Monday, April 23, 2018

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare


I hadn’t seen this play live in years - since before kids. My wife and I (or was she a girlfriend then? I forget) saw it at Bakersfield College, in the rare year they performed their plays indoors, with seats on most sides of the stage. I remember two things about it. First, there were a few actors who were college students then who we saw over the years in other venues - it was kind of a starting point for some local theater people behind the scenes too. The second was that the homoerotic elements were played up pretty heavily.

Seeing it again, years later, at The Empty Space was a rather different experience. In Bob Kempf’s directorial vision this time, the farcical elements came to the front, as did the viewpoints of the two central women. In addition, rather than young folks getting their start, this play featured young actors who have paid their dues in smaller parts over the past few years getting a chance to shine in lead roles.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies - some believe it was the first one he wrote. Already, a number of Shakespeare’s devices and themes are apparent. There is the young woman who disguises herself as a boy, the conflict between the bonds of friendship and the lure of romantic love, and love making people do really silly things. In general, the language isn’t as amazing as in the mature Shakespeare works, but it has its moments - including a delightful denouement.

Valentine and Proteus are best buds, just starting off in the world. Their names are symbolic. Valentine is the faithful friend and faithful lover of Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. He goes to Milan to expand his horizons, meets Silvia, and attempts to win over the Duke, who would rather she marry the vacuous and cowardly Thurius (Brent Starrh as a ditzy cowboy.)  Proteus means “changeable” in this context, and he certainly is. Supposedly deeply in love with Julia, he falls in love with Silvia on sight, and then finds himself betraying his best friend’s plan to elope with Silvia, so he can pursue her himself. Meanwhile, Julia misses Proteus, so she disguises herself as a boy, takes her maid along, and goes to find Proteus, only to find him mooning over Silvia.

This all could end very badly, but this is a comedy, so it comes out all right in the end - but barely.

One of the things that struck me about the play the first time is the, um, strong bond between Valentine and Proteus. In some ways it is an echo (perhaps intentionally?) of the description of David and Jonathan from I Samuel, where their souls were “knit together,” and David would lament after the death of his friend that his love for Jonathan was “more wonderful than the love of a woman.” Make whatever you will of that, but it is the same with Valentine and Proteus. They are lifelong friends, and their bond is essentially greater than any other. That is why it seems that Proteus doesn’t agonize much at all about betraying Julia. No, what causes him the most agony is that he betrays Valentine for the sake of Silvia. I mean, this does kind of make sense - his love for Julia is pretty new compared with his life friendship. But still...anyway, that part wasn’t really played up in this version, but the lines themselves remain intriguing, as is the reconciliation at the end. Valentine is much more magnanimous than Julia - she accepts Proteus grudgingly and under duress.

Also interesting is the way that the two couples are matched. Valentine may be unexpectedly infatuated with Silvia, but he is a faithful lover throughout, never wavering in his affection for her, and never believing ill of Proteus until he sees the betrayal with his own eyes. Silvia is likewise faithful. And not in a “stand by your man” way either. She heaps witty opprobrium on Proteus for abandoning his own love for her, and makes it clear she will stay true to Valentine no matter what. (She even wishes herself devoured by wild beasts rather than rescued by Proteus.) The two are a match. But so are, in their own ways, Proteus and Julia. They are both too passionate for their own good, and too volatile toward others. Proteus can’t control his passions, and they lead him to betrayals. Julia abuses her loyal servant Lucetta and refuses to listen to her sensible (and witty) advice. (Surely the servants get the best lines in Shakespeare’s comedies…) You can imagine Valentine and Silvia being a power couple, seamlessly taking over for the Duke in due course, and ruling well. Julia and Proteus, on the other hand...you can just see the dishes flying.

Julia gets one of the best scenes in Shakespeare, at the end. Still disguised as “Sebastian,” she admits to never delivering a certain ring to Silvia - a ring which she gave to Proteus in pledge of her love. When Proteus asks to see it, she gives him the one he gave her as his pledge. Proteus is a bit slow in the uptake, and he doesn’t see it.

Proteus: But how cam’st thou by this ring? At my depart
I gave this unto Julia.

Julia: And Julia herself did give it me,
And Julia herself hath brought it hither.

In this production, between her two lines, Julia removes her hat and lets her hair fall. “And Julia herself hath brought it hither” is delivered with such a look of venom, the audience reacted audibly.

Immediately afterward, as Proteus is stammering for words, Julia gives a meaningful glance at Silvia - who has had her back all along - and delivers this marvelous line:

Julia: Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths,
And entertain’d ’em deeply in her heart.
How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root?
O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush!
Be thou asham’d that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment—if shame live
In a disguise of love!
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Mic drop right there.

 Shelbe McClain as Julia disguised as "Sebastian."

I won’t quote all of it, but there is also a series of marvelous scenes featuring Launce, Proteus’ unreliable servant, the comic relief of the play. Launce has a dog (a real dog in this production), who is, um, even less reliable than Launce. After all, when Launce attempts to give said dog to Silvia as a gift, Crab manages to stink up the place, start a dog fight, and pee on a woman’s skirt. Oh, and Launce’s discussion with Speed, Valentine’s servant, about a woman (s)he wants to marry. Shakespeare’s lowbrow moments are all too funny, I will confess.

A bit about this particular production is in order. The setting was essentially 1950s in somewhere western to midwestern. Which meant the soundtrack was predominantly Buddy Holly - I’m not complaining about that! Shakespeare’s comedies can work anywhere, as far as that goes, so the anachronism wasn’t grating. (In fact, the Utah Shakespeare Festival version of Comedy of Errors, set in the old west, was perfect - all that slapstick was right at home in a saloon town.)  

Valentine and Proteus were played by Nolan Long and Carlos Vera, respectively. Both have played a variety of bit parts over the last couple of years, but neither had played a lead in any of the productions I have seen. I have mentioned them, however, as actors to watch, because they showed promise in their limited scenes. I thought both did quite well. Long showed admirable gravitas as Valentine, but was expressive as well. Vera has always tended to play his roles with a bit of an edge, so it was interesting to see him play the lover instead. While some scenes called on his sturm and drang, he showed a softer touch in others. Both Long and Vera are young - I hope they stick around locally.

 Nolan Long (Valentine) and Mystie Peters (Silvia)
TES publicity photo

The lead female parts were also played by young actors. I know Mystie Peters has had small parts in a number of plays locally, and she is active behind the scenes as a board member. She took on the role of the more serious Silvia. In contrast, Julia was played by Shelbe McClain, who has a knack for the kind of not-quite-under-control emotionalism for this part. (See, for example, The Three Sisters earlier this year.) McClain really connected with the audience in this one, delivering her wounded pride and fury with both clear diction and razor-sharp fury. As I noted above, her reveal at the end was well played.

 Shelbe McClain (Julia) and Carlos Vera (Proteus)

Also noteworthy were the three servants. All three were played by Empty Space regulars. Cory Rickard has been in so many local productions, I have completely lost track. (Most recently, as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, but I know there are many more.) As the sarcastic Lucetta, she made a great foil for Julia. Speed was portrayed by Claire Rock, another regular (and personnel director for TES) - she stole her scenes last year as Tybalt. This year, she got to play straight (wo)man to the goofy Launce. Speaking of Launce, Victoria Lusk took on that role - and didn’t let the dog steal the scenes, which isn’t easy with a really cute dog. I didn’t hardly recognize her - I last saw her as a very blonde Inga in Young Frankenstein. Back to brunette, with an aviator helmet as her main costume element, she looked quite different. But no matter. As usually the shortest actor on the stage, she plays big whatever she does, and she was hilarious.

 Kiki (Crab the dog) and Victoria Lusk (Launce)

I should mention one of the challenges of modern staging of Shakespeare. Back in Shakespeare’s day, women were not permitted to act. All parts were played by men and boys. (Which makes for some pretty funny jokes, actually.) But, in our modern era (meaning after the theaters reopened once Cromwell died…), there are an abundance of talented female actors and too few parts in most Shakespeare plays. Thus, The Empty Space (and others around town) have usually made some substitutions. There are essentially two approaches to this. One can dress the women as men (in a reversal of Shakespeare’s time) and have them play “male” parts, or one can change the part itself to that of a female, and go with it.

Either works, but the second does bring another question. Do you change pronouns or not? In this production, it was done both ways.

In the case of the Duke, Angela Poncetta (another TES regular) played the Duke as a female. This meant that in one scene, when she catches Valentine in his plan to elope, she talks about wooing an eligible man the way Valentine might woo a woman. This is interesting, naturally, because it gives a full gender role reversal. The powerful woman courts the coy man, who is hidden away by his relatives. It is a great example of how sexist ideas can often be laid bare by a simple gender reversal.

 Angela Poncetta (the Duke) and Brent Starrh (Thurio)

But in the other instance, the gender was kept the same. Launce is played by a female, but dresses sort of like a man, but not so much that you can suspend disbelief. Rather, one might say, Launce is a woman, but refuses to conform. Fair enough, but then, in the scene where Launce is considering marrying a mail-order bride (more or less), you get both the hilarity of the scene - and a potential gay relationship played straight up. (But then remember they were all guys originally…) And the thing is, this isn’t really incongruent in a Shakespeare play, where plays on gender and sexuality are everywhere.

We took all the kids to this one - we take our littlest to some, but not too many of the plays we go to. Everyone enjoyed this one, which is a testimony to the way TES is able to bring the stories to life through the acting, not just Shakespeare’s wonderful language.

As I have said before many times, The Empty Space is a bargain, and part of a vibrant local theater scene. Come on out and see this play, and check out the solid lineup of productions planned for the rest of this year.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Immigration Part 5: The Openly Racist Goals of the Trump Adminstration

"The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and Respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment." ~ George Washington

***

This post is part of my Immigration Series.

In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.
In the third part, I detailed the racist history of immigration restrictions dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present.
In the fourth part, I looked at the realities of current immigration law, which provides no legal path to entry for the vast majority of those who wish to immigrate.

***

Let me start by mentioning the elephant in the room:

Donald Trump campaigned and has governed on the nativist platform of the 1920s KKK.

You do realize that, right? It’s not that hard to see - just read some history. This article is a good place to start. The most consistent policy of the Trump administration has been to restrict immigration, and ethnically cleanse America from as many brown people as he legally can.

You can see it in his termination of legal status for Salvadoran immigrants. (They are here with our permission, under a portion of the law granting status to those fleeing disaster or violence in unstable countries. El Salvador is still a mess, and sending these people back would certainly end up with many of them dead.) You can see it in his “shithole countries” comment. You can see it in his termination of DACA (replacement of which he has held hostage until Democrats agree to his preferred immigration restrictions - see below.) You can see it in his decision to end legal status for Somalis here as refugees. You can see it in his claim that third world countries are sending us rapists and drug dealers. You can see it with his alarmist characterization of groups of refugees from South and Central America as caravans of invaders. And, of course, you can see it in his obsession with building a giant overcompensation for small “hand” size wall to keep the dirty brown people out.

