November 12th, 2006


Theological Notebook: Christianity Fading in the Middle East

An Associated Press story on the ongoing phenomenon of the declining Christian population in the Middle East. A truly fascinating account of this cultural heritage and its loss can be read in the travelogue From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple. I picked that up back in South Bend and it – along with having met a number of Palestinian Christians who had fled to the United States to escape the terror and harrassment (even from the government of Israel) – first alerted me to this huge phenomenon and exodus.

I also include here a slightly related CNS story entitled "Pope takes on hard questions in new chapter of dialogue with Muslims." In just having looked at something as seemingly "dated" as the controversy over icons from the eighth century with my students, I pointed out how much of this cultural and theological heritage was going to be in play during Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Turkey, and that the centuries-long fallout from the conquest of the Byzantine Empire was still a drama to which they might bear some witness.

Christian Population Falls in Holy Land
Nov 11, 11:03 PM (ET)


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - The death threat came on simple white fliers blowing down the streets at dawn. A group calling itself "Friends of Muhammad" accused a local Palestinian Christian of selling mobile phones carrying offensive sketches of the Muslim prophet.

The message went on to curse all Arab Christians and Pope Benedict XVI, still struggling to calm Muslim outrage from his remarks on Islam.

While neighbors defended the merchant - saying the charges in the flier were bogus - the frightened phone dealer went into hiding, feeling less than satisfied with authorities' conclusion that the Oct. 19 note was probably a harmless rant.

Now the dealer is thinking of going abroad.

Call it part of a modern exodus, the steady flight of the tiny Palestinian Christian minority that could lead, some predict, to the faith being virtually extinct in its birthplace within several generations - a trend mirrored in many dwindling pockets of Christianity across the Islamic world.

This is one of the major themes the pope is expected to carry to Turkey for a four-day visit beginning Nov. 28 - his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim nation. The Vatican calls it "reciprocity:" Muslim demands for greater sensitivity from the West must be accompanied by stronger protections and rights for Christian minorities.

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I See You!

Personal: A Weekend Devoted to Friends

This weekend has been entirely about friends. And I have no greater joy in my life than the fact that I have a great circle of friends.

I suppose that there's a number of things I can mention from this weekend. I had one of my "standard" Friday nights, which are so pleasurable to me that to call them "standard" is almost an insult, and is definitely a sign of how good I have got it. It's "standard" – or at least fairly common – for me to get together with friends on Friday for dinner and conversation. And to me, conversation that is rich, and personal, and even occasionally provocative: that's the greatest of all entertainments. Most likely we will end up meeting at my friends Dan and Amy's house, with Mike and Donna rounding out the core of the group. Last week we had the single most perfect pork roast that has ever been cooked – fabulously juicy, with an exquisitely balanced spiced crust – that deserves an entry to itself. This week, after Anna and Renee had their meals, we relaxed over Sloppy Joes dueling recipes of cole slaw. Always there is plenty of wine. Conversation takes in much of our theological work, Mike and Dan both being classmates of mine, both patristics scholars, and roams into philosophy, science, politics and family life. Naturally, this week there was quite a bit of discussion of the election. It's not unusual for part of the night to somehow divide into the guys chattering away around the kitchen table and the ladies having gotten absorbed in their own separate talk in the living room. When it's in season, we all find ourselves utterly captivated by the night's showing of Battlestar Galactica, which is the most riveting thing I think we've all ever seen. All of that comes together to make for a regularly fabulous social time for me, with a group of people I am profoundly blessed to have in my life.

Emails and phone calls continued in the weekend from the Renaissance Men, as the guys in the band joined in sharing memories and mutually congratulating one another over the recording sessions in Nashville five years ago. News was exchanged, with many pregnancies progressing (half the guys are expecting new children with their wives), and everyone just enjoyed filling in one another on what was going on in their lives. (Except, of course, J.P., who didn't respond to any of the emails, but that's his thing and we all find it reassuring after so many years.) I was struck by how many guys referred to the last-minute recording of "Allison By Moonlight" in their notes, as a sort of "peak experience" of the sessions. I just had received a note a few days back from a student who has the CD and who had pointed to that as a favourite. That's not a title that is usually named as such, but it made me glad that she could sense what we felt in the playing. Perhaps not surprisingly, this student is a jazz fan, and that song is the only thing on the album approaching jazz, with its influence from the great Wes Montgomery. So it was good to hear the voices of old friends. I still have to talk to a few more of them, and call Erik, who was too poor to join us in Nashville, and wish him (along with me Mum) a happy birthday today.

This weekend also saw an irregular event of great fun for me when my Saturday night lame graduate student plans of grading into the night at the library were disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Julie Riederer and Sara VanDenHeuvel. These two were students in the class I was the Teaching Assistant for a year ago and who have gone on to become friends. They both can talk at the same kind of length that I can, which is often considered a curse by people not possessed of the same gift. So these two camped out in my apartment for the evening and kept me so vastly amused that I hardly spared a thought for the change to my schedule. I can try to squeeze out all the work necessary today: this type of fun with friends is what life's for: I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to enjoy it. So, we had some serious talk about the two of them dealing with the spectre of graduation, and the prospect that the entire shape of their lives was about to change. I think that loss of the wonderfully-easy social world of undergraduate (when else will you again be living with thousands of people all within three years of your age?) really takes a lot of new grads by surprise, and so I had some experience to share there of life hardly ending with one's undergraduate. I couldn't stop laughing, too, as the two of them mercilessly heckled the freshman out my living room window, as the kids across the street gave their customary nighttime roars and shrieks from where they gathered in front of McCormick Hall. I don't think all of those kids understood that they were being made fun of as the girls screamed from my windows, "YEESS!! COLLEGE!!! GET WAAASTED!!!! NO PARENTS!!!! WOOOOO!!!! YEAH!!!!" Apparently this is a mantra of their circle, and they often enjoy adding to that cry some meant-to-be-overheard conversation or cellphone comments on where there's some huge (and non-existent) keg party just to see flocks of eavesdropping freshmen go running off to the named address, calling others on their cell phones to pass on the address of the fictional blow-out. Totally hysterical. So they stayed until the early morning hours and just continued to conjure fun. By the time I saw them off, I was too wiped out to go to the library, and called it a night. I still haven't gotten back to a "night schedule" after babysitting the nieces two weekends ago.