Thursday, December 26, 2013

Syncretic-Crazy Christmas

Those nuts at Lutheran Satire take on various December 25th bogus legends in their own inimitable way:


We in the Wingate household finished off Christmas evening, as the goose roasted, watching the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. Of course, everyone should sit down and read the Dickens original at least once. It is quite short, and displays Dickens's distinctive prose and his knack for quickly sketching characters to best advantage. But it is a story which cried out for stage and movie treatment, and received it early. IMDB records upward of twenty film versions; Wikipedia claims twice that many.

Naturally there is dissent over the the "best" version. The more eccentric versions I have never seen, or seen but once. And really, the thing should be seen purely before one sees the take-offs, so I'm not going to address Mr. Magoo or the muppets, or any of the several musical versions. And especially I will not speak of Jim Carrey.

This leaves us with four principal versions which tell the story straight and (mostly) entire, and of them, I must confess to never having seen the Reginald Owen version from the late 1930s, so I cannot offer an opinion on it. The next version is the purist's favorite, the Alistair Sim version of 1951. It has much to commend it, starting with Sims's bitter and defining performance. But it has one drawback which for me puts it out of the running, and it is a technical issue: it looks absolutely dreadful. Every copy of it I've ever seen has looked to have been printed on old cigarette wrappers found in the ditches and gutters of postwar London. It is terribly murky and the night scenes (which are many) are often all but indecipherable. And I must also say that acting has come a long way: Sims may be truest to Dickens's rather flat characterizations, but the relentlessly nasty Scrooge of this version comes across these days as something of a caricature.

Skipping to the last of the four, there is the 1999 Patrick Stewart version, expanded from his one-man show stage version. Now, this has a lot going for it in places. Joel Grey is cast to perfection as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ian McNeice's Fezziwig is delightful, and the brilliantly telescoped scene wherein Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a whirlwind tour of celebrators is not marred by the knowledge that the singing of "Silent Night" in English is an anachronism (Young's translation was fifteen years in the future). But there are some terrible flaws, and unfortunately one of of them is Stewart himself. He is not even slightly convincing as a Victorian; the least he could have done was put on a period wig for a hirsute age. Worse, though, is the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who looks like a Star Wars Jawa with severe Marfan's Syndrome. This is the emotional crux of the story, and it is, for me, fatally marred by bad effects and lighting. So much of the rest is good that it is a shame when this scene comes along and spoils it.

Which brings me to the 1984 Scott version. This may not be the best version at every single point, but it is never bad. And when it is good, it is wonderful. Scott makes no attempt at a fake British accent and is utterly convincing nonetheless; he looks and feels the part from end to end. He is Scrooge as the consummate and ruthless businessman, worshipping the "golden idol" so thoroughly that he isn't in the slightest aware of his adoration. And yet one sees from early on that there is a human soul locked away inside. What really makes this version shine, however, is the superb supporting cast, not neglecting Shrewsbury, which puts on a very convincing simulacrum of 19th century London. David Warner, cast wildly against his later type of overbearing villainy, is a delightful Bob Cratchit. George Woodward's Christmas Present is by turns jovial and bitterly pointed. Roger Rees as the nephew Fred is perfectly cast in the sort of role he was born to play. One sees considerable care in costuming and makeup, so that one can date each scene from the changes in hats and hair (with some slight anachronisms in a brace of musical instruments). The effects, are, I must admit, a bit dated, but effective. And finally, of course, there is Christmas Yet to Come, a huge, howling, menacing man/puppet, never fully seen and moving like no human. It is easy to see why Scott's Scrooge is terrified of it.

Dickens's Carol is rather the yang to Charlie Brown's yin when it comes to talking about Christmas outside the nativity narrative itself. Linus puts the narrative in front of all else; Dickens's tale fails to mention Jesus by name at all, nor is anyone seen in church in all the celebrations. The only real reference to the gospel narrative is an odd remark of Tiny Tim's, about Jesus' healing miracles. In this modernist age one must take care to recall that Christmas isn't just about the Spirit of Giving, but is first and foremost (as Linus says) a recollection, an anamnesis of the incarnation as real, earthly, historical fact. But A Christmas Carol's realization of the parable of the sheep and goats has its place in the season too; and if you care to see it told, it seems to me that you would do well to seek out Scott's embodiment of the storied miser.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Watching with Joseph

This being Year A in the lectionary, Joseph, the father of Our Lord, makes some of his rare appearances in the readings. Joseph is one of the more fugitive figures in scripture, making his first appearance in the first verse of Matthew (as part of the genealogy) and his last at Jesus' visit to the temple at age twelve (which we shall also be privileged to hear this year), where he is not named but may be assumed to be one of the plural parents mentioned. Then he disappears; Mary is seen in several episodes and is present at the crucifixion, but Joseph is never heard from again, and the last references to him are oblique, when Jesus is called "the carpenter's son."

It is thus presumed in the legenda that Joseph died before Jesus' ministry began, and he is typically depicted as an older man. Some tales claim that he was a widower and that therefore James and the other brothers and sisters were from this first marriage, thus making possible the perpetual virginity of Mary. In truth, we do not know: even the Catholic Encyclopedia deems these stories "unreliable". Nor does Joseph feature prominently in the history of saintly devotion, or for that matter much at all. Mary's cult traces back as far as we can trace anything; a true cultus of Joseph is not found until the 1300s, and took another century to really catch on; the day of his observance only dates back to the 10th century.

Traditionally, in the nativity story, we are associated with the shepherds, taken by surprise in the fields. But I have come to think that Jesus' earthly father is a better image for most of us church goers. The nativity is not, after all, a surprise to us; but we are both participants and bystanders. Here is Joseph, who finds out about the blissful event first through rumor and then through a dream; and now here he is towing his far-too-wife down to Bethlehem, and arranging lodging in what space is to be had. And now the holy night arrives, and it is all too likely that he is, at first, reduced to standing in the street (or nursing an anxious beer in the tap room) while a midwife handles the sacred birth. (Saint Bridget's account may be safely set aside as devotional.) Attending the mother and newborn, he must also deal with the surprise visitors from the fields, a duty repeated when the magi make their visit. And then must take the family to Egypt, and thence, finally, back to Nazareth. Presumably also accompanies the mother and child and the various ritual visits to the temple.

And that is all. Simeon receives the promised vision, but Joseph leaves the story when it is quite incomplete. And is it not so with us? Our own stories are writ and each such book closed, but though we pray "maranatha, come Lord," it has become clear over the years that the divine "soon" is in a great fullness of time, which none of those living is perhaps destined to see, for glory or grief, until the day comes when all graves yield and holy judgement, dread in mercy, is worked to its conclusion. We are as often the bystanders, witnesses to grace, as we are the grace-bearers (the charitokos, as it were) or even midwives; and often enough we do not see the end of grace as it is worked out. And yet these are honorable and saintly roles. The cultus of the Holy Family is deserving of our consideration, for Jesus was as much in need of a father as of a mother.

Therefore let us wait with Joseph for the sacred birth, and worship with him the holy child. And let us receive with him the visit of the shepherds, and marvel at the wonder of the incarnation, even if we, like him, sleep before the last glorious morn, laid to rest in the promise and hope of that day's fulfillment.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Church of the Unchecked Brain

A particular Episcopal catchphrase has attracted attention of late due to its appearance in the letter to the church from the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church: "you don’t need to leave your mind at the door." Robert Hendrickson wishes we would stop saying this, and so do I, and his reasons are largely my reasons for saying so.

But let me be blunter about it. "Checking your mind at the door" is a code phrase signifying on the one hand the anti-intellectual climate ascribed to the Southern Baptists, and on the other the rigid dogmatism ascribed to the Roman Catholics. Now, there's no doubt that we do serve as a refuge from some people who find either extreme impossible to live in as a churchman. But that isn't our mission; it's merely a beneficial side effect of the way Anglicans are supposed to do theology. We are supposed to have a theological tradition which ranges over the entirety of Christian thought, but which lacks a magisterial commitment to a single program dictated by the hierarchy.

But what it means in practice is that we have made our church, in far too many places, the chaplaincy of a particular and narrow segment of the upper middle class: college-educated and in a perpetual state of rebellion against a perceived (and generally assumed to be politically conservative) establishment. Therefore "not checking one's mind at the door" means that we have priests and even bishops telling people that they ought not to believe in core tenets which they then recite as part of the Creed. It means, in practice, that the concrete notions of the Anglican tradition are deprecated in favor of the alien notions of Tillich and his fellow modernist travellers. It comes to mean, in practice, "we don't believe any of that primitive stuff." As Hendrick observes, "much of our culture already thinks that we have checked our brain at the door simply for believing at all," so we've positioned ourselves perfectly for those who want church for the aesthetic or "spiritual" experience, without those nasty religious commitments.

Thus there is now a constant struggle between those who still have a commitment to the religion of our forefathers, and those whose evangelistic targets are those intellectual progressives who find the Unitarians lacking in poetry, the Ethical Culture Society lacking in God, and the atheists lacking in couth. Increasingly those of a more conservative cultural bent have thrown in the towel because they are held in such contempt and treated as heretics in this supposedly tolerant church. The church has become more narrow-minded and expresses, all too often, the very mental closure that is supposed to be a selling point. And I, too, have experienced the ignorance, the lack of theological curiosity, and the theological rigidity which Hendrick observes among our clergy. Ignorance is not of itself a fault, if acknowledged and if one be open to education, and likewise a lack of curiosity; but to brag about our intellectual tradition while mired in either is hypocrisy, as is the spurious claim to open-mindedness. It all amounts in the end to a class appeal to the kind of person who doesn't notice, because they share the prejudices of the clerisy.

And it is the class signal which is the most bitter. Back in England the Anglican church and its worship were part and parcel of the culture, and both the day laborer and the lord of the manor were expected to worship in the same place under the same rite, if not in the same pew. In the USA we have gradually abandoned this, so that while there are a few of the old colonial gentry who continue to attend out of a sense of noblesse oblige or because they feel it would be too lowering to go elsewhere, our emphasis on being the intellectual church leaves no room for those in the lower classes for whom education is a stigma rather than a mark of social standing. Even our potential college-educated recruits are turned away by our commitment to the intellectual and social program of liberal academia, because they did not frequent that side of campus.

Above all, the self-congratulation in this catchphrase is deeply corrosive to the soul. It stinks of "We thank thee, Lord, that we are not like other Christians." Well, except that we probably wouldn't say "thee", nor "Lord" for that matter, since That Word has fallen out of favor among our class; We are, after all, not only better than those of other churches, but also our forefathers in our own church. This needs to end. It's about time we instead said, "OK, Lord God, have mercy on us for our pride and arrogance."