24 June 2010

The mitre dust-up: some thoughts on what it means for us and for our home-grown raskolniks

The story itself is about two weeks old: as our church’s Presiding Bishop, the Rt Rev Katherine Jefferts Schori, delivered a thoughtful sermon at Southwark Cathedral on 13 June, it turned out she had been forbidden in a display of ‘theatrical discourtesy’ (as the Guardian blogger Andrew Brooks put it) from wearing the rightful symbols of her office – the mitre and the crozier – by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It produced the sadly inevitable flurry of media speculation and microanalysis, and (in my opinion) sent precisely the wrong message at the wrong time.

(As a brief aside, allow me to gripe about the use of the appalling descriptor ‘Mitregate’ for this event and the following disputes. This event has absolutely no analogical connexion with the Watergate break-ins – there is no scandal, no visible abuse of power as yet, only differing paradigms of theology and church polity. Despite the obvious rhyming similarities of the words ‘water’ and ‘mitre’, it’s simply a mark of how facile and shallow the corporate media treating this story are that they seem unable to forbear from attaching the old-meme ‘-gate’ suffix onto any kind of controversy, even if that controversy is wholly contrived, trivial or nonexistent – as it was in the completely fictional scandal over UEA’s climate research team after an e-mail archive theft in what came to be known as ‘Climategate’.)

All that aside, though, there have been several interpretations of the Rt Rev Rowan Williams’ action which (to my view) fall into two broad categories: that it is a snub of the ECUSA by the Mother Church on account of our political behaviour or that it is somehow connected with Bishop Schori’s gender and the Mother Church’s current internal discussion on whether or not women are fit to be consecrated as bishops. If the last, I’m afraid, it seems to be either a wholly political conciliatory measure or an attempt to appear even-handed to the traditionalists in the C of E: both the Rt Rev Rowan Williams and the Rt Rev John Sentamu have been active in the recent reform efforts in church polity which would allow for women to become bishops. I personally feel that it is more likely to be the former.

If it is a political snub against the ECUSA (as the decision to discontinue the memberships of five ECUSA members in certain ecumenical dialogues certainly was), it is probably nothing we don’t deserve, for all we’ve been behaving toward the Mother Church like spoiled children who always want their own way. Our disregard for the opinions of the other churches with which we are in Communion in light of our self-proclaimed ‘prophetic witness’ runs contrary to the catholic nature of our Church – even if (as I certainly believe) the left-leaning clerics of the ECUSA have the full right of the matter on the issues of the ordination of women and the inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church, it still leaves us no excuse as Christians to simply write off those members of our Communion who are genuinely struggling with such issues. At the same time – to extend the prior metaphor – this is a family argument, to be kept within the family. The public nature of this affair does not reflect well on the Mother Church, nor on the traditionalists whom the discourtesy toward the Rt Rev Schori was probably meant to appease. It also sends entirely the wrong message, a message that risks accelerating and worsening the schism between the mainstream as represented by the Church of England and the ECUSA, and the новых расколников (new Raskolniks) of the type which make up ACNA.

I take it as given that we of the Episcopal Church, for all the current tension we have with the Church of England, do truly value our place in the Anglican Communion and will fight to keep it. We value the organic traditions that continue to tie us to the Church of England. I believe that, at our best, we value a concept of orthodoxy similar to that Fr Kenneth Leech began to articulate in his excellently-written series of essays, Subversive orthodoxy: an orthodoxy which maintains a healthy dialogue between the past and our present condition, between scripture and the traditions of our Church and the questions of our present day through the light of reason, and an orthodoxy which articulates a direction toward life in Christ (rather than a laundry list of ossified dogmas about Christ). We ought to be engaged in articulating and cultivating the former definition of orthodoxy, rather than encouraging those opposed to ordaining women to adopt their own heterodox self-definitions.

22 June 2010

Pointless video post - 《平等精灵》 (北京狂啸夜) by 六翼天使

Another late-game discovery on my part - the Taiwanese band Seraphim 六翼天使, who blend Chinese and English lyrics with operatic power metal in a style very similar (to my ear) to Tristania. They use the 'beauty and the beast' vocal style which I've come to appreciate greatly (the lead vocalist's voice is quite haunting).

