Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Liturgy from Selected Writings of John Updike

With the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in one hand, and a personal library of writings by John Updike in the other, I pieced together the following worship service.   At the time, around Spring 1987, I was studying with other adults at St. James' Episcopal Church, Jackson, MS, in the program known as "Education for Ministry" (EfM), created by the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee. 

I added for my fellow students this caveat, that this "in no way" meant to replace Scripture or Prayer Book with this one man's work, but only to "evoke some of the thoughts that will occur in tonight's reflections."

*  *  *
LEADER: (from an essay by Updike)
We know that we live and we know that we will die.  We love the creation that upholds us and sense that is is good, yet pain and plague and destruction are everywhere.
PEOPLE:  Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
HYMN: (from Updike's poem Midpoint)
(read responsively by half-verse)
An easy humanism walks the land;*
      We choose to take an otherworldly stand.
The Truth arrives as if by telegraph:*
       One dot; two dots; a silence; then a laugh.
Praise KIERKEGAARD, who splintered HEGEL's creed
Upon the rock of Existential need;*
        Praise BARTH, who told how saving Faith can flow
        From Terror's oscillating Yes and No.
Each passing moment masks a tender face;*
        Nothing has had to be, but is by Grace.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;*
        As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen
FIRST  READING (from Updike's story "The Astronomer," to depict what Kierkegaard called "dread")
We ate dinner by the window, from which the Hudson appeared a massive rent opened in a tenuous web of light....  I felt the structure I had painstakingly built up within myself wasting away;  my faith, my prayers, my churchgoing... all dwindled to the thinnest filaments of illusion, and in one flash, I knew, they would burn to nothing.  I felt behind [the atheist's] eyes immensities of space and gas, seemed to see with him through my own evanescent body into gigantic systems of dead but furious matter, suns like match heads, planets like cinders, galaxies that were swirls of ash, and beyond them, more galaxies, and more, fleeing with sickening speed beyond the rim that our most powerful telescopes could reach.
SECOND READING(from Updike's essay on Satanism)
I call myself Christian by defining a Christian as "a person willing to profess the Apostles' Creed...."  I know no other combination of words that gives such life, that so seeks the crux.  The Creed asks us not to believe in Satan but only in the Hell to which Christ descends.  That Hell (in the sense at least of a profound and desolating absence) exists I do not doubt;  the newspapers give its daily bulletins.  And my sense of things, sentimental I fear, is that wherever a church spire is raised.... this Hell is opposed by a rumor of good news, by an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright.  The instinct that life is good is where natural theology begins.
PRAYERS from the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 385-6
CLOSING: (from Updike's novel A Month of Sundays)
To those who find no faith within themselves, I say no seed is so dry it does not hold the code of life within it...
We are found in a desert place
We are in God's palm
We are the apple of His eye.
Let us be grateful here, and here rejoice.
ALL:  Amen

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Belief in Things Unseen: Views of Trinity and Soul

(Reflections on a sermon by Father Daron Vroon of St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta; a discussion between Krista Tippett and poet/essayist Christian Wiman on her series "On Being" on National Public Radio; and some pages in John Updike's 1986 novel Roger's Version.)

Our young associate rector Daron Vroon eschewed all the usual jokes about Trinity Sunday ("I drew the short straw" is what preachers have said before -- often) and also the usual approach of finding a metaphor to explain the Trinity -- all containing some element of heresy, Vroon explained.

Instead, he spoke of the pleasures of conversation among adults.  There's no agenda, not much information being exchanged, and there's a lot of laughter without a lot of jokes.  He remembered walking in on such conversations during family gatherings.  Our response to the Trinity, he said, should be something like that:  Children  know it's real,  know it's a good thing, know they don't understand it, and  also know that someday, they will be a part of it.

Later, I heard Krista Tippett's 2012 interview with editor of POETRY magazine, Christian Wiman.  Reared a Baptist, he gave up his faith for many years. Falling in love, he reclaimed faith, and then found out that he has a rare, incurable blood cancer.  Their discussion ranged widely, and I heard much that I want to follow up on in one of his books.   But I was taken aback by a little side discussion about "existential angst," and it was Tippett who saw our complaints about "not having enough down time" as our generation's way of expressing that fear of meaningless existence.  Wiman agreed, adding that the idea of "soul" has been replaced by the idea of "self," and we dearly believe that we create meaning for ourselves by projecting the Self  to the public through fame through media, such as blogs, mea culpa.  The soul, Wiman said, is something that expresses itself in personal relationship.  Facebook doesn't count.

