November 28, 2012

Lincoln as Grand Opera

a review of Lincoln by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a film that will likely stand the test of time: a splendid script, well acted and well filmed, with a weighty subject and important themes. But beyond that it has the stamp of art about it; ironically, in my opinion, less the cinematic than the operatic. This is a film of arias, duets, trios, and choruses; a film that relishes the richness of language, indeed about people who relished the richness of language and were not afraid to speak in long sentences with polysyllabic cadences and periods that clunked down at the end to make a point with no misunderstanding possible: the ponderous solemnity of sober speech as well as the rollicking ribaldry of pungent insult. These were people suckled on the twin teats of Shakespeare and Cranmer, and the film shows off their language to good effect.

The actors are all up to the performance of these roles; Daniel Day-Lewis is the leading tenor hero alternately performing the comic aria and the solemn recitative. Sally Field portrays the complex female lead, a sorely tried and trying woman with the humility of Hyacinth Bucket, the rhetoric of Foghorn Leghorn, and the emotional stability of Bill the Cat. Her verbal duel with the baritone, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Stevens, is an acid-etched example of the most polite and politic vitriol, razors sheathed with smiles. Jones chews the rich language placed in his mouth like a fine malt, and clearly enjoys every nuanced syllable. The operatic analogy cannot pass without notice of David Strathairn’s Seward, the standard baritone “best friend” of the leading tenor, loyal to the end.

A dramatic high point in the film is the duet between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln caught in the dilemma created by their son Robert’s desire to serve in the military. They are each in their own world, talking past each other simultaneously — the high-minded idealism of the president crashing in a restless wave of words against the impassioned anchored anguish of a mother already bereft of two sons and unwilling to lose a third. At the end of the scene, the defeated woman collapses like Violetta into her crinolines in a visible gesture of resignation and grief as powerful and evocative as the plunge of a white satin Hindenburg.

Not since Orson Welles have we seen such exercises in fugal dialogue as in this scene and another in which young Thomas Lincoln, also known as Tad (because he looked like a tadpole when he was a baby), prattles on while the adult conversation continues around him. Gulliver McGrath is splendid in the role, and provides what I found one of the most moving, and historically accurate, moments, reacting to the news of his father’s death; for he was also at the theater the night Lincoln was shot — in a different theater, watching an Arabian adventure unfold on the stage. Spielberg’s choice not to show the assassination but to allow us to hear of it as little Tad did, indeed as most of the nation did, secondhand, is a wonderful example of his artist’s delicacy — the cinematic equivalent of a mot juste, not unlike the red coat in Schindler’s List, a film also echoed in Robert’s following a barrow of amputated limbs to see them summarily disposed of in a lime pit. Even were it not for the high-flying language, this would not be a film for children.

Another reason this film will endure is the strong political message it sends, a timely one at that. It is a political world that is also a deeply personal world — this was before corporations were thought of as people. It reminds us that the body politic is made up of individual people. It moves from the writhing, entangled bodies of the opening battle scene, a sea of blue and gray — and red — to the political battle of Congress, and the unique individual people who make it up, each and every vote counting. These too are people who in the day of decision ventured much; one might even say that decision-making is at the heart of what this film is about — a theme not at all foreign to Spielberg’s best and most serious work, echoing the powerful sentiment of Hillel and Private Ryan both, concerning the worth of each individual life. We see decisions played out not only by Lincoln and his wife and son, but the cast of Congressmen, some bought and sold, set at a price as were the slave children whose images young Tad pondered, others throwing caution to the wind as they cast a vote they know will cost them dearly. Michael Stuhlbarg, as George Yeaman, is particularly moving as he finds his voice.

If I were to fault the director on any point of this film it would have to be the ending. I had thought it might end with that long-lens shot of Lincoln walking down the hallway — after all we know how the story ends. But then we would have missed the superbly handled presentation of the assassination itself, reported by messenger as in the best Greek tragic tradition. And then I thought it might have ended with those famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Instead the director gives us Lincoln in a flame, an effect all too much like a Victorian faery photograph, or Lincoln as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and a snippet from an admittedly great speech. But it seems a false step to end in this way — and is a step away from the operatic form which had served so well up to that point. What, after all could be more operatic than the leading character lying dead surrounded by the other principal players, as the curtain falls on the closing chords?
Some will no doubt accuse me of quibbling at this point; and I will not say that this minor flaw undoes all that went before. Far from it; but in a film that is so nearly perfect a small flaw is all the more irking, particularly as it comes at the end.

This is a film that will last, and bear repeated viewings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 20, 2012

Why No

I will venture to suggest that the bulk of those voting against the draft measure to approve the ordination of women to the episcopate in the General Synod of the Church of England fall into three categories:

1 & 2. Evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics firmly opposed to the idea of women bishops on the ground that a woman is incapable of holding such an office; or

3. Progressives who felt that the compromise resolution would mean that any women called to the episcopate would be equally compromised in their ministry, by the ability of the parish to request alternative episcopal oversight — which request was to be “respected.”

So it seems that the moderate middle failed to carry the day, and England will have to wait a bit longer for women to come to the office of bishop there. It was a narrow defeat, by a handful of votes in one order, but a defeat nonetheless.

Maybe next time...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
h/t Thinking Anglicans

November 14, 2012


This is Sir Bootz, a shelter cat from Pets Alive Westchester, added to the rectory population yesterday. He is a fine clerical fellow, right at home on my keyboard, in fact blocking the screen at this very moment. He has a very sweet disposition, and is fascinated by my typing on the keyboard... Perhaps I can put him to work?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 11, 2012

Veterans (more)

O.K., two more pictures of my Mom and Dad in uniform. First, my mother with some of her WAVE classmates, in a spectacularly un-feminist pose — and yes, that's her in the front of the line! Then my Dad up a tree, in uniform. Have no idea where this was taken.

Blessed Veterans Day to all....

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


This is my father and mother, William and Mary Haller, both in uniform (Army and Navy respectively). They met during, and I suppose it fair to say, because of, the Second World War. They were together as a married couple for almost fifty years. Both are interred in the “Patriots’ Hill” section of the suburban cemetery dedicated to Veterans, not too terribly far from where my siblings and I grew up. On this Veterans Day (Armistice Day, or by whatever name you choose to know it) I give special thanks for my Mom and Dad, who served their country in wartime, and loved it in peacetime.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 7, 2012

Note to Pundits

To all of the pundits who predicted the election of Governor Romney by more than 300 electoral votes: There is no need to acknowledge your error, explain how or why you were mistaken, or express regrets or apologies. Reality is what it is, and has a way of taking care of itself without your input. It might be as well to remember this:

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.Deuteronomy 18:22

So I do have to wonder why the error-prone talking heads are still nattering away on the airwaves and intertubes, and why anyone would listen to them for any other reason than to assuage their own disappointment by listening to the echoes of their ideology. Perhaps that is reason in itself. Misery loves company, the old saying has it.

Meanwhile, it is time for the country to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get to work. The Republican members of Congress should realize that obstruction will not be long tolerated, and for most of you the next election is in two years. It is time to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Mr. President, you have our attention. 

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

UPDATE: See this graphic from the inimitable folks at It is a graphic display of who among the pundits did well or poorly in their estimations. The fact that Conservative pundits were more "off" than the moderates or liberals testifies to the stupifying effects of their ideology.


November 3, 2012

Comprehensive Reform

for the Feast of Richard Hooker: a sermon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG from 2004, Church of the Intercession, New York

GRANT that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth. — The Collect for the feast of Richard Hooker
There once was a vicar in an English country church of whom his congregation said, “Our Vicar is like God — he is invisible on weekdays and incomprehensible on Sundays.” I hope that I will not in my reflections today prove to be the latter.

Incomprehensible is a synonym for “impossible to understand.” Such understanding can be pictured almost in a physical sense: for to understand is to stand under, as a table stands under what is placed upon it, and so must be larger and more stable than what it holds in order to sustain or support it. To comprehend in this sense is to hold the object of knowledge on the table of ones mind.

Which is why God is incomprehensible. We cannot comprehend God because however hard we try, we cannot wrap our finite minds around the infinite God; God will not fit on the table of the human mind, however rasa our tabula, however much room we make on it, however many leaves we add, because, as the old hymn says, God is broader than its measure.

