Monday, March 31, 2008

King Lear at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival

Disclaimer...I am not an unbiased reviewer (of course, is there such a thing as an unbiased reviewer of theater?). One of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival actors attends our church...the company is housed in a theater a block away from our building....I am generally forgiving of errors in production when a company gives a real honest effort.

And thus I come to my review of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's King Lear. Local theater critic Jackie Demaline blasted the production. While she has a few salient points, I think she missed out on some of the real beauty of the show.

For instance...often we hear that Lear is unjustly betrayed by his elder daughters. The action is driven by Lear's decision to retire from kingship, divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and retain the title and privilege of kingship, while divesting himself of the responsibility. When his faithful youngest daughter refuses to play along with a ritual ceremony of flattery, Lear flies into a rage and disinheirits her, dividing everything between his older, and more devious, daughters. These daughters betray him, stripping him of all his remaining authority, banishing Lear to wander in the wilds in the midst of a horrid storm.

This conflict is usually played up as Lear being a good king who makes a mistake. This production however, brings out the vagaries of Lear's temper, his debauchery, and a little of his pettiness in playing favorites among his daughters. Brian Cromer's Lear is just as skilled of a manipulator as his older daughters. We have no doubt that he was an able and powerful king who by force of will held together a kingdom, but we also see his fragility. So at the height of the storm, when Lear shouts out "I am a man more sinned against than sinning!", we are aware of his lack of insight. The production brings out this ambiguity aptly.

Also the interesting choices in Lear's death. He has just brought the dead body of his youngest daughter onstage, and he wails her loss, a loss that kills him by breaking his frail heart. His final lines are "Pray you undo this button. Thank you sir. Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips, Look there, look there..." and he dies. The typical interpretation is that an attending courtier loosens a button on the dying Lear's coat, and Lear fancies he sees his daughter's lips moving before he dies.

In this production, Lear addresses these lines not to the actors around him, but to something he sees beyond. On "Pray you undo this button." the attending duke of Kent reaches over to unfasten the coat...Lear pushes his arm away, and far gazing says "Thank you sir." implying a transcendent undoing not of a physical coat, but a loosening of the bonds of the spirit to the mortal coil. Then, his gaze fixed afar, as though on some approaching angel "Look on her! Look her lips...." In a simple choice, the play is transformed from a solopsistic view of man crushed beneath the terrors of life to a redemptive view of man transformed by suffering and liberated from his pain to transcendence. This is tremendous! This is daring in a world of nihilistic pessimism.

There is similar ambiguity with the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany... in both we see the capacity of command that would make them a good king both we see the temptations to powerlust...Cornwall falls, Albany perseveres.

The Duke of Gloucester shows the most interesting progression. His early scenes show him to be a somewhat hesitant man...a man who appears to have inheirited his position rather than earned it by victory in battle. He's uncertain and easily led along by his devious son Edmund. Yet we see his steel develop as he gets involved in a conspiracy to support the king....and we see his grim resolve in the face of torture at the hands of Cornwall (gouging Gloucester's eyes out onstage). Blindness gives Gloucester a depth ... a sensitivity to the wrongs that he's done, a despair in the face of the lives wrecked about him, a joy at reunion with the now mad Lear. This production brings out the complexity of Gloucester's hard-won insight.

Kent, meanwhile, carries a nobility about him. From the beginning, I felt that this was a battle hardened man accustomed to speaking frankly with his king and giving good advice. His resignation to keep serving the king, even in the face of banishment leads him to an odd freedom in the face of chaos. He is playful and jesting...even more so than the fool. The fool, meanwhile is all knowing, all seeing. And resigned to the doom he knows is inevitable. They are a fine pairing, playing off each other with subtlety and wit.

Did the production have all means (for every production does). I didn't feel convinced by the fight scenes .... they were well coreographed, but complicated enough to be physically dangerous for the actors (and thus really hard to fully commit to -- I can empathize with not wanting to accidentally stab a company member onstage). Yet the overall impression at the end of the show was indeed one of catharsis....the emotional purging that Aristotle says is the chief end of tragedy.

So I say well played, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival...well played.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Condi Rice comes on strong with race...or does she?

Now what do you make of this...the lead sentence from the Washington Times' Nicholas Kralev's story on Condi Rice's daily press briefing: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States still has trouble dealing with race because of a national "birth defect" that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country's very founding."

Sounds like Condi was giving a speech on race, right? Here's the interesting thing that I think most reporters forget. Most people in the country don't understand how this little game works. Politicians (and staffers) have these press briefings regularly and they answer a whole slew of questions that are fielded their way. Some of these questions may be pertinent to their area of expertise, and some not. But they handle them the best they can. Then reporters digest that material and try to make a story....thus the opening line we have above. 2/3 of the way through Kralev's article we find that it was actually a part of a "wide ranging" interview in which Rice discussed many topics including the Beijing Olympics, the overseas outsourcing of government print jobs, Middle East Peace, the Iraq War, Bosnia, the Macedonia-Greece conflict, North Korea, and Syria's nuclear program.

To the Washington Post's credit, they post a video of the entire interview alongside the article. However in doing some research, I found that the Secretery of State's website also contains transcripts of all her interviews. And it is in looking over the interview that I found that this issue of race was tacked on right at the end of a long Q and A session..... and the question was aiming at a lead in for her to comment on the presidential race (particularly the possibility of her being a VP candidate for McCain) I quote the whole section for your information:

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, I wanted to ask a question that has absolutely nothing to do with any other country. (Laughter.) We're pulling up on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. And regardless of what
race we were or what class we belonged to, it was a devastating time for America, without a doubt. And there's so much talk about race in the race for the White House. What, if any, lessons do you think Americans, as a whole, have learned since then?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you know, it's -- America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race. I sit in my office and the portrait immediately over my shoulder is Thomas Jefferson, because he was my first predecessor. He was the first Secretary of State. And sometimes I think to myself, what would he think -- (laughter) -- a black woman Secretary of State as his predecessor 65 times removed -- successor, 65 times removed? What would he think that the last two successors have been black Americans? And so, obviously, when this country was founded, the words that were enshrined in all of our great documents and that have been such an inspiration to people around the world, for the likes of Vaclav Havel, associate themselves with those documents. They didn't have meaning for an overwhelming element of our founding population. And black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together; Europeans by choice, and Africans in chains.

And that's not a very pretty reality of our founding, and I think that particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today. But that relevance comes in two strains. On the one hand, there's the relevance that descendents of slaves, therefore, did not get much of a head start. And I think you continue to see some of the effects of that. On the other hand, the tremendous efforts of many, many, many people, some of whom, whose names we will never know and some individuals’ names who we do know, to be impatient with this country for not fulfilling its own principles, has led us down a path that has put African Americans in positions and places that, I think, nobody would have even thought at the time that Dr. King was assassinated. And so we deal daily with this contradiction, this paradox about
America, that on the one hand, the birth defect continues to have effects on our country, and indeed, on the discourse and effects on perhaps the deepest thoughts that people hold; and on the other hand, the enormous progress that has been made by the efforts of blacks and whites together, to finally fulfill those principles.

QUESTION: Like running for President, for example?


QUESTION: Like running for President?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, yeah. I think the President, or being Secretary of State or having been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or being the CEOs of some of the most major companies or being the best golfer in the whole world.

QUESTION: I mention it because, obviously, the race has become a major issue this race.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, but I'm not -- look, I'm not going to talk about the campaign, because I don't do politics.

QUESTION: It was a serious attempt.

SECRETARY RICE: It was a very good attempt. (Laughter.) I don't – I am not going to do politics --

QUESTION: Darn, that messed up my attempt. (Laughter.) And I wasn’t even going to ask about the presidency, but the vice presidency. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Barack (inaudible) speech about race -- did you listen to it?

SECRETARY RICE: I did and, you know, I think it was important that he gave it for a whole host of reasons. But look, I'm not going to talk about the politics. What I'm talking about is how -- you asked me about Dr. King and race in America. And I'm telling you that there is a paradox for this country and a contradiction of this country and we still haven't resolved it. But what I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them, and that's our legacy.

My grandmother and my great-grandmother, and my father, who endured terrible humiliations growing up -- and my father in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and my mother's family in Birmingham, Alabama-- still loved this country. And I've often spoken of the Civil Rights Movement as the second founding of America, because finally we started to overcome this birth defect. But if anybody believes that black
Americans love this country any less than white Americans do, they ought to go and talk to people who live under very tough circumstances, sometimes doing menial labor and doing tough jobs, and really all they want is the American dream. All they're focused on is is their kid going to be well educated enough to go to college and have a better life than they had. And one of the things that attracted me to George W. Bush, one of the primary things, it was not actually foreign policy, it was No Child Left Behind. Because when he talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations, I know what that feels like.

And so to my mind, where our understanding of and conversation of race has got to
go. And I mean now, race. Black Americans aren't immigrants. We may call ourselves African Americans, but we're not immigrants. We don't mimic the immigrant story. Where this conversation has got to go is that black Americans and white Americans founded this country together and I think we've always wanted the same thing. And it's been now a very hard and long struggle to begin to get to the place that we can all pursue the same thing.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, I know you have to go. I just want to ask one last question. What does the future hold for you? You say you don't do politics now, but if you could change the things you've just talked about -- race in American, economics,
opportunity -- would you do politics?

QUESTION: And would you consider vice president? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY RICE: Not interested. I’ve been at this, as you’ve kindly said, a long time. It's time for new blood. But look, I will go back to -- first of all, back East -- back West of the Mississippi -- which is where I’m from. There's a reason I'm an educator. There's a reason that the first thing that I would describe myself as is an educator. Because I believe that really is the basis on which we finally bring these two streams together: those of us who were fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents who set us on that path so that I became Secretary of State and my cousin became executive vice president of a major drug manufacturer, and people who are still struggling. And the difference is my parents and my grandparents were able to educate us.

I have worked hard on matters of providing educational opportunity for underprivileged kids. I started a program in East Palo Alto, California, that's -- in 1992. It an after-school and summer academy, called the Center for a New Generation. And the whole idea is that they should have limitless horizons and they houldn't let anybody tell them what they're going to be, and somebody has an obligation to provide them that set of opportunities. But I'll tell you, the more I've been in the national security realm and in the foreign policy realm, I also recognize that it is absolutely essential for the health of our country as a whole because -- and for our role in the world. Because if our people are not educated and don't have opportunity and can't compete in a globalizing world where we're not going to be able to protect, I think that we will turn inward and we'll turn protectionist and we'll turn
fearful. But if it really is the case that Americans can compete and can be educated and can be retrained, if necessary, when that job goes away to do the next job, then we're going to continue to be the leader on free trade and we're going to continue to be an open economy and we're going to continue to welcome people here from other countries, and we're not going to be fearful and we're not going to turn xenophobic. And so I consider the state of education to also be a key national security problem for us, maybe the most important national security problem.

I'll end with a little story, because it goes back to why, you know, why my family was educated and just says something about race --

QUESTION: Can I just follow up?


QUESTION: Do you think that -- you mentioned No Child Left Behind, do you think that turned out the way it was supposed to?

SECRETARY RICE: I think it’s had enormous impact, I really do. And I hope -- you know, I hope it can continue. But look, you can't tell if a child is succeeding unless you measure, and then somebody has to be held accountable if children aren't learning. If you don't hold somebody accountable that children aren't learning, you must believe that they can't learn. And so, I think, the program has had real impact.

But I want to just close with this little story because -- maybe some of you’ve heard it. But -- my grandfather, my father's father, was a sharecropper's son in Ewtah, Alabama -- E-w-t-a-h, Alabama. And for some reason, he decided he wanted to get
book learning. And so he would ask people who came through where could a colored man go to college. And they said, well, there's Stillman College, which is a little Presbyterian school about 60 miles from here, but you're going to have to pay to go there. So he saved up his cotton and he got enough money from his cotton to go to Stillman. He made his way to Stillman. He made it through his first year of school. And then the second year they said, okay, now where's your tuition for the second year? And he said, well, I’ve paid with all the cotton I had. And they said -- he said, but -- well, how are those boys going to school? They said, well, you know, they have what's called a scholarship. He said -- and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then you could have a scholarship too. And my grandfather said, oh, you know, that's exactly what I plan to do. (Laughter.)

And so I always say, my family has been Presbyterian and college educated ever since, because he managed to go to college and then so did everybody else. So that's that. All right. Thank you.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you so much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much.

It's a long quote, but it's worth it to see how the give and take actually works. What is a collegial conversation about a personal topic flows naturally into Dr. Rice's future plans and passion for working in the volunteer sector on education. What gets reported... sound bites about race. (as a sidebar -- here's a link to the Children's education program that Dr. Rice worked on while she was at Stanford.

I dwell on this because it demonstrates once again that we live in a "buyer beware" news environment. Now the reporter didn't deceive, nor do I believe he intended to deceive. He was selecting information that he felt was timely and relevant to the current discussion about race in America. However, people reading the headlines rush to conclusions ("why's she whining about race!" "Oh you've got to be kidding, not her too") without really looking at the context of the situation.

The long and short of it, especially for those of us who comment on public things, is that we have to do our homework a little more. In an increasingly networked world, kneejerk punditry won't work as well as it used to...Ypulse has this interesting article (which I Dugg yesterday) on generation Y's leadership style and their media consumption: "The shift again is from top down or traditional media being "the authority" to everyone or all my friends having just as much authority -- not in creating the news but in filtering the news as well as pointing to the full story." Ypulse links to a New York Times story on this topic -- containing this enlightening quote:

Young people also identify online discussions with friends and videos as important sources of lection information. The habits suggest that younger readers find themselves going straight to the source, bypassing the context and analysis that seasoned journalists provide.

In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on Facebook. On The New York Times’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech.

Simply put....the news reporters and commentators are no longer the gateway. We who seek to comment on subjects must actually add value of having something to people the deeper story...making connections where connections didn't exist before. Summarizing, taking quotes out of context, adding our "spin"...none of these things will be sufficient. We who blog will have to add value.....and therein is the tricky thing. (see my related posts on Skepticism and Citation and Blogging to Learn )

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Off The Shelf: A City Upon a Hill

I've been reading Larry Witham's A City Upon a Hill, a history of how the sermon has shaped public life in America. I picked it up because it was one of Al Mohler's top 10 books for preachers for 2007. I've not been disappointed.

Beginning in Puritan times, Witham's work functions as a snapshot of Christian history in the United States all the way up to modern times. He covers his history through the lens of various preachers and their famous sermons that shaped a given era. Some major overarching themes jump out after reading the book:

1) Religion has always had a voice in public affairs in the United States....always.
2) Pastors have struggled with defining the sermon. Is it a crafted work of oratory, or is it a supernatural event (I tend to think both).
3) The themes of providence, the special design for America, and judgment for faithlessness has run throughout all eras of American history.

Witham also gives some lovely historical tidbits that caught my attention....for instance
* In colonial America, the published sermon was the most popular form of rhetoric. Indeed, the average person would hear 7000 sermons in their lifetime during this era. Even those who weren't members of churches regularly attended.
* Cotton Mather, famed for preaching persecution of witches, was actually a little liberal...he advocated liberty of conscience in preaching style, a "generic" public religion, and scientific exploration and advancement (he was one of the early proponents of vaccination using inert forms of viruses).
* In the early 1800s, Cincinnati was the place for religious oratory: “If preachers wanted to dispute America’s fate, Cincinnati was the place.” (101)
* In the early 1900s, many ministers jumped onto the eugenics bandwagon (but fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan opposed eugenics from the start)
* TV Preacher Fulton Sheen had higher ratings than the opposing shows on the other major networks: Milton Bearle and Frank Sinatra

Overall, it's an interesting read. Of course, there are reviewers who differ. Allen Guezlo writes in the Wall Street Journal that the book is a bland disappointment, not really addressing the essence of what a sermon actually is:
Mr. Witham does not, so to speak, preach. In fact, he tells the story in a carefully bland tone that damps down even the fiery energies that drove sermons
about slavery and the civil-rights movement. He yokes together all this preaching, across four centuries, by arguing that the principal task of the American sermon has been to articulate the country's "civil religion." Having given his book the subtitle "How Sermons Changed the Course of American History," Mr. Witham asserts that the pulpit has been the point of origin for a host of what he considers particularly American traits and values. These include: "America as a chosen people," "manifest destiny" and even "the battle between good and evil." Which is strange--I always understood the task of the sermon as the exposition of the Sacred Word. Over five decades of sermon-listening, I have never once heard anything that sounded like a rallying cry for Mr. Witham's "American civil religion." Perhaps his experience is

My my... I wouldn't quite say the book is so much tapioca. Perhaps for those who are well versed in the broad sweep of american religious history, it is a bit of a bore, but I found it quite interesting to follow the development of the sermon in the United States.

Soli Deo Gloria

Introducing the new bits and pieces ... the Digg widget

Long have I heard people talking about Digg, the news story social networking site, so finally I plunged in and signed up. I did so to solve a particular problem....the pain in the keyster it is to put toghether those Bits and Pieces link posts. I like to share articles that attract my attention, but going through the trouble of putting together posts simply to link to the articles is a bit time consuming.

Digg provides the answer. I simply "Digg" an article...and it appears in the "widget" window on the right side of this screen (scroll down to see it a bit). In that widget window, you'll be able to see the last 10 articles that I've "Digged" matter how long ago it's been. Anything that really deserves commentary, I'll likely still bring over and make it the subject of a full blog post, but the article sharing will now be done entirely by Digg.

Hope this new feature is fun for you (I'm certainly having fun with it).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mikahel Gorbachev -- It appears I was wrong

Full disclosure:
This sunday, I used the recent story of Mikhael Gorbachev's christianity as an illustration in my Easter sermon...specifically as an illustration of Christ as the "wonderful counsellor". I based my understanding on this article from the London Times and this article from the Daily Telegraph.

Today, the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Gorbachov is asserting that he has always been and remains "an atheist". Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie," Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax. "To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist."

I suppose this story is still developing, but integrity demands that I acknowledge that the illustration I used may well have been a gross misunderstanding. While I don't think it invalidates the point of the Easter sermon (you'll have to listen to it in context when we have it up on our website, and determine for yourself), my use of Mikhael Gorbachev as an illustration was premature at best.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Praise of Entrepreneurs

I like entrepreneurs. I like them because they are people of action. Where others fixate on the obstacles in their way, entrepreneurs see possibility. They may fail, yes, but at the least they are going to try.

I believe that entrepreneurs are a better hope for our economy than economic stimulus packages. As we have to compete in a growing global marketplace, it will be the entrepreneurs who will figure out how to compete.

I like them because we have several of them in our church. I love hearing the passion of small business owners like Fritz Greulich of Watkins Manufacturing. Fritz gave me a tour of his plant a couple of years ago, and I had a blast just listening to him show off his equipment. His company makes high-efficiency industrial saws ... a product that I know very little about. But Fritz' enthusiasm, like a boy scout showing off his newly earned Eagle award, was contagious. Here is a man who really enjoys what he's doing, and who is committed to creating a great working atmosphere for his employees.

Then we have people starting brand new businesses. Michael Maxwell opening Market Wines this week or John MacAlonan's Fire on the Ridge Hot Sauce. I'm intrigued by Joe Carter's experiment in entrepreneurial book publishing as well. Right now lots of people are engaging in brand new endeavors, and I'm excited for all of them.

I like entrepreneurs because I believe that we're called as Christians to build godly culture...and that includes godly business. When Genesis talks about being fruitful and multiplying, I believe that the fruitfulness entails being fruitful in our cultural output. Not just consuming things blindly for our own aggrandizement and satiation...rather, we create things that are useful, beautiful, lasting, and good. We are called to wisely steward our resources. Christian entrepreneurs can lead the way in these things.

For Christians don't have the right to just be in the business to make money. Our faith demands that our business be about something larger than ourselves. It is to be a vocation that ultimately brings glory to God...through quality....through taking good care of employees....through a concern for the broader community. And this kind of "social responsibility" isn't to be a gimmick designed to market the enterprise, but it is to be a natural outgrowth of our faith. Entrepreneurs can lead the way .... May God bless em.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Separation of faith and state....I think not

It was the lead up to the 2004 election...the heat between Kerry supporters and Bush supporters intensified. Our neighborhood was targeted by get out the vote activists who swarmed through encouraging people to vote for Kerry. Ding Dong went our doorbell, and there I was face to face with a tall well spoken gentleman asking for my vote. When I told him I intended to vote for Bush, he very politely asked me what my reasoning was, so I politely shared my of which was embryonic stem cell research.

My reasoning for my opposition to embryonic stem cell research is a bit beyond the scope of this post....what I'm interested in here was the gentleman's response. "Well, I don't think you can should mix politics and religion." We hear the separation of church and state rallying cry so much, that it becomes cliche.

In his latest book The Reason for God, Tim Keller talks about the radical secuarlist argument that calls for all religous reasoning or viewpoints to be removed from public discourse. He points to the "Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism" as an example of this call. Excerpted below are statements from this declaration:

It is vital that the public be exposed to the scientific perspective, and this presupposes the separation of church and state and public policies that are based on secular principles, not religious doctrine. Yet government legislators and executives permit religion, instead of empirical, scientifically supported evidence, to shape public policy.....

Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy. This is not an anti-religious viewpoint; it is a scientific viewpoint. To find common ground, we must reason together, and we can do so only if we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy.

Keller goes on to dismantle this thesis. Simply put, it is very flawed reasoning. It attaches the label "scientific" to a point of view that is beyond science. Science deals with a process of creating hypotheses, carefully testing those hypotheses, analyzing the results, and submitting the results for peer review. However, conclusions based on these results can range all over the map. Applications of the results of science can range all over the map. Science tells us what we can and cant do. Science has very little to say about what we ought to do.

Since public policy consists of both a "can do" and an "ought do", we find ourselves back in the arena of public discourse allowing multiple points of view. I see no reason for allowing a religion of secularism to be imposed upon us simply because the secularists claim that people of faith cannot be objective.

Perhaps the fallback is the old 'separation of church and state' principle. However that principle was always to prevent establishment of a particular state church. It prevented an organization of religion from dominating our government. However, since individual citizens have liberty of conscience in their religious beliefs, they also have the liberty to bring their faith convictions to the table in the public arena. The recent book A City Upon a Hill details the rich history of religious faith in its shaping of the public life of America -- evangelicals, Puritans, Unitarians, Jews, Transcendentalists, Mormons....the whole gamut is covered there. It gives a clear picture that the vitality of our country is in part due to the variety of public religious voices contributing to the conversation.

Separation of church and state does not equal separation of faith and state. Secularism, far from being a common ground upon which we can discuss, is simply an opposing worldview that must earn a hearing at the table, and to make a difference in public policy it must learn to accomodate to the wide range of opinion out there.

Soli Deo Gloria