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Posts Tagged 'sherlock'

Some thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

On New Year’s Day Megan and I finally got to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Friends of ours were willing to watch Theodore for a few hours, and even bought tickets, bless them. Seeing it in 3-D 24fps, I rather enjoyed it; the supposed departures from the book didn’t bother me for many of the reasons discussed here. One of the things I really liked about it that this article does not mention is that there weren’t any American actors (save Elijah Wood oh-so-briefly) doing English accents that won’t have aged well 10 years from now. That’s something about the LOTR trilogy that really sticks out for me these days; the simple fact is, some American actors have gotten a lot better at accents since those movies were made, and Elijah Wood and Sean Astin really give it their all, but on repeated viewings some things annoy that I suspect won’t with Martin Freeman’s performance.

On that — arguably, Martin Freeman starts out playing his straight man type, John Watson with prosthetic feet, but I assume part of the point will be to see the transformation by the third film (much as, I should add, we see Watson progress in Sherlock). There were already little ways he was incorporating some of Ian Holm’s characteristics; I assume he’ll go further with that as the films progress.

Speaking of Ian Holm, I watched Alien a couple of nights ago for the first time in a long time, and Martin Freeman really does look a good bit like Ian Holm in his younger days. They could have done a lot worse in terms of matching actors.

I saw that Christopher Tolkien has claimed that Peter Jackson’s films “eviscerated” the books. I respect where the Tolkien family is coming from. I can understand the problem of films overtaking the imaginary impetus of the source material and perhaps setting up false expectations. Something very similar to this has historically been my objection to people like Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman being referred to as “opera singers”.

However, something worth pointing out is that Tolkien’s work has in no way been “eviscerated”. Whatever one thinks of the films (and, call me a casual, unserious, uninformed Tolkien reader if you like, but I’ve read them all multiple times, I’m actually surprised at how much Peter Jackson’s films actually do maintain what I see as the spirit, if not the letter, of the books), the books are still right there on the shelves. Not a word of them has been changed (except those that Tolkien himself changed through the various edits and revisions). You can buy Tolkien’s books and read his words for yourself, and many, many people continue to do so, so I find it somewhat disingenuous to claim that the Tolkien heirs don’t benefit at all from this.

Two books I read a long time ago that very much changed how I saw cinematic adaptations of stories from other media are Syd Field’s Screenplay  and J. Michael Straczynski’s The Complete Book of Screenwriting. There are reasons things get changed for films, and even factoring out issues of the economics of film, they have to do with the needs of the medium. Even something as simple as having to decide on a consistent way a character looks or how their name is pronounced has to be decided upon, which itself means you’re going with one interpretation over another. Don’t think this is a big deal? Google “Balrog wings controversy” sometime. I also have friends who insist that the names “Smaug” and “Gollum” are actually pronounced “Smog” and “Gah-LUM”. These are things that an individual reader can decide for themselves when reading it in their own head, but you can’t do that with film.

And, like it or not, film presents an opportunity to “correct” the source material. For every person who thinks it’s ridiculous that Arwen’s story got expanded in the LOTR films, there’s somebody who thinks the filmmakers caved to chauvinistic purists by not going ahead with having Arwen go all-out warrior princess and fighting at Helm’s Deep. (According to the commentaries on the DVD, this was all shot, but it apparently didn’t work when they looked at what they had. Did Liv Tyler just not have the chops for it? I don’t know.) Maybe you can argue that such changes are precisely what take away from the spirit of the source material, but also consider that variations are part of what make myth myth. To the extent that Tolkien was “subcreating” myth, then it becomes problematic to apply some kind of “sola scriptura” rubric to the story. Myths get retold, and they get retold in ways that suit new audiences. Even within the universe of The Lord of the Rings — the book that we call The Hobbit is different in a crucial way from what Tolkien originally published, and it’s because he realized he needed the story to do something else when he revisited it years later.

All of this is to say — I don’t doubt that Christopher Tolkien, perhaps the closest person on earth to the textual sources of Middle Earth still living, feels every and any change from the text like a stab to the gut. I do suggest, however, that that very intimacy with his father’s words make it very difficult for him to properly see the big picture.