Every time he opens his mouth (or tweets) regarding brown skinned immigrants, it is to denigrate them and stir up fear and hate against them.

So, I’m sorry, he is thoroughly racist, and bears personal animus against non-whites. It’s pretty darn obvious.

But let’s look at his policies, because there is strong evidence that his policy goals are in fact driven by racism - and would have a racist effect.

***

The bottom line of the Trump Administration's policy on immigration is this:

End the vast majority of LEGAL immigration. And end virtually ALL immigration from the third world.

When you hear references to “merit based” immigration, that is what is meant.

How about we take a test? Under the version of proposed legislation the administration endorsed last August, prospective immigrants would need to have at least 30 points in order to qualify. Time Magazine put together a nice little online test, which you can take here.

By the way, I would not qualify, despite being fluent in English, having a professional degree I earned in the United States, and being relatively young. A few years ago, I would have qualified, but I am now too old to be desirable. I would have qualified after I graduated from law school, but only if I had a solid job offer before applying. That’s not that easy - legal jobs are not an automatic. And, if I intended to come here and hang out my own shingle, then forget it.

Would you qualify?

Now here’s the thing. I am a highly qualified prospective immigrant compared to most. For example, let’s say I had a bachelor’s degree I earned (with my hard work!) in a foreign country, speak excellent English, and am in my 20s. I even have an offer of a job at the US median salary. Do I qualify? Not even close! Or what if I have a high school diploma from another country, speak good but not excellent English, and have an entry-level job offer. Do I qualify? Nope. Barely halfway there. And don’t even imagine trying to get in without a diploma, with marginal English, and a minimum wage job waiting.

It’s pretty obvious who would be let in, isn’t it? Immigration is for the rich. People from wealthy nations (mostly white), who had the economic privilege in that country to earn a graduate degree, learn perfect English, and have a job offer here paying out well above the median wage. Wow. I can’t see most people having ANY shot at immigrating legally.

And that is the point.

In fact, you can see this demonstrated by both Trump and those he surrounds himself with.


Here are (former and current) advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller talking about how legal immigration - including that of skilled workers - is the real problem, and that we need to basically end all immigration.

Oh, and let’s not forget the times Steve Bannon (and fellow white supremacist Steve King from Iowa) praised the neo-Nazi novel The Camp of the Saints, which envisions the overthrow of (white) civilization by immigrants and native-born brown people. (Note too that Sessions, even though he hasn’t specifically mentioned the book, uses the same ideas in his rhetoric on immigration.)

You can see it everywhere in the rhetoric of Trump and those around him. An appeal to fear about the “Browning of America.” Kind of like Steve King and his “you can’t rebuild a civilization using other people’s babies” comment.

This leads me back to the question of DACA. A large majority of Americans believe justice and fairness require that we accept those who immigrated as children, regardless of their documented or undocumented status. Trump created the crisis in the first place by terminating DACA before a replacement was prepared. He now has refused to support a replacement unless it comes with a big appropriation for his wall, and a change to a “merit-based” immigration policy on the lines outlined above.

Basically, he’ll send the kids back unless he gets to end legal immigration from Mexico. Yeah. Classy.

And so I return to my original point: The Trump Administration policy on immigration is to end nearly all legal immigration - and essentially end the immigration of brown people.

Sorry, that’s racist. And it always has been.

The face of racism in modern America.
***

Just a note here: while anti-immigration sentiment is nothing new, it gained currency in today’s GOP initially through the Tea Party movement. Opposition to immigration - particularly by brown people - was a central plank of the movement from the beginning. Although I didn’t leave the GOP until 2013, I was already having second thoughts once the Tea Party came to prominence and begin to take out moderate Republicans in the primaries.

This worried me in part because I was a Californian during the battles over Proposition 187. (For those unaware, California allows citizens to place proposed laws on the ballot - it requires a ton of signatures - so that voters can approve or disapprove them.) Prop 187 was an anti-immigration bill that sought to cut off undocumented immigrants from public services. This included some pretty draconian stuff, such as turning undocumented immigrants (including children) away from health care, public schools, and requiring schools to ask about the immigration status of parents of US-born children. It also required government workers to turn in immigrants to the Feds when they applied for benefits, and so on. It wasn’t good.

I am embarrassed to admit that I voted for it. (My first election at 18.) I am ashamed of that vote. I knew better, but was kind of in the thrall of Rush Limbaugh at the time, and was - to put it mildly - ignorant and immature. I would never vote for such a law today. I look back on that vote as one of the times I have knowingly violated my Christian beliefs, and I deeply regret it.

Anyway, the law passed with a pretty good margin, despite warnings from the federal government that it would harm immigration and law enforcement by driving law-abiding immigrants further into the shadows, deny children health care and education, and not really accomplish anything.

The courts struck down the law soon after it was passed, so it was never enforced.

But what came after is more interesting even than that. The California Republican party went all-in on the law, making it the centerpiece of its political platform. Now, 24 years later, the Republican Party is nearly irrelevant in California state politics. With the exception of The Governator’s tenure - and he was both an immigrant and a moderate - California has been essentially a one-party state. I don’t think that is a particularly good situation, but California Republicans seem to have no interest in actually taking positions that a majority of Californians hold. The inevitable demographic changes haven’t helped the GOP, shall we say. California is majority minority - whites are less than half the population. By choosing to antagonize Latinos, the GOP guaranteed its irrelevance for at least a generation, and likely more. I believe the GOP at the national level is on the same path. Their numbers have become increasingly white - and old. Sure, the electoral college and gerrymandering may preserve their power at the national level for a while yet. But their course doesn’t seem sustainable. Also interesting is that Prop 187 appears to have shifted the attitudes of white voters away from the GOP as well. I am among those white voters who have left the GOP in its new era of xenophobia - and it seems unlikely they will woo either me or my children back.

