February 27, 2013

Thought for 2.27.13

Minority views should be respected whether they are the wave of the future or the deposit of the past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 25, 2013

Enough Oscar, Bring Back Felix

My thoughts on the distasteful and disappointing Oscar-fest: Glib, postmodern sexism is no more acceptable than crude, premodern sexism. Seth MacF is to humor what the other Mac is to cuisine, and he both reveled in and revealed the thin, mean, one-trick horse insubstantiality of his humor.

And the casual, clumsy, "cool" unpreparedness of too many of the presenters ended by making Jack Nicholson appear suave and debonaire in comparison. The cult of personality really does require some. Personality, that is. Just being beautiful and famous will not make you witty or wise.

There were on the whole too few moments of real humor and class -- and most of them came from classy people like Shirley Bassey and Barbara Streisand, Daniel Day Lewis and Christopher Plummer.

The rest were wannabes who couldn't.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ps: shopping suggestion for Mr. MacF.

February 19, 2013

Marriage as an Image

In cultures, social and theological, where women were seen to be essentially or circumstantially inferior to men, and in need of male possession or protection (by father and then husband), the imagery of Christ and his bride, the Church, made a good deal of sense. As cultures have changed to a more equalitarian view of the relationship of men and women, in marriage and in society at large, the resonance of this imagery, and perhaps its relevance, comes under question.

This is to some extent a cart and horse phenomenon. That is, marriage had long existed as an institution in which husband was "lord" over the wife — reputedly from the time of the Fall! — and so it was a natural image for God's fatherly and spousal protection of Israel, or Christ's headship over the church. In other words, the Hebrew and Christian authors were making use of a well-recognized social institution as an analogy for the relationship between God and the People of God. (And obviously drew on other analogies, such as the relation between king and people, master and slave, and parent and children.)

However, as it has been said in a similar context, it was not so in the beginning. Had the Fall not happened, bringing with it the dominion of male over female, the original equality of the man with the woman as the helper suitable to him — literally his clone, taken from his side to stand at his side, and neither above him nor below him — would have been maintained, and another image for the relation of God to the People of God (as God's image and likeness?) would have prevailed.

So it is with the slow emergence of notions of the equality of the sexes, it may well be time to find both (1) how the image of a more "equalist" marriage might still well mirror the relationship of God to the People of God, and (2) how this marks a return to the state of life in the Garden, where God was walked with as a friend whose image and likeness one rejoiced to share.

Seen in this light, marriage as it has evolved reveals deeper and perhaps more redemptive truths than those to which we have been accustomed, in particular in our relationship with one who has told us we are not to call him "lord" but "spouse" (Hosea 2:16), as we are no longer servants, but friends. (John 15:15).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 18, 2013

A New Deck

a review of “House of Cards” — a Netflix original

There is a long history in American television of attempting to repackage British productions for an American audience. Some of these have been brilliantly successful, such as “All in the Family,” but others, such as the one substituting Bea Arthur for John Cleese in a version of “Fawlty Towers” (even the name of which I have mercifully forgotten) much less so.

The American version of “House of Cards” is loosely based on the BBC production of the same name — and for ease of reference from now on I’ll refer to them as Nhoc (for Netflix) and Bhoc (for British). The most important thing to note is that this is more a case of “inspired by” then “adapted from.” (Think of My Own Private Idaho in relation to Henry V — and the Shakespearean reference is not inappropriate, as I will note in a moment.)

But first let me offer a brief assessment of Nhoc on its own merits. Netflix took the unusual step (though perhaps not so unusual for them) of releasing all thirteen episodes of the first “year” at the same time, so viewers could move through the story at whatever pace they liked, rather like what you can do with a DVD of a whole season. It took me about two weeks, viewing just about one episode each evening, and sometimes two. So, yes, it is that good. There are uniformly good performances, tight scripting, and — always important when there is an original out there which is in the minds of at least some — enough twists and turns in the plot to keep even those familiar with the prototype guessing and hooked.

That being said, the two versions are very different. First is pace: Nhoc takes thirteen episodes to cover what Bhoc dealt with in four. (There are 12 episodes in Bhoc; the market only knows how many will be needed to flesh out its American cousin.) This allows the Americans to develop more characters to much greater depth and complexity than the British production permitted. This is perhaps most notable in the case of the principal character’s wife — she is almost a silent partner in Bhoc, but generates a significant storyline, including adversarial notes, in Nhoc.

In both versions, of course, the notable technique of the principal character in direct address to the camera, both with words and knowing looks, remains the same — but, ah, the difference in effect. Bhoc has, for all its political modernity, an underlying Shakespearean quality, which often emerges in textual citation, as well as general theme (Lady Macbeth, anyone?). And of course, Ian Richardson was a notable Shakespearean actor on screen as well as stage, and is a natural for the soliloquy and aside. Which is not to say that Kevin Spacey doesn’t carry off his relationship with the audience just as well.

But this is also where one of the significant differences of tone comes in: Francis Urquhart (Richardson) is a patrician Tory; Francis Underwood (Spacey) is a plebeian Democrat. The Englishman is all charm and wit, and draws the audience into his conspiracy; the American more brusque and snide — a self-confessed hardscrabble boy from South Carolina (the southern accent giving a bit of that suave gentility that came more naturally to Ian Richardson), but who seems not so much to care if we are on his side or not. The original F.U. (and unless I missed it the American version doesn’t pick up on the delightful acronym) romances the viewer and draws one into the plot; the later version keeps us informed — though as the plot twists reveal, not quite so well-informed as we might think. To cite the old distinction that Hitchcock made famous, Bhoc has suspense — we know what is going to happen and wait for it — while Nhoc indulges in a few mysteries to keep us on our toes. Each technique provides its own delight, but they are different in feeling.

The political difference also affords a tonal difference to the characters: Richardson is a conservative idealist; Spacey a pragmatic realist — which is not to say that both of them don’t know their way around getting things done — and while both of them are clearly working for their own ambitions and advancement, Richardson’s character seems to have at least convinced himself that there is a higher cause (particularly in the middle episodes of Bhoc, which Nhoc has yet to release, in which F.U. provokes and then prevents a constitutional crisis — so we shall see!) But this difference in tone pervades much of the general atmosphere and style: in spite of the fact that both versions deal with political corruption, and high crimes and misdemeanors (including murder), Bhoc is clearly satirical, with more wry and colorful humor, while Nhoc tends more towards the film noir end of the spectrum: even the musical scores reflect this difference, with British echoes of Purcell and Parry, while America’s suggests an upcoming episode of “The Sopranos.” Bhoc visibly comments on its own satirical roots, in shots of literal rats creeping on Westminster Bridge and the back streets near the Houses of Parliament; Nhoc takes itself much more seriously as a gritty political drama with occasional sly commentary and sidelong glances.

Both are well worth watching, and stand or fall on their own; which of them one prefers will likely be a matter of taste or what one is in the mood for. I greatly enjoyed the BBC production when it was first broadcast years ago, and recently re-viewed the whole series on Netflix itself, prior to the announcement of the American adaptation. My first thought on hearing that news was, to wonder how they will analogize the parliamentary government of England with the American system — and so far they have done so primarily by focusing on the conflicts within the party that happens to have the presidential chair.

Ultimately the true test of the value of Netflix’s effort, I suppose, is that I’m eager to see the next thirteen episodes and would start watching them this evening if they were available!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 11, 2013

No To the Papacy

a review of Habemus Papam released in the US as We Have A Pope, a film by Nanni Moretti, 2011.
I watched and enjoyed this film some weeks ago on Netflix. Actually I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice. Little did I know at the time how timely it might become. For this unassuming little film is about a man who resigns from the papacy — or I should say, puts the College of Cardinals into confusion and captivity by being elected, accepting the office, but then, in a crisis of conscience, refusing to be presented on the balcony — leaving them in the quandary of having a duly elected pope who refuses to be announced as such.

The film is billed as both a comedy and drama, and indeed that is what it is; there are any number of satirical pokes at institutions as various as the church and the press — including a delightfully gaffe-prone TV journalist who keeps making announcements that he must immediately correct. But the take-away for me is the poignancy of many of the characterizations; particularly that of the reluctant pope himself, beautifully crafted by Michel Piccoli. He captures both the gentleness and irascibility to which pastors who are also men of power are given, in a carefully graded blend of nostalgia for paths not taken, anger both at his own incompetence and at the misplaced help of others, and a sense of loss and dismay and incapacity. One might observe the director intended a commentary on the church itself; if that is the case, Piccoli serves well to portray it.

The cast is uniformly excellent in both large and small roles. I would take particular note of the director himself, who plays an atheist psychoanalyst made a prisoner of the Vatican, and who has delightful and meaningful encounters with the large (and convincing) cast of Cardinals who are similarly locked up until their dilemma can be resolved. Jerzy Stuhr as Il Portavoce, the Vatican press secretary, is a wonderful example of someone tasked with something inconceivable, yet managing to use all his wiles to cover the obvious embarrassment. This includes finding a Swiss Guard to hang out in the papal apartments and give the impression that all is well (the almost nonspeaking role of a man thrust into an inconceivable position is played with great charm by Gianluca Gobbi.)

