Archive for September, 2006
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following, as I’m sure many of you have, the discussions and controversy about the new documentary Jesus Camp. Since few big-screen documentaries actually make it to the theaters in my town, I’m probably not going to be able to review this one until it comes out on DVD. But I do have to put my two cents in on what I’ve heard and read so far.
If you don’t know much about Jesus Camp, take a quick look at this video report, which should help orient you (sorry about the scary talking head). If you’re interested, Christianity Today also has an interesting interview with the filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
So far it seems that the general impression the movie leaves you with is: this is why our politics are as messed up as they are, and watch out for these scary evangelical kids who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow!
There are several problems with this message. First of all, as many who critique the film have already pointed out, Jesus Camp only focuses on one kids’ camp (in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, actually), run by one Pentecostal preacher. Lots of evangelicals have been protesting that this doesn’t accurately represent the diversity within evangelicalism, and even Pentecostals have been pointing out that Pastor Becky Fischer and her camp are fairly unusual among Pentecostals.
So I have a very suspicious reaction to Ewing’s response when Christianity Today interviewer Peter Chattaway suggests that the film may promote a stereotype about evangelical Christians and politics, mentioning that he knows evangelicals who voted for John Kerry. Ewing rather condescendingly replies, “But really, Peter, if you look at the numbers, the vast majority vote Republican. So to find the needle in the haystack, you know, I don’t know if that’s our responsibility. I don’t know if that’s very accurate, to portray that there’s a lot of liberal evangelical Christians that vote Democratic, either. If you look at the numbers, conservative people, religious, will usually vote conservative politics.”
But in focusing on this one, on-the-fringe Pentecostal camp and suggesting that it’s the emblem of Christian involvement in politics, isn’t that sort of finding a different kind of needle in the haystack? Plus, Ewing’s comment blatantly ignores African American evangelical Christians, who in large part vote Democrat. Why has “evangelical” suddenly come to mean “white”?
My other big beef here is that, historically speaking, Pentecostals have not occupied the upper echelons of political power. In fact, many lower middle-class or poor whites (or the poor in Latin America, for that matter) are drawn to Pentecostalism because it gives them a sense of worth and agency that they’re not going to find elsewhere. So, in other words, realistically speaking, these kids are not going to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow. They’re not going to have the chance. If you want to look at who’s already got the political power and influence, look at the sleek, middle-class white evangelicals—who have little in common with their poorer, more charismatic cousins.
There’s my little diatribe. The timing of Jesus Camp is kind of funny, because, just having returned from a trip to Arkansas, I’ve been fuming for much of the week about how “monolithic evangelical subculture” has been taking over the more local, more varied expressions of Christian faith that I remember from my childhood. For example, my parents have had such a hard time winning the trust of Christians in their area because they (my parents) are not on the “approved” list of evangelical teachers and writers whose books and DVDs are distributed throughout the country. It’s sort of like a “we can’t trust it unless it comes from Colorado Springs” mentality. Which means that the politics of Colorado Springs get exported, too, and now white Southern evangelicals seem to think they should all vote Republican (whereas many blue-collar evangelicals used to be staunch Democrats).
The furor around Jesus Camp is at least making people (including me) think about how there is diversity within evangelicalism. Who knows? It might even occur to people that there are black evangelicals, too.
Just this week, I came across a Flannery O’Connor quote that struck me in a new way. In her essay “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor advises aspiring Catholic writers to draw their primary inspiration from their region, not from the abstract aspects of their religion. The religion, she trusted, would be embodied within the characters and the story, if the writer really took incarnation seriously. The failed Catholic novel, she writes, tried “to make a culture out of the Church, but this is always a mistake because the Church is not a culture.” Rather, the Church must be embedded within a local culture, with different expression of the same faith in different locales. For O’Connor, this goes back to the Incarnation, which validates the particularity of place, and thus Christ is best represented through local particulars.
So maybe we just need a proliferation of needles in haystacks to remind us of the variety within the body of Christ.
