Monday, March 10, 2014

Confessions of a Lent Madness Hater: Commissioned Clowns and Reptition

Now when all of the clowns you have commissioned
Have died in battle or in vain
And you're sick of all this repetition
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited is surely one of the greatest pieces of American art ever produced, in Crusty's opinion right up there with Leaves of Grass, Copland's Appalachian Spring, Richard Wright's Black Boy, the paintings of George O'Keeffe, and the music of Nelson.  It was a masterful fusion of folk, Americana, blues, rock and roll, and pop, creating a sound no one had ever heard before; oft-imitated but never equaled.  Perhaps The Band in their finest moments, or the Waterboys' Killing My
If COD had a heart, Gunnar and Matthew wouldn't turn around and break it.
Heart, or the best of Ryan Adams' Whiskeytown, have come closest; and Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy both did something similar, fusing a swath of influences to transform hip hop like Bob did with popular music.  Combine this with coming about at the cusp of transformative changes in American society in 1965, in the midst of civil rights, escalation in Vietnam, and one is hard pressed to come up with a work of music so transformative which also arrived at precisely the right kairos moment in history.  Perhaps best known for "Like a Rolling Stone," Crusty's favorite track has always been the first song of side 2 (yes COD knows CDs and Spotify playlists don't have "sides" but he grew up listening to Highway 61 on LP): Queen Jane Approximately.  Though often noted for being whimsical, prophetic, mysterious, or angry in many of his songs, Dylan could also be profoundly moving in his melancholoy (the aching heartbreak of "To Ramona" from Another Side of Bob Dylan).  Queen Jane Approximately stood out for COD in how it is irrepressibly melodic (the man can write a catchy tune when he wants to) but also disconsolate.  Conventionally interpreted as
Before he was a mumbling corporate shill for Chrysler.
referring to the end of his relationship with Joan Baez, like all Dylan songs it can stand on its own apart from whatever context that birthed it.  In addition to its melody there is also something about the dispirited resignation in the song that COD finds himself enveloped in.  "Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you/And the smell of their roses does not remain/And all of your children start to resent you/Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?"  When Queen Jane's hopes, dreams, plans, and life does not turn out as they should, will Dylan be there when Queen Jane comes to see him?  If she does?  If for some reason you can't find your copy of Highway 61 Revisited (COD cannot imagine someone does not own a copy) listen to the song itself here.  Interestingly enough, it may not even be the best song about someone named Jane, as COD can never decide between this one and "Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground (and "Jane Says" by Jane's Addiction is no slouch, either).

This verse from Queen Jane Approximately has been rattling in Crusty's head this week.  Because Lent madness has started, the annual Hunger Games-like faceoff between 32 different 'saints', but with voting instead of battling to the death.  We will witness the death of many commissioned clowns in their brackets, and Crusty is already sick of all this repetition after only a few days.  Yes, COD is a Lent Madness Hater.  Before he unpacks this in any more depth, first two disclaimers:

1)  COD does not like Lent Madness.  However, this does not mean he dislikes any of the people who are part of it.  Crusty considers Scott Gunn and Tim Schenck colleagues and friends, thinks they're brilliant people and a couple of the finest priests he knows.  They've done more for The Episcopal Church than Crusty  ever will, and COD admires and respects them. Likewise COD is amazed at the erudition and dedication of the volunteers who provide biographical blogs to the Lent Madness website, he knows most of them personally and thinks they're talented and fantastic people.  All too often in the church we overpersonalize our opinion:  because I think something is bad, the people who support the thing I think is bad are either bad, or misguided, or ignorant, or led astray by bad, misguided, or ignorant people.  That's simply not the case; while COD doesn't like Lent Madness, he likes those involved and doesn't even think they're responsible for what he dislikes about it.

2)  COD does not like Lent Madness.  But he is not going to rain on the Lent Madness parade.  This is his one statement about it for this year.  Students and faculty at the seminary where COD teaches are filling out brackets and raising money for charity and really
This will be my one Lent Madness "hah-hah"
getting into it:  good for them.  Seriously.  Lent Madness gets lots of people energized, creates community, and makes people happy, and those are all wonderful and laudable things.  This blog post is all Crusty is going to say about Lent Madness in the twitterblogoinstavinesphere, and in his personal interactions will politely and circumspectly not engage Lent Madness.  COD will not be growling in the corner or rolling his eyes every time it is mentioned.  This is the only turd Crusty is throwing in the Lent Madness punchbowl. Having said my peace, after this blog post, Crusty will move on to other things.

But first the genesis of how this all started.  Back in 2012, Philander Chase was up against Thomas Merton in the first round of Lent Madness.  All well and good; Crusty is dean of the seminary that Philander Chase founded (Bexley Hall Seminary) so knows a little about him,  we have letters and diaries and notebooks in our archives from his time as bishop of Ohio and dean of the seminary.  COD encouraged students to vote for Philander, and figured that was that.  But when going to check on the voting results, Crusty began to be flummoxed by the comments he had read.  People were saying you shouldn't vote for Philander because he didn't treat his wife well, callously dragging her all over the country to his various pastoral calls so that she died.  People said you should vote for Merton because he appealed to Catholics and Protestants, that he was a forerunner in the area of interreligious dialogue, while Philander had narrow appeal to evangelical Episcopalians.  It made Crusty angry:  these were caricatures of the individuals involved.  Chase actually adored his wife; tuberculosis was a fatal, incurable disease; and by moving from the fetid swamp of New Orleans to the fresh air of Ohio he thought he was helping her.  Merton and Chase were so wildly different they could not be compared, but yet here we were.  Lent Madness learned not to mess with COD.  So Crusty pretty much did everything he could, reached out to the Lutherans at our sister seminary, had students get in touch with people at Kenyon College (which Philander also founded) and helped orchestrate, with others, a stunning upset.  Philander Chase was a complex and maddening person, a transformational leader, and an important voice in the early Episcopal Church and Lent Madness was just making him a commissioned clown to be stepped over on Merton's march to the next round.  Crusty would not have it.

Crusty outlined some thoughts on Lent Madness last year here and here.  Some of what follows is a distillation of some of those thoughts, but also with some additional reflections.  Having laid out my conversion experience from 2012, here's why doesn't Crusty like Lent Madness:

1)  As he has said previously, COD feels Lent Madness is like the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel:  an idea made out of gold but built on the clay feet of the Episcopal Church's utter paucity of a theology of sainthood.  How can we debate saints when we don't even have a common idea of what one is? Are they neat people for us to emulate, or cool people we wish could be our Facebook friends, or are they truly Holy Women and Holy Men, possessing sanctity and grace?  This is, of course, part of a much larger issue that Anglicanism and The Episcopal Church has struggled with one and off for centuries, and reflected in much of the debate around Holy Women, Holy Men, the proposed revision of the liturgical calendar suggested in 2009 and now undergoing another thorough overhaul, which COD thinks is a step in the right direction (read more about that here).The Episcopal Church has seems to have absolutely no clue at times, including on its liturgical calendar Baptist missionaries who would be horrified they are on an Episcopal liturgical calendar and non-Christians and persons with no historical veracity along with people considered exemplars of miraculous holiness by the church universal.  Debating voting for 'saints' in Lent Madness in the Episcopal Church at times seems like trying to argue physics but without quantum mechanics having been developed.  How to have a debate or a vote when there is no underlying theology?  How in God's name can we compare Frances Perkins and Martin Luther King, which was the matchup that incensed Crusty the most last year?  Crusty got a fresh perspective when sharing this matchup last year with an African American clergy colleague, who blurted out, half in shock, half with anger, "On my campus we would consider it insulting to put Dr King up against anybody for a golden halo."  Which leads to my next point...

2)  Lent Madness taps into some of the worst elements of the way the church processes things.  What should we do about anything in this world?  Have a debate which only scrapes the surface of something and then take a vote!  It works so well in General Convention, where we've solved the Israel-Palestine situation and racism and voted on the revision of ministry canons in 2003 and 2006 (arguable some of the most important legislation, which also got some of the briefest debate) with the most cursory discussion because we'd frittered away so much time elsewhere.  We, of course, never do this in Vestries, where we always engage issues of our local community in depth and come to consensus and never spend too much time debating what color to paint the parish hall.   To return to the Perkins-King matchup, a decent portion of the debate in the "church" focused around whether Perkins was more important because the New Deal "helped everyone" while Dr King and civil rights was mainly outreach to African Americans.  This is such an absurdist (if not insulting) take on things Crusty sometimes thinks Terry Gilliam would be perfect to direct "Lent Madness: the Movie." Gosh, what could go wrong when we take complex things and put them to a vote and debate them in an online forum?  This leads into my next point...

3)  Far from helping people learn more about fascinating people in the life of the church, oftentimes it ends up reducing the 'saints' to talking points for our own particular peccadillos and opinions on various matters, nothing more than images in a mirror reflecting our own personal, political, and spiritual contexts; the "new tribalism" that Crusty feared last year. Take the Philander-Merton contest from years ago.  Did anybody learn anything lasting about Chase or Merton from that?  No; because these confluences of factors - oversimplifying complex situations; reducing everything to a legislative process; and the lack of a cohesive theology of sainthood - makes it impossible.  Crusty isn't  sure if Lent Madness even does the job of getting us to know more about awesome people in the life of the church, and doesn't accomplish that at the expense of fostering a series of tangential conversations that often demean ourselves and the very issues these saints devoted their lives to.  Dr King should not be up for a
Sadly Football in the Groin was not one of his Oscar wins.
vote against anyone.  George C. Scott refused to pick up either of his Best Actor Academy Awards, in part because he thought the whole concept of actors from wildly different films competing against one another was ludicrous; COD thinks Lent Madness is equally ludicrous.

4)  Rather than learning anything about saints, we often just end up projecting ourselves and our time and values onto them.  Today, as Crusty writes, Alcuin and Ephrem of Edessa are being debated.  One person has stated he can't vote for Ephrem because of some of the anti-Jewish writings of his. As though Alcuin was a member of the Anti-Defamation League?  He was probably as anti-Jewish as anyone else in his own time, just because we don't have extant writings similar to Ephrem's doesn't somehow exonerate him.  The debates in Lent Madness at times get so pedantic Crusty rarely needs to follow the debates themselves.  Mark my words, COD bets you the Charles Wesley-John Wesley matchup with revolve around, "John was an uptight evangelical obsessed with theology and didn't Charles write some beautiful hymns so everybody vote Team Charles!"or "Charles would never has been able to write all those hymns with John being the theological force he was so vote Team John!"  In fact, most Anglican hymnals bowdlerize Charles' hymns to remove things Anglicans find suspect (just go look up "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" in any hymnal other than an Anglican one), fully shared his brother's evangelical theology and understanding of a theology of Christian perfection, and in some ways was *more* conservative than John.  But he'll win because people love singing 'Jesus Christ is Risen Today' on Easter Day, even though Charles only wrote the doxological fourth verse and the first three are an ancient Latin hymn, and nobody will know anything more about Charles and John than they did before this all started, since both were complex figures with enigmatic legacies who birthed a diverse, complex family of theological traditions.  But vote Team Charles, not uptight John, and let's throw in a few sneering Methodist jokes along the way.

COD isn't a Luddite and has consistently pushed for Christianity to use social media to engage a culture that increasingly has no clue what Christianity is.  If the whole point of Lent Madness that we use innovative ways and social media to engage the society around us in order to let an increasingly post-Christian culture know the Episcopal Church exists, and  that Christians have saints, COD wishes we could find a way that didn't demean many of the things these 'saints' represented and died for by reducing this all to talking points for online voting.  

So, I've said my peace.  Y'all go back to enjoying Lent Madness, roll your eyes at this blog post, and tell me to lighten up.  Really, I mean it, enjoy Lent Madness.  I don't like jazz, but I've got nothing against people who do.  I love show tunes but don't expect others to.  I don't like Lent Madness, but I don't impute anything about anybody who does and hope everyone has a great time.

Enjoy.  I'm good for another year.  I've got Bobby on Spotify right now.  As he once sang elsewhere,

I’d forever talk to you
But soon my words
They would turn into a meaningless ring
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring
Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you

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