Pussy Riot Went to Church (August 2012)

A Prayer to the Theotokos (Mother of God)

Pussy Riot went to church – at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. They prayed to the Virgin Mary, asking her to oust Vladimir Putin as President of the Russian Federation. Seems to me (an Orthodox Christian) that that’s OK, but here’s how they did it:


Included in the “prayer,” as you can see, was criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch, Kirill Gundyaev, for their public support of Putin.

In form, content, and manner, the “prayer” – conducted in front of the iconostasis and just outside the sanctuary – constituted an act of desecration and blasphemy. However, representatives of the Church stated that the sin was immediately forgiven. (Hmmm…. Was there – has there been – repentance by PR?)

This became a fairly big story when three of the Pussy Rioters were arrested by the state authorities, put on trial, kept in jail for more than five moths, and then – yesterday – convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison (minus the five months already served).

Lots of sympathy for Pussy Riot in the West, including from such predictable and usual suspects as McCartney, Madonna, Sting, and other celebrities. Some but not much sympathy for them inside Russia, especially not among the Orthodox.

Even among those not at all sympathetic to what Pussy Riot did, there is virtually no support for the two-year prison sentence or for the already-completed five-month incarceration. Most seem to feel that the punishment is not proportionate to the gravity of the crime. That also is how I feel about it.

However, Pussy Riot’s action in the cathedral was not right, was it? It was not a legitimate exercise of “free speech,” was it (contrary to that legal scholar, P. McCartney)? Even in a place like the US, at least relatively more “liberal” than Russia, an action like that would result in some kind of legal action by the state, wouldn’t it? It is not protected by the First Amendment provision on freedom of speech, is it? It might even be a “hate crime,” mightn’t it? Or is it simply OK in general for musical and other groups to take their politics in that way into, not only churches, but also synagogues, mosques, mandirs, temples, monasteries, convents, Quaker meeting rooms, and other places regarded as holy by their adherents?

Just wondering….



P.S. Down with Putin!

Those 72 Virgins

Just for fun:

Islam Question: What about those 72 virgins greeting suicide bombers as “martyrs” in heaven – what is the truth about the 72 virgins? Here are some imperfect comments:

1. It’s not only martyrs who will experience the joys of Paradise but all righteous Muslims, especially perhaps righteous Muslim men. But righteous Muslim women also reach the glories of Paradise in their own ways.

2. In various places, the Qur’an does promise that the righteous in Paradise will dwell in lush gardens and vineyards and that an individual man will have a harem of beautiful women with full and round breasts. All in heaven will be 33 years of age, and the men and the women will be perfectly happy with one another and with their situations.

3. To the best of my (limited) knowledge, the Qur’an never mentions that a man will have 72 luscious women. No number is mentioned. However, in some Hadith there is mention of the 72 virgins promise. (Hadith are written reports on Mohammad’s conduct and sayings.)

4. How is this sort of thing to be understood? The options are (1) literally or (2) figuratively and symbolically. Fundamentalist Muslims tend to take the physicalist descriptions of the Qur’an, the Hadith, and other sources literally; and non-fundamentalist Muslims understand the sources figuratively, symbolically, philosophically. For the non-fundamentalists, the pysicalist descriptions are symbolic (1) of the ecstasies and joys of being in the direct presence of God in heaven or (2) of the horror of being separated from God in hell.

5. The same issues can be (have been, are) raised about how Jews and Christians interpret the strong physicalist descriptions in the Hebrew Bible (and Old Testament) and in the New Testament – and the same contrast between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist interpretations is present there too.

All for now…. :)

No More Santa Clause

Saw a Facebook post today about kids’ ceasing to believe in the reality of Santa Clause.

My family moved to Circle Avenue in Paterson when I was 9-going-on-ten. The dominant male kid there was “Mondo” – MON-DO!!! He was spoiled by his mother, who would announce publicly every now and then that, “My kid is tough, and he will kick your kid’s aay-yess [‘ass’ pronounced with two syllables]!”

Mondo was tough, and he bossed, bullied, smacked around, and terrorized the other kids in his age group, including me. When I first met him, he wore a Sluggo cap to cover his bald head, which had been shaved because he had contracted ringworm at school. He warned his “friends” that he would kill them if they mentioned his baldness or his ringworm. He was fearsome.

Anyway, when he somehow found out (no doubt from me) that I still believed in Santa Clause, he mocked and shamed me mercilessly and exclaimed regularly on the street, “Hey, Georgie Porgie! THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUSE!”

Under that onslaught, I gradually began to doubt, and eventually I began to admit (at least to myself) that probably (acknowledging only an inductive inference) Santa Clause did not exist.

