Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Discovering Transylvania’s incredible Old World charm

The following was published yesterday on Medium.

Transylvania has universal name recognition for being associated with the Dracula story, but there’s so much more to this region of Romania than vampires.

Here’s how Hugo Cox described one of the idyllic villages of the Transylvanian countryside over the weekend in the Financial Times:

Viscri is one of the more notables villages. It’s also where Prince Charles is deeply involved in the preservation of Transylvania’s unique culture and heritage.Perhaps the biggest joy of my trip was meeting Sara Dootz, the 77-year-old Romanian lady who serves as the keyholder of Viscri’s Saxon-era fortified church. The church is one of several fortified churches listed by UNESCO.

Dusk in the main street of Viscri, one of several hundred ancient villages scattered through the remote foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, features a peculiar daily routine. A procession of cows, goats and geese saunters un-shepherded, down from the hills to pass the night in outbuildings attached to the village’s farmhouses. It is a bucolic picture in a land that time forgot, where hay is still harvested by scythes and remote valleys are scattered with wild flowers and rare birds.

If that sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. I know because I had the same experience as Cox when I visited Transylvania in the summer of 2014. It’s why I ranked Romania as the No. 1 must-visit destination of 2015.

Dootz’s family came from Saxony in what is now Germany over 800 years ago. Talk about mind-boggling, especially for an American whose family has only been in the United States for about a hundred years.

Read the rest at Medium.

— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

GOP base’s political DNA forces Boehner to resign

The following was published in today's edition of The Detroit News.

In their evolution as political creatures conservatives have developed a genetic trait of eating their own.

It’s happened twice in the last month.

First it was Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was ousted by his center-right party after losing a snap internal vote for leader of the governing parliamentary caucus.

Then suddenly on Friday it was Speaker of the House John Boehner, who resigned, effective the end of October, before GOP backbenchers in the lower house of Congress could show him the door.

Boehner, worn out after years of holding together congressional Republicans, simply concluded leading the party had become, in the words of pundit Newt Gingrich, another ex-speaker, “unmanageable.”

While the specific politics of the Abbott and Boehner affairs are obviously different, the underlying problem is the same: Conservatives too often are focused on fighting amongst themselves rather than going on the offense against the left.

In Boehner’s case, it was impossible for him to continue as leader of the 247 Republicans in the House of Representatives when several of the candidates for the GOP presidential nomination were publicly undermining him, particularly on the hot-button issue of federal government funding for Planned Parenthood.

The Ohio Republican had put down past insurrections from right-wing backbenchers, but the public vote of no confidence from presidential candidates was just too much this time around.

Rank-and-file Republicans are mad. Strike that. Rank-and-file Republicans are furious.

They don’t care that Democrats control the White House and parliamentary procedure makes it all but impossible for the Senate’s majority Republicans to pass major pieces of the GOP manifesto. Nor do they care that majority in the upper house is at stake in next year’s election — putting some of the party’s senators from so-called blue or purple states in a difficult position for re-election.

They want congressional Republicans, particularly those in leadership, to toe the party line on matters of principle.

For them, if there was ever an issue to fight it was the dignity of all made in the image of God. The problem is too many on the right lack the discipline to avoid making it about abortion, which, let’s face it, is a settled matter until the composition of the Supreme Court changes.

Instead, the battle lines must be drawn over whether Planned Parenthood is fit to receive any federal funds in the wake of the horrendous videos revealing that the organization deeply rooted in the racist philosophy of eugenics is engaged in the harvesting and selling of body parts from aborted babies.

That could be a winnable fight, if House Republicans elect the right tactician as their next leader and speaker.

— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Wake of the Pope’s Visit, ‘Diet Christianity’ Is Not the Answer

The following was published today by Independent Journal Review.

Much is being made about the political ramifications Pope Francis is having on hot-button issues like immigration and abortion, but the Roman Catholic Church above all hopes his visit will reinvigorate the pews.

While Catholicism is on the rise thanks to an influx of Hispanic immigrants, the church also faces a steep decline in its former bastions.

Part of the decline in the church’s historic base can surely be attributed to years of scandals involving sex abuse and poor fiscal management. Then there are the very real demographic changes: the Great Lakes and Midwest have steadily lost population as Baby Boomers retire and middle-class manufacturing jobs disappear as a result of 21st century economic realities.

Yet churches across denominations, even the dominant Southern Baptists, are facing drops in churchgoing.

For many, especially older generations, the answer is to modernize all things church in the hopes that changing things up will attract not just millennials, but also those coming after them in Generation Z.

Yet this ignores the fact that an increasing number of young Roman Catholics are actually seeking out mass, which Francis has called “the mystery of God.”

But they aren’t just going to any mass.

Many are turning to the Latin mass not because they speak Latin, but because for many this is the epitome of church — the profound spiritualism of the Latin mass serving as a vivid reminder that, quoting Francis, the “presence of the Lord is real, truly real.”

The resurgence of traditional church experiences isn’t, however, limited to Roman Catholics.

Many millennials raised evangelical or non-denominational Protestant have traded worshipping alongside praise bands for liturgical worship ranging from Anglican-slash-Episcopalian to Eastern Orthodox.

In short, many young people are craving the worship and spiritualism that their parents and grandparents dismiss as stuffy and old fashioned. They want church that is churchy.

I know because that was my journey of faith.

I grew up in a strong Christian family. My grandmother was my Sunday school teacher. My grandfather gave the non-denominational, evangelical Protestant congregation of my upbringing not just money to build its first church but did much of the construction work himself.

Like so many others of my generation, my churchgoing over the years waned and eventually I stopped sitting in the pews during my late teens and college years.

It wasn’t that I stopped believing. Far from it, actually. Rather, it was that church was no longer church.

The organ was sold-off when a parson and his wife, who doubled as the organist, retired. Services became less rigid and more generic. Attendance declined and congregants slowly left.

After sitting in the pews of various denominations, I joined the Episcopal Church.

The richness of traditional Episcopal or Anglican worship, blending the best of Protestantism and Catholicism, appealed to me as I sought to fully experience and express the majesty and glory of God.

That isn’t to say the Episcopal Church is a good example of church growth. Far from it, actually.

The denomination, the major U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which includes the Church of England, has lost 24 percent of its membership since the early 2000s.

Much of the decline can be attributed to internal church politics and theological disputes between the church’s left and right on big issues such as marriage and LGBT inclusion in everyday church life, but also core doctrinal issues. All of this culminated in hundreds of thousands of otherwise good Episcopalians departing mostly for the breakaway Anglican Church in North America.

The dominant Episcopalian left has focused on a theology of “radical inclusion.”

A good example is the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, a staunch theologically left-wing diocese spanning the Wolverine State’s vast Upper Peninsula.

A few years back, the diocese elected a bishop who also happened to be apracticing Buddhist. The national church rejected the choice, although he remains a clergyman, despite obvious questions. More recently, parishes in the diocese have hosted John Shelby Spong, a notorious retired Episcopal bishop who has denied core tenets of Christianity for so long that “he has basically run out of doctrines to deny.”

It would be one thing if Diet Christianity worked, but it doesn’t.

The Episcopal Church remains on a downward spiral.

Across the country churches and even cathedrals — a good many of architectural significance — are closing. In the remaining churches, baptisms of children have dropped by 40 percent since 2003, according to internal statistics.

Notwithstanding, there are Episcopal churches that are growing.

One of them is St. John’s in the heart of downtown Detroit, where I happen to worship. Our fastest-growing demographic are congregants in their 20s and 30s.

In the pews on Sundays are Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, rich and poor, students and professionals. All of them are drawn to a traditional church experience, which many compare favorably with that of the famed English cathedrals. Of course, solid preaching, based on the historical biblical understanding of the gospel, is also key.

This brings me back to Francis and the Roman Catholic Church.

Some seem hopeful that the Pope will lead Catholicism down a path of modernization that looks eerily like the same path Episcopalians went down many years ago.

You could say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That may be harsh, but it’s true.

Catholicism’s brand appeal is its ancient heritage and its rich, reverent liturgical worship.

The reality is churches with generic or happy-clappy worship are everywhere. The same can’t be said for liturgical churches that do it properly. (Properly can be rare, at least judging from the TripAdvisor-style reports on Mystery Worshipper.)

Latin masses remain an exception, if not somewhat of a curious oddity. Many churches on the Episcopalian left are barely distinguishable from Unitarianism. Other denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, have become an unabashed faction of the political left.

Religion in the United States is a free market with something for everyone. Literally.

Yet watering down a church’s brand isn’t a recipe for success.

The churches and congregations that get this are thriving, despite across the board declines in American religiosity.

After all, a church is really no different than any membership-based organization.

You join an organization (the church) and become a member in good standing (a believer) to receive certain benefits (eternal salvation for Christians). Yet what’s the point of joining, if the organization’s leadership (Spong and others on the church left) says you can reap the benefits without ever joining?

That’s the dilemma for Roman Catholics, post-papal visit.

You can modernize the church all you want by abandoning what makes the Catholic brand of Christianity unique and also water down doctrine, but to what point if the faithful abandon the pews for something that affirms their traditional expression of Catholicism?

— Dennis Lennox

Windsor without the tourists

The following was published on Medium.

Out for a late afternoon walk without a single person in sight I turned around when a voice called out, “Move to the left.”'

That voice, in one of those so English of accents, came from a policeman wearing the stereotypical bobby’s uniform.

Out of seemingly nowhere a green Range Rover quickly approached me on the Long Walk, a 2.6-mile-long pedestrian-only path from gates of Windsor Castle through parts of the 5,000-acre Great Park.

As the car reached me I realized why I had been told to give way. The driver was none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Before I knew it Her Majesty had passed and was off to one of her exclusive retreats on the Windsor Castle estate. 

My royal encounter — one that I will endlessly share for the rest of my life — could be yours. That’s because the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, spend a lot of time at Windsor Castle, which by all accounts is her favorite royal residence.

While crowded with day-trip tourists from late morning through late afternoon, Windsor offers up a totally different experience early in the morning and after 5 o’clock.

What to do

The Long Walk is a must. Not only is it your best chance to see the Queen, but it’s also a great way to burn off a pint or two of classic English ale. Plus, the best views of Windsor Castle are from the Cooper Horse statue of King George III at the end of the Long Walk. (Do bring a good camera!)

A great way to see the stunning Gothic van-vaulted ceiling of St. George’s Chapel, located within Windsor Castle, is by attending evensong, which is free and sung by choristers at 5:15 p.m. every day except Wednesday. A word of warning, however: The chapel’s vergers can be rude to visitors who don’t immediately leave the chapel after services. Sadly, they are also pretty strict about no photography. Still, a search of #StGeorgesChapel on Instagram reveals more than a few photographers managed to snap away inside.

Runnymede, where King John sealed Magna Carta 800 years ago earlier this year, makes for a nice afternoon excursion when tourists overrun Windsor, which is pretty much every afternoon, year-round.

Just a stone’s throw from the rather small Magna Carta Memorial, ironically erected by the American Bar Association, is a simple but profound stone monument dedicated in memory of John F. Kennedy Jr. Lingering in the woodland garden I couldn’t help but to wonder what might have been had Kennedy not been martyred.

No trip would be complete without also seeing Windsor Castle. Do climb the 200 steps to the top of the 800-year-old round tower as the panoramic view is a perfect backdrop for a selfie.

Where to stay and eat

Oakley Court is an upscale hotel — the British call this category of hotels a country house hotel — just on the outskirts of Windsor. You may even recognize it from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Splurge for a junior suite in the Gothic revival-style manor house-turned-hotel. If the weather is nice make sure to also rent one of the hotel’s small boats to pilot down the River Thames (£50 or $76 an hour). The butlers can also provide guests with picnic baskets and sparkling wine. Oakley Court even has courtesy bicycles for those who wish to peddle into town. Rooms are from £220 (about $341), including dinner, breakfast and two tickets to Windsor Castle.

A French restaurant in quintessentially English Windsor may seem like an oxymoron, but French cuisine in merrie olde England goes back to the days of the Norman conquest in 1066. The Michelin three-starred Waterside Innin nearby Bray won’t disappoint.

How to get there

Windsor is a quick 20 minutes by car from London’s Heathrow Airport, which is serviced daily by the big airlines. Rental cars are readily available from all major companies.

— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Where to go, right now: Off-the-beaten-path in Wallonia

The following was published on Medium.

If Americans know anything about Belgium they know it’s the home of Tintin, fries (as in what we call French fries) and waffles.

Astute travelers are able to tell you the country somewhat infamously went hundreds of days without a government after a national election. Some will also say the crossroads of Europe converge in Brussels, which does double-duty as the Belgian and European Union capitals.

Yet there is so much more to discover in this trilingual — Flemish, French and German — country.

There is perhaps nowhere more off-the-beaten-path in Belgium than Wallonia, the French-speaking province in the country’s south. And it’s best discovered in the shoulder season, when tourists are long gone.

What to do
First stop: Waterloo, where Napoleon was once and for all defeated by the Duke of Wellington 200 years ago in June.

I toured the battlefield as well as the brand new visitor centre and museum, both of which are truly world-class. The huge exhibit of mannequin soldiers wearing historically accurate uniforms and carrying authentic reproductions of period weapons was particularly striking.

Give yourself a whole day to explore not only the Waterloo battlefield, but also the nearby museums in the former headquarters of Wellington andNapoleon. Be sure to climb the 226 steps to the top of Lion’s Mound, an iconic monument with picture-perfect sweeping views of the battlefield toward the Hougoumont farmhouse, where some of the fiercest fighting took place. Just don’t be like me and forget your digital SLR camera’s memory card!

Next up is Mons, which is in the midst of an impressive transformation from a former heavy industrial city to something more chic and sophisticated.

This was evident over the summer, when Mons, as one of two 2015 European capitals of culture, was in the middle of a full schedule of curated exhibits, festivals and programming.

One of the legacies of Mons’ year in the spotlight is its revitalized museums.

The François Duesberg Museum is one such museum, although its curation sadly wasn’t translated into English when I stopped by. Nevertheless, the special exhibit “Napoleon: Patron of the Arts” (on display until the end of October) is noteworthy.

Splendid art and design isn’t, however, new to Mons.

Case in point: The late 15th century town hall, the recently restored,UNESCO-listed 285-foot-tall belfry and the fine Renaissance-era alabastersculptures inside the Collegiate Church of St. Waudru.

Another former industrial age city is Liège, which was actually its own independent state under the all-powerful Roman Catholic prince-bishop until the time of the French Revolution.

You’ll arrive at the stunningpostmodern train station. If it looks like the Milwaukee Art Museum it’s because Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed both structures.

An easy 20-minute walk away is St. James the Less Church, or Église Saint-Jacques-le-Mineur in French, which dates to a thousand years ago.

As soon as I walked through the Romanesque west front I knew this was surely Belgium’s best-kept secret. I had the church with its gigantic flamboyant Gothic-style windows — the facades of the south and north walls are practically all glass — to myself during my entire 90-minute visit. (It’s generally open 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. weekdays as well as for an hour before Sunday’s 11 a.m. mass.)

English-speaking visitors are rare, the docent, a dapper older gentleman, told me. That’s a shame because St. James holds its own against the grandest of Europe’s grand churches and cathedrals.

The docent led me up a narrow staircase to a hidden gallery between the south transept and high altar that overlooked the chancel. Here I found a somewhat disorganized exhibit full of old liturgical vestments, heraldic emblems, various church fittings and random architectural details salvaged over the centuries and stored in the attic. What really stood out, however, was the view — it gave me an up-close perspective on the stained glass windows and ornate statuary.

Last but certainly not least is Namur, Wallonia’s provincial capital.

The big draw is the citadel, which was built in the mid-10th century and continuously expanded through the ensuing centuries when Namur was controlled by the Burgundians, Habsburgs, Spanish, Austrians, French Revolutionaries and Dutch before becoming part of newly created Belgium in 1830.

While the underground tunnel tour offered a fascinating historical lesson I found the view of Namur and the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers from atop the citadel’s walls even more impressive — making it the perfect place for a picnic after picking up some fresh food from the city’s open-air market on Saturday and Sunday.

Another must-visit is the ecclesiastical art dating back to the Middle Ages on exhibit at the Provincial Museum of Ancient Art.

Where to stay and eat

Brussels made for an ideal base for my visit to Wallonia, as the Belgian capital’s three train stations make day trips really easy.

I recommend Hotel Le Plaza, a grand old hotel with a magnificent lobby and lobby restaurant that is within walking distance of the Brussels North railway station. Rooms from 86.80 euros (about $97).

Wallonian fayre is basically French without the pretentiousness of haute cuisine. Expect lots of bread, multiple courses, good drinks (both beer and wine) and unhurried meals.

I really liked Le Pâtanthrope, a modern restaurant housed in an old brick building 5 minutes from Namur’s cathedral. A four-course dinner, including wine, is an exceptional value at 65 euros ($72).

Amon Nanesse in Liège has a traditional menu with generous, American-sized portions. Just avoid the Charlemagne toast, unless you fancy stinky cheese.

Also in Namur is Curtius, a local craft brewery with a gastropub-inspired menu.

How to get there

Delta, United and US Airways (soon-to-be American Airlines) have non-stop flights from each airline’s major hubs. Side trips from London and Paris are also easy thanks to excellent rail services to Brussels.

— Dennis Lennox