The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Neon Gods We Made

Instead of the annual New Year's Eve wrap-up post, I think it's worth taking a little time to reflect on our era through a jaundiced eye (Yes, I'm deliberately hat-tipping Florence King).

Back when I was actively focusing my scholarship on the First Amendment's free speech clause, Collins's and Skover's The Death of Discourse expressed a deep concern that our culture was drowning in the trivial, the toxic, and the transactional. As I wrote at the time, their solution, that Government play the role of referee, downplaying some voices in order to heighten others, was simply incompatible with any recognizable notion of free speech, but the fundamental question they posed was one that has returned to haunt us.

The line "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts" has been attributed to James Schlesinger or to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the empirical research of, among others, Matthew A. Baum suggests that:
[E]ven seemingly non-partisan political issues like public health are increasingly characterized by partisan polarization in public attitudes, and that such polarization is in part attributable, at least in part, to the breakdown of the information commons that characterized the American mass media from roughly the 1950s until the early 1990s. In its place has arisen an increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented media marketplace in which individuals are better able to limit their information exposure to attitudes and opinions that reinforce, rather than challenge, their preexisting beliefs.
And herein lies the rub. When we cannot even hold facts in common, whether related to swine flu and vaccination, as studied by Baum, or climate change, how is deliberative democracy to work?

In an era where we stop striving for objective truth--and, yes, we'll never fully get there--but the striving gets us closer to reality than just living in an echo chamber that tells us what we want to hear. That way leads only to epistemic closure, a willed inability to perceive the flaws in one's own belief system.

Then we'll truly be "People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening." And we will remake reality in our own self-image.

The problem of listening to only what we want to hear is a grave one. It is easy to find confirmation of what we already believe, and to reject those who differ from us with contempt, as either the enemy, or, if they have been on "our side" previously, as traitors. Just ask Alan Dershowitz, the staunch defender of the First Amendment who finds himself shunned by friends and even family. Now, I strongly disagree with Professor Dershowitz on the question of whether the President can commit obstruction of justice by abusing his presidential authority, but there's no reason to believe that Dershowitz, a lifelong champion of cvil liberties, holds the opinion in anything other than good faith.

Liberals. We believe in the right to be wrong, remember?

On the Right, Jennifer Rubin has been pilloried for deviations from a newly minted conservative orthodoxy. (This has been going on for a while for Rubin, notably.)

When we are not open to our allies when they disagree with us, how will we treat those who disagree with us more generally?

We have long been ideologically divided, but those divisions are both widening and intensifying.

Abraham Lincoln, running against Stephen Douglas, quoted Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels, in declaring that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

So how do we keep our house standing?

As a liberal, it is very rare that I hear a conservative explain what liberals believe in a manner that recognize as accurately representing my views. This fails the test I have previously quoted from C.P. Snow's famous essay, "The Case of Leaves and the Serious Case":
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
No doubt many conservatives would return the compliment, and demand that we too pass the Snow test.

And they would be right to do so, as we are if we require it of them.

Because the practice of "strawmanning," or recasting the opponent's argument in a form more easily rebuttable than the actual position held may be endemic, but along with the easy dismissal of inconvenient facts, it enables us to continue on in our own bubbles where all reason is with us--however you care to define us--and all folly is with them.

And that just isn't so.

So read the thinkers who disagree with you; Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized" person. Question your verities, your certitudes.

Remember the sage advice of Susan Howatch in Mystical Paths, when she asks "When was the last time you looked in the mirror and said 'I can be wrong'"?

Listen, don't just wait for a chance to rebut. Life isn't high school parliamentary debate.

And meet people who may disagree with you in areas where you have something in common. Anthony Powell was a high and dry Tory, yet people across the political spectrum gather each December in New York City to celebrate his birthday, enact scenes from his novels (I was generously reviewedas "Playing Bob Duport, manoeuvring petulantly in a wheelchair, . . . clench[ing] audience attention with a nastiness that entirely concealed his native good nature"). Go and find your fun with people who may not agree with you.

Make neighbors.

And may 2018 be a blessed one for you.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Cat Who Came in From the Cold: A Memorial

That's my favorite picture of Giles T. Katt, the cat who came in from the cold. Literally.

You see, back in 2000, I moved for a few years back out to Nassau County, and rented a back cottage (in this town, most of the properties had a main house and a smaller cottage in the rear). The cottage was two stories, and, while compact, quite cozy (The main property was rented to a woman and her daughter). Our next door neighbor, an elderly man, had let his cottage go to ruin, and it became what I called "Kittycat Central"--a gathering of all the feral cats in the neighborhood. My ex and I took to feeding them, and one in particular, a handsome young adult grey-and-white cat whom she called "Oliver" was a regular.

In the winter of 2001, the weather report warned of a blizzard, and so I made a frantic trip to buy groceries (the cupboard, while not quite bare, was pretty sparse). The snow began as I headed out, and was falling in earnest by the time I got back. As I finished unloading the car, the front door to the cottage propped open, in walked the grey-and-white cat, an unneutred feral male, leading a small group of kittens behind him. This is, in case you didn't know, not typical of unneutered feral males. The grey-and-white led the kittens in, found a corner of the cottage (right by the stairs) where the wind wasn't blowing, and settled the kittens in, molding them into a pool of fur, to share their body heat. He then lay down in front of them, crossed his paws (a gesture I was to see repeated for many years, had I but known it), cocked his head at me (ibid.), and shot me a look as if to say, "It's cold out there, mate. Let us stay, there's a good chap?"

How could I not?

And how could I not keep that cat?

I renamed him, for reasons that I think are obvious, Giles, and never has a cat been better named. When fights broke out among the kittens, Giles would protect the weaker cat, rearing up on his hind paws, and boxing the aggressor; when a cat came back from the vet, and other cats were shunning him or her, he would trot up to the sick cat, snuggle him or her, and reintegrate that cat into the family.

Later, when La Caterina and I joined our lives and households, her three cats (Elvis, Betty and Buster) and mine (Giles, Ethan, and Elspeth) had to find a modus vivendi. Giles formed a pact with Elvis, the Comfort Kitty, and together they enforced decency, fair play, and kindness.

Elvis is gone three years now, so too is Buster, whose relationship with Giles reminded me of the sometimes affectionate rivalry between the Ainley Master and the Fifth Doctor.

Now I've lost my Giles.

He started losing weight a couple months ago, and la C took him to the vet, whose treatments seemed at first to be helping. Then, a little over a week ago, la Caterina told me the vet had informed her that it was time to put him down. I drove down against some of the worst traffic I've ever faced--the trip took nearly double its usual length, but we got him to the vet--only to be told he was very slightly better. When la Caterina came upstate for Christmas this year (I'd had to come up early for a funeral), she brought Giles. He seemed weak but not unhappy during her visit, but was eating less and less. He cuddled a great deal with me, with la C, and her sister, who came up to be with us.

Last night, his respiration changed, into a wheezing groan, and he ate nothing. He joined me in the bed, and pressed against my side all night. Betty, normally quite territorial about the bed, looked at him intently for a moment--and then joined us. For that one night, Giles was lovingly enfolded by not just me, but by Betty, the last survivor of la C's litter.

This morning, his breathing was worse, and he took just two small licks of food. I made an emergency appointment with the excellent vet up here, and brought him in. The news couldn't have been more dire: Tumors were closing off his breathing, surrounding his thyroid, and in his abdomen.

It was time.

I won't say any more of what passed when Giles and I were alone together, or when the Doctor joined us, and gave him the anesthetic that gave him his release. I did my duty to the finest cat I have ever known, and that is all.

But I will add this: As he drifted into sleep, I whispered into his ear, "Thank you. Thank you for choosing my door."

Requiescat in pace, little friend of friends!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Doctor....I Let You Go": A Golden Age Ends

DOCTOR: Oh, there it is. Silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving. It’s a treadmill.

[Tardis noise]

Yes, yes I know they’ll get it all wrong without me.

[Tardis noise]

Well, I suppose….one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except me.

[Theme from Heaven Sent, "Breaking the Wall"/Tardis noises]

You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first.

Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise.

Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except….

[He gasps, falls to the floor]

Except….children. Children can hear it. Sometimes – if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name.

Gasps, grunts more

But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever.

[Pulls himself off the floor, agonizingly.]

Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

[Theme crescendos, as in Heaven Sent.]

Doctor – I let you go.

And then it happens. The streams of energy, the column of flame, the revelation of the new Doctor--and her sudden, surprised gasp, of "Oh, brilliant," upon seeing her own new visage.


But I'm not here to celebrate the arrival of Jodie Whittaker just yet. You wait a moment, Doctor. Because first I have to say goodbye to my Doctor.

I've been a fan since I was a teen, and never thought that my old favorites would be shouldered aside by the angry Scot. The new series, well I've loved it since it began, but who could dethrone the Doctors of long ago, when I was so impressionable and innocent, and--young.

Peter Capaldi, that's who. With Steven Moffatt's writing, with his own tremendous acting, even when the scripts were less than perfect, the journey of the Doctor from emotionally disconnected to "hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise." The Doctor who punched his way through the wall because he had a duty of care, who couldn't give up on Missy, and never knew he had succeeded, with her dying to stand with him.

This last adventure, with no villains, much gentle humor, the two Doctors contrasting with each other, with a last run-around--it was a fitting send-off to the Doctor and the actor who pulled such emotion from his own depths that the young-ancient, weary-exuberant, old Doctor touched my heart in his last moments.

In an increasingly cruel world, the Doctor's last speech gives us words we so desperately need. And, we must hope, sets the expectations for his successor.

Long may she reign.


Jodie Whittaker is a superb actress, and "Oh, brilliant," with her wide eyes and a rapt smile is an encouraging welcome to the world of her era. And I'll be there for it, rooting for her and Chris Chibnall. If Chibnall can overcome the occasional misanthropy that makes his vision jar with Doctor Who, he has it in him to be a brilliant show runner, and to infuse the Whittaker era with a whole new brand of magic.

Welcome, Thirteen. Make it lucky thirteen for us. We're counting on you, Jodie. And you, Chris.

Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

And do it in your own way, Doctor.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Culture of Clericalism Remains

If you wonder whether the Roman Catholic Church has learned anything in the wake of the three waves of the sex abuse crisis, this report of the reaction to the death of Bernard Cardinal Law, whose persistent reassignment of accused priests and stonewalling forced his resignation as Archbishop of Boston, suggests that the culture that enabled abuse remains in place:
Make no mistake: There is a political battle underway in Catholicism today over child sexual abuse,” a veteran Vatican watcher, John L. Allen Jr., recently wrote in Crux, a website that specializes in the Vatican and Catholic Church. “And its outcome is uncertain.”

It is sometimes not clear which camp Pope Francis is in.

For many critics, Pope Francis has not made good on his early promise to remove the deep stain of child sex abuse from the church. A proposed tribunal to try bishops was scrapped. In June, Francis granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, so that he could defend himself in Australia.

In September, the Vatican recalled Msgr. Carlo Alberto Capella, a high-ranking priest working as a diplomat in the Holy See’s embassy in Washington, after American authorities sought to strip his immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography. The Vatican drew criticism for protecting its own by whisking the priest away, but said he would face investigation and perhaps trial in Vatican City. So far, no charges have been filed.

And this month, the three-year terms of members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors expired without any news of renewed terms or appointments, prompting The National Catholic Reporter to declare in an editorial: “That Francis has allowed this lapse to occur is worrisome.” The commission’s only abuse survivors had already left in frustration. Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, said, “The pope is working on it and will name members as soon as he can.”


At the conclusion of a funeral Mass for Cardinal Law on Thursday afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis will preside over the Final Commendation and Farewell of the Funeral Liturgy.

Ultimately, he will be buried in the small chapel between the wooden confessionals, adorned with the relics of saints and a centuries-old crucifix. Cardinal Law renovated the place himself several years ago, and supporters like Monsignor Di Ciocco believe he deserves such a place of honor.

“It wasn’t that he was a pedophile,” said Monsignor Di Ciocco. “He found himself having to manage a difficult situation. It’s not that he himself behaved badly.

“In my times, there was a different instruction. If something happened in a family, it was the role of the father of a family to hide it. Now it is all about the media and saying sorry. It was natural that he defended his children, the priests. We can’t criticize what happened then with the mentality of today. It’s not fair.”
The Monsignor's remarks are very reminiscent of those of Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos in a 2001 letterbacking French Bishop Pierre Pican’s decision not to denounce a priest who was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for repeated rape of a boy and sexual assaults on 10 others:
“I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration,” Castrillon Hoyos said. “You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest.”

In it [the letter], the cardinal said relations between bishops and priests were not simply professional but had “very special links of spiritual paternity.” Bishops therefore had no obligation to testify against “a direct relative,” he stated.
I keep hoping for the day when Command and Coercion is out of date, irrelevant.

That date is not, alas, today.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord": A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, December 10, 2017 at 5 pm.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

One of the strange bits about being well ensconced in middle age is that fewer and fewer people get the pop cultural references that seem natural to me.

Take Godspell, for one. It opened in 1971, when I was five, and was huge in the 1970s, in the brief spring of Vatican II. Even in the early 1980s, my Roman Catholic high school was delighted to do a production, in which I most definitely did not get cast.

But it was pretty much inescapable for a boy growing up Roman Catholic on Long Island, and so, even though the words are different from those used in the NRSV, I can’t hear today's Gospel without translating it back to the King James:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

That’s how the play opens. First with one voice singing “pre—pare ye the way of the Lord,” over and over again, then with others joining him, until the whole cast assembles with a kinetic burst of energy, singing together.

Don’t worry. I’ll spare you.

We are, after all, Episcopalians. And in Church, too.

So that’s the 1970s version of the baptism of John.

Awash with happiness in the forgiveness of their sins, the slowly coalescing members of what will become the Jesus Movement are playful, silly, free.

The play tells a few parables, has a little drama, a little comedy, and then a surprisingly brutal if abstract version of the crucifixion.

And then, with no dramatization of the Resurrection, we get a different miracle. Voices singing again. The women singing “Long live God”—and no, I have no idea what that might mean, but anyway their voices are enough to encourage the men to sing, too.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” all the men in the cast sing, and the two groups begin re-energizing each other, women singing "Prepare ye," men singing "long live God," trading lyrics, and ending with a rousing version of the show’s breakout song, “Day by Day.”

But that was the 1970s.

It’s a little hard to watch Godspell without thinking it a little bit precious, and dated, but I want to suggest that this ending has something to say to us in 2017, something that John the Baptist would probably endorse.

The history of the Church, of Christianity itself, has been as cyclical as the play is. A burst of enthusiastic disciples have found a new way to live, a new way of being, from their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. They abandon homes, occupations, their past lives and their old sins, to share this wonderfully freeing enlightenment, this joy that survives despite the fact that they are an oppressed people under the Roman Empire, a highly efficient and brutal example of what John Dominic Crossan called a domination system.

People flock to hear Jesus, and the disciples themselves are sent out to spread the Good News: sins can be forgiven, a fresh start is available, and God loves us, in our crazy, hurt, damaged selves, and calls to us to be at peace and made whole.

They come, and see Jesus heal the broken, laugh with the tax collector, defend the woman taken in adultery, challenge corrupt authority.

The moral and emotional horizon opens out before these followers of Jesus. He has come, he says, that people may have life and have it abundantly.

But the domination system doesn’t give up so easily. In an unholy alliance, the religious authorities collaborate with the Romans, and they move to crush Jesus.

And with skill and courage, and the support of the crowd, he fends them off—for a time.

But ultimately, they get him. Put him to the harshest death the law allows, a traitor’s death, and the disciples scatter, shattered.

The dream has died.

Until the women at the tomb, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the Eleven in the upper room, are brought back together by the voice that never gives up, the God who never loses faith in us, faithless as we can be, and calls them together again.