I was ten when I finally gave up.


Over time, Mondo and I grew apart. He grew bigger and stronger, and I remained puny and weak. He became one of the “big guys,” while I continued to associate with more innocent boys, including Cub and Boy Scouts. It was a rough part of Paterson. The school was “Foursies” (the Dread). I and my friends were frequently on the losing end of encounters with tougher kids. Mondo actually became our protector, intervening on our behalf in the School 4 playground to drive off our oppressors with his usual ferocity.

He went to Paterson Tech for high school. Then I think he went into the Navy for 3 or 4 years. Then…? I do know that he eventually became a biker, rolling his “hog” down highways with his brothers. Last I knew (20 yrs ago), he was living in Haskell, NJ.

Islam and the US Constitution

Three foundations of Islam are the Qur’an, the Hadith (sayings of and teachings about Mohammad), and Sharia Law (of which there are several traditions). Institutionalizing/implementing all aspects of these Islamic foundations in the US would be in conflict in many ways with the Constitution. However, the authors of this article say that many (most?) American Muslims have no desire to institutionalize/implement all aspects of Islam in the US or anywhere else.

Judao-Christian law and teachings, if institutionalized/implemented in the US, would also be in conflict in many ways with the Constitution. Long ago, most Jews and Christians “made peace” with the Constitution by giving up any notions they may have had about institutionalizing/implementing their full belief-and-practice systems in the US. It seems that many/most American Muslims are following suit.

There are already two Islamic Members of the House of Representatives, and I know of nothing they have done to violate their oaths of office in which they affirmed their support for the US Constitution. Maybe one of them will run for president some day. If that happens (and if I am still around), I will examine his positions and, if he seems to be a Burkean conservative with libertarian inclinations, then I will vote for him. :)

One thing: I have reservations about the authors of the article. I do not find Aslan completely reliable in the works he has so far published, and Zafar is a representative of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and unorthodox sect of Islam. However, this article seems to me to be generally accurate.

Re: the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The sect arose in India in 1889. That movement split into two sub-sects in (I think) 1914. Over the years since then, Ahmadiyya communities have arisen in many other parts of the world. Ahmadiyya Muslims hold that Jesus survived the crucifixion and traveled to India to minister to the Lost Tribes of Israel. They also claim that Jesus died in India and that his tomb – AND his body – have been recently found in India. They say that these beliefs are supported by the Qur’an, by the Hadith, and by the Bible. Sunni and Shia Muslims see the Ahmadiyyas as heretics or even as non-Muslims.

Of course, virtually all of the other religions of the world would also be found incompatible with the Constitution were they proposed to be legally-officially institutionalized/implemented (established) in the US. But the First Amendment won’t allow that, nor would various other parts of the Constitution. Almost all religions are free to run around and act up in the US, but no one or more can be legally established. That is, not by Congress….

Various states had established religions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but they all gradually gave them up. However, it was not until some time in the late 1940s that a Supreme Court decision held that the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause applies to the states. But the issue is still not completely settled and will continue to be argued about. Stay tuned…. :)

A Remembrance of Elvis

The first time I saw Elvis on TV was on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Show in March 1956. I remember the moment very well. We were living at 17 Passaic Street in Paterson, New Jersey. I was 17 years old. I was in the living room watching the Dorsey show (big band swing and pop music, production dance numbers Broadway style, etc.). At a certain point in the show, Tommy Dorsey announced, “Ladies and gentlemen – Elvis Presley!” The “stage” went dark and EP, dressed (I think) in grayish jacket, dark pants, dark (black) shirt, and white tie, stepped into the spotlight (where his three-piece backup combo – guitar, bass, and drums – was already set up – there might have been a piano player too). EP had a guitar of his own strapped on. The camera zoomed in close up. EP had a longish, cowboy style hairdo with prominent sideburns. His hair looked blondish and glistened with hair oil (vaseline?). He looked directly into the camera in a rather challenging and intimidating way, smiled, curled his lip in a kind of combination sneer and smile, his eyes twinkled. The guitar player (Scotty Moore) played a startup chord, and EP began, “Well, since my baby left me (boom-boom from the drummer), I found a new place to dwell (another boom-boom), it’s down at the eh-end of Lonely Street, it’s (thtoom, thtoom, thtoom from the bassist) Heartbreak Hotel . . . . ” A mixture of blues, country, honky-tonk . . . I didn’t know what. He looked and sounded and moved so “bad” (in the good sense)!

I can’t remember whether I had heard (or heard of) EP before that moment, but it was the first time I had seen him. I was jolted from head to toe. I had a “thrill feeling” in my chest. Tears came to my eyes. I was mesmerized, flabbergasted, and astounded. This was something else! Something entirely new. EP seemed both innocent and dangerous at the same time. I don’t fully understand what he represented to me. His persona in 1956 was, in my mind, somehow linked with that of James Dean (who had died in a car crash just before EP hit big) and with the Marlon Brando portrayal of “Stanley Kowalski” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1952?). EP himself stressed the James Dean connection.

Those were sweet days for me, the mid-’50s. (Also bitter from time to time.)

Well, anyway, life went on. EP eventually faded into the movies, although he continued to record good R ‘n’ R songs. Some of his movies were not bad, but most of them were really bad (in the bad sense). Then he made his “big show” singing-performing come-back beginning in 1968. I was still interested – but not very interested – in him during the period from 1968 to 1977. I had gone in my own direction (various directions). When he died in 1977, I was sorry to hear it, but I was not devastated. I continued to feel that EP – the young and dangerous EP – had touched my life in some significant way, had somehow encouraged me to move in a “radical,” anti-establishment direction, but his death did not stop me in my tracks or anything like that. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I began my own musical “come-back,” I regained a deep and mysterious feeling and appreciation for EP, his music, and his persona. So it goes.

EP was 42 when he died. His mother, Gladys, who he loved in the way that a “momma’s boy” loves his momma (which, also, I sadly understand), was also 42 when she died (in 1957 or 1958). Strange fact.

A Visit from Father B

Prefatory note: I am Eastern Orthodox, and my wife is Episcopalian. An oddity in her parish church was that the pastor, Father Francis Bancroft (†), would regularly include in the Sunday hymns “The Star Spangled Banner.” Here’s a (true) story about Father B and me.

On August 22, 1997, following an afternoon nap, I awoke in a state of mental confusion and growing panic. I looked at the clock and could not tell what time it was. I wondered what day of the week it was, but I could not remember. My wife, Sherida, was in Michigan, just finishing a vacation there with her mother and her sister. So I tried to call my oldest daughter, Amanda, to tell her that I was in trouble and needed help. I could not remember Amanda’s number. I tried to think of my own phone number and couldn’t. Somehow, I was able to find the speed-dial button on my phone that connected me with my sister, who (thank God!) was home. “Sherry,” I said, “something’s wrong. I think I’d better get to the hospital.” (Actually, I couldn’t speak that clearly. What I really said was something like “Sherry, something wrong, go hospital . . . . ”)

In a few minutes, my sister, who lives nearby, picked me up and drove me to the local hospital. Initially, it appeared that I had suffered a stroke, and I was treated accordingly by the neurologist on duty in the emergency room. I could not see things to my right; I could not pronounce words like “hippopotamus”; I began to say things incorrectly and without context (e.g., that Elvis Presley had died on December 1, 1992, when, in fact, the date was August 16, 1977); my sentence-structure was garbled (e.g., “Has called my wife anyone?”). It looked bad, and I was very frightened.

They kept me in the hospital for a couple of days. On the night of the episode, after my symptoms and the accompanying panic had subsided, I was dozing in my darkened room. At a certain point, I became conscious of a large presence looming over me. I came to full awareness and, with some alarm, I asked, “Who is it?” “George,” the presence said, “it’s Father Bancroft. Sherida called me and told me what happened. I assured her that I would visit you right away.”

Father B then asked me if it would be all right for him to conduct a healing and communion service at my bedside. I told him that I would appreciate that very much, and he proceeded (“O Lord, holy Father, giver of health and salvation . . . sanctify this oil . . . drive away all sickness of body and spirit . . . The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . . ”).

The next day, after two CAT-scans and some other tests (not to mention the prayers offered up on my behalf by Father B and others), the doctors determined that I had not had a stroke after all. It turned out that I had had a brain spasm caused by a hitherto undiagnosed migraine condition. The “event” emulated, but was not, a stroke. My neurologist prescribed migraine-prevention medication, which I have taken daily ever since. The medicine works, not perfectly, but quite well.

The service conducted by Father B was beautiful, meaningful, and comforting. Father B’s coming to the hospital and ministering to me that night, when I was very afraid and with Sherida still in Michigan, was an unexpected and wonderful surprise.

After the healing and communion service, and as Father B was getting ready to leave, I thought I heard angels singing. But what, I asked myself, was the song they were singing? It seemed quite familiar, but I could not at first place it. Can you take the melody of an old English drinking song, write new lyrics to it that are consecrated to a higher but still secular purpose, sing the song over and over again, week after week, as part of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and have the song become a hymn sung in Heaven? I ask this question because, as Father B left my hospital room that night, and as I concentrated more intently on the voices of the angels, I could swear that they were singing (you guessed it!) “The Star Spangled Banner”!