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In which I boil water

You may recall that a rather geeky purchase of mine proved to be difficult to reconcile with American wiring. An electric-savvy friend of mine came over and looked at our box to see what might be necessary to get it running without a transformer; the box itself would probably have to be replaced, since it was bought second-hand off of Moses, but that would probably be something that the landlord would take care of given sufficient justification. Once the box was up to code, it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal to put in a dedicated outlet for the kettle.

With a baby on the way, that was maybe sufficient justification to mention to my landlord, hey, a friend of mine checked out our fusebox and said that it probably wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to have an electrician bring it up to date. I did so, and the landlord (who has always been a very cool guy to us) said, sure, no problem, here’s the guy I usually use.

Well, the electrician came out and definitely found some wiring issues that needed fixing, and said, yep, I can have a conversation with the homeowner about the fusebox. He wasn’t opposed to putting in a dedicated outlet, but said, you know, it’s possible that there’s a different base that will let it run on US electricity — check with the manufacturer.

But then other big things happened, and it kind of fell of my radar for awhile.

Then Madelene left a comment on the original post saying that she’d gotten this working without any massive rewiring of everything. The secret? That the US-based Chef’s Choice uses the same manufacturer as Russell Hobbs, and markets a variant of the same kettle in North America. It’s not exactly the same — no blue lights, the handle is different, other cosmetic differences — but the important thing is that the Russell Hobbs kettle will fit on the base of the Chef’s Choice version.

A phone call to Chef’s Choice confirmed the availability of replacement bases, and today the box arrived.

Which brings me to the moment where perhaps you will decide that six weeks of fatherhood have already robbed me of my sanity — yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m posting a video of water boiling. One thing you’ll notice right off is that on American electricity, the whole “boiling in under a minute” thing doesn’t happen — more like five. Oh well. It still works.

All this for a quick cuppa — a cry for electrical help

If either of my regular readers have any electrical expertise, then I’d appreciate your input. Let me say up front that this is not by any means the most practical thing I’ve ever done, so if you want to tell me that, you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.

So, for a number of reasons, I thought it would be cool to get a particular model Russell Hobbs teakettle.

You will perhaps notice already what my issue is.

Yep, it’s a UK plug. Now, this was hardly an “Aha! Fooled you!” moment; I knew it had a UK plug when I bought it, and I ordered it off of Amazon UK. I knew exactly what I was ordering when I ordered it. I just figured, “Hey, there’s gotta be a workaround.” It seemed worth it; I was told that UK kettles are nice because they heat up near-instantly, and they’re great if you can get them working. There seemed to be some folks online who had done it, so there seemed to be precedent for my impracticality.

(And, I’ll be honest, there was a geeky impulse behind the purchase as well. Judge me if you must. I already said this wasn’t the most practical thing I’ve ever done.)

So, I took the element to a local electrics shop.

“What do I need to make this run?” I asked.

The guy looked at me like I was perhaps on the simple side. (And yes, perhaps I am.) “UK plug adapter and a step-up transformer for 220-240v, rated for 3 kilowatts,” he said. “Good luck.”

So, fine. I got exactly that.

Here’s what happens when I try to use the kettle:

(Forgive the Darth Vader breathing; I’ve been sick for the last two weeks.) As you can see, it works for a bit (aren’t the shiny blue lights awesome!), then the transformer’s circuit breaker trips. After a few seconds, I can reset the circuit breaker, the kettle goes again, the breaker trips, reset, kettle goes again, breaker trip, reset, kettle finishes boiling and shuts itself off. It still all happens in less time than it would take to boil the water on the stove, but I can’t really say that it’s exactly what I had in mind.

So, short of moving to the UK, what can I do to get this to work?

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.

“Encounter” vs. “reception” vs. solutions looking for problems

As has been our custom for the last seven years, New Year’s found me and Flesh of My Flesh in the company of our dear friends Benjamin and Paul for a long weekend of food and movies. We all started out in Bloomington at about the same time, and we all converted to Orthodox Christianity within a year of each other. During academic year ’05/’06 Benjamin and Paul were roommates, and for all intents and purposes there was something of a miniature commune between our two residences, with at least one shared meal virtually daily at either our place or theirs. When they both departed for broader horizons in summer of 2006 — Benjamin to take an adjunct voice teacher position at his alma mater in Cleveland, Paul to pursue different opportunities in New Jersey — we made a point of continuing to spend New Year’s together, and save for ’10/’11 when Megan was in Germany for the year (and therefore I was overseas visiting her for the New Year), we have done so every year since. ’06/’07 and ’07/’08 were in Cleveland, ’08/’09 was here in Bloomington, and then this time we all made the trek out to New Jersey, since Paul has always been good enough to come out to see us in past years. This year the menu was French food, largely inspired by Benjamin and Paul’s respective travels; the films included The King’s Speech (I’d seen it before; it’s good but I can’t say I found it life-changing or worthy of Best Picture) and The White Countess (excellent on every level, and I was left wondering why in the world I’d never heard of it before). I also had the pleasure of introducing Paul to the Steven Moffat/Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman Sherlock, and I have to say that I have yet to show anybody the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” who hasn’t both been glued to their chair for the rest and bugging me for the next two or three days about watching the other two episodes. This means I’ve seen “A Study in Pink” now about ten times, but that has yet to be a problem. I will have to write later about how Steven Moffat, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Matt Smith have gradually taken over such TV viewing habits as I have; suffice it to say for the time being that I’m not pleased that I will have to wait until May for “A Scandal in Belgravia” and God-only-knows-when for Series 7 of Doctor Who.

A visit to Paul’s current parish Sunday morning was interesting for a number of reasons. Among them was the choir situation; they appear to be quite blessed with a volunteer choir that can pretty much sing whatever the director puts in front of them, and the director himself is a very capable conductor. He’s given them all very thick binders with multiple options for everything, and he apparently chooses everything on the fly during the service based on whom he happens to have that particular morning. He’s not shy about giving them tougher stuff, either, or about making some, uh, unorthodox musical choices, like Sarum chant and William Byrd.

We had, to say the least, a lively conversation following the Divine Liturgy, prompted in no small part by the director’s mention of the recent publication of the Suchy-Pilalis first Nativity Canon. He brought it up, mentioned that he saw that it was a new melody composed using Byzantine principles for the Lash translation, and I was about to say, “Yes, it’s great work that is one of a few things like that pointing the way forward” when he surprised me with his adamant insistence that it was nonsense. He asserted rather bluntly that composing for English texts using Byzantine compositional principles is no better than keeping an existing melody, whiting out the Greek, and shoehorning in the English. He said over and over again that you absolutely cannot do that — I think he may have even called it “unconscionable” that anybody would think that it’s an acceptable approach. His stance was that Byzantine compositional principles assume an inflected language with particular stress patterns for particular kinds of cadences, and that English doesn’t work that way, so it’s just another way of shoehorning English texts into a context they were never meant to fit. Plus, he said, even if you recompose for English, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re talking about a musical idiom that has zero cultural resonance whatever for the native English speaker, and thus utterly fails in terms of mission. In all fairness, he didn’t really single out Byzantine chant; he seemed to be suggesting that virtually all received forms of Orthodox liturgical music need to be consigned to the dustheap for purposes of English. If they’re going to survive at all, he said, they need to be adapted “organically” for purposes of a culturally American, English-language context, but even when pressed it seemed unclear exactly what he had in mind.

I found myself even more perplexed when it came to what he saw as a better alternative. He was as unsympathetic to the idea of using existing American vernacular musical idioms as a starting point as he was to anything else; “You’re just arbitrarily historicizing something else that way,” was his response. He made it clear that he wasn’t suggesting that we look to Eminem for a example of what “the music of the people” might sound like, but exactly what he thought we should be looking to was never articulated precisely.

