October 18, 2013

Mission [Not] Abort

A review of Gravity, a film directed by Alfonso Cuarón. (Note: contains spoilers. Just go see it.)

In this film technology and acting merge in probably the most effective blend since Avatar, though with a simpler story line and a more profound message. The plot can be summed up in a single headline: woman survives accident in space; but that would not do justice to the richness of the portrayal and the tension in the story-telling. For the technology not only portrays what an accident in weightless orbit would look like, but allows the director a God’s eye POV: a camera that can move from outside the swelling scene to a view from within the astronaut’s helmet and — one presumes — her eyes. In an almost dreamlike transition the audience moves from empathy to identity, from beholding to becoming. This has a powerful effect in drawing the viewer literally into the story.

This is a well-told story not just about survival, but about the choice to survive rather than to go gently into that dear night of death, a transition painfully easy in the vacuum of space, with the supply of oxygen expendable and the hermetically sealed refuges very few and very far between. The principle character — indeed for much of the film the only character, superbly played by Sandra Bullock — is presented with challenge after challenge, and ultimately with ghostly encouragement to surmount all challenges to come to a kind of rebirth. The message is not simply survival, but affirmation of life.

It might seem odd, indeed a massive misreading, to see a right-to-life message in a movie associated with a well-known liberal such as George Clooney (who also gives a fine, though rather chivalrously downplayed performance). However, one image in the film strongly suggested such a reading to me. After reaching the refuge of a sealed capsule, Bullock slowly removes her spacesuit and floats in fetal position surrounded by the umbilical of some piece of hardware. The image is unmistakable, and if unintentional more of a coincidence than I can imagine for a director so well attuned to the visual, and whose crew had to labor over every frame to produce the perfect simulacrum of life and death in space.

However, it is also possible to see this as a pro-choice message, as Bullock makes the choice to live — this is not just about life, but the choice for life. True, it is the ghostly reminder of some half-remembered aspect of the technology that presents this scientist-out-of-her-depth with the opportunity to choose life rather than death. But she makes that choice, she takes that slender chance, as fragile as a guy-line, as thin as the skin of a space suit, as hit or miss as shooting oneself out of a cannon at a net some hundreds of miles away.

Life is, after all, worth living, and this film supports that hope, and places that challenge: which would you choose. Bullock chooses life, and lives.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 11, 2013


In my previous post I noted with some sadness an article about the transformation of parts of The General Theological Seminary into the High Line Hotel. I've heard from the Dean and President, the Very Rev Kurt Dunkle, that the article is in error in part, and certainly gives the wrong impression concerning the Refectory — which is leased for use by the Hotel only when not being used by the Seminary. That is good news, and actually the kind of arrangement of which I heartily approved, as it is wise use of an asset during its "dormant" phase.

I still regret the decisions to part with so much else of the property, but do hope that the new administration will bring some forward thinking.

The Dean's comment can be seen here.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 10, 2013

Sold Down the River View

Update: see comment below.

The aptly named Vanity Fair has published a story about the High Line Hotel that was created from portions of The General Theological Seminary, also for a time part of the Tutu Center. The fact is that this portion of the seminary facilities, along with several others (the old administration building on 9th Avenue, which housed the Library; the West Building, in which I had the privilege of studying Hebrew with Dr Richard Corney) are either razed or not used for purposes other than originally planned.

I am by no means insensitive to the plight of the Seminary — as is true of many churches and other bodies, including my own parish. Times are tight, and the rental, sale or lease of property is a tempting solution to an empty purse. I do not envy the new Dean, nor the Board, as they deal with decisions made in part by their predecessors. Still, the transformation of Seminary to Hotel is a poignant transition, made all the more so by Vanity Fair covering the story. But what’s done is done, and I can’t help but wonder if this was the wisest move. I do not envy the incumbents their tasks for the future, now with depleted facilities to do the primary work of the seminary. Money will soon be spent; but the spaces are gone from their use.

I attended The General during what many regard as a time of lost focus and purpose. I recall a conversation with a staff member during my time there. “It actually costs the seminary more for each student than we take in by tuition. If only we could get rid of the seminarians we'd be able to run effectively.” (I'm not making this up, and it was not said in jest.) When institutions lose touch with their primary purpose, they can begin to sell their patrimony for a mess of short term income. In my valedictory sermon I touched the chapel wall and reminded the assembly never to let anyone tell them this was “just an institution. It is God’s treasury, and you are God’s treasure.”
I hope some spirit and vision can be recaptured, and the work continued and fostered. Herewith is the text of my sermon from 16 years ago.

The Church’s Treasury

Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG
General Theological Seminary Commencement Day Eucharist, 1997
(Various Occasions #24) Psalm 8 - Eccles. 3.1,9-13 - 1 Peter 2.11-17 - Matt 6.19-24

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Today’s readings might well be paraphrased as, Don’t Worry be Happy, Be a Good Citizen, and Try Not to Make too Much Money. The first — Don’t Worry Be Happy — is engraved on the outer wall of the Hoffman Refectory, in its more formal Latin version, Carpe diem; the second — Be a Good Citizen — is sound advice only so long as one lives in a good city, a good state.

Of the three, it is the third, Try Not to Make Too Much Money, that appears to be particularly directed at those who serve in the church. Anyone who goes to seminary on the basis of the promise found on a matchbook cover, Go to College to Increase Your Earning Power, has either pulled the wrong catalogue off the shelf, or is two sandwiches shy of a picnic. True, the church leaves its threshing oxen unmuzzled, — but it keeps them on a short leash and moving in circles at a hectic pace. In short, devoting one’s life to the work of the church — as most of us here have chosen to do — or have been chosen to do — is an effective way to follow our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasure on earth.

If, that is, we are talking about the kind of treasure that comes printed with portraits of dead politicians, in various denominations. But there is another kind of treasure that is more beguiling than the folding green. And it exists in various denominations, too: Not fives, tens and twenties, but Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran... It is a treasure which those who serve the church, and the church itself, are tempted to store up, perhaps compensating for getting less of the kind with a politician’s image and likeness on them: whether that politician be Tiberius Caesar or Andrew Jackson.

This compensation is the treasure of respectability, of stability, of survival achieved by walking the safe road of compromise. It is the treasure of becoming established of becoming an institution.
The First Letter of Peter shows this process at work; it counsels good citizenship as a strategy for survival in the Empire. Fortunately for the church, the Empire got so bad that “good” citizenship became impossible; for if the church was to remain the church it must eventually collide with Caesar.
Those who had counseled accommodation then found themselves called to re-evaluate — surely Saint Peter repented of his advice to honor the emperor when crucified head-down; and just as surely Saint Paul must have reconsidered the wisdom of appealing to Caesar’s justice when he faced Caesar’s sword. Both apostles eventually realized that they could not serve two masters — Christ and Caesar — though too late for them to leave epistles to that effect.

Imperial persecution clarified the church’s vision with the bright light of the refiners fire, and empowered it to see that survival on Caesar’s terms was not worth survival. Thank God for the martyrs whose blood tempered the steel of the early church; thank God for the confessors who realized that the time had passed for playing goody two-sandals.

And, strange as it may sound, thank God for the Caesars, the Domitians and the Diocletians and all the others who gave the church something to stand up to, something to stand up for. It was persecution that reminded the church of its primary mission: not to survive at all costs, not to survive by ceasing to be itself — but to spend itself for the life of the world, as its Lord had done.
It took the Caesars to remind the church that those who seek to save their life will lose it. It took the Caesars to remind the church that it was the body of Christ — Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and only then was raised from the dead. Christ set the pattern for the church’s life. Only by losing one’s life can one’s life be saved; only what dies can be raised again.
Much time has passed since those fiery, foundry days. The world’s animosity towards the church — with a few notable exceptions — has cooled to chilly toleration. And how has the church responded? How does the church expend its energy these days, now that Caesar no longer persecutes so vehemently? Isn’t most of the church’s warfare these days intramural? Where is the church’s treasure being spent — on outgoing mission, or ongoing questions of self-definition?

Is the church laying up treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and thieves cannot break in — or is it squandering its wealth on the ecclesiastical equivalents of mothballs, Rustoleum, and security systems?

It happens in parishes, national churches, religious orders — it even happens in seminaries! ....so I’m told... The focus shifts from the mission to the mission agency, from the work itself to the procedures, protocols, and policies for carrying out that work; from the apostolic mission to the apostolic order; from the vision to the vision statement.

The church’s vision, once turned outward to take in the needs of a suffering world, turns inward. When this happens, the church’s vision is in danger of the double darkness of which Christ warns in the Gospel — blindness that thinks it sees. The church’s view and perspective become blinded by its own bulk, its own reflection, its own precious self.

When this happens, the church risks its title as a wonderful and sacred mystery and is on the verge of becoming an institution like any other. A church preoccupied with survival rather than with mission, risks abdicating its role as bride of Christ and becoming more like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Preoccupation with self-perpetuation transforms the church from a wedding festival with lamps ablaze and eyes bright with future hope, to a draped and shuttered room whose lonely inhabitant tries in vain to preserve a past that never was.

