Sunday, September 23, 2007

charles williams explains it all

At a recent book fair I stumbled across Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church in paperback for fifty cents. I call that a bargain. The first Charles Williams I read was something like three years ago, when I read All Hallows' Eve in preparation for the All Saints'/Halloween celebrations. I had only begun to learn about the Inklings (through my love of Tolkien) and had only heard vague things about Williams. Once I learned of his (non-fiction) theological writings, I was immediately attracted to the title for Descent of the Dove.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Passion Play

Last night I had the good fortune to be taken to the theatre by a stunning benefactress. After a quick mimosa, we were drawn into a web of politics, religion, and theatricality in Sarah Ruhl's three-play cycle, entitled simply, Passion Play. Currently in production at the Goodman, Passion Play portrays three communities and their passion plays: the first in 1575 northern England; the second in 1934 Oberammergau, Germany; the third beginning in 1969 South Dakota. All three are set on the backdrop of political upheaval.

All three locations have a tradition of passion plays (the passion play of Spearfish, South Dakota was begun by a displaced German actor in the 1940s), and all three are set in times of conflict. The passion play, for those without knowledge of theatre history, has its origins well into ancient ecclesiastical rites, but became especially popular during the Middle Ages. With plague and upheaval everywhere, the guilded (though not often gilded) productions of passion plays were a popular source of hope and the acclamation of a community's faith in the midst of desperate times. One could almost call the production of a passion play in a community a kind of lay rite, a ritual of theatre that empowered ordinary people to do something holy. It is in this context that we follow the key characters in their portrayals of biblical characters (especially prominent are Mary, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus) and in their more "real" lives.

Although the setting of producing a passion play is a constant, the political backdrop of each is unique. Queen Elizabeth's reform of England was in full-swing in 1575; 1934, naturally, is located in the foothills of Hitler's Nazi regime and WWII; and in 1969, there was no part of America not affected by the Vietnam conflict. Three influential and theatrical leaders rise up and claim the stage at crucial moments in each movement. Queen Elizabeth, whose reform of England was the cause of much spilt Roman Catholic blood, figures prominently throughout the cycle. Hitler naturally appears in one movement and makes a small appearance in another. And Ronald Reagan, who eventually inherited the veterans of Vietnam, charms his way into the final piece of the cycle. All three political heads had a flair for theatricality: Elizabeth with her makeup and royal pomp; Hitler, who utilized acting and theatricality to enhance the effectiveness of his speeches; and Reagan the former and charismatic actor.

The cycle is humorous and haunting, tender and tragic, comedic and carnivalesque. Of course Ruhl investigates questions of faith and doubt, of politics and repression and enlightenment. But perhaps the most important question we are initiated into in her cycle is the question she puts in her notes to the cycle. After describing the aforementioned theatrical leaders, Ruhl asks, "But what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war." Or consider the words Reagan says at one point (loosely quoted), "I think people are afraid of actors. They're afraid we're good at lying. But really we're just extraordinarily good at telling the truth." Again from her notes: "Never have the medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined. I'm interested in how leaders use, mis-use and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons."

Although she could use a staff (historical) theologian, Ruhl's cycle is magnificent. Every once in a while a bit of the dilettante in matters religious comes through (I speak as a trained theologian, what can one expect). Even so, the cycle is brilliant in its examination of the intersection of theatricality (performativity?), politics, and religion. A work of art of the highest caliber.

As an added bonus, however, Emily was wise enough to realize the playwright was sitting next to me through the first two movements (only moving to the empty row one down from us for the third). Upon discovering that it was she, the production stage manager, and director (Mark Wing-Davey), I was naturally very pleased to have handed her her waterbottle at one point, which she had forgotten in her previous seat. But in truth it was such a wonderful opportunity to peripherally be informed by their reactions as well. Upon leaving I made a point to thank the director (the playwright was otherwise engrossed in her laptop) for the beautiful event, which I think caught him a bit off guard since he responded with a bemused, "Well...yes...thank're welcome."

So it is with great pleasure that I recommend to you all Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts by Sarah Ruhl.

P.S. Should any of you be in the Chicago area to see it at the Goodman, please be advised that the parts of Village Idiot/Village Idiot/Violet, played by Polly Noonan; Pontius the fish gutter/Footsoldier/P, played by Brian Sgambati; and Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan, played by T. Ryder Smith, are exceptionally wonderfully played.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

...and taking names (4)

The most recent of Jamie Smith's published works is a fine little volume entitled, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. I found the expositions of recent films that opened each chapter a fitting tribute to Francis Schaeffer, not to mention a fine practice of cultural interpretation. But quite beyond this fitting structural element, the book is a welcome argument for the current ecclesiastical milieu.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

...and taking names (3)

Having indicated my suspicions that a Leibnizian-Deleuzian ontology offers itself to as many slippery slopes as a Platonic one, it is now time to turn attention to the heart of Smith’s creational ontology. I indicated that the basic attempt at a creational ontology is brought into question by two ontological events and an array of biblical aesthetic. Before I arrive at these three, let us consider the most valuable element of Smith’s argument against Radical Orthodoxy (RO).
The real value of Jamie Smith’s argument for creational ontology is that he attempts to affirm the goodness of the body, which has suffered at the hands of many theologians. The current spike in interest in theology of the body is welcome, even if the scholarship is a bit flat. One does feel that there is often a rather uncritical acceptance or else a deep paranoia of the body and its passions in Christian theology. It is not often that one finds a middle ground. Although I did not grow up in a fundamentalist tradition, a mutation of Reformed evangelicalism did exercise its influence at a crucial point in my faith development. Often enough in such a tradition the body, especially the sexual body, is feared or otherwise to be tamed and broken for the sake of the [s]pirit. Smith, having grown up in similar circles, has exactly this kind of negative appraisal of the body in his sights when he loads the ammunition for his creational ontology. One gets the feeling that it is not so much materiality, but the body in particular (as proposed microcosm of the entire material order) that drives Smith’s campaign. And so it seems the closer we come to this issue the more we penetrate to the core of Smith’s argument.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

random fun

I have returned from NYC. Good times. I'll put up a separate post about my time in the Big Apple. But in the meantime, I bring you a brief meditation on the ever-addictive blog surveys. I can't not do them. Especially when other people I know or really really like (voted best girlfriend ever in another recent survey by...well, me) do them. So I came across this one on Daily Cornbread.

I answered the five or six questions as best I could (there are always multiple answers that could be given). After some deliberation, I decided the little button marked, "Submit" was not a command from the World Wide InterWeb overlords, but merely a means of getting the site to tabulate my results. I was right. Anyway, I pressed the button and up came this:

You Are a Yellow Crayon

Your world is colored with happy, warm, fun colors.
You have a thoughtful and wise way about you. Some people might even consider you a genius.
Charming and eloquent, you are able to get people to do things your way.
While you seem spontaneous and free wheeling, you are calculating to the extreme.

Your color wheel opposite is purple. You both are charismatic leaders, but purple people act like you have no depth.

Yellow? I don't even like yellow. AND--that means I'm the opposite of Emily. Well, try and try again, said I. Let's go with the other answers I would have chosen (which, I might add, seem just as fitting to my personality). So I did. And got this:

You Are a Purple Crayon

Your world is colored in dreamy, divine, and classy colors.
You hold yourself to a sky high standard, and you are always graceful.
People envy, idolize, and copy you without realizing it. You are an icon for those who know you.
And while it is hard to be a perfectionist, rest assured it's paying off!

Your color wheel opposite is yellow. While yellow people may be wise, they lack the manners and class needed to impress you.

Apparently I am also my own opposite. More importantly, it would seem that I lack the manners and class needed to impress myself, and I act like I have no depth. Emily suggested that my color is not even on the wheel. Cerulean...or turquoise, she says. Turquoise is my birthstone, after all. I hope she's right, 'cause I don't want to know what happens when purple and yellow mix in one person. Ew.

Well, that's all for now. Gotta go get the laundry out. Sorry I've been slow on the posts, but well, I just got back from NYC and then I moved into a new apartment. Been a busy month. I'll be back to Smith's ontology soon enough. Thanks for reading, blogosphere, now get out there and be somebody!

(What's with the pep talk at the end?)