by Sam Buntz

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this quotation from the Russian writer P.D. Ouspensky: “The marionettes failed to understand the danger that threatened them and could not see that the very same wire which pulls the villain with a knife in his hand from behind a bush makes them turn and look at the moon.”

Ouspensky wrote that sentence during the Russian Revolution. He was observing his society’s massive complacency—buffered by the casual assumption that Russian civilization would continue on its usual course—when, in fact, the Bolsheviks were already destroying its foundations. Everything was in violent transition. Ouspensky said that the experience of national revolution and ensuing chaos convinced him that no one was really in control; we like to kid ourselves and assume that there are boundaries in the world, institutions and sources of authority that can’t crumble, but our world is as unstable and perishable as that reflected in a single drop of dew. If it’s supported by anything, it’s held up by a kind of persistent collective wish—a wish for permanence. The illusion gets itself taken seriously and becomes, for a while, a fact.

The foregoing paragraphs seem to be gearing up for a typical assault on Trump. But that wouldn’t make much sense: to imply that American society is filled with “marionettes,” tricked into looking at the moon and away from Trump, would be insane. People who are willing to agree with a Bill Maherish generalization like “Americans are stupid!”—an applause line Maher has been weakly using for the entirety of his career—would probably mindlessly assent to the claim that we’re ignoring Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy. But they would be wrong. Obviously, nothing is more discussed right now: everyone’s attention is on Trump. He is the only acceptable national topic of conversation, aside from March Madness. Rachel Maddow waves non-revelatory 1040 tax documents in the air, and rambles about Russian Oligarchs, while the Republicans wildly scramble to find a new way to make Trump’s claim that Obama wire-tapped him sound plausible. Today, the new excuse was: “Wait—maybe the British did it?”

But those issues—Russian conspiracies and wire-tapping plots—can’t be the villain with the knife in Ouspensky’s metaphor. They need to be the moon. After all, these conspiracies are primarily sport: I’m not sure how many liberals really believe that Trump is going to be unveiled cavorting with Russian prostitutes on video, or how many Republicans really believe that President Obama is personally overseeing a Deep State conspiracy to undermine Trump. Both of these ideas seem more recreational than not: they’re political fun n’ games, despite how we may froth at the mouth while playing them.

So, the knife-wielding villain needs to be somewhere else in this picture—the malign actor who will enter the play and shatter our pre-conceptions of how it will turn out. We dread his entrance in part because it will shake us into consciousness of the fact that this is not a world in jest, but a world in earnest (to borrow from Frost). The thing that hovers in your peripheral vision, that makes you swivel and adjust your head to put it out of mind, still remains annoyingly and resolutely there—if in the margin and a bit blurry.

Turning and looking at the moon, in Ouspensky’s sense, can take many different forms: for instance, you might figure that you don’t need to waste time campaigning in Wisconsin, or you may distract yourself from real problems by tweeting about the ratings of a reality show you formerly helmed. Variety is infinite. At any rate, it’s funny: the fact you are most eager to ignore may be the fact that is, ultimately, of the most crucial interest to yourself and your condition.

I think that fact is (probably) North Korea.

News stories about North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM programs are odd business. They are always on the front page of the New York Times. They are highlighted and discussed on cable news shows. The media seems to be doing its duty with regard to this issue… Yet, somehow, no one really wants to talk about it. Aside from a few of the more aggressive and military-oriented voices on Fox, talking heads generally deflate when it comes to this topic. It is just now forcing itself on our consciousness. It remained in the penumbra for literally a decade: three different presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) failed to deal adequately with North Korea… Of course, Bush invaded Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction and shrugged when North Korea began testing actual nuclear weapons. Their legacy of ineffective action and inaction is left, hair-raisingly, to Trump.

All that moon gazing is finally bringing us to a moment of reckoning. Rex Tillerson said today that the U.S. isn’t going to open talks with Kim Jong Un—North Korea simply needs to back down or risk a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear capacity. At the same time, The New York Times recently reported that our ability to launch such a pre-emptive attack is in grave doubt: it’s impossible to know where the North Korean government is storing its nuclear stockpile and missiles, and tracking the movements of the country’s leadership is equally imprecise. One of the most terrifying quotes I’ve read on the question came from President Obama. The Times reported that, last year, he told his staff that he would launch an attack to kill the North Korean leadership and destroy their nuclear stockpile—if it could be done. But it couldn’t. This was disturbing because it demonstrated how insanely high the stakes really are.

I’m certainly not writing this to advocate war with North Korea or to criticize Tillerson’s approach (I say Tillerson’s approach because, realistically, I’m not sure we can say that Trump has an approach—this is an issue where it seems like Secretary Tillerson and General Mattis really are being forced to play Atlas and keep the sky from falling). I’m aiming merely to observe our evasive attitude of mind, and ask if our attention is even in our own control. After all, Ouspensky’s metaphor strongly implies that it isn’t: our minds are born along by vast currents of history, that can either keep them afloat or dash them on the rocks, without taking their volition into much account.

I am, however, a “concerned citizen.” The North Korean situation concerns me. Montaigne once wrote, “Do not worry about how to die: you will know how to do it well enough when the time comes.” I’m curious to know if we have a better plan than Montaigne’s to offer to countless civilians in South Korea—and in the North—or if armed confrontation and appalling mass-death are the inevitabilities they increasingly appear to be.

Eat Together: A Movement

A parable:

A long time ago, the gods and demons gathered together to discuss to whom they should give their offerings. After some debate, the demons decided to put their offerings in their own mouths. But the gods, being wise, served the offerings to one another.


In America and in the world today, there is obviously much disagreement and conflict. When has this ever not been true? The history of the human race is a tragically bloody and murderous record.

Yet, we all acknowledge that it’s become easier to isolate ourselves within our respective ideological bubbles, to never hear voices from outside. Many of us rarely have sustained encounters with people whose life-situations are different from our own. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s clear that there’s a civic emergency in America. Too often, people talk past each other, scream at each other, and can’t really see each other. They see labels, see the bearers of despised ideas, and can’t discern the human beings lying behind them. It seems clear that we need more opportunities for unhampered personal encounters—for people to simply meet each other, talk with one another, and share a meal, on neutral ground. Starting a national “Eat Together” movement would be one way of providing such an opportunity.

The various members of a community, from all walks of life, would gather for a shared and totally free meal on a weekday night (perhaps Wednesday or Thursday). That’s it—no agenda. Just food and people. The organizers would not attempt to convert anyone or give political lectures, while, at the same time, the participation of volunteers from all religious and secular organizations would be much desired in organizing and providing these meals. While additionally fulfilling the function of a soup kitchen, Eat Together would actively seek the participation of everyone, from every conceivable background. Its volunteers would not try to reform or convert others to any cause. They would simply serve.

But those who are eating can and should talk about whatever they want. They shouldn’t feel pressured to start a political dialogue, or avoid politics, or talk about any specific topic, or eschew any specific topic. They should simply be together, and interact organically. Words like “dialogue” or “conversation” shouldn’t even be used in promoting the event. The basic message—“Eat Together”—will be the movement’s entire mission statement.

To give credit where credit is due, the practices of one particular community inspired this initiative. In India, the Sikhs have long held open meals with no proselytizing agenda. Tourists to the Golden Temple in Amritsar in The Punjab are likely familiar with this custom: Sikh communities operate a communal kitchen called a langar, offering free vegetarian meals, acceptable to members of all the major religions of India and to those of no religion. While many Sikhs are not vegetarian themselves, they want to offer food that caters to the dietary needs of Hindus and Buddhists and which fulfills the Halal obligations of Muslims.

The Eat Together Movement should observe the same practice in America, in order to bring as many people together as possible. By not serving meat, the movement more easily accommodates Halal and Kosher diets, not to mention explicitly vegetarian religious groups and individuals. Again, this is not to proselytize for vegetarianism or any other cause, but simply to make the meals as widely acceptable as possible. (It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide vegan and gluten-free versions of the meal, as well.)

In addition to the non-proselytizing nature of the movement and the vegetarian menu, there is another important point. People who participate in the event should not try to sit with those they already know, but simply occupy the next available set of seats, sitting next to whoever happened to arrive before them. They can’t self-sequester into religious or ethnic groups within the dining hall. That would abnegate the movement’s purpose. It’s possible that families and single people could eat in different sections, but it would be crucial to deftly assure that all seating arrangements facilitate interactions with people who aren’t in one’s own group.

Eat Together meals could be held anywhere, in any facility sufficient to accommodate a group of the expected size (a gym, a school, etc.). Letting a different religious group or organization offer its own facilities on alternating weeks might be a viable method, as long as they strictly adhere to the “no proselytizing at meals” discipline. A volunteer committee comprised of representatives from different religious congregations and secular organizations would be highly helpful and likely necessary in setting up the meals.

Also, if one were to organize Eat Together meals in a large city, it would be well to ensure that the venue does not fall entirely within the bounds of a neighborhood defined predominantly by one ethnicity or religious group. Meals should be held close to borders and dividing lines, to bring in as many people from the opposite sides of those lines as possible.

Again, the meals will be free, relying on volunteers and on voluntary donations. However, donations won’t be aggressively solicited. Rather, on the way out, people who’ve appreciated the meal, and want to show their support for the movement, can drop money into a collection box.

Breaking bread with another person is one of the most fundamental and natural steps towards establishing friendship; this seems to be a cultural universal. Traditions of communal feasting and hospitality towards strangers exist across the world, in virtually every society. Further, sharing food together is the most natural expression of human unity, an affirmation both of diversity and of the oneness underlying that diversity. If we could create a new tradition like this in America—or even internationally—it would be a major step towards relating to each other in a less fraught manner.   The Eat Together Movement could help us to see one another, respect one another, and ultimately know one another.

The Cubs and America: Safe at Home at Last

by Sam Buntz

The tension was a relief… I’m talking about the World Series, Game 7.

I’m not sure why I felt so invested in the Cubs’ performance. They’re not “my” team, and I hadn’t followed them during the regular season, though I wished them well in a casual way.  Joe Maddon is from the area where I grew up—Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region—so I was hoping that the Cubs would get their shot.  It’s gladdening to see someone from a low-key area manage to achieve notable things on the world stage.  First, Poconos resident Fetullah Gulen gets accused of fomenting a coup by the Turkish government, and then Hazleton native Maddon achieves the unthinkable.  Nice.  Not a bad year for NEPA…

Yet, while watching Game 7, I found myself involuntarily retracting into a posture of anxiety—not quite a fetal position, but rather the indrawn curl you assume when attempting to quiet a stomachache, huddled up against the arm of my couch.

Now, my emotions obviously couldn’t be compared to those of a devoted octogenarian Cubs fan, gasping the final triumphant breath of his earthly incarnation, as he watches Kris Bryant nail that last throw to first—Bryant smiling helplessly as he whips the ball to Rizzo. Of course, I have no clue what that kind of devotion (comparable to St. Francis of Assisi in its willingness to endure the darkest stretches of poverty and chastisement) feels like. I can’t imagine: the long-tended ember, courting extinguishment for so many decades, yet maintained with cussed resolution, suddenly flaring up within the breast…

Personal qualifications aside, I still felt the tension… Lester’s wild pitch… the sudden shelling of the previously invincible Chapman… Rajai Davis’s home run… the seventeen minute rain delay… The fearful vibe subsumed me, and the bloody, half-gnawed fingernails of Cubs and Indians fans were, for the final few innings, my own.

Yet, as I said at the beginning, this tension came as a strange relief. I was under the pure spell of American Baseball magic, swept blessedly out of the fever and fret that have so characterized 2016. Baseball, this autumn, was not just my own, but The Republic’s choice method of escape.

From the redwood forests to the gulfstream waters, people were tuning out of the NFL, and tuning into the MLB post-season. Now, this can be dismissed or over-analyzed into something sinister by critical theorists. I can imagine a cultural observer staring at the blazingly white faces in the stands at Progressive Field and Wrigley, and noting that Caucasian America seems to be letting off the steam generated by its prolonged Trumpist freak-out, indulging in a bit of nostalgia for the “good old days”—the crack of the bat, the peanuts and hot dogs, the women in the kitchen, the black and brown people safely disempowered, the red-faced Indians’ logo perfectly acceptable. It would be wildly easy to launch such a critique. On a website like Salon, it’s surely the default mode of interpretation. And there’s probably a little truth to it, when applied to some of the bad guys out there. But, speaking for myself, and most Americans, it’s—no pun intended—off base.

The main reason is this: baseball doesn’t feel like something old, actually. Or, it does and it doesn’t. It feels like it’s existed forever, and things that seem eternal don’t simultaneously seem old. For example, I’ve never looked at the sun and thought it appeared a bit ragged and shot-in-the-ass today, a little corny and out-of-date. The same goes for baseball—it’s timeless.

So, during the World Series, the sport wasn’t merely functioning as a nostalgia trip, returning us to the pleasures of an earlier and supposedly simpler time via a heroic contest between two storied, down-on-their-luck franchises. It was primarily a method of escaping from time, from the messy world of presidential elections, of “telegrams and anger” as E.M. Forster put it (though Forster’s telegrams have been duly replaced by tweets.) As rage swirls around us in dangerously widening spirals, it makes sense that Americans should seek liberation from the uncertainties and random outrages of history. Besides, as far as ugly nostalgia for a whiter America goes, baseball isn’t an example—without a generous immigration policy, a huge percentage of the players on the field wouldn’t be there, for starters.

There’s something special and transcendent about the very shape of the field. A rectangular field or court is a straightforward, rigid thing, a reflection of the metaphorical “grid” on which we all compete for survival.   But a diamond—while admittedly still rhomboid and therefore a cousin of the rectangle—suggests a different way. There’s something leisurely and free about the shape of the game, about the way it’s coordinated in time and space. The slowness of baseball, while oft derided, is also part of its appeal. Not too much slowness—but a sweet light trot. You de-pressurize, you zone-in instead of out. When things get hairy, the tension isn’t the tension of mortgages and job applications. It’s a pleasurable kind of tension. You hang out with the game. It just happens.

As George Carlin pointed out in a famous routine, there’s something nice about the fact that baseball’s goal is coming home. He said, “In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home…”

That’s how America felt, for a few minutes on November 2nd, just before 1 a.m.—safe at home.

Except for the Indians’ fans, obviously.

The Everyday Inferno: An Appreciation of Nathan Hill’s “The Nix”

by Sam Buntz

In 2016, a truly realistic writer is, inevitably, also a satirist. It is impossible to squarely depict today’s reality without exploring the richly hued and giddily horrifying dimensions of contemporary chaos—in other words, without charting how the world seems to be satirizing itself. Norms and standards of character, social conventions and order—none of these customary features of Henry James’ cosmos seem to draw near the heart of the matter in the 21st Century.  They are but so many china tea cups patterned over with delicate designs, all cracked beyond repair, disposed casually in the gutter beside an empty package of Jacked Jalapeno Doritos.  A grotesque age, manufacturing grotesque (yet somehow still empathetic) characters on an awesome scale, demands a less circumscribed mode of representation. Only the all-out, the full-on, the unchained, can satisfy.

Nathan Hill has integrated that chaos into an exquisitely crafted book, plotted with all the care of a 19th Century novel. On all levels, The Nix satisfies. It has the world-building and attentive workmanship of Charles Dickens and John Irving (as reviewers have already noted), mixed with a strangely intimate approach to character, unexpectedly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf (one of Hill’s favorite authors, according to a recent interview).  Hill doesn’t use Woolf’s steam-of-consciousness technique, and his book has more momentum and sparkling oddity than the volumes of the Woolfian canon—yet, like Woolf, he places the reader scarily close to the minds of characters who would normally, under the impress of a less-skilled author’s pen, slip across the page as objects of momentary ridicule.  (Among these are the video game addict “Pwnage” and the colossally bratty student/plagiarist Laura Pottsdam). First and foremost, however, Hill’s saga is extremely funny.

The Nix tells the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, an English professor and non-writing writer at a college outside Chicago, and Faye, the mother who abandoned him when he was eleven years old. When Faye shows up on the news, having thrown gravel at the Republican governor of Wyoming (an apparent amalgamation of George W., Ted Cruz, and Trump), Samuel agrees to help her while actually plotting to write a searing tell-all about his mother, this “maestro of being awful.”

Of course, Samuel’s plans regarding the tell-all don’t proceed as expected, and he finds himself the subject of an academic witch-hunt led by the aforementioned Laura, while receiving aid in his quest from “Pwnage,” a comrade from a World of Warcraft-esque computer game entitled World of Elfscape. (Hill was once addicted to Warcraft and the harrowingly comic details of gaming addiction ring with authenticity—an awful rock-bottom realness). Samuel’s search for the truth about his mother’s life eventually leads him back to the riots at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and beyond. Along the way, we see how long pursued objects of desire can grow in illusory intensity—a problem besetting both Samuel and Faye—and note that perpetual national outrage distorts the truth and destroys the possibility of empathy.

Hill’s primary characters, Samuel and Faye, are sympathetic and carefully developed: in the end, they have the reader’s heart. Yet a spirited madness overtakes Hill when he draws his secondary characters. Sublimely outrageous, they tend to glow in our memories, outlined brightly. Laura, for one, brings a negative gusto to the book, an admirable zeal in her badness. Both a hyper-modern idiot and a strange kind of genius, she is cartoonishly entitled, yet doesn’t read like a flat caricature—Hill throws in odd details that grant her an unexpected four-dimensionality.

We learn about Laura’s byzantine schemes for cheating her way though school, and grasp her dismal psychology: “She never felt as secure as she did in dressing rooms rejecting clothes for not being good enough for her, breathing in the deep, gluey smell of the mall.” (There is indeed something “gluey” about the odor of malls). But, suddenly, Hill will throw a detail at the reader which makes Laura’s character open up, like a moment in which Laura sits throwing paper clips up in the air, watching them scatter across a small patch of the floor: “She thought if she could practice this enough she could achieve perfect paper-clip symmetry. She could toss them in such a way that they’d go up and down as a single aggregate lump.” Somehow, within the aggregation of damning details about Laura, this makes her one of us. Her instant of distracted humanity—playing the kind of silly personal game we nearly all invent in vacant moments—makes it clear that she isn’t just a cartoon.  Laura is simultaneously a hilarious and disturbing character because she appears both exaggerated and totally life-like.  It’s a disconcertingly familiar sensation when you live in America these days: whether on TV or in the street, we confront personalities that are both wildly grotesque and recognizably human.

The Nix’s observations on the contemporary media landscape are especially cutting. After Faye assaults the governor, cable news recklessly magnifies the fiasco: “A logo is made: Terror in Chicago.  It whooshes to a spot next to the anchor’s ear and flaps like a flag in the wind […] The news displays a map of Grant Park on a massive touch-screen television in what has become a commonplace of modern newscasting: someone on television communicating via another television, standing in front of the television and controlling the screen by pinching it with his hands and zooming in and out in super-high definition. It all looks really cool.” This sounds fairly satirical, yet it’s the literal truth. (Tune into Shepard Smith’s show on Fox News, 3 P.M. every weekday). Hill has a gift for seeing modern absurdity afresh, for showing us its features outside of their accustomed light.

But the book does much more than satirize entitled students, the chronic glibness of social media, and Caligulan entertainments like the show Man vs. Food. It offers up all of this insanity in order to reckon with it—which is a nice change of pace from the all-too-common tendency to wallow in meaninglessness. If one is permitted to offer real wisdom and insight in a novel in the 2010s—and one ought to be—I would suggest that The Nix manages this feat.

The key lies in the book’s epigraph, the famous Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant: a king orders a group of blind men to touch an elephant and then explain what they think it is. Each man touches a different part of the elephant—trunk, leg, ear, and so on—which leads them to fight about their varying interpretations. In a novel that deals with our pervasive cultural outrage, the perspective implied by this opening quote couldn’t be more appropriate and necessary.  It suggests that our perspectives on reality—whether channeled through the blinders of a specific ideology or a personal wound or obsession—are limited, but that we can sense, if we make a patient effort, the contours of the whole. Beyond this ceaseless turmoil, Hill suggests that something as small as uprooting an invasive mustard plant—engaging in a local effort towards the Good—might point the path towards peace.  (To find out what this mustard plant bit is about, you’ll need to read the book).

In some ways, his perspective is similar to George Saunders’, though expressed on a much larger canvas than that of the Saunders miniature: corrosive observations mingle wondrously with compassion. While the book has been compared frequently and understandably to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I found Hill’s observations and insights to be more profound and less narrowly targeted. Franzen wrote an ambitious and well-crafted novel on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but his characters seemed to be essentially the same person, whether bird-watcher or rock star: the unsympathetic sufferer drowning in viscous national malaise.  (Albeit, Franzen probably intended this; nevertheless, it fatally undercut his openly Tolstoyan ambitions).  By contrast, Hill’s characters are distinct—and, while they suffer, they suffer extraordinarily and colorfully, transforming under the pressure in ways that seem uniquely fitting and true. The ending of Freedom did not seem quite so true, I think (though the scene with a wedding ring encased in a turd has a grisly way of getting itself remembered).

I note all this not to digressively bash Franzen—not the world’s worst writer, by any means—but to indicate The Nix’s unique strengths and place it correctly within the landscape of contemporary literature. It didn’t strike me as a mere “promising debut,” but as a fully achieved work and, if I may be so bold as to venture a prediction, a modern classic. Its craftsmanship, characters, and societal scope should earn it the same sort of massive acclaim that The World According to Garp received upon its release.

At one point, a character in The Nix jokes about writing a 600 page novel that only ten people will read. But the book has already garnered more readers than that. It is rightly calibrated for our time and for all-time, giving us a means of following up on Italo Calvino’s advice in Invisible Cities: “The inferno of the living […] is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

This is the quest of The Nix: to navigate the Inferno, to give its characters space, to teach them to endure.  Whether they learn this lesson will be left, of course, for the reader to discover—yet, the book manages to give us space, in the process, and aid us in our attempts to reckon with our world and see its madness plain.  In an age in which much of our attention is lost to this hectic inferno of distraction, reading The Nix provides an island of stillness and sanity in the midst of the waste.

Kissing Icons, Swinging Censers: The Ancient Vibes of Eastern Orthodoxy

by Sam Buntz

The censer swings… and swings. The censer keeps swinging, persistently, throughout nearly the entirety of this Eastern Orthodox Church service in Central Connecticut—indeed, throughout the recorded history of Christendom. The censer emits little puffs of incense, beseeching the altar, partitioned from the congregation by a barrier featuring paintings of saints. (The first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen, adorns one). Altar boys and assistant priests pass in and out of the swinging doors fixed in this barrier; there is constant activity—things are happening. It’s a performance of color and sound and matter-in-motion, with a sense of silence and stillness lying behind it. You might not understand 75% of what’s going on, but the believers believe in its efficaciousness. They stand in hallowed expectation, waiting to be fed God.

The priest sings the Gospel reading; in fact, with the exception of the homily, the entire service is sung in English with bits of Old Church Slavonic thrown in. Parents hold their children up to kiss icons—images of the Virgin Mary (in Eastern Orthodox parlance, “The Theotokos” or “God Bearer”), Christ, and the Saints. Christianity, which we normally find so familiar—such a known quantity—suddenly appears foreign. After all, the faith began in the East, and here, at a Russian Orthodox Church, the East seems strangely close to the West. Much of what the average Catholic or Protestant accepts as Christianity is certainly present, but there is more—the fullness of the service, the amount of activity and imagery, attended by a chorus of crying babies brought by young families (youth is in short supply at most other denominations these days, though not this one), is impressive, and to a passing observer such as myself, a little intimidating. What’s happening? Suddenly, the priest flaps a white cloth about twenty times over the altar. Why?

(I’ll explain later).

This brief dip into Orthodoxy helped me gain some perspective on Christianity—on what it is and what it does for people. G.K. Chesterton lamented the skeptic’s lack of fair-mindedness towards the Christian Faith, stating that we tend to take it for granted as something ordinary, the wearily trod province of church committees and spaghetti dinners. But, he argued, one could see it more clearly if one first de-familiarized it: “It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.” (The swastika, at the time Chesterton wrote this sentence, was still a peaceful Hindu and Buddhist symbol, and hadn’t yet been stolen by the Nazis).

Sitting—or, primarily, standing—at this Orthodox service, I saw Christianity as such an Eastern faith. Atmospherically, the experience was oddly closer to being in a Hindu Temple than it was to being in, say, a liberal United Church of Christ service… An Eastern Orthodox Mass has the feeling of an ancient, almost Shamanic rite—of something magical and timeless. (I don’t mean to wallow in exoticism, but it’s hard to deny that it’s part of the appeal.) Here, bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of a God, and dispensed to people who are made mystically one with that Deity by partaking of His very being. While this basic purpose is the same as that of Catholic Mass, the presentation has a distinctly pre-Vatican II feeling. (A congregant told me that the Eastern Orthodox mass is closer to the Tridentine or Latin Mass than to the current Catholic version). It is proudly unreformed, and its antiquity is palpable. This is attractive: Eastern Orthodoxy offers a historical connection to the origins of Christianity, and folds to a millimeter the distance between Christian and Christ—time past is time present and time present is time past, to paraphrase a T.S. Eliot line. Naturally, all true believers want to be as close as possible to the living reality of Jesus and the Apostles, to a way of life instituted not by the ever-conniving human intellect but by the pure breath of God. A Protestant fundamentalist can do this by trying to reconstruct true Christian life from a close reading of the New Testament—but an Eastern Orthodox lay person looks to a tradition of ritual and shared experience that claims to go back to the very beginning. Only Catholicism can make a similar claim on historical continuity (though, again, it seems a bit more reformed these days). In the mists of the past, the Mass eludes the sense of being a merely human innovation.

Many of the members of the congregation I visited were former Catholics or Episcopalians, searching for a connection to a venerable tradition, mixed in with a fair amount of ethnic Eastern Europeans. Since Eastern Orthodoxy has a historical pedigree, and since it is both less reformed than Catholicism and less overtly hierarchical (there is no Pope and no doctrine of infallibility), one can feel the peculiar magnetism of its aura. If you were present at the creation—at the origin—you have a strong claim to be the bearer of Christ into the New World.

But why was I there? I’m interested in all religions, and have attended numerous services—from a Sikh Gurdwara to a Swedenborgian reading group to Buddhist and Sufi meditation sessions to Hindu puja—but hadn’t previously been to an Eastern Orthodox Mass. This seemed like an unfortunate gap, given its strong claim to being the original Church. Also, aspects of its inner life—its spirituality—were highly intriguing: on the whole, Orthodoxy has been more open to the mystical life than Catholicism and Protestantism, despite the great mystics of both those traditions. Books like The Way of a Pilgrim and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov further contributed to my interest, as did the sayings of an Eastern Orthodox sage, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who offered this striking and rather cryptic observation about prayer and Orthodox ritual to the philosopher Jacob Needleman: “In prayer one is vulnerable, not enthusiastic. And then these rituals have such force. They hit you like a locomotive. You must not be enthusiastic, nor rejecting—but only open. This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open.”

So—why did I go? Anthony Bloom, vulnerability, Dostoevsky, the way of a pilgrim… Is that a coherent explanation? I think it adds up to one. I wanted to see a portion of the past made present—receive a material impression that there’s something eternal underneath this changing flux of dreamlike appearance. I wanted a little evidence that you can’t really bury the human need to make contact with Eternity under diodes and wires: people will proudly revert to the ancient ways.   Also, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to see if I could enter, if for a second or two, Bloom’s state of vulnerable receptivity to experience. I liked his depiction of prayer: clearing out a space, emptying one’s self of ordinary human thought and emotion, so that a higher influence could enter. It gives a sense of what seekers are likely looking for in Eastern Orthodoxy: an open space in the midst of modern noise, a place where your ear might be able to catch a higher tone.

But, unfortunately, I’m not really a morning person, and my brain was haphazard with irrelevant thoughts throughout the ritual… Additionally, while I’m not what you would call a “skeptic,” I’m not sure I could bring myself to a point where I could feel anything sincere as I kissed an icon or received the Eucharist (I refrained from doing either, out of respect). In order to do it, I would have to shift my stance towards reality in a fairly radical manner… But, nonetheless, I was impressed by the experience.

The form of the Quaker service I went to a week before could be succinctly summarized in one sentence: “The congregation sits in silence, and when someone feels like the Spirit has moved her, she speaks.” (I enjoyed this, and, in many respects, it seemed closer to my own wavelength.) But one could spend multiple volumes detailing the nature of the Eastern Orthodox Mass and Liturgy. There was a long period in which the priest flapped a folded white linen over the altar—there were many flaps (as mentioned earlier). A friendly lay person told me later that the original purpose of this was to ward flies away from the Communion wine.  Yet, even without flies around, the practice remained in place… Mundane gestures take on a mood of sanctity when repeated in a devout manner, I suppose.

To further explore the contrast: Quaker worship intends to connect you to an immediate sense of divine presence—an Eternal Now, in which revelation can still happen.   Eastern Orthodoxy does the same thing through nearly opposite means. It also feels timeless, because it’s been going on forever with its relatively unreformed approach. But it tries to connect you to the Spirit by placing your attention on a heavily symbolic ritual, whereas the Quakers try, mystically, to allow you to open your attention to the Spirit without reliance on any external aid. Both techniques have just claims in their favor, though they lie on opposite ends of the spectrum of Christian practice.

In the midst of the gory mess that we call history, the rituals of Eastern Orthodoxy provide an escape hatch for their devotees, connecting them to Eternity. Many souls in the modern world can’t accept the notion that everything we see and experience is sentenced to the cycle of birth, decay, and death—and neither can I. There must be something that transcends… An ancient tradition like Orthodoxy symbolizes, in my eyes, an ongoing counter-movement beneath the bustle of time—the swift but silent footsteps of Divinity through the ages.

Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

Game of Thrones: The Power of Weakness

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never watched the show, but plan on doing it, this has spoilers. If you’re more or less up-to-date, yet haven’t seen the last few episodes, it doesn’t give anything away].

On Game of Thrones, penile amputation has the perhaps unanticipated effect of making characters into better men. (Or is that actually the expected effect?)  Theon Greyjoy begins his career as a raider and murderer, specializing in pillage and the betrayal of close family friends; after prolonged torture and the severance of his male member, he lands, rather flat-footedly, on the Good Guys’ team. Redemption is possible on the continent of Westeros—but (to understate it) at a price. In the words of Yeats, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

Varys, professional whisperer in corridors, underwent the same thoroughly unpleasant ordeal as a child, making him into a eunuch, and hence, into another one of the Good Guys—though an infinitely more articulate one than Theon. Withdrawn from the field of sexual combat, he’s able to see situations with clarity and empathy; he’s grown rigorously detached, thanks to that initial, cruelly physical detachment.  Again, Tyrion Lannister has a brush with the fate-worse-than-death: he momentarily falls into the hands of slave traders who threaten to divide him from his better half, but decide to wait until they can find a “cock merchant.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to become a genuinely nice person on this show without having endured a physically or psychologically scarring trauma. The heroes are all maligned and beset outsiders—Tyrion is a dwarf, John Snow is of illegitimate birth, Daenerys is initially a powerless outcast forced into an unwanted marriage, Sansa and Arya undergo their own endless gauntlets of humiliation and pain… Even Jaime Lannister became relatively more sympathetic after he lost his hand.  Cersei, the most repugnant villain of all (well, next to Ramsay Bolton… God, this show has a huge cast…) has just undergone her own Walk of Shame, though I’m not sure it will have any serious long-term effect on her personality.

