The Best Defense …

I grew up being very aware of other people’s image of me. My father, being a pastor, was a public figure in a very small town. Someone knew everything I did and often the things that the children of public figures did became the stuff of coffee shop conversation around town. (The daughter of the other Pastor Nelson in town, for instance, had a tattoo of a flower high on her inner thigh long before tatoos anywhere were acceptable, except on sailors. It’s amazing how many people in town knew that little tidbit!) I didn’t find my situation burdensome, nor (for the most part) did I try to create a secret life which remained outside the public view. Having strangers vaguely interested in my life was simply the way I grew up.

In the internet age this ability to watch people and reconstruct their life from digital flotsam has become more worrisome, and in many cases, downright pernicious. And I use the word “flotsam” deliberately. Typically the digital world doesn’t care about the good, much less the benign things we do. In this day and age, news is essentially gossip legitimized by the fourth estate. And broadly speaking, the only thing newsworthy is when a life shipwrecks, creating flotsam for all the curiosity seekers to comb through. A person’s image culled from the internet is typically far more negative than their actual life, given the realities of the modern world.

I am currently taking a Business Communications class (which is clearly misnamed, but this is fine with me — after taking the placement test I was asked to tutor English … and I’ve given a few speeches in my life, so the communications portion of the class is mere review). We’re three quarters of the way through the course and we’ve finally started talking about how to communicate well in a business environment. What the class has focused on until now is how to get the correct job in the first place. We had to take several inventories which provided very sophisticated personality, interest, and value profiles. We created, and revised, and revised again, our résumés. We’ve learned to write effective cover letters. We spent a lot of time learning how to interview, and then getting interviewed both individually and by a panel.

We’ve also talked at length about our image: what is projected in how we dress, how we talk, how we slouch, how we shake hands, and what people see when they google us. (Btw, don’t tell my Business Communications instructor that I just verbed a noun and used the abbreviation btw.) And this last point raises some interesting questions. If a person is largely invisible on the internet, what does that imply? Our instructor theorizes that no internet presence is often worse than a less-than-flattering internet presence. Many Human Resources (HR) departments assume that if someone is curiously absent from the internet, they probably have something to hide. (And let me be clear: This is one instructor’s opinion. I have not done any research on the question; I’m just taking her word for it.)

I do know there are businesses whose sole business is to clean up people’s online image. While it’s impossible to completely scrub the internet , these businesses can make it very difficult to find much of anything at all about a person beyond their credit history, driving record, criminal past, and other matters of public record that were all available to police and private investigators long before Al Gore invented the internet. For a few thousand dollars you too can be “disappeared” from the prying eyes of googlers and HR departments.

Old guys (not in the sense of physical age, but age in relation to the internet) whose ideas of privacy were established before the internet, and who now try to apply those old standards of privacy to the internet age, advocate keeping everything secret and making as little as possible public. Steve Gibson, founder of Gibson Research Corp., is fanatical about privacy and has some of the coolest free programs and apps that will simply make your computer disappear from view. He even has a whole host of work-arounds so that a user can avoid using Flash or Java applications – He doesn’t trust them. The Sovereign Society, a sales organization dedicated to personal privacy, will teach you – for a small fee – how to disappear from the land of the living and exist nearly invisibly, inaccessible from the prying eyes of attorneys, government officials, and ex-spouses. These groups border on the paranoid.

But there’s a whole new approach to privacy embraced by the young turks (in contrast to the aforementioned “old guys”). According to these young turks it’s far better to hide in plain sight. Don’t avoid the public eye; use it intentionally. The best way to keep some HR department from digging too deeply into your past is to make everything in your past that might improve your image easily accessible. To use another well-worn truism, “the best defense is a good offense.” Give the appearance (whether this is actually the case or not) that you are an open book. If the “open book” that prying eyes discover turns out to be a bit bland, boring, responsible, and normal, those snooping around will quickly get bored and turn their attention elsewhere.

Which leads us to another truism of the internet age: Because everything is seemingly so accessible, most people bore quickly of snooping around. Serious, professional snoopers will almost always discover everything – even the stuff you thought was truly hidden. But serious professional snoopers are few and far between … and very expensive. The average snooper will merely find reams of “bland, boring, responsible, and normal, “ assume that this is what you’re really like, and quit looking. (Or, so say the young turks.)

I have had personal experience with a serious snooper. I once did some business with Mark Nestmann. (I’ll make it easy for you. He can be found here, here, and here. And no, I don’t have a second citizenship, nor have I squirreled away my life savings in some far off corner of the world. What I did with Mark was bland, boring, responsible, and normal. … but if it were something else, how would you ever find out?) Before doing business with me, the Nestmann Group asked Burke Files to look into my past to see if I was telling the truth. It turns out I was telling the truth as far as I remembered it, but Burke found stuff that I had forgotten, and even found things I had been looking for but couldn’t find! (… including an insurance policy I didn’t know existed.) I was impertinent enough to ask Burke how much all this “due diligence” cost. He replied that he’d seen my financials and I certainly couldn’t afford him.

I suspect (as do the young turks who recommend that it’s best to hide in plain sight) that Burke Files is the exception that proves the rule. If someone wants to find all the dirt and is willing to pay the price for the dirt, there is absolutely no way you are going to be able to hide it. On the other hand, the best defense against typical snoopers (such as an HR department doing its due diligence before they hire you) is to put your version of the story out there on multiple platforms so that the snoopers quickly get bored with your ordinariness.

Living in the internet age isn’t a lot different than growing up in a small town where everybody’s watching and just a little bit too interested. It reminds me of that old Country Western song (sung by Charly McClain):  “Still you wonder who’s cheatin’ who / And who’s being true / Who don’t even care anymore / It makes you wonder who’s doin’ right / By someone tonight / And who’s car is parked next door.” People are going to snoop and people are going to speculate about who’s parked next door. You might as well embrace it for what it is and use Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress  as a good offense.


The Enduring Influence of Egypt on the Celts

The story (told in the previous essay) of Sts Martin, Athanasius, Patrick, and Ninian, along with a host of Coptic monks moving from the deserts of Egypt to Gaul is an interesting tale. But it raises some questions and provides the basis for further speculations. In this essay I consider one of the key questions the story raises: Since Coptic-style monasticism became so firmly established in fourth centry Gaul, why didn’t it stick? Why did the French monastic tradition become so overwhelmingly Benedictine after a few short centuries?

To answer that question we have to begin with Egypt itself. Egypt was the location of one of the greatest Christian centers in the ancient world: Alexandria. Alexandria eventually became one of the five primary Patriarchates of the church (along with Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome). But Alexandria, while located geographically in Egypt, was not Egyptian; it was Greek both in culture and language.

Alexandria was both an intellectual and political center. As a result, Alexandria’s Christian culture was defined by Greek ecclesiastical structure (parishes, bishops, archbishops, and of course, the Patriarch) and Greek theological debate. But the rest of Egypt (what we would think of as modern day Egypt and Ethiopia as well as Sinai and Gaza) were far more Semitic and African than Greek.

One could say that while the city of Alexandria was Greek, the rest of Egypt was Coptic. The rural and very Semitic Copts were not particularly interested in either bureaucratic structures or intricate theological controversies. They took a far more down-to-earth approach to their Christian faith. Bishops were valued defenders of the faith and ordainers of the presbyters, but leadership tended to fall more to the abbots or elder monks rather than the bishops. Organization was communitarian rather than hierarchical and they preferred a charismatic rather than bureaucratic leadership style.

Gaul, on the other hand, was quickly becoming Latinized. After Martin and the cadre of Egyptian monks died, there was little cultural connection to the Coptic spirituality. By the time the sixth century dawned there was a natural (and inevitable) migration to the new structure and discipline that Benedict was developing in his so-called Benedictine rule. Both Benedictine spirituality and discipline lent itself to the Latin mindset. Even though the Roman Empire had declined and been replaced by Gallic and Teutonic leadership, there would have been cultural comfort in the Benedictine system.

Ireland and Scotland, on the other hand, were on the very fringes of the Roman Empire. Even though Romans introduced them to Christianity, they were never Latinized in the same manner as people closer to the centers of Roman power. Furthermore, the Celts were a tribal people (much like the Copts). Coptic spirituality was a much more natural fit than Latin spirituality and the Celts took to it and made it their own. Monastic communities called dyserts (for the Celts tended not to have formal monasteries in the Latin fashion) spread throughout Ireland and Scotland.  Theologically the Celts were far more receptive to the Egyptian desert spirituality which focused much more on internal struggle (mirrored in the communities’ struggle against and harmony with their natural world). In what we would now call England — that portion of Britain that was more urbanized and very close to the Continent — great theological centers of Latin learning developed. Scholars such as the Venerable Bede, Augustine of Canterbury, and later, William of Occam all furthered Latin theology from this far corner of Rome’s reach. But the Celts remained distinct and separate from England’s ecclesiastical Christianity.

The Latin Church, given its penchant for uniformity of ideas, could not abide the existence of this Celtic Christianity which was far more Egyptian than Latin in flavor. As time went on the Latin Church, which had always been more organized, became militarized (the Knights Templar). The Celts were finally “brought into” the Latin fold through an extended and violent military style campaign that led to a host of Celtic martyrs who are remembered to this day in the Orthodox Church.

It has long been recognized that Celtic spirituality was quite distinct from its Latin counterpart. It was more focused on beauty and nature; it emphasized God within the world rather than outside it. It was less juridical in its soteriology and far more relational in its understanding of the incarnation. Once the deep and abiding connection to Egyptian monasticism is understood, it is easily recognized that all of these things are hallmarks of that which distinguishes Eastern and Coptic Orthodoxy to this day from the Roman Catholic Church.

It is therefore no surprise that when some Eastern Orthodox Christians began to look for a Western liturgy that remained true to the Eastern Orthodox vision of God and salvation, they landed on the Old Roman Rite, a French rite that was kept alive in the Celtic churches of both Roman Catholic and Anglican flavor. In spite of the the Celts inability to remain free of Roman Catholic dominance (and for many of them later dominance by the Anglicans) that ancient Egyptian monastic sensibility still imbued the faith of the Irish, Scots, and Welsh.

To a lesser extent this was also true of the Scottish Kirk (the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). The Kirk was deeply influenced by the Rationalism and Empiricism of the Enlightenment, but in the midst of this very unhealthy philosophical brew, the Scots maintained a strongly Realist bent rather than the Idealism that overwhelmed German philosophy and spread throughout both the Continent and North America.

So it is that we see the enduring influence of Egypt to this day in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.


From the Desert to the Emerald Isle

There is an odd connection between Celtic and Coptic (Egyptian and Ethiopian) Christianity. At least on the surface it seems odd because Ireland and Scotland are so far from Egypt. The odd turns right down weird if you listen to the British Zionists or the History Channel (which has devolved into a network devoted to conspiracy theories, alien influences, etc.)

The British Zionists claim that Jews (supposedly underthe leadership of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch) traveled from Israel across North Africa, up into Spain and eventually settled in Britain, leading this “lost tribe of Israel” to its new promised land. (This theory is based largely on the obscure connection of the words, “Hebrew,” “Iberia,” and “Britain,” which, if written in Hebrew text all have the same three letter root, which is B-R-T. (Hebrew has two different letters that can be transliterated as a “t.” The one in the word “Hebrew” is typically silent.)

The Primitive British Christian theory follows along the same line, except they theorize that rather than Baruch traveling to Britain, it was Joseph of Arimethea, or maybe even Jesus himself before he turned 30.

The History Channel is quite enchanted with sort of stuff, so if you’re curious just watch various History Channel marathons around various Christian or Jewish holy days. Without being unfairly dismissive, I contend that either one of these theories is as likely as the Mormon theory that Jesus came to North America after his resurrection. In other words, while fun, creative, and quite amusing, it’s complete balderdash.

The truth of the matter, which revolves around St. Martin of Tours, is far more mundane. He was a Hungarian Christian and Roman soldier who spent his military career in Gaul. Martin had read Athanasius’ famous book on the Coptic monk Anthony of Egypt and was attracted to the lives of the desert monks. Athanasius himself traveled to Italy, accompanied by Ammon and Isadore, two Coptic monks from the Egyptian desert. The monks stayed to help set up monasteries in the West.

Martin established multiple monasteries in Gaul, among them the island monastery at Lerins and the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours and those monasteries became a destination for quite an number of the Egyptian monks who followed Ammon and Isadore west. They helped Martin create Egyptian style monastic disciplines in Gaul. Over the centuries there was great upheaval in this part of the world and both monasteries were nearly destroyed by various invading hoards. Eventually both were re-established, but currently they follow the Benedictine rule rather than the Egyptian monastic rule under which they were founded.

But in the fourth century before the upheaval, while Martin’s monasteries were still thoroughly Egyptian in rule and outlook, Celts traveled to Gaul (modern day France) in order to learn monastic discipline. The two most famous are the Irishman, St. Patrick, who spent time at Lerins, and the Scot, St. Ninian, who spent time at Marmoutier. Both returned to their native lands, taking the Egyptian-style monastic life back to the Celts, who were already becoming Christian, due to the evangelizing efforts of Roman soldiers who were garrisoned in Britain (the extreme edge of the Roman Empire in the third and fourth century).

For those of us who love quest stories and think Bilbo and Frodo are the best thing to come along since sliced bread, it is tempting to imagine Baruch’s (or Joseph of Arimathea’s) supposed grand quest across North Africa all the way to Britain. Or for those who love sea faring stories, the idea that one or both of them set out on ancient Phoenician ships, following the wind and currents all the way to Britain is equally exciting. Maybe Dan Brown can tell such a fantastical and enthralling tale in his next novel – it would no doubt be a fun read. But if you want actual history (in contrast to the faux-history foisted on us by the History Channel), you have to settle for Athanasius, Coptic monks, Martin of Tours, Patrick the Irishman, and Ninian the Scot, all converging in ancient Gaul, where prayers were prayed, ideas were shared, and Egyptian crosses, iconography, and a surprising number of Coptic words, were taken back to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Mea Culpa

Sometimes I mistake myself for a humorist. A good humorist can be acerbic without being small-minded. (Don’t forget that before “mean” meant “hurtful” or “offensive,” it meant “small-minded.”) My humor too often is small-minded and thus unintentionally veers off in the direction of mean-spiritedness.

Here’s my own means-spiritedness measuring stick: Would I be embarrassed to meet a person face to face of whom I wrote about on the internet? On a handful of occasions the answer is yes. Two come to mind. The first is this little attempt at humor I wrote back in April. I would like to think that anyone reading that piece, where I skewer academics getting government grants, is tongue-in-cheek, and not designed to be informative, only humorous. Now that I’ve reread it I suspect that Mark Dixon, Carter Johnson, Mike Scott, Daniel Bowen, and Lisa Rabe (author’s of said study) probably wouldn’t think it so humorous. I know I’d be a bit embarrassed to meet any of them face to face if I knew they had read that piece.

The same can be said for the newscaster I skewered a couple of days ago. I suspect it’s shamefully embarrassing to be caught not knowing the facts about something you should understand, and the health care story had only broken an hour or so prior to the interview, so she undoubtedly got sent to the street by her boss without getting the proper background. Rather than hanging her out to dry, I should have kept my mouth shut.

Mea culpa.