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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Go Big or Go Home?

Andrew Sullivan has an ongoing thread about Jo Becker's book Forcing the Thread: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, in which he arraigns her for starting the clock on the movement in 2008, and her assertion that "its Rosa Parks was a man you would be forgiven for knowing nothing about, Chad Griffin." Sullivan is rightly outraged that his own years of advocacy, and the work of many other pioneers including Dan Foley and Evan Wolfson are omitted entirely or, in the case of Wolfson:
ludicrously portrayed by Becker as an obstacle to change, a remnant of a previous generation, a man who had led the marriage movement nowhere. This is where the book becomes truly toxic and morally repellent. I’ve been a part of this movement for twenty-five years, either as an activist speaker/writer or as a close observer on this blog for the last decade and a half. What Becker writes about Evan and the movement is unconscionable, ignorant and profoundly wrong. Evan had the courage to create this movement, and empower it with legal rigor and strategy, when it was far, far less popular than it is now. Without him, quite simply, the movement would not exist for Griffin to now outrageously attempt to claim credit for. Yet this book sweeps Wolfson aside as an actual obstacle to progress because he was concerned that the Prop 8 case was a high-risk high-reward legal strategy that would not be the slam-dunk for national marriage equality that Boies and Olson believed it would be.
Now, that view of Wolfson's qualms about the Supreme Court challenge possibly leading to a rout is only tenable in hindsight--yes, it it worked out. I mean it really worked out. But that doesn't make Wolfson's qualms foolish before the event.

Beside the fact that you had a core of conservatives on the Court who had expressed themselves as hostile to same-sex relationships being accorded constitutional protection, and a swing vote in Justice Kennendy, who had in event years started to swing more to the right than to the left (politically speaking), you had the fact that the Roberts Court has shown itself to be startling in its contempt for precedent and willing to decide cases on issues not reached by the lower courts or raised by the parties. It has been internally inconsistent in its logic, and at times nakedly political. Wolfson cannot really be faulted for fearing an all-or-nothing battle before a bench so unreliable, and so ideologically driven and fractured.

David Boies and Ted Olson pulled it off; they drew to an inside straight, and they deserve a great deal of credit for it. That doesn't mean that those who feared the risk were obstructionist; they were rightly concerned about a Court, a plurality of which was previously hostile to GLBT rights, that has given itself a "roving commission" to do as it sees fit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some Further Thoughts About Simon Raven

I have now read 20 volumes of Simon Raven's novels--his ten volume "Alms for Oblivion" series (10 volumes; my copies are a three volume paperback omnibus, alas), the related First Born in Egypt series (7 volumes, obtained in one fell swoop from a kindly book dealer in Ireland who had them all in first edition--and now has them no longer), two books that occur between the two larger series, and include characters from them, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle (patience and abebooks got me both in first edition, quite inexpensively--the same price as a paperback, really). Oh, and Doctors Wear Scarlet, which I have as an ebook on my Kindle.

Now, Raven is an oddity in so many ways that it is hard to say anything about him without being misleading. He is profoundly politically and socially conservative, profoundly cynical, profoundly irresponsible, and profoundly despairing. He is a traditionalist in every way, except for his utter flouting of tradition, rationalist except for his recurrent interest and absorption in the supernatural, funny as hell, except when being tragic--

See what I mean?

My curiosity about his writing stemmed from re-viewing The Pallisers with la Caterina. In this viewing, I noticed all of the changes, some subtle, some obvious, that Raven's script made in Trollope's storyline--the use of Dolly Longestaffe, a minor character in only one of the books, as a viewpoint character who prompts much exposition and comments on the storyline, the darker motives of Phineas Finn in marrying Mary Flood-Jones (in Raven's telling, he's gotten her pregnant, and so much do the decent thing; in Trollope, he feels bound in honor to Mary), etc. I wondered about his novels, and, after downloading and reading Doctors Wear Scarlet, wanted to grapple with his other works.

It's been quite a ride. His oddity as a writer reflects the man:
A pair of novel cycles, Alms For Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt, eventually ran (somewhat loosely) to 17 volumes. They take on a mystical edge, and supernatural occurrences always held a fascination for Raven. He said of his writing, "I arrange words into pleasing patterns to make money", and although he never found a huge readership, he did grow more industrious.

The public became familiar with his TV adaptations of The Pallisers and Edward and Mrs Simpson, and he also wrote dialogue for the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. His memoir, Shadows in the Grass was described as "the filthiest cricket book ever written", and Prion Humour Classics recently published a selection of his non-fiction writings, which include a treatise on recognising rent boys.

A gambler, flâneur, cricketer, controversialist, imbiber and fine host, he revelled in pushing his restaurant bills to astonishing levels. Of gambling, he cheerfully described "the almost sexual satisfaction which comes from an evening of steady and disastrous losses". Passionate yet aloof, dissipated yet energetic, Raven represents the perfect paradox of a certain type of Englishness. After obeying his publisher's restraining order for 34 years, he returned to London and died in an almshouse for the impoverished, regretting nothing. He wrote his own epitaph: "He shared his bottle, and when still young and appetising, his bed."
Raven had an appealing honesty as a writer. His stand-in, Fielding Grey, is no hero--in fact he misses several opportunities to be one, and can be appallingly selfish. Yet he, like his creator, has a certain charm.

Raven was an inspired choice to adapt The Pallisers, departures notwithstanding, because he shared Trollope's interest in depicting characters changing over time--his Captain Detterling, for example, develops, decays, and dies most credibly--his flaws and virtues evolve and devolve over the years depicted. He waxes and then wanes, in just such a way as the real man would likely do. Most of his old standbys do; if and when they die, they die of beign themselves, rather like Trollope's Mrs. Proudie. Raven brings that sensibility to the series, and, as a result, the series feels Trollopian even where it strays.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Glimpse of Tom Lehrer



This article on Tom Lehrer emphasizes the one-time satirist's lack of interest in his own legacy:
“There’s never been anyone like him,” said Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the legendary Broadway producer who created Tom Foolery, a musical revue of Lehrer’s songs, in the ’70s. “Of all famous songwriters, he’s probably the only one that, in the great sense of the word, is an amateur in that he never wanted to be professional. And yet the work he did is of the highest quality of any great songwriter.”
Indeed, Tom Lehrer has done everything possible, short of dying, to vanish from the American cultural scene. Actually, if he were dead, or had gone insane, or had holed up in New Hampshire and burned his later work, his story might carry him more neatly into the canon.
Instead, he’s alive and well at 86. He’s a hard — but not quite impossible — man to reach, and an even harder one to engage in conversation. He’s said he’s glad the Johnny Carson videos were lost, and he gave away the master recordings of his songs to an acquaintance. But he has, over the years, given (and regretted giving) enough interviews, and touched enough lives — from those of his brilliant Harvard peers to his generations of students — to piece together a picture, if not an explanation, of an artist’s strange and indifferent relationship to his own legacy.

***

And in addition to the lasting fondness his students expressed for their onetime teacher, they also all mentioned in interviews one of the characteristics that continues to make Lehrer such an enigmatic figure among his fans.
“He was one of the most private people I’ve ever met,” said another former student, Jamey Harvey, adding that it was an unspoken rule in Lehrer’s class that you didn’t mention his career as a performer. “It would have felt very intrusive to ask, between the warnings we got from our friends and the body language you got when you asked him about it. My sense was he thought it was embarrassing.”
His personal life, too, has been off limits, even to friends. Asked once by Jeff Morris if he’d been married or had children, he replied: “Not guilty on both counts.”
And rather than accept any admiration those around him might have had for his past successes, Lehrer was content to be proud of the work of his students, and of his colleagues who did theater. “He was a fan of us, the theater people there, which is just remarkably generous and humble of him,” recalled Danny Scheie, a drama professor at Santa Cruz who first met Lehrer in the early ’90s in Santa Cruz’s musical theater crowd.
Yet despite his retreat into a comfortable, bicoastal existence as an instructor on two college campuses, Lehrer has maintained an uncanny popularity, especially for a performer whose career totaled only a few years.
May I just say that I'm not surprised? The article suggests all kinds of motives--the decline of Lehrer's brand of liberalism, egoism, or maybe "the challenge of recontextualizing your politically charged songs for a wider but more radicalized audience is a hard one, and it’s easier to not bother."

All of which, of course, assume that Lehrer owes us something.

Hey, he's not a public charge--a career of teaching on two coasts, leaving a trail of enriched grateful students? Maybe that was his real vocation.

He wrote for fun, as the profile makes clear. Oh, he accepted the plaudits, the record sales, the tours. But then it stopped being
fun.

And then he got to work.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Every Knee Should Bow": A Sermon for Palm Sunday

[I am occasionally afforded opportunities to preach; this Holy Week, I begin with a sermon for Palm Sunday's Epistle, and end with a Good Friday meditation. I will post the sermon texts here as delivered, flaws and all.]
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
--Philippians 2: 5-11

Today’s Epistle has been, not unlike Paul himself, all things to all people. Some focus on the last two verses—that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess Him Lord—and create a Christian triumphalism—we’re right and you (pretty much every one else in the world) is wrong, and you’re going to have to admit it, one day, not that it will do you any good, because you’ll be in Hell.

(Seriously, people do believe this, and not just the fundamentalists we all like to be sure we know better than—even Thomas Aquinas held this view, calling it a “forced confession” from those "under the earth," in Hell, that is, where they would remain.)

Others prefer to focus on the obedience of the Son to the Father, on the sacrifice made by the second Person of the Trinity merely by becoming human. As C.S. Lewis once phrased it, in one of his less felicitous moments, “think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”[2]

But I’d like to suggest that we have to read the passage as a whole, not seize upon one thought or another. What is the whole passage saying to us?

Two writers, over 1500 years apart have something to tell us, I think.

Origen who lived from about 185 to 354, found hope for all in the verses Aquinas relied on because, as Aquinas says, “when he heard that every knee should bow, which is a sign of subjection, he believed that at some future time, every rational creature, whether angels or men or devils would be subjected to Christ by the allegiance of charity.”[3] In sum, Origen believed that, God would win every soul not through force but through love. That in the fullness of time, when we all come face to face with God, and truth is fully revealed, we will each of us know fully, and accept the Divine Love, which we now only see, to steal a line from St. Paul, through a glass, darkly. Subjection to Christ, for Origen, is about realizing our true selves, our best selves.

Charles Gore, who lived from 1854 to 1932, taught that Christianity was first and foremost a way of life—he called it, like the early Church, simply “the Way.” He emphasized the importance of loving our neighbor, concretely by assisting those in need, and in seeking a more just social order. Gore used today’s passage to explain the importance of lives of service as an integral part of the Way. Gore taught that Jesus as He lived among us, emptied himself of the attributes and powers ascribed to the divine. He explained:
God can express Himself in true manhood because manhood is truly and originally made in God’s image and, on the other hand, God can limit himself by the conditions of manhood, because the Godhead contains within itself eternally the prototype of human self-sacrifice and self-limitation, for God is love.[4]

If Jesus, who was equal to God the Father, nonetheless was willing to abandon all that that means, to come among us as one who serves, even to the point of giving up His own life, and did not count it loss—surely that tells us something about the nature of the God we pray to, of the Jesus we call Christ? And that, Gore says, surely gives us a pretty broad hint as to how to follow Him—to love one another, and to serve, as He served. This passage is especially for deacons, my sisters and brother, if Gore is right, because we are called to model the life of service in imitation of Christ.

We are now entering Holy Week, when Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem swiftly unravels to become the horror of the Cross, only for that then to be transformed itself into the astonishing triumph of Easter. Astonishing, because there is no conquest, no revenge. No epic battle. Just a quiet reappearance that transforms the pain and loss of Good Friday into an irresistible invitation to walk the Way with Jesus, through service to our sisters and brothers, not because we are forced to, but because in doing so, we will make up our souls on our journey to union with God.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, (Trans. F.R. Larcher, O.P. 1969), at ch. 2, 2-3

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), at 155.

[3] Aquinas, supra note 1.

[4] Charles Gore, The Incarnation of the Son of God: Being the Bampton Lectures for the Year 1890 (1891), at 162; see also id. at 159-161; A.M. Ramsey, An Era in Anglican Theology: From Gore to Temple at 30-35. The centrality of the kenotic theory to Gore’s theology is posited and helpfully explored in Chapman, Gore, Kenotic Theory and The Crisis of Power, 3 Journ. Angl. Stud. 197, at 203-205 (2005).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

No Day But Today



One thing about Clinical Pastoral Training--it gives you perspective.

This week, I was called to the bedside of a dying patient. My ministry was really more to the grieving family,
and I had only a few minutes to prepare. Thanks to the BCP, I wasn't completely on my own, and I did my best to stand at the foot of the Cross with them.

More than that would be inappropriate for me to share.

Although I will confess that this curmudgeonly, sardonic middle-aged, lawyer's heart got quite a wrench in the process.

We really only do have today, don't we?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Anglocat in the Pulpit Redux: Preaching It Edition

I have been most kindly invited to offer a meditation at St. Barts's "Seven Last Words From the Cross" Good Friday Service this year.

It is a privilege I have had once before, in 2012, when I had the opportunity to speak on "I Thirst" (Jn. 19:28).

This time I was given a choice, and will meditate on John 19:26-27:
Near the Cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[b] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
This verse is one of the most human, touching moments in the story of the crucifixion.

I am honored to be asked to participate in this beautiful and extraordinary service, which I attend every year, and which is a capstone to my Lent.

Now, of course, I must go.

I have a meditation to write...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Echo in Time

Today, I attended the wedding of one of my cousins, and, as at all gatherings of my mother's side of the family, got to spend time with a wide variety of cousins, aunts, uncles, many of whom are more dear to me than they probably know. Blessings on the wedding couple, and many years of happiness to them!

But that is not, surprisingly the subject of this post. The reception was held at the Nassau County Bar Association, with the main event being held in the newer ballroom, but the cocktail hour in the older, medieval inn-style hall making up part of the original building. The rear of the main gathering hall is decorated by several banners, and, as I perambulated around with my plate, I saw that at the left of one, was a plaque:



Ah, me! Farrell Fritz, or,as it was when I knew it, Farrell Fritz Caemmerer Cleary Barnosky Armentano, is a large, prestigious firm in Nassau County, and when I graduated from college in 1987, on the way to Columbia Law School, I was offered a summer job there. I worked primarily with the late John Cleary, doing some grunt-work on tax certiorari cases, and learning one hell of a lot about how a good lawyer performs; John was even-tempered, thorough, methodical. I should also add that he was extremely kind, and while my work for him could be tedious (in those pre-computer records days,most of what I did was summarizing data relating to property values), he made me feel as though I was an integral member of the team. Let's be frank; I'm pretty sure I was a decent intern, as interns go, but I really doubt that I added much value. John Cleary was too kind a man to let me know that, though, wrote a great affidavit urging my admission to the bar, and I honor his memory.(Dolores Fredrich took me under her wing, too, that summer, but I digress.)

Farrell Fritz was a welcoming place for me, but I was especially fond of Sam Tripp. He was, or so he seemed to me, a hale, but even then an old man--his book, A Guide to Motion Practice Litigated Motions in the New York Civil Courts came out in 1946, and that was a good 40 years before I met him. He was interested in talking about the law, studying the law, and, most of all, knowing the law. He had a cabinet filled with index cards, summarizing every decision rendered by a court in New York since the day of his admission to the bar, organized by topic, and added to even when I knew him. Sam used the New York Law Journal, the reporters, and the unpublished decisions which would be sent around lawyer-to-lawyer, and updated his cards regularly in handwriting that I can only call spidery, even though it's a cliche.

I admit it, I loved listening to Sam discourse on law and legal practice, which he viewed as an art--truly, as one of the humanities. He subscribed to the Harvard Law Review, which he extolled to the skies, praising its scholarship, its utility in apprising the bench and bar of the best legal thinking, current trends, and, most of all, the roots of the law. He praised it so emphatically that, at the end of one of his rhapsodies, I remember exclaiming, "Sam, you've sold me! When I graduate I'll subscribe to the Harvard Law Review!"

"You will do no such thing," Sam shot back severely, his mouth pursed in a rare disapproving frown.

"Why not?" I asked, bewildered.

"Loyalty. You're going to be a Columbia man. You will subscribe to The Columbia Law Review."

I grinned, getting his point: the institutions that shape us deserve our affection. Yes, I grinned.

And for about 15 years, I subscribed, too, and read each issue. And now, confronted with that reminder of a man who was good to me for no reason other than he could be, I feel guilty that I haven't of late years, because, after all, the content is largely openly available on the web.

Sam would not, I suspect, approve.

But he might, I think, like that I gave one of my characters in Phineas at Bay his card-catalogue, his life-long project of creating an encyclopedic summary of jurisprudence as a whole. More than that, I gave that character Sam's love of the law, even in all its most seemingly dry manifestations. Because I got it from him.