He also said something wonderful, quoting old-style critic Blackmur (I've forgotten his initials, but he pervaded my research into Henry James back in the day) saying that literature "adds to our store of reality."

From another angle, a convincing work of fiction by John Updike considers the related question, Is the soul something unseen, apart from the body?  Roger's Version is Updike's riff on Hawthorne's tale of Hester Prynne, her lover Pastor Dimmesdale, and her jealous husband Roger Chillingworth. Updike updates to 1984, probably Boston, and old Roger is a jaded theology professor who is both fascinated and repelled by Dale, a cocksure young born-again Christian who plans to use computers to demonstrate irrefutably God's intelligent design of the universe.  Oh, yes, and Roger imagines that his wife Esther is seeing Dale on the side.  Roger is imagining every sticky detail of one of their adulterous trysts while at the same time explicating heretical Tertullian's strong endorsement of the orthodox doctrine "resurrection of the body."  How, Tertullian asks, in Latin, can the soul be imagined apart from all the organs that give it its defining desires and tastes and expresssions?  Good question.  (Like Flannery O'Connor, I have to admit that I kind of close my eyes during those passages in Updike.  Happily, he italicized the Latin, so I can easily hop over the salty parts to one italic island after another.)

I've followed up on the Wiman reference, and I'm greatly enjoying an interview between him and Bill Moyers available at Krista Tippett's web site.  Here's the link that she provides:

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Desiderata: So What If It's Cheesy?

(Reflections on “Desiderata,” prose poem by Max Ehrman in 1927.)

Is this cheesy?  “You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”  How about the advice, “listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story”?

This morning, I heard a bland reading of these words over an uninspired “smooth jazz” accompaniment.  It's 43 years after I heard the dear old actor Vincent Price recite these words on Carol Burnett’s TV show -- over a soft-rock music track and the gospel choir's refrain "You are a chi-i-ld of the universe!"   In the early 1970s, when hippie counter-culture was being sold over - the - counter, this "prose poem" called Desiderata appeared in little gift books and inspirational posters.  I haven't thought of it much since then.   

But if it’s little more than a compendium of fortune cookie sentiments, well, I’m sorry:  It had great impact on one earnestly agnostic 7th grade boy in 1971.

Back then, hungry for a religion and angry at churchy classmates who relegated my Jewish buddy to Hell for not accepting Jesus, I copied Desiderata in the fanciest script I could manage and made a little shrine around it.   Back then, I was told, it was an anonymous poem from centuries past.  For awhile, that was my religion.

It was good advice.  A  slightly built 7th grade comic book geek who listened to Mama Cass and the Carpenters, painfully envious of the bigger boys who played football and listened to Steppenwolf,  I needed to remember, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Just last week, I decided not to finish reading a novel, saying to myself that I should avoid  “vexations to the spirit.”  Now I’m reminded where that phrase came from:  “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”  Good advice, good reason.

Here’s some more good advice: “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.”   That’s what reading literature and poetry do, and morning prayers, too.  (See my article, "The Power of Liturgy: I've Heard It All Before.")

“But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”  I needed those words this morning, as I fretted about things left undone.

The Seventies are remembered now in terms of America’s retreat from the world because of Vietnam, disillusion with authority because of Watergate, and replacement of supposed Sixties' “idealism” by smiley faces and "Have a Nice Day."    “Desiderata” offered a guilt-free, kind-hearted, ecumenical secular religious view of life.  That was a good side to the Seventies, a sweetness that seems na├»ve to us now.

But who doesn’t need to be reminded of the sentiment in these final lines?  “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Met's Giulio Cesare: Opera in Adolescence

(Reflection on Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare, seen live broadcast in HD to a local movie theatre from the Metropolitan Opera 27 April 2013.   Directed by David McVicar.)
When a seventh grade boy passes through a wide doorway, he's likely to jump up to touch the lintel.  A couple of years before, he was too small and too weak to reach so high, and he loves to try out his new capabilities. For me, a seventh grade writing and drama teacher, my students' trying out their new powers of understanding and athleticism compensates for more irksome and awkward traits.  The Met's production of Giulio Cesare reminds me of seventh graders.  Written at a time when opera itself was young, Handel’s opera displays a seventh grade writer's cartoonish characters, insouciant disregard for credibility, and joyful creative energy.

The energy comes primarily from Handel’s music.  It rocks along in dance rhythms most of the time, and he loves to strum power chords for dramatic effect as much as any heavy metal band.  Like an adolescent musician, he loves to dazzle us with breakneck speed in furious string parts and even in sung lines.  When the songs do slow down, as in the sumptuous duet for female voices at the end of act one, the beat pulses underneath, while the voices sustain long lines that swell and turn in unexpected places.   

The libretto combines favorite seventh grade motifs: revenge, romance, power, and random violence.  The story of boy (spurred by his mother) who seeks revenge is wrapped around a story of a princess and prince who fall in love at first sight.   

For this production, the director let the stage action go wherever the music and words suggested.  Cleopatra (Natalie Desai)’s dances veered between Ruby Keeler and Lady Gaga.  Marx Brothers came to mind in a slapstick competition between Cleopatra and her arrogant brother Tolomeo, and in a seduction scene that involves a bathtub, a bed, and feigned sleep to seduce Julius Caesar (David Daniel).   But we also had gruesome bloody effects for a severed head, battles, and a stabbing, not to mention the spectacle of the literally bloodthirsty mother bathing her hands and her boy’s face in the gore at the moment their revenge is realized.

So the characters are remote; the repetitions in Handel’s A – B – A arias lengthen the opera by 90 minutes; and, yes, there’s cognitive dissonance when soprano voices emanate from three grown men, and when a grown woman plays a boy.   Yet the five hours’ running time passed quickly, and I felt exhilarated at the end.   It was like watching seventh graders showing off on a playground how high they can jump, how fast they can run, how funny they can be.   

Friday, May 03, 2013

Arts in Education: Are the Students Ecstatic?

(Every few semesters, the task of giving the opening address for our middle school's art departmental awards falls to me.  Some previous addresses are here on the blog.  Today, we had a shorter time for our awards because we shared the assembly with Foreign Language awards.)

I am Scott Smoot, and I am happy to share our arts awards assembly with foreign language awards.
I'm happy, but I'm not ecstatic.

I'm happy, because it was foreign language class that made me sensitive to root meanings of words we use every day, and the experience of doing art happens to relate to the root meaning of the word ecstatic.  When something happens by luck to go our way, happy is the emotion we feel.

But an ecstatic feeling, while very pleasant, is something else entirely.  The word ecstatic combines a prefix meaning "out of" with the Latin root relating to status, statue and state.  When we are in a state outside of ourselves, we can fairly call the feeling ecstatic.

Or we could also call it doing art.  Artists must learn to step outside of themselves to see their work from another person's perspective.  For a musician, that means hearing how the instrument blends with others; for a visual artist, it means appealing to the viewer; for a singer or actor, it means getting into the thoughts and feelings of another person expressed in a song or script.    

Today we recognize arts students whom we would call exemplary.  That is, they are good examples of what it takes to make good art.  Exemplary artists concentrate on their business in class, and they use time outside of class to practice or revise.  They ask questions, make changes, and take satisfaction from nothing less than the best work they can imagine. 

Besides showing effort, they have an attitude that I'm calling "ecstatic."  They lose the self-conscious fear of looking foolish or different that can paralyze middle schoolers.  They are willing to listen to music that their peers don't appreciate.  They are willing to put their inner imaginations out there for all to see.  For the sake of making a better performance, they are willing to cooperate with classmates who may not share all the same interests.

They are also willing to be loud,  to be goofy, to cry on cue.   That can make exemplary arts students annoying.  As Mrs. Drew once observed, behaviors that may earn demerits from academic teachers, from arts teachers, earn awards.

We now present these tokens of appreciation to students whose effort and attitude provided examples that raised a bar for the class and inspired their teachers.