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 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.
The maddening thing about being a Christian parent is driving home from church and asking your younger children, “So what did you learn today?”
After that startled I wasn’t paying attention look in the rearview mirror, they answer with quivering voices, “Ummm…to love Jesus and God?”
Which prompts an unsuccessful attempt to explain the Godhead. The sun analogy doesn’t quite work. Nor the water molecule. The challenge is complicated by the fact implicit in their answer: that the second person of the Trinity became man.
Don’t worry — other religious traditions don’t get it. Honestly, a lot of faithful Christians don’t, either.
If you are a Christian (and unless you’ve been asleep) you’ve probably heard about the ruckus that has erupted in evangelical/reformed circles in the past month over the nature of the Trinity. Specifically, a group of scholars, led chiefly by Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, posit that within the Godhead the Son is eternally, functionally subordinate to the Father. Equal in essence to the Father, but as Son having a subordinate role. This in turn is used to argue for the subordination of wives (women) to husbands (men). One text used to support this is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul writes,
But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
The theological issue at hand involves the last clause: “God is the head of Christ.” Pulling out my ESV Study Bible I noticed that Frank Thielman’s footnote for 1 Cor 11:3 suggests something akin to functional subordination in the Trinity. But, as Andrew Moody points out, “there is a difference between Jesus’ eternal and human life…” This passage points to the relationship resulting from the second person of the Trinity having become man — the Jesus who, as our little ones tell us from the back seat, is to be loved with God.
The manhood of Christ is part of the reason the Antiochian-schooled archbishop Nestorius (431) struggled to accept the title theotokos (God-bearer, or in the Western Catholic tradition, “mother of God”) for Mary the mother of Jesus. In his mind this title overlooked the incarnation: God had become man, and it was his human nature to which the virgin had given birth. In his view Christotokos was a more appropriate title for Mary. But Nestorius’ critics, among them his Alexandrian political rival Cyril, accused him of splitting Christ into two persons, God and a man, instead of one person with two united natures. Nestorius denied this charge [I can’t pursue it here, but I suspect part of the controversy was linguistic, with Nestorius relying on Persian rather than Greek terminology to describe Christ’s person and natures].
I share this to further illustrate how complicated and delicate the job of describing the Godhead can be. An opportunity to pull over and ditch this conversation at the nearest restaurant open on Sunday can’t happen soon enough (with apology to Chick fil A).
In the case of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father, passages like 1 Cor 11:3 don’t help. It isn’t the Trinity in view but Christ in the economy of redemption, i.e. the ministry of God’s Son after incarnation. Michael Bird (whose excellent blog is linked in the column to the right) expresses concern that subordination — even if qualified as “functional” — leads to a “Triarchy” instead of Tri-unity. And as Liam Goligher points out, the attempt to use examples of Christ’s subordination to God during his earthly ministry is anachronistic, reading the redemptive economy played out in time and space back into the ontology of the Godhead.
I’ve read a couple of things Goligher has written on this matter. While unrelenting in defending Nicene orthodoxy (and suggesting that those who don’t hold it shouldn’t teach) it’s clear that his aim is to bring those holding the subordination view back to a proper understanding of the Godhead.
The same can’t be said of a recent post at First Things by Carl Trueman, a church historian of first-rank and scholar I admire. Expressing his disappointment with the eternal subordination position (perhaps “horror” is a better word), he makes several statements that leave me cold:
It seems clear now that the evangelical wing of conservative Protestantism has been built on a theological mirage. Typically, evangelicalism focuses on Biblicism and salvation as two of its major foundations and regards these as cutting across denominational boundaries, pointing to a deeper unity. But now it is obvious that, whatever agreement there might be on these issues, a more fundamental breach exists over the very identity of God…
…Maybe it is time for those Protestants who disagree on this most fundamental and distinctive of Christian doctrines to face the implications and amicably to go their separate ways. Evangelicalism as currently constructed should be dismantled, as there is little of theological substance that holds it together…
…[W]hat does seem clear to me is that confessional Protestants need to think long and hard about their connections to evangelicalism, broadly conceived. There are other, better options out there…
In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities…
Some pretty sweeping pronouncements. Why you want to be like that, Carl?
To be clear: I believe exactly what Trueman believes about the Trinity, which is exactly what the Nicene Creed sets forth. I realize it’s anecdotal, but everything I know about historical orthodoxy I learned first by reading evangelical scholars. To give one example, an article by Craig Blaising on the Council of Chalcedon for Bibliotheca Sacra, the Dallas Theological Seminary quarterly, ignited my interest in exploring the Church Fathers and the theology of the ancient church (which set me on a path that ultimately led to the Anglican communion).
Trueman is correct about the evangelical emphasis on the Bible and salvation for cutting across boundaries. In that process some novel and eccentric ideas crop up that require confronting and correcting. But calls for separation don’t simply clean up the theological work space; they result in the separation of whole groups of people from the conversation. People who need to hear what folks like Carl Trueman have to say.
Well, I would like to say something about the second person of the Trinity, prompted by an excellent podcast discussion at Mere Orthodoxy. While discussing the subordination controversy Derek Rishmawy used a word I really like: sonliness. For me, “sonliness” gets at something that can help us better understand the Son within the Trinity.
He is, after all, the Son — not the “Child.” The New Testament borrows from the Roman idea of sonship to illustrate rights and privilege of adoption into God’s family. Sonship involves being the adult heir to a father’s estate. He’s the heir because he is a responsible person, sharing his father’s interests with the intent to sustain if not expand the estate.
A child, by contrast, is subordinate to its father, being too young, too unaware, and needing to be told what to do. A son knows and shares his father’s purposes and desires; a child needs training and correction to understand what those desires and purposes are.
I remember hurrying home from work one day because a storm was coming, and I wanted to get the yard mowed before it hit. As I pulled up in front of the house I saw the grass had already been cut. My son came out on the porch and said, “I knew you would want that done before it started raining, dad.”
That is sonship. It says I can be at peace because he has taken over things exactly as I would want them. And may I add: you can be 40 or 50 or 60 years old and still be but a child to your own father, breaking his heart.
In the same podcast Andrew Wilson speaks of the “fittingness” of the Son to be the one sent into the world on the Father’s errand — not as a matter of functional subordination, but because it is what a son does. What is that errand? To seek true worshipers who will worship God in Spirit and in truth. This is what Jesus told the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well.
Later, that “babbler” Paul faced the learned Stoics and Epicureans on the Aeropagus in Athens. His message?
“…[W]e should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31)
Neither at Jacob’s well nor the Aeropagus do we find an explication of the Trinity. We get, rather, a call: a call to repent, a call to become true worshipers of the true God. God reveals himself as we are drawn by the Son through the Holy Spirit into fellowship. The medieval iconographer Andrei Rublev depicts this in The Trinity (ca. 1410). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated at a table — and a place is open for you, viewer, on Sundays and other days, to join them. The Son gestures with two fingers toward the cup of salvation — the blood of the New Covenant he shed on the cross for the remission of our sins. This beautiful and theologically rich image shores up our understanding of the Trinity in whose name we are baptized. It unfolds something of the glory of the God we worship in the church.
But the church needs the prophetic edge of evangelism that goes into the byways and hedges, as well as the academies and offices, to seek and compel people to come in.
In doing those things that please the Father, in going out to win treasures for his household, the Good Son isn’t about tripping up those who can’t pass a pop quiz on the nature of the Trinity. Whether it was through crying out to him, “Son of David!” or just nagging persistence, Jesus honored faith wherever he found it.
There’s plenty of time (i.e., eternity) to learn and grow in our understanding and appreciation of the Trinity. The time to repent is now.
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).