept an invitation to their house for tea and snacks), healthy and delicious food, and good music and dancing (dabkeh, anyone? Dabo Swinney could never keep up).
Don’t take my word for it. Brad Hoff, who served as a U.S. Marines intelligence officer, spent time traveling and mingling in Syria and gives perhaps the best ground-level perspective on what Syrians are really like in “A Marine in Syria.”
Of more import for Americans is the attitude toward Christianity among Syria’s majority moderate Muslims. While probably less the case in rural areas, in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo it is not uncommon for Muslims to join Christian celebrations and parades, especially at Christmas and Easter. Muslims have been spotted praying or meditating at ancient, historic Christian shrines like the chapel beneath the site of Ananias’ house in the Old City of Damascus (where Paul was baptized) or the enclave at Ma’loula.
In an interview with RT a Kurdish girl serving in the YPJ was asked what gave her strength in the fight against ISIS. On her list was “the mercy of Jesus Christ.” What to make of this? Based on my conversations with Syrian friends I can’t help but believe that the two millennia presence of Christianity has left a greater mark on Syria than we might imagine.
I’m not advocating syncretism or universalism here. But God will sort us all out, for sure.
Regardless, I have fallen in love with these people and pray for them.
As for Bashar al-Assad, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist by profession, he’s certainly not the uniformed buffoon of a Saddam or Gaddafi. Historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in 2007 that Bashar was pursuing a secret peace deal with Israel — a deal the latter was pressed to abandon by the Bush administration (indeed, where have you gone, Ron Paul?). But Bashar also inherited from his eagle-eyed father a regime ruthless in suppressing dissent (especially if you belong to the Muslim Brotherhood) and rigidly inert to the kinds of reforms many Syrians would like to see. The Ba’athists seem out of step with the new realities thrust upon the Middle East by neoconservatives and “humanitarian” interventionists. Other parties, representing a kind of loyal opposition, have alternative ideas for a renewed Syria, and having served alongside the government forces during this conflict they wait in the wings. Yet, if independent poll results from July 2015 are accurate, Bashar would still likely win an open and fair election.
In the meantime I throw my moral support to the Syrian Army — a force routinely demonized or, perhaps worse, flat-out ignored by Western media. Lacking the manpower and resources to achieve all of the objectives, their country’s fate will be dictated by negotiations between Russia, the U.S., and their respective allies. But the army still seems the only state institution capable of pushing back the Islamists on the ground (evidence their recent victory over ISIS at Palmyra) and restoring a semblance of order to their country.
It is, after all, their country.
*Latest casualty estimates in round numbers: 110,000 Syrian troops, 98,000 opposition fighters, and 95,000 civilians.
Back in 1998, I think it was, I told a buddy of mine, “You wait. Once Y2K passes without incident you’ll see dispensationalism go into steep decline.”
I’m a dang prophet.
Dispensational theology has indeed lost ground since the turn of the century, but this owes to factors beyond the lack of fulfilled apocalyptic expectation. There’s been a shift of allegiances in the American evangelical world. “Reformed” is the thing these days. “Left Behind” theology, as dispensationalism is often called, is now laughed off as the provenance of literalistic, sensationalistic rubes. Others seeking connection with the ancient and historic church have moved toward liturgical expressions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) where amillennial eschatology rules and rapture-talk is eschewed.
But dispensationalism entered a new phase of complimentary hermeneutics and dialogue with Reformed camps starting in the late ’80s, and has undergone noteworthy development and change.
First, we should note that dispensational concepts weren’t “invented” in the early 19th century. Many of the early church fathers like Methodius, for example, drew up rudimentary “charts” to trace obvious changes in God’s dealings with humankind over the ages. As the joke goes, any Christian who worships on Sunday instead of Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) is dispensational, recognizing that something fundamentally changed after Christ’s resurrection.
In the early 19th century J.N. Darby, a Trinity College classical gold medal scholar turned Anglican deacon, got fed up with the rampant corruption in the Church of Ireland and decided to meet with a small group who felt similarly disenfranchised by the denominations in Dublin. While recuperating from a riding accident Darby began ruminating on the nature, calling, and destiny of the church. As his ecclesiology developed he detected a break between the New Testament church and Old Testament Israel (a century and a half later progressive dispensationalists would recognize that this break wasn’t so clean). This distinction became the basis of the first truly systematic, dispensational theology.
Applying — perhaps subconsciously — a neo-Platonist dualism to his scriptural observations, Darby believed the church to be God’s “heavenly” people, with Israel as the “earthly” people of both the past and the future.
It’s important to understand that ecclesiology, not eschatology, was the basis for Darby’s system. The latter was an implication of the former. That he saw a future, earthly millennium ruled by Christ was nothing new or novel. Many of the ante-Nicene fathers, most notably St. Irenaeus, saw the same thing. But Darby placed a renewed Israel at the center of that kingdom; a nation that would at last inherit all the unique and specific promises prophesied in the Old Testament. The church, meanwhile, would oversee this phase of salvation history from on high, until the final consummation of all things.
Most people have either not heard of Darby or seen only disparaging (and often inaccurate) statements about him in “Left Behind”-bashing articles. The dispensationalism most widely known today was influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible. The system found in C.I. Scofield’s footnotes is similar to Darby’s, but differs in certain respects. Being more of an interdenominational missions guy, Scofield was less concerned with the details of ecclesiology than with prophecy. Through him and his protege Lewis Sperry Chafer (co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary with Anglican theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas), the idea of a pretribulational rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) spread through American evangelical circles.
In the pre-trib rapture scheme the “heavenly” people are caught up to meet their Bridegroom in the air, leaving the rest of the world to endure a period of unique tribulation, a.k.a. the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). This particular tribulation will have the effect of shaking Israel from unbelief, causing her to repent and believe in Jesus, preparing her to meet him as king.
But notice: consonant with Paul’s anguish over his kinsmen in Romans 9, Israel in its present state is seen as lost, in need of repentance and faith toward Christ (Acts 3:20-21). Israel was a kingdom before God in the past age and will be so again in the age to come. But for now? More than a few Jews around the globe reject the modern Zionist project because, according to their understanding, “Israel” cannot exist in blessing and peace until Messiah comes. As the Zionist movement was gaining traction in the early 20th century one prominent dispensationalist, Arno C. Gaebelein, cautioned,
Zionism is not the divinely promised restoration of Israel… Zionism is not the fulfillment of the large number of predictions found in the Old Testament Scriptures, which relates to Israel’s return to the land… It is rather a political and philanthropic undertaking… The great movement is one of unbelief and confidence in themselves instead of God’s eternal purposes.
Which brings us to Christian Zionism — and my thesis: that dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, though easily conflated, are not the same thing.
Granted, it’s an easy step for a dispensationalist to become a Christian Zionist, and many (perhaps most) are. But there are many people that can be categorized as Christian Zionists who aren’t dispensational in the least.
What exactly is Christian Zionism? It’s an attitude of support among Christians for the modern state of Israel. Its best-known exemplar is pastor and televangelist John Hagee. It’s based not so much on a distinction between the church and Israel as the promise and warning of Genesis 12:1-3. Speaking to Abraham, God said,
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
“Nation” here is held as a political entity, Israel as kingdom in the Old Testament and the modern state of our time. Regardless of denominational or theological persuasion, a Christian Zionist is one who, a) believes God has given Israel the land of Palestine, b) believes that Israel enjoys unique blessings — regardless of Jewish unbelief in Jesus as Messiah, c) believes that individuals and nations who support the modern state of Israel will be blessed for doing so, and d) believes that those who don’t support Israel will be cursed.
A bit snarkier, we could add, e) believes that Israel is America’s strategic ally and “best friend” in the Middle East, f) despises the Muslim world, and g) doesn’t get that Middle Eastern Christians have quite a different opinion of the Israeli government from American Christians (anyone recall what happened when Ted Cruz told a group of Middle Eastern Christians that they should support him in supporting Israel?).
Christian Zionist convictions are held with an extraordinary ardor. Israel is supported in all she does because all that she does is God’s will, without qualification. Its slogan on social media is, “Stand with Israel!” (while more than a few Israelis are unhappy with their government’s policies). I was recently unfriended by a Catholic acquaintance on Facebook for making a critical comment about certain aspects of Israeli government policy. Yet, that same gentleman loathes dispensationalism as a damnable heresy.
Dispensationalism is not the same thing as Christian Zionism. That it looks for a future restoration of Israel (a topic to explore further at another time) does not necessarily infer that the present political state of Israel fulfills specific Old Testament promises or unconditional blessings. If anything, dispensationalism admits that modern Israel could be in for some tough sledding during “Jacob’s trouble” (cf. Mark 13:14-26).
I close with these thoughts from Craig Blaising, provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, patristics scholar, and dispensational theologian:
In their enthusiasm for the political resurrection of Israel, some [Christians] seem to have lost sight of the particular activity of [Jesus] the Son of David in this dispensation — which is bringing about reconciliation and peace between peoples. Some have publicly advocated carte blanche support for any policy enacted by the state of Israel. But if political policies uphold injustice, how can Christians support it? How can Jewish or Gentile Christians today support Israeli injustices when Jewish prophets in the Old Testament condemned the authorities in Jerusalem for similar injustices, often to the prophets’ own peril? There were no greater supporters of the Jewish people and the future of Israel under God than Moses, Samuel, Amos, Elijah, Habbakuk, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And yet not one of them confused their commitment and desire for the blessing of Israel with support for or toleration of injustice (Progressive Dispensationalism, 1993, pp. 296-97).