Thursday, August 30, 2012

Some lessons from KGB memoirs about how evil works

Oleg Kalugin was highly positioned in the KGB -- but eventually left the KGB, moved to the United States and wrote a memoir, Spymaster. It wasn't quite a tell-all book; he seems to be protecting the identities of a few old friends and colleagues. But what he did say was eye-opening. In that book, I saw a lesson about how evil works when it doesn't apologize for being evil but still must stay hidden. In some ways it was like a look inside the mind of one of the devils from The Screwtape Letters, and you come away from Spymaster knowing that C.S. Lewis' imagination was nowhere near dark enough.

What does evil do when it can't quite afford to come out of its disguise?

For one, it sows discord and suspicion among people who ought to have been working together. Kalugin showed how the KGB would create news for that purpose. He mentioned the KGB's practice of obtaining American classified documents, altering them to add something sinister or arrogant towards other countries, and then leaking the altered documents to the press. At that point any denials from official U.S. channels seemed self-serving and implausible. Sometimes they would go so far as to have Soviet agents actually commit crimes. He mentioned agents who had been tasked with painting swastikas on synagogues or desecrating Jewish cemeteries. He described a roomful of KGB operatives cranking out hate-mail to a prominent black leader to give the appearance that there was some sort of organized grass-roots hate campaign. The acts of cultural sabotage were designed to hit the press. In America, the negative stories were designed to sow discord, blame, and suspicion among Americans at the natural assumption that some American had done the crime. Abroad, they were designed to shame America and portray them as backwards on a personal level and untrustworthy double-dealers at the government level. The idea that the KGB might be involved was the stuff of conspiracy theorists who were mocked and ridiculed in the press. There were a number of mentions of sympathizers and agents planted in various press agencies, both in America and in other countries around the world. Still, it appears that most of the journalists participated in the honest belief that they were getting real news. Kalugin and his colleagues worked hard to keep a steady stream of anti-American news stories flowing, while doing their best to remain invisible.

Evil also turns people to its side by any means available. The KGB needed a steady stream of information leaks and informers. They would offer money to people with gambling problems. They would blackmail people who had drinking problems or extramarital affairs. They even had agents assigned to seduce people who might have valuable information, and had a "love nest" completely outfitted with hidden camera equipment to make the blackmail easier. Sadly, they often co-opted the church. He painted a picture of Russian Orthodox priests as easy to blackmail and turn informant against their people, saying that a surprising number of them were concealing homosexual relations.

And, of course, evil portrays itself as good whenever it can. They would target people who were frustrated with problems in America, infiltrating campus groups and protest movements. They would subtly work to recruit idealists and turn their causes or organizations into something with an anti-American slant.

Reading through it, I couldn't help but wonder what portion of the poisonous political landscape -- which blossomed under Kalugin's watch as a key operative working undercover in the United States --  actually tracked back to a top secret coordinated Soviet campaign to divide us and sabotage us at a cultural level. Unless a follow-up book is written or someone interviews him to get more information, we may never know the exact scope of their work.

As fascinating as all that may be on the level of history or politics, as Christians I couldn't help but notice it applies to us as well. Evil has some standard tactics. How easily does each Christian group suspect the worst of each other? How often do we take an accusation at face value, without seeing if it is true? How often have we seen people look for a way to shame or belittle another group? Do we take advantage of each others' mistakes, and gloat over each others' sins? Do we willingly speak badly about other Christian groups behind their backs, or to non-Christian listeners? (Given how much evil likes to pretend it is good, it sometimes happens that smearing the reputation of other Christians is done "to show that not all Christians are like that", and may even be seen as "evangelism", or "outreach to the unchurched".) Whenever our Christian relations are poisonous, you can guarantee it's not the spirit of God behind it.

