Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hamilton, Text, and Trumpism: or, Religious Studies Rules!

Before Crusty Old Dean was a dean, or the Rector of all Sandwich, he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he was a Russian language and literature major.  The snooty high school where Crusty attended oppressed him by requiring three years of a foreign language, and, frankly, French, Spanish (nice thinking, Crusty!), or German didn't appeal.  So COD
went for the exotic choice of Russian.  In a sign of the time, Crusty's high school no longer offers
Crusty's Soviet student ID, 1990.
Russian but now offers Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.  Crusty took four years of Russian in high school, then went off to college, planning on being a Russian Language major.

Until Crusty wound up in Religion 212: Introduction to the New Testament, one of those classes changes your life.  The instructor was funny, energetic, irreverent, and cursed regularly in class.  It was there that Crusty was introduced to the academic, textual study of religion.  For better or for ill, there would not be a Crusty Old Dean had I not taken that class with Ron Cameron nearly 30 years ago.  Ron once said, "I don't really care what the New Testament says definitively about Jesus, I'm more interested in what early communities which produced it said about Jesus."  He was (is) a member of the Jesus Seminar, the group of scholars that looks at sayings of Jesus and votes to determine how likely they think he actually may have said them, using a color-coded system, voting either red (definitely said it), pink (probably), gray (maybe), or black (didn't say it).  Ron once confided while meeting with Crusty, smoking his pipe in his office (back when you could do that), "Ferguson, I only once voted f*****g pink." (In case you're wondering, it was the phrase "Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.")  We also engaged in some epic softball battles in the intramural softball league with the Religion Department team.  Ron  has been a great mentor to Crusty, and profoundly helped COD rethink how we look at texts and the telling of history.

Crusty became a joint Russian language and Religious Studies double-major.  It completely re-oriented how COD looked at Scripture, and as noted above, started him on the path towards Crustyhood. In addition to courses with Ron in New Testament and Early Christianity, Crusty also took classes with the school rabbi, Roger Klein.  Given that this was the late 1980s, the Rabbi had
Stand down rabbi, stand down please.
two popular nicknames.  Since a similar-sounding movie took the nation by storm in the summer of 1988, we called him Roger Rabbi.  For those who were fans of the English Beat, he was Ranking Roger.  Rabbi Klein himself preferred the nickname "RBI Klein," as part of his demonstrable prowess on the aforementioned Religion Department softball team.  He credited his hitting and fielding abilities at his advanced age to his "I-Thou relationship with the ball."

Crusty also learned much from Rabbi Klein, who got him started down a re-examination of the life of faith in addition to the academic study of religion.  He learned that there are something we couldn't know from religious texts, and that what we could begin to know were things about the people and communities who wrote them.  Further, with the Rabbi COD learned about the power in the process of reception, that meanings and interpretations can change over time.  One class Crusty took was called, simply, "Exodus."  We spent the whole semester reading different interpretations of the book of Exodus: from the Talmud, to Marxist interpretations, even Schoenburg's atonal Moses und Aron opera.

By now, if you were somehow googling "Hamilton" or "Lin-Manuel Miranda" and stumbled across this blog (poor you! leave now!) you're wondering what any of what has been written so far has to do with the purported title of this posting.  However, veteran readers of Crusty Old Dean know by now that the lede is always buried, drowning under a sea of prelminary remarks, opening remarks, and jokes and references nobody gets.  Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Crusty Old Dean share the same alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.  (And Wesleyan is badass because it gave Lin-Manuel his honorary degree BEFORE he came out with Hamilton.) While a proud Wesleyan alumnus, Crusty is perfectly content to let folks like Brad Whitford, Dar Williams, and Lin-Manuel Miranda carry the torch for Wesleyan University's awesomeness. (And, interestingly enough, of those three, the only one Crusty hasn't met is Lin-Manuel. True story(ies).)

This common alma mater came to Crusty when he read Miranda's remarks upon receiving the Edward Kennedy Award for Drama Inspired by American History.  In accepting the award, and speaking about his interpretation of the Alexander Hamilton story, Miranda commented that "History is so subjective.  The teller of it determines it."

The first thing Crust thought was this:  Did Lin-Manuel take a class with Ron?  (The rabbi had left by the time Lin-Manuel arrived at Wesleyan.)  This is exactly what Crusty learned from Ron!  In fact, this very perception was the cornerstone and concept for Crusty's slightly less wildly successful adaptation (that is, his dissertation) of potentially the same learning.  No way, COD thought, more likely is the broader emphasis in looking at how communities shape texts, which is certainly not confined to Religion 212 but a crucial component of many literary and historical schools of thought.

But then came Lin-Manuel's interview with Rolling Stone which produced the smoking gun.  He specifically mentions the same course with same instructor.  In his words:

"I remember taking a great Gospels and Christianity class in college that really made Christian history interesting to me. I grew up pretty Catholic, and the Bible was just a thing that existed. This was a class that was like, 'Well, people wrote it after he died, and even the original accounts disagree, and there are stories about Jesus that didn't make it into the Bible.' I was like, 'Oh, shit!' That was the first time the notion of history as being up for grabs, and the teller being just as important as the subject, really occurred to me. Thank you, Professor Ron Cameron."

Crusty wasn't just trying to think up a connection with Lin-Manuel's "Hamilton" and my "The Past is Prologue: the Revolution of Nicene Historiography",  and to bask in our shared coolness:  it's f*****g true!  We really did both learn about how the teller of the story shapes the making of history from Ron Cameron, and applied that in different contexts.  For Crusty, this was looking at the oft-overlooked formation of the genre of church history in the fifth century in a book that a handful of people know exist, let alone have read; for Lin-Manuel, one of the most wildly popular musicals in American history which has become a truly cultural phenomenon.  I tell you, the parallels are staggering, aren't they?

This formation under Ron and the Rabbi ended up influencing how Crusty shaped his doctoral work.  Looking to learn what we can discern from communities which produced texts, as well as looking at other kinds of texts, allows for suppressed narratives and voices to begin to emerge.  Crusty first got interested in exploring the interplay between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" in the first centuries of Christianity, particularly the so-called "Arian" controversy.  (No, Crusty's shift key is not spasming, all of those quotation marks are intentional.)  Yet while engaging the excellent historical and theological and textual work done in the past fifty years, Crusty was struck by the glaring omission:

Hardly anyone was studying the church histories produced during the period.  Scholars had attempted to determine which theological treatises of Athanasius were authentic or not, had parsed the dates of various letters written by Basil of Caesarea, had explored the minutiae of any number of theological texts.  But, by comparison, very little was done with the church histories written. It doesn't take long to figure out why: they were considered "flawed" and "subjective" and only really used to help flesh out other narratives or supplement other work.  Why else would anyone read Eusebius or Rufinus?

Crusty thought this was ridiculous for a couple of reasons. First off, all history is subjective, all that matters is that you take that into account; that you acknowledge you shape the narrative in the study of history as much as those who wrote the texts your studying shaped theirs.  Here, Howard Zinn was equally important to Crusty along with the Rabbi and Ron.  Hearing Howard Zinn speak in person in
COD keeps trying to get Zinn nominated for sainthood.
high school blew Crusty's mind.  Being subjective can be perfectly fine so long as you acknowledge that paradigm; Zinn specifically chose to write history in a certain way to recover suppressed narratives.  A second reason that overlooking church histories seemed flawed to Crusty was that it treats church histories to a different standard, instead of subjecting them to the same process of seeing how it was produced by a community and shaped a narrative.


Which brings us back to Hamilton.  Reading Lin-Manuel's comments were enormously revealing to COD, and, in turn, shines a light on other aspects of the Hamilton phenomenon that have bemused COD.

One aspect is the inevitable pushback, including criticism that Hamilton plays fast and loose with historical fact, that it is somehow nothing more than a kind of fan-fiction.  (Let Crusty explain fan fiction to those who might not know what is is, because, believe me, you do not want to google Fan Fiction or all you'll get are largely sexualized takes on Harry Potter.)  Fan fiction is when devotees of a certain work write their own versions of it: prequels, sequels, alternate takes on the work itself.  Prior to the internet, these works would have had limited ability to be shared.  With the internet, self-publishing has brought this to the mainstream.  To this criticism, Crusty, thought:  So what?  Of course it is.  All of history is, in a sense, fan fiction: our take on events which are removed from us which we write about because we're interested in it, with our own biases and perspectives.  The pushback is utterly absurd because it still presumes a "right" way to present history, when, as Lin-Manuel and Ron agree with Crusty, the teller determines the narrative.

Another is trying to understand the phenomenal popularity of Hamilton.  I think, simply put, it shines and incredible ray of light in an otherwise dark world (that is, our contemporary context).  We have seen so many interpretations of the "founding" period which reflect some of the worst aspects of American society: repeated efforts wrongly to characterize the founding of the United States as a "Christian nation," to efforts to whitewash the role of slavery, to name just a few.  In our current world, we have seen a revival of nativism, open expressions of racism, and economic stratification, along with these efforts to bend history.  Crusty sees Hamilton, in a sense, as an unintended rejoinder to both Trumpism and Bernieism: a musical predominantly featuring people of color with inspiration from sources largely outside of musical theater, about someone who overcame a poor upbringing to become one of the most powerful and influential persons in the United States.  This is, perhaps, why (among many other reasons) it is striking such a broader chord.

So, in sum, the staggering parallels between Crusty's doctoral work and Lin-Manuel's work make sense: we both owe Ron Cameron a tremendous debt, and we have both thanked him (Lin-Manuel in Rolling Stone, mine in my PhD dissertation introduction). 

And here let's give a shout-out to all teachers, and to liberal arts education.  

To the teachers: One course with one professor so many years ago shaped two people's lives (mine and Lin-Manuel).  Teachers, don't think you work is not important, and don't think you don't have the power to shape lives!

To liberal arts education: it's because of the power of liberal arts education to teach people to read, write, analyze, and think that got Lin-Manuel to where he was, got Crusty to where he is, and so many countless others.

So to all you who denigrate the teaching profession, and all you who sneer  at liberal arts education and want to dismantle our public university systems to become trade schools: f**k off.  People like Lin-Manuel are an awesome example of why liberal arts education matters, and why teaching matters. To the rest of us: Get out there and start "passionate smashin' every expectation! Every action's an act of creation!"

There's a million things we haven't done: just you all wait.


2 comments:

  1. Great post, Crusty! And let's hear it for our undergraduate religious studies teachers (Joseph Tyson at SMU in the early 1960s!), the history of ideas guys (Paul Boller!) and so many more. Now, all I want to know is: when is "The Revolution of Nicene Historiography" going to open on Broadway?!? Who will write the screenplay and compose the score and choreography? I can't wait!

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    1. Yes . . . because a choreographed duel between Arius and Athanasius would be all kinds of awesome.

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