September 30th, 2006
St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai claims to have THE burning bush. Well, actually, a shoot from THE burning bush that has grown its own foliage very nicely. The support for their belief? It’s the only bush of its kind on the whole Sinai Peninsula. The kind Orthodox monk, Father Nilus, who escorted us around the monastery whenever we pestered him, seemed to really believe that this was the real thing, no questions asked. I guess most of the monks I’ve met in my life have been American Jesuits or Benedictines, who are much less interested in relics.
Western Protestants that we are, K, Red Bull and I had a hard time grasping what relics are all about. Especially when we visited the monastery’s charnel house.
St. Catherine’s is in the middle of a big desert, and thus the ground is hard, dry, and generally not conducive to digging. So the monastery has a very small graveyard that can hold about six bodies at a time. They bury the dead monks for a couple of years, wait for them to decay (or not), then dig them up again and place their bones in the charnel house.
The first thing that struck us when we entered the charnel house was the smell. It didn’t smell like dead, rotting animals—it was sickeningly sweet. Father Nilus told us that it was the odor of holiness, and we nodded and smiled, thinking to ourselves, “Ack! Smells like death!” For once, we were actually relieved by the smell of incense when a pilgrim began to burn some.
Then there were the bones: skulls piled on the left, body bones piled on the right, each stack contained by a ceiling-to-floor cage of chicken wire. On both sides, they rose higher than my head. On the right, the monk skeletons were placed mostly with feet towards us. On some of the feet, you could see bits of yellow-gray skin.
Father Nilus must have noticed us looking at the fleshy bits, and he explained to us that remnants of uncorrupted flesh were a sign of the monk’s special sanctity. More nodding and smiling from us.
I should probably explain a bit here about the Orthodox theology of the human body. While at Sinai, I was reading from Timothy (or Kallistos) Ware’s book The Orthodox Church, so almost everything I know about Orthodoxy comes from there. So. The Orthodox emphasize “deification,” by which they mean humans coming to reflect more and more the image of God, both spiritually and physically. Full deification and transfiguration of the body happens at the Last Day, but, in this life, “some saints have experienced the firstfruits of this visible and bodily glorification.” Ware further explains, “Because Orthodox are convinced that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul, they have an immense reverence for the relics of the saints.”
Ware’s explanation helped me to appreciate the Orthodox theology of the body intellectually—much of it accords with my own emphasis on Christ’s Incarnation and what that means for human bodies. I just have a hard time reconciling it with stinky bones.
Byzantine art actually expressed the Orthodox idea of deification in a way I could better appreciate. K had already explained the common artistic motif of the “Deisis” to me: when you see an image of Christ in the middle, with Mary on one side and John the Baptist on the other, that’s a Deisis. Father Nilus told us that John and Mary represent the highest perfection non-divine humanity could attain, male and female. As such, they are a reminder of what we are created to be. They are a kind of new Adam and Eve. The choice of John the Baptist for this symbol comes from Matthew 11:11, in which Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist.” Then Jesus adds, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” There you go. Deification: redeemed humanity returning to our created selves, reflecting God’s image.
(As a completely random side note, the next verse, Matthew 12:12, is the source for Flannery O’Connor’s novel title The Violent Bear It Away, which everyone should read at least twice in his or her life. Just had to put in a plug for my favorite peacock-lovin’ author there.)
Another powerful motif was the image of Mary, with a small Christ inside her, within the burning bush. Why this pairing, you may very well ask? The burning bush was seen as a forerunner to the Incarnation, a type showing how God could enter creation without destroying it (the bush was burned but not consumed, etc.). Similarly, God became incarnate in Mary’s womb without destroying her. (Some interpretations focus on Mary’s virginity, i.e., she became pregnant without her hymen being ruptured, but this seems pretty narrow to me. If you really think of a powerful God whose face was so awe-inspiring that it couldn’t be revealed to Moses without killing him, it’s really amazing—and much more interesting, say I—to think of how God could dwell within a human body at all.)
These symbols were what I carried away from Sinai (along with probably a lot of camel dung on my shoes).
But, to end on a lighter note, Father Nilus also lent us a translation of “Various Narrations of Anastasios the humble monk concerning the holy fathers in Sinai.” Yes! Most of you know that reading early hagiography is one of my favorite pastimes (I know I’m weird, but they’re really delightful). Here’s one of my favorites, which I copied down by hand (like a monk!):
A few years ago there occurred through the permission of the Lord an epidemic in our desert and a certain virtuous blessed father, coming to his end, was buried in the cemetery of the fathers. The next day one of the careless brothers died and was buried on top of the body of the blessed man. When after one day another of the fathers came to his end, coming to deposit his relics, they found that the blessed man had thrown out the body of the careless brother. Thinking that it had happened by accident and not that it was something miraculous, they took him again and buried the brother on top of the body. And arriving the next day, they found again that the father had cast out the brother.
Learning of this, the hegumenos [abbot] of the monastery arrived and, coming to the tomb, spoke to the one who had died: “Abba [Father] John, in your life you were meek and slow to anger and supported all, and now do you cast out the brother?” And taking the relics of the brother with his own hands, he placed them on the elder’s. And he said to him again, “Bear with the brother, Abba John, just as God bears with the sins of the world.” And for that day the elder did not cast out the body of the brother.
Makes me feel better about the charnel house, to think of all those bones in there, squabbling and then forgiving each other.
September 28th, 2006
Well, ladies and gentlemen, if the Warner Bros. publicity people are trying to discourage Harry/Hermione ’shippers (translation: those who agitate for a romance between Harry and Hermione, rather than Ron and Hermione), they’re doing a phenomenally bad job. Just look at the first of these photos. Once again, all the chemistry is between Dan Radcliffe and Emma Watson, while Rupert Grint looks befuddled. I’m starting to respect Rupert Grint more these days, though, since he has apparently been in a respectable non-HP movie, and unlike his co-star Radcliffe, he does not feel the need to overcome type-casting by appearing naked on stage with a horse. Yuck.
On a brighter note, Imelda Staunton’s Professor Umbridge looks about as perfect for the role as you can get without being my sixth-grade science teacher (to whom my parents kindly referred as “Toad Lady”).
And, finally, I’m pleased that, in the group photo, Ginny Weasley is wearing pants (by which I mean “trousers,” in case any British people ever read this post). She’s the only girl to do so, and it can’t be just because she plays Quidditch, because Cho Chang does, too. In any case, as the only girl wearing pants in my preschool class photos, I applaud her.
I still have my doubts that this movie will be any good. Alfonso Cuaron, come back to us!
September 26th, 2006
BEWARE OF SPOILERS! If you have not yet watched last night’s episode of “The Office,” do not read this post until you have done so (this means you, Porpoise!).
My trust in the writers of NBC’s “The Office” has not gone unrewarded. In last night’s season 3 premiere, our Dunder-Mifflin crew dealt with the Jim-Pam cliffhanger just as I hoped they would. Pam broke things off with Roy, but didn’t immediately jump into anything with Jim. Moreover, Jim took the proffered promotion and has been transferred to the Stamford branch, leaving everyone in the “oh, how adorably pitiful” situations we like to see them in.
I even felt sympathy for Roy when he brought Pam the frozen, uneaten wedding dinners and asked her, “Chicken or fish?” Now, if I feel sympathy for Roy, that’s some good writing.
Jim’s attempts to connect with his new, more uptight Stamford coworkers are so delightfully poignant: when he puts the Ed Helms character’s calculator in Jell-O, you know how much he misses fighting with his old deskmate, Dwight Schrute. His silent interaction with the camera crew, as he goes from amused, “yes, I put the calculator in Jell-O” pride to “don’t you dare let on that it was me” fear was priceless.
Entertainment Weekly now has a “TV Watch” going on “The Office,” which means that one of their staff comments on each week’s episode online. This week’s reviewer, Abby West, writes: “Why is it that Michael can say the most idiotic, prejudiced things, out a gay employee, insult his boss, and then, when someone rightly calls him out on it, make me feel sad for him? Steve Carell is a genius, that’s why. A genius, I say.”
I’m with West there. As far as I’m concerned, Steve Carell’s ability to inject obnoxious boss Michael Scott with pathos takes the NBC show beyond its BBC predecessor. The more sympathetic Michael emerged at the beginning of the second season, when the American show came into its own. The premiere of the second season in September 2005 also coincided with the aftermath of the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin: with audiences having responded so well to Carell’s sweetly pathetic character in that movie, the timing worked well for introducing a more sympathetic side of Michael. And it hasn’t gotten old.
Our guests assembled to watch “The Office” last night debated about when—not if—Jim will return to the Scranton branch. Dormouse predicts that it will be just in time for “sweeps” in November. We’ll see. Until then, we’ll glare at usurper Ryan, who has no right to sit at Jim’s desk!
September 22nd, 2006
We interrupt our scheduled tales of Sinai to bring you a few snippets of my latest adventures visiting the family in Arkansas (a.k.a The Promised Land).
First of all, Tirian the Sheltie puppy, who is now five months old, is as adorable as promised. I’m also happy to find that he’s a bit obsessive-compulsive—which means that he truly is a member of our family. If something is out of place, Tirian will bark at it until someone puts it back where it belongs. It’s partially that herding dog instinct to make sure the sheep are where they should be, but he seems to take this impulse farther than any of my family’s previous Shelties.
Much of my time in Arkansas was spent playing tug with Tirian, running with Tirian, chasing Tirian when he ran away with my socks, keeping Tirian from nibbling my hair, etc. I think he somehow knows that I’m his less furry big sister. The Mink also flew to Arkansas to join us, and Tirian welcomed her as an auntie.
We took the pupster on a few short hikes, but even cute, intelligent, OCD puppies can’t handle a six-mile hike, so we left him behind the day Pop Otter, Mink, and I went to a place called Hemmed-In Hollow, which boasts the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies. It was a good thing that we left him behind, for this was the day of my near-death encounter with a copperhead.
Okay, so it didn’t bite me. But it very easily could have. We were hiking in a line of three, Dad in front, me in the middle, and Mink in back. Dad must have stepped over the copperhead without seeing it, but I saw it in the middle of the trail just as I was about to step on it. Having seen them a lot (but usually squashed by the side of the road) while growing up, I knew what it was immediately. I think I thought “copperhead” before I even thought “snake.” I jumped back and started shrieking my head off like an idiot.
The copperhead darted off to the side of the trail and stayed there, still within full view.
By this time, Pop Otter had turned around and yelled, “Don’t move! Stay there!” I had no intention of moving, even if I hadn’t been paralyzed with fear. Behind me, Mink’s leg’s were shaking.
Pop Otter took a detour around on the other side of the trail to reach us, looking at the snake as he did so. “It’s a copperhead,” he announced. I know it’s a copperhead, I thought—that’s why I’m screaming.
It’s amazing how many thoughts can run through your head at once when you’re scared. At first, I’d been indignant, thinking Dad had seen the copperhead and not told us about it so that we wouldn’t panic. But when I realized that he hadn’t seen it at all, I was mad at him for not having seen it. The fear switch and the irrational anger switch seem to be closely related in us humans.
Mink and I refused to go farther on that trail, for fear that the copperhead might sneak back onto it and be in the same place on our way back. So we retraced our steps . . . and discovered that we had been on the wrong path after all. The copperhead path would have led us to the river, but not to the waterfall. Now, if I were a Calvinist, I’d say that it was all for the best, and that the copperhead was meant to turn us back onto the right path. But I ain’t no Calvinist. If God were really that concerned that we see the waterfall instead of the river, I’m sure he could have made us pay attention to the signs in the first place. I’m not going to blame the inconvenient whereabouts of snakes on God and insincerely call it a “blessing.” But I will be thankful that none of us had to be carried out of the woods with a tourniquet-wrapped leg.
I also seem to have acquired either chigger bites or poison ivy (probably the latter, I fear) on one of our hikes. Gee, I’ve missed Arkansas. (And those of you who know me know that I really do miss my home state, even though it has many death- or itch-inducing critters.)
September 21st, 2006
When pilgrims traveled by foot, it took them eight days to get from Cairo to Mount Sinai. It took us only a few hours, but we did begin to feel like some of our journey was a penance.
We had arrived at the Cairo airport in the evening (K and I from Istanbul, K’s brother, who I think I’ll call “Red Bull,”* from the U.S.—Prairie Dog had gone on to explore other parts of Turkey with some friends, so we joined up with our new male “chaperone” in Egypt). We successfully negotiated our first taxi of the trip and set out for our hotel.
Riding in a taxi in Cairo requires a sense of humor. There are traffic lanes, but, as in many countries, they’re rather irrelevant. More important is your car’s horn, which gets employed frequently—not in an impatient or rude way like in the U.S., but in a more informative “I’m letting you know I’m over here” sort of way. One of our later drivers, describing Cairo traffic, made weaving, crossing-over motions with his hands and said, “Is easy.” And there is a kind of flow to it, once you get used to it. I still had my moments, though, of cringing in the back seat of the taxi and squeaking, “Don’t hit those donkeys! Please don’t hit the donkeys!”
And then there was the moment when our driver was about to get on a highway and saw that the traffic was backed-up, standing still. Almost in unison, he and a couple of cars ahead of him started driving backward up the ramp, honking to let the people behind us know he was coming. The people behind us then had to back up as well. All these cars, driving backwards on a major road. To our tired brains, it was one of the more surreal experiences of our lives.
We did get safely to our hotel that night and safely back to the airport the next morning. From Cairo, we took a short, one-hour flight to Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula—which, more relevant to our purposes, is the closest airport to Mount Sinai. It’s still a good three-hour drive from Sharm El-Sheikh to Mount Sinai, and we were worried about finding a taxi driver who would be willing to take us all the way there (and to drive all the way back again afterwards).
In fact, we were so focused on finding a driver that we neglected to re-load our supply of water, which by this time had dwindled to about a third of one water bottle between the three of us. Not so smart when you’re going to set out through miles and miles of desert in an un-air-conditioned car with a chain-smoking driver.
So we found a driver who agreed to take us to Mount Sinai, and we set off merrily on our way. However, about fifteen minutes into our journey, the driver saw a man he knew by the side of the road and pulled over. Then our driver got out and the stranger sat down behind the wheel. Our former driver patted the new guy on the shoulder, assured us with the words “Good driver,” and walked off. We checked to make sure that our new driver was giving us the same price as the old one, which he was, so though we were a bit confused, we tried to settle back in our seats and enjoy the scenery.
One of the first things I saw along the road was a dead camel. Not a good sign.
I was a bit jumpy at every checkpoint (and there were many along the way), simply because I’m not accustomed to handing over my passport to un-uniformed strangers while uniformed men with machine guns look on. I knew the checkpoints were there for the safety of tourists like us, since there have been several bombings on the Sinai Peninsula in recent years, but it was still unnerving.
We did arrive at Sinai eventually, though we had trouble convincing our driver that there really was a guesthouse at the monastery (St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the oldest continuing monastery in the world), and that we were indeed staying at it. He kept trying to drop us off at various small hotels in the village of St. Catherine, a couple of miles away. Even the villagers didn’t seem to be aware that the monastery had lodging for guests, which was not exactly comforting.
Our driver had to drop us off at the checkpoint closest to the monastery, beyond which taxis couldn’t go. This checkpoint was more complicated than all the others, because the guards went through all the contents of each of our suitcases. The official made me open my shrink-wrapped-sealed box of Turkish Delight, which I’d bought as a gift for Porpoise. I don’t know what he thought it was.
After we cleared security, we trudged up a dusty hill, dragging our suitcases behind us in the camel dung that covered the road. It must have only been a ten-minute walk, but it felt like more. Nevertheless, at the end, we discovered that there was indeed a monastery guesthouse, that they had our reservations, and that they would feed us breakfast and supper every day. After our journey through the desert, let me tell you, it felt like miraculous providence. Manna. Water from the rock. Whatever.
While we were at St. Catherine’s, K and I read to each other from Lost in Wonder, the Esther de Waal book I’ve mentioned before on The Ottery. As I’ve said before, de Waal’s books always seem to have sentences or passages that resonate with my life in eerie ways. We certainly found much applicable to our travels. Though I didn’t read it until after we’d left Sinai, one poem from the book encapsulates much of the spiritual angle or our journey (even though the poem is about Abraham, not Moses). The poem’s by Bonnie Thurston, and here it is:
He was seventy-five years old
and God’s first word to him
I think of Abram
when my plans go awry,
pries my fingers loose
from the grasping illusion
of control over life.
‘Go,’ God said to Abram,
giving no address,
disclosing no destination.
Taking an unruly family,
trusting God to show the way,
On that wild journey,
he, too, had fingers pried loose,
heard Sarai laugh, learned
the blessing comes
in the going
and the letting go.
* I’ve christened K’s brother “Red Bull” for his resemblance to another character in the animated movie The Last Unicorn. Also, most mornings he wasn’t exactly chipper and looked in need of a highly caffeinated energy drink.
September 17th, 2006
On the day of our Zeytinburnu adventure, we all felt like we needed some relaxation and pampering after our stressful transportation mix-ups: Prairie Dog chose to retreat to his hotel/burrow, I chose baklava, and K chose the Turkish baths.
Now, keep in mind that all the guide books—even the ones that warn you away from tourists traps—say that a Turkish bath is something you can’t leave Istanbul without. After having had a Turkish bath, however, I suspect that all the guide books are in the pay of the bath houses.
K wanted someone to accompany her, and I have to admit that the prospect of a warm bath with a massage afterwards sounded pretty good to me. We chose the “bath and 15-minute massage” option, which we interpreted to mean that we would be washed and then we would be massaged for 15 minutes. Wrong.
First of all, after disrobing, we located the bath room by the steam coming out of it. There was a huge circular marble slab in the center of the room, upon which naked women lay, while other naked or mostly naked women splashed them with water or rubbed them with sponges. I just assumed that the women being bathed had chosen the self-washing option and were getting their friends to wash them—I had somehow expected the official attendants to be wearing uniforms. Once a naked woman commanded us to sit, I figured out that it would have been highly impractical for the attendants to wear clothes, given all the heat and sloshing.
We took our places in the center of the slab, while the attendants washed the women on the periphery. We spread out on our towels and let the heat from the stone soak into our tired muscles. I drowsily thought about writing up the scene, describing the amazing variety of body types: flabby, muscular, bony, skinny, average, tanned, pale, shaven, unshaven. All of us naked and not caring.
Sweat was starting to bead on my forehead as the attendants all left the room. There were about four of us still waiting in the center of the platform. Oh well, I thought. They’re going to get a drink of water, and then they’ll be back.
Ten minutes passed. I was covered with a light layer of sweat all over now, so I decided to flip and let my other side get heated. The door opened, but it was just more bathees coming to lie down on the slab.
Twenty minutes, thirty minutes. I was drenched now, my hair completely soaked in my own sweat. My head was starting to hurt. “I’m getting dizzy,” I complained to K. “This is miserable.” I sat up so that as little of me as possible touched the warm stone.
There were maybe twelve of us waiting now. Finally, after K and I had been there for forty minutes, the attendants came back. I was panicking that they wouldn’t remember that we’d been there first. My face must have looked pretty bad, because as soon as one of the attendants saw it, she signaled me over to take my place in the washing line.
Once the washing started, it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t happy about the water that got in my nose and ears when the attendant poured a bucket of water over me, but at least I felt clean.
She finished washing me and called poor K, who’d still been steaming all that time, over. “Lie down,” she told me, pointing back up to the center of the slab. She let out a sigh, indicating that I was to relax. “No problem,” she said.
I was beginning to hate that ubiquitous phrase.
Just fifteen more minutes, and then we get our massage, I thought. I can take a little more sweating. It’ll all be worth it for the massage. But when K was finished, and no one ushered us into the massage room, we began to realize that our scrubbing was considered the massage. We would have had to get the more expensive package to have an actual, on-a-table massage.
Oh, the dismay. Apparently other people had come with the same assumption, because we heard the changing-room attendant explaining what we’d just realized to other disgruntled customers. We put our clothes back on, picked up our bags, and left. As we walked back to our hotel, I continued grumbling. K said I looked like a half-drowned, grumpy puppy. I had to be fed before I cheered up again. And my headache didn’t go away until the next morning.
So, ladies and gentlemen (ladies, anyway—I can’t vouch for what Turkish baths for men are like), don’t be snookered by Turkish baths. Save your money and your internal hydration and pay for a real massage instead.
September 12th, 2006
The one Sunday we spent in Istanbul, we—K, Prairie Dog, and I—went to church. It was an Anglican church, not because that’s my denominational preference, but because it was the only operational Protestant church mentioned in any of our guide books. It’s also the largest Protestant church in Istanbul, which means there were maybe 20 people in attendance.
Of course, wherever you go to Anglican Church, you can count on the liturgy, because it’s going to be pretty much the same. However, sermons—or homilies, depending on where you are—will vary vastly in quality. The sermon at Christ Church was awful.
The text chosen was Ephesians 6 (the bit about spiritual—and may I emphasize spiritual?—armor), but the British priest didn’t really deal with it, instead deciding to launch into a diatribe about how evil Iran is. The closest he ever got to the text was explaining how Christians need to “stand up for truth” and not be accepting of tyranny or terrorism. Now I’d agree with those statements if meant in some ways, but Mr. Priest’s main problem with Islamic fundamentalism seemed to be that it’s chaotic—i.e., not orderly and British. He kept using words like “sensible” and “rational” to describe what Christians ought to stand for.
Um, hello, when has it ever been rational to believe in the Trinity?
And then there was the moment when he used the phrase “the lunacy of pacifism.” My Mennonite traveling companions and I couldn’t help exchanging lunatic grins then. The three of us couldn’t decide whether the sermon sounded more like we had taken a time machine back to 19th-century imperialist Britain or to pre-WWII Britian. Whichever it was, the sermon seemed not only colonialist, but also potentially dangerous, given the current political climate in Turkey. I kept imagining terrorists launching bombs into the church during the sermon, and I was a bit indignant thinking that the priest was exposing us all to potential martyrdom for something that had nothing to do with Jesus.
All was set right, though, when, just as the priest was giving the benediction, a cat—a lovely light calico—wandered in under the pews and let out a few meows. Then she plopped herself down in the middle of the aisle, stretched out her leg, and began doing what cats are wont to do: licking her posterior.
Then the recessional—“Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus,” a hymn I’ve never heard in any other Anglican church—began, and as the cross and Bible and censer and numerous white-robed people came down the aisle, the cat did not stand up, but rather continued bathing. One of the altar-men was trying to step around her when she finally decided to get up and saunter off elsewhere.
Somehow she put Mr. Sensible Priest in perspective.
The church was definitely a community of expatriates, and it was cheering to see the diversity there: Africans, Indians, Europeans, Americans, even at least one Kurd. Of course, once I thought about it, I realized that that diversity is in part due to 19th-century imperialism. Sigh.
As some of you saw in the news, there actually were some bombings in Turkey the very next day—bombs set off not by Islamic fundamentalists but by the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization. The Kurds are an oppressed minority in Turkey. I have to wonder if Mr. Sensible Priest would encourage fellow Christians to stand up—nonviolently—for the rights of the Kurds. Probably not, because he would be upset that the Kurds don’t all queue up in an orderly fashion or read Enlightenment philosophy or drink tea with milk.
September 11th, 2006
These were some of the first words we heard upon arriving at the street corner outside of the Hotel Nomade in Istanbul. They were uttered by a young waiter at the restaurant across the alley, a young man we commonly referred to as “Orlando Bloom” over the course of the next week, because of his ponytail combined with a mustache and chin-tuft, á la Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Orlando Bloom greeted us hopefully whenever we would pass his restaurant, one day making us feel quite at home by saying, “Hello, neighbors.”
At other times, we were annoyed rather than charmed at the habit all Istanbullu restaurant owners and carpet-sellers have of addressing strangers on the street and pressing them to sample their wares. “Excuse me, here, please.” “Tenemos buena comida!” (K and I noticed that we were addressed in English during the day, when we had our sunglasses on, and in Spanish at night, when our features were more visible.) Whatever language you speak, you can be sure that some entrepreneur in Istanbul knows enough of it to be able to sell you something.
(At some point during the trip, I wondered aloud about what introverts in Turkey do for a living. “Prairie Dog,” K’s friend who joined us in Istanbul after our first two days there, replied, “They’re the ones in the back room weaving the carpets.”)
In any case, we felt spoiled that we didn’t have to learn Turkish in order to get by. We learned and implemented our “hellos,” our “pleases” and “thank yous,” and I picked up some other random words, but we didn’t really even need those phrases. So easy to get lazy.
Except for the day we tried to find a bit of a ruined wall from a Byzantine palace.
We knew that the ruin was at a place called Yedikule, and we knew that Yedikule was on the outskirts of the city proper, but we didn’t exactly know how to get there. However, we read in our guide books that fixed-route taxis called dolmus often went to places that the buses, trams, and metros didn’t. After wandering around the west side of the city, we finally found a parking lot full of vans that we thought might be dolmuses. So we went around asking if any of them went to Yedikule.
The first driver we encountered pointed down the hill and said, “Otobus. Otobus to Zeytinburnu.”
I remembered having seen that Zeytinburnu was the last stop on the tram, and K thought she remembered that Zeytinburnu was close to Yedikule, so we set off for the bus stop. We waited at the stop as bus after bus passed us, none of them going to Zeytinburnu. When we eventually did see a Zeytinburnu-labeled bus, we jumped up and rushed toward the curb, only to have the driver cheerfully honk and pass by. 15 minutes later, another Zeytinburnu bus finally stopped, and we got on, paying our lira to the fare-taker, and taking seats right behind him.
At first, the bus seemed to be going in the right direction. But then, when the bus turned right, and the arrows on signs for Zeytinburnu pointed to the left, we started to get worried. As the neighborhoods we passed through got increasingly sketchy, we started flipping desperately through our map, intermittently looking up at the fare-taker and asking, “Zeytinburnu?”, as if it were the magic password that would land us home safely.
He seemed to be replying in the affirmative to our cries of “Zeytinburnu?”, but at one point, he started saying, “Problem. Problem,” which seemed to be the only English word he knew other than “Yes.” Given his body language, we guessed that he meant “No problem,” a ubiquitous English phrase among English-speakers in both Turkey and Egypt, but had omitted the “no,” not quite understanding its significance to the phrase. Needless to say, we didn’t find “Problem. Problem” very comforting.
We still have no idea what was happening or where the bus was supposed to be going, but finally the bus let us off at the Zeytinburnu tram station.
As we were preparing to get off, the fare-taker, with the help of a passenger who knew more English, asked, “Where from?”
“America,” we replied, because few people seemed to understand when we said, “United States.”
Then our fare-taker revealed that he knew one more English word. “Bush,” said he, as we stepped off.
I made a face indicating my displeasure with said president, hoping my reaction would endear three poor, silly tourists to the fare-taker. I’m not sure he would have understood correctly if I’d said, “Bush. Problem.”
Anyway, after our adventures, we asked K if we could just take the tram home, without continuing to search for the Byzantine wall.
Our Zeytinburnu adventure ended up being a good thing, however, because we needed to pass through that station and change from the tram to the metro on the day we left for the airport. At the station, as we stood in line for our metro tokens, a Chinese woman came up and asked me how to get from Zeytinburnu to Eminonu (a stop we were actually very familiar with).
I started replying in English, and she looked surprised. “You speak English?” she said.
“Yes,” I smiled and nodded.
“You are not Turkish?”
“No,” I laughed, and proceeded to give her directions. Only another tourist would have mistaken me for a Turk who knew my way around—but, still, if we hadn’t gone to Zeytinburnu that fateful day, I wouldn’t have been able to give her such confident instructions.
Oh, and before we’d left for the airport, we had one final lunch. We finally patronized the restaurant across the alley from our hotel. We couldn’t leave without saying good-bye to “Orlando Bloom,” our neighbor.
September 8th, 2006