Conversely, Good Guys who haven’t been sufficiently traumatized or maimed fail to survive: Ned Stark is decapitated, and Catherine Stark and Robb Stark get murdered at the “Red Wedding.” Suffering creates depth, and the hoary adage, “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” is proved over and over again on Thrones. By contrast, the rich and powerful are surrounded by an aura of intimidating earthly glory—yet, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of walking appetites. Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Ramsay… all are (or, in Tywin’s case, were) evil in complicated ways, but remain fundamentally shallow. The only characters who can conceive of a situation in total, who have minds that engage with subjects more absorbing than predatory self-interest, are people like John Snow. Snow senses the crucial imperative of uniting with the Wildlings in order to defeat the White Walkers, because his woundedness and outsider status allow him to see the world with awakened eyes.

(As a side-note: when you type words like “Wildlings” and “White Walkers” in rapid succession, you realize how, despite it’s widespread popularity, Game of Thrones is still fundamentally an intense nerd-fest. Yet, it’s escaped the fate of catering exclusively to the Comic Con crowd. Credit, of course, copious nudity for the show’s—ahem—enlargement of its viewership. According to the New York Times, even President Obama watches it—though the same article described Thrones as a brutal recreation of “the wars of medieval Europe,” which it is not.)

Beyond the inducements of titillating brothel sequences, the show’s storytelling strength comes from this narrative of weakness as a paradoxical source of strength. The more terrible things befall Tyrion and Snow and Sansa, the greater the ultimate payoff will be when and if they finally succeed.  At this point, we watch the show expecting to see our hopes for the heroes get thwarted: the record of misfortunes lengthens and lengthens, making the feat of finally steering the survivors to a reasonably satisfying denouement all the more daunting and therefore exciting to anticipate. We quite naturally want to see the apparently weak, yet more resourceful people triumph, but we don’t want this to be easy. We want the resilience they’ve gained to matter, to help drive the story to some sort of happy-ish ending in which the Good Guys finally gain power.

Yet the course of the show strongly implies that power itself may be the problem. When Daenerys takes over Mereen (and, yes—these damned fantasy names do make one feel slightly ridiculous as one types one’s semi-earnest think-piece) she discovers that wielding power is full of dialectical contradictions: if you reign with too much justice and not enough mercy, you spark discontent, and if you reign with laxity, you fall prey to the designs of the craftily unjust.

That’s why The Lord of the Rings has the greatest ending of any fantasy novel. As W.H. Auden observed, the conclusion to the Rings trilogy beats out both the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost in its depiction of how ultimate Good ought to defeat ultimate Evil. In Revelation and Milton’s work, God crushes Satan through superior firepower—which is a little disconcerting, since it implies that the difference between Deity and Devil is not so much a moral difference, as it is a matter of having the biggest guns on your side. The Lord of the Rings gives us epic battle sequences as well, but they’re ultimately a sideshow to the main event: the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom. The Good Guys, Frodo and Sam, defeat Evil by refusing to meet it on its own terms—instead of using the ring to enhance their own power (transforming humble Hobbits into future Saurons, or, less magnificently, future Gollums), they renounce it, and destroy the very object that embodies power.

If the world worked differently, this is what we wish the Good Guys could always do—and it’s what some universally admired heroes (Gandhi, King, Mandela) actually, in a sense, did. They used apparent powerlessness as a paradoxical source of power: their voices were amplified by imprisonment and persecution, not stifled. But, unfortunately, these tactics don’t work in all circumstances: if Gandhi had tried to resist Hitler with non-violence, he would’ve been killed before he’d gained any followers.  The continent of Westeros seems like another place where violence can’t be renounced in order to purchase victory.  It’s a less High Romantic locale than Middle Earth, and the possibility of a fully harmonious conclusion is a bit uncertain.

Perhaps the Good Guys will manage to balance pragmatism and idealism, get their hands on some superior firepower (dragons) and learn how to use it in an effective way, winning single-payer healthcare and free-tuition at public universities for the masses of Westeros. But maybe, given all the mysterious stuff going down with Bran and the Children of the Forest (again, the mild sense of ridiculousness intrudes as I type…) the possibility of pulling the same sort of trick as Frodo and Sam will come to light. It’s possible that, in the words of Dylan, they’ll be able to miraculously, “win the war after losing every battle.”