Inexplicable Violence

Another old memory:

C. 1960. Greenwich Village. Bleeker street bistro/coffee shop. I and a couple of buddies standing on the corner. Some motorcycles standing on the sidewalk near the curb.

A convertible with two military guys pulls up and bumps one of the motorcycles, knocking it over. When the bike owner is called out of the shop, eyes blinking in the late afternoon sun, the bigger military guy (hope not a marine), shouting “combat!,” leaps out of the convertible and runs at the much smaller bike owner and pummels him with thunderous blows, sending the little guy bleeding to the sidewalk.

The military giant then jumped back into the convertible, and he and his buddy drove away.
No cops on the scene. All there were stunned and dumbfounded. Several there gave some assistance to the little bearded biker. He was no Hell’s Angel….

N***** Heaven

Here’s a funny thing. Way back when, when I was a kid in Paterson, my sister Sherry and I would go to the movies every Saturday. One of the movie houses was the “Majestic,” in the old days before us the “Lyceum” opera and burlesque house. There were still stage shows in it. We saw the lady “Siamese Twins” there and other vaudeville acts in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

There were several balconies in the Majestic. There was one way up high, a small one. One time, Sherry and I went up there on one of our Saturdays. We saw “The Last Days of Pompeii” and “She” (the latter based on a Rider Haggard classic).

Thing is, that high third balcony was called (even in the ’40s and ’50s) N***** Heaven. Do any of you remember that? I don’t think any of my black friends went up there (although many black kids went to the movies at the Majestic). On the occasion I mention, Sherry and I were there alone. It was little. Only about 10 or 12 seats. We knew what it was, but we liked being there. The view from N***** Heaven was great.

My wife’s father (the sainted Rev. James Willard Yoder), a to-be episcopal priest in seminary in the University of the South (Sewanee), early ’50s, Sewanee, Tennessee, used to go to the movies with his friend, a black to-be episcopal priest, and the friend was told that he would have to sit “upstairs.” Her father insisted that he would sit “upstairs” with his friend. After two weeks of that, the theatre management phoned the university divinity school administration to complain about these two seminarians refusing to comply with the “tradition.” That led to this: all of the other seminarians (mostly white) began attending the movies every week, crowding into the little balcony “upstairs.” The management gave up.

They all went to N***** Heaven.

Later, they all went to Heaven.

“Therefore with Angels and DARKangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.” :)

Old Sad Memories

One of many things that continue to haunt me:

When I was about eleven or twelve years old, and in the 6th grade, I was a member of a Cub Scout/Boy Scout troop at the [name withheld] Methodist Church in Paterson, New Jersey. I attended P.S. No. 4 at that time, an urban, racially mixed, working- and lower-class school. At school, I had a black friend named R.M. He was both friendly and hostile toward me – and sometimes he was both friendly and hostile at the same time.

In any case, I invited him to come to a scout meeting on a Friday night, and he did so. But it turned out that he was not welcome. The scout leaders, all adult men, asked me to come into “the office.” In “the office,” they explained to me that kids like R had their “own places” to go and that I should tell him so.

I went out and talked to R, telling him that he was not wanted at [name withheld] Methodist Church and that he could not come again. I said I was sorry. He said he understood. We both felt very bad, I think, although I could not then and cannot now fathom his subjectivity.

I really don’t know how he took it. I felt like crying. It was one of the many times in my life that I have felt a tightness in my upper chest and throat and a tension behind my nose and eyes – a deep and hopeless sadness that I have not been able to express in anything but momentary outbursts of tears and weeping, a kind of pathetic (or even bathetic and rather self-indulgent) breakdown that does not really communicate accurately the feeling behind the display.

R also hurt me (at least) once:

The first time I went to School No. 4 (“Foursies”), I was in the 4th grade. My family was very messed up at that time, and I was in a wretched and neglected state. I was bullied, bullied, and bullied – not only by tough boys but also by a girl (who, actually, I had a crush on), Elizabeth Brown. Here’s the (sorry) story:

I was in the fourth grade, sitting on the left side of the room (students’ point of view). We were still using straight pens and ink wells in the old wooden desks. I did not have (could not find?) my pen. The teacher always had a supply of extras from which students without pens could draw. The teacher gave me a pen. Elizabeth Brown, a pretty black girl sitting nearby, saw the pen and said, “Hey, that’s my pen!” I, feeling intimidated and also not particularly concerned as to which pen I used, began to give it to her, but the (white) teacher rather angrily intervened, insisting that Elizabeth keep quiet and that I keep the pen. Elizabeth looked sullen and said to me in a kind of “Ebonics talk” style that she was going to “get my ass” later.

“Later” (lunch time) came, and I, in a panic, tried to escape the building ahead of Elizabeth and my other black classmates. But R.M., who was at that time (almost) a friend of mine, saw me trying to make off. He ran after me and grabbed me and held me while the other black kids caught up with us. My black classmates surrounded me. I was being held by R on one side (the left) and by a girl named Elvira on the other side (the right). Elizabeth came up to me and belligerently threatened to kick my ass or something to that effect. I was terrified and felt miserable. She said, “you bess give me my pen.” I immediately and meekly (squeakily) peeped that I would – that she could have it as soon as we were back in class after lunch.

They then let me go, and I went home for lunch feeling hurt and pathetic. I guess I gave her the pen per our lunchtime “negotiations.”

I had many other hard times in PS No. 4 – getting my “ass kicked” now and again. Then, I went back to PS No. 17 for the 5th grade, and then back again to No. 4 for the 6th grade (this was when the Boy Scouts episode with R took place). By that time, I was beginning to do a bit of ass-kicking of my own. When I moved for the second time to PS No. 6, for the 7th and 8th grades, I was no longer a victim but rather an executioner.

Ah, the joys of youth!

The Grand Terrestrial Evolution Thesis

When one answers the question, “Do you believe in evolution,” either “yes” or “no,” what is one purporting to affirm or deny? It’s “The Grand Terrestrial Evolution Thesis,” which encompasses at least eight “sub-theses.”

1. The Ancient Earth Thesis: The earth is very old, perhaps some 4.6 billion years old (maybe even older).

2. The Ancient Origin of Life on Earth Thesis: There have been living organisms on earth for a very long time, perhaps for 3.7 billion years.

3. The Progress (or Increasing Complexity) Thesis: Life has progressed from relatively simple to relatively complex forms of life (relatively simple unicellular life [e.g., bacteria and blue green algae, or perhaps even simpler forms of life] –> more complex unicellular life –> relatively simple multicellular life [e.g., seagoing worms, coral, and jelly fish] –> fish –> amphibia –> reptiles, birds, and mammals –> human beings).

4. The Taxonomic Diversity Thesis: Life exhibits (and has exhibited for a very long time, beginning about 1 billion years ago) enormous taxonomic diversity (many different classes of organisms – microbes, plants, flowers, birds, reptiles, mammals).

5. The Common Ancestry Thesis: Life originated at only one place on earth, and all subsequent life forms are related by descent to those original living creatures (Gould’s “tree of evolutionary descent linking all organisms by ties of genealogy”).

6. The Darwinian Thesis: There is a naturalistic explanation of this development of life from simple to complex forms, namely, that the mechanism of evolution is natural selection.

Natural selection is a natural process in which the fittest [best adapted] in a group of offspring survive to pass on their heritable traits to subsequent generations while those less fit [not well adapted] die off leaving no offspring and thereby terminating the traits characterizing the less fit [not well adapted] organisms. That is, all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Darwin theorized that this process could account for changes in the characteristic traits of species over time and eventually produce wholly new species and different types of organisms.

7. The Neo-Darwinian Thesis:

Neo-Darwinism is the modern version of Darwinian evolutionary theory: the synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinism (the Darwinian Thesis, as in 6, above). Darwin knew very little about the mechanism of variation; he merely recognized that whatever its source, phenotypic variation allowed for natural selection to operate. It was modern genetics that provided the key insight into the means by which variation in biology originated, namely, natural selection operating on random genetic variations (mutations caused by DNA replication errors or ultra violet radiation or other causes).

Neo-Darwinism postulates that natural selection acts on the heritable (genetic) variations within individuals in populations and that mutations (especially random copying errors in DNA) provide the main source of these genetic variations. Because positive mutations seem to be rare, Neo-Darwinism contends that evolution will be a slow, gradual process. Neo-Darwinism holds that the processes responsible for small-scale micro-evolutionary changes can be extrapolated indefinitely to produce large-scale macro-evolutionary changes leading to major innovations in form.

A mutation is an alteration of the genetic material of a cell that may be caused either by spontaneous changes or by external forces (such as radiation). Mutations that occur in the gametes (sex cells) of an organism are heritable. Mutations are (now) thought to be the primary mechanism of variation upon which natural selection operates.

8. The Naturalistic Origins Thesis: Life itself developed from non-living matter without any special creative activity of God but just by virtue of the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry.

(Supporters of “Theistic Evolution” are amenable to Theses 1 through 7 but not to Thesis 8.)