He also had unmitigated wrath for anybody who might preserve any kind of Jacobean-style English, arguing that the style has the exact opposite effect from what it was intended to have. Thees and thous were supposed to be familiar, he said, and we now use them to distance ourselves from God and place him higher than ourselves rather than to address him with intimacy. Megan tried to express some appreciation for the style and he would have none of it; “You want Christ’s crucifixion to be meaningless just so you can have your thees and thous!” he told her. (A friend of his started to intervene at this point, only to have him yell, “WE’RE NOT ARGUING!”)

Now, lest I be misleading, I should say that while I intensely disagree with this gentleman on a number of points, he was — believe it or not — good-natured and friendly throughout the conversation, and very well-informed on the whole. There were a couple of things he said where I’m not sure where he’s getting his information, but it’s safe to say that our disagreements are generally informed disagreements, and those are the kind I’d rather have with people.

Megan also asked him, “Why do we need to reinvent the wheel when the wheels we have have done pretty well in every other situation for at least the last 1500 years?” His answer? “Good question. Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.”

Because those wheels don’t travel on our roads.

Hm.

Matthew Namee’s recent piece over at SOCHA, “Toward and American Orthodox historical narrative”, looks to the concept of “encounter” as a way of talking about American Orthodox history — “Encounter between Orthodoxy and the West; encounter between long-isolated Orthodox ethnic groups; and encounter between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.” He expands on the notion of the encounter with the West using Orthodox youth as an example:

From the beginning, American Orthodoxy has struggled to retain its young people. It didn’t help that, for decades (and in some churches, up to the present) Orthodoxy was treated as more of a cultural artifact than a living faith. Old languages were preserved, and English was resisted, and most young people didn’t care about the misguided justifications for using only Greek or Slavonic or Arabic or what have you. Who wants to worship in a language they can’t understand? And no matter how beautiful a language is, if the people can’t understand it, it has failed in its fundamental purpose: to communicate meaning.

He wraps up the “encounter with the West” idea thus:

We encountered the West, and we didn’t know what in the heck to do with it. We weren’t prepared. We flailed about, dancing with the Anglicans, wallowing in our nominalism, ordaining every male American convert who expressed the faintest interest in the priesthood. All too often, we have lacked a vision for our mission in America, and even our identity as the Apostolic Church — the Church. Sentimentalism, ethnic pride, a desire for acceptance, a pleasant feeling of surprise when we are accepted — these things all can be good, and they can have their place. But they can also be our downfall.

The “encounter with the West” notion seems to agree with this New Jersey choir director that “those wheels don’t travel on our roads”. What we had doesn’t work here, and the more we try to make it work here, the more it underscores how badly it doesn’t work here. From a musical point of view this problematizes the whole notion of a “received tradition”; you can’t speak of a “received tradition” when nobody’s receiving it. This appears to be what the New Jersey choir director is getting at: reception isn’t happening, and the more you try to make the existing idioms get along with our language and culture, the more it emphasizes that it can’t be done.

As far as Matthew Namee’s piece goes — I like a lot of what he has to say, and I think what he has to say about the dangers we’ve set up for ourselves with convert clergy being ordained too lightly and too quickly is probably exactly right. Still, there are some over-generalizations that bother me. The language issue — and I’m not even going to go near the bit about the “fundamental purpose” of language, because that’s a significantly complicated matter — certainly gets its exercise in almost any conversation about this stuff, but the flipside is the phenomenon I’ve seen of people who’ve grown up in parishes where a non-vernacular liturgical language is preserved and for whom hearing the services in English is a cheapening experience. It’s great that it’s in English, it’s great that I can understand this or that part of the service, they say, but… something’s wrong. It sounds like English, but it doesn’t sound like church. What I have come to understand from what I’ve experienced in non-English parishes is that, for a significant portion of cradles, it matters that the language they hear in church is the language in which they remember hearing their grandmother pray. It matters because liturgy builds, maintains, and transmits religious identity, and to the extent that liturgy feels like a “family affair” in a broad and a narrow sense of the term, it’s going to be difficult for such people to separate their earthly family from their church family. I recently met an older Greek-American who lives here in Bloomington and was part of what became All Saints in the early days but who declined to continue to be part of it when the community incorporated under the Antiochians. He said, rather bluntly, “Forgive my ethno-centrism, but I just can’t do it. What a Greek person gets out of going to a Greek church is very personal, and it’s not something you can just transplant or translate.” A somewhat more flippant Greek-American friend of mine recently put it, “So often, you just want to say, ‘American Orthodoxy — you’re doing it wrong.'”

But let’s be honest — that’s what’s at the core of King James-style English, too. Even we as English speakers want church to sound like church. That’s the Lord’s Prayer the way we were taught it as kids — once again, the way we we remember hearing our grandmother pray. And the New Jersey choir director is right, sometimes that means the meaning has shifted — take the Paschal greeting the way it’s typically rendered into English: “Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!” And we hear things about how that means that Christ is risen now, today, that it’s an ongoing reality — but that’s not actually what “is risen” means. “Christ is risen” is an archaic way of saying what we would now express in English as “Christ has risen”. It’s a perfect tense — think the Christmas carol “Joy to the world” — “The Lord is come“. It’s still the way you do perfect tenses in German — “Christus ist auferstanden!” — but in English it’s an archaicism, and one we don’t readily grasp as being so. If you translate Χριστὸς ἀνέστη literally, it’s something like “Christ rose”; it’s an aorist tense, past time and simple aspect — the narrative past tense, if you like, which establishes it as a once-and-for-all historical event, which is something very different from understanding “Christ is risen” as being in the present tense. But if we started saying “Christ arose!” on Easter, I’m guessing it really wouldn’t work for most people.

If archaic language is keeping youth out, but English isn’t necessarily solving the problem, then there is more of an issue here, and maybe Namee gets more to the point when he says that Orthodox Christianity “didn’t know what the heck to do” with the West.

Here’s what I think is the hard reality: Orthodox Christianity in the United States, at least as presented up to this point, is a solution looking for a problem.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say that Americans, by and large, have no interest in being part of Holy Russia, have no interest in re-establishing the Roman Empire, and have no real interest in Russian or Greek cultures except when they can get good poppyseed rolls or have a gyros while watching some kids re-enact Zorba’s dance. Yes, fine, we all know that. Americans want to be Americans.

But you know what? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think Americans, for the most part, have any particular interest in being part of “the one true Church” either. America, like it or lump it, is culturally Protestant, and as soon as you start using that kind of language, you’re already making assumptions that were rejected by our forebears centuries ago. Most Americans are not looking for a “more authentic” liturgical experience; most Americans are not looking for anything “traditional” or that constitutes a “deeper Christian spirituality”, or whatever the other buzzwords are that we all like to use. I have seen with my own eyes what can happen when certain kinds of American Protestants try to speak in that language, and the result is something like theatre for the deaf. Americans, at least some of them, can be well aware of the consequences when those elements of Christianity with even the vaguest of historical roots are traded for a mess of pottage, and in a way this can be seen as a manifestation of the same problem as language — church seems too distinct from your everyday life, which might be a problem, but in updating, it loses an important distinction from everyday life, and thus there ceases to be a compelling reason to go. But, by and large, these are pretty rarefied problems from the standpoint of most Americans trying to figure out where they might go to church on Sunday morning. Even the apparent cultural impulse in which Orthodox Christianity subsists of gilding and ornamenting the things you love and think are important falls totally flat in a culture that thinks you need to strip the things you care about down to bare essentials. As marketed and described, at least, Orthodox Christianity, frankly, is just in the wrong key for American culture, no matter what melody you try to write in that key. It may very well be what America needs, but that’s something completely different.

Orthodox Christianity, in order to succeed in any kind of an American mission, doesn’t first and foremost need to find a musical idiom that will have cultural resonance, it doesn’t first and foremost need to be in English, and it doesn’t first and foremost need a simpler liturgy or reduced vestments or married bishops or anything like this. I have a lot more faith in what has been passed down than that — those things have survived this long under wars and occupation and servitude and so on, and I’m not convinced that America is a worse threat than any of those issues. Does Orthodox Christianity need to preach the Gospel, Christ crucified? Yes, but it’s going to be painfully obvious in doing so that we’re not the only ones who are, and being “the one true Church” isn’t going to sufficiently elevate us over the competing ambient noise, I don’t think.

What Orthodox Christianity needs to do is actually have a way of addressing real problems real people have rather than thinking that Joe Average is going to care about Arianism or Iconoclasm. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that most people don’t think they have a “true Church” problem. Most people don’t think they have a liturgy problem or a filioque problem. Most people these days are just trying to get through the day with some amount of sanity and dignity and without going broke, and when they go to church they want to feel like they’re getting comfort of some kind. Solace. Some sense of belonging, of acceptance of and respite from their daily struggle the rest of the week. Some sense that God’s in control even if they’re not.

How does Orthodox Christianity do this? I don’t know. Our services don’t really do catharsis, and I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves or anybody else well to try. I don’t think we do it via self-conscious “accessibility” efforts; I could say something really obvious and pithy like, we have to do it by loving other people, and while that’s true, what does that look like so that, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, in aiming for it, the ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual issues get thrown in? Certainly organizations like IOCC and OCMC already perform valuable social services and missions and so on, but the narrative of “Orthodoxy doesn’t do those things” already exists, rightly or wrongly, and efforts in those areas are seen as confirming their scarcity rather than speaking to their abundance or efficacy.

By the way, what I’m not arguing here is that we somehow need to come up with a “strategy”. I’m actually trying to say that the strategies we’ve come up with up to this point aren’t actually accomplishing what we think they should be. Some of you may recall that over a year ago, I was trying to get an Orthodox IU alumni association going. Well, we put together a mailing list of 500 people, and somebody got involved who himself had a lot of experience at what he called the “science” of marketing and fundraising. He gave a lot of specific advice about what the mailing should and should not do and look like, and what actually went out in the mail, even though it bore my signature, was more based on his concept than mine. In any event, he believed very strongly that what we sent out should have really grabbed a lot of attention and gotten a lot of people involved. It was a well-strategized effort, to say the least — and there was absolutely zero response. Zero. The strategy accomplished nothing. Why? Again, because we were a solution looking for a problem — for a good chunk of the people we were trying to reach, there would be no association of Orthodoxy with their time at IU because there was no church here in those days. There would be no reason for them to be sold on an Orthodox alumni association if they were already members of the regular alumni association and didn’t have any particular already-established goodwill towards the parish here. Strategies do nothing if you aren’t actually addressing an issue somebody has, unless you’re Steve Jobs, in which case you are magically able to convince people they need something they’ve never heard of before. Orthodoxy in this country has not had a lot of luck being Steve Jobs, although the reason why he was so good at it was because the designs produced under his name were useful and elegant and beautiful. We haven’t yet convinced ourselves that we have the resources to do all three of those things the way they would actually need to be done.

To come back to liturgy and music — I myself do not play to English exceptionalism. English is important, yes, sure, fine, but catering to it to the extent of throwing out large chunks of historical practice with the justification that we have to do it because it’s English can hardly be priority zero. (I’ve already said what I think about the textuality of the liturgy.) I don’t hear anybody arguing that icons need to look more like Norman Rockwell painted them. I think the wheels we have do travel on our roads — I think the simple fact is that we aren’t building the wheels well enough for the most part. If we’d actually build them as designed with skill and attention to quality, they’d work just fine. We need to do what we do and what makes us distinctive as well as we possibly can, not decide for everybody else that they won’t like it anyway. What form of music will play in Peoria is, honestly, a side issue. If the Orthodox Church can actually reach an average person in Peoria who is struggling with just getting through the day, love that person unconditionally, and proclaim the Gospel to that average person in a way that sticks, then that person isn’t going to care that the music is Byzantine chant — rather, he or she will associate that music with the difference that is made in his/her life. (That’s something I have seen, I should hasten to add.) If we don’t take our own practices seriously enough to do them well and with care, then such a hypothetical person will sense that we don’t care about them, and he/she won’t care about them either.

Anyway — all of that is to say, Orthodoxy in America as a solution looking for a problem. Discuss.


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