And after reassuring them, comforting them, Jesus breaks the news to them. It’s time to go out on the road again, and spread the word.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

And the cycle repeats again and again, though the characters change, and the contexts. It’s the Eleven original disciples, despite the threats of Saul of Tarsus. Then it’s the reformed Saul’s turn, though he’s now named Paul.

Again and again, this movement called the Church stands up against the world, and the cycle repeats, until the Church is the authorities, and it’s the mystics, like Julian of Norwich, the reformers like Luther, Wesley, or the Quaker George Fox, who bring back to the people of God that light, that Spirit, that we can lose sight of in the mundane day to day of existence.

The cycle repeats again and again, with Martin Luther King showing us how it’s done, with our own James Pike recognizing women deacons as the equal of male deacons, with the Philadelphia 11, the eleven women who burst the limits that male authorities set for them, and were ordained priests, with the help of three retired bishops.

For the record, their names were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.

By opening the door for other women, they brought an end to a patriarchal assumption in our branch of the universal church that women were to be governed by men, that men could and should decide what roles in life women were allowed to play, that women were properly controlled by men.

We’re seeing that holy burst of light again, now, as women refuse to accept harassment, abuse, violence and exploitation in the “Me, too” movement, and in the calling to account of powerful men who have abused their positions of privilege to abuse women. And, uneasily, we look around and see that even some of our champions, our heroes, have been guilty, and we are tainted by our loyalty to them over justice for those they have mistreated.

Because we are tempted to excuse those whom we respect, who have affected our lives for good, not seeing them in all their humanity—their fallen humanity as well as the good that is genuinely there. But even worse, we are tempted to excuse them because they are a reflection of us, we think. Whoever “us” is—politically, culturally, by race or gender.

And in that temptation comes another—to minimize the harm done to other human beings, the ones we don’t know. We can dismiss them as “no angels,” as I’ve heard done these past weeks, we can fall back on stereotypes or tropes.

And in so doing, we perpetuate the abuse. And, at the same time, we fail to answer the call to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Because what does it mean to “prepare ye the way of the Lord?” If it’s to mean anything, it must mean to speak up against injustice, to treat others with the kindness and respect we would hope for ourselves to receive in hour of need, to stand with the vulnerable and the exploited.

But also to recognize our own complicity with the order that allows for oppression, to repent of our own sins and offenses against those who have been vulnerable and who we have failed to see, or worse, who we have not treated as we should have, and to recognize the times we have stood passively by when injustice has been done.

And that recognition can be searing.

And painful, too.

But there’s hope, you see, because the cycle starts again.

There’s a point to the Church Year, which started last week, and which really gets under way today. Now. Right here in this Chapel.

Because today is the day when that first voice, that lone voice, sings on a darkened stage. “Pre—pare ye the Way of the Lord,” and we are invited to join in.

To walk what the early Christians called “the Way” and, leaving our sins behind us, start anew, playing our part in the explosive burst of light that can transfigure the world.

Advent gives us the chance to hear that invitation.

How we answer is up to each of us.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Greatest Treason: The Implication of Christ

This is not a sermon. I am speaking not in my official capacity as a deacon, but solely for myself, from my heart, because I believe that the Gospel teaches that Jesus stands with the oppressed, the victimized, the disenfranchised--and yes, with the repentant, too. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a charter for abuse, nor can it, without wholesale distortion, be twisted to justify the abuse of minors or the harassment of women or of men by the powerful. And, in the last week, I've had a bellyful of watching just that twisting take place.

Rod Dreher has an important and, I think true, as far as it goes, take on religious defenses of Roy Moore's candidacy, either instrumentally (such as Gov. Kay Ivey's brushing aside her concerns about the accusations made against him, on the ground that "I believe in the Republican Party, what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices”), or by theologically justifying or mitigating the acts of which Moore stands accused.

Citing and generously quoting Bethany Mandel's op-ed in the New York Times, Dreher draws his conclusion:
Roy Moore is not a pastor, but he has made his Evangelical Christianity so much a part of his public persona that he is rightly regarded as a religious leader. He has held himself out as the embodiment of a man of faith, one whose religious principles are the most important thing to him. He has raised his voice repeatedly in judgment of those who, in his view, violate God’s law. Now there is credible evidence that he sexually abused underage teenage girls in his 30s. There is no proof yet, but the evidence is credible. You can be quite sure that the world of unbelievers is watching how conservative Christians react to this news. And you can be certain that the adolescent and young adult children of Evangelicals — especially Alabama Evangelicals — are watching their parents, their pastors, and the adult community in which they were raised, to see how they react to all this.

This is a time of testing for Evangelical men and women in Alabama (and elsewhere). As you may recall, I heard from a small group of Evangelical pastors in Nashville that they were dealing with young believers in their late teens and early twenties — college students, basically — who were having profound crises of faith because of their parents’ and home churches’ enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. At the time, I told the pastors that I didn’t understand why their elders’ support of a politician would cause a crisis of faith. Those pastors told me pretty much what Bethany Mandel wrote here: “The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life….” That is, those young Nashville Evangelicals had been so formed by the faith as practiced in their families and church communities that they were having a very hard time separating belief from the means through which they had come to believe.
You may ask why I, as a non-Evangelical--indeed, a liberal Anglo-Catholic--am writing about this test for a community very different than my own. Dreher is right that this behavior, like that Bethany Mandel was subjected to, like that of the Roman Catholic Church in the sex abuse crisis, will cost people their faith. Some will be unchurched, while remaining believers, some will find other spiritual homes, and others will become agnostics or atheists. But the harm goes beyond this.

The thing is, all of this behavior becomes the model of what Christianity is to the non-Christian, and that's not unfair. We are what we do. Charles Gore and his "Holy Party" called Christianity first and foremost "the Way," and we can't paper over hypocrisy with prayer, or by distorting the Gospel.

We are what we do. Faith without works is dead, after all, and while we're all flawed and are going to screw it up, sometimes right royally, we can't react to our failures by calling them successes. I'm no Barthian, but I think we have to accept that Barthian insight into human sinfulness and divine forgiveness requires us to accept when we fall short, seek forgiveness, and, where possible, to make amends, not to use our cleverness at self-deception to say that, no, what we did wrong was quite all right, indeed, the only correct thing to do.

And all of us, whether liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox--whatever--are going to be tempted to such cognitive dissonance either for ourselves or for those we admire. But this fraught situation becomes especially toxic where politics come into play, because power--secular power, and spiritual power, provide ample opportunities for abuse.

As I've written before, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral has long been a foundational text for me, especially the lines given Becket in rejecting the blandishments of the Fourth Tempter:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Now, credit where due; Eliot, like Anouilh, assumed the fundamental righteousness of Becket's cause in his dispute with Henry II. I do not. (Free earlier draft here.) Indeed, the Becket case, and John Henry Newman's theological justification of suppression of the truth through persecution, are given as archetypes of these temptations by me for just that reason in Command and Coercion.

Let's focus on the words of the Third and the Fourth Tempters, for a moment. The Third Tempter argues that Becket should bring his spiritual authority to form a political coalition with secular, political actors,the barons, and overthrow the King :
For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
The Fourth Tempter takes it a step further, commending Becket for rejecting the purely political, instead advocating for ecclesiastical dominance of the secular state:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
He adds, "When king is dead, there's another king. And one more king is another reign," and then pictures all the kings in succession, attending at Thomas's shrine, adding, "Think of the miracles, by God's grace/And think of your enemies in another place."

In each case, Becket is offered power--secular power by the Third Tempter, the power to bring his enemies forever for his own personal glory down by the Fourth--in exchange for abusing the spiritual office entrusted to him, ironically enough by the King with whom he is at war.

The Governor, like the Third Tempter, argues that morals be damned, the greater good requires her party prevail--even if a little cooperation with evil has to be accepted to get there. In all conscience, that's bad enough, to put it quite mildly. But watching clergy and other religious leaders contort the Gospels to justify sexual predation is even more appalling. Because if you take Christianity at all seriously, it is is a Way, not a Why, a following of a man who, we are told, was the heir to the throne of David, but so resolutely stood for the outcast, the poor, the women who were so often ignored, and preached that they, and not those religious authorities who made logic-chopping distinctions to justify their seemingly righteous exclusion of those others, were blessed. This is, in truth, the greatest treason: to abuse spiritual authority for gain.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

“The End is Nigh!” A Sermon on Matt 25: 1-13 St. Bartholomew’s Church November 12, 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her,” we are told in the Book of Wisdom. We are also told that “one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”

It’s comforting, isn’t it? Far more comforting than Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five of whom were foolish, and five of whom were wise.

They were all in place on time, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom—but he was delayed. He was delayed so long that the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish, fell asleep. When the cry went up that the groom had arrived, the foolish bridesmaids realized that their lamps were beginning to flicker, and they had not brought any extra oil to keep them going.

They asked their fellow bridesmaids to share their extra oil with them, but the wise bridesmaids refused to share.

So much for solidarity.

No, the wise bridesmaids sent the foolish bridesmaids to the oil dealers, in the middle of the night, and by the time those five foolish bridesmaids returned, the doors were closed, and, when the poor women asked to be admitted, they were turned away with that particularly cutting line Jesus uses so often in his parables: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

The line doesn’t particularly fit here, though, if you think about it for a minute.

Of course the bridegroom knows them. They were selected as bridesmaids, they’ve waited long into the night, and, because he was late, they get rejected.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Well, of course not.

It’s a parable, not a true story. If this were a realistic story, the fact that all of the bridesmaids fell asleep might have played a role, especially in view of Jesus’s last words, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

If this were a realistic story, Jesus would be doing little more than telling us, as I learned in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.”

But for what?

Jesus doesn’t really specify; he just starts out the parable with the simple sentence, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”

Most readings of this parable interpret the wedding and the long-delayed coming of the bridegroom to be the Second Coming of Christ, which will end the current, sinful order, and institute the Kingdom of Heaven.

Or, as some of our friends who stress the Book of Revelation like to think of it, the End Times.

Which certainly fits with Paul’s description in the reading from First Thessalonians, where he writes that

we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

These warnings of vigilance were given nearly two thousand years ago. That’s a long time to wait. And yet, in this same Gospel, Jesus says “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.“

Some cite this saying, and this parable, and other warnings of the end of things as imminent, as proof that Jesus and the disciples were wrong.

But, again, that’s taking the parable as a realistic, straightforward story.

If we open our eyes a little wider, and put away literalism, we can see that the world of Jesus and the disciples did end. In 70 AD, after successfully besieging Jerusalem, the Romans sacked the City and the Temple. As Flavius Josephus, himself a former member of the rebellion that sparked the siege, described the fall of the Temple:
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
Three years later, when the garrison at Masada killed itself rather than surrender, the last spark of rebellion was extinguished.

The literal end of the world is one event that will happen at a time we cannot know; scientists can’t tell us, because we can accelerate the day, or try to postpone it.

But in a very real way, the end of the world happens again and again, on a large scale and on a small.

When the Third Reich collapsed, and the camps were discovered by the allied troops, when atomic bombs went off in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a world ended.

When one partner in a loving marriage dies, what Kurt Vonnegut called “a Nation of two,” a small world, has ended, never to be recaptured in this life.

When politics split a town over party and racial lines, ending friendships, causing the local high school to fear race riots, a world has ended.[1]

We don’t live in the post-World War II consensus anymore, and we don’t live in an era of civility, or an Era of Good feelings.

That world has ended.

But when the world fails us, or, maybe I should say, when we fail the world, the Kingdom of God breaks through, and invites us to walk with Wisdom.

We have a choice: to frantically deny the change, to try to put the clock back, or to recognize that the world we are living in is still God’s world, not ours, and that, as Jesus also said, “behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

And that kingdom of God isn’t ours to have for ourselves; we are, like the bridesmaids, both the foolish ones and the wise ones, the carriers of the lamps, meant to each of us contribute to the lighting of the way from the old world that is dying, to the new one that is being born.

How do we do that? By, living our lives in such a way that we are, as St. Francis is so often quoted, preaching the Gospel, using words if necessary. And the best way I know to do that I learned here, from Bill Tully’s favorite blessing, urging us to remember that

Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind

And what if this was a realistic story--what then would become of those poor, foolish bridesmaids, left out in the cold night?

Well, we learn from our mistakes, sometimes, and Wisdom, we are told, “hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.”

And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.”

So I think of the variant of the parable told by Thomas Merton in a poem he titled “Les Cinq Vierges (For Jacques).” I found it, newly translated from the original French, in an essay by Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, titled “Got into the Party After All.”

It goes:

There were five virgins
Who arrived for the Wedding of the Lamb

With their motor-scooters burned out
And their gas tanks

But since they knew how to
They were told to stick around anyhow.

So that’s it: there were
Five rowdy virgins
Without gas
But really caught up
In the action.

There were then ten Virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.[2]

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


[1] Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, 171, 172-3 (2001)

[2] See Matt Viser, “A year after Trump’s election, York, Pa., is forever changed,” Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2017.

[3] Thomas Merton, “Les Cinc Vierges,” trans. Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, at 178.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Our House

Posting was light last week, largely because la Caterina and I were involved in buying the house of which I have been renting the bottom apartment since my career radically shifted three years ago. We still rent in Brooklyn, where her job is, and bounce back and forth between the two. It makes for a peripatetic existence (for me more than her, as I journey back to the City most weeks, though she comes up when she can).

Which is home? You many ask. The short answer is both--we are home for each other and so I'll always be a Brooklynite, even though the home we own is in Albany.

But there is a special pleasure in our having bought this house, as my late landlady, a feisty, retired social worker who devoted her career as a social worker to creating meaningful protections for at-risk children, and dedicated her retirement to preserving the neighborhood in which the house stands, poured a lot of herself into the place. There are stained glass windows and ornaments that she made herself in the basement. These grace notes personalize the redbrick row house, as much as the original wainscoting, the flourishing ivy in the back (must knock some of that off, where it's a bit too intrusive), and the bow window, made for cats to take their leisure and view the world from above. And I am a fan of the baronial claw foot tub.

Bernadette and I became friends in our time together, with her telling me tales of Mayor Erastus Corning while I told her about James Michael Curley and The Last Hurrah, among many other conversations we shared. When I became a deacon, she was delighted for me, and, before she became ill, she would cat-sit for me. She never raised my rent, or charged for the cat-sitting.

At the closing, the executor of Bernadette's estate gave me two versions of the history of the house, as written by Bernadette. They each tell the story of Thomas Williams, who built this house and its two flanking neighbors in 1892. (A Williams family portrait has hung in the hallway since Bernadette found it in the building, and I keep it there, in memory of both her and him.) Williams lived here for 40 years--until about 1931, and was succeeded by another longtime Albany family, who passed it to a young man who did some renovation after a fire in the unit I rented--which retains all its period charm--and sold it to Bernadette in 1979. From 1979 until shortly before I moved in, Bernadette worked on renewing the fabric of the old place, and while there is much we can do to make it the home we want it to be, we have a good foundation to build on.

The folder of history and pictures of the repairs she had effected had one last thing--Bernadette's last charge to her successor in interest, her last message, it turned out, to me: "It's a great little house," she wrote, "take care of it."

So we will.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ten Years On

Well, I'm two days late, but ten years ago, I inaugurated this blog, originally an ecclesiastically themed companion to my more personal one, and now the main place to read my longer ramblings, sermons, and and jeux d'esprit. Apparently over 170,000 people have visited (including repeated visits by the same people); I am grateful for your kind attention and, when you give them, your comments.

It has been for me, if not always for us, a good decade--the diaconate, writing, a new and wonderfully challenging career, but most of all, la Caterina, family, our cats, and now our new house, have led to a steady upswing in my own life.

Alas, despite all this, I am still more Professor Fate than the Great Leslie.

(Although Curtis was pretty good with a blade, if lacking sartorially:


"I Am Your Ser-Vant": Power of the Daleks, Parts 4-6

For my money, the creepiest moment of The Power of the Daleks is when Lesterson, the scientist who revived the Daleks, believed their protestations "I am your servant," until it was far too late to stop them, comes to admire them.

He steps out of the shadow in which he is hiding, and grating in his best impression of a Dalek voice, "I am your ser-vant." Robert James is great throughout, but his final moments are superb.

It's especially chilling because he is, at this point, completely sincere.

There are other deliciously creepy bits--the assembly line of the newly fashioned Daleks is beautifully animated, and flows much more naturally the human movements (my main complaint about the animation is that walking looks all too often like sideways hopping), the massacre of both the rebels and the guards by the Daleks--while the usurping Lieutenant Governor Bragan thinks his plans are working, humanity within the colony's capital is being efficiently wiped out.

There are moments that are touching--Valmar's sincere grieving for his colleague and fellow rebel Janley. In the wasteland her errors have indirectly caused, he can't leave her body, and murmurs, "She wasn't as bad as you think" to the Doctor. (Richard Kane infuses a touch of unexpressed passion in his dealings with Pamela Ann Davey's all-business Janley, and it adds to the poignancy of the moment.)

This is the first Dalek story to raise the threat level the pepper pots pose to the level they now do; the Doctor notes that all is not well with the colony, and then adds darkly, "Add to that one Dalek." Ben replies, "Oh, blimey, you don't half make mountains, don't you? One Dalek?"
The Doctor's answer will be echoed throughout the history of the program, most notably by Christopher Eccleston in 2005: "Yes! All that is needed to wipe out this entire colony."

So too will the "I am your servant" ploy reappear:

All this, and the first circle chanting "Exterminate!" "Exterminate" over and over again. We're setting some show standards here in this episodes, codifying tropes that will go on for half a century. And such is the cleverness of David Whitaker's script that the characters who are caught up in it all--the double-dealing Bragen, the honorable Hensell, the cold-blooded Janley, the enigmatic, flippant Quinn, and the tragically self-confident Lesterson--are each distinct, important characters. They're interesting in their own right. Even Janley's death, telegraphed as it was, counted for me, and Hensell--Doctor Who's early version of Ned Stark--dies rather than dishonor himself. And you believe it.


In a way, these last three episodes of political intrigue, the Daleks being cunning instead of only blazing away, and the Doctor's brilliant (or lucky; the episode seems genuinely ambiguous) is Doctor Who on good form, but not spectacular. But think about it, for a second, what has been accomplished.

A new Doctor has been inaugurated, in a painful process that acknowledges the pain of the loss of Hartnell, and the need to regain the audience's trust;

The Daleks are back, an existential threat in essentially the manner they will hold for the rest off the classic series, and, frankly, through the revival The Daleks remain the parable of nuclear war they always were, but now have a motive beyond their old enmity with the Thals:
POLLY: You've all underestimated these Daleks.
KEBBLE: Better brains than us, I suppose.
POLLY: I only know what the Doctor has told me. He says they're capable of exterminating whole nations.
VALMAR: Perhaps, but what would they want to kill us for, after we've taken over. We're friendly with the Daleks.
POLLY: But don't you see? Human beings can't be friends with Daleks. They don't have friends.
VALMAR: I don't see why not.
POLLY: It's a kind of hatred for anything unlike themselves. They think they're superior.
VALMAR: The girl's got something.
It's been intimated before, but Polly's articulation of it rings down the decades;

And a story of human vulnerability has been told--how we are capable of unleashing forces that seem benign but escape our control.

Just the story we need at this time, really.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Who am I Anyway": Power of the Daleks Episodes 1-3

Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person I don't know
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around, and here we go
I need this job
Oh God, I need this show.

--Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new--that's where we left the Doctor, remember, gasping out his life on the floor of the TARDIS. His face glowed, his features shifted, and, an old man faded out, replaced by a younger, smaller man.

He awakes to great pain, and sound searing him. "Focus on one thing," he says, half audibly, and repeats it. And then--silence.

"It's over," the little man says, and then laughs harshly--almost a bark of a laugh. He hauls himself up to his feet, using the TARDIS console. The Doctor's clothes are much too big for him--he sheds the cloak, the coat. Left in the checked pants, braces, he staggers to a chest. When he looks in a mirror, his image fades, replaced by the of the Doctor, and then fades to that of the little man himself again.

Polly knows the the little man is the Doctor, Ben keeps trying to trip him up--or at least get a reaction:
BEN: Now look, the Doctor always wore this. So if you're him, it should fit now, shouldn't it?
(And slips it on the man's finger. It's far too big.)
BEN: There. That settles it.
DOCTOR: I'd like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it's spread its wings.
POLLY: Then you did change!
DOCTOR: Life depends on change and renewal.
BEN: Oh, so that's it. You've been renewed, have you?
DOCTOR: I've been renewed, have I? That's it. I've been renewed. It's part of the Tardis. Without it, I couldn't survive. Come here.
It's not really an answer, necessarily--it's Ben's own words, fed back to him. Or it is an answer. Troughton plays it so perfectly that you can defend either reading.

After looking over some old possessions ("The Doctor was a great collector, wasn't he?" he asks appraisingly brandishing Saladin's dagger). He supplements his wardrobe--a more contemporary coat, a bow tie--looks for "the Doctor's diary" (it's a 500 year Diary, by the way).

Then, calling to his companions, he goes out for a stroll. He tests his legs, gets used to his new body. And starts exploring the planet.


Right, we'll get to the story, but stay with me on this magical, ominous, mystery tour. David Whitaker has done it again--created a capsule form of the original hero's journey that was the plot line of Auntie Verity's Pandemonium Carnival. The Doctor isn't for the first two episodes, trustworthy, in just the same way he wasn't in the first few Hartnell episodes--he is a mystery again, not the giggly, stern, pompous, righteous, brave old man we have lost.

We are back at the beginning.


This renewal is unexplained in its scope, and tied to the TARDIS somehow, but all we really know is that our hero is dead and what is left behind is--very different--his consistent references to the Doctor in the third person suggests that even he doesn't feel that he is the same character. The recorder, the indifference to his companions, the way he takes the Examiner's badge and assumes his identity--all of this leaves us with someone new. When he finds himself in a colony, in the muddle of a power struggle against authority and rebels, he shows no interest, he wants to know what's in the capsule scientist Lesterson is trying to open. He (and Ben and Polly) steal in after hours, opens the castle, and we see two cobwebbed and seemingly immobile Daleks--and one Dalek mutant scuttling across the floor into the dark.

Lesterson, flooding the third Dalek with power wakens it; it's first act is to kill Lesterson's assistant. Lesterson is too enthralled to look after him, Janley lies, saying that the assistant will live. "I am your servant!" it grates, again, and again, but then:
Lesterson's Dalek glides into the room. It's movement is strangely fascinating, holding everyone transfixed. Everyone except the Doctor who edges backwards, shaking his head in horror. The Dalek stops and looks around at each person in turn. At last it re-focuses on the Doctor. The Doctor backs into a chair.)
BEN: It recognised the Doctor. It recognised him.
POLLY: What's the matter, Doctor? Are you all right?
DOCTOR: The fools. The stupid fools.
BEN: You're scared. What can it do?
DOCTOR: Nothing yet.
LESTERSON: This creation is called, I understand, a Dalek.
BEN: It knew who you were. It sounds ridiculous, but it did.
DOCTOR: It knew who I was.
And suddenly, before the political machinations that take us to the end of episode 3, before the Dalek manages to make Lesterson its assistant, while hanging on--barely--to the "servant" persona, we realize that the Dalek's recognition of the Doctor has cemented our own.

The Doctor is different, but he is still the Doctor.

And just in time, too, because a small circle of Daleks chanting "We will have our power!" again and again suggests that we need him badly.


BritBox has the new restored animated version, which is what I watched. The animation is good, not perfect,, as the trailer above shows, but good. The cleaned up audio sparkles, and the story moves smoothly. And, for old Who fans, the animation team has subtly righted two old wrongs.

The traditional credit of the theme to Ron Grainer is followed by a credit noting the theme was "realized by Delia Derbyshire."

Likewise, the original credit for Terry Nation is immediately followed by a credit "Daleks designed by Raymond Cusick.

So much of the impact of the theme music was the strange, otherworldly sound dynamic crafted by Derbyshire; so much of the power of the Daleks (sorry!) is in their design. Yet for decades Derbsyshire and Cusick were not given their just due. The BBC has done a little justice in this revision to the credits, as well as creating a lost episode with style and narrative force.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"Try Me Again When the Angels are Panting and Scratching at the Door to Come In"

This song is, to my mind, the great Leonard Cohen's last classic. As strong to me as anything he ever wrote, both its lyrics and melody speak to me to our broken age better than any other contemporary songwriter has.

Watch Cohen doff his hat between verses to the incredibly group of musicians supporting him, and se an artist of grace as well as talent.

There are so many classics in his catalogue, so many songs that I love, but this one, right now, resonates in my heart, as it has done for the past few years.

Then, of course, there's his collaboration with Sharon Robinson that I have listened to exactly twice, because it's too moving to bear, somehow:

The Doctor: A Look Back at the William Hartnell Era

Phil Sandifer's observation about the end of The Tenth Planet that "what is about to happen is not the end of the First Doctor's tenure. No. It's the end of the Doctor. William Hartnell only played the First Doctor once, in 1973. Otherwise, he was always simply the Doctor. And what is about to happen is not the replacement of the first version with the second. It's the replacement of the only version with something completely new" is quite important. Because Hartnell labors under the utterly unfair burden of being judged in comparison to all those who came after him. But they, you see, had the advantage of seeing his three distinct versions of the Doctor, and being able to pick and choose from his templates--or create something utterly new.

But the show itself had a certain form that allowed for tremendous freedom, while delivering certain expectations.

Not so when it first began. That early rush of stories, the first two seasons, what I like to call Auntie Verity's Pandemonium Shadow Show, kept you guessing. The Doctor: friend or foe? Daemonic or demonic? Was the TARDIS a place of refuge, or a dimensionally transcendent madhouse, where an eerily mature Susan stalks the corridors, scissor blades protruding from her clenched fist? Were these travels meaningful or could you not rewrite history, not one line. Along the way, Barbara and Ian played a key role in transforming selfish, sometimes cowardly old man into a hero, and the show mixed hard sci-fi with BBC costume dram, or even the Carry On series, with perverse invocations of s Méliès's 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. Balletic ants, a magic police box, and a grumpy wizard?

Who knows what could happen?

After Ian and Barbara leave, we get the middle period. The Doctor is more of a straightforward hero, albeit a deeply flawed one: the 12-episode long arc, The Dalek's Masterplan, leaves us surrounded by death and loss: Bret, Katerina, and, most agonizingly of all, Sara. All gone. The epic tragedy aside, it's an effort to do Auntie Verity's show without her, and its flashes of genius can't hide the fact that the show needs a paradigm shift.

Finally, we get the Doctor who shows up at the OK Corral, crashing into the Western genre, and shaking it up, who comes to contemporary earth's aid, takes a hero's stand against WOTAN, and, finally, falls in the wake of Mondas's destruction.

Hartnell managed to make it all seem consistent, but in fact his performance anchored the show through a bewildering series of changes and formats, from Verity Lambert's free-wheeling Hall of Mirrors to he more straightforward sci-fi of the fourth season.

When I was a teen, I loved the idea of Hartnell as conveyed in the Target novelizations. Then I was disappointed by the dying old man in The Three Doctors, and Richard Hurndall's evocation of the original. After I'd seen a handful of the original Hartnell eps, before stumbling on BritBox's far more complete catalog, I thought I had the measure of the man. I was wrong.

It's hard to rank him now, with so many successors riffing off his contributions, but i want to say this: I enjoyed him far more than I thought I would, I loved Jacqueline Hill's rapport with him, and her ability to up his game, and I found his comic episodes stand up even now.

If you enjoy any version of Doctor Who, Hartnell deserves a sincere thank you for pioneering so many ways to be the Doctor, for making the character and the police box the epitome of English magical realism.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Honor of God": A Sermon on 22:15-22

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church on October 22, 2017]

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

A long time ago, back when I was in high school, I stumbled on the 1964 movie Becket, based on the play by Jean Anouilh. It starred Richard Burton as Becket, and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II. As history, both the play and the movie are wildly inaccurate, it turns out. Becket was not an oppressed Saxon, Henry fought his way to the crown without his help, and, frankly, was as smart as, if not smarter than, the Archbishop. But it caught my imagination, and got me seriously interested in Becket and his King, friend and foe.

The story goes like this: As Henry’s Chancellor, Becket was his closest friend, and most trusted servant. That much is true. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an adversarial relationship with the King died, Henry managed to invoke ancient custom and nominate Becket. When Becket became Archbishop in 1162, he and the king soon quarreled, and an increasingly bitter conflict built up. Things came to a head when Henry, after Becket rejected an effort to discuss things, growled in the presence of several of his knights, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

And you haven’t heard that line properly until you’ve heard Peter O’Toole spit it out.
Four of the knights, thinking that Henry’s frustrated explosion was a command, rode off to Canterbury, and butchered Becket on the altar of the Cathedral. Becket had several opportunities to protect himself, but insisted the Mass go forward, and so the knights were able to get to him. And Richard Burton made the most of that death scene, his last words—in the film, not in life—being “Poor Henry.”

What Anouilh and the film only hint at was the subject of their feud. There were several areas of conflict, but the most important was whether clergy who committed crimes would be tried in the Church's own courts, or whether secular courts, that is, the king's courts, would try those cases. When Henry inquired into the matter in 1163, “he was told that since his coronation nine years before, more than a hundred murders had been committed by clerks,” as clergy were called, “as well as innumerable cases of theft and robbery with violence which had escaped the rigors of secular justice.” [1]

Becket insisted that only the Church had jurisdiction over clergy, and maintained that “since they are not under secular kings, but under their own king, the king of heaven, they should be ruled by their own law.”[2] He insisted that he was defending nothing less than “the Honor of God.”

After Becket’s murder, the Pope forced Henry to accept his position. As a result of the sainthood of Thomas Becket, “benefit of clergy” allowed priests, monastics and others to escape secular courts, no matter what the crime. In 1917, when the loose bundle of authorities making up canon law were complied into a code, that Code expressly stated that to bring a cleric before a secular tribunal for any crime was a delict—canon law’s word for a crime—until 1983, when it issued a new Code of Canon Law. Even in the 1983 Code, the Church did not expressly repudiate those rules. These rules played an important part in protecting abusive priests, from Becket’s age into our own.[3]

Ultimately, Henry had the better of the argument. In fact, however, Henry not only had to give way on the main issue, he did penance for his role—inadvertent as he insisted it was—in Becket’s death by having himself flogged at Becket’s tomb. In the play and the film, when the Saxons, Becket’s supporters, see the King has done this penance, they flock to his banner, and defeat the revolt Henry’s son is leading against him. The throne is again secure.

Henry then addresses his assembled barons, including Becket’s murderers. The script describes him as speaking “with a touch of hypocritical majesty beneath his slightly loutish manner,” as he says, “the Honor of God, gentlemen, is a very good thing, and taken all in all, one gains by having it on one’s side.”[4]

Political partisans have been all too quick to seize the fictionalized Henry’s standard, and to mobilize their supporters by assuring them that God favors their cause. We have heard God invoked all too often as demanding the restriction of women’s rights, the rights of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, and their roles in society. We have heard that God demands judges of a certain kind, and laws that are punitive to the poor and dispossessed.

It’s fair to say that all too often political figures twist the Bible to justify their public policy preferences, to remake God into a partisan figure. Many years ago, in a very different era, H. L. Mencken called our own Episcopal Church “the Republican Party at prayer,” a label that stuck for decades.

But before we get to pleased with ourselves, and too sure at our own righteousness, have not political causes we do firmly believe in been justified by resort to scripture? After all, the Civil Rights Movement led by, among others, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King also invoked Scripture, and the will of God that all of God’s children were created equal, and should be equal before the law and in society.

It’s puzzles like that that make me say, with W.R. Inge, that “the silence of God has, at all times, been a trial to [hu]mankind.”[5]
But then we come to today’s Gospel. When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking him if it is lawful to pay the taxes demanded by the hated Roman occupiers, he asks a simple question, while holding a coin. He asks “whose head is this, and whose title?”
They reply, “The emperor’s.” And so Jesus moves in for the rhetorical kill, saying to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

A brilliant debating move, but far more than that. It contains a self-evident truth that offers a resolution to the conflicting claims of Church and State.

But how do we apply it?

How do we know when we are serving God’s will or refashioning God in our own image, to justify our own desires? There’s no simple answer of course, but, as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him, St. Augustine in The City of God tried to grapple with the problem. He began by distinguishing between the “City of Man” and the “City of God.” The “City of Man” is what he also called the temporal city, the worldly kingdom around us. By the City of God, or “the celestial city,” Augustine didn’t mean the Kingdom of God, but rather “that part thereof which is as yet a pilgrim on earth and lives by faith.” [6] Or, to put it more bluntly, us. The People of God, who are trying to walk in the Christian Way.

Augustine tells us that the Temporal City, “the faithless worldly city aims at earthly peace,” and that the “Heavenly City” “uses this peace, also,” and so “willingly obeys such laws of the temporal city as order the things pertaining of this mortal life [so] that both the cities might observe a peace” as far as possible.[7]

There are limits to this peace. And in those limits, we begin to discern what belongs to God, and leave the rest to the Emperor. The limits are simply this: “the Heavenly City observes and respects this temporal peace here on earth, and the coherence of [people’s] wills in honest morality, as far as it may with a safe conscience.”[8]

In other words, we accept that we live in a deeply flawed world. The Temporal City is run for the worldly, by the worldly. We don’t mistake it for the Kingdom of God, and we don’t assume that Christian values will move it. And yet we live in and among the Temporal City. We dissent from the evil in our world, and try to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God through the streets of that City.

Thomas Becket fought for special privileges for members of his order. He and his supporters claimed to be above the law that applied to the laity. Where was the seeking of justice and loving of mercy in that? Brave man though he was, sincere though he was, time has shown the weakness of his cause, that he sought to model the Heavenly City after the temporal City, with its hierarchies., an din so doing replicated its injustices.

Dr. King and those who walked with him did not turn to violence. They bore witness, spoke their truths, and appealed to the better angels of those who lived in the Temporal City. They won, not because they spoke in God’s name, but because they spoke the truth, which is of God, and softened the hearts while convincing the minds of their oppressors. They didn’t seek to dominate those who had oppressed them, they merely sought equality. And that work goes on, and must go on.

We can find another clue in the meeting of Margery Kempe, the emotionally turbulent mystic who in 1415 sought the counsel of Julian of Norwich, whose own The Revelations of Divine Love is a spiritual classic. When Margery asked how she could tell whether the promptings of her heart were of God, Julian laid down a simple rule: Did they bring about more love, or more pride? Service or self-aggrandizement? Compassion, or contempt?[9]

The Temporal City will always need reform, will never be perfect. We who live in and among it are ourselves imperfect. The division between the Heavenly and the Temporal Cities is not watertight. It’s a delicate balancing act, but because we live in both cities, we must always be careful to, while rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, focus more on rendering to God what is God’s. Compassion, not contempt. Service,not self-aggrandizement. Love, not pride.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1] John Wirenius, Command and Coercion: Clerical Immunity, Scandal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis in he Roman Catholic Church,” 27 Journal of Law and Religion 423, 446 (2011) (quoting W.L. Warren, Henry II, at 464-465 (1973).

[2] Id. at 445.
[3] Id at 468-471.
[4] Jean Anouilh, Becket: Or the Honor of God at p. 116 (trans. Lucienne Hill, 1961).
[5] Inge, Mysticism in Religion at 14 (1948).
[6] Augustine, 3 City of God, Bk XV (19) (John Healy, trans. 1903).
[7] Id.
[8] The Booke of Margery Kempe, (Sanford Brown Meech & Hope Emily Allen, eds.) at 42-43 (Early English Text Society 1940).

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"The Death of Doctor Who": The Tenth Planet


Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolv’d
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have liv’d my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure!

I have to start with an insight garnered from Phil Sandifer's essay on this story: trying to scrape all the history of the show and its mythology from this story is very hard, but worth doing. Ideally, you want to watch the story that aired, and not retroject the future of the Cybermen and regeneration as staples of the program. (Sandifer's essay is excellent by the way, and I'll try not to cover too much of the ground he did--but at a minimum we must begin with fresh eyes). Or, in the words of the somewhat germane Mr. Roboto, "forget what you know."

Why do I bring up the 1980s "Mr. Roboto" with its rather nastily stereotyped-faced robots? Because the 1980s, not unlike our own era--and the mid sixties, for that matter--was an era where the vitality of pop culture, like Doctor Who, like "Mr. Roboto," like The Handmaid's Tale (the novel from which it was drawn was published in the 1980s), came from the paranoia and fear of change, of an impending breakup of an established social order, to be succeeded by something far worse. As we snapped back into the long 1980s, the forces trying to move beyond them revisit the fears of that era, and so it was in 1966--long held verities (sorry!) were collapsing and fears of what would fill the void were rampant, reflected in books like A Clockwork Orange (1962), and the ambiguity toward both authority and protest displayed by The Prisoner (1967-1968).

Look at the changes in companions--from Barbara and Ian (twinset and pearls (metaphorically, at least), suit and tie, received pronunciation) to Ben (a cockney sailor) and Chelsea girl Polly. The old order changeth, yielding place to new, Tennyson wrote, but not easily, not without pain, and not without fear. Ben and Polly are the acceptable faces of the Youth Revolution, meant to reassure that "the kids are alright," but the verdict in England at the time was still very much out.

"The Tenth Planet," then, is a response to a fear of loss of humanity through technology changing the very nature of humankind. (No, really--that's what was the catalyst of the story and the Cybermen. But if General Cutler puts you in mind of Dr. Strangelove (1964), remember that Doctor Who was engaging with nuclear war and its potential for devastation as far back as its second story arc.

Sandifer notes that the Cybermen are "an alternative version of humanity - the dark mirror of humanity, who went on a quest for spiritual enlightenment and succeeded at terrible cost," and points out that they win the debate with Polly over "caring." And he's right. They are body horror because of their human origins and remnants, and they are spiritually horrific because they have a point of view that is not easily refuted. Indeed, they offer twice--the second time after the first wave of Cybermen have been killed by Ben and the staff of the base--to save humanity and bring them to Mondas. They just want to guarantee their own survival (and do not reject out of hand the Doctor's offer that they stay and share Earth with humanity). They are horrific because they reject what makes humanity good by pointing to its shadow side.

They have a point of view, as I said. And Polly can't quite muster a defense why "caring" about General Cutler's son is noble and human-defining when There are people dying all over your world, yet you do not care about them."

Meanwhile, General Cutler is preparing to use the "Z Bomb" (Which sounds awfully reminiscent of the "Q Bomb" in The Mouse that Roared (1955), filmed 1959, starring, like Dr, Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and featuring William Hartnell, by the bye).

We're in body horror territory with the Cybermen, a genre that "arguably can be traced 1950s horror/science fiction hybrids," but we're also in the uneasy land of Leonard Wibberly, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.


"But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst—if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”

Arthur's words to Bedivere are the last words he speaks in Idylls of the King. Wounded, confused, the old hero is unsure, unheroic; he is weakened unto death.

And so too is Doctor Who--or, if you must have it so, the Doctor. The effect of this last adventure has been the sapping of his strength--his "old body is wearing a bit thin," he says. And, after Polly wraps him in his cloak, he hurries back to the TARDIS, acting up in a way it hasn't since The Edge of Destruction. After managing to let his companions in, he collapses, they rush to see him, to see the old order changing, giving place to new.

Doctor Who is dead, but not Doctor Who. And just who is this new man, and what will the new order be?


Love is very fruitful,
Both of honey and of gall

--Pautus, as translated by Barnaby.

I'm a little suspicious of the old story that Hartnell was fired for ill health. His performance in "The Gunfighters," in "The War Machines," "The Smugglers" and in "The Tenth Planet" itself are vintage Hartnell--he's funny, he's powerful, he's angry--to steal great characterization from Sandifer, in Episode 4:
Hartnell rumbles back into the story full of fury and passion. The strong sense is that he stopped the Z-Bomb (though all reason says Ben did) and saved the day. He gets, in other words, the hero's entrance, full of terrible rage. This is absolutely the same man we see at the end of, for instance, The Family of Blood - a man who, when put with his back against the wall, roars back even stronger.

But there's a sense that something isn't quite right as well. The Doctor complains of an outside influence effecting him, and murmurs that his body is wearing a bit thin. Still, that is quickly set aside as the Doctor manages to finally completely unhinge General Cutler (who is quickly gunned down) and take over the situation. It's a fantastic sequence, and it's tough to remember when we last saw Hartnell this in control and decisive.
I agree with this, except for the last sentence. He was this decisive in The Savages, furiously rejecting the Elite's exploitation of the outsiders. His standing up to the War Machine creates a template that the show has returned to again and again. The Doctor may be sick, but Hartnell, when not sidelined by the producers or the script, delivers until his very last scene.

The infamous "Billy fluffs" don't strike me as worse than those any other actor on the show, when you consider the amount of lines Hartnell had to deliver. He's often considerably less gaffe-prone than the guest stars 9watch "The Gunfighters" again). And yet--1n 1973, he was indeed very ill, barely able to participate in the anniversary show.'s "Doctor Who Essentials" quotes Hartnell:
We did Doctor Who for forty-eight weeks a year but I loved it. I couldn’t go out into the street without a bunch of children following me, like the Pied Piper. People used to take it terribly seriously. I’d get letters from boys swotting for exams, asking me complicated questions about time ratios and the TARDIS. I couldn’t help them. A lot of the scriptwriters used to make The Doctor use expressions like “centrifugal force” but I refused. If it gets too technical, the children don’t understand and they lose interest. I saw The Doctor as a kind of lama, one of those long-lived old boys out in Tibet who might be anything up to eight hundred years old but only look seventy-five.
Perhaps the theory suggested there that he wore himself out, and wore out his welcome with the production staff too, is true.

The Cybermen, with the organic body parts, singsong speech, cloth masks, either work for you or they don't. They did for me, except on the combat scenes in the snow where they were required to use there arms as clubs. But that strange, unexplained visage gazing into the camera at the cliffhanger for episode 1? Genius. The voices, so distorted, and yet so logical, so musical, yet so inhuman--much more creepy than the standard deep voices later used. These Cybermen are weird. And that makes them scary.

Finally, two production notes. This story begins to build the order that will house UNIT--a world-wide cooperative system between nations, with people of all races and nations sharing authority. It's not flawless, as presented (the Italian stereotypes are pretty over the top), but it's clearly an effort to envisage a future of international cooperation, and treats its nonwhite characters, especially Earl Cameron's calm, measured performance as Williams, who keeps his white counterpart Schultz from panicking at least twice.

Finally, critics often mock the American accents of General Cutler and his son, and they do seem pretty off-base in 2017. But Robert Beatty was born in Canada and lived there until he was 37. Born in 1909, he played Americans and Canadians throughout his career, including a highly regarded portrayal of Ronald Reagan in Breakthrough at Reykjavik in 1987. Beatty may have been recalling an earlier era of American history, the Damon Runyon New York of his youth, made famous in film and literature. But whatever he was doing, it was an American doing an American accent, not an Englishman.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Long Ben's Ghost: The Smugglers

"Long Ben" Avery, whose name does not appear, in fact to have been Ben, or Avery, for that matter *Henry Every is apparently correct), casts a rather longer shadow in literature and pop culture than might seem reasonable. The Pyrates (1983), George MacDonald Fraser's "burlesque fantasy on every swashbuckler I ever read or saw," portrays Avery as an unabashed hero who pretends to go rogue in order to rescue his lady love and her cantankerous father. He's about as nuanced in Fraser's telling as The Great Leslie in Blake Edwards's The Great Race. Under his own name, he appears as the sympathetic antihero in 2011's Doctor Who episode The Curse of the Black Spot, and later sails to the Eleventh Doctor's side in A Good Man Goes to War.

But his treasure is the chief bone of contention in The Smugglers, a four-parter in which the Doctor, Polly, and Ben find themselves in 17th Century Cornwall, landing on a beach near a church tended by the lone churchwarden Joseph Longfoot, a former member of Avery's crew. Longfoot, at first suspicious of the the travelers, comes to trust the Doctor, and, swearing he has reformed, trusts him with a riddle that will unlock the mystery of Avery's lost treasure.

The Doctor, Polly, and Ben go into town to an inn. Meanwhile Longfoot is ambushed by his old cremate, the inaptly named Cherub, who fails to get the secret from Longfoot, and kills him, having learned that travelers had spoken with him recently. Cherub kidnaps the Doctor, the local Squire jails Polly and Ben, who cannot account of their whereabouts and are thus suspects for Longfoot's murder, and the evil pirate Captain Pike (also an alumnus of Avery's ship), lulls the Squire (a smalltime smuggler, along with the innkeeper Kewper) into a "partnership" that will be very one-sided. Oh, and the pirates have managed to capture and tie up Josiah Blake, the "King's revenue man" sent to end the smuggling, a more somber performance from John Ringham who you really must remember from The Aztecs, where he played the barking mad, scenery-chewing Tlotoxl.

I think of all the lost episodes, this is the one I wish would be found. The recon I watched for parts 1-3 was not up to Loose Cannon's standards, but even Part 4, which was LC, was harder than usual to follow. It's a pity, because this one is action packed, with plot and counter-plot, and I strongly suspect it might rank near The Gunfighters for sheer entertainment value. It's less funny--though Hartnell flattering and charming the half-aware-he's-being-gulled Captain Pike (a splendid performance by Michael Godfrey is very funny, as is his scene faking out the pirate guard Jamaica by pretending to tell fortunes so that he and Kewper can escape.

The story darkens as it goes on, and has some pretty grim death sequences--Jamaica's death at Pike's hands is pretty rough, to name but one, but this is the sort of pirate story Fraser was lovingly lampooning in The Pyrates, and it's a pretty good job, insofar as we can see from the recon and the audio. The notion that everyone mistakes Anneke Wills's Polly for a boy (seriously, even the tele snaps give that game away) is treated as a running gag,almost as if anticipating Strax's inability to recognize human gender.

Escape is important here; Polly and Ben get back into the game by rather cruelly convincing the village idiot left to watch them that he is cursed by the Doctor--a warlock--and that only they--his apprentices--can save him. So that gets them free.

The story has a three sides seeking the treasure--Cherub, Pike, and the Squire/Kewper nexus, and Blake, in consultation with the Doctor, trying to prevent Pike from massacring the townspeople. As Blake is delayed gathering a militia, and the pirates begin to load treasure (while drinking heavily on the job), the Doctor plays for time. He makes an agreement with Pike to give him the clue to Avery's treasure in return for Pike's guarantee that the townspeople will not be hurt, he keeps his word. How far we have come from the Doctor who would break faith and even kill to protect himself and (only incidentally) his companions in The Cave of Skulls!

The Doctor keeps his word, but will Pike? We never find out, though we're pretty sure the answer is no, because Avery's riddle and Cherub's treachery delay him long enough that Pike and the few of his pirates who were sober enough to not get killed in Blake's initial support, are caught in a losing battle with Blake. Pike fits to the end, nearly killing the Doctor with his last breath--the wounded Squire, who never meant things to go so far helps stop Pike. As the mop up ends, the TARDIS takes off and lands in an area so cold that the travelers can feel the chill inside.

One can catch his death in the cold.