[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oh, as usual, dear....

A story in two parts:

1. Back in Kate Bush's heyday, I dated an avid fan, who sought to bowl me over with "Wuthering Heights."


2. Hadn't thought about the song since, but after a colleague at a conference vowed that any workout would be improved by listening to The Puppini Sisters, I tried an album of theirs off Apple Music.

Song no. 6:

It's rare for a song to make me laugh aloud, while actually admiring the artistry.

Their cover of I Will Survive was every bit as enjoyable, if you are, like me, a person of peculiar tastes.

Apple Music has their entire catalogue, I'm pleased to report.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Do Not Doubt, But Believe: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

[This is the manuscript of a sermon I delivered at the 5:00 pm service at St. Barts tonight. Unusually, I went a bit off-text on this one, as I thought the text was a bit too academic for a sermon. So this is more an essay that was extemporized into a sermon, and hopefully none the worse for that.]

Poor St. Thomas. Seriously, I mean it. There's a lot of theological meat in today's Gospel, but I can never resist speaking up for St. Thomas. St Thomas the Apostle, forever known as “Doubting Thomas,” gets a raw deal, I think.

Ok, sure—after Jesus’s death, he doesn’t believe the other apostles when they tell him that, when they were hiding in a house in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to them.

But all they tell him is “we have seen the Lord.” It’s not like they give him a lot of detail.

Also, let’s point out that Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazurus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Lazarus says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his ten friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

What does that mean?

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “come to believe” occurs in the Second Step -—we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

But that belief isn’t just an abstract proposition. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we are told that “coming to believe” requires more than that; prior intellectual embraces of God fail because “In no deep or meaningful sense had we ever taken stock of ourselves, made amends to those we had harmed, or freely given to any other human being without any demand for reward. We had not even prayed rightly. We had always said, “Grant me my wishes” instead of “Thy will be done.”

In other words, “coming to believe” means trying to live in accord with what we believe, not just holding it in our minds.

Ah, but what is it we must come to believe?

Well, we say the Creed every week. Is that what Jesus is referring to here?

Hard to believe. For one thing, it doesn’t actually tell us very much, does it? As Charles Gore pointed out ninety years ago, the Creeds aren’t actually a summary of what Christians believe, they just knock out, one-by-one, all of the early heresies that tried to downplay either Jesus’s humanity or his divinity.

Not either or, the Creed insists, but both. Always both.

So, no. Not the Creeds, then. Or, at any rate, not just the Creeds.

So we just believe in the name of Jesus. It’s an intellectual proposition—Jesus equals the Son of God, therefore we are saved.

We-ell, I certainly don’t disagree with that statement, but I have to tell you, a lot of people have adhered to that abstract article of belief, and done terrible things with it.

And on the flip side, many people who have never heard the name of Jesus, or who have encountered it only through the distorting lens of those who use it to justify the sort of domination system that crucified Jesus, may exemplify the sort of love Jesus taught and lived.

My go-to source for old-school Anglican orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis, wrote that “every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. . . . In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.” [1]

So, I can’t help but think that there might be a little more to it than just intellectual adherence to the name of Jesus, or any intellectual concept for that matter.

No, I think we have to go all the way back to the very beginning of this Gospel to see what it is we must come to believe. Or, just maybe, how we must come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

John’s Gospel demonstrates what’s called a very high Christology, by which we mean it depicts Jesus as one with the Father, more consistently and more often than any other Gospel.

Add to this that it has been considered “the charter of Christian Mysticism.”[2] In saying so in his classic lectures on mysticism, W. R. Inge explained that “Christian Mysticism, as I understand it, might almost be called Johannine Christianity,” or rather that “a Johannine Christianity is the ideal which the Christian mystic sets before himself” or herself.[3]

This sounds pretty daunting, especially if when you think of mysticism the first thing that comes to your mind is Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, who is always battling all kinds of supernatural threats when he isn’t busy solving mysteries with Bilbo Baggins.

But that’s a movie, based on a comic book written in the trippy 1960s. What Inge means by mysticism is what he calls “the raw material of religion,” the experience of the immanence of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.”[4]

Or, put another way, it’s what some people make of those fleeting experiences we all get of the presence of God. Abraham Maslow documented them, and called them “peak experiences.” He described them as sudden “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe.”[5]

Mysticism isn’t about power, like Dr. Strange—it’s about perception. Openness to the fact that life isn’t just getting and spending, but, ultimately, about love, and that in the experience of love is the ultimate truth about not just our own lives, but the nature of God.

And how do we make this a part of our lives?

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from Steven Moffat: “Law isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise.” Like it says in the Second Step, we act lovingly—we try to walk in the path of Jesus. Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a structure of belief but as a way—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

Coming to believe doesn’t mean perfect certainty. In AA, coming to believe can be pretty shaky, and still get the job done.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

If and when you can make some quiet space to be silent in the presence of God, be open to those peak experiences. If they come on you on their own, remember it. Don’t dismiss them, let them reassure you when you’re depressed, or feeling isolated.

Because they are part of our experience, and, as the novelist CP Snow wrote, “it’s impossible to regret one’s own experience.”[6] So too we should be very reluctant to doubt our own experience.

So embrace that experience.

Most of all, if you haven’t had such experiences, if you are unsure, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.


1. Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy at 244-245 (2007).
2. William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism 44 (1899).
3. Id. at 44-45.
4. Id at 5.
5. A. Maslow, Religions, Values & Peak Experiences (1964).
6. C.P. Snow, The Sleep of Reason 149 (1968)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Voltaire Wept

I can't think of a single subject I agree with Ann Coulter on, and, in fact, I think her ideas are abhorrent. She's not as dangerous as, say, Ayn Rand, who has found a way of justifying humanity's most base urges to many, but she's a glib bomb-thrower., and almost a living parody of everything tha's wrong with the Right.

Silencing her is not liberal. Or progressive. Or anything good.

In purely instrumental terms, it's counterproductive--it's a data point for those who claims the "left" (a unified group, right?) don't really believe in free speech, sure, but it's worse than that: It's a betrayal of what we hold dear.

If we really believe in the democratic republic created by our Constitution, then we have to believe in freedom for the thought we hate. And silencing by threat or force those with whom we disagree with, however evil we think their views, is a betrayal of the very premise of the Constitution--that We, the people, should choose what ideas to embrace or to reject.

I recently quoted Karl Alexander's novel Time After Time: "The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas." I believe this; if violence and threats are the new response to thought that we hate, then we are saying something utterly damning about the state of our discourse and of democracy.

And admitting that we are out of ideas.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

When The Well Runs Dry: A Meditation on John 19:25b-28

[What follows is the text of my meditation given yesterday at St. Bartholomew's The Three Hours service for Good Friday. At the link, you can hear not only my meditation as delivered, but those delivered by St. Barts clergy and lay preachers. The meditations of my friends and colleagues are well worth your time.

It is an honor to be invited to participate in this service, and I am grateful, as always, to St. Barts, which has been my spiritual home for over a decade now.

“I am thirsty.”

Such a banal, boring sentence, normally.

But not here.

Not today. Not at the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have heard him forgive his executioners. We have heard him promise the Repentant Thief that they will meet again, in Paradise.

We have heard Jesus entrust his mother to his beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple to his own mother. Out of the wreckage of the Jesus Movement, he has salvaged a family.

Then the hard one: We have heard him despair, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in the extremity of pain, he is quoting scripture—Psalm 22. He still affirms that the God who watches him in this moment is his God.

He is still our teacher, our rabbi. Our Messiah.

But now this.

“I am thirsty.”

For the one and only time, Jesus comments on his physical state. But not on the pain from his wounds, or the exertion of keeping himself from going limp and suffocating as he hangs from the Cross.

It’s the thirst that gets under that serene confidence, that brings him to his one and only complaint through the whole bloody ordeal.

When I read this passage, Jesus always sounds a little surprised to me.

“I am thirsty.”

Maybe it’s unexpected that the normal routine needs of the body persist so far into these last hours. He expected mockery, he expected pain, he was even ready with an apt quote for despair, our rabbi was—but thirst?

Maybe the very normalcy of thirst makes him realize that this could still all end—he could be cut down from the Cross, he could still walk away from all of this—he’s still able to be thirsty, and yearn for some cool water.

Either way, that moment of thirst is so concrete, so not what a storyteller or myth-maker would focus on, that it feels completely authentic.

It’s the moment when we know there’s no miracle to come. There’s no escape, no happy ending—not this side of the grave, not yet.

Throughout this Gospel, Jesus has passed through the authorities’ efforts to capture him, he’s out-debated them, out-witted them, and just dared them to act against him.

And now they have, and, in worldly terms, Jesus has gone to the well once too often.

We’ve seen him, in this same Gospel, at Jacob’s Well, where he met the Samaritan woman. Jesus asks her for a drink, and she is surprised that he crosses boundaries of gender and traditional hostility to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

He says to her “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

She asks skeptically where he will get this living water, with no bucket, and a deep well.

He tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

And then she wanted that living water.

But now, on the Cross, the man who offered the stranger, the Samaritan woman, living water thirsts for ordinary water to relieve his own pangs.

We have left behind John’s mystical discourse of living water and the bread of life.

We are in the world of harsh fact, of blood and iron.

You might say that this happened in our world. We can look around us and see injustices at home and abroad. We live in a world where a state will try to rush through a series of executions before the expiration date of the medicine made to save life that they will use to end it.

A world, in short, of blood and iron.

But we can’t blame it on the world; that’s a cop-out. Thirty years ago, I sat in a darkened theater and watched a movie called The Mission, about Seventeenth Century missionary priests in South America whose students are betrayed and sold into slavery by their government and the Church. The priests who stayed behind with the students are killed trying to protect them, some by taking up weapons, but others by standing with their students in prayer.

They all die.

The scene is watched by two men, an official of the Crown and a Cardinal. They react to the bloodshed differently.

The representative of the State tries to comfort the Churchman, reassuring him that “we must work in the world; the world is thus." But the Cardinal responds, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it."

The gift of God who offers living water is dry now, and his thirst will not be quenched until it is quenched in death.

On this day, at the foot of the Cross, it is hard—very hard—not to think of ourselves as trapped in that world of blood and iron. Thus have we made the world.

But before we surrender to that that bleakness, maybe we need to look at the response to Jesus’s confession of need, of thirst.

Where you would expect none, compassion stirs in some of the soldiers guarding the crucified. They give him a little of their own wine, It’s “a diluted, vinegary wine drunk by soldiers and laborers,” called posca, and its offered in a moment of kindness. [1]

Blink and you miss it. But think for a moment, and let it stay with you.

Hard men, living a hard life, in which cruelty was routine. A life, we could say, of blood and iron. Yet somehow Jesus touches them; compassion is awakened, and an unexpected, unlikely act of mercy lightens the darkness for a moment.

That act of mercy should remind us that the acquiescence in despair of “thus we have made the world” is a lie, after all.

Because we didn’t make the world; it isn’t ours to make.

It’s God’s world, not ours, and the men of blood and iron are not beyond redemption; they respond to Jesus’s need when they could have just mocked him, or, even easier, ignored him.

They aren’t blood and iron at all, but flesh and blood. God’s children, whatever kind of life they are living. And they are capable of being moved into a better life.

As they have just demonstrated.

As are those we fear, and those who seemingly are trying to fashion that world of blood and iron, and shackle us to it.

As are we.

Throughout his life, Jesus spread that most wonderful of diseases, a thirst for that living water. A thirst for a better world, for God’s world, not the defaced muddle we seem so often to make of it. He spoke of the blessing of a “thirst for righteousness,” even as he spread that thirst.

And so Jesus has answered his own question, “Am I not to drink of the cup the Father has given me?” He does it, in faith, even though in his case the cup is one of suffering and death. Now, in his last moments, Jesus “thirsts to drink that cup to the last drop, for only when he has tasted the bitter wine of death will his Father’s will be fulfilled.”[2] He has been faithful to the end.

But on the way, he has met with an unexpected affirmation that this death will be a catalyst that will reshape the world. His very executioners have shown that the Gospel—the Good News—of love, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can banish the Gospel of Blood and Iron. The Sun has not even set on Golgatha, and already the first hints of the Easter sunrise are mixed with the dying of that light.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XX1 (1970) at 909 (Anch. Bib. Vol. 29A); William Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel: First and Second Series at 368 (1945).

[2] Brown, The Gospel According to John, at 930.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Time After Time After Time...

(Photo by Anglocat)

"The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas"

So says H.G. Wells, at any rate, in Time After Time, of which I have been a fan since I saw it in the theater in 1979. (Yes, children, the Anglocat is past its first youth.) And that line attributed to Wells in the film, is a big part of why. The chemistry between Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, and their genuinely sweet romance. In a 2013 reunion interview, both McDowell and Warner call Time After Time a romance story at heart. It's worth watching:

And then there's this:

That's pretty deep for a low-budget high concept (H.G. Wells vs Jack the Ripper--seriously, that's clever if cheesy) film by first time director. But the movie has heart, and the actors sell it brilliantly.

But I had no idea that it was based on a novel, which Nicholas Meyer optioned before it was published. I stumbled on the fact in reading an interview with Nicholas Meyer that popped up when I verified that it had been made into a 2017 series--which has already been cancelled before I even saw one episode.

But, bibliophile raised its lovely head, and I visited my good friend Abe, and I found my prey. That is, the first edition first printing depicted above.

I'm partway through it. Author Karl Alexander's Wells is less innocent than McDowell's, and perhaps a bit less likable. The book moves briskly, though less so than the film, and Wells has a harder time acclimatizing to the 20th Century than his quarry, Stephenson.

It's a good read. It hasn't run out of ideas yet.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Ballad of Pamela Flitton: The Classic had it Coming

One of my favorite poems since my youth has been The Ballad of Reading Gaol; its strong rhythm, its depth of feeling, spoke to me right away. And the verses beginning from stanza 7 ("Yet each man kills the thing he loves...) to the end of part I were among the very few poems I had by memory.

And then, of course, I heard the bloody John Denver/Placido Domingo duet, Perhaps Love (the 80s have a lot to answer for) which, if you just add the closing line of each sung verse "My memories of love will be of you" as sung, completely scans to Wilde's text.

No, seriously, it does. Open the link to the poem in another window, click the YouTube, and sing along--and know horror that only Cthulhu can surpass.

Once I realized this, of course, I was doomed to hear the frakking song every damn time I read the poem. And so, I fear, are you now.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, years later, when as a fledgling member of the Anthony Powell Society, I was tempted by a writing contest for the annual luncheon, and was inspired to revisit Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. There I re-encountered the femme fatale Pamela Flitton (who also destroyed great art on a whim, so, yeah, in keeping with the subject of this post), and, for the contest, sacrificed poor battered Reading Gaol:

For each man kills the thing he loves.
Well, that’s what Oscar said.
But Pam Flitton never cared to love,
And still a lot of chaps are dead.
There was, we know, X Trapnel,
With his ring and fancy cane,
He could handle the wandering of the gel,
But not the papers in the Seine.

Yes, Pam ended poor old Trapnel’s plight,
With his book drowned in water cool
But the heaviest loss of those she wrought
Was that of Kenneth Widmerpool.
What’s that you cry, but poor old Ken
Lingered a volume—or was it two?
And died of spite his death at twilight
To escape Scorp’s bitter rule.

And yet I say Pam claims the palm,
For it was she who broke the pith
Of Kenenth’s soul so Scorp could calm
his followers by giving Ken the Bith.

The lady's trail of death and strife,
may have ended with poor Ken,
It's said that Powell drew her from life
depicting Babs Skelton,
Years after our dear Pam was gone,
her memoirs can be read,
The pages rich with malice,
about the men who loved and fled.

Perhaps unurprisingly, I did not win.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"I Owe it all to Agatha Christie"/150,002

A long time ago, in a campus far, far away, I was cast in a production of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. The show was done rather campily--the last stand of my college classmates and I, and I had a gloriously ridiculous role as an ersatz Sherlock Holmes-figure. I got to ham it up with my old friend and fellow tummeler, D'Artagnan.

In fact, I suspect it was on the level of this:

(at 6:30. And yes, that's Jean Stapleton. She sings. It's like Cats, described by Roy Cohn)

I thought of this when, after writing about Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, I got curious enough to do something I hadn't done during its 1989-2013 run, and that is, watch a few episodes of Poirot.

I hadn't watched them during the show's run because I had plowed through almost the entirety of the series when I was a boy, only to become dismissive of her writing as I was drawn to more psychologically astute novelists. And, of course, intellectual snobbery grew on me.

So it was a pleasure to return to these old friends, as mediated through David Suchet's superb performance as Poirot, with an excellent supporting cast. Zoë Wanamaker in particular invests Ariadne Oliver with a precarious comic dignity, as well as heart, that turns any episode she appears in into a double act. (Best moment, when she dismissively introduces the irritatingly complacent Poirot as "my assistant"; only Suchet can glower politely.)

Some of the stories are well-produced trifles, with even less substance than I remembered. But more of them work. Dame Agatha had more on the ball than I remembered, ad some of the stories were brilliantly reimagined.

So, for example, Murder on the Orient Express: How do you film a story that was famously immortalized in 1974, re-filmed (less well received) in 2001, and hasn't been out of print for over 70 years? I mean, who doesn't know the twist ending?

Simple; don't make the story about the mystery.

No, really--MOTOE marks the hinge between the cheerful, long-running series that could have run forever and the story of a man who is coming to terms with the light and dark of his life. From here on, Poirot's moral foundations have been shaken. The script does this by having Poirot's rigidity leave to a suspect shooting himself rather than face disgrace--Poirot's clever exegesis ends not with victory, but with Hercule wiping blood off himself, clearly yearning to believe that the outcome is not his fault. This incident is teased out of the novel's beginning, but a second incident, in which Poirot and two of his fellow passengers are caught up in a crowd intending to stone an adulteress, and Poirot's dismissive acceptance of the culture's norm shocks Mary Debenham, is wholly new. It worked for me, seeing Poirot under judgment, his awkward efforts to justify himself rejected by the young woman whose friendliness has faded to icy politeness because he has not lived up to her moral expectation, gives us a Poirot off balance for once. Then the snow-embedded train, in a naturalistic move wholly lacking in the 1974 film or the novel, loses heat. Poirot's moral discomfort is exacerbated by physical discomfort.

At the end of the story, Poirot does not (as did Albert Finney's version) lightly compound a felony. No, he's insisting on the letter of the law. Enfin, Poirot will prove himself right, mon ami! His desperate self-assurance is shattered when the killers do not live down to his expectations. Poirot, whose moral code, and, indirectly, his faith has been challenged throughout this story, angrily yields, angry at himself, at his mercy that flouts his beliefs, unsure that he is doing right. In a masterful scene, Suchet conveys Poirot's anguish, as he suavely lies to the authorities, using his great prestige to secure the freedom of the killers, as they watch, hardly daring to believe that he is showing the mercy that he had refused to show. Point's anger is in Suchet's posture, his clutched rosary, his stalking away when he has finished his lie. He is ashamed of what may be the finest act of his life.

He has more adventures, some light, some dark, but he is on the road back to Styles Court, where he will meet the killer "X" who will pose the final and most serious challenge to Poirot's beliefs.


As I logged on to write this appreciation of a writer I once naively over-valued and then arrogantly undervalued, I saw that Anglocat has reached 150,002 visitors. Many repeat, some in error, I daresay, but still--a rather nice thing to see. So I just want to say thank you all--those who flick by and never return, those who stay and comment, those who drop in wondering what the cat is on about today--many thanks for coming on the prowl.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

That's How the Light Gets In

As I put it in Sunday's sermon, we're rounding third in Lent, and the ambitious plans of reform have been tempered (at least for me) by reality.

So it's a comfort to reach this in the appointed Epistle for today:
or I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Note that this passage is very much in the present tense. You don't have to find Paul's distancing of himself from his body persuasive; it's enough to know that even at his height as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knew the struggle against temptation, and knew what it was to lose that struggle. He knew what it was to to want the good, but to fail, and to respond to temptation with an instinctual, almost unthinking "yes!" only to then be wracked with guilt. But also to know that his failings, and our own, do not have the last word.

I'm not trying to say that, hey, if Paul can give in, who really cares? No, it's just that our own flaws, our errors, our misdeeds are included in Paul's most reassuring passage:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans gets a bum rap, in my opinion, from many who misunderstand its talk of predestination, or view its theological rigor as logic chopping (Paul's occasional rhetorical flourishes sometimes play into this misperception). Charles Gore's St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Practical Exposition (volume 2, which addresses both today's reading and Romans 8, here), is both what it says and a great decoding and teasing out of Paul's meanings by a great theologian who wrote for the intelligent lay reader.

The point is, as I summarized Nadia Bolz-Weber's workshop in 2015:
We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out, My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience to the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.

Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.

She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are forgiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.

As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)
So, and I really mean this, don't suppose your Lent is a heroic journey. It's an offering, imperfect and flawed, to a gift in which we safely trust.

And the flaws? As the great man wrote, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Here's Mud in Your Eye: A Sermon on John 9:1-41, March 26, 2017

A little daub of mud. A river bank. Simple elements, nothing organically and lovingly curated, no experimental procedure. Just some mud spread over the eyes, and washed away.

And a world of darkness dies, replaced by one blazing with light and new clarity.

Today’s gospel reading reminds me a little bit of the old Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze.” That’s the one in which Holmes, asked by the regular police for a clue to who could have crept into the stable, and stolen the valuable horse who was the favorite to win the Derby, takes pity on him, and tells him to pay attention to the “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The police detective is confused. “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” he says.

“That was the curious incident,” Holmes answers him.

In “Silver Blaze,” the dog did nothing because he knew the culprit—it was his owner, the horse’s trainer. So of course he didn’t bark. Holmes solves the mystery based on the absence of what would normally be expected.

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but there’s a curious incident in this story of a miraculous healing by Jesus. And that’s just how little Jesus figures in the story. The absence of Jesus for most of the story is exactly contrary to what we expect. Jesus sweeps dramatically into the life of the blind man, heals him, and leaves. Now, normally when that happens, we may get a sentence or two wrapping up the miracle and go on, and then return to Jesus and the apostles on their way.

Not this time.

Jesus heals the man, and leaves the scene.

For what I think is the only time in any of the four Gospels, we spend an extended time learning what happens in the wake of one of Jesus’s healings. We learn what happens to the person healed and to the community he was a part of. So I’m going to fill you in on part of the story that didn’t make it into the reading today, because it’s illuminating.

After Jesus leaves the scene, we follow the now-healed man, washing the mud from his eyes, and regaining his sight. As he leaves the river, his neighbors and those who had seen him begging are astonished—they debate whether this is the same helpless man they have walked by day in and day out.

He confirms that he is, and, when asked how he regained his sight, answers simply, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Simple, straightforward answer from a man who has been helpless since his birth. They take him to the local religious authorities—the Pharisees here. When the Pharisees hear the story, they immediately discredit Jesus as a sinner, saying “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." Not all of them—a few defend Jesus on the ground that a sinner could not do such a thing.

So, at this point the Pharisees try to prove that the man in front of them is not the blind beggar, but someone pretending to be him. That fails, because his parents identify him, and they finally turn to the newly sighted man, who has already told his story twice, but doesn’t tell it a third time. Instead, he turns the tables on the Pharisees. He asks them “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Note the “also.” He’s reaffirming his earlier statement that Jesus is a prophet, and by implication rejecting the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus is a sinner. He’s also putting the Pharisees at his own social and spiritual level—which to them is an insult.

They insult him, and then say “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

And, with a mock-innocence that shows that this man is neither simple nor helpless, he shreds their position:

"Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. “

He then delivers judgment: “If this man were not from God,” he says, no doubt in his mind, “he could do nothing.”

They bluster, they denounce, they drive him out. Because this man, blind from birth, helpless until that very day, has beaten them on their own terms. He has reasoned better than they have, and has shown a far deeper understanding of the law and of the nature of God.

The Pharisees manage to bully his parents, and try to bully him, but the once blind man is having none of it. His manner goes from being respectful and non-committal when they start questioning him, to openly mocking the Pharisees. Whatever he was like when his world was dark, he has come home to his full self as a disciple of Jesus.

But unlike the Twelve, who more often than not need guidance, or explanations, the man once blind becomes a maverick who trounces the intellectual elite by his greater understanding and his accepting heart.

In the Gospels, that role usually falls to Jesus. Here, the newly healed man plays the part Jesus normally plays, and plays it as successfully as Jesus usually does.

He fills the gap left by Jesus’s departure.

Jesus hears about all this and seeks him out. When Jesus identifies himself as “the Son of Man,” and asks him if he believes, the man answers simply, “Lord, I believe.” And Jesus reaffirms that the man once blind now sees clearly, and that the teachers of the law are themselves blind.

The presence of God in our lives can be paradoxical that way. We look for the moment of transcendence, what Maslow called the “peak experience.” But this story doesn’t involve anything like that. Jesus acts through the mundane elements of earth and water, and unleashes the dammed-up potential of one human being. No special effects, no transfiguration in this story.

Just clay and spittle, and river water.

Through the mundane, through the ordinary, God brings healing. A coming to one’s true self, and not only a recovery of sight, but finding one’s own true voice.

As we’re rounding third base in Lent, I’ve found my more heroic plans have not exactly panned out. I haven’t prayed the traditional office from the Breviary, with its eight daily offices throughout the day. The stack of theological classics on my night-table has not been read. I haven’t exercised every day.

But my less spectacular plans, well, they’re holding up better. The Daily Office from the Prayer Book and I continue to jog along, and I find myself thinking before I speak, at home and at work.

And maybe for me--and I offer it to you, if it’s helpful--maybe I don’t need the special effects. Maybe we can make do with the mundane, and save the special effects for some other time.

The early Christians called themselves followers of the Way—you can see it as early as in the Acts of the Apostles. A modest name, but one that captures something that we might lose if we expect to become paragons by an act of will in Lent. A way of life needs to be with us in all seasons, something that we sustain while it sustains us. Maybe like the man whose sight is restored, we don’t need the special effects. We’re here together, a community, and we are hearing the stories, reflecting on what we can take away from them. We’re aligning ourselves with God in prayer and waiting to celebrate the return of God in human form, in the resurrected Christ.

In a time where hate and division are working their evil throughout the world, even in our city, in this very building we are reaching out to the stranger, the hungry, the woman who needs a place to sleep.

You know what that sounds like to me?

Clay and spittle and river water.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Remorseful Day: Colin Dexter 1930-2017

I am very sorry to see that Colin Dexter has died, aged 86. Dexter's was the fertile mind that birthed Inspector Morse, the television adaptation, and its sequel and prequel, Lewis and Endeavor. For all my great affection for the latter incarnations, the books and the original series had a magic that the later entries did not quite possess--although the shadows of the original frequently deepened and enriched the later shows.

But Morse itself! How to describe its charm? For me, it was the gentle melancholy that lay at the core of Morse's psyche that defined the series of books and haunted John Thaw's portrayal of the character. A performance reflected, by the bye in the rather haunting theme tune by Barrington Pheloung:

All of Morse's brilliance, his success as a detective, could not heal his wounded heart; he was, in one of Dexter's best phrases, a man far more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.

Colin Dexter, however, was rather different:
Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. His father, Alfred, was a taxi driver who had left school at 12, as had Colin’s mother, Dorothy (nee Towns), and was determined that Colin and his elder brother, John, should be well educated. The boys were not required to do any domestic chores but were expected to spend every available moment studying. Both gained scholarships to the independent Stamford school, and Colin then went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics.

He became a classics teacher, claiming for the rest of his life that he was a born teacher rather than a writer: he took no interest in the moral welfare of his pupils but prided himelf on getting them better exam results than they thought they were capable of. He taught at schools in Loughborough and Leicester, and by his mid-30s was head of classics at a school in Corby, Northamptonshire. It was there that he discovered there was something seriously wrong with his hearing.


This had the effect of making him seek a second career in which impaired hearing would not be a disadvantage. So he became a GCE examiner for the Oxford University Board. It required him to move to Oxford, and he remained there from 1966 until 1987, by which time Morse had changed his life.

The first of the Inspector Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written because, with his wife, Dorothy, and two sons, Dexter was on holiday in north Wales at a time when the rain never seemed to stop. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better. With the benefit of medieval and suburban Oxford as the setting (Dexter reckoned that he would never have become a writer had he moved to Rotherham), Last Bus to Woodstock proved the point.


Dexter was often asked whether he wrote for a readership or for himself. His answer was that he wrote for his old English teacher Mr Sharp. He would write a page and then ask himself, “Would Mr Sharp like that?” His aim was to feel that Mr Sharp would give it at least eight out of 10.
According to his above-quoted obituary, "he one extravagance to which Dexter would admit was his purchase of the first editions of the works of A.E. Housman."

Dexter gave Housman the last word on Morse, as above shown, so let me extend the same courtesy to Morse's creator:
How Clear, How Lovely Bright

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Some Call it Slander, I Call it Getting Paid."

That's Jimmy Breslin as I remember him. Cranky, funny, blunt. A real authentic New York sensibility, and attitude. He was funny, he was scabrous, he vented. Not a corporate guy, not smooth.

He died today:
Jimmy Breslin, the New York City newspaper columnist and best-selling author who leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50 years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88, and until very recently, was still pushing somebody’s buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a prominent Manhattan Democrat. Mr. Breslin had been recovering from pneumonia.

With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers. ...Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Mr. Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping center faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called “The Church That Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with his cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.
In our time of access journalism and "both sidesism", not to mention outright propaganda, Breslin was an old-school journalist who kept it truthful and real, careful to delineate fact from opinion.

Also, he was a great example of King Kaiser's dictum: "You don't cut funny."

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Count Dracula (at 1:35) sums up my response to Erick Erickson's tweet:

To be fair, Erickson's reading has some support, including from John Calvin. But even Calvin adds that "others are not to be altogether despised by us," and he also refers earlier to Jesus's admonishment of charity to the "stranger"--clearly not of the Christian community. Certainly my 1951 copy of The Interpreter's Bible (vol. 8, pp 530-532; 562-566), a rather middle of the road, traditionalist analysis, utterly rejects Erickson's premise, defining brotherhood as encompassing all of humanity.

But Erickson's premise is further weakened by the fact that it requires proof-texting Matthew 25, apart from the other Gospels. The Fourth Gospel does not limit Christ's redemptive mission to the those who are already believers, rather God so loved the world that he sent his only son. (Jn. 3:16). The mission of preaching and of works of mercy is not limited to those who already believe, as witness the Syrophoenician woman, or the Samaritan woman at the well.

Speaking of Samaritans, from The Gospel According to Luke:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise
If we limit our efforts to co-believers, we disregard Jesus's injunctions.

As he is a political pundit and not a theologian, Erickson's tweet wouldn't be worth responding to if it didn't fit in with a distressing tendency in socially conservative Christianity to verge upon a purity cult. And, usually, this is achieved by stressing biblical passages that are easy for the "we" to comply with, and by downplaying those that are difficult for them (a point made at greater length here. Only the righteous (as defined by the in-group) are worth ministering to, in this reading. But in fact, Jesus said, in the very Gospel quoted by Erickson, " I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

There's another danger, too, in Erickson's narrowing interpretation of Jesus's words. It's all very reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's warning against "The Inner Ring"--a circumscribed society that looks upon itself as superior to those not-we; Lewis notes that it can corrupt a group formed with thoroughly wholesome purposes. Indeed, in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis explained that even church membership can become an "Inner Ring"; as the Senior Tempter explains to the young devil Wormwood:
But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn't the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say "mass" and those who say "holy communion" when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities.
So, yes, I think the Count provides the right response to Erickson's tweet. And, just to come full circle, these dangers are inherently present, to greater or lesser extent, depending on intention and practice in the "Benedict Option" covered in the previous post.

And, of course, we liberals can fall into the same trap, albeit led by different bait.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Love Among the Ruins? Notes on Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option"

I have given conservative writer Rod Dreher a fair amount of stick on this blog. Despite this, I want to at once engage with some of his ideas regarding what he calls The Benedict Option. Despite disagreeing with many of Dreher's key arguments, I find that there is value to be found in the book, even for a liberal Episcopalian like myself.

Let's start with the disagreement. Dreher presupposes a cultural hostility to Christianity that is supported more by anecdote than by data, writing that "The workplace is getting tougher for orthodox believers as America’s commitment to religious liberty weakens." He invokes blacklisting, loss of accreditation, and a social disdain for socially conservative traditionalits.

