Monday, February 25, 2013

God's People Grow Up

(Reflection on readings in the Episcopal Church's Daily Lectionary for this date:  Psalm 58, Jeremiah 1:11-19, Romans 1:1-15, and John 4:27-42.  This was composed for a booklet sponsored by The Pilgrimage at St. James', St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Georgia.)

Romans 1:14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians.

A lawyer confessed, "I still think of God the way I did when I was 10." At 40, he had a mature understanding of family, law, and country; but it took a few weeks of our class in EfM (Education for Ministry) for his faith to grow up, too.  

In today's readings, spanning 1000 years of history, we see God's people outgrowing their adolescent view of “enemies.”  First, the Psalmist prays for his enemies to "dissolve ... like snails in slime" (Psalms 58:9).  Later, Jeremiah meets Jerusalem’s enemies face to face at the gate, to pronounce their doom. Then Jesus not only faces the despised Samaritans, but welcomes them, dismaying his disciples. Finally, Paul explains to indignant members of the church that he is "obligated" to "barbarians" as well as to them.  

From "slime" to "obligees" is a huge change in attitude towards outsiders. Was it God who grew more accepting, or did God's people need time to accept that God loves all of His creation?  Then, in the 2000 years since Biblical times, has God continued to spur our growth?   I think history answers that question: When Paul wrote, women were property, slavery was common, and power was both inherited and arbitrary.  So much has changed in ways that even Paul did not anticipate.  

I can't speak for anyone else, but, through the Episcopal Church, my understanding of God in the world has changed -- I would say "deepened" and "grown" -- in ways that I wouldn't have approved when I joined thirty years ago.  Change came partly through study, but more through interaction with wise and gentle parishioners, lay and ordained.  I am still learning to open my mind and heart to people not like me, as we are obliged to do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is Theology Just Inflated Self-Expression?

reflecting on John Updike's review of biographies treating Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.  The review was printed in 1976, and re-printed in a collection of Updike's essays, Hugging the Shore (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.)

I asked a philosophy professor, my friend Susan, what is the basis for any statement by any theologian?   She and I have been reviewing theology from ancient times to modern in the context of the four-year "Education for Ministry" curriculum (EfM) prepared by the University of the South at Sewanee.  Episcopal churches across the country sponsor classes.

She had no ready answer, and agreed with me that each theologian seems to develop assertions based on Scripture (and other theologians) read by the light of personal experiences and temperament. 

Before reading one more chapter in our EfM text concerning theologians Barth and Tillich, I turned to John Updike, recalling that he'd been influenced by both.  As book reviewer, and even as novelist, Updike always seems open-minded.   He judges his subjects lightly by their own intentions as expressed in the subject's own words. He draws our attention to patterns and doesn't have to add much commentary.

After reading a couple biographies, Updike highlights what Barth and Tillich had in common (826).  In broad outline, they shared a lot:  sons of pastors both born in 1886, students in Germany, socialists, lovers of arts, exiles from Nazism.  Both respected "play" as an important aspect of living. Tillich emerged from World War I a "virtual atheist" while Barth, army chaplain,  compared himself to a trumpeter who makes no sound.  Neither was a faithful husband. Hannah Tillich considered mixing his manuscripts with all his porn and letters to mistresses, and wrote of his tantrums whenever she caught him;  Mrs. Barth evidently accepted her husband's  female "personal assistant" and traveling companion into their household throughout their marriage.

While Barth's "last word" was "not a word such as grace but a name: Jesus Christ," Tillich's mission was to be a bridge (his word) between culture and Christianity.  Updike observes, "But a bridge has no content, just traffic" (833).  He quotes Tillich's reflection on being " a dreamer" from adolescence on, with the danger of mistaking "imagination for reality" (832).  It's in this context that Updike opines that, for Tillich at least, theology is just "inflated introspection."  Updike is pretty harsh about Tillich's theology, calling it vague, and giving samples to show that Tillich's "theological affirmations take place at the weakest possible level of the verb to be," as in The Courage to Be.

Updike clearly favors the book about Barth, and also Barth himself, who appears to be a happy warrior.  In old age, both theologians doubted their own value (835)  "Am I a phony?   I fear so," wrote Tillich; while Barth wrote "All the success that life has brought me is no use at all."  Updike agrees, writing --
Theology is not a provable accumulation, like science, nor is it a successsion of enduring monuments, like art.  It must always unravel and be reknit.
Updike neatly summarizes the life's work of both men:
Both confronted the apparent withdrawal of God from the world around them -- Barth by claiming that He was Wholly Other and thus immune to detection, Tillich by suggesting that He was present, weakly, in everything (836).
So far I've been getting my theology from texts about theology, not straight from theologians.  I might think differently if I were to get a stronger personal feeling for these people, as I do from knowing Augustine's life story and Aquinas's lovely lyric "Humbly I adore thee...."  But, theologians from Origen onward seem only to have been fabricating metaphors that are unraveled by critics who find loose threads, and re-knit, in a cycle that repeats century after century. 

Knowing that the cycle is a cycle is valuable; and knowing the source against which all these theologians exerted their imaginations is valuable; and coming up with our own metaphors based on our own experience is valuable -- indeed, it's half of what we do in EfM.  But reading what others in other times came up with to describe their experiences of Scripture?  It's a bit like reading a book of crossword puzzles that someone else has worked through.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Andrew Lloyd Webber: The First Things That Come to Mind

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR begins with a thrilling overture by Andrew Lloyd Webber that I can still hum for you 40 years after I last heard it.  The overture, in turn, is lifted from a thrilling confrontation between Pilate and Jesus, still the most intense passage of musical theatre I know.  At ten, having seen the show and then memorized the 8-track tape recording of it, I resolved to write an opera -- it's still on my bucket list.   I even tuned into the Tony Awards that year to root for SUPERSTAR against the big winner that year, a show called COMPANY by someone named Sondheim who didn't yet mean anything to me. So I'm a fan of Webber from way back.

I recently directed Webber's JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, performed by a group of middle school actors who put all of their energy into the roles, charming the audience.  My bassist (age 13) sometimes jumped up like a rock star, and my drummer (14) added variety.  Playing the keyboards, I was swept along by the bouncy fun of Webber's score, even while I was aware that page after page we were simply repeating the same unvaried, undeveloped snippets of riffs familiar from classic pop/rock songs. 

So my recent production of JOSEPH underscored what I've thought about Lloyd Webber since SUPERSTAR:  Here's a composer with immense facility who, time and again, settles for the facile. 

For example, take JOSEPH.  The story in Genesis gives a composer/dramatist some opportunities for rich layers of feeling: a loving father believes his conniving sons' story that his favorite son has died, the brothers repent, Joseph weeps and forgives them, and concludes, "What you intended for evil, God intended for good." But for those moments in the play, librettist Tim Rice and the composer settled for irrelevant pastiches of a western song and a calypso, and a straightforward repetition of the opening idea that, if you want "to be famous, to be a big success," then  "any dream will do." One lovely balad, "Close Every Door," mentions a "promise" from beyond this world, but that's as close as Rice and Webber get to the heart of the material.   

What else comes to mind with Andrew Lloyd Webber?  I was thrilled by "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" when I heard Karen Carpenter perform it in context, complete with the lead - in of Juan Peron's bombastic recitative and the crowd's insistent chant, "Peron! Peron!"  Excited, I bought the original recording of EVITA. But then I saw it, and felt embarrassed for the performers, who expended all that sweat and sound for nothing:  A girl from the farm becomes serial mistress, sleeping her way to the top.  What was I supposed to care about here?     I memorized the LP of CATS, but walked out at intermission during two different touring productions, so bored that I spent the first acts scribbling in my program all the ways that the choreographer found ways to stage the dancers rolling, leaping, kicking, lining up, circling....  What was the point?  I saw JOSEPH in Washington and thought, "My kids and I could write something this good in a couple hours."  I eagerly bought the cassette tape of the PHANTOM score when it first appeared, but when I popped it into the car's tape player, I blushed to hear something so obvious as the opening A-minor chord slipping down in half-steps and then the stupidly irrelevant and inappropriate disco-pop song that follows -- "The phantom of the opera is there, inside your mind."   (I did like the operatic pastiches, though).

I loved the REQUIEM and the VARIATIONS.   The variation that turned into  "Unexpected Song" moves me every time I hear it, though the lyrics (added much later) fumble the title's analogy -- "Like an unexpected song / That no one else is hearing."  Huh?

I bought the CD for SUNSET BOULEVARD with Glenn Close as star, and then saw a touring production with Petula Clark, who brought humor to the role of Norma Desmond.  I enjoyed the show, a "beauty and beast" variation in which the aged has-been movie star is beast and the handsome young screen writer is beauty.  I've listened to it again tonight, and I'm thrilled again by the momentum of the opening sequence, and I admire the efficiency of the composer as he recycles the same tunes over and over.

The same year that SUNSET was a hit, Sondheim's PASSION told the same story of an attractive young man beset by an obsessive ugly woman.  Both make a listener uncomfortable; Sondheim with Lapine looks deeper than the creepy side, while Lloyd Webber and his collaborators settle for the obvious "echh" side with pity for the celebrity who's lost her fame.

I'm interested in some of Lloyd Webber's other projects.  I eagerly listened to ASPECTS OF LOVE, which some critics compared to Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, but it seemed bland.  WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND got pretty bad reviews, but I was interested in the premise, taken from an obscure 50s movie about kids who mistake a fugitive for the second coming of Jesus.  THE BEAUTIFUL GAME sounds interesting, a musical about soccer and the troubles in Ireland, but it, too, failed to catch on.  I don't recall what it was that kept me from ordering the CD, but I retain the impression that, once again, Lloyd Webber was said to have flirted with something exciting and meaningful, but had settled for the first thing that had come to mind.  My mentor Frank Boggs was impressed by THE WOMAN IN WHITE, but, as so often seems the case with A. L-W., , it was the technical presentation that he lauded.

I read a review of the PHANTOM sequel LOVE NEVER DIES in a London Theatre newsletter, and it praised the music for being Lloyd Webber's best in decades, while lamenting the stupidity of the book.

If the critic is right, then LOVE NEVER DIES is the exception that proves the rule: Lloyd Webber often settles for the first thing that comes to mind.  He said as much when he admitted spending more time than usual,  half a year, on the REQUIEM,   He cuts corners.  He outlines a melody, he sets it to a strong, expressive harmony; but then he repeats it to fill spaces between the big balads or pastiches.

Still, I love watching Lloyd Webber at the piano with Sondheim in a YouTube video, where the two mash up "Send in the Clowns" and "Music of the Night" in tribute to producer Cameron Mackintosh.  It's no exaggerration to say that, between them, these two composers instigated  all of my intellectual life -- whether we're talking about religion, music, lyrics, or aesthetics in a more general sense.  

I can thank Sir (Lord?) Andrew Lloyd Webber for so much.  So "Thank you" is the second thing that comes to mind.