Am I exaggerating? Think of the energy and resources that have gone into addressing the fears of those who see the Episcopal-Lutheran Concordat as the end of the church as we know it. The Episcopal Church treasures the episcopate, and rightly so — but here is an opportunity to extend the very thing we treasure if we are willing to set aside preoccupation with its substance for a time to focus on its purpose.

The apostolic order is not an end in itself, but the chosen means for the apostolic ministry and the apostolic message:— it is the chosen vessel to bear the good news to the ends of the earth.
We are called and commissioned in that apostolic succession, to that apostolic mission, called to risk what we treasure, to spend what we have for the sake of the gospel, to risk what is most precious to us in order to share it.

And the gospel message we share is strengthened when we share it in a gospel fashion: only those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them; only what dies can be raised; only what is spent can be redeemed. True wealth, after all, is revealed in what you are willing to spend, not in how much you possess. The life of the church is death to self; and the church is most truly itself when it spends itself with an abandon that matches the liberality of the spendthrift Christ — Christ who gave himself up on the cross, who spent himself completely, who emptied himself and took a servant’s form. And he did it all for love, for the love of his bride, the church.

Christ and his bride are that perfectly mad young couple who store up no treasure — who spend all they have on each other, but having each other need nothing else. You know the story: she cut off her hair and sold it to the wigmaker to buy him a watch-fob; he pawned his watch to buy her a tortoise-shell comb — gifts, that in their purchase and giving were rendered utterly useless and yet infinitely precious, for they represented the gift of the self for the other.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. Are we mad? Yes, we are, but so is Christ, who with divine madness values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious treasures. As the old, old, love song tells it, Solomon’s love song, the Song of Songs sung to a Christian tune: Christ is our treasure, and we are his.

Long, long ago, a good deacon faced the powers of Caesar as they oppressed the church. The authorities demanded he turn over the church’s treasures. Expecting him to bring forth gold and silver, how surprised and angered they were when he assembled the poor and the sick and said, This is the church’s treasure.

We — the members of Christ’s body — are the church’s treasure still, because beloved and treasured by Christ, because we are where his heart is, and no moth, no rust, no thief can touch us. We are the treasure of the church, and this holy place is its treasury. This place, and every place where the church gathers, and every place from which it is sent forth, though they be earthen vessels, are God’s treasury. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you they are just institutions. And don’t you ever let anyone make them so. You who teach and you who learn, you who worship and you who proclaim, you who administer and steward and care for the fabric of these vessels, keep your vision clear, always turned to the needs of the world that the church is called to serve. Carpe diem: Seize the day — the time is now. Christ is risen and ascended, and the Spirit is poised to shower us with gifts. Realize your citizenship in God’s kingdom — the country without borders where there are no aliens.

We are Christ’s treasure, and Christ is our treasure, — Christ who gives himself into our hands, precious fragile treasures of bread and wine that feed and strengthen us to spend ourselves in Christ’s service, to turn from the service of self, to do the work God gives us to do in truth and beauty for the common good. May we now and ever spend ourselves freely — spend ourselves selflessly in company with the saints: those gone before, those sitting here now, and those yet to come — all those saints who bought by Christ, are free to serve — Christ’s treasure on earth as he is ours in heaven.+

October 9, 2013

Modest Political Proposals

I don't often wander into politics, but the current state of affairs in Washington has me thinking. However, I have to admit, after watching any number of talking heads for the last week, that instead of a shutdown I'd welcome a shut-up for a spell. That being said, I want to offer an observation not entirely unrelated to the present situation.

The buzzword of "compromise" is in the air, and it led me to think back to the original compromises that gave us our present system: the "Great Compromise" that gave us two houses with proportional and fixed representation respectively; and the "3/5 Compromise" that counted slaves as partial people in terms of fixing the former.

The latter got me thinking: representation in the House is based on population -- but given the finagling with voting rights and the shapes of districts, the possible disenfranchisement of a number of citizens and the over-enfranchisement of select populations, I wondered if a constitutional amendment to fix representation based on the electoral roll rather than the population might not be a good idea: that is, that the representatives would represent those who actually voted for them. Maybe, mirroring the compromise of the past, the non-voters could be counted as three-fifths persons, just as the non-voting slaves were counted; but, say, an average of the number of voters in the previous three election cycles, possible with a proportion of the non-voters as determined by census, would determine the representation a state would have in the House. This might have the effect of discouraging discouraging people from registering to vote.

My point is that with theoretical universal suffrage but only a portion of the eligible taking part, the whole notion of representation takes on a new meaning. This seems to me to be a reasonable compromise.

Finally, a word to the Supreme Court: please recall that the notion of democracy is "government by the people" not "people buy the government."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG