The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Have You Seen the Muffin Man?

[David Hemmings as Charlie Muffin, and Rohan McCullough as MI6 Secretary Janet exploit each other]

Brian Freemantle's Charlie M and its sequels are what I'd call school-of-le Carré espionage thrillers, but they have their own unique flavor because of the downmarket nature of the leading character, the illegitimate, Mancunian Charlie Muffin, whose inexpensive clothes lower-class origin, make him an outsider in the British Secret Service. Well, at last as it has become under new leadership--Charlie was in favor with the previous leadership, which found him in the 1950s, and set him against the Soviets.

But in 1979, Charlie finds himself disposable, deliberately sacrificed by the snobbish new administration in an operation at--perfect location--Checkpoint Charlie. Cheating death, Charlie finds himself unsure who to trust, and how to react...

The first novel has a great final twist that I won't ruin, but suffice it to state, Charlie spends the next several volumes vulnerable to treachery, relying on his professional training, his instincts for danger, and, most of all, his ruthless need to survive.

Charlie has few reliable friends or allies (to the point that the captured KGB spy Charlie had unmasked is probably his most sincere sympathizer), but manages to outplay the toffs who look down on him in their deadly game.

Until he loses.

That's when the series takes a level in quality. Charlie's ruthlessness can be breathtaking, and Freemantle keeps him just the right side of likable. His rapport with several of his foes--they bond over professionalism, and the lack of it among their colleagues--keeps Charlie and the reader wondering who, if anyone, can be relied on.

I'm trying to give you the flavor of the books without spoiling them, but they are quite fun, and startling on occasion. And Charlie--who in the film version of the first novel was played by a wonderfully world weary David Hemmings, with his aristocratic boss played by Ian Richardson--is a rumpled, clever, reverse snob with a chip on his shoulder. He uniquely is an outsider; even George Smiley, for all his dowdiness, has an Oxonian background, was recruited by the scholarly amateurs who in le Carre's novels created the "Circus"--the Secret Service--and joined the right clubs. Even his chronically unfaithful wife, Ann, raised Smiley's social status--as Edith, Charlie's wife, raises his a little. But Charlie's unfashionableness, disdain for his "betters", and fierce refusal to be condescended to (unlike Smiley)--makes him a thorny proposition indeed.

And a damned good read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

"'Til the World Turns Upside Down": Hamilton in 2019

When I first heard the score to Hamilton, I bought it, and would listen to it on my drives to and from Albany. And then....the world was turned upside down politically in ways which have been inimical to my own ideals, and Hamilton's brand of idealism seemed inadequate to the times.

I was wrong.

I am fresh from seeing the show at Proctors in Schenectady, and, as A. Burr and A. Ham could both say, "it blew us all away."

Watching the superb cast--from leads to the ensemble--enact the story, the play's form of idealism seemed just what we need in 2019. There are no easy solutions for the problem posed in Hamilton. Alexander's own harrowing childhood renders him unable to say no to sexual temptation, such is his need to connect. Burr's own similar, though more cushioned past, leaves him a morally empty opportunist, yet one who thinks he can remain friends those he has betrayed. The Revolution's brutality is underscored by the fragility of Washington's army, and the desperation with which he wages war, on the verge of collapse.

Hamilton's own affair with Maria Reynolds, and his effort to salvage his reputation as a public servant by confessing that sin in public reduce him to a laughing stock, cost him Eliza's love (for a time), and, indirectly, lead to his eldest son's death. Other friends die (Laurens), fail him (Washington retires, showing us how to say good-bye, and peacefully transition power, but leaving Hamilton at the mercy of his enemies), or are abandoned by Alexander himself (Lafayette).

So, no. This is not an epic of easy optimism. It is, to use a term I learned from Herman Wouk, idealism dafka--despite expectations, ironically, or paradoxically. It's a portrayal, with wonderful music, lyrics, choreography, and story--of idealism in the face of the odds. In the face of loss, in the face of the possibility of loss so devastating as to be called simply "the unimaginable."

It's a reminder that America is an ideal that has never been fulfilled, but that is nonetheless vital. The mixed race cast, with people of color playing the Founding Fathers, the confluence of rap, jazz, with traditional American musical theater forms reinforce that this story is all of ours. And, as Hamilton and Lafayette remind us: "Immigrants. We get the job done."

Langston Hughes said it beautifully, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is a helluva lot more fun.


But how is it, o Anglocat, as a play?

The answer is simple: excellent. Now, the production I saw was a matinee, with two of the leads--Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton--portrayed by standbys. If not for the slip setting this out in the program, I would never have guessed.
Tré Frazier
brought a strong presence, a powerful voice, and a honed intelligence to the part of Alexander, and Stephanie Jae Park brought a range from fragility to steel to Eliza. Stephanie Umoh was a standout as the strong, witty, flirtatious, but fiercely loyal Angelica Schuyler, as was Peter Matthew Smith, by turns foppish, menacing, lubricious (his delivery of "my sweet, submissive subject" is only marginally less creepy than the 50 Shades series), and petulant as King George.

I can't improve on the Albany Times-Union's praise for "Josh Tower as a complex, sympathetic Aaron Burr; Paul Oakley Stovall playing an imposing George Washington; Bryson Bruce, foppishly flamboyant in different ways as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Jon Viktor Corpuz as the antislavery activist John Laurens and Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, whose death by duel predated his father's similar fate by three years."

The Ensemble is almost always in motion, the dancers playing parts (Redcoats and rebels, audiences to street oratory and presidential cabinet meetings (Epic rap battles!); they give the scenes a depth and complexity that textures the experience--we are watching symbolic living history, not a diorama.

How is Hamilton in 2019?


Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Forum on John’s Gospel

Between the 9:00 and the 11:00 services at St. Bart’s We have an event, known as the Rector’s Forum, where various speakers address issues relating to the Church, its mission, or the issues of interest to members of our parish. This summer, the clergy at St. Barts were given the opportunity to speak about various books of the New Testament. I spoke today, on the subject of the Fourth Gospel. Unlike a sermon, this wasn’t pre-scripted, but here, with some slight elaborations, are my bullet point notes:

The Outlier: Gospel According to John:

* What is its Claim to Historicity:

1. Author: Other than John’s Gospel, only Luke’s has some claim to identifying its author, by retrojecting Acts. The attribution requires (not unrealistically) assuming the “I” of Luke in Acts is the author of the Gospel (which is linked ). Mark is anonymous, linked to “John Mark” by tradition, and Matthew to Matthew the Levite by quotations from older works only found in Eusebius’s History of the Church (4th Century CE). The latter fits with the serious engagement with law that is throughout Matthew.

2. The Fourth Gospel claims to be the work of an eye-witness, and tries to prevent against the rumor of its author’s death as an impediment to faith. Jn. 20:2, 21: 20:

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 So the rumor spread in the community[c] that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

See Matt 16:28; Mark 9:1. Luke 9:27 (“But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of GOD.’)

See Browning, A Death in the Desert,

What happens when “there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?”

(According to Abp Temple, at xvii Browning’s poem was “the most penetrating interpretation of St. John which exists in the English language.” See his Readings in St. John’s Gospel)

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Antisemitism: Address the Wm McD Tully line that John’s Gospel reflects the “divorce between the nascent Christian movement” and Judaism; NB: from Oxford Annotated Bible that the “Jews” referred to were the authorities, not all Jews. But call out harm done; see Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword.

*How about the lengthy discourses?
As both Temple and John A.T. Robinson argue, judging the Gosepls by the standards of modern biography—quotes are exact, everything fully sourced—is imposing a 21st Century standard on a 1st Century document, one that was handwritten and hand-copied, too.
More applicable standard that of ancient biography, under whic, as Temple notes “the convention of historical writing in the ancient world approved the attribution to leading personages of speeches expressing what was known to be there view in a form which is due to the historian. In such compositions, key-words actually spoken would naturally be spoken.” (Readings, xvii) ; See also John A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John (1985) at 31.

*Different from the outset:

(a) Matt: The genealogy of Jesus, from Adam to Joseph;

(b) Mark: Isaiah on the Messenger, and John the Baptist;

(c) Luke: Refers to other narratives by “many” and writes an orderly account to the “Most Excellent Theophilus” (Aareal person of high rank? Or an ideal Christian?)

(d) John: Begins with poetry, or, rather a hymn.

I. Per Ed L. Miller--a complete hymn by the same author of the Gospel and the Epistles , with internal aesthetic literary coherence and internal theological logic. 4 sets of couplets, “suitable for antiphonal recitation and bearing a carefully ordered theological point.” [1]

Miller: use of Logos, “Word,” as a Christological title from the body of the Gospel through the ambiguity of the Prologue of the First Epistle to the clear identification of the λόγος with Jesus Christ in the Gospel Prologue. According to this proposed trajectory, λόγος and (perhaps) ῥῆμα are already used “in a theologically and christologically suggestive manner” in the body of the Gospel,3 where the two terms refer to the preaching and teaching of Jesus. [2]

The Logos Hymn makes multiple theological points, which the rest of the Gospel unpacks.

The Logos Hymn, verses 1-5:

1 In the beginning was the Word,/ and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things came into being through him/, and without him not one thing came into being./ What has come into being

4 in him was life,[a]/ and the life was the light of all people.

5 The light shines in the darkness/ and the darkness did not overcome it.

Verses 6-8 describe the role of John, the “witness to the Light.”

Verse 9 makes the first major theological claim: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Verses 10-13: The Mission of Christ, the Rejection, the Faithful

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him.

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,

13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Verses 14, 16-18:

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us/ and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth. . . . 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. /

17 The law indeed was given through Moses/ grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

18 No one has ever seen God/ It is God the only Son,[e]who is close to the Father’s heart,[f] who has made him known.
Even in the NRSV bland, accuracy over euphony translation, you can hear that verses 1-5 are more rhythmic, though the later verses retain some poetic drive.

Paul Anderson notes the theological positions being staked out in the prologue, and elaborated on in the narrative:

Throughout the rest of the Johannine narrative, these three themes are displayed in dramatic ways.

1. While Jesus as the Christ came into the world, some received him, but others did not; they preferred darkness over light ( Jn 3:18–21), they claimed “we see” (while being blind, 9:41), and they loved the praise of humans rather than the glory of God (12:43).

2. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples come to follow him (1:37–51), the Samaritans and Galileans believe—including the royal official and his household (4:1–54), and so do many of the Jews (or Judeans?)—as do also the Greeks that had come to Jerusalem for the festival (8:31; 11:45; 12:20–21). In that sense, Jesus reaches out to sheep within his fold but also beyond it, gathering those who receive him into a new community of fellowship and love.

3. On the cross, however, the full glory of the Son of Man is revealed, and as he is lifted up, all are drawn to him (12:32). And, in the presence of Jesus, something of the divine presence is encountered—an experience that continues on in post-resurrection consciousness (20:16–28). Encountering the glory of the flesh-becoming-Word is thus not only attested in the Prologue; it is documented in the narrative. [3]
II. “The Charter of Christian Mysticism” or “Anti-Mystical”

W.R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (1899): The first three gospels are not written in the language of mysticicsm….The Gospel of St. John. . . is the charter of Christian Mysticism. Indeed, Christian Mysticism, as I understand it might almost be called Johannine Christianity.” (P. 44)

Abp William Temple: Readings in St. John’s Gospel, First and Second Series (1945): “In the proper sense of the word ‘mystical’, as signifying a direct apprehension of God by the human mind St. John is strongly anti-mystical. But he is even more strongly sacramental.” Matter is the vehicle and instrument of the Spirit, and a reverence for the sacramental without the ethical and material component ;eads toward magical thinking.

III. Different Timeline & Different Ethics:

Temple: Synoptics appear to take place over 1 year; John describes 3 separate Passovers.

The Synoptics weight ethics more highly, John emphasizes, again and again, belief in Jesus as the Christ.

IV. The human touch: Jesus as put upon son at the Wedding at Cana; Mary as confident, slightly bossy, Mother. The Woman Taken in Adultery/The Samaritan Woman

V GBS—explain the Preface to Preface to Androcles and the Lion, GBS’s familiarity with form-criticism, well-read commentary of each Gospel and its concerns—an easy in to biblical scholarship.


[1] The Logic of the Logos Hymn: A New View, 29 New Test. Studies, pp 552-561 (1983).

[2] Ed. L. Miller, “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 112/3 (1993) ; see also Latham, Joseph Michael, "Word of Life, Word of God: An Examination of the Use of the Term Logos in the Johannine Literature" (2013). Dissertations, 528.

[3] The Logic of the Logos Hymn: A New View, 29 New Test. Studies, pp 552-561 (1983).
Ed. L. Miller, “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 112/3 (1993) ; see also Latham, Joseph Michael, "Word of Life, Word of God: An Examination of the Use of the Term Logos in the Johannine Literature" (2013). Dissertations. 528.

[4] Paul N. Anderson, "The Johannine Logos-Hymn: A Cross-Cultural Celebration of God’s Creative-Redemptive Work," in Creation Stories in Dialogue: The Bible, Science, and Folk Traditions (Radboud Prestige Lecture Series by Alan Culpepper), eds. R. Alan Culpepper and Jan van der Watt, BINS 139 (Leiden: E.J. Brill 2016)--uncorrected proofs.

Monday, August 12, 2019

“Where Your Treasure Is”: A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church
August 11, 2019

[Note: This sermon got away from me; I went on a long extemporaneous digression where I commented on the themes expressed here, but not quite as written here. It’s that rare instance where I genuinely can say that the meat is here, but the feeling in the room was very different.]

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be
if it be not now,
yet it will come:
the readiness is all

We’re nearly at the end when Hamlet speaks these lines. The young prince of Denmark, looking for proof that his father was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has taken the throne that should be Hamlet’s and married Hamlet’s mother, has not been subtle enough. King Claudius knows that he’s given himself away, and that Hamlet must die before he finds proof.

So Claudius makes a bet with Laertes that Hamlet is better with a sword than he is, and has set up a seemingly innocent fencing bout between the two young men. The passions run deep, however; Laertes blames Hamlet for his sister’s suicide after Hamlet has rejected her love, and Hamlet knows this. Still—an innocent fencing bout? A chance to repair his friendship with Laertes. What could go wrong?

Hamlet’s instinct tells him that something will most assuredly go wrong—he knows that this is not the innocent sport it seems, but that, in some way he can’t see, it is a deathtrap.

His friend Horatio tells him to back out, to not take the risk. That the auguries—prophetic circumstances here—don’t feel right. He too fears a trap, though he can’t spot it either. Trust your fear, Horatio says, and let me tell the King you aren’t well enough to fence.

Hamlet refuses, musing on his instinct that tells him death is near.

He says:
Not a whit; We defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.

And then he continues with the words that have haunted me for decades, let alone in preparing to preach on this Gospel:

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come,
it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all:
since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

Hamlet means only to acknowledge the inevitability of death and the end of his quest for justice. And his acceptance that it is out of his power to add a second to his life. And so—be ready, he says, and he fights Laertes, who has a poison on his blade, kills Claudius and dies.

The quest is over.

The readiness is all.

And yet these words have rung differently for me ever since I first saw Hamlet onstage in my college days. And they fit this Gospel, despite their gloomy origin.

Because what can we take from a Gospel lesson, recorded fully two thousand years ago, that depicts Jesus telling the disciples that the Father will give them the Kingdom, but reminds them in several ways and analogies that they “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Over two millennia have passed since those words have spoken, and we still wait for the Kingdom, still wait for the Son of Man. We live in a world that is overcrowded and overheated, in a world teeming with injustice and cruelty, and the world is still all too often divided bother against bother, father against children, children against parents.

Has the promises failed? Will they ever be fulfilled? Or will we just slowly cook ourselves into extinction?

Last week, we heard the story of the Rich Fool, who put his faith in his goods, and said to himself, I will say to my soul, soul: you have may goods laid up for your many years. Eat, drink, and be merry. But that very night, Jesus tells us, his life was required of him, and he died. And so it is, Jesus adds, with those who are not rich toward God.

Today, we are told that the moment is coming so we should sell our goods, and give alms. More we are told to make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

And then the key point: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus in not naïve. He is not promising us that He will return in our lifetime, and magically solve all our problems.

In fact, in the ten verses between last week’s Gospel reading and today’s Jesus expressly tells us that we cannot add an inch to our height, a day to our lives, and that we should Stop. Worrying. About. IT.

Hamlet has a piece of the truth right. The readiness is all. But he is seeking to attain the wrong kind of readiness. He stoically embraces being ready for death, instead of embracing readiness for life. That’s why his story is a tragedy. As a former English major let me remind you that a tragedy is not a sad story, but a story of an otherwise great person, who is brought down by a flaw—technically called the tragic flaw—in her or his own makeup.

Hamlet’s tragic flaw isn’t his hesitation. It isn’t his desire for justice. It is his turning his back on life—rejecting the love of his mother, that of Ophelia, rejecting life itself in order to play the avenging son. The tragedy flowers out of the melodrama, and the brilliant young man throws his life away in the exact wrong way.

Wait—am I saying there’s a right way to throw away your life?

Yes, I think I am. In between last week’s Gospel and this week’s, Jesus urges us to consider the ravens, who eat what is gathered by people, the beauty of the flowers that are more beautiful than the clothes of the greatest Kings or Queens.

And then today he tells us that what we value defines who we are. Where we stand is who we are.

That our treasure is where our heart lies.

That’s the danger of possessions. They can possess us. They can load us down, with the need to take care of them, protect them, insure them. I remember when I was a boy, we never used the good furniture in the living room, unless company was coming. Keeping the furniture fresh and new was more important than enjoying it. My grandmother had her furniture wrapped in heavy transparent plastic, so that the upholstery would stay good-as-new. We’d slip around on it, shifting uncomfortably on it, and making odd noises as we did.

Things are made to be used. And, ideally, shared.

We should carry them lightly, not reverentially. And sharing them is part of what Jesus is talking about here. But it’s far more than that. Every morning that you wake up, you have a choice. You can approach the world outside as filled with opportunities to love and to serve, to help and receive help. Or you can view it through the lens of anxiety and fear.

Now before those of you who are, like me, more pessimistic by nature, start thinking that you are failing, remember what Jonathan Larsen wrote in Rent: “I’m a New Yorker. Fear’s my life.”

I get that.

So I’m not saying your in-built temperament will keep you from walking the Way—which was how the early disciples described the Jesus Movement, not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. But I am saying that the gloomy auguries in your mind are not your friend.

Like Hamlet, push them aside.

Find your equivalent, but here’s mine:

Not a whit, we defy augury:
there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

The readiness for life. Adopt that, and live it.

Laugh hard.

Run fast.

Be kind.

You might just find that the Kingdom has been all around you all the time; that it is in you, and around you.

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