An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy

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Jack Kinneer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and a D.Min. graduate of an Eastern Orthodox seminary, wrote a series of dense responses to his time at that seminary. The responses are generally concise, clear, and make the kind of observations that I like to make. My suspicion is that if Dr. Kineer is looking at things this way, there are a lot of other people who are looking at things the same way—but may not be able to put their finger on it. And he may have given voice to some things that Orthodox may wish to respond to.

Orthodoxy is difficult to understand, and I wrote a list of responses to some (not all) of the points he raises. I asked New Horizons, which printed his article, and they offered gracious permission to post with attribution, which is much appreciated. I believe that Dr. Kinneer’s words open a good conversation, and I am trying to worthily follow up on his lead.

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy

Jack D. Kinneer

During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, “Are you Orthodox?” It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.

But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.

My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.

I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?

The Appeal of Orthodoxy

Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.

The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.

The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.

Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.

The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy

So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the “Presbyterian” and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.

First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call “theosis” or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.

Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.

Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26-27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, “I never thought of that verse in that way before.” The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44-45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.

Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.

Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.

There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the “liturgy” that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and say “amen,” “hallelujah,” and “maranatha.” Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.

A Concluding Assessment

But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.

Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.

Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.

Reprinted from New Horizons of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as posted at Used with permission.

I wrote the following reply:

Dear Dr. Kinneer;

First, on an Orthodox mailing list, I saw a copy of your “A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy.” I would like to write a somewhat measured response that you might find of interest; please quote me if you like, preferably with attribution and a link to my website ( I am a convert Orthodox and a graduate of Calvin College, for which I have fond memories, although I was never a Calvinist, merely a non-Calvinist Evangelical welcomed in the warm embrace of the community. I am presently a Ph.D. student in theology and went to church for some time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and have friends there. I hope that you may find something of interest in my comments here.

Second, you talk about discussion of being Eastern Orthodox versus being orthodox. I would take this as a linguistically confusing matter of the English language, where even in spoken English the context clarifies whether (o)rthodox or (O)rthodox is the meaning intended by the speaker.

Third, I will be focusing mostly on matters I where I would at least suggest some further nuance, but your summary headed “The Appeal of Orthodoxy,” among other things in the article, is a good sort of thing and the sort of thing I might find convenient to quote.

Fourth, the Orthodox consensus of faith is not a much longer and less manageable collection of texts than the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, combined with the even more massive Patrologia Graecae, and other patristic sources. I have said elsewhere that Western and particularly Protestant and Evangelical culture are at their core written cultures, and Orthodoxy is at its core an oral culture that makes use of writing—I could suggest that it was precisely the Reformation that is at the root of what we now know as literate culture. This means that Orthodoxy does not have, as its closest equivalent to the Westminster Confession, a backbreaking load of books that even patristics scholars can’t read cover to cover; it means that the closest Orthodox equivalent to Westminster Confession is not anything printed but something alive in the life and culture of the community. (At very least this is true if you exclude the Nicene Creed, which is often considered “what Orthodox are supposed to believe.”)

Fifth, regarding the words, “First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith:” are you contending that former Evangelicals, who had an Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, were probably fairly devout Evangelicals, and are well-represented at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, do not understand justification by faith?

There seems to be something going on here that is a mirror image of what you say below about icons: there, you complain about people assuming that if you don’t hold the Orthodox position on icons, you don’t understand the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; here, you seem in a mirror image to assume that if people don’t have a Reformation-compatible understanding of justification by faith, you don’t understand the Biblical teaching.

I wrote, for a novella I’m working on, The Sign of the Grail, a passage where the main character, an Evangelical, goes to an Orthodox liturgy, hears amidst the mysterious-sounding phrases a reading including “The just shall walk by faith,” before the homily:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about “The righteous shall walk by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.

It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.

In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave people here trying to get disturbing images out of people’s minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.

The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the righteous shall walk by faith.”

The words “The righteous shall walk by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.

Paul does not say, “The righteous will walk by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When I showed this to one Reformation scholar to check my treatment of the Reformation, he said that I didn’t explain what “The righteous shall walk by faith,” but my entire point was to show what the Old Testament quotation could mean besides a shibboleth that one is sanctified in entirety in response to faith without one iota being earned by good works. The Reformation teaching, as I understand it, reflects a subtle adaptation of the Pauline usage—and here I might underscore that Paul and Luther had different opponents—and a profound adaptation of the Old Testament usage. And it may be possible to properly understand the Biblical text without interpreting it along Reformation lines.

Sixth, you write that Orthodox tend to have a poor understanding of sovereign grace. I remember how offended my spiritual Father was when I shared that a self-proclaimed non-ordained Reformed minister—the one person who harassed me when I became Orthodox—said that Orthodox didn’t believe in grace. He wasn’t offended at me, but I cannot ever recall seeing him be more offended. (Note: that harassment was a bitter experience, but I’d really like to think I’m not bitter towards Calvinists; I have a lot of fond memories from my time at Calvin and some excellent memories of friends who tended to be born and bred Calvinists.)

I would suggest that if you can say that Orthodox do not understand sovereign grace shortly after talking about a heavy emphasis on theosis, you are thinking about Orthodox doctrine through a Western grid and are missing partly some details and partly the big picture of how things fit together.

Seventh, I am slightly surprised that you describe original sin as simply being in the Bible and something Orthodox do not teach. Rom 5:12 as translated in the Vulgate (“…in quo omnes peccaverunt”) has a Greek ambiguity translated out, so that a Greek text that could quite justifiably be rendered that death came into the world “because all sinned” (NIV) is unambiguously rendered as saying about Adam, “in whom all have sinned,” which in turn fed into Augustine’s shaping of the Western doctrine of original sin. It’s a little surprising to me that you present this reading of an ambiguity as simply being what the Bible says, so that the Orthodox are deficiently presenting the Bible by not sharing the reading.

Eighth, I too was puzzled by the belief that the Incarnation immediately justifies icons, and I find it less puzzling to hold a more nuanced understanding of the Orthodox teaching that if you understand the Incarnation on patristic terms—instead of by a Reformation definition—its inner logic flows out to the point of an embrace of creation that has room for icons. I won’t develop proof-texts here; what I will say is that the kind of logical inference that is made is similar to a kind of logical inference I see in your report, i.e. that “The righteous shall walk by faith” means the Reformation doctrine that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.

I believe that this kind of reasoning is neither automatically right nor automatically wrong, but something that needs to be judged in each case.

Ninth, you write, “Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had.” When I was about to be received into the Orthodox Church, I told my father that I had been devoted in my reading of the Bible and I would switch to being devoted in my reading of the Fathers. My spiritual father, who is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, emphatically asked me to back up a bit, saying that the Bible was the core text and the Fathers were a commentary. He’s said that he would consider himself very fortunate if his parishioners would spend half an hour a day reading the Bible. On an Orthodox mailing list, one cradle Orthodox believer among mostly converts quoted as emphatic an Orthodox clergyman saying, “If you don’t read your Bible each day, you’re not a Christian.” Which I would take as exaggeration, perhaps, but exaggeration as a means of emphasizing something important.

Tenth, regarding higher-critical views at St. Vladimir’s Seminary: I agree that it is a problem, but I would remind you of how St. Vladimir’s Seminary and St. Tikhon’s Seminary compare. St. Vladimir’s Seminary is more liberal, and it is an excellent academic environment that gives degrees including an Orthodox M.Min. St. Tikhon’s Seminary is academically much looser but it is considered an excellent preparation for ministry. If you saw some degree of liberal academic theology at St. Vladimir’s, you are seeing the fruits of your (legitimate) selection. Not that St. Vladimir’s Seminary is the only Orthodox seminary which is not completely perfect, but if you want to see preparation for pastoral ministry placed ahead of academic study at an Orthodox institution, St. Tikhon’s might interest you.

Eleventh, after I was at Calvin, I remembered one friend, tongue-in-cheek, talking about “the person who led me to Calvin.” I also remember that when I was at Calvin, I heard more talk about being “disciples of John Calvin” than being “disciples of Jesus Christ,” and talk more about bearing the name of “Calvinist” than “Christian,” although this time it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. I notice that you speak of how, “sadly,” people “left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy.” One response might be one that Reformers like Calvin might share: “Was John Calvin crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Calvin?” (Cf I Cor. 1:13)

I left this out at first because it’s not as “nice” as some of the others, but I would like to invite you to perhaps leave the “faith” (as you call it) that aims for John Calvin, and embrace the faith that Calvin was trying to re-create in response to abuses in the Western Church. It’s still alive, and we still have an open door for you.

When I studied early modern era Orthodox Patriarch Cyril Lucaris, I compared the Eucharistic teaching in his profession of faith to the Eucharistic teaching in Calvin’s Institutes

…and concluded that Calvin was more Orthodox. Calvin, among other things, concerned himself with the question of what John Chrysostom taught.

I really don’t think I was trying to be a pest. But what I did not develop is that Calvin tried to understand what the Greek Fathers taught, always as an answer to Protestant questions about what, in metaphysical terms, happens to the Holy Gifts. The Orthodox question is less about the transformation of the Holy Gifts than the transformation of those who receive it, and Calvin essentially let the Fathers say whatever they wanted… as long as they answered a question on terms set by the Reformation.

When I read Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, my immediate reaction was that I wished the book had been “expanded to six times its present length.” I have some reservations about the fruitfulness of presuppositional apologetics now. What I do not have reservations about is saying that there is a valid insight in Schaeffer’s approach, and more specifically there is distortion introduced by letting Orthodoxy say whatever it wants… as an answer to Calvinist questions.

To assert, without perceived need for justification, that the Orthodox have very little understanding of sovereign grace and follow this claim by saying that there is a preoccupation with divinization comes across to Orthodox much like saying, “_______ have very little concept of ‘medicine’ or ‘health’ and are always frequenting doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and exercise clubs.” It’s a sign that Orthodox are allowed to fill in the details of sin, incarnation, justification, or (in this case) grace, but on condition that they are filling out the Reformation’s unquestioned framework.

But the way to understand this is less analysis than worship.

Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough

Evangelical Converts Striving to be Orthodox

A Glimpse Into Eastern Orthodoxy

An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

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Before I get further, I’d like to say a few words about what I drive.

I drive an Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon. What’s the color? When people are being nice, they talk about a classic, subdued camouflage color. Sometimes the more candid remarks end up saying something like, “The Seventies called. They want their paint job back,” although my station wagon is a 1965 model. All in all, I think I had the worst car of anyone I knew. Or at least that’s what I used to think.

Then I changed my mind. Or maybe it would be better to say that I had my mind changed for me.

I was sitting at the cafeteria, when I saw someone looking for a place to sit. He was new, and I motioned for him to come over. He sat down, quietly, and ate in silence. There was a pretty loud conversation at the table, and when people started talking about cars, his eyes seemed to widen. I asked him what kind of car he drove.

After hesitating, he mumbled something hard to understand, and looked like he was getting smaller. Someone said, “Maybe he doesn’t drive a car at all,” and whatever he mumbled was forgotten in raucous laughter.

I caught him in the hallway later, and he asked if I could help him move several large boxes that were not in the city. When we made the trip, he again seemed to be looking around with round eyes, almost enchanted by my rustbucket.

I began to feel sorry for the chap, and I gave him rides. Even if I didn’t understand.

He still managed to dodge any concrete hint of whatever it was that got him around—and I had a hunch that he hadn’t just walked. My other friends may have given me some ribbing about my bucket of bolts, but really it was just ribbing. I tried to impress on him that he would be welcome even if he just got around on a derelict moped—but still not a single peep.

By the time it was becoming old to joke about whatever he drove, I accepted a dare and shadowed him as he walked along a couple of abandoned streets, got to the nearest airstrip…

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. And probably the impolite ones, too. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

I walked back in a daze, sat down, decided not to take any drinks just then, and cornered the joker, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I told him to fess up about whatever he slipped me, but he was clueless—and when I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and blabbed why, he didn’t believe me. (Not that I blame him; I didn’t believe it myself.)

I ate by myself, later, and followed him. The third time, I caught him in the act.

I was red with anger, and almost saw red.

He blanched whiter than at the wisecrack about him maybe not driving a car.

What I would have said then, if I were calmer, was, “Do you think it’s right for a billionaire, to go around begging? You have things that none of us even dream of, and you—?”

After I had yelled at him, he looked at me and said, “How can I fuel up?”

I glared at him. “I don’t know, but it’s got to be much cooler than waiting in line at a gas station.”

“Maybe it is cooler, but I don’t think so, and that’s not what I asked. Suppose I want to fly in my airplane. What do I do to be fueled up?”

“Um, a fuel truck drives out and fills you up?”

“And then I’m good to go because I have a full tank, just like you?”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Ok, let me ask you. What do you do if you want to make a long trip? Can you fill your tank, maybe a day or two before your trip, and leave?”

“Yes. And that would be true if you had a moped, or a motorcycle, or a luxury car, or even something exotic like an ATV or a hovercraft.”

“But not an SR-71 Blackbird.”

“What do you mean, not an SR-71 Blackbird? Did you get a good deal because your aircraft is broken?”

“Um, just because you can assume something in a good car, or even a bad car, doesn’t mean that it’s true across the board. When it’s sitting on the ground, my aircraft leaks fuel.”

“It leaks fuel? Why are you flying an aircraft that’s not broken?”

“There’s a difference between designing a passenger car and what I deal with. With a passenger car, if the manufacturers are any good, the car can sit with little to no fuel leak even if it’s badly maintained.”

“But this does not apply to what the rest of us can only dream of?”


“Why not?”

“A passenger car heats up a little, at top speeds, due to air friction. One and the same part works for the fuel line when it’s been in the garage for an hour, and when it’s driving as fast as you’ve driven it. Not so with my aircraft. The SR-71 Blackbird is exposed to one set of temperatures in the hangar, and then there is air friction for moving at Mach 3.2, and there’s a basic principle of physics that says that what gets hotter, gets bigger.”

“What’s your point?”

“The parts that make up an SR-71 Blackbird are one size in the hangar and other sizes when the aircraft is flying at high speeds. The engineers could have sized the parts so that you could keep an aircraft in the hangar without losing any fuel… or they could make an airplane that leaks fuel on the ground, but it works when it was flying. But they could not make an airplane that would work at Mach 3.2 and have a sealed fuel line in the hangar… and that means that, when I go anywhere worth mentioning in my hot, exciting airplane, even I get fueled up on the ground, and I lose quite a lot of fuel getting airborne and more or less need an immediate air-to-air refueling… This is besides the obvious fact that I can’t run on any fuel an ordinary gas station would carry. For that matter, the JP-7, a strange beast of a ‘fuel’ that must also serve as hydraulic fluid and engine coolant, is about as exotic compared to most jet fuel as it is compared to the ‘boring’ gasoline which you take for granted—you can’t get fuel for an SR-71 Blackbird at a regular airport any more than you can buy ‘ordinary’ jet fuel at a regular gas station… and you think me strange when I get excited about the fact that you can drive up to any normal gas station and fill-er-up!”

I hesitated, and then asked, “But besides one or two details like—”

He cut me off. “It’s not ‘one or two details,’ any more than—than filling out paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy amounts to ‘one or two details’ of a police officer’s life. Sure, on television, something exciting happens to police officers every hour, but a real police officer’s life is extremely different from police shows. It’s not just paperwork. Perhaps there is lots of paperwork—a police officer deals with at least as much paperwork and bureaucracy as an employee who’s a cog in a big office—but there are other things. Police officers get in firefights all the time on TV. But this is another area where TV’s image is not the reality. I’ve known police officers who wouldn’t trade their work for anything in the world. Doesn’t mean that their work is like a cop show. When police officers aren’t being filmed on those videos that make dramatic shows, and they aren’t training, the average police officer starts firing maybe once every three or four years. There are many, many seasoned veterans who have never fired a gun on the street. And having an SR-71 Blackbird is no more what you’d imagine it was like to have a cool, neat, super-duper reconnaissance plane instead of your unsatisfying, meagre, second-rate, dull car than… than… than being a police officer has all the excitement of surviving a shootout every day, but only having to fill paperwork once every three or four years if at all!”

“Um, what else is there?”

“Um, what’s a typical trip for you? I mean, with your car?”

“My wife’s family is at the other side of the state, and—”

“So that’s an example of a common trip? More common than shopping or driving to meet someone?”

“Ok; often I’m just running some errands.”

“Such a boring thing to do with a station wagon. If you want things to get interesting, try something I wouldn’t brave.”


“Go for the gusto. Borrow my vehicle! First, you can fuel up at home, as any fuel that had been in your tank is now a slippery puddle underneath the vehicle you wish you had. Then start the vehicle. You’ll have something to deal with later, after the hot exhaust sets your trees on fire. And maybe a building or two. Then lurch around, and try to taxi along the streets. (Let’s assume you don’t set any trees on fire, which is not likely.) Now you’re used to be able to see most of the things on the road, at least the ones you don’t want to hit? And—”

“Ok, ok, I get the idea! The SR-71 Blackbird is the worst, most pitiable—”

“Perhaps I have misspoken. Or at least wasn’t clear enough. I wasn’t trying to say that it’s simple torture flying an SR-71 Blackbird. There are few things as joyful as flying. And do you know what kind of possibilities exist (in everything from friendship to work to hobbies) when the list of things you can easily make a day trip to the other side of the globe? When—”

“Then why the big deal you just made before?”

“An SR-71 Blackbird is many things, but it is not what you imagine if you fantasize about everything you imagine my vehicle to be, and assume almost everything you take for granted in yours. There are a great many nice things that go without saying in your vehicle, that aren’t part of mine. You know, a boring old station wagon with its dull room for a driver plus a few passengers and some cargo, that runs on the most mundane petroleum-based fuel you can get, and of course is familiar to most mechanics and can be maintained by almost any real automotive shop, and—if this is even worth mentioning—can be driven safely across a major network of roads, and—of course this can be taken for granted in any real vehicle—has a frame that gives you a fighting chance of surviving a full-speed collision with—”

“Ok, ok, I get the picture. But wouldn’t it have helped matters if you would tell people these things up front? You know, maybe something about avoiding these confrontations, or maybe something about ‘Honesty is the best policy’?”

He said, “Ok. So when I meet people, I should say, ‘Hi. My vehicle leaves Formula One racecars in the dust. It also flies, can slip through radar, and does several things you can’t even imagine. But don’t worry, I haven’t let any of this go to my head. I’m not full of myself. I promise I won’t look down on you or whatever car you drive. And you can promise not to feel the least bit envious, inferior, or intimated. Deal?’ It seems to come across that way no matter how I try to make that point. And really, why shouldn’t it?”

I paused. “Do our vehicles have anything in common at all?”

“Yes—more than either of us can understand.”

“But what on earth, if we’re so different? My vehicle is a 1965 model; your vehicle sounds so new you’d need a time machine to get one—”

“My vehicle is a 1965 model too.”

“If you want to lie and make me feel better, you could have told me that your vehicle was years older than mine.”

“I meant it. There is something about our vehicles that is cut from the same cloth.”

“How can you say that? I mean, without stretching? Is what they have in common that they’re both in the same universe? Or that they’re both bigger than an atom but smaller than a galaxy? Or some other way of really stretching?”

“If you want to dig deeper, have you read, ‘I, Pencil‘? Where an economist speaks on behalf of a common, humble pencil?”

“A speech from a pencil? What does that have to do with our vehicles? Are you going to compare our vehicles to a pencil?”


“So you’re stretching.”


“In I, Pencil, a cheap wooden pencil explains what it took to make it. It talks about how a diamond in the rough—I mean, graphite in the rough—crosses land and sea and is combined with clay, and a bit of this and that to make the exquisite slender shaft we call pencil ‘lead’. The wood comes from the majestic cedar—do you know what it takes to make a successful logging operation—and then a mind-boggling number of steps transform a hundred feet of tree into something that’s a little hard to explain, but machined to very precise specifications, and snapped together before six coats of laquer—oh, I forgot, before the cedar wraps around the slender graphite wand, it’s also adorned by being tinted a darker color, ‘for the same reason women put rouge on their faces’ or something like that. Its parts come through a transportation network from all over the world, and the rubber eraser—which wouldn’t erase at all well if were just rubber; it needs to be a cocktail of ingredients that perform at least three major tasks if it will work as an eraser. Try erasing pencil with a rubber ball sometime; it will erase terribly if it erases at all. Your erases is not mere rubber, but a rubber alloy, the way airplanes are made, not with mere aluminum, but with an aluminum alloy, and—”

“So the parts of a pencil have an interesting story?”

“Yes. And the quite impressive way they are put together—pencils don’t assemble themselves, and a good machine—for some steps—costs a king’s ransom. And the way they’re distributed, and any number of things necessary for business to run the whole process, and—”

“Then should I start offering my daughter’s pencils to a museum?”

“I wouldn’t exactly offer one of her pencils to a museum. Museums do not have room for every wonder this world has. But I will say this. The next pencil you forget somewhere wouldn’t have been yours to lose without more work, talent, skill, knowledge, venture capital, and a thousand other things than it took to make a wonder like the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa.”

As usual, she was dressed to kill. Her outfit was modest—I can almost say, ostentatiously modest—but, somehow, demurely made the point that she might be a supermodel.

I had a bad feeling about something. During our conversation on the way over, I said, “You have an issue with Saab drivers.” He replied, “No. Or yes, but it’s beside the point. Saab drivers tend to have issues with me.” I was caught off-guard: “That sounds as arrogant as anything I’ve—”

He asked me to forget what he had said. For the rest of the conversation, he seemed to be trying to change the subject.

She greeted us, shook his hand warmly, and turned back. “—absolutely brilliant. Not, in any way, like the British Comet, which never should have been flown in the first place, and was part of why jumbo jetliners were dangerous in the public’s eye. The training for people who were going to be in that jumbo jetliner—the Comet—included being in a vacuum so that soldiers would know what to do if they were flying in a sparse layer of the atmosphere and the airplane simply disintegrated around them and left them in what might as well have been a vacuum. This sort of thing happened with enough jumbo jetliners that the public was very leery of them. For good reason, they were considered a disaster looking for a place to happen.

“And so, when Boeing effectively bet the company on the Boeing 707—like they did with every new airplane; it wasn’t just one product among others that could be a flop without killing the company—they gave the test pilot very careful instructions about what to do when he demonstrated their new jumbo jetliner.

“At the airshow, he was flying along, and after a little while, people began to notice that one of the airplane’s wings was lower, and the other was higher…

“The Boeing 707 test pilot was doing a barrel roll, which is extremely rough on an airplane. It’s like… something like, instead of saying that a computer is tough, throwing it across the room. This stunt was a surprise to the other people at Boeing, almost as much as to the other, and it wasn’t long before Boeing got on the radio and asked the pilot, ‘What the [Bleep] do you think you’re doing?’ The pilot’s reply was short, and to the point:

“‘Why, selling airplanes, sir.’

“He told a reporter afterwards, ‘And when I got done with that barrel roll, I realized that the people weren’t going to believe what they just saw… so I turned around and I did another one!'”

A moment later, someone else said, “What does ‘Saab’ mean again? You’ve told me, but—”

She smiled. “It took me a while to remember, too. ‘SAAB’ stands for ‘Svenska aeroplan Aktiebolaget,’ literally ‘Swedish Aeroplane Limited.’ It’s a European aerospace company that decided that besides making fighter jets and military aircraft, they would run a side business of selling cars, or at least the kind of car you get when you combine a muscle car, a luxury vehicle, and more than a touch of a military jet. It’s like an airplane in big and small ways—everything from, if you unbuckle your seatbelt, a ‘Fasten seatbelts’ light just like an airliners’, to the rush of power you feel when you hit the gas and might as well be lifting off… I’m not sure how you would describe it… It’s almost what Lockheed-Martin would sell if they were Scandinavian and wanted to sell something you could drive on the street.”

He said, “It sounds like a delight to drive.”

She said, “It is. Would you two like me to take you out for a spin? I’d be delighted to show it to you. What kind of car do you drive?”

He paused for a split second and said, “I needed to get a ride with him; I have nothing that I could use to get over here.”

I told her, “He’s being modest.”

She looked at me quizzically. “How?”

“He flies an SR-71 Blackbird… um… sorry, I shouldn’t have said that just as you were taking a drink.”

He seemed suddenly silent. For that matter, the room suddenly seemed a whole lot quieter.

She said, “You’re joking, right?”

No one said a word.

Then she said, “Wow. It is a privilege and an honor. I have never met someone who…”

He said, “I really don’t understand… maybe… um… I’m not really better, or—”

She said, “Stop being modest. I’d love to hear more about your fighter. Have you shot anything down?”

He looked as if he was thinking very hurriedly, and not finding the thought that he wanted.

“The SR-71 Blackbird would be pretty useless in a dogfight. It is neither designed or equipped to fight even with a very obsolete enemy aircraft; it’s just designed to snoop around and gather information.”

She said, “Um, so they get shot down all the time? Wouldn’t you tend to get a lot of missiles fired by enemy fighters who aren’t worried about you shooting back? What do you do when you run out of countermeasure flares?”