And the same goes for Truth, if we are speaking of Truth With A Capital T — not just some true things, but the whole ball of wax, the Truth as a full and complete description of All That Is — for the description must be at least as complex as what it describes. Try, for example, to describe a zipper to someone who has never seen one. And when we get to natural zippers like the string of DNA that holds us all together and builds us up at the most fundamental level, the description will take volumes — the printed listing of the human genome, a single transcribed copy of just one DNA zipper, of which we each carry trillions of the real thing in our bodies, would take 200 volumes the size of the Manhattan phone book.

To make matters worse, the truth about what is — even as it is spoken — adds to the sum of what is. If we were to write down even a mere tally of all that is, without further comment or explanation, truly the universe itself would not be large enough to contain all the books that might be written. For the books themselves would add to the substance of the world, and with every word we wrote we would be adding to the subject of our enterprise, and the bibliographers and catalogers would soon have to take up their work. As the wise man said, “Of the making of books there is no end.”

Indeed, the only way to comprehend the Truth, in this fullest sense of the word, and as appears to be the aim laid out in the Collect for this feast of Richard Hooker, is to be outside of all that is. And since only God is outside of all that is, as God is the cause of all being and becoming, so only the mind of God can truly comprehend all Truth.

We get glimpses of this outside-in structure of reality in the visions of the saints and poets — in Byzantine icons and in Dante, and in William Blake too. Perhaps it is most vividly captured in that wonderful vision God imparted to Blessed Julian of Norwich: a God’s-eye-view of the universe, as she saw in the palm of her hand a tiny thing no bigger than a hazelnut, so frail it looked as if it would cease to be in a moment. And God told her, It is all that is, and it endures because God loves it. As Blake would later write,
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
That is the God’s-eye-view that only the odd mystic glimpses.Now, in spite of the visions of the saints and poets — who are careful not to mistake these momentary experiences of God’s view of the world for their own accomplishment — most of us are wise enough to know our limits. As Hooker himself put it, “The true properties and operations of [God] are to know that which is not possible for created natures to comprehend; to be simply the highest cause of all things.” (5.53.1)

Yet in spite of this, some in the church from time to time do appear to think they have come into possession of the Truth, which usually turns out to be something far more prosaic and far less visionary — a set of right doctrines, or more commonly, right behaviors. And most of us have the good sense to realize that even this limited claim is a bit presumptuous. We have learned from the hard experience of the church’s history that what you don’t know can hurt you; and that often the church is at its most errant precisely when it claims to be most certain. It is rash for any in the church to claim the ability to see in a glass brightly: especially when the church’s rear-view mirror consistently warns us that objects are nearer than they appear — and we travel at our peril if we imagine that our view through the looking glass is either infallible or complete. Indeed, as we take that backward glance on the ecclesiastical autobahn, we see that behind us HeilsgeschichteStrasse — Sacred Story Street — is littered with the wrecks of time over which God towers in divine incomprehensibility.

Just ask Galileo, Richard Hooker’s contemporary, who set about the task of trying to record a few true things about the world, things evident to the senses, or at least to the senses aided and abetted by the telescope. He suffered the fate of being told that what was wasn’t, or at least wasn’t what he saw it was. Threatened with torture, he recanted and submitted to those who refused to know the truth of what is, so insistent were they on what they thought ought to be.


Those on our side of the Tiber, the Anglicans, by Hooker’s day had learned their lesson the hard way. There had been enough burnings and tortures and beheadings on the scepter’d isle over mutually exclusive doctrines to satisfy the lust for certainty at least for a season. So a “settlement” to continuing vexatious matters emerged from the serendipitous arrival of a monarch like Elizabeth and a scholar like Hooker.

Now, Elizabeth, as a monarch, was probably more interested in compromise for the sake of peace than in comprehension for the sake of truth. She did not wish, as she said, to make windows into men’s souls. She knew that if she refrained from peeping into her advisors’ heads, she could benefit from the wisdom they would share around the privy council table, rather than having to commit those selfsame heads to the block and pike. As long as private opinion on divisive matters was kept in the privy closet, as long as one didn’t ask or didn’t tell, a form of peace could be maintained. Thus what Napoleon would later call the nation of shopkeepers kept the peace by means of compromise, the peaceful coexistence that falls a good deal short of true communion and community, but at least keeps heads on shoulders.

But as our collect reminds us, Hooker aimed higher. His Middle Way was not primarily a matter of compromise, but of comprehension. And the genius of comprehension lies in the breadth of its embrace, and in its confession of and willingness to live with an inevitable degree of error and ignorance. Hooker confesses that since we cannot know all things, and sometimes err in the things we think we know, we must allow room for all things, to make the table not infinitely broad (which is beyond our capacity) but broad enough to hold both the unforeseen and unexpected guest, as well as the uninvited and errant guest who shows up at the wrong party. Who knows, until the master comes, who really belongs there after all?

Hooker directs us to avoid the need for final answers on all but the minimally sufficient, and sufficiently salvific claims of the Gospel, secure truths at the heart of what it means to be Christian: centered on the existence of God, and the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ —the eternal Gospel without which there really wouldn’t be any point in continuing the discussion, but beyond which all else is more or less provisional. As he said concerning baptismal faith: “Belief consisteth not so much in knowledge as in acknowledgment of all things that heavenly wisdom revealeth; the affection of faith is above her reach, her love to Godward above the comprehension which she hath of God.”(5.63.1)

So the final answers and the definitive positions on everything and anything, so beloved both by Calvinists and Papists, would give way in Hooker’s view to a more rational willingness to withhold and reserve final judgment on all but a very few core doctrines, to realize that mutually exclusive opinions on other matters cannot both be true — and in the long run neither might be true, and the real truth might lie somewhere else altogether. To cast the net broadly, to make the table wider; to expand the breadth of charity to include all possibilities on matters for which clear and final evidence is yet to be shown: this is Hooker’s rational and charitable mission, a willingness to treat our knowledge as sufficient, rather than complete, and certain, in certain matters, only of its own uncertainty; and above all to trust that all such knowledge and love are securely centered in the depths of God, where the Spirit moves and searches, and where alone wisdom is to be found.

For when one is truly in the communion of the Church, truly united with the other members of the body — which can only truly be a body when all the members are lovingly comprehended in it in spite of differing opinions on secondary matters — Deus ibi est: God is there. Next to this transcendent unity-in-communion all other modified and restricted uses of that word, even the one called “Anglican,” must surely pale in comparison. In the truly comprehensive communion of the whole Body of the Church, the blessed company of all faithful people, we are in God, and God is in us.


And it is in this that we come to the grand reversal, the inside-out of God. Now, generally speaking, reversible garments are notable principally for being unattractive whichever way you wear them. But the inside-outness of God is quite another matter. Here we enter the amazing world — the real world, I might add — in which the inside is bigger than the outside — as observation shows us is true of most church buildings. God’s universe, it turns out, is more like those Byzantine icons or M.C. Escher lithographs than most people are willing to allow. This truth is summed up nowhere so well as in that Johannine avalanche of prepositions and pronouns from today’s gospel.

Jesus starts first from the expected greatness of God: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” — so we are nested in God, resting in the palm of God’s hand like Thumbelina, safe in our hazelnut cradle.

But then comes the surprising reversal: Jesus prays, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one,” and suddenly we — made one in the mystical and holy communion of the Body of the Church, the Body of Christ, the temple to which God comes and deigns to be our guest — suddenly we hold Christ within us as he holds the Father within him, nested like a set of Russian dolls with God the Father in the innermost secret room of the human heart, the holy of holies, the privy chamber and closet of good council, and the human image and likeness become the frame to hold the true divine reality behind all that is, among us and within us always.


And in this and this alone is the comprehension of the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. I said earlier that God will not fit upon our mental tables; but there is one table on which God will fit, indeed, upon which God will fit in a few minutes. It’s right there in the sanctuary. In a few moments, the universe will turn inside out, the heavens will open and God will descend and condescend to be among us and with us, the Spirit will descend upon us and upon these gifts, and we will hold God in the palms our hands, and place God to our lips and, like Mary, become God’s earthly sanctuary. We in him and he in us, will become what we behold, and hold what we become.

Sanctified in this Truth, comprehended in this Body, fed with this food, may we be now and ever one, in the knowledge and the love of God, and the peace of God which passes understanding.

This is a repeat posting, but I think it worth repeating.