***

Speaking of which: during the campaign, pretty much every pro-Trump evangelical I spoke with cited Trump’s immigration policy as the main reason they supported him. ‘Build the wall. We have way too many “Mexicans” here already. Stop the browning of America.’

After a year of the Trump Administration, the only promise he has consistently fulfilled is to deport and antagonize immigrants. And, hisapproval rating with white Evangelicals is 75% - far higher the general public - and the highest it has ever been. I think a reasonable conclusion to draw is that Trump’s racism and xenophobia ARE IN FACT a core value of white Evangelicalism.

Which I one reason we left. And the main reason I will never darken the door of an Evangelical church again. And I will certainly never take my children there. We don’t need to swim in that moral cesspit.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Source of book: Borrowed from the library



It is difficult to know how to describe this hauntingly sad book. On its face, it is fantasy. The setting is post-Arthurian England, with only an ancient Gawain left of Camelot. There are fantastic creatures, a dragon, and magic. But it doesn’t really read like fantasy.

On another level, it is a parable - and a pretty chilling one at that. It is also a love story of sorts. And a story of lost and broken love. It is a quest. But one for which the goals are not revealed until the end, and even then, answers are lingering in the mist, rather than crystal clear.

Axl and Beatrice are two elderly Britons, married for a long time, but unable to remember their past. And it isn’t just them. The entire country appears lost in this mist of forgetfulness, with only the occasional memory peeking through the dark.

They set off on a modest quest: to find their son, who lives somewhere in a village...in that direction. Soon, they meet up with a mysterious Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy, Edwin, rejected by his village because of his dragon-bite wound. They too are on a quest, but Wistan isn’t about to disclose it. Sir Gawain too has a quest - to kill a dragon whose breath appears to be causing the mental mist.

As events unfold, it appears that, somewhere lost in memory, Gawain, Axl, and Wistan have met before, but nobody can remember why or how.

I’m hesitant to say much more, because it would spoil the twists and turns.

I do, however, want to talk about the underlying theme. Forgetfulness in this book isn’t merely personal. It is collective, and it is an intended forgetfulness. Britain is a society which has forgotten its bloody origins. The mist obscures the memories, but the bones are (literally in this book), lurking just below the surface of those beautiful green meadows.

But don’t think this is just about Britain. If we look back far enough, each and every one of us has a genocide in our background somewhere. It is the sad reality of the human race: we are vicious and violent. One of the things that has struck me about the stories in the Old Testament is just how much genocide was considered normal in those days. But then, when you think about it, when has genocide not been considered normal. Pretty much just the last couple hundred years, at least in Enlightenment theory? But our own American history starts with a genocide, and even right now, too many of my white countrymen seem all too comfortable with ethnic cleansing. This is us, alas. The human instinct toward tribalism, hatred, and violence, that we struggle to shake even as the best of us try to transcend. But even as we do, it is impossible to entirely forget the foundation of bones on which we rest.

This is the chilling core of the book. As any historian of this period could tell you, the post-Arthurian period (whether or not Arthur existed as a person is a different matter) was the beginning of a series of bloody conquests of the British Isles, in which the culture of the Britons was largely buried along with their bones. Each wave of conquerors would yield to another in time, until the island, like its language, would become a hodgepodge of its history.

Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for The Remains of the Day. I must confess, I have never read that book - or anything else by Ishiguro. I rather suspect this book is a bit uncharacteristic. However, the writing is beautiful and evocative. My one complaint is that the plot seems to meander, and the individual incidents are not always clearly related to the theme and plot - or perhaps, I missed some of the connections, which is possible. This is one haunting story, though, and I suspect it will stay with me.



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman


Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I can’t even remember how this book ended up on our list. I am guessing it was off an article on recent children’s books back in 2015, because it isn’t on our Newbery list. However, on the list it was, and it worked for our traveling audiobook series. 

 
The basic setup of the book is a Magic Realism sort of plot. Young “Twig” Fowler lives with her mother in the small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts. Okay, not just with her mother. Her older brother James lives with them, but nobody knows he exists. Back 200 years ago, a failed romance between one of their ancestors and a young witch named Agnes Early led to a curse put on the Fowler men: they all grow wings.

Then, the descendants of Agnes Early’s family move back to her old cottage, and Twig becomes friends with Julia. When Julia’s older sister, Agate, discovers and falls in love with James, they all decide to try to figure out how to break the curse. Oh, and there is also a forest that is habitat for endangered owls and a subplot around the attempts to develop the woods. And a bit about Johnny Appleseed.

I would characterize Nightbird as decent, but not spectacular. The plot isn’t the most compelling, and there are some holes in the resolution of various issues. The best part by far, however, was the portrayal of the friendship between Twig and Julia. Twig has been isolated for years because of the secret, and she finds herself both desperate for a friend and yet terrified of actually becoming vulnerable. Fortunately, Julia is persistent and doesn’t play catty games.

The other friendships are intriguing. There is a longstanding relationship between Twig’s aunt, the town historian, and an ornithologist. Are they just friends? Maybe a bit more? The romance between Agate and James, although only a small part of the story - we never really see it from their perspective - is also fairly believable. Finally, the friendship that develops between Colin and Twig seems promising. Alas, the book is too short to really flesh that one out, and one is left wondering how the book would have gone if less time had been spent on the curse and the mystery of its origin, and more on just the friendships.