He paused for a moment, saying, “The SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have anything you’d expect. Flares are a great way to decoy a heat-seeking missile, but the SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have them, either.”

I turned to him and said, “You’re being almost disturbingly modest.” Then I turned to her and said, “An SR-71 Blackbird can go over three times the speed of sound. The standard evasive to a surface-to-air rocket is simply to accelerate until you’ve left the rocket in the dust. I’m not aware of one of them being shot down.”

Her eyes were as big as dinner plates.

She said, “I am stunned. I have talked with a few pilots, but I have never met anyone close to an SR-71 Blackbird pilot. I hope we can be friends.” She stood close to him and offered her hand.

The three of us ran into each other a number of times in the following days. She seemed to want to know everything about his aircraft, and seemed very respectful, or at least seemed to be working hard to convey how impressed she was.

It was a dark and stormy night. He and I were both on our way out the door, when she asked, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I want to try some challenges. I plan on going out over the ocean and manoeuvering in the storm system.”

She turned to him and said, very slowly, “No, you’re not.”

He turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”

She said, “Are you crazy? A storm like that has done what enemy rockets have failed to do: take down your kind of craft. I’ve grown quite fond of you, and I’d hate to see you get killed because you were being stupid. Think about 61-7969 / 2020.”

He said, “May I ask why you know about that?”

“I have been doing some reading because I want to understand you. And I understand people well enough, and care about you enough, to tell when you are acting against your best interests.”

He grabbed my arm and forced me out the door. Once in the car, he said, “I’m sorry… I needed to get out before saying something I would regret.”

“Like what?”

“‘So you know just the perfect way to straighten me out, and you don’t even need to ask me questions. Walk a mile in my shoes, to a place you can reach in a car but not my aircraft, and then we might be able to talk.'”

I watched him take off, and I came back to pick him up, after waiting an hour. I could tell something that seemed not quite perfect about his flying, but I do not regret that I kept my mouth shut about that.

The next day she surprised us by meeting us first thing in the morning.

She gave us a stack of paper. “I care about you quite a lot, and I don’t want to be invited to your funeral in the next year. Here are detailed aviation regulations and international laws which are intended for your safety. I could not get an exact count of the number of crimes you committed, either for last night or for your reckless day-to-day flying around. I am sure that there are many responsible ways a vehicle like yours can be used, and I have inquired about whether there are any people who can offer some guidance and free you to…”

He turned around, took my elbow, and began walking out to the parking lot. We got in my car, and she raced for hers.

I saw her go to the mouth of the parking lot and then stop. The one Rolls-Royce in town had broken down, of all places there, and the owner and chauffer were both outside. I had thought that the person who was chauffered in a Rolls-Royce was a peaceful sort of man, but he was yelling then, and before she got over the owner positively erupted at the chauffeur and waved his arms. She had gotten out and wanted to talk with them, but you can’t get a word in edgewise at a time like that.

Now I’d like to clarify something about my car. I’ve only seen a vehicle like mine in a demolition derby once, but I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised, in particular, that the wagon was the last vehicle moving. What I was surprised at was that over a third of the derby had passed before the ugly wagon started to crumple at all.

And one other thing: one April Fools’ Day, a friend who drives a sleek, sporty little 1989 Chrysler LeBaron gave me a bumper sticker that said, “Zero to sixty in fifteen minutes,” and then acted surprised when I challenged him to a short race. When the race had finished, he seemed extraordinarily surprised, and I told him, “There is a question on your face. Let me answer it.” Then I opened the hood on my ugly, uncool station wagon and said, “Your sleek little number can get by on a 2.2 liter engine. Do you know what that is?” He said, “Um, the engine?” And I said, “That is a 6.6 liter V8. Any questions?”

Ok, enough clarification. I looked around, turned in the opposite direction, and floored my car, blasting through the hedges and getting heavy scrapes on the bottom of my car. I got shortly on the road, and had a straight shot at the airport. She did eventually catch up to me, but not until there was nothing left to see but some hot exhaust and the fuel that had leaked when he tried to take off. (I still get the occasional note from him.)

Besides worrying about him, I was also much less worried about my car: tough as it is, cars don’t like getting their undersides scraped on gravel, and I decided to take my car to the garage and have the mechanic take a look at it and tell me if I broke anything.

I was surprised—though maybe I shouldn’t have been—to see the Rolls-Royce in the garage when I pulled in. I intended to explain that I might have scraped the bottom up, and after I did so, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked something about Rolls-Royces breaking down.

The mechanic gave me the oddest look.

I asked him, “Why the funny look?”

He opened the hood, and said, “Rolls-Royces do break down easily… and it’s even easier to break down if you open the hood, jam a screwdriver right there, and rev it as hard as you can.”

An author’s musing memoirs about his work: retrospective reflections, retracings, and retractions

Gifted? Let me harass you!

The Mindstorm

The Spectacles

Religion within the Bounds of Amusement

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, and it is not real.

On the screen appear numerous geometrical forms—prisms, cylinders, cubes — dancing, spinning, changing shape, in a very stunning computer animation. In the background sounds the pulsing beat of techno music. The forms waver, and then coalesce into letters: “Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement.”

The music and image fade, to reveal a man, perfect in form and appearance, every hair in place, wearing a jet black suit and a dark, sparkling tie. He leans forward slightly, as the camera focuses in on him.

“Good morning, and I would like to extend a warm and personal welcome to each and every one of you from those of us at the Church of the Holy Television. Please sit back, relax, and turn off your brain.”

Music begins to play, and the screen shows a woman holding a microphone. She is wearing a long dress of the whitest white, the color traditionally symbolic of goodness and purity, which somehow manages not to conceal her unnaturally large breasts. The camera slowly focuses in as she begins to sing.

“You got problems? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. Not enough luxury? That’s OK. Only three cars? That’s OK. Not enough power? That’s OK. Can’t get your way? That’s OK. Not enough for you? That’s OK. Can’t do it on your own? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. Just call out to Jesus, and he’ll make them go away. Just call out to Jesus, and he’ll make them go away.”

As the music fades, the camera returns to the man.

“Have you ever thought about how much God loves us? Think about the apex of progress that we are at, and how much more he has blessed us than any one else.

“The Early Christians were in a dreadful situation. They were always under persecution. Because of this, they didn’t have the physical assurance of security that is the basis for spiritual growth, nor the money to buy the great libraries of books that are necessary to cultivate wisdom. It is a miracle that Christianity survived at all.

“The persecution ended, but darkness persisted for a thousand years. The medievals were satisfied with blind faith, making it the context of thought and leisure. Their concept of identity was so weak that it was entangled with obedience. The time was quite rightly called the Dark Ages.

“But then, ah, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Man and his mind enthroned. Religion within the bounds of reason. Then science and technology, the heart of all true progress, grew.

“And now, we sit at the apex, blessed with more and better technology than anyone else. What more could you possibly ask for? What greater blessing could there possibly be? We have the technology, and know how to enjoy it. Isn’t God gracious?”

There is a dramatic pause, and then the man closes his eyes. “Father, I thank you that we have not fallen into sin; that we do not worship idols, that we do not believe lies, and that we are not like the Pharisees. I thank you that we are good, moral people; that we are Americans. I thank you, and I praise you for your wondrous power. Amen.”

He opens his eyes, and turns to the camera. It focuses in on his face, and his piercing gaze flashes out like lightning. With a thunderous voice, he boldly proclaims, “To God alone be the glory, for ever and ever!”

The image fades.

In the background can be heard the soft tones of Beethoven. A couple fades in; they are elegantly dressed, sitting at a black marble table, set with roast pheasant. The room is of Baroque fashion; marble pillars and mirrors with gilt frames adorn the walls. French windows overlook a formal garden.

The scene changes, and a sleek black sports car glides through forest, pasture, village, mountain. The music continues to play softly.

It passes into a field, and in the corner of the field a small hovel stands. The camera comes closer, and two half-naked children come into view, playing with some sticks and a broken Coca-Cola bottle. Their heads turn and follow the passing car.

A voice gently intones, “These few seconds may be the only opportunity some people ever have to know about you. What do you want them to see?”

The picture changes. Two men are walking through a field. As the camera comes closer, it is seen that they are deep in conversation.

One of them looks out at the camera with a probing gaze, and then turns to the other. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, Jim.” He draws a deep breath, and closes his eyes. “I just feel so… so empty. A life filled with nothing but shallowness. Like there’s nothing inside, no purpose, no meaning. Just an everlasting nothing.”

“Well, you know, John, for every real and serious problem, there is a solution which is trivial, cheap, and instantaneous.” He unslings a small backpack, opening it to pull out two cans of beer, and hands one to his friend. “Shall we?”

The cans are opened.

Suddenly, the peaceful silence is destroyed by the blare of loud rock music. The camera turns upwards to the sky, against which may be seen parachutists; it spins, and there is suddenly a large swimming pool, and a vast table replete with great pitchers and kegs of beer. The parachutists land; they are all young women, all blonde, all laughing and smiling, all wearing string bikinis, and all anorexic.

For the remaining half of the commercial, the roving camera takes a lascivious tour of the bodies of the models. Finally, the image fades, and a deep voice intones, “Can you think of a better way to spend your weekends?”

The picture changes. A luxury sedan, passing through a ghetto, stops beside a black man, clad in rags. The driver, who is white, steps out in a pristine business suit, opens his wallet, and pulls out five crisp twenty dollar bills.

“I know that you can’t be happy, stealing, lying, and getting drunk all of the time. Here is a little gift to let you know that Jesus loves you.” He steps back into the car without waiting to hear the man’s response, and speeds off.

Soon, he is at a house. He steps out of the car, bible in hand, and rings the doorbell.

The door opens, and a man says, “Nick, how are you? Come in, do come in. Have a seat. I was just thinking of you, and it is so nice of you to visit. May I interest you in a little Martini?”

Nick sits down and says, “No, Scott. I am a Christian, and we who are Christian do not do such things.”

“Aah; I see.” There is a sparkle in the friend’s eye as he continues, “And tell me, what did Jesus do at his first miracle?”

The thick, black, leatherbound 1611 King James bible arcs through the air, coming to rest on the back of Scott’s head. There is a resounding thud.

“You must learn that the life and story of Jesus are serious matters, and not to be taken as the subject of jokes.”

The screen turns white as the voice glosses, “This message has been brought to you by the Association of Concerned Christians, who would like to remind you that you, too, can be different from the world, and can present a positive witness to Christ.”

In the studio again, the man is sitting in a chair.

“Now comes a very special time in our program. You, our viewers, matter most to us. It is your support that keeps us on the air. And I hope that you do remember to send us money; when you do, God will bless you. So keep your checks rolling, and we will be able to continue this ministry, and provide answers to your questions. I am delighted to be able to hear your phone calls. Caller number one, are you there?”

“Yes, I am, and I would like to say how great you are. I sent you fifty dollars, and someone gave me an anonymous check for five hundred! I only wish I had given you more.”

“That is good to hear. God is so generous. And what is your question?”

“I was wondering what God’s will is for America? And what I can do to help?”

“Thank you; that’s a good question.

“America is at a time of great threat now; it is crumbling because good people are not elected to office.

“The problem would be solved if Christians would all listen to Rush Limbaugh, and then go out and vote. Remember, bad people are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote. With the right men in office, the government would stop wasting its time on things like the environment, and America would become a great and shining light, to show all the world what Christ can do.

“Caller number two?”

“I have been looking for a church to go to, and having trouble. I just moved, and used to go to a church which had nonstop stories and anecdotes; the congregation was glued to the edges of their seats. Here, most of the services are either boring or have something which lasts way too long. I have found a few churches whose services I generally enjoy—the people really sing the songs—but there are just too many things that aren’t amusing. For starters, the sermons make me uncomfortable, and for another, they have a very boring time of silent meditation, and this weird mysticism about ‘kiss of peace’ and something to do with bread and wine. Do you have any advice for me?”

“Yes, I do. First of all, what really matters is that you have Jesus in your heart. Then you and God can conquer the world. Church is a peripheral; it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus being in your heart. If you find a church that you like, go for it, but if there aren’t any that you like, it’s not your fault that they aren’t doing their job.

“And the next caller?”

“Hello. I was wondering what the Song of Songs is about.”

“The Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. Various other interpretations have been suggested, but they are all far beyond the bounds of good taste, and read things into the text which would be entirely inappropriate in holy Scriptures. Next caller?”

“My people has a story. I know tales of years past, of soldiers come, of pillaging, of women ravaged, of villages razed to the ground and every living soul murdered by men who did not hesitate to wade through blood. Can you tell me what kind of religion could possibly decide that the Crusades were holy?”

The host, whose face had suddenly turned a deep shade of red, shifted slightly, and pulled at the side of his collar. After a few seconds, a somewhat less polished voice hastily states, “That would be a very good question to answer, and I really would like to, but I have lost track of time. It is now time for an important message from some of our sponsors.”

The screen is suddenly filled by six dancing rabbits, singing about toilet paper.

A few minutes of commercials pass: a computer animated flash of color, speaking of the latest kind of candy; a family brought together and made happy by buying the right brand of vacuum cleaner; a specific kind of hamburger helping black and white, young and old to live together in harmony. Somewhere in there, the Energizer bunny appears; one of the people in the scene tells the rabbit that he should have appeared at some time other than the commercial breaks. Finally, the host, who has regained his composure, is on the screen again.

“Well, that’s all for this week. I hope you can join us next week, as we begin a four part series on people whose lives have been changed by the Church of the Holy Television. May God bless you, and may all of your life be ever filled with endless amusement!”

The Commentary

Lesser icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Procedures for the Repair and Adjustment of Television

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Theology
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The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?


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The Sign of the Grail

Ajax without JavaScript or Client-Side Scripting

The Ajax application included in this page implements a legitimate, if not particularly useful or even usable, “proof of concept” with partial page updates based on server communication. It accepts a string, and then lets you click on one of a few buttons to see that string styled the way the button is styled, appending a link from the server. But it demonstrates one interesting feature:

It works just the same if you turn off JavaScript and any other client-side scripting completely.

How does it work?

Ajax partial page updates don’t need to manipulate a monolithic page’s DOM; the reason browser back buttons work in Gmail is an invisible, seamless use of iframes that create browser history. And not only can you do partial page updates via iframes without DOM manipulation, you can do it without client side scripting.

The source code to the server is available here, but it is simple, stateless, and doesn’t really hold any secrets; it could be fairly well reconstructed simply by observing what is going on in the demo app above. The basic insight is that a webpage that talks to a server and makes partial updates can be made by the usual Ajax tools, but at least a basic proof of concept can be made with old HTML features like frames and iframes, links and targets, forms, and meta refresh.

This Ajaxian use of old web technologies may or may not produce graceful alternatives to standard Ajax techniques, either alone or in a “progressive enhancement”/”graceful degradation” strategy, but it may allow graceful degradation to be just a little more graceful, and JAWS might at least know when something on the sceen has changed. But here is a proof of concept that it is possible to implement a webapp with partial page updates and server communications that works in a browser that has JavaScript and any other client-side scripting turned off.

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