With respect, I think that Dreher is making two errors here. First, his use of the term "orthodox believers" (often referred to on his blog as "small-o orthodox Christians") is doing a lot of lifting. It means traditional socially conservative Christians, not those Christians whose theological belief is in accordance with the creeds. Liberal Christians are "read out" of "orthodoxy" by Dreher, even if we hold all the creeds to be true without hesitation or mental reservation. Indeed, Charles Gore, whose The Reconstruction of Belief was an extended defense of the truth of creedal Christianity in the aftermath of the loss of faith caused by World War I, would probably not fall within Dreher's definition of "orthodox Christian." This is a very crabbed view of orthodoxy, in contrast to that of C.S. Lewis, who could disagree with radical theology without declaring it heretical, as witness his comment about J.A.T. Robinson's Honest To God:
The Bishop of Woolwich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long ago abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call this belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. . . .We have always thought of God as being not only "in" and "above" but also "below" us....His view of Jesus as a window seems wholly orthodox (he that hath seen me hath seen the Father....Thus, though sometimes puzzled, I am not shocked by his article. His heart, though perhaps in some danger of bigotry, is in the right place.
Dreher could, I think, learn from Lewis's charitable reading of his foes, and his expansive view of orthodoxy.

Nor do I believe that Dreher is correct to fear persecution. In 2012, the often bitterly divided Supreme Court was unanimous in finding a broad "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws in the Firest Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. Still, Dreher is not fabricating; rather, he is, I believe, overreacting to a loss of cultural hegemony that is in fact real. That, combined with the Supreme Court's relegation in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) to the political process of claims for lay religious minorities to "conscience exemptions" from non-discriminatory laws, a relegation authored by by the late Antonin Scalia, writing for the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--has basically removed constitutional protection for dissenters. Ironically, some of those dissenters are now the conservative Christians who make up Dreher's audience. The result is that conservative Christians are now themselves losing some of the political battles for exemptions and accommodations that they previously resisted when claimed by members of other faiths.

The question of when and how to extend such accommodations is a fraught one--do we effectively negate civil rights laws if we allow some accommodation, or do we oppress conscientious objectors if we follow Scalia's hard line view that it's purely a question of political (not constitutional) grace)? The facts that the right of equal marriage is so newly won, and is still being actively resisted, suggest that such a purely political process is not likely to be engaged in with much empathy. Churchill's old maxim, "In victory, magnanimity" is a good one, but it assumes a victory that is not yet solidified here. However, traditionalists are not specially targeted by the rule of Smith;in many places and occasions, they still are able to enshrine their views in law. But what is new for them is finding that in this realm they are now more likely than ever before to find themselves acted upon in the same way. That a cultural detente is necessary seems clear, but how to strike it is hard to envision.

One more:
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.
You will, I suspect, understand that I sign on to none of this. In fact, I find much of it deplorable--the notion that modernity is an "occupation" to be overcome suggests that Dreher is not looking for detente, but rather a regaining of cultural hegemony, which even he admits led to much mistreatment of religious dissenters, women, and gays and lesbians.

So why am I writing about this book?

Well, Dreher has another focus; he writes about the decline of Christianity from within. As he writes:
As bleak as [Notre Dame sociologist] Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
Right, I don't share Dreher's or Smith's concern with "MTD" (here's my take on it), or "liberal individualism," but the cultural of illiteracy of many young Christians, and the decline of the churches in membership is a real problem for Christians, liberal and conservative alike. As is the harm done by unrestrained consumerism, a point on which I agree with Dreher (In fact, I think I go farther than he does, in more than one direction).

And in asking how to respond to a secular world in which Christianity, whether traditionalist or liberal, is in decline, , Dreher has turned to St. Benedict for concrete steps that can be taken.

As summarized by Karen Swallow Prior (with Dreher's endorsement):
The heart of The Benedict Option is the third chapter of the book. Here, after describing the order of St. Benedict and his Rule, Dreher draws from the Rule to identify and adapt principles that we in the church should apply within our modern context:

*Order: recognizing and establishing inner order that is in harmony with the natural limits and ultimate reality created by God
*Prayer: making communication with God through prayer and scripture the basis of daily life
*Work: recognizing that work is not separated from the spiritual life and must glorify God
*Asceticism: resisting the materialism, consumerism and hedonism that drive modern culture and inhibit the spiritual life
*Stability: putting down deep roots where we live, work and worship
*Community: prioritizing fellowship with others over individual interests and freedoms
*Hospitality: being as open to the world as is possible without compromising orthodox faith
*Balance: practicing the prudence necessary to balance not only right and wrong, but competing goods.
We can all agree that that the devil is in the details, and I'm not saying that I would apply all these principles in a way that even resembles Dreher's. But there is something here for liberal Christians to ponder. The values Dreher identifies have something to offer us in our distracted to death society.

Order is not necessarily conformity to external human authority; living with integrity, being one's own best self, in harmony with our individual calling from God, is not a conservative belief, it's a Christian one. Integrating prayer and the active practice of a life of faith reflects a will to live a lie that is a whole, not compartmentalized. Likewise work's reflecting our values. Who we are at home or on the job should not be unrecognizable from how we present ourselves at church.

Asceticism gets a bad press. All too often it means rejecting the good the world, often embracing joylessness as a condition of being "good." But it should not be this. Asceticism is hardly my strong point (nor was it St. Augustine's), but it can be viewed as holding a personal life in balance--not living solely through our nerve endings. To nick a phrase from Robertson Davies, it can mean having the body in the soul's keeping. Asceticism as a turning away from that which hinders us from fulfilling our responsibilities and our potential makes considerable sense to me, but that's a very biblical view--it occurs several times in St. Paul's writings.

Stability and community--I would suggest that these two are, ideally, linked. Committing oneself to a life with others who remain a part of our lives for the long haul, committed relationships in family, in friendship, and in our spiritual friends--those who help us to mature into our God-given potential by their roles in our lives, and who we, in turn, support. C.S. Lewis would not be so quick to suggest de-prioritizing individual interests--in The Four Loves, he makes the point that common interests can be the milieu of the deepest friendships. But freedom? Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty is an illuminating rumination on the subject of freedom, both positive and negative, and the dangers of trying to pare down freedom to one core meaning. Without wanting to ride old hobby-horses, an absolutist valorization of freedom as the sole good in itself can lead to the paradoxical, and to me, deeply repellent vision of freedom purveyed by Ayn Rand. Or, to quote the old song, "If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free."

Hospitality--I am a deacon at a church that practices radical welcome, and has long before it was fashionable, pinned itself to the words of St. Benedict, "“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” It was that radical welcome that brought me in, and formed me to the point that I discerned a call to the diaconate.

Finally, balance. I don't feel a need to add to Prior's definition here.

The Benedict Option is a book written from a traditionalist perspective, and with a deep-seated resistance to much that has, in my view, improved the lives and faith of many who were for too long relegated to the margins by traditional Christianity in some of its crueler forms. Yet, if we can find in ourselves the humility to hear those who strongly disagree with us, there may be something to learn from it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Player Piano Plays On...

At the risk of being unkind, I think it's fair to say that Lawrence Summers never misses the chance to disappoint:
Imagine that 50 people can produce robots who will do the work of 100. A sufficiently high tax on robots would prevent them from being produced. Surely it would be better for society to instead enjoy the extra output and establish suitable taxes and transfers to protect displaced workers. It is hard to see why shrinking the pie, rather than enlarging it as much as possible and then redistributing, is the right way forward.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country to international trade is like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Gates’s robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

None of this is to minimize the problem of job destruction and rising inequality (although it is a major paradox that we seem to be seeing unprecedentedly rapid job destruction by machinery while at the same time observing extraordinarily low productivity growth). Rather, it is to suggest that staving off progress is a poor strategy for helping less fortunate workers. In addition to difficulties of definition and collateral costs, there is the further problem that in an open world, taxes on technology are likely to drive production offshore rather than create jobs at home.
My italics, his emetics.

Summers is representative of that group of managerial-cum-economist pseudo-intellectuals who keep fighting the last war, over and over, despite the fact that they've already lost. According to Michael Morgenstern in The Economist:
In a widely noted study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation. In particular, they warned that most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) “are likely to be substituted by computer capital”, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerisation. They concluded that “recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.” Subsequent studies put the equivalent figure at 35% of the workforce for Britain (where more people work in creative fields less susceptible to automation) and 49% for Japan.
. Stephen Hawking made the same point late last year in the Guardian. The Financial Times puts the percentage of lost jobs in the U.S. from 2000 through 2010 due to automation at 85%.

And what does Summers note? He recommends the same failed nostrums of the 1980s through the present--retraining for the cataract of new jobs that will magically be created, the cataract of new jobs that never seems to come, as America's towns grow more hollowed out and the "rust belt" increasingly lives up to its name.

And it's not like this was that hard to foretell. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano was published in 1952, set in the fictional city of "Illium" (Troy, to you and me). While the details didn't fit his depiction, the overarching blight has, and the lack of any efficacious response, is just as he saw it.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

V & A Onscreen: The Victorians Dramatized

I've taken a bit of a breather from Edward and Mrs. Simpson to catch Edward the King (a/k/a Edward VII), the 1975 dramatization of Philip Magnus's biography of Victoria's son and heir. What's surprising about it is the extent to which Victoria and Albert (Annette Crosbie and Robert Hardy) dominate much of the series.

As the delightfully named blogger Woostersauce 2014 put it:
Crosbie and Hardy as Victoria and Albert (especially Crosbie as Victoria) were the first to portray the monarch and her consort as human with their strengths and flaws as individuals, as well as portraying their marriage being warm and loving despite being punctuated by rows and disagreements. It is possible that audiences in 1975, many of them who were born when Victoria was still on the throne and grew up with the image of her as a black clad widow perpetually not amused, would have been shocked at seeing the monarch being portrayed as a very human woman expressing the same joys, sadness, happiness and fustrations as they did. The same is also true with Bertie; Timothy West in particular portrayed him as a sympathetic and human prince determined to do his duty despite his parents having written him off as a lost cause
Albert, in particular, is given a complexity he might otherwise have lacked by the quicksilver performance of Robert Hardy (most noted for his Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small and more recently his performance as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies). As the Prince Consort, Albert starts in a position of weakness (not unlike Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown), but he obtains a modicum of power by using what would be in Victorian literature feminine strategies--he lets Victoria see that her tantrums have hurt him, he rejoices in the domestic, he even withholds intimacy (Victoria, the morning after a tantrum, plaintively reproaches him, "you didn't come to me last night.").

When their son Albert Edward (Bertie) is born, Albert plans a fanatically demanding, no respite, education for their son. It's portrayed as almost sadistic (Magnus's biography is more charitable) and the frustrated Bertie fails at it repeatedly. Albert keeps him to it, with terrible persistence. But Hardy keeps him from devolving into a Gradgrind. His affection for Victoria (and forgiveness of her outbursts), his enjoyment of their children, gives him a likability that makes clear that his mistreatment of Bertie is not out of cruelty, but misplaced zeal.

Later, when Bertie is an adult, and Bertie has been caught in an affair with an actress (the first of many), the notoriously strait-laced Albert confronts his son. Albert respects Bertie's refusal to tell him who set up the party where he met his mistress, and puts the matter behind them. Instead of the martinet, we finally see the worried father, who gently admits that he has been so intent on training his son, that he has not provided the affection that Bertie needs. He anxiously seeks to reassure Bertie that he has been motivated by love, but admits his failure to articulate it. The two reconcile, with the focus not on Bertie's sins, but on Albert's.

It's an extraordinary performance, well matched by Crosbie's more overtly histrionic masterpiece. Hardy deftly underplays when she goes hard, but scintillates when he is with the children (other than Bertie). They match each other well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Loftus and the Gateway Drug

The thing about Doctor in the House, in any of its various forms, is that the students/young doctors Waring, Stuart-Clark, Collier, and Upton (who disappeared, alas!) were out to subvert the old institution, St. Swithin's, but St. Swithin's was hardly undefended.

It had Loftus.

That's Professor Sir Geoffrey Loftus to you (and me, and just about everybody else).

What made the show work was that the Establishment was not represented by a futile, misery-making traditionalist (that role fell to Richard O'Sullivan's Lawrence Bingham, memorably dragged away from a rugby match for bad sportsmanship by a crowd chanting "Bingham for the pond! Bingham for the pond!" until they threw him--yes, in the pond.)

No, Loftus was funny, snide, in control, and very rarely caught on the back foot. (Except by his wife, the redoubtable Lady Loftus, played by Joan Benham as a superannuated Gainsborough Girl whose slightly faded good looks masked the ironist within; she and Ernest Clark, who played Loftus, crackled together.) A formidable foe. And sometimes an unexpected ally--though seldom an outright friend.

I remember the show fondly, more fondly than it deserves, frankly, because of how good the cast was, and how much fun they were having. It was my first experience of farce, my first Brit Com. And so it began opening a whole new world to a Long Island school kid. Sarcasm and irony became my drug of choice, and Doctor in the House led me to better things--Butterflies, To the Manor Born, and, eventually, P.G. Wodehouse and his novels and stories.

All because I fell in love with the sarcastic jibe, well placed.

After all, if Loftus was all right with it, how bad could it be?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Written From the Right?

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the eternal debate of "is there any good conservative popular culture" has re-ignited. Stretching to find examples of any, the commenters have posited Yes, Minister and House of Cards (UK original). To be frank, as fans of both, I think neither fits the bill.

In both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Nigel Hawthorne's Platonic ideal of the obstructive civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, is a quintessential cynic (see above), while the semi-competent (he fluctuates) is never identified as a member of a political party, although he is clearly leftward of Sir Humphrey. In both series, neither political party nor the Civil Service comes off well. This is not unlike The Thick of It (a spiritual descendant of Yes, Minister), in which both parties are satirized with equal vigor, and everybody is pretty deeply flawed. (Mind you, the store is considerably more gentle in Yes, Minister.) The system is the target, not one side or the other.

House of Cards is conservative, in its origins. But those origins stem from Tory-on-Tory political violence:
Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.
Dobbs now denies that the book was a revenge novel--but the picture he paints of his fellow Tories is darker than even most liberals would imagine. Also, to be frank, Dobbs's book ain't a patch on Andrew Davies's adaptations (and in fact Davies has offhandedly junked key components of Dobbs's plotting, rather hilariously transforming not one but two fatal defeats for FU into triumphs, leaving Dobbs in rather an awkward place in writing the sequels), and Davies self-identifies as a liberal.

For what it's worth, though I am emphatically not a conservative, I think there is good conservative popular fiction. It's never the stuff one thinks of, though, no more than is good liberal popular fiction. That's because fiction written to a thesis is almost always tendentious. It suffers from "try too hard" syndrome, whatever the political slant. But R.F. Delderfield's views are gently conservative, and those views inform his work. But he has a broad enough view of the world that non-conservatives can read his writings without feeling attacked. So, for example, To Serve Them All My Days may have a firebrand socialist minder's son as its protagonist, but his integration into a traditional boarding school as its Headmaster is its story arc. "Pow-Wow" never recants his socialist views, but they become less important to him than the well being of the local community of which he is the steward.

Likewise Simon Raven spreads the satire fairly evenly--he has Labour white hats as well as Tories, though the narrator's asides are pretty consistently conservative--sometimes acidly so. Likewise Susan Howatch's theology trends traditionalist in nature, though, like her fictional mystic Jonathan Darrow, I suspect that she is beyond party affiliation. Another favorite of mine, George MacDonald Fraser, was a crusty old Tory long before he was old. So I think it's fair to acknowledge that there is first rate writing from conservatives. I just don't see either House of Cards or Yes, Minister as fitting that category.

However, most of my examples are from a time of greater consensus. And this brings me back to my earlier point: Tendentious novels usually are less well done than those where character (or plot) drive the storyline. Ideological purity is bad for art. I would suggest that much American conservative writing in the last few years has been just that--ideological, and thus mostly bad art. The current conservative movement's sense of being contra mundum is just not good for the muse, unless held in check, any more than is a liberal sense of grievance. In Phineas at Bay, Sir William McScuttle, was a sincere effort to try to depict a 19th Century Social Darwinist, but, because I didn't spend as much time with him, lacked enough roundness to be entirely successful. (I think I did considerably better with Tories Savrola Vavasour and Frank Greystock).

Conservative art tends to not work because it's conservative before it's art.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Polari? Uh-oh!

So, a little over a week ago, a group of ordinands at Westcott House Anglican theological College kicked up a bit of a scandal by holding a Polari Evensong. Or, as the Guardian explains:
A leading theological college that trains priests for the Church of England has apologised after it hosted a service to mark LGBT history month that referred to God as “the Duchess”.

Student priests at Westcott House in Cambridge organised the evensong service on Tuesday in the college chapel. Advertised as a “Polari evening prayer in anticipation of LGBT+ history month”, it was described as a “liturgical experiment”. Polari is slang used by some gay people.

A prayer referred to the “Fantabulosa fairy” and ended: “Praise ye the Duchess. The Duchess’s name be praised.” Psalm 19 was reworded to refer to “O Duchess, my butchness”.
Oh, as usual, dear.

Not that I like to visit, but Virtueonline (of course_ has the service leaflet. A sample:
Rend your thumping chests and not your frocks, and turn unto the Duchess your Gloria; for she is bona and merciful, slow to wild, and of dowry kindness, and repenteth her of the nana.

O Duchess, open thou our lips.

And our screech shall show forth thy praise.

O Gloria, make speed to save us.

O Duchess, make haste to help us.

Fabeness be to the Auntie, the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy,

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, wold nantl end. Lariou.

Praise ye the Duchess.

The Duchess's name be praised.
You get the idea.

Look, five points for the translation of Psalm 19:2 as "Journo unto journo uttereth cackle." And I'm not likely to join Andrew Symes and Rod Dreher in reflexive outrage, but I have to say, the exercise does seem to me ill thought out and ill advised. First, according to the Telegraph (quoted by VO, above link):
The Principal of Westcott House, Revd Canon Chris Chivers, told The Telegraph that the service had not been vetted beforehand; was not an authorised act of worship; and was "hugely regrettable".

He added: "The service that was produced was completely at variance with the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England."

Canon Chivers said that worshippers -- who included staff and ordinands -- had not been warned of the unorthodox content in advance and only discovered it when they picked up their orders of service.

"People found themselves in a situation they hadn't expected," he said.
In Now that to me raises an issue of the exercise of good judgment. It's one thing to work out a rite of worship for private use, or on a retreat. It's quite another to switch out the authorized liturgy for a new creation that uses alternative language that may be either comical or deeply offensive to those expecting a traditional or at least authorized Evensong, and will certainly be unfamiliar (as Polari largely died out about 50 years ago). It raises the question of what were the ordinands hoping to achieve? Anything more than épater la bourgeoisie? If so, they could have advertised the liturgy well in advance, letting worshippers know what they were in for. Back in 2005, the "Clown Eucharist" held by my good friends at Trinity Wall Street (seriously, I was a parishioner at TWS for many years, and have great affection for the place and people) was flagged in advance to the parishioners, allowing them to make an informed decision whether to attend or, er, go elsewhere that morning.

Now, a quite spirited theological defense of the service may be found here, and an equally spirited (but irenic) reply here. I'm afraid I find the defense of the liturgy less persuasive than the critique. Some of the turns of phrase in the Polari Evensong can be quite amusing, but Evensong isn't meant to be funny. Moreover, the words just don't work; ultimately they don't convey the content adequately, and, frankly, in some places empty the theological content out--the "Son" as part of the Trinity conveys rather a different meaning than the "Homie Chavvie."

Prudence is a virtue, dear ordinands.