I’m not really sold on the audiobook version, narrated by Jenna Lamia. I realize the main character is fairly young, but I guess I am used to voices with a little more heft in my 12 year olds. (My wife and daughters have always had deeper - and more assertive - voices.) Not a bad job, just not my favorite.

This book was pleasant, and had its moments, so I would say it is a worthy addition to a reading list. However, reading it back to back with Richard Peck, it seemed a little less so by comparison.  


Friday, April 13, 2018

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


Source of book: I own this.

Anne Bronte is the forgotten Bronte sibling. Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Charlotte (Jane Eyre) are well known for their striking and successful novels. Their brother, Branwell, is at least remembered for never amounting to much and drinking himself to death. Poor Anne is as little remembered as the two older sisters, who died of the family curse (tuberculosis) in childhood. 

 Anne Bronte as sketched by her sister Charlotte

However, Anne too was a writer and poet. Agnes Grey, her first book, is largely autobiographical, and feels like an early effort, rather than a great book. Anne took a series of jobs as a governess during her late teens and twenties - it was about the only work available to a respectable middle-class woman at that time. It was not, shall we say, a particularly enjoyable job.

In this book, she tells of the two families she worked for longest. The first involved younger children who were little sociopaths. Anne doesn’t pull any punches here, even though she writes in the style of her time. These are not nice children, and they are the product of thoroughly dysfunction wealthy parents. The son, in a telling episode, enjoys killing baby birds. Agnes objects and interferes, only to be reprimanded by the mother, who says, “You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience.” To mom, the amusement of a child takes precedence over the suffering of lesser creatures.

The strong point of Anne’s writing is evident in this section, as she has a keen eye for psychological detail. I have met children - and parents - like this over the years. A good shorthand would be “trust fund babies,” and our current president is a prime example of the lack of empathy and decency that is created when children are taught to consider their inferiors to be expendable and created for their amusement.

This arrangement does not last long, for obvious reasons. The rest of the book is concerned with the second family, and with Agnes’ romance. Because you have to have a romance. (And since Anne never did, she had to write one into her book.)

The second family is also highly dysfunctional, but in a less pernicious way. The eldest daughter is a great beauty, and enjoys toying with men - at least until she gets married to a rich, but unpleasant man. She regrets this marriage, but, no help for that. The second daughter is a tomboy, given to hanging out with her father and other men, swearing like a stable hand, and being as uncouth as possible. There are two boys as well, but they are sent away to boarding school, so they really don’t come into the story much.

This second family is interesting in part because the real life Anne formed relationships with the children they are based on, and kept in contact long after she left employment. I thought the characters of the daughters were well written and complex.

Agnes Grey also serves as somewhat of a defense of Anne’s parents and their choices. In the book, a woman born to (moderate) wealth marries a poor clergyman, and is disinherited for her trouble. Agnes then follows her mother’s path and marries a poor - but kind and decent - clergyman. In real life, there is no evidence that Anne’s mother was disinherited exactly, but she died of uterine cancer a year after Anne’s birth. While her father attempted to find a second wife, he never succeeded. Instead, his late wife’s unmarried sister came and lived with the family. Upon her death, she left a modest estate to the children, permitting them to write, rather than work as governesses. So there wasn’t quite the bad blood as in the novel. However, it does appear that there was a certain amount of second-guessing their choices.

As I noted, this book feels a bit uneven, like many first attempts. Even Charlotte, writing after Anne’s untimely death, defends the book while acknowledging its weaknesses. The romance feels a bit tacked on as well, and Mr. Weston feels undeveloped as a character. (Anne, like Charles Dickens, seems to write her own sex better than the opposite.) However, there are other parts of the book that are excellent. As I noted above, she shows a keen eye for the characters of the children, and also the arrogance and contempt of the upper classes.

I probably would have read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall if I owned it. I had this one, so I chose it. It is a fairly short and quick book, and not a bad read. The second book, however, is more ambitious, and outright scandalously feminist, from what I hear. Charlotte prevented its publication after Anne’s death, so it remained relatively unknown for years afterwards. This may be one reason why Anne isn’t as well known.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

There is No Such Thing as an Objective, Clearly Correct, Interpretation of Scripture

Just a thought regarding interpretation of the Bible or any ancient text, which grew out of a conversation I had with some friends. The initial conversation was about white Evangelicalism’s inability to show basic empathy for those outside the tribe, but my friends joined in on the question of theology.

My view is that Bill Gothard was right about one thing: morality drives theology, rather than the other way around. It was a need to justify slavery and later Jim Crow that formed American Evangelical theology in the first place, which is why it seems designed to justify cruelty. In my view, thus, the cure isn’t to just try a more literalist or serious hermeneutic - we have to address the underlying evil that drives the interpretation. And that’s how we got off on the question of whether there is one “objective” way to approach scripture (and thus guarantee “correct” theology.) This is my response:


***


While some interpretations are better than others, there is no such thing as an objective, exclusively, obviously correct interpretation. Each of us must grapple with the following points at which subjectivity is inevitable:

1. Our own interpretation as we read. Each of us brings our own biases to a reading. Many of these are ones we are completely unaware of, while a few are ones we know, and can thus attempt to compensate for. Each of us, when we read, interpret certain words and phrases in light of our theological upbringing and tradition. We just assume the meaning of them to be thus and such. Not just the literal meaning of the words, but also the theological meaning of them. Furthermore, we apply the meanings that apply in our culture to our reading. Just as one example, “marriage” as we understand it – even a Victorian understanding – is so different from the understanding under the Greco-Roman Domestic Codes that a person from that era would be unable to recognize our institution as the same thing. Likewise, an observer from the Ancient Near East would be unable to recognize a Greco-Roman marriage as the same institution. So when we see “marriage” in a text, how we apply that to a vastly different situation is by definition an act of interpretation. That is just one example. We do that with pretty much everything we read. To read is to interpret.