I’ll stop there lest I give away too many spoilers, as there are many twists and turns in the plot — suffice it to say the film is well worth seeing, amusing and moving at turns, funny and poignant. But at this point, timely. Whether it is a parable of a church that has lost its way I will leave to you to decide, but it does raise some questions — now more than ever.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 8, 2013

Liturgical Note

It is helpful to note that the 1662 BCP marriage service, while making reference to the "cause" of procreation in its opening exhortation, when it comes to the couple actually marrying, directs that the collect bidding that the couple "may both be fruitful in procreation of children" "shall be omitted, where the Woman is past child-bearing."

Thus the 1662 liturgy explicitly recognizes that while procreation is a "cause" for the creation of the institution of marriage, it need not be a reason for the particular marriage of a all real couples. This represents a healthy movement from idealism to realism.

The first American BCP was even more realistic, and omitted any reference to procreation, focusing entirely on the couple. It wasn't until 1928 that an optional prayer for "the gift and heritage of children" appeared in the Episcopal liturgy. And, to my mind to its detriment, a revised version of the 1662 preface on the "causes" of the institution crept back into our liturgy with the 1979 book.

Make of this what you will, but the liturgical history clearly demonstrates that capacity for procreation has not been a limiting factor in Anglican marriage for centuries.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

February 7, 2013

Thought for 02.07.13

Why is it that the people who want to insist that Adam and Eve present us with the sole, divinely ordained pattern for human marriage, do not similarly insist that all follow the sole, divinely ordained diet God specified for human nutrition (Genesis 1:29)?


February 5, 2013

What for?

As England’s Parliament debates same-sex marriage, one issue often raised is the notion that marriage has a purpose; that being, it is claimed, to provide for inheritance and progeny. But as is surely obvious, heritability and offspring are not of the esse of marriage, but of the bene esse. They represent possibilities which, even if not realized, do not in any way lessen the reality of the marriage itself.

The “reason” given for marriage in Genesis 2 is not procreation, but loneliness. The “reason” for marriage given in 1 Corinthians is not children, but as a remedy for fornication. And clearly these two things — companionship and conjunction — are matters for the couple, and between them; that is, they subsist in the marriage itself. Marriage is a phenomenon that finds its essential reality in the relationship of the couple, not in any epiphenomena or results that spring from that relationship. Marriage is not a means to some extrinsic end, but a thing of value in and of itself.

This is a philosophical issue, as well as a legal one and religious one. And if someone were to point me to Genesis 1 to claim that it shows that marriage is about procreation, given the command to be fruitful and multiply, I would have to ask why birds and fish do not “marry” — given that they receive an identical command.

No, marriage is about the couple and their bond and covenant. It is not a bond and covenant — or contract — to produce children, since that might well not happen, and the marriage is not void if no children are produced. It is a bond and covenant to remain faithful to the spouse, just as the marriage vows spell out in detail, with no reference to offspring: loving and cherishing, having and holding, honoring and comforting, and above all, forsaking all others in an exclusive life-long relationship. This is why adultery is a threat to marital union even if no offspring is produced — the fault of adultery, like the good of marriage, does not lie in the results, but in the acts themselves.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

I wish I'd seen it earlier, but two English thinkers have published a report that well summarizes the position I am addressing here. The fact that they see marriage in teleological terms is precisely the problem. The notion that "conjugal marriage connects the bond between men and women to a future beyond themselves, both in respect of children and the needs of wider society" obviously was not true of the primal marriage described in Genesis 2 -- as there was no "wider society." In addition, of course, the authors are hard pressed to give a novel definition even to the word conjugal — which refers solely to the couple and their relationship!


February 1, 2013

C of E Continues Hand-Wringing

In their latest shot across the bow of Parliament those speaking for the Church of England have made yet another anxious contribution full of concerns, unanswered questions, and uncertainty.

Two of the "unanswered questions" concern consummation and adultery. Why? Under English law, consummation and adultery can only take place in a mixed-sex context. (That does not mean the pariticpants must be heterosexual; it is certainly true that numbers of gay and lesbian persons are capable of heterosexual sex!)

But as to the C of E, it is not that the question has not been answered, but that the tremulous and anxious church-spokespersons seem not to like that answer. In both cases this is only an issue when one is seeking either to annul a marriage (due to failure or refusal to consummate) or end a marriage because of adultery. But nothing has changed under the new law: Under present English law, a woman cannot sue her husband for divorce with adultery as the ground (or as the English say, the "fact") if he has an affair with another man — but she can sue for divorce on the fact of "unreasonable conduct." This will remain the case with same-sex marriage legalized: a person who has an affair with a person of the opposite sex is committing adultery under the legal definition; if with a person of the same sex, it could constitute unreasonable behavior — and an "innocent party" who finds that either situation render continuing the marriage intolerable, can sue for divorce. In short — nothing has changed.

So in the long run this anxiety is merely displaced; it is just the church making an issue out of the few scraps of straw available to them. It doesn't make a very convincing straw-man, as it has nothing to do with marriage other than its termination.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG