Sunday, October 28, 2007

Niebuhr on Hubris

(reflection on a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology and his ideas' applications to current political controversies, on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH.)

Pacifism and cynicism are two ways to avoid deciding. That's an insight from Iraq correspondent Chris Hedges, in context of a discussion of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH (see my links). It strikes me that this is about right, and, along the same lines, there is another theologian's explication of Niebuhr's ideas about the "idolatry" of "purity." We tend to seek purity in ideology, doctrine, the power of the free market, whatever -- and that's (1) not going to happen and (2) going to lead to injustice.

Author Paul Eli has another insight. He wrote an article in ATLANTIC MONTHLY about the phenomenon of Niebuhr's emergence as a voice in recent politics. The theologian has been quoted alike by Senators McCain and Obama on both sides of the controversy about withdrawing from Iraq. Eli concludes that Niebuhr had an outlook that precedes politics and religion. (This same idea, that our real politics go much deeper and are formed much earlier than our party affiliations and our political programs, is what first drew me to novelist Robert Olen Butler.) That's how Niebuhr could be staunchly interventionist in the 30s when the nation was Isolationist, anti-Communist, a founder of liberal Americans for Democratic Action, doubtful about the efficacy of the Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War. Thus his outlook resonates on all sides of issues.

That outlook is encapsulated in his "serenity prayer":

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

The word "hubris" doesn't occur in it, but that word and "arrogance" cropped up a lot in the discussion. That brings to mind one of those Puritans whom Niebuhr mentioned in a clip early in the program. He admired them for many qualities, but faulted them for their belief that God rewarded them for virtue. The most powerful Puritan of all was England's self-proclaimed "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell, who insisted on his way writing to his opponents, without a trace of irony, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ- think it possible that you may be mistaken."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Scott Albert Johnson: Umbrella Man

(reflection on a concert by Scott Albert Johnson and his band at 550 Blues in Macon, GA, this past Saturday night, and his CD "Umbrella Man.")

As a young teacher some 25 years ago, I sat in Jackson Mississippi's St. Andrew's Cathedral, across the aisle from young Scott Johnson's parents Albert and Barbara, who stared wide-eyed as their son sang with other sixth-grade boys, head and shoulders above them, intense and on - pitch. Their faces said it all: "Where did he come from? How did we deserve this?"

Thanks to Scott's drummer Kenny Graeber, another alumnus of my classroom at St. Andrew's School in the 1980s, I made my way down to Macon from Atlanta Saturday night, and found myself just as astonished as Albert and Barbara while Scott led his band, singing and playing harmonica.

Actually, he played multiple harmonicas, and he played the mic as an instrument, too. During a song, he'd grab a different harmonica from an array set out in a box before him, and store it under his left arm while he improvised some melody on the other one, his hands cupped around the instrument and the mic. Then, when he wanted to skip an octave, he'd make a quick trade of harmonicas, and change back again for the next phrase.

His concert included some covers, including a "Kansas City Blues," a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and a song by the Police. I know all the songs on the Police album "Synchronicity" solely because Scott wrote an essay about Sting's artistry back in 8th grade, and gave me his worn-out cassette tape of the album.

Other songs are collected on his CD UMBRELLA MAN, its cover art a play on Magritte's invisible man in a bowler hat, and the famous "Ce n'est pas un pipe," only Scott's parody naturally depicts a harmonica.

The song lyrics, even when they deal with different sides of romance, speak to the theme of longing for belonging. "Spaceship" expresses a longing to "jump off this planet." "Magnolia Road's" inner rhymes tell of returning to Jackson, MS from his career in D.C. -- "Tell me that old story of the power and the glory . . . Give me one good reason to make it through one more season" in his prestigious job, when what he really wants are "things that last." That phrase comes from a song "Hollywood," another evocation of the desire to make it, and the more pressing need to rediscover home.

Another angle on "coming home" is a delightful instrumental track, the only one to include piano, composed by Wynton Marsalis to pay tribute to jazz pioneer King Oliver. Scott shows off his harmonica chops.

Scott lists The Police as a musical influence, and we hear that most clearly in the clean, melancholy, rarefied sound of the guitar at the start of "What About Your Man?" which includes a simple and catchy line, addressed to a lover, that encapsulates the story: "Tonight I'm lonely, because you're not alone."

550 Blues was no place for subtleties. The small crowd grew as the evening turned to morning, and the young guitarist who traded solos with Scott got a lot of attention. Kenny, the drummer, looked more delighted to be there than anyone, twirling those sticks and taking charge of the beat like a gung-ho Marine sergeant. Before long, all the females in the house were dancing. Travis, on bass, offered harmony vocals too, and he showed an amiable presence that complemented Scott's intensity.

Their old teacher was feeling very proud, if a little out of place, like a space man just visiting this late night blues planet.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Every Play a Little Death

(reflection on THE YELLOW BOAT by David Saar, and a radio documentary about a production of HAMLET, Act Five, at a penitentiary in Missouri, re-aired on THIS AMERICAN LIFE tonight.)

A cast rehearses for weeks to make an imaginary world come to life for an audience, and then it's over. Video captures the lines and motions and lighting, but never the tension between audience and actors as both sustain this game of pretending that what we see is real. It's a feat of endurance on both sides of the proscenium. Then it's over. In this way, every play is a rehearsal for death.

This was certainly the case when I saw THE YELLOW BOAT directed by my colleague Katie Arjona (nee Watts) at the Walker School this past weekend. We know at the outset that the boy will die. How can we possibly sit through the process of falling in love with the child and watching him die?

The playwright David Saar visited our school and told my class that he wrote this play about his son -- a hemophiliac who contracted AIDs in the mid-1980s from a transfusion -- to be a celebration of a boy's life, not merely a tear-jerker about a boy's death. To this end, the boy appears as a vivacious spirit who speaks to us as he observes his own growth from conception through early childhood before he drops in on his "parents" and grows to the age of seven. This prepares us to accept the boy's continuing to speak to us following the eventual death of his body.

Young actor Steven Touchton was endearing and energetic as the free-spirited son Benjamin, and equally convincing when the boy withdraws in anger and despair, hooked up to machines in the hospital. Abbey Warren as the nurse "Joy" seemed wise and wholly focused on "finding what's well" in "Benjamin." Audrey Worley and Ian Adams portrayed the parents, whose hesitation was heartbreaking when the boy asks them, "Will I die? Will it hurt?" The chorus portrays children in Benjamin's class, and doctors at the hospital, and parents leery of their children being friends to a boy with AIDs. Actors Evan McLean, Ryan Price, Alisha Woodall, and Michelle DeLong shifted from role to role instantly and believably, each with his or her own character. Evan had the special role of "Eddy," the boy's best friend who, in a hospital visit, confesses, "I've never known anyone who was going to --" (and doesn't say "die").

For me, it conjured images of the hospital rooms in the cancer ward of the University Hospital in Jackson, MS, where I watched another vivacious boy named Chris Allenburger grow through a year's fight with leukemia, only to surrender in the end. Anyone in the audience who had felt a loss was touched by this play. It wasn't wallowing in a death, but rehearsing to live and love up to the last moment, as "Benjamin" does.

Tonight, listening again to the second re-broadcast of a documentary about a penitentiary's production of HAMLET, act five, I was again moved to tears when the 44 year old inmate who plays "Ghost" explains that, from the first time he read the ghost's lines, he was hearing the voice of his victim, a man he killed twelve years before. Giving that man his voice was part of this inmate's penance, we feel. We hear Shakespeare's lines performed by men who have been killers, who have seen victims die -- and Shakespeare's words seem far from poetic in the sense of decorous and rarefied. It all seems direct and close to the bone. When that performance was over, the cast had ten minutes to tear down the set and be strip-searched to go back to their cells -- all that imaginary life that came to full bloom in their final performance for dignitaries and reporters, ended. This program, produced by THIS AMERICAN LIFE on PBS is an inspiration on several levels, regarding the power of theatre to draw men out of themselves, and the power of Shakespeare's invention, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even among killers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What Is Ours?

The mind, Hindus say, is a restless monkey that swings from branch to branch. So true. I'm amused at my own mind for its scrambling to find connections in a tangle of seemingly unrelated words and images that I encountered this past weekend:
  • the annual blessing of animals, including my happy dogs Bo and Luis, in the parking lot of St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, on St. Francis' Day
  • rants about immigration, such rants being ubiquitous as humidity in the air of Cobb County
  • hearing a nun on the radio who interrupted her interviewer 's assertion that "the last election was won on values" to correct him: "on some values -- the morality of sexual relationships is important, yes, but Scripture spends much more language discussing the conditions of the unfortunate. . . ."
  • hearing Bush decrying torture at the same time that he refers to the need for "tough" questioning of terrorism suspects
  • hearing one of the church's finance committee members say, "Stewardship isn't about giving money; it's an attitude towards life"
  • a sermon about Luke 17:5-10, which begins with the faith-mustard seed story and is followed by a seeming non-sequitur about the slaves of a Lord doing their jobs without expectation of reward. Priest Joseph Shippen told how he used to see the first part of the passage as a promise of magical powers to the faithful.
  • a sign on the little church I passed on the way home: "Pray for Rain," certainly an expression of the idea that prayer is a kind of magical incantation to get results in the natural world.
These separate items suddenly came together as links in a chain that I recognize now as central to whatever my personal creed must be. It's something like this: The only thing we truly possess is our own action. Everything else is a gift to be cared for, and that's so it can be shared. We are to do what's right in faith that it will turn out the way God would want, but that's not to say "in faith that we'll get what we want."

So, applying the elements of this creed backwards to what I've seen and heard this weekend . . .

. . . blessing the dogs isn't magic to keep them healthy another year, but a statement and personal reminder (and, just fun -- and a good connection to others in the church)

. . . my money isn't mine alone; and, contrary to the conservative writer who mocked the application of the Bill of Rights to non-US citizens, those rights are not ours alone. The universality of those rights is asserted in our founding documents, and those rights should be recognized wherever we have authority over people -- suspected terrorists and illegal immigrants and prisoners in our penitentiaries included.

. . . pray for resolve, for stamina, for insight, for wisdom -- not for rain.

I wonder, if we really trusted to what we know is right (as Bush knows in his heart that torture goes against both our Christian and humanist values), how we might deal differently with those prisoners in Guantanamo? Think how our founders trusted in free speech and the open market of ideas. We trust free markets in economics. Part of my creed is trust in doing the right thing, rather than trusting in power that's guarded by arms and fences and exclusions, all predicated on keeping what's ours to ourselves.