Anyway, enjoy - I certainly did!

19 June 2010

Barrayar + life lessons from baseball + 中国人民币汇率的情况

Just finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Barrayar - probably my favourite book in the series so far, followed closely by A civil campaign. It follows the travails of Cordelia Vorkosigan née Naismith as she attempts to adapt to the culture of Barrayar while retaining her sanity, through her pregnancy, through various attempts on her and her husband’s life, and through civil war. The planet Barrayar in Ms Bujold’s saga was based on several 19th-century military aristocracies, primarily post-Napoleonic Prussia and post-Petrine Russia. Though Ms Bujold is very much an American who lends very American sensibilities to her main heroine, to me it seemed as though Russian literary devices were being worked into the story. The planet Barrayar itself is as much a character in the book as Cordelia, Aral Vorkosigan, Illyan, Koudelka or Droushnakovi. It is in many ways Cordelia’s primary antagonist, in much the same way the Russian novels and movies taking place in St Petersburg make St Petersburg itself the antagonist (the un-Russian city of stone and crime and urban decay which grates on the protagonist’s soul and ultimately causes the protagonist’s downfall).

SPOILER ALERT: Without trying to give away too much of the plot, much of the book is devoted to Lady Cordelia’s struggles both to protect her marriage and her unborn child from the intrigues of Barrayar’s noble caste, and to retain her Betan sensibilities in the face of a culture based on what she considers systemic insanity. Her defeat at Barrayar’s hands is an existential one – she rages at the planet, at her father-in-law, at the rest of the nobility, at the Imperium itself (even going so far as to burn down part of the Imperial Residence), but by the end her struggles are futile: she has become as much a Barrayaran as her husband is, and is a respected member of the Vor caste.


I suppose it is a self-inflicted curse that I come late to amazing cultural artefacts to which my friends and family try desperately to introduce me and I place them on a back burner. It was that way with Nightwish, and it is this way with Bujold. She is an amazingly talented and creative writer, who even though she sketches out these vast space operas and political dramas never fails to make them human and relatable through her characters. I’ve read four of them so far and I’m well into my fifth – if all are even half as enjoyable as these first few have been, I know I won’t regret the time spent.


Just got back from the PawSox / Clippers game – and it turned out amazingly. One thing I hope I will never do from now on is walk out before a game is over; I’m glad my family stayed this one out. The first part of the game was brutal for the Sox; they had only one run, and the fielders for the Clippers just kept catching out the fly balls and nailing their slow base runners, while the Clippers racked up four runs in the bottom of the sixth. By the top of the 8th the score was 6-1 Clippers. And then the Clippers pulled Laffey out and the Sox went in hard, with Bubba Bell hitting an amazing double that finally tipped the balance, followed by a couple of single base hits that left the score at 7-6 Sox. The top of the ninth was incredibly tense – the Sox pitcher (I forget his name now) struck out two of the Clippers batters rather easily, but it took him a couple of tries with two strikes to each batter (with the entire stadium cheering him on at the tops of their lungs) to get the third out the Sox needed to win the game.

The last inning of this game was pure drama, and I’m glad we got to watch it. Half the stadium had walked out by the 8th inning, to their loss.


The recent back-and-forth wiffling over Beijing’s currency valuation seems to me to make a good deal of sense, actually. The general attitude of Beijing – an attitude that is fairly well-received at home, it seems – is to take a hard line on anything that smells like foreign meddling. Even though Mr Cui Tiankai’s press-conference comment that the renminbi exchange rate was not a valid topic for international discussion seemed groundless to American ears, it was actually a very clever move politically. A day later, the People’s Bank seemed to volte-face on this hard stance and issued a statement that it would be loosening the RMB’s peg on the dollar.

Surprising? I’m not convinced. I think that, pragmatically, Beijing may have come to the realisation that China cannot viably sustain its huge trade surpluses and essentially position itself as an entropy sink for the developed world’s labour market without hitting the kink in its aggregate demand which would cause massive systemic inflation. At the same time, I think it was quite prudent of China’s government to take a tough stance against criticism of its low currency exchange rate and not visibly keel to foreign pressure to float it.

So what we’re seeing, it seems, is that China wanted to advertise its tough line against foreign powers seeking control over its own currency while quietly allowing the value of the renminbi to rise – neither of which should come as much of a surprise. (Note that the English version of People’s Daily Online as of 19 June has placed the currency debate headlines at the top of the page; while the Chinese version places the story rather further down the page, in small print.) We’ll see how the situation develops.

12 June 2010

China symposium

Just came back from an academic symposium on Modern China up at Brown - it was enjoyable and actually quite informative, though I found I learned more about American cultural and academic perspectives than I did about modern China per se. I had to leave early, sad to say. It was still a good opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the problems and issues I'll be dealing with in graduate school.

I was most struck by the talk given on the influence of American pragmatic philosophy on modern China by Dr Chen Yajun. His approach was mostly comparative, though he dug pretty deep into the meta-level issues of how Chinese philosophers and political thinkers read pragmatism, and how they have tended to drift between two poles (associating it with a radical empiricist methodology on the one hand and epistemic subjectivism on the other). Dr Chen went into some detail about how a lot of the Chinese interpretation of pragmatism was linguistically-based, since many of the issues and concepts in Western thought which pragmatism criticises don't occupy the same space in Chinese thought. When a classical Chinese philosopher talks about 自然, for example, or 信, or 道, it would be rather naive to assume that he is defining the concepts in the same way as a modern Western-influenced philosopher who talks about 'nature' or 'truth' or 'reason'.

(A brief aside: in my view, the concepts of 自然 and 道 occupy a broad space in Chinese philosophy which covers the space occupied in Western philosophy by both the concepts of subjective / existential 'authenticity' and 'nature' in the post-Enlightenment sense, in addition to a moral law when the same concepts are used by Confucians. This is what irks me most about ersatz pop-philosophers like Alan Watts and ideologues like Friedrich Hayek when they try to read Laozi or Zhuangzi - they apply either a vapid or a bigoted and ideological hermeneutic to the original texts, which destroys the meaning such that they can twist it to their own political ends.)

The response, by Dr Paget Henry of the sociology department, was even more enlightening about the history of American philosophy and pragmatism's place in that narrative. Dr Henry, though he was impressed by Dr Chen's writing, felt that an accounting of pragmatism's influence was incomplete without an accounting of the dialogue within American philosophy which brought it about. Firstly, Dr Henry's argument went, pragmatism arose as a response to scientific positivism, which claimed that verifying or falsifying hypotheses about the natural world was simply a matter of designing the right experiment to test the hypothesis. Pragmatism countered this claim by positing that a community of interpreters was required to make any useful sense of the data - thus, the conduct of scientific inquiry is governed not only by a purely constative methodology but also a set of professional ethics and norms.

The second major point that Dr Henry brought up was that pragmatism arose as a response to a dialogue which was already going on within American philosophy, between the 'canonical' political theorists of American history (Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and so forth) and the unsung African American voices who have contributed heavily to the dialogue on political theory, critiquing and shaping American political thought as much as their white counterparts did (Lemuel Haynes, Frederick Douglass, Martin Garvey, all the way up to Cornel West). The view of the traditional pragmatists toward its African-American interlocutors was more or less imperialistic, and the relation of the work of pragmatists like John Dewey to Chinese philosophy would be better understood, Dr Henry argued, in this context: there was an element to Dewey's work in China which was monological rather than dialogical. Dewey expected to fix problems in China without noticeably believing that China had anything to offer in return.

It wasn't an aspect of philosophy I expected to encounter at this symposium, but I'm grateful I went, certainly. Something to think about, pray about and be affected by, as I prepare myself to learn how to go off into the world and fix problems.

10 June 2010

Yet another pointless video post: 'Nemo'

Not much needs to be said for Nightwish's 'Nemo' - awesome song; awesome video.

02 June 2010

A tale of two dramas

This past weekend I watched The Young Victoria (starring Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend and Paul Bettany) on DVD. Before I begin what promises to be another of my highly-belated movie reviews, I would like to make a couple of warning notes. Firstly, I had previously seen the 2001 BBC miniseries of Victoria & Albert, which deals with many of the same events. Secondly, the last movie adaptation of the subject of a BBC miniseries (in this case, a Jane Austen novel) I found myself loathing with a burning passion – to wit, the 2005 version of Pride & [sic] Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen.

Thankfully for my sanity, The Young Victoria was nothing at all like the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, in that it managed a modicum of respect for its source material and overall proved a soulful and satisfactory film. It also employed Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ in its opening scene, which instantaneously endeared it to me. But it threw me for a definite loop – it was a far different performance again than Victoria & Albert, so in a sense it was like watching the remake of Star Trek: I knew and loved all of the characters, but it was like gazing into an alternate universe where they say and do different things for different reasons. Emily Blunt’s Victoria is far more self-assured, far less visibly vulnerable, far more comfortable growing up and growing into her role as queen than Victoria Hamilton’s Victoria. Rupert Friend’s Albert is a romantic, idealistic individual who despite his introversion quickly befriends and falls in love with his intended, while the source of the growth in Jonathan Firth’s Albert rises from his hard-nosed realism, from his devotion to his duty and from his impatience with the lifestyle he has taken upon himself, only falling in love with Victoria once he has established his own routine. Melbourne as played by Nigel Hawthorne is a gentle, empathetic father-figure to Victoria; Paul Bettany takes ‘Lord M’ and makes him a wryly seductive, cynical, self-interested politico. C F von Stockmar also undergoes a similar transformation: though he was undoubtedly shrewd, calculating and manipulative in the 2001 version, he also provided a lot of paternal advice to the young Albert and cared deeply for the happiness of the young couple once they did marry. In the 2009 version, Stockmar is marked by all of the calculation (plotting the potential political alliance of England with Leopold of Belgium through Albert) and none of the warmth. Instead, Stockmar’s place in the story is taken (with aplomb) by Harriet Walter’s Adelheid von Sachsen-Meiningen, widow of King William IV and friend and mentor to the young Queen Victoria.

I realise, of course, why they did what they did with this movie. From a purely practical standpoint, this film did not have the time or the scope to tackle the entirety of Victoria’s youth, marriage and reign with Albert. Victoria (and certainly Albert!) have a lot more growing up to do in a lot less screen time. It is still unclear to me why they keep Mark Strong’s John Conroy around as long as they did – one of the first things the historical Victoria did upon her ascension to the throne was to summarily dismiss Conroy. And then there is the blatant dramatic licence they took with the Edward Oxford assassination attempt. (Actually, both versions are guilty of historical inaccuracy with regard to this incident, but I confess to liking Jonathan Firth’s cane-fu better than Rupert Friend’s melodramatic bullet dive.)

The characterisation of Lord M, setting him up as the foil and potential romantic rival of Albert, was jarring at first but quite effective. It certainly helped to express the Bedchamber Crisis in convincing dramatic terms, and meshed well with the historical Lord M’s troubled personal life. The opposition of Lord M to Victoria’s desired economic reforms also helps to draw together the characters of Victoria and Albert on one of the central moral points of the story – that the political class have an obligation to care about and act in the interests of the entire nation, particularly the downtrodden and marginalised, even if it comes at the cost of their own comfort and pride. The 2001 version did this too, albeit in more subtle ways (we see it peeking out here and there occasionally), and not by placing Lord M as the primary antagonist.

The rest of the movie was well-done on the whole - if I had to describe this film in one word, that word would doubtless be (to shamelessly borrow the Whedonese vernacular) ‘shiny’. I approved of the music, and I certainly approved of the costume and set design. The effects were also good for the most part, but there was one wince-inducing cinematographic moment where the set slides back from Victoria on the dance floor – after which, I half-expected Michael Jackson to start playing and Albert and the rest of the dance extras to break out Thriller. There were subtle touches which demonstrated the relatable common humanity behind all the royal and political goings-on: Ernst teasing his younger brother over his interest in Victoria, or Queen Adelheid smiling knowingly as Victoria recounts her political and personal struggles to her.

I do regret not having seen this movie on the big screen, but that seems to be a curse I’m under. It’s still very much watchable (and commendable) on DVD.