Jesus told us to be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves. As I'm sure has been said before: We tend to get it backwards. Evil has an agenda to discredit us, divide us, and turn us against each other. The more aware we are, the less likely we are to help it along.The more we see how we are working against each other -- and that this is not Christ's work -- the more we can become wise. It's a well-chosen image, I think, that we are to be as wise as "serpents" -- that ancient symbol of malevolent trickery going back to Eden -- to show us who we have to match wits against. And that we are to be as harmless as "doves" -- messengers of hope and peace, and the visible sign of the Holy Spirit's presence -- to remind us what our own goals should be.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The home team advantage

The last two posts were to show that you can go through a formal course of education, master all the material, and still be ignorant of things that weren't considered worth teaching. Who decides what is worth knowing? Who decides what questions are worth asking? Who decides which parts of the big picture are worth hearing, and which views are worth explaining?

We've all seen it happen to our own group: someone has a really mistaken idea about us, and they can't be parted from it.

Sometimes it traces to a single conversation they had years ago, and that one personal experience is filed away in their mind as "the truth about what that group really believes." Anyone who says differently is trying to disregard "the facts" because, in their personal experience, they "know better". How many people cling to the first person they meet from a certain group as "the real thing"? How many people cling to the worst person they meet from a certain group as "the real thing"? (For our own groups, don't we all tend to hold up the saints as examples? But I haven't seen us accord that courtesy to others. Double-standards, really.)

Sometimes we have only heard our own group's presentation of one side of a disagreement, with the other side badly represented (if it is represented at all). It is like a courtroom where the prosecutor first presents his case, then also makes the defense's speech and (unsurprisingly) does a bad job that just happens to make the prosecutor's job easy, and prove his points. It never seems to be seriously considered that this is nothing but a charade. Each group practices the same exercise, each group representing both their own side and their opponents, and the home team always wins. This remarkable home team advantage is rarely considered as exposing serious flaws in the system; it's generally taken as a demonstration of the remarkable superiority of the home team. The home team has an undefeated record; all the more reason why there's no need to take the away team seriously. Why see them play in person? After all, have you ever heard them make a single good argument? (Nevermind who was representing them, when they sounded so comically absurd.)

My point is: It's all of us. When our group has a question about what we teach from the Bible, we line up our proof texts and talking points. But we never consider whether the church down the street might have brought different proof texts to the same question -- or have brought a different question. The Bible is a big book. And what we do to the church down the street is something like what all my childhood history books did to the Nestorians and the Copts: act like they don't exist, like they don't matter, to the point where they aren't even worth a hearing, or worth acknowledging.

It's never quite that easy. Some people really do have wrong-headed views. But if we haven't heard those other views for ourselves, we shouldn't take it for granted that we're right and they're wrong, no matter what the score is back on the home court.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How the Qur'an introduced me to a side of Christian history that I had never known

At one point in the late 1990's, I had a penpal (email pal) in Egypt. Not surprisingly he was Muslim, and some of our discussions were about religion. He had little understanding of Christianity, and I'm sure the same could be said of me and Islam back then. I think we learned a few things from each other. I decided it was past time that I should read the Qur'an for myself. It was my first look into Islam at anything more than a superficial level, and my first look into the culture of Arabia around 600 A.D.

Mohammed, in the Qur'an, shows more awareness of Christianity than I had expected. Granted, some of his comments on Christianity seemed off-the-mark. But he was aware of a few points of Jesus' life: that he was born of the virgin Mary and was crucified (though Mohammed denied this). He was aware of some Christian teachings, though in crude form: that Jesus is the Messiah, and part of the Trinity. He believed that Christians had promoted a mere human to equality with God, and so considered Christianity to be badly and dangerously wrong. 

Between references in the Qur'an and some background reading, I found that Mohammed had more contact with Christians and Jews than I would have expected. Mohammed had a relative who was supposed to have been working on a translation of New Testament materials into Arabic. One of the slaves that Mohammed owned as part of his harem was a Coptic Christian from Egypt. There was reported to have been a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus in Mecca at the Kaba, which Mohammed reportedly forbade his followers from destroying as they were destroying many pagan images. In his earlier days, Mohammed had been a trader, had visited Jewish settlements, and had discussed religion with members of some Jewish tribes, possibly even attending religious services with them. He was aware that the Jews expected a great prophet (as they were still awaiting the Messiah).

In my background reading, I came across information about some Christian regions in Africa and Yemen, of an infamous massacre of Jewish Christians by anti-Christian Jews, of the help sent to the persecuted Christians of the Arabian peninsula from the Christian regions of Africa, of how at one time Mohammed was said to have fled to the Christians for refuge from his pagan opponents, and stayed with them for awhile.

I'm focusing here on the Christian aspects of this "forgotten history"; I have discussed a number of the things I discovered about Islam elsewhere. Between the material I had not learned elsewhere about Christianity and about Islam, I had a growing sense that history was taught very badly in our schools. And I'm not talking about teaching methods or teaching competence, I'm talking about the deep and pervasive defects in the materials that would make it almost irrelevant how well it was taught -- or how well it was learned. The items I read were very much missing pieces in a puzzle, providing the missing background that helped make sense of many of the things that I had been taught. I could see how the gaps in knowledge had compromised whether I really understood even the material that I had aced in history classes, since what I had been taught was taken out of its historical context.

While I consider this kind of thing interesting in its own right, in my next post I plan to come around to the point for this blog's themes of loving God, loving our neighbor, and Christian reconciliation.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Marco Polo alerted me to a knowledge gap about Christian history

Awhile back I decided that, for any book I had seen quoted time and time again throughout the years, I was going to track down the original primary source and read it. And so one day I found myself starting through a translation of Marco Polo's travels.

It was a fascinating read in its own right. Sure, some places were more story-like, and other places were on the technical side. For example, he did insist on giving information about travel times and exchange rates and local currency and such for each new place he mentioned. He wasn't writing only for entertainment; he had in mind that someone might want to repeat his journey and would need that kind of information. His descriptions of Asian lions and of "unicorns" (tigers and rhinos, from the descriptions) were entertaining for different reasons. In general. Polo had a sharp eye for detail.

For each new place that he visited, there was another thing he mentioned: how many Christian churches he found in each place, and of what variety. That was my first introduction to the fact that, back in his day, there were already Christian churches in the major cities in India, China, and the various places along the way. Many of them were Nestorian churches. (The term "Nestorian" is out of favor with their surviving remnants, apparently, but I'll keep it here because Polo did.)

I'm sure I'd gotten the impression that the Nestorians represented a heresy that was refuted and abandoned, and that by the year 500 (give or take a few) they were no longer around. I'm sure I hadn't known that they had split off and become a separate group that continued through the centuries with a large following -- and by "large", I mean "possibly rivaling that of the church of Rome," according to some sources, in those earlier centuries. I'm sure I never heard that they had an independent church structure, had set up a primary See in Baghdad parallel to the Catholic church's primary See in Rome, and had their own bishops and missionaries and monasteries over a sizable territory. I'm fairly sure my impression of the history of the area around Baghdad pictured that region of the world going straight from some pre-monotheistic religion to the Muslim conquests (or rather, to Islam; at the time I wasn't aware of the key role of jihad in the early spread of Islam, either). I'm sure my mental image of the spread of Christianity didn't expect established churches in Marco Polo's day anywhere outside Europe except North Africa or the Asian parts of Russia. The idea that were Christians in the Mongol empire was certainly news to me. (If I remember right, they even sent a fireproof covering to help protect the burial cloth of Christ -- possibly meaning the shroud of Turin -- after they heard its survival had been threatened by a fire.)

So it was while reading Marco Polo that I became aware that my picture of the history of the world had huge gaps in it. It took me by surprise because I was not bad at history as taught in school; I reliably aced the course in high school and in college. The knowledge gap was not a matter of something I had been taught and forgotten; it was more a matter of things that were never taught. It took me by surprise even more because it would have had to involve significant gaps in the material covered not only at every stage of public school, not only at the university, but even in the Sunday school materials we had on church history. How do so many different curricula all skip the same things?

I think that reading Marco Polo was a milestone for me -- not just as a great read and part of a growing love for primary source materials. It was also a wake-up call for whether the information handed down through approved channels is really doing an acceptable job in giving us the information we need about the world in which we live.

In the next post I intend to talk about some more eye-opening primary sources that also touch on Christian history, before I get into more of the implications.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The problem with a summer series ...

The problem with a summer series is that, even when you have it pre-written, if you don't have it divided into handy little stand-alone pieces in advance, it still takes prep time to put together and post. So my initial plan to use some pre-written items this summer didn't actually work out. I regret letting my blog-work fall behind this summer; the schedule has been rough at work. I'm hopeful that in a few more weeks I can go back to a normal posting schedule. Thanks to all for your patience.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Four Senses of Scripture: Aquinas

I have heard before that medieval scholars would often read or understand Scriptures in four senses: historical or literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical. I've seen these defined various ways but usually not clearly, and justified various ways but generally not convincingly. I've seen them explained by example only a few times, and generally badly. For anyone else who finds themselves in this situation, I'd like to quote here an explanation given by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Here he is answering an objection whether Scripture can have more than one sense, or whether that would only lead to confusion.

On the contrary, Gregory says (Moral. xx, 1): "Holy Writ by the manner of its speech transcends every science, because in one and the same sentence, while it describes a fact, it reveals a mystery."

I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i) "the New Law itself is a figure of future glory." Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses. (Summa Theologica, Part 1 Question 1, Article 10)
So here Aquinas gives the literal sense as the baseline of our understanding: how words signify things, but then shows why we have cause to think there may be more levels of meaning than that.

As a second meaning, he recognizes that a human author is limited to recording things, while God also has the privilege of arranging the things that are recorded. So when God is the author, not only do the words signify things, but also the events recorded may have a further meaning. For instance, the symbolism of "Christ, our Passover" is not simply someone's fanciful thought, but a recognition that God's hand was behind there being an ancient festival where the people used Lamb's Blood as a sign of death passing over, and that same hand was behind Christ being called Lamb of God, behind his Last Supper being connected with the Passover meal, and behind his death being associated with the Passover.

A third meaning, the moral sense, he bases on the idea that we are to be imitators of Christ: "Whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do." For example, from Christ's feeding the multitudes we can draw the conclusion that, as he fed the hungry, we also should feed the hungry.

The fourth sense has been termed "anagogical" but these days we might say eschatological, as he says, "so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense." Here we see Christ's resurrection as a promise of our own resurrection, and the wedding in Cana as a foretaste of the wedding feast of the lamb.If God has his hand in writing not only the words but also the events, then the events themselves can foreshadow what is to come. 

So according to Aquinas, other meanings of Scripture are derived from God's hand in arranging history, from our call to follow Christ, and from God's promise of the fulfillment yet to come.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Create in me a clean heart

One clear focus of Jesus' teachings is the emphasis on being pure in heart. Among the blessings he proclaims, he singled out the meek or humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers -- all of which come from a pure heart -- and then singled out a special blessing for those who are pure in heart. He emphasizes being clean on the inside, and how being clean only outwardly is hypocrisy. Christians have long adopted the psalm "Create in me a clean heart, O God" as a regular prayer, part of a standard worship services in the liturgical churches, and often a favorite among the songs that may be sung at times in the non-liturgical churches.

But it is easier said than done. I have realized this summer that I have let the exhaustion of the long weeks at work take their toll on me, in becoming frustrated and resentful at the long hours and lack of time to do much of anything besides eat, sleep, and work. I think that's why "repent" is such a frequent refrain in Jesus' teachings. The call to repent went hand-in-hand with a call to be baptized: a washing that was more about the need for purification in our hearts than our bodies.

So how does God create in us a clean heart? Is there a medicine chest in scripture for that kind of thing, when we look up and realize we have let ourselves become sarcastic or bitter or resentful? Repentance is key: deciding to turn from wrong to right. Prayer is also helpful, particularly praying for the people I resent (whether I have a right to resent them or not) can be healing. But the more time I spend reading Scripture, the more benefit it seems that I get from it. Jesus told his disciples, "Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken to you" (John 15:3). I find that spending enough time reading Jesus' thoughts and actions does have a cleansing effect. I can feel the difference afterwards as some of the dirt on my soul is washed away.