And that is even before we get to the real challenge: how do we live in imitation of Christ in our modern world? (And in light of vast political, economic, cultural, scientific, and social changes in the last 2000 years.) Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, this crucial task has mostly been outsourced by Evangelicals to Fox News and Breitbart lately; which explains why “morality” seems to mean sexual moralism, Tribalism, and Ayn Rand economics.  

2. The interpretations of those who determined our theological tradition. For any Evangelical (or Christian of any theological tradition, for that matter) to claim that he or she is reading objectively, without depending on the specific theological and interpretive decisions made by those who founded their tradition is silly. None of us raised in that tradition (or any other) read the Bible with an open mind. We took for granted the teachings of people from Luther to Calvin to Spurgeon to…in many cases Henry Morris and Ken Ham. The interpretations these people made was also NOT objective. They were products of their own time, had their own prejudices, and so on. In many (probably most) cases, the cultural needs of their time and place drove their interpretation. (See slavery and Jim Crow, for example. Or reaction to Darwin.) Far more of what we believe the Bible says is actually what certain people our tradition follows believed it said. So our interpretations are colored by the interpretations of those who went before.

3. The interpretations of those who translated the English version we read. Anyone who thinks that this doesn’t matter displays their ignorance. Translation is an act of interpretation, even for modern texts. (Read two versions of, say Pablo Neruda, or Rainer Maria Rilke, if you have any doubts. Or check out the numerous translations of Inferno as I did in this post.) In every translation, decisions as to meaning must be made. Many of these are relatively uncontroversial, but in certain areas of doctrine, they can make a huge difference. (An example here is the KJV and the use of “deacon” when men are involved and “servant” where women are involved. Same word, different translation. And EVERY translation has some of these.) This isn’t a new problem. Research the Latin Vulgate, or the Septuagint. Each has significant differences from modern translations and the earliest manuscripts. The problem is compounded for ancient texts, because the meanings of words have been lost or obscured in many cases. Some words are unique to the Bible (including some of the ones in the New Testament.) Decisions about what these mean are a matter of interpretation – and controversy. When we read an ancient text translated into English, we are experiencing a layer of interpretation, not an objective reading of a text.

4. The interpretations of the scribes and copyists throughout history – and those who decided what to include in the collection.  This may come as a shock to those used to thinking of the Bible as a monolithic object, but there ARE no originals for the books contained in the Bible. We don’t have the original manuscript of ANY of it. That includes the New Testament, for which the oldest (small fragments) date only back to about 125 CE. Full books date back to no earlier than 200 CE, and some (like the Pastoral Epistles) do not appear until even later. And that is before you get to the question of what actually got included in our version of the NT - and what was omitted. This final process didn’t really finish until quite a bit later. In fact, determining what was “true” scripture seems not to have been a priority. Erasmus in the 16th Century CE put together the first printed Greek New Testament – and he had to make compromises between several versions. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered (fairly recently…), the most modern Hebrew manuscripts we had dated to about 1000 CE. That’s the Middle Ages. We have copies dating back to various times and places. These copies are not identical, and in some cases differ on very important words and phrases. To a historian or anthropologist, this is unsurprising. But it underscores the fact that even copying stuff is an interpretive act. 

 Early fragment (c. 125 CE) from the Gospel of John

 Part of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. 
I got to see these in person when they came to San Diego several years ago. Amazing.

And that is just for the written version. The evidence is overwhelming that the Old Testament wasn’t actually written down until centuries after most of the historical (or legendary in some cases) events would have taken place. Rather, the written documents seem to have appeared in (more or less) their current form around the time of the exile or post-exilic periods, depending on the book. Quite likely, these were edits and compilations of earlier texts (now lost) which were in turn taken from oral histories.

That’s a lot of interpretation right there. Someone (multiple someones, actually) decided to write down the stories. Many other persons edited, compiled, and selected them later. (And yes, this goes for the New Testament too – there was a lot of discussion about what was in or out, and humans made those decisions – an act of interpretation.) In essence, the whole process was a massive, long term project of interpretation. Ancient writers understood this, and, in fact, made changes for theological purposes as they went. (See, for one example, the differences in the histories in Samuel and Kings versus that in Chronicles. There are significant - and intentional - differences.)

5. The interpretations of the authors. Yeah, I know, Evangelicals will consider me a heretic for this one. Sorry. I can’t deny history and, well, the evidence of the text itself. The Bible isn’t a single book, literally dictated by God. It is a collection of books, written over a few thousand years, by humans. Yes, I believe these humans were inspired. (But the meaning of “inspired” is really loaded, isn’t it?) But there are too many disagreements and things that are not factually true for me to believe that they were a literal dictation, which would require a highly fallible God. (This ranges from math to science to history to theology. One of my epiphanies was to realize that the Bible is an argument between different theological perspectives rather than a unified systematic text.) But it should be kind of obvious that the authors themselves interpreted their inspiration based on their own culture and knowledge. Hence, the opening chapters of Genesis naturally are a retelling of an earlier Ancient Near East creation myth. Of course they assume ANE cosmology, rather than reflect a modern understanding of the universe. Of course Saint Paul assumes the fact of the Domestic Codes and the existence of slavery. Of course genocide was considered normal. In my view (and that of many others with a lot more knowledge in the area than me), God has always met us where we are. On a related note, I also don’t believe God has ceased to speak. Revelation didn’t magically end at the end of the 4th Century CE. We still have things to learn about a variety of subjects, including theology, and not all of those things will be in the Bible – any more than modern astrophysics is in there.

So before you assume that you somehow have the correct, objective reading of a text, consider that you are depending on at least five layers of interpretation. Maybe you are correct, but it isn’t inevitable. And there is nothing about your particular time in history or culture that allows you to see more clearly than either those who came before or those who will come after. We will, in my view, be wrong about many things, just as those who came before were. Likewise, by believing that some objective, unquestionably correct interpretation is possible, we make the Bible into an idol, something we worship and serve, rather than seeking to humbly follow Christ. It takes us ever further away from loving our neighbor, and ever less likely to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

***

I understand why Evangelicals fight this so hard: they have a theological - and psychological - need for the Bible to be something it isn’t. They need it to be a literally dictated, completely perfect, instruction book; with systematic theology to be discovered, rules for every situation, and without contradiction or argument. They need proof-texts to show the correctness of their views at every turn - something unassailable to competing arguments - something that will shut down opposing viewpoints.

That’s not the Bible we have. We have a Bible written by humans over at least a thousand years, with competing theological perspectives - indeed arguments. We have horrific Ancient Near East morality - genocides, women treated as chattel, slaughter of innocent children, slavery, and more. But we also have many beautiful things: a passionate concern for justice (including economic and social justice), deeply human stories, a profound poem about the problem of evil, early existentialism, gorgeous poetry, biting satire, and - most important - Christ himself. We have a radical, completely unexpected shift from the Torah as all-important, to a suffering Messiah who renders the very signs of being God’s people rendered irrelevant. At every point, our book is obviously of its time, while retaining (as the best books written do) a timeless quality that remains relevant to us today. Above all, it is a story. A story of God’s interaction with man throughout history - written by the men (and perhaps women) who earnestly sought the Divine.

Seen in that light, the Bible works. Seen as an instruction book, or treatise on systematic theology, it just doesn’t.

But for Evangelicals, their entire theological structure - and their sense of morality - depends on their delusion that they possess the One True Interpretation of the Holy Writ™, and without that, all they really have is their sexual moralism and commitment to toxic Republican politics.

I have come to realize that this is nothing less than idolatry. Bible-olatry. The veneration of an object - and one that doesn’t really even exist.

In fact, what they really worship is their preferred interpretation of said object. They worship their beliefs about God and the Bible.

And I also have come to realize that it is in fact a distraction. If they ceased to worship their interpretation of the Bible, they might have to actually look at the way that they have ignored the teachings and example of Christ - and see how horribly cruel they are to their fellow humans. That part is too uncomfortable to bear. So they fight tooth and nail to preserve their idol.

***

Just a thought here: there have been a lot of really horrid interpretations of scripture in the past. The Bible has been cited to justify the Crusades, witch burning, the Native American Genocide, slavery, the denial of rights to women, the dehumanizing of others, Jim Crow, and in our own time, the unholy political alliance of Evangelicalism and the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan.

Each and every time, many of those who did evil truly believed they had the correct interpretation. As C. S. Lewis noted, the worst form of government is theocracy, because nobody is as capable of doing horrific evil as one who believes he does it in the name of God.

Nothing wrong with theology or pursuit of better interpretations. But history casts grave doubt on the idea that becoming better, embracing good and rejecting evil, is the inevitable result of trying to read the Bible with a more literal, detailed, and hermeneutically “correct” method. If anything, the opposite is true. The more obsessed we become with getting our beliefs right in every detail, the less our faith is focused on following Christ’s example. The more we focus on our theological structure, the less time and energy we have to take Christ’s command to love our neighbor seriously. The more we think of salvation and conversion as a mental agreement with doctrine, the less we are interested in doing for the “least of these” what we would do for Christ himself. Considering that Christ taught that our eternal destiny depended on this, I would think we might at least take that part seriously - and work on figuring out how to put those words into practice in our own world, rather than spend our time arguing about the details of justification. Just saying.

***

By the way, my viewpoint about subjectivity and the five layers of interpretation are hardly controversial outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble. It is actually uncontroversial among serious bible scholars, archaeologists, historians, literature scholars, and so on. Even relatively conservative bible scholars acknowledge this subjectivity. It really is only those who are wedded to their own infallibility as interpreters who need the delusion of objectivity. And, realistically, this is a particular problem for American Fundamentalists, who need this idolatrous view of the Bible as their defense mechanism against modern understandings of reality.

***

So how DO I approach scripture? Well, first, I recommend reading my three part series on Christianity and Culture:


Second, Peter Enns should probably be credited with a significant role in the preservation of my faith over the last 5 years. People like him are examples of Christians who don’t suffer from the Evangelical/Fundamentalist allergy to reality and fact. This recent post gives his five principles for interpretation, and I find them persuasive.


Third, in exploring the way Christians outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble, I discovered that the literalist/theonomic approach is by no means the only way to approach scripture. In fact, it is mostly an historical anomaly. Perhaps my favorite formulation of a more balanced approach is that of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.



Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Each of the four fit together and work together. In some areas, experience and reason provide better information than the others, and vice versa. Our knowledge of the natural world, for example, is better obtained by reading God’s world, rather than the writings of the ancients. On the other hand, scripture is the best source we have for the words of Christ as recalled and written down by his followers. Church tradition can give helpful guidance on how certain issues have been handled in the past, and what has and has not been beneficial in religious observance and Christian practice. Experience is both about our relationship with God in the present, and about how we interact with our fellow humans. Empathy should serve as a valuable source of information - we live in community, not as isolated individuals. In a global world, this means we cannot merely dehumanize others and reject their needs and experiences as irrelevant. It all works together. And each is relevant in how we interpret the other.

Note that the Wesleyan Quadrillateral is no modern, atheistic, relativistic [insert favorite Fundamentalist slur against outsiders here] idea: it came from the devout John Wesley hundreds of years ago.  


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Play it Loud by Brad Tolinski and Alan DiPerna


Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Ever since I saw this book in a bookstore in Sebastopol, I have been wanting to read it. I decided not to buy it, as I have limited remaining room in my library, and thus have tried to limit myself to stuff our local library doesn’t have - or books I anticipate being read by more than one member of my household.

It was definitely worth the read. But for the same reasons I enjoyed it, I doubt anyone else in my family would care.

I started playing guitar in my teens for the same reason I learned drums my freshman year of high school: because it was needed. Violin is and will always be my first and greatest love. I had a passion for it as soon as I realized it was possible for me to learn to play it, and still love to feel the strings beneath my fingers.

But I also enjoy playing other instruments. Because the small church we were attending at the time didn’t have a guitarist, I bought myself a little red electric, a tiny amp, and a chorus pedal, and learned a few chords. I eventually got an acoustic, and some far better instruments and amps, but that was after I had more disposable income. So I care a bit about guitars in general, and electric guitars in particular. I’m no lead player, but I’m decent as a rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist. Plus, I can make that fiddle sing…

(For those who care, current rig: Ovation Standard Balladeer 12 String Acoustic, Yamaha Pacifica Tele style, Epiphone ES-335 Dot. Peavey Prowler tube amp, mostly just guitar-cable-amp. Yeah, I'm a bit of a non-conformist.) 



The authors of this book trace the development of the electric guitar from George Beauchamp’s invention of the first functional guitar pickup - and the “frying pan” electric guitar, through the great names everyone knows, to the present-day garage revivalists playing cheap plastic crap from the 1960s. Along the way, the book discusses revolutionary players such as Charlie Christian, Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Clapton, Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Freddie King, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Chuck Berry - and so many other greats of jazz and rock.

But the real focus is on the instruments themselves. Any guitarist can immediately conjure up the iconic images. The Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, the Gibson Les Paul and SC and Flying V, the Gretsch 6120, the ES-335, the Casino, the Rickenbacker 360, the GEM, the PRS. True devotees will know many more of the historical and modern day axes in this book. In general, guitars get the spotlight, not amplifiers, although these too are crucial to the sound. The authors choose to mention the two that they felt made the most revolutionary changes to guitar performance: the VOX AC15/AC30, and the Marshall stack. It is hard to disagree with this, although I am partial to the old Fenders myself.

The book is also fairly heavy on the biographical details of the men who designed the most innovative and influential instruments. This makes sense in light of the specific focus of the books. Certain musicians - usually the ones whose biographies are less well known despite their importance to the development of guitar technique - also get longer treatments. I mean, everyone knows the Beatles and Eric Clapton - but despite Charlie Christian essentially kickstarting the use of the electric guitar in jazz and blues, fewer people know his name. In this, the authors help highlight the lives of those who suffer from undeserved obscurity.

Another decision that the authors made was to give equal importance to the African American greats who drove the development of the electric guitar and its crucial role in rock, blues, jazz, and pop. From the beginning, white America has had an uneasy relationship to the most truly American forms of music. As early as the 1890s, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak predicted that America would not find its true musical voice until it embraced the sounds of Negro spirituals and Native American music. He would prove to be correct, as Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hip Hop would become the American sounds that have swept the globe.

In the very opening of the book, the authors describe Benny Goodman’s decision to incorporate works by African American composers into his sets, essentially mainstreaming Jazz. But also, a crucial role was played by John Hammond, a talent scout for Goodman and others, who “discovered” Count Basie and Billie Holiday. It was Hammond who found Charlie Christian and convinced Goodman to incorporate the electric sound into his band.

Hammond was a true champion for racial equality during a time when the 2nd KKK was resurgent, and did much to break down color lines. While he obviously couldn’t fix Jim Crow singlehandedly, he did manage to place black musicians in front of white audiences - truly the first crack to show in the wall of segregation. As Hammond put it, “To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”

One of the tragedies of the history of American music is that white musicians would profit far more from African American music than its inventors would. But the silver lining is that music was an important bridge across the gap. For us musicians, music is a universal language, a language that shatters the walls our culture builds, and makes connections that push back against prejudice.

To some degree, this is the story of this book. The electric guitar has always been an expression of rebellion against the old rules, against the old ways of thinking, against arbitrary boxes.

If you are interested in guitars, this book will be fascinating. If you care about the history of music, it will be a pleasant read. Even if you don’t play, you might find something new and interesting in this book.

I’ll end with a quote from Keith Richards:

“Guitar is easy. All it takes is five fingers, six strings, and one asshole.”

***

One of the hardest parts about breaking up with Evangelicalism has been losing the opportunity to play my guitars regularly. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that this part of my life will come back. I cannot see ever attending an Evangelical church again - it’s a bridge too far morally and theologically these days. While mainline denominations aren’t all organs and hymns anymore, they still tend to skew old and traditional. Nothing wrong with that. Worship matters, not the form. But more than that, after the way I was thrown under the bus on the way out, I am going to have a really hard time trusting enough to put myself in a ministry position again. So, realistically, perhaps once the kids are grown, I may have to find some other old farts to jam with for fun.

***

Sorry, that’s kind of heavy. Let’s end with some Ray Stevens: