Archive for January, 2012

Abp. Lazar Puhalo: “When you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it”

In the comments for the “No religion, please, we’re postmodern” bit from last week, I suggested the following:

The trouble seems to be — and this is one of the things that I might take from the problems that these “young people” are expressing about church — that churches in the present-day have thrown out so much of what made them what they were in order to be “relevant”, and are thus left with not much more than a collection of moral shibboleths and Bible verses that seem virtually impossible to take seriously in the world that they’ve accommodated in their trappings, that there’s just no “there” there anymore.

With that in mind, I give you Abp. Lazar (Puhalo) on a Canadian program called The Standard (not entirely sure when this ran):

At 1:32:

When we… reduce religion down to a moral code, or to externally appropriate behavior, then morality as a legal code like that becomes a heresy because it’s a substitute for a life in Christ, and it’s also a substitute for an inner transformation of the heart. Anything which leads us to arrogance, condescension, pride, to judge and condemn other people, is completely contrary to the teachings of Christ, therefore it’s a heresy. So morality can become a heresy as a substitute for a life in Christ, as an alternative to an inner transformation of your own heart, and as a platform from which you can judge and condemn other people… Another problem, really, is that when you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it… we’re really putting our foot on their head and shoving them down deeper into the darkness.

I find some of Abp. Lazar’s jurisdictional history a bit, shall we say, colorful, and I would want him to clarify a few things in a setting not quite so ruled by the clock, but I do wonder if there isn’t something worth pondering here. I have heard it suggested that his view is simplistic and unscriptural; I would say that it is simple, perhaps, but I’m not sure about simplistic, and while it may be simple, it’s definitely not easy. Unscriptural… well, among other things, I am reminded of verse 1:22 of the Epistle of St. James, which my friend Hal Sabbagh has been quoting a lot lately: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, thereby deceiving your own selves.”

Anyway, I’m not going to get into a line-by-line analysis right now, but this seemed worth throwing out there given recent discussion.

The ison problem

There’s something about the use of a drone that automatically puts it into the category of Something Not Us for the Western ear, at least on this side of the water. It seems to dislocate the listener either geographically or temporally, maybe both. This seems to be true whether we’re talking about Scottish bagpipes, reconstructions of medieval music, or — you guessed it — Byzantine chant; the drone itself functions as what various disciplines call a “chronotope“, something that represents, or maybe is evocative of, information about time and space. More simply, the drone calls to mind other places and other times for our ears, and if I had to make a really prosaic guess, it’s because American music by and large doesn’t use it. That’s actually more of a significant point than it presently seems; I’ll get there.

The first time I was ever exposed to music that employed a drone where I was aware it was doing so was singing the Byzantine-ish choral compositions of John Tavener in my first concert with The Tudor Choir way back in the fall of 1997. That’s a story for another time, and has an active role in a different narrative presently in progress, but what I can say for now is that that particular bass section wailing away on the drone in the amazingly resonant acoustic of St. James Cathedral in Seattle was transportive. It was so simple, so distinctive, so grounding, and so powerful.

A similar experience was to be had seven years later in Auer Hall at Indiana University, when in May of 2004 Cappella Romana performed their Fall of Constantinople program as part of the Bloomington Early Music Festival. Again — that particular group of singers on the ison, in that hall… it was something else.

As much of a sine qua non as ison seems to be for Byzantine chant on initially hearing it, however, what also seems to be the case is that it is so easy to get wrong. First of all, the so-called “Western ear” (whatever that really means) has the impulse to harmonize the melody, usually by making up a line that moves in parallel thirds, and once you’ve done that, it’s a quick hop to treating the drone as a bass line that needs to move according to the requirements of functional harmony. Follow the Bouncing Ison.

Most music in the world is modal. That means it is categorized and organized according to different kinds of scales that themselves are used for different kinds of melodies. Western music, which frankly represents a small portion of the world’s musical output, is, for the most part, not. It is tonal, which means it has whittled down the modes to two, major and minor, and has instead focused on building vertical sonorities that have particular functions based on building up of harmonic instability and subsequent resolution of that instability.

Something else Western music tends to be, at least on paper, is tuned so that all keys sound exactly the same except for the range. I had a music theory teacher who once said, “Before all of this equal-tempered nonsense, keys actually sounded like themselves and there was actually more of a musical reason to modulate [change keys].” Most modal music, however, is not tuned this way. And, really, in practice, Western music resolutely holds on to some of the old way even if we’re used to sanding off most of the corners. Singers and fretless string players have to carefully tune thirds and distinguish sevenths from leading tones, for example.

Quick demonstration of the difference — here’s the Christmas carol “What Child Is This”, a melody using a minor scale and arranged for choir using rules of tonal harmony:

Now, here’s the original melody, “Greensleeves,” using the Dorian mode rather than our typical minor (that is, Aeolian) scale:  I had a devil of a time actually finding a decent version of Greensleeves on YouTube, so this probably isn’t as clear of a demonstration as I’d like it to be, but hopefully some of the difference of character comes through.

To begin with, Byzantine chant is modal and not tonal. For purposes of liturgical organization, there are eight modes; in actual musical terms, however, depending on how you count them, that number is probably doubled. This is why harmonizing it ultimately doesn’t work, and why the automatic tendency some people with very decent ears have, to place the ison on whatever the lowest note is that they perceive can function as the root of a major or minor scale, is not only wrong, but robs this particular musical idiom of its proper character.

A somewhat more subtle point is why the ison needs to not move in parallel to the melody as though as it’s a bass line, and that’s because it’s not a bass line.

Let me say that again for emphasis: it is not a bass line. Therefore, it doesn’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t, move like one.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, “A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art”, that starts out the Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide that just came out:

The Psaltic Art is… strictly monophonic [emphasis in the original]. In other words, it is performed by a single cantor or a choir singing one melody in unison… It should also be noted that psaltic melodies are frequently accompanied by the ison (drone), which is a constant humming of a single note (the root of the main tetrachord in which the melody is moving). This… practice is sometimes considered a form of proto-polyphony. However, its primary function seems to be tonal stability rather than “harmonic” enrichment of the melody (p. iv).

So, it is not intended to be harmonized, and the drone is intended to provide stability — that is, a structural foundation — for the melody rather than instability — that is, the harmonic function of a bass line. Not only that, where the drone is pitched has to do with where in the scale the melody is, which itself is a function of what mode the melody employs. If you’re in the first tetrachord (that is, the initial division of four notes of the scale) of sticheraric Plagal Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 8), the ison is not  going to be sung on the same pitch as a melody written in irmologic Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 4) — and yet, that’s exactly where some people instinctively want to put it, and if you gently point out to them that there actually is a right way to do it, ask them nicely to do it the right way, and even if you sing it the right way in their ear, they will adamantly insist that the two modes must be the same by shoehorning them into the same Western framework of tonal harmony.

It has been suggested to me that this constitutes “organic development”, and that we don’t need to treat the Byzantine modes as anything special when there are twelve major and twelve minor keys in Western music. I cannot agree; what this constitutes is, plain and simple, doing it wrong.

Can we agree that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this stuff, and that stubornly improvising harmonies in thirds and making up drone notes that are on the wrong pitches and not functioning within the musical texture the way they’re supposed to, no matter how much you may like to sing that way for yourself personally, represents singing it the wrong way? We can deal with equal-temperament later — first we have to at least come to terms on the fundamental approach towards the music. Are we going to learn to sing it the way it’s supposed to be learned, or are we going to insist that we get to sing it in a way foreign to its nature because we’re American and thus special?

And please don’t bring up Russian music. If Obikhod is what you’re thinking of, well, there is Russian liturgical music composed before Russians started learning composition from the Italians that would singe the hair of your toes.

Why does this matter? Is it because we musicians want to control everything and force all of the regular folks in the congregation to either shut up or to do things our way? No, it matters for the same reason that you don’t get to make up your own version of the Lord’s Prayer to say when the time comes in the Liturgy for the congregation to say the Lord’s Prayer, or your own version of the Creed. It matters for the same reason that iconographers are supposed to depict the Mother of God’s veil as red and the rest of her clothing as blue, and not make up a paisley print and polka-dot pattern. It matters for the same reason that we’re supposed to use a particular kind of stamp on the Eucharistic bread rather than carving our names into the loaf. There is a way things are to be done, decently and in order, and we don’t just get to make up our own way of doing things, even in the name of “participation”. There is this impulse among some people to special-case music so that these concerns don’t apply in that sphere, and I really don’t get it. On a broader level, how I might put it is that I have never myself experienced a musical scenario where people can successfully argue that they have the right to sing wrong notes, but that comes very close to what I sometimes hear given as the response to these issues.

Update, 30 January 2012, 7:04am — I made a big point of saying that American music doesn’t generally use drone and that that was something important I’d come back to, and then I forgot to come back to it. Hazards of blogging right before you go to bed.

A related idea — I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people that lead me to believe it is possible to simply be culturally uncomfortable with monophonic music. I don’t have a clue how or why this could be, but I’ve had people tell me before, “Do I have to sing melody? Can’t I just make up a harmony? It feels wrong not to in my voice.” A couple of my attempts at Orthodox hymns that would employ some features of American folk music have met with the reaction from more than one person, “Hey, nice melody. When are you writing parts?” Explaining that I’m intentionally writing a melody to be sung in unison usually generates a confused stare and the question “Why?” asked in such a way that tells me I’m not going to be able to explain it to them.

Back to drone. I’m hardly an expert on anything, let alone American folk music, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head that use drone. Drone is usually discussed as a characteristic of either medieval music or “world music”, which subtly makes it a different beast than it would be living in a part of the world where it’s a characteristic of the local “folk music” rather than “world music”. I hesitate to go whole hog and say that we’ve constructed an orientalizing narrative about kinds of music that use drone, or that’s it’s a feature of “primitive” music whereas harmony is how “advanced” societies think of music, but I think there might be some relevant thoughts there.

In any event, because it’s not a feature of American vernacular music, as soon as we hear it, we know it’s either from the old country (whichever old country that might be) or just plain old. That at once seems to validate it as “authentic” and also prompt some people to look for sharp corners that need to be filed off. The chronotope is a double-edged sword.

My solution is education; cantors need to be able and willing to explain what it is, what it’s doing, and what the right way to sing it sounds like. This has to work both ways, however; people need to be willing to ask, “How is this supposed to be done?” and then willing to follow the instruction they’re given. Unfortunately, I’ve seen instances where the attitude is, “If I can’t sing it along with you in a way that seems instinctive and natural to me the first time I hear it, then you’re excluding me from participating.” It’s a tricky business, to be sure.

Fleshing some things out

I realized yesterday after I hit “publish” that outlining my religious development is going to be terribly dull reading if I stick strictly to that topic and that topic alone, and probably pretty dull writing, too.

A few hopefully more-colorful details: you may have noticed that, when the guy at church was trying to strongarm me into standing, I wasn’t running around like a cat chasing a laser pointer dot, I wasn’t screaming my head off, and I wasn’t playing with the myriad of Star Wars action figures that I had at home. I was sitting quietly and reading.

My parents claim that nobody taught me to read. That strikes me as unlikely (check back with me again in four years on that one), but at the same time, I don’t remember ever actually learning to read. In any event, reading was how I instinctively occupied my time as a little kid, and I wasn’t intimidated by “grown-up books” even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything. I was memorizing passages out of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from the time I was four. By the time I was seven, I found my way into Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, C. S. Lewis, Greek mythology, Madeleine L’Engle, and much more (including some potentially unlikely stuff for a little boy, like Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, the first boarding-school book I recall encountering). When I was five or thereabouts, my parents got me this Reader’s Digest collection of articles on various topics called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, and I read that thing cover to cover probably ten times by the time we left Wenatchee. In its pages I read about regression hypnosis, St. Christopher having a dog’s head, Jack the Ripper (as well as Spring-Heeled Jack), cybernetic implants, the Shroud of Turin, Bridey Murphy, Stefan Lochner’s The Last Judgment, and hundreds of other crazy things. I have no doubt that being so exposed to such an crazy range of topics so early on influenced how I perceive and process the world around me, but there we are. I like to think that at the very least, it helped to inspire a sense of wonder.

My formational religious reading was mostly the old Golden Press The Children’s Bible, which to describe as dated is nowhere near adequate, but it was what it was. Besides that, my mom gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. I wouldn’t say that a huge deal was made out of this, and it was sort of treated more as a curiosity, an heirloom, than anything I was to take seriously.

Probably like every other kid born around the time I was, the other overarching obsessions were Star Wars and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. I can remember being in the movie theatre at the age of three for the 1979 re-release of A New Hope, and I got the Death Star playset as a Christmas present the same year. I don’t know for sure that I remember seeing Superman: The Movie  in theatres, but it was the first movie I remember seeing on VHS, probably c. 1980 or so, and I saw Superman II probably five or six times in theatres. For after-school cartoons, I was a Star Blazers kid all the way.

And between 1982 and 1983, Tron and WarGames came out, which guaranteed that even to this day, Kevin Flynn (“BECAUSE, MAN! …somewhere IN one of these… MEMORIES… is the evidence!“) and not The Dude is the iconic Jeff Bridges performance for me, I naturally think of Global Thermonuclear War and not a Ferrari when I see Matthew Broderick, and I’m trying to imagine how my digital alter-ego is delivering my e-mails.

Then there was Charlie Brown. Yes, I had started carrying around a magnifying glass by this point, and certainly had the deerstalker hat and trenchcoat a bit later, but during those early elementary school years there was no literary character with whom I identified more fully than Charlie Brown. You’ve Done It Again, Charlie Brown! was a collection of strips I think my mother brought home for me one day when I was sick, and it was but the first of many, many more. I had devoured enough of those little Fawcett-Crest paperback collections by the time we moved to the Seattle area to have completely internalized the persona. I wanted to legally change my name. I know I’m not exactly unique to have had this particular childhood hero — that’s what made Peanuts so compelling for so long, after all, Charlie Brown’s Everykid status — but the thing is, I was awkward, even as a little kid I always felt like I struggled to get through the day, and I really did have a head round enough to be mistaken for a bowling ball. In general, while I was apparently a naturally gregarious and friendly kid, that made me fresh meat for other kids almost from day one.

Well. There was me being a naturally friendly and gregarious kid, yes. There was also the fact that I got bumped up a grade two weeks into kindergarten because of what I was reading (and supposedly that was a compromise with my parents, because the school wanted to put me in fifth grade or some nonsense like that). There was the stuff I was reading, like D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (to say nothing of the subsequent conviction that I could build a working time machine out of spare computer parts, and to say nothing even further still of my actual attempt to do so). Yyyyeeaaaahhhh… there was no way I wasn’t going home in tears after school most days. I had a couple of friends that I spent a good amount of time with, but in some ways I got along with their parents better than I got along with them.

Somewhere in here — I must have been five or six tops, and it was on a drive between Wenatchee and Seattle, for reasons that are presently escaping me — my mother said, “Richard, when you’re older, I’m taking you to Europe. I went when I was young, and it’s something I really want for you.”

The final detail I’ll give for now is the piano lessons I started when I was five. My dad had bought a beautiful Yamaha upright grand, and shortly thereafter I found myself being taken to a music store for my first formal music instruction. To bring this all back around to reading, the story my parents tell is that at the first piano recital, I sat in the audience reading a book. When it was my turn, I put the book down, went up to the piano, played my pieces, then returned to my chair and went back to reading.

By the way — hopefully it’s clear that all of these details are in no way comprehensive or anything other than impressionistic (however well-remembered I think they are) or given from the perspective of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and give no more and no less than exactly the picture I wish to give. If you want accuracy and objectivity you’re going to have to get it from Mrs. Plouff, my first grade teacher, and I don’t have a clue where she is these days.

Be all of that as it may, hopefully this spices things up a bit.

Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church, Emmaus, PA

As I mentioned, Fr. Andrew Damick has been kind enough to invite me to disseminate some of my crazy ideas about Orthodox church music at his parish. I’ll be talking on Saturday, 3 March at St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Fr. Andrew just posted a schedule for the day on the church website, and he has created a Facebook event. I should note that the flyer marks the first public mention of the St. John of Damascus Society, which hopefully means I’ll be able to talk more about what that is shortly. Anyway, if you’re anywhere close to that neck of the woods, by all means please come!

New release: Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide, Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music (GOA)

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has released for purchase by the general public the textbook used by the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music. My copy arrived in the mail today, and while I haven’t had a chance to sing through the whole thing or thoroughly read through its contents, at first glance it looks wonderful and quite handsomely put together. It’s very similar in a lot of respects to the Margaziotis exercise book that’s floating around out there, except that it’s written in English and includes both an overview of some of the theory and an essay outlining the history and key figures relevant to the Byzantine musical tradition. There’s also a CD, and while the Margaziotis pdf has musical examples embedded, the CD introduces all of the exercises in English as well.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Acknowledgments: Archdeacon Pantaleimon Papadopoulos, ASBM Director
  • Foreword: Dr. Demetrios Kehagis, ASBM Instructor
  • Introduction: A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art, by Grammenos Karanos, Ph.D. in Byzantine Musicology, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Music, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
  • Byzantine music theory and practice
  • Chanting with melos
  • Definition of terms
  • A synoptic theory chart & reference
  • Index of Byzantine music characters

Here is the book opened and compared with the full-size photocopy of the Margaziotis book that I was given:

And, mostly for size purposes, here it is compared with a standard Anastasimatarion:

The CD of musical exercises is nicely and clearly sung, and among other things, I think it will be of help to people who are trying to figure out where the intervals are in their own throats.

Anyway, I’m really impressed with the care that’s gone into presenting this material to an English-speaking audience, and on the whole the exercises seem very consistent with the method used in the Margaziotis. If somebody has worked through Fr. David Barr’s materials and figured out how to understand the version of Byzantine chant that’s filtered through Western music theory well enough that they want a new challenge, this book seems like a worthy next step.

The one potential downside is that the musical examples from actual chants are all in Greek, so you need to either be able to read the Greek characters or have access to somebody who can teach the hymn texts to you phonetically. The next step after this book is going to be a Byzantine music theory and exercise book that’s not just written in English, but also uses English music examples. Factoring that out, this publication looks to be the state of the art in terms of educational materials that make learning Byzantine chant (including notation) accessible in English. I’m quite tempted to order five copies to have on hand for people in my choir.

I would very much like to think that the Antiochian Archdiocese, particularly given some things said recently by higher-ups about wanting a renewed emphasis on the Byzantine chant traditions of the Patriarchate of Antioch, would take some cues from what the Greeks are doing with the Archdiocesan School. Right now there are scattered efforts to do things, but nothing systematic so far as I can tell.

You can order Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide from the link above.

Everybody’s got a story

I have never particularly wanted this to be “a convert’s blog”. I am an Orthodox Christian, yes, and a convert to same, and that’s one of the things I write about, but hardly the only thing. This is basically my notebook for interesting things that happen to me and the things that occur to me that I hope will be interesting, and I’ve written about my experience as an Orthodox Christian but also about religion as a broader phenomenon, movies, music, travel, language, school, and so on. There are big things that have happened to me I have specifically not written about, either because discussing them publicly will either be awkward, send the wrong message to certain parties, and maybe they’ll just be boring in the context of a blog.

My conversion experience falls under the last of those categories. There was a time when I was devouring convert stories and eager to tell my own to whomever might listen, but after awhile I realized that it The Journey of the American Orthodox Convert had become its own genre with its own tropes. Much like, say, Rush, it’s a kind of product that is principally interesting to other people who produce the same kind of product (and I speak as a Rush fan), and while that’s not to say that people don’t encounter such an account for the first time and find it meaningful (after all, I had to become a Rush fan), the Next Great Conversion Story isn’t, I don’t think, really the cultural lack that somebody like me needs to be desperate to fill. I’m happy to tell my story if people ask, but the other problem is that if the chrism oil going on the forehead is the telos, the happy ending and the whole point of the story, then that’s a truly unrealistic picture of the Christian life. It’s really not a matter of being dunked and/or basted, everybody saying “Seal!”, receiving the Body and Blood for the first time, going home, and then everybody lives happily ever after on a diet of incense, icons, and chant, all covered with awesome sauce. That’s no more true than the wedding being the end of the story for a relationship — and also recall that the normative experience for an Orthodox Christian would be infant baptism, which makes these kinds of convert stories not just outliers, but self-selected outliers. Anyway, there’s still a life that has to be lived afterward, and that’s the real story and struggle. I’ve seen my share of converts who fall off as quickly as they jumped on, and I think it’s because they weren’t adequately prepared for that, perhaps due to the unrealistically rosy picture that some convert accounts paint.

Still, some of my recent posts, I realize, perhaps need more context. I came very close a couple of times to referencing things that happened to me during my path to being received into the Orthodox Church, and I realized that they wouldn’t make any sense without the whole story. So I left those things out. I told somebody recently that I’m no good at apologetics, because what I find convincing is a result of some points that are a little too peculiar to me, but I should probably explain what those points actually are.

Here’s the thing — I’m really terrible at short versions of stories, as anybody who is the least bit familiar with me or this blog probably knows (and certainly as the board members of the St. John of Damascus Society know by now). I also really really really don’t have time to just write a novel right now, so this is going to get split up into multiple posts. It’s entirely possible that it may not happen linearly. Nobody’s exactly begged me to write this, so I’m certain the three of you out there who read this won’t care, but just so we’re all clear. Don’t make me pull this car over.

Where I will start for now is that my first real “religious” memory is being baptized at the age of three on Easter Sunday, 6 April 1980 (right in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis, and evidently the same day the Paschal greeting was first given in Hebrew by Pope John Paul II), in Anchorage, Alaska at St. Mark Lutheran Church (way back in the day when it was LCA rather than ELCA). I got dressed up in a sailor suit, and what I remember is that my godfather (Karl Bartholomy, my dad’s best friend) picked me up by my ankles and dipped my head in the baptismal font. That’s about all of that I remember, but my mother provides an account in my baby book:

Richard was baptized on Easter Sunday. It was a lovely and very special ceremony. Karl lifted Richard up to the baptismal font and the highlight was when they lighted a candle and gave it to Richard to hold. He wore a little white sailor suit with gold buttons, a red tie and his black water boots! (His new sandals were too small.) Uncle Dan [my mother’s brother] couldn’t make it as he lives in Seattle. But Mimi [my paternal grandmother], Great Grandpa [my dad’s maternal grandfather] and Alma came up especially for Richard’s baptism! He was so cute and sweet and such a good boy. I took my first communion on that day too. So it was all in all a very special day. (Karl and Nancy camee from Fairbanks just for Richard too.) And Daddy came to church!

Huh. I actually don’t think I knew that Mom took first communion that day. She was 25, and my dad was 34.

My mom and I went to St. Mark’s semi-regularly, as I recall, but my first memory of regular church attendance was when we moved to Wenatchee, Washington towards the end of 1980. We went to Grace Lutheran Church, and what I principally remember are a) not really wanting to go because I liked to sleep in on Sunday morning, b) sitting in a pew at some point during the service and reading a book, minding my own business, and some dude standing behind me thumping my shoulders to try to get me to stand up, c) the pastor giving me a blessing at the rail rather than communion, and d) being entranced by the candlelight service at Christmas Eve. It’s the only aesthetic point I remember at all about my Lutheran experience, truth be told.

If it’s not evident by now, there was no particular unity of faith in our little family — my dad, as I understood by the time I was five, is an avowed atheist. More on that as it is relevant.

This manner of being didn’t last long, as in 1984 we moved from the east side of the mountains to the Seattle area, at which point much about how my family functioned in relation to Christianity changed. So much, in fact, that it’s going to have to wait for another post.

No religion, please, we’re postmodern

It is reasonably common that I do my grocery shopping after Divine Liturgy on Sunday. That tends to mean that it’s harder to keep wine and beer around the house with this state’s antiquated liquor laws, and it’s something of a pain, since it usually takes two or three stops total depending on what all I need (Starbucks for coffee beans, the local food co-op for most stuff, and then a conventional grocery store for a small handful of other items, which still leaves me having to go to a butcher shop that isn’t open on Sundays at another time during the week), but it’s more often than not the most convenient time for me to go.

Today, in line to pay for my staples of cheese, Honey Bunches of Oats, and bananas, the headline of the local paper grabbed my eye — “Losing their religion: Young people rejecting organized worship at an unprecedented rate”. (Note that, while I’ve linked to the story on the Herald-Times website, it will be virtually useless to you, so to speak, unless you’re a paid subscriber — the H-T apparently is enough on the fiscal bubble to be concerned about using their website as a loss-leader, and as such headlines are the only content they’re comfortable letting you see for free.) I was intrigued by what local angle the piece might have and bought the paper; Bloomington is certainly still within the borders of the Bible belt, but Indiana University on the whole is about as secular of an institution as they come, so religion is everywhere in this town (I remember a Distinguished Academic Visitor coming to Bloomington a few years ago and telling his host, “I can tell I’m in small-town America because of all the f–king churches”) but to an extent that just means that it’s ignored by more people. There is a Knights of Columbus pro-life ad on a huge billboard right in the middle of downtown, but then the town’s buses were sporting the “You can be good without God” cards a couple of years ago too.

As I was poking around to see if there was any way to find the full story on the web, I realized that the H-T story was largely a re-digesting of some reports that various news outlets have been covering for the the last month. There’s a Baylor University report on religion as well as statistics released by LifeWay Research, USA Today ran a story about them on Christmas Day (using roughly the same headline as the H-T), and GetReligion did the obligatory analysis of the USA Today piece. Still, there’s a bit of a local angle with some representative quotes from IU students and a couple of area clergy, starting with one Elyse Kienitz:

[She] says during her teenage years, her parents forced her to attend a Lutheran church where her father served as music director.

“It was a family obligation for me and my four siblings… Church just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t apply what I was hearing to my daily life.”

[…] [C]limbing out of bed at 6:45am each Sunday to attend the 8 a.m. service was sheer torture. So when she turned 20 and moved… to Bloomington, church ceased being part of her life.

“I know for a lot of people the church is a source of refuge, and I kind of envy that,” Kienitz said. “But I’m an agnostic. I need absolute proof before I believe. Creationism is not valid in my opinion. I believe in Darwinian evolution.”

I have mixed feelings about how seriously to take this, truthfully, and it has less to do with Ms. Kienitz and more to do with how the reporter chooses to present the story. Creationism is elided with Christianity and church, which is one problem, but another problem is that the writer seems to betray bias off the bat by saying that Ms. Kienitz was “forced” to attend. Now, I’ve been the five year old kid lying in bed on Sunday morning hoping that Mom just forgets to wake me up, but “forced” is a bit much. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is that the relationship between religion and family ties isn’t really explored at all, but it’s clearly there in this case, and once it’s not there, bam, the kid’s done. So what’s the extent to which this “rejection” of religion by young people is a function of a mobile society?

Then there’s Stephanie Partridge, who “made some friends in church, but it wasn’t a good fit for me”:

“My spirituality is pagan and nature-based… Organized religion doesn’t work for me because my spirituality is extremely personal and sacred to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I meditate and pray at home and in nature, and that allows me to find peace of mind in the midst of chaos.”

So, “spiritual but not religious”. Bob Whitaker, senior pastor at Bloomington’s Evangelical Community Church, characterizes this issue as the desire “to adapt a religion to fit their personal desires and don’t feel they need community to shape and guide them, and to shine a spotlight on their character and motivation[.]” I’ve never been of the “spiritual but not religious” persuasion; it’s always seemed to me to treat religion as a taste in accessories, a more-or-less personalizable sensibility. I’ve got to be check my own tendency to be snarky about that, because I’ve certainly exercised my own personal choice where religion is concerned, and I have done so more than once, but it has always seemed obvious to me that a “spirituality” that is exclusively personal is essentially an exercise in self-justification.

Even if that’s the case, however, are those who feel that way coming by it honestly in our culture? We’ve taken so many things that used to be experienced almost exclusively in a communal context and made it possible for the general population to experience them now in a 100% user-defined bubble. Music is no longer something one hears in the context of a gathering; it’s something that an individual listens to in order to shut out the rest of the world. Movies and TV are watched on personal devices that require no interaction with anybody (except maybe the screen). Work is done from home. We can shop for almost anything we could possibly want without ever having to interact directly with a person. Even friends and family have been fed through the individualized electronic pipe via Facebook. So why would religion be any other way, particularly if church is just going to repackage everything in a language that’s trying, usually poorly, to ape what you’re feeding into your brain through the earbuds? It makes it “accessible”, but does it actually make it worth anybody’s time in the long run? This is a question I would be very curious to hear the “bishop of Facebook”, Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, consider.

Is the real issue perhaps not that we’re in a post-religious world but a post-communal one? Is seeing a need for physical interaction with a real person in a geographical location something that has simply become itself a quaint throwback?

Ned Steele, a local Methodist pastor, says that church is “just not relevant to that age group [of 20-somethings]:

“People in their 20s believe in scientific research and truth, and when they come to church and hear about creationism they feel like they’re back in the Middle Ages. Too often the church is judgmental when it comes to different lifestyles and sexuality; and we preach the exclusivity of Christianity too much, as if other paths to God don’t count.”

This is a fascinating statement. 20-somethings believe in “truth”, but they apparently don’t want to hear that Christianity is the “truth”. (I’m curious what else one would go to church to hear.) So what is it they want to hear about truth? That truth exists, but that the truth is that there isn’t really any truth beyond that truth we pick and choose for ourselves?

Again, let’s perhaps concede that maybe these 20-somethings are coming by it honestly. Truth is what can be reproduced in a laboratory, truth is the homeless person on the street, truth is the real story behind this or that person’s public ascendancy — might it be fair to say that “truth”, as understood in our present-day collective mindset, is a construct that itself is actually never constructive?

I don’t quite know what to think when I hear about “young people” “rejecting” Christianity. I’m not going to lie, some of the things expressed by Ms. Kienitz and Ms. Partridge resonate with me, but it stopped being a family matter for me in seventh grade (and was really only imperfectly so to begin with), so whatever I believed I had to own for myself early on, and the questioning that some of that prompted in me was only of the dominant Evangelical Protestant paradigm, not of Christianity itself or the overall need for a worshiping community. If anything, my problem in my teens was having been brought up to consider the continuum between Evangelical Protestantism and non-Christian cults to be minuscule, so that when I found early on I could not honestly identify as an Evangelical (nor, as a couple of folks made clear, did Evangelicals want me to identify with them, if I wasn’t going to believe certain things) and thus was led to believe I perhaps shouldn’t even consider myself a Christian anymore — well, I craved the community that Evangelicals seemed to be telling me I couldn’t have. Would I have felt the same way if I had Facebook and an iPod? Hard to say.

There’s the whole matter of solutions looking for problems I brought up a little while ago. I’m not sure what to say about what problems these people actually have, except to say that they want to know what Christianity actually has to do with how life gets lived in 2012, and probably they want to know in terms that don’t make it seem like a dated museum piece or in terms that don’t come across as reactionary. But how do you that in a way that doesn’t make church so secular-looking that there’s no real point in going to church anyway? If church is going to look like a hipster coffee shop, well, why not just go to a hipster coffee shop and listen to one of Mark Driscoll’s podcasts over your cappuccino? The coffee will be better, and frankly so will the music, probably.

A friend of mine was talking about how his priest handles skeptical youth by saying, “That’s okay that you’re questioning those things. We love you anyway. Keep coming.” Maybe rather than trying to keep up with “who” the 20-somethings “are”, it’s better for the Church to remain steadfast in what she is so that the 20-somethings know that they can always come home and know that their room will be ready — but maybe even that’s going to be waiting for calls that never come.

An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks

Cliff Watson as the Usher, Tom Derbyshire as the Learned Judge, and Yours Truly as the Defendant. The martini glass was my own touch. (Bridesmaids, left to right: Kathleen Gillette, Angie Bartels, Tessa Studebaker, Katie Edwards, Winchee Lin, and Hollis Heron. My friends, if any of you are reading this, it's really hard to believe that was a decade ago this year. I miss you all terribly. It's been too long. I really didn't think I'd be out here anywhere close to this length of time, and now I don't have any idea about what would ever bring me back. To say nothing of the fact that I expect I would only ever be in the audience anymore for SG&S even if I were back.)

I can’t really claim to have ever legitimately been an Anglophile. I obviously was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a little kid, and reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” inspired me to badger my mother into preparing a goose and plum pudding for Christmas when I was nine years old, then for a few years I ran in Episcopalian circles (which isn’t really the same as being an Anglican, I eventually decided, but it’s as close as you can get in some parts of the country), had a stint in the Tudor Choir, honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., and also sang a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, I never actually went to England before five years ago, I never cared much about the Union Jack or tea or the Queen Mum (or any of the royals, really), and really couldn’t tell you the first thing about Winston Churchill. The way to put it that is at once most accurate and charitable is that, if anything, I was an Anglophile wannabe.

My love of Sherlock Holmes meant that my formative Holmes actor was Jeremy Brett, whom I saw on Mystery! probably starting in 1985. He was not only formative, but normative —  the gold standard in the way that Batman: The Animated Series is the gold standard of Batman interpretations regardless of medium. I do have to confess, however, that the first screen Holmes to captivate me was Christopher Plummer in the, uh, criminally underrated 1979 Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree (directed by Bob Clark, which is rather curious since he is probably most famous for A Christmas Story) (and Decree is also quite notable for having James Mason as Watson). The first time I saw that was probably in 1982 or 1983 on late night television — I remember my dad pulling me out of bed because he correctly thought I’d probably be interested in seeing it. There was also a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at Woodinville High School in 1984 that I remember seeing — one of my teachers took me to see it, and I also recall that the actor who played Holmes came out after the play and talked to me for a little while. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember being blown away by him.

Doctor Who I became aware of probably starting in 1989 when I began reading Starlog, and I remember seeing bits and pieces on PBS here and there. I think the part that sticks out most in my memory is catching the end of The Armageddon Factor. For better or for worse, however, the first Doctor Who I ever watched in its entirety was the 1996 Fox TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts as the Master. I certainly enjoyed it well enough to be part of the letter-writing campaign that tried to get Fox to pick it up as a series (as well as to save Strange Luck, but something about having historically been a fan of horrifically lost causes comes leaping to mind), but obviously that didn’t happen.

Skipping ahead to 2004, I read about Christopher Eccleston being cast as the Doctor in a relaunch of Doctor Who. Interesting, I thought, but how will I ever actually have the chance to see it? I don’t have cable, and I don’t really have time to organize my life around watching a TV show anyway.

Over the next few years, mostly through reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, I would catch bits of Doctor Who news here and there — David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and then, after apparently months of speculation that it would be Lenny Henry Paterson Joseph, Matt Smith — wait, who? — as the Eleventh Doctor. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like it would be worth watching if I ever had the chance. Also, around this time, mostly due to reading TheOneRing.Net and seeing lots of speculation about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I started hearing things about a TV series based on the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes.

Well, in the fall of 2010, finding myself with a wife out of the country and our big TV out in the middle of the living room while my friend Phil Woodward lived in the second bedroom where the TV used to be, I decided I wanted to be able to watch Netflix Streaming on the TV. I had been able to plug my laptop into the set, but I could only do video — the video/audio-to-HDMI converters I had tried burned out within minutes, so I could watch the video on TV but I had to listen to it through the laptop speakers. The trouble was that we bought a Blu-Ray player right before Netflix Streaming had become standard on them, I didn’t really want to buy another Blu-Ray deck just for that functionality, and if Flesh of My Flesh had come home to us owning a Wii or an Xbox or some other gaming unit, she would have divorced me instantly (which in Indiana I believe involves a rusty pair of scissors and a clamp). I know, I know, First World Problems. In any case, I was persuaded by some poking around that AppleTV was the most cost-effective solution for my particular circumstances, and thus I brought one of the little black boxes home one day.

When I hooked it up and got Netflix Streaming up and running, I actually spent some time poking around the library, which I hadn’t done before — I had only noticed if a movie in my queue was listed as being available for instant viewing. Sure enough, there was the Eccleston Who — so I started watching. When it was over, I watched the next one. When that one was over, I watched the next one. Next thing I knew, the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose, “You won’t see me again, not like this,” and I was crying. Still, David Tennant was a lot of fun, but then when he disappeared from the beach before he could tell Rose he loved her, I was crying again.

Meanwhile, Phil, my housemate for the year, turned me on to Veronica Mars, which was also available via streaming (no longer, it seems — alas). I watched all three seasons, and I enjoyed it — Twin Peaks meets Beverly Hills 90210 is sort of how it seemed to me, at least at first — but I consider myself one of those who felt that it lost its way during the second season and never quite recovered. Even the first season — the way it was set up, it was absolutely awesome, and even the way they solved the season’s central mystery was fantastic and completely unexpected, but in general the wrap-up didn’t quite seem to follow through on the all of the convictions the setup had started out with. Without totally giving things away, I’m not entirely certain they played fair with the audience in the first season resolution, and then the way they returned to the same material for second season’s mystery was not in the least convincing. Also, in general, in the first season I was able to buy that these were high school kids, even if many of them were high school kids of significant privilege; almost all of that credibility went out the window during the second season. The third season — well, you’ve got an early appearance of Armie Hammer, which was kind of cool, but beyond that, by the end I was having trouble caring. The point of all of this is to say, American episodic television was leaving me wanting more. I’m aware that Veronica Mars is hardly representative of “American TV”, but nonetheless, that’s how it fits into the story.

I got through the first four seasons of Who, and most of the first two seasons of Torchwood. For the record, I didn’t really quit watching Torchwood, I just sort of ran out of time. I will go back and watch the rest at some point. John Barrowman is amazingly talented, and strikes me as what Tom Cruise would be like if Tom Cruise were a good TV actor rather than A Movie Star (that said, go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s the best of the bunch and Brad Bird slams it out of the park). I watched all of the long specials that constituted Tennant’s putative “fourth season”, culminating in the heartbreaking “I don’t want to go!” — and suddenly there was this gangly kid onscreen yelling “Geronimo!”

Around this time, I decided to bite the Sherlock bullet. It wasn’t available on streaming, but the season pass on iTunes was something like $16, so… what the heck.

And, with that — season (I know, I know, “series”) five of Doctor Who and Sherlock — I was plunged into the depths of Steven Moffat’s pulsating pink glob of insanity jelly that he calls a brain.

Matt Smith quickly became my favorite of the three relaunched Doctors (and that after thinking there was no way that Tennant could possibly top Eccleston, and then thinking that Tennant had it as nailed as anybody could possibly nail it). Despite his youth, he played old surprisingly well, and in a way was the oldest-feeling of the bunch. The thing that in general grabs me about Doctor Who is that there are really no limits to the kinds of stories it can tell; science fiction, historical drama, comedy, horror, with any mixture of any number of those being possible. The Doctor himself, “the madman with a box”, has literally seen it all; Willy Wonka is a common comparandum to the Eleventh Doctor, but one I haven’t seen before that I think is apt is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus — terribly old but still timeless, and still mortal in some way even if not quite. If any kind of a Sandman project ever does get off the ground, I’d love to see Matt Smith in the role — he looks like Morpheus (particularly in some of his Goth-boy publicity shots), and there were moments during the second half of the sixth season (particularly “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The God Complex,” and “The Wedding of River Song”) where he captured a kind of despairing self-loathing that, to me at least, is key to the Dream King. (And let’s not forget the fairly blatant reference to the Doctor’s shadow self in “Amy’s Choice” as “The Dream Lord”.)

When my wife got back from Germany, I told her, okay, I’m now going to introduce you to my new favorite TV show. I started with “The Eleventh Hour” to see if she’d find it at all entertaining, and she did. Given what happens in the fifth season, I went back to “Blink”, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”, then proceeded with the rest of the fifth season and then the sixth season, so that this year’s Christmas special was the first one we watched “in sync”, as it were. She made the interesting observation, after watching “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and Captain America: The First Avenger in reasonably quick succession, that each one represents a very different kind of cultural memory of World War II. For England, the memory is one of being bombed, forced out of your home, losing loved ones, being terrified in the dark — and for the United States, the memory is of being the good guys, plain and simple. Since we’re now working our way through the Eccleston series, I said, well, you’re going to get quite a bit more of that shortly (I’m thinking of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, which, it occurs to me, are also the first Steven Moffat-scripted episodes).

So, then there’s Sherlock.

Since I’ve read “A Study in Scarlet” probably a half-dozen times, within the first minute or two of “A Study in Pink” I knew what they were setting up — the question was, does the person they’re going out of their way to not show or draw attention to have the same motivation as Jefferson Hope? Seemed unlikely that a teenage boy would fit in with the same kind of revenge scheme at the heart of “Scarlet”, so knowing the what without the why kept me watching.

I was not prepared for “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!”, much less “No, she was leaving an angry note in German! Of course we’re looking for a Rachel!” What I realized was that knowing the stories set up certain expectations in my head that allowed Moffat and co. to subvert them. Removing the setting of Victorian England, what becomes effectively a third major character in the stories, allows the series to focus on the stories and characters themselves rather than either selling the spectacle of a recreated period (like the Downey Jr./Law movies) or having to be somewhat deliberately stagy to avoid spending too much money on a recreation (like the Jeremy Brett series could be at times).

(I would nonetheless love to see a big-budget, faithful, period film of “A Study in Scarlet” someday. I have no doubt that it will never happen for all kinds of reasons that should be obvious to anybody halfway familiar with the middle portion of the novella — probably the backstory would have to be merged with that of “The Valley of Fear” or something like that, which itself seems like an apologetic rewrite of “Scarlet” anyway — but I hope that I might be wrong on that point.)

It was also fascinating to see the series creators work in other kinds of references. The end of “Pink” definitely recalls Vizzini vs. Westley in The Princess Bride, but it also sets it up with The Vanishing, one of the more terrifying — to me, at least — cinematic psychological traps of the last 30 years. (I’m talking about the Dutch original, by the way, not the remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.) “A Scandal in Belgravia” also cleverly works in a Fight Club homage as well as what I’m convinced is a subtle Star Trek II reference. “Hounds of Baskerville” includes a couple of Nolan-esque moments, one a riff of a moment in Insomnia, and conceptually it is indebted to Batman Begins as much as to Conan Doyle. These don’t strike me as derivative — if anything, they strike me as “Easter eggs” for a particular kind of viewer.

And then, of course, there are the performances. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impersonating anybody, he isn’t being reverent to Brett or Rathbone or Plummer or anybody else, he’s giving the audience a Holmes without the veneer of 19th century gentlemanly society, thus exposing him as a “high-functioning sociopath”. He’s every bit as good as Brett while being a completely different take on the character; I can’t wait to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I’m very curious to see what Hollywood makes of him, given the recent casting of him as the villain in the next Star Trek. Martin Freeman is a perfect foil, and the showrunners do a great job of giving Watson more to do than just chronicling and commenting on Holmes. Turning him into a hapless wannabe-ladies’ man is an interesting comment on how Watson’s love life works itself out in the Conan Doyle stories, and his everyman qualities make it plain why Peter Jackson thought he’d be the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Una Stubbs is a lot of fun as Mrs. Hudson, and her take on the character reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. And, I have to say, I don’t understand why some people have such a burr in their saddles over how Moriarty has been handled. I’ll be curious to see where it goes with “The Reichenbach Fall”, but in the 21st century I find it quite reasonable to think that a master criminal might be, at heart, a man-child on a power trip who wants to get back at everybody who laughed at him growing up.

There’s clearly a shared creative DNA between Sherlock and Doctor Who; obviously there’s Steven Moffat, but there’s also Mark Gatiss, Euros Lyn, and so on. Sherlock and the Eleventh Doctor have similar ways of processing information (compare “What did I see? I saw…” in “The Eleventh Hour” to the “Bond Air” bit in “A Scandal in Belgravia”), and there are some very interesting similarities between “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Unquiet Dead” (the third episode of the Eccleston Who), both Gatiss-scripted. I haven’t yet seen Tintin, but I’m very curious to see how Moffat’s work translates to the big screen.

And there you have it — I’m still not really an Anglophile, but I’m nonetheless one of the people who helped make Doctor Who the most purchased-from-iTunes TV series in 2011, and I’m doing my part to pass along the disease. I’ve shown the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” to about ten people thus far, and there hasn’t yet been an instance where I haven’t had my hand slapped away from the remote when I’ve said, “Okay, that’s the first fifteen minutes, I’m sure you’re not interested in seeing the rest…” Nor has there yet been an instance where I haven’t been bugged for the next 2-3 days about watching the other two episodes of the first season. “The Eleventh Hour” has also had a similar success rate.

I’ll also briefly note that a recent British TV movie called Page Eight was something I was persuaded to check out by virtue of the cast alone — Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, and Ralph Fiennes. (One wonders if all of the Harry Potter alumni get together to do these kinds of things for fun.) It’s an espionage thriller, and a very understated espionage to say the least, but that hardly makes it uninteresting. Bill Nighy  — whom I’m embarrassed to say I first heard of because a friend dragged me to the first Underworld back in 2003 — is such a restrained character that the tension is ratcheted up just by the viewer’s fear of what will happen when he finally lets loose. Does he? I ain’t sayin’. I’ll just say for now that I hope he gets to return to the role at some point, and that Page Eight is well worth checking out — you can find it on either iTunes or PBS’s website, I believe.

Dutifully following up…

Thanks to a couple of friends kindly sharing yesterday’s post on Facebook — I suspect that the ulterior motive in doing so was the opportunity to publicly display goodwill to the deranged — I saw a number of comments on the piece that were not actually posted on the blog itself. I replied to a couple of them, but I also thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to address them here.

What I found very curious about some of the criticism is that what they were objecting to was also what I was objecting to, or at least I thought I was. I grant that I finally hit “Publish” at close to 3am and it’s possible that what seemed like a clear, cogent train of thought at the time was actually me calling for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks. I’m also enough of a postmodernist, at least in terms of absorption of cultural surroundings, to know that authorial intent is in no way authoritative, so if you think that I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks, I called for mandatory Batman tattoos on elephant trunks (even if the words I actually used were “I prefer rhubarb pie, but only with a nice strong cup of Ethiopian coffee and a rose liqueur chaser”).

One comment went as follows:

I think that that way lies madness on two counts:

1) The approach discussed, answering peoples’ ‘Felt Needs’, is exactly the approach that has led to the decline, and now fall of the historic Protestant denominations in the United States. Speaking from my personal background, the Dutch Reformed Church started saying to itself, “People don’t have a Predestination problem…” “People don’t have a Total Depravity problem…” “People aren’t wandering around feeling guilty about the sin in their lives…” and slowly but surely, all of those distinctions went down the sewer pipe and the Dutch Reformed denominations, with Robert Schuller leading the parade, left Protestantism, then Christianity, and blended into the American religion.

2) There’s an exceedingly false premise in the midst of this piece, and that’s that the Holy Orthodox Church isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified in the United States today. I don’t know if its stated out of charity or ignorance of just how bad the religious landscape has become, but Orthodoxy is, frankly, the last vestige of Christianity available in the United States. Everything else has blended into the hydra that is Americanism, a kind of Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism. One head is Southern Baptist, one is Mormon, one Episcopalian, but at the core they’re teaching the same thing, a bland moralism, worship of patria, and whatever self help strategy is popular this week.

America is a threat unlike anything Orthodoxy has ever faced. We’re faced with a culture that believes itself to be Christian, but is anything but. A culture with no sense of history whatsoever, and which actively denies history’s relevance to religion. A culture whose religious experience is entirely subjective and individualistic. A culture that has fused this false religion with an overpowering Statism.

To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church was not seeking converts in Western European nations in the 19th century, nor in the fascist states of the early-20th century, and Communism of course left Orthodoxy in no state to seek growth until its fall in the lands afflicted. Those are the only places where She might have had a similar experience to attempting to convert the United States today.

The last thing I’m suggesting is that Orthodoxy blend into the American religion. However, I’m also trying to be realistic about the cultural circumstances that inform the problem, and I’m explicitly problematizing the approach of revising our visible, external practices as a way of making peace with those cultural circumstances. As far as the matter of whether or not Orthodox Christianity isn’t the only one preaching Christ crucified goes, my point is that, even if this commenter is right that Orthodoxy is the only one, we nonetheless are in the position of having to fight to be heard over the din of everybody else claiming to do so, and the ways we try to distinguish ourselves in the midst of that dull roar are received more often than not as exercises in question-begging, at least from what I’ve seen. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s a personal anecdote that seems applicable to me. When I was a little kid, I had a Sherlock Holmes-style double-billed deerstalker hat, a trenchcoat, and a briefcase. I insisted on wearing them to school every day. My parents told me, “You can wear those if you want. You need to be aware that you will probably take some heat for it because you’ll probably be the only kid at school wearing anything like it.” I chose to wear them nonetheless, completely unfazed. Yes, I had a lot of problems getting along with some of the other kids at school as a result, but I stuck to my guns.

From where I sit now, close to 30 years removed from that set of circumstances, I don’t think it was right or wrong that I made the choice that I did. It was just who I was (and still am, to a certain degree), and the way people reacted to me was a function of who they were. To be who I was without those externals was incomprehensible to me. But I still got beat up (and worse, sometimes) and my hat still got stolen on a regular basis (but always recovered — I still have it, in fact). I could have saved myself a lot of grief by just choosing to fit in, but I didn’t want to do that. What I did to adapt, rather, was to do the best I could at the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and eventually my path became clear. (Not until I was 29, and then I was 32 before I could actually go down that path, but never mind that now.)

I have a friend who just very recently started talking to me about the prospect of becoming a priest eventually. It’s coming to him out of a sense of vocation, not to evangelize the United States with the One True Church, but rather — and I can’t say I’ve ever heard any of my various would-be seminarian friends and acquaintances ever put it this way before — to heal people’s souls. Wow. When I think about how rife our culture is with depression, and how much effort we put into possible solutions for it, some that might work and others that assuredly won’t — well, talk about a problem people actually do think they have, and that we as the Church actually can do something about. Is that an impulse that leads to Nationalistic Therapeutic Deism? My instinct is to say no, that it’s rather an impulse to do what the Church should be doing anyway, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s another one:

Myeh — he’s right, but he’s wrong. His rhetoric is good, but he dismisses alternate claims on a kind of wistful idealism only then to transition into a realist “let’s meet real problems” mode to throw you off his trail. Not biting, thank you. What’s frustrating is that we _do_ need to translate some things, but it can’t be the result of one generation’s engineering project of “inculturation.”

We do need the Liturgy in English, we also really should have music that taps into some kind of cultural memory (there is such a thing, even if it’s weaker than it is in other cultures — and even, contra the choir director in this piece, if it seems “arbitrarily chosen” according to critical standards…these “arbitrary choices” are the result of decisions that the entire culture has received, that this kind of music captures something primordial about who we are, and it is probably made on a host of very difficult-to-pinpoint resonances between the form of the music and the forms of a bundle of things — the feel of the land, the forms of historical events that are received as defining, etc.).

On the other hand, the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church should not be tampered with. I don’t know why people would think that these should change. If there are little changes in iconographic style or vestments or whatever that would translate the tradition better in our land, then these will accumulate slowly over time from deepened fidelity to what is received, and will not result from a program.

Finally, Orthodox people say lots of really silly things about what the West is and what Secularism is. (They also say silly things about what Protestantism is, or what Catholicism is — even converts from these traditions.) This all really needs to be straightened out. In every pre-modern Pagan people that I know of, they had the Gospel translated into the symbolic idiom they knew — so that in the Anglo-Saxon world, for instance, they had the Pagan mythology subtly re-configured to communicate the form of the Gospel. There is continuity, and discontinuity, and I don’t know that there’s any other way to graft something on. Unless someone can articulate the American mythology, we’re not likely to have much success other than pockets of people who’re faithful to their heritage and peculiar converts who can buck all kinds of countervailing forces.

What is there to be wary of in American culture, in the condition of Secularism we all find ourselves in? The shadowboxing will likely continue until someone can speak clearly.

I’m not certain what alternate claims I’m dismissing with wistful idealism, and it’s also unclear to me what he means by saying I’m trying to throw people off my trail. Dealing with the rest of it — I never said we don’t need the Liturgy in English; I said that English is important. What I suggested, perhaps clumsily in my 2:30am stupor, is something that seems to me to be well in line with what he says — that English isn’t functioning as part of a mission so much as part of a cultural agenda. The agenda is looking an awful lot like the tail wagging the dog, and it isn’t addressing what strike me, at least in my own limited experience, as the real pastoral issues that have to do with language and culture.

Unless someone can articulate the American mythology… well, somebody did that. His name was Joseph Smith. The particular genius of Mormonism, it seems to me, was figuring out a way to incorporate an American sense of place into its sacred history in a way that no Protestant group has really managed to do, and that Catholicism and Orthodoxy really struggle to figure out how to do. The way most Protestants seem to have solved this problem is to become semi-gnostic (at least) in their approach to place. I had a conversation with somebody about a year ago, basically a garden-variety Evangelical, about my experience in Greece and being someplace where particular events in Christian history are embedded in the cultural memory. This person looked very thoughtful and said, “Well, that’s interesting, but why does anybody actually need that? I don’t have a sense of place that has resonance with Christian history, but I’ve got Jesus, and I don’t see where I’m missing anything.” (Which again smacks of solutions looking for problems.) I’ve suggested before that the way American Orthodoxy will develop its own sense of place will be American saints who actually were born here and active here, but that’s not going to happen overnight.

(Incidentally, Flesh of My Flesh does medieval Germanic stuff, and I’m well aware of the Gospel being translated into the symbolic idiom that they knew — still, there are limitations there. The Germanic tribes stayed Arian for a long time, for example, and my wife has also talked about there being some very strange things going on with things like the Heliand, the Gospel harmonization written in Old Saxon.)

What is there to be wary of in American culture? That’s a question that I’m sure could take multiple dissertations to answer, but here’s where my brain immediately goes: I met a man once who was a mortgage broker. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but he was very good at it, and he was proud of what he did. “If you’re going to make shoes, make good shoes,” he said. It was a point of view that got me thinking, and I remember mentioning it to my dad, who promptly shot down the man’s attitude as naive and, mortal sin of mortal sins, inefficient. “If you make good shoes that nobody can buy, you’re not going to have a job,” he retorted. “Better to make shoes that are just good enough that the average person can afford them and feel like they’re getting a halfway decent product. Sell to the classes, eat with the masses. Sell to the masses, eat with the classes.” It seems to me that that’s a good place to start.


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