Thursday, April 27, 2006

Opera Thursday

By Mitchell

What with how busy things have been over the last few weeks, I haven't had a chance to review the announcement last month of the Minnesota Opera's schedule for the 2006-2007 season. After budget deficits had forced cutting back to four productions for each of the last three seasons, the MO triumphantly announced a return to five productions in 2006-2007.

The choices themselves are something of a mixed bag: Rossini's La Donna del Lago, Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffman (or The Tales of Hoffman, as the MO puts it), the rarely performed Lakmé by Delibes (which one critic pointed out had become something of a camp classic in its most recent incarnations), Mozart's brilliant Le nozze di Figaro (which the MO, again inexplicably, choose to bill as The Marriage of Figaro, despite its being performed in Italian), and the world premiere of Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath.

So what do we make of this? Well, it's hard to go wrong with Mozart, even though Le nozze di Figaro is probably put on a little more often than I'd prefer. Offenbach's Hoffman hasn't been seen here in a while, and should be good fun. I'm a bit more apprehensive about Lakmé, given its campy reputation, plus the MO's irresistable desire to gimmick up productions (under the guise of "creativity," of course). La Donna del Lago is an excellent choice; over the years the MO has gained a well-deserved reputation for its excellence in the area of Bel Canto opera. This includes not only the better-known composers of the era - Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti - but also digging deep into the Bel Canto catalog for lesser-known, even obscure, works such as last month's Orazi e Curiazi. It's to the MO's credit that they've established this niche for themselves, and it is on this that their legacy will ultimately depend.

Unfortunately, The Grapes of Wrath illustrates the niche for which they seem most proud: their commission of new and avant-garde opera. Now, this requires a word of explanation by way of background. The Minnesota Opera began life in 1963 as the Center Opera, being the house company of the modernist Walker Art Center. Their mission was to present progressive, contemporary and alternative opera as a companion to the lavish productions then being given by the Metropolitan Opera during their annual stop in Minneapolis with their national touring company. Eventually the Met discontinued the national tours, and the Center Opera (now renamed the Minnesota Opera) merged with the more traditional St. Paul Opera with a combination of old and new, traditional and modern.

The pattern of opera selection has remained fairly consistent over the past few years; each season's repertory consists of a Bel Canto, two or three that span the general opera pallet, and one new or "cutting-edge" production. And it is this area we're going to look at specifically this week.

Now, 'tis true that there has always been new opera, and that invariably those new operas bring their own share of controversy. Just read sometime about the riots that inevitably accompanied the openings of new productions by such "mainstream" composers as Verdi. And it's also true that many of these new productions have dealt with political subjects - again, one need only look at the field day censors had with the political (and moral) themes of Italian opera in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But there's something different about contemporary opera today. It seems incapable of getting beyond the controversial, the trendy, the oh-so-earnest desire to be "relevant." Just take a look at some of the most visible productions of the past few years (and to be fair, I'm not singling out the MO here). There's A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman movie, which played at the Lyric Opera in Chicago last year; Doctor Atomic, John Adams' opera based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer which was written for the San Francisco Opera; another Adams project, the controversial The Death of Klinghoffer (based on the terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer on a cruise ship, and brilliantly parodied by yours truly in Graveyard of the Elephants as The Retirement of Gretzky, the world's first opera staged entirely on ice); and Andre Previn's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, also done for the San Francisco Opera.

The MO's contribution to this group, besides next year's Grapes of Wrath, includes 2005's revival of yet another Adams project, the seldom-performed Nixon in China (which, to Adams' credit, is one of the few even-handed portrayls of Nixon you're likely to see from the arts-and-croissants crowd), and this season's Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, by Petitgirard, which in the hands of the MO becomes a treatise on the disabled. Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this blurb from the latest program, on an upcoming "conversation":

The Elephant Man: A conversation on policy, disability and opera


Continuing a multi-year partnership with the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, The Minnesota Opera is convening a panel comprising experts in policymaking, medicine and disability, as well as the opera's composer, moderated by opera commentator Robert Marx. Using the opera as a jumping-off point, this panel will create a forum in which the community can explore how policy, public perception, and people with disabling diseases interact. The event will also feature musical selections from the opera.

Boy, that's a loaded paragraph if I've ever seen one. But you notice who's driving this panel? The Minnesota Opera, that's right. About the only thing missing from this "conversation" is a discussion on the artistic merits of the music itself. But then, we wouldn't want to get in the way of discussing social justice now, would we? The whole premise is so far removed from reality, you'd think it was a panel at a USCCB meeting. If you ever wanted proof of how the MO just can't let the opera speak (or sing) for itself, you have it here.

Unless you look further back to one of the most famed productions in MO history, 2003's widely acclaimed, widely excoriated, totally execrable production of Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood - a production so offensive that it was referred to in Michael Linton's First Things article as The Bigot's Opera:

The Commander enters the living room carrying a big black Bible. He reads Genesis 30:1-3 to his middle-aged wife and to Offred, her handmaid. The scripture finished, the wife and handmaid get on the floor, Offred sliding between the wife’s spread legs. The handmaid hikes up her skirt and leans back against the wife while the Commander unzips his trousers. They copulate. As they thrust and grind the orchestra and chorus burst into “Amazing Grace.”

And you thought Maria Callas was provocative.

The opera, like the book, is a polemic against fundamental Christianity. "The Republic of Gilead—the invention of right-wing Christian fundamentalists—is a culture of robotic obedience, brute tyranny, sex slavery, torture, terrorism, sadism, and summary execution." As Linton says later on, "if it is a triumph, it is as the first work of art to displace Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine as the preeminent work of art calculated to offend Christian sensibilities." One writer "observed the resonance between the opera and the attempt of a 'religiously driven, if not quite fundamentalist U.S. government' to force a Pax Americana on Iraq." I could go on, but you get the point.

What's most increcible about all this is how clearly the Minnesota Opera attempted to peddle this filth, this political pornography, as "art," as Linton points out in his conclusion:

In a remarkable passage in the opera’s program, Dale Johnson, the Minnesota Opera’s artistic director, writes that he sees The Handmaid’s Tale as “a warning of the effects of intolerance in all its forms. Intolerance dehumanizes people, forcing their humanity underground. The best art holds up a mirror to its audience, and The Handmaid’s Tale does that brilliantly using the operatic genre.” His comments echo those of Atwood when describing her story as a work about “what happens when people condemn without understanding.” Precisely.

So anyway, you see what we opera lovers have to put up with here in Minnesota. (Although in fairness, I will say something good about the MO at some point in time. I promise.)

Notice what all these operas we've discussed have in common? Controversy, through either the political content of the story (Handmaid, Grapes, Klinghoffer and Atomic), the topic itself (nuclear war, terrorism, disability, the evils of fundmentalism) or the enticing reputation of the original authors (Robert Altman, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams) for addressing "adult" subject matter.

Now, you might ask yourself if audiences buy all this. Well, it's hard to say. What I can say, from personal experience, is that the MO has traditionally had to couple the year's contemporary production as part of its multi-opera ticket packaging. Meaning, you couldn't buy any kind of partical season package without having to endure the latest modernist travesty.

Dale Johnson, the aforementioned artistic director of the MO, himself admitted in the pre-performance talk prior to Orazi e Curiazi that audiences here don't seem to warm to new opera. They want the old standards, damn them, despite the assurances of the MO that "we know what's best for you." And so the MO keeps pouring it on, introducing a new production every year, treating the patrons as rubes who need to be force-fed what's good for them whether they like it or not, whether they understand it or not.

So we'll just have to see about The Grapes of Wrath, although I'm not optimistic. But what makes this so frustrating is that it's all so unnecessary. There's plenty of good opera out there that's hardly ever produced anymore. Any talented opera company willing to be creative, rather than merely provocative (which leaves the MO out), could come up with seasons that were excellent mixes of the old guard and the hidden gem, the warhorses and the forgotten masterpieces - and, if they wanted to from time to time, the new commission as well. We forget that Bach was once out of favor, until he was brought back by Mendelssohn. The same could be done for many composers by companies such as the Minnesota Opera, if they really wanted to.

Next week: How companies like the Minnesota Opera could be truly creative in their programming.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Is the Dalai Lama a Crunchy Con?

By Mitchell

Over at Bettnet, Dom posts a series of excerpts from comments made by the Dalai Lama in a recent interview. All the usual disclaimers apply here; the fact that I happen to agree with the Dalai Lama in this case does not mean I'm a Buddhist, etc., etc. But I still find this comment fascinating, as he speaks of the West's consumerism. And as the debate continues to rage within conservative circles about "crunchy cons," I think this is as good a synopisis of the problem as I've read:

“It is fascinating,” he says, speaking in slightly stilted English. “In the West, you have bigger homes, yet smaller families; you have endless conveniences - yet you never seem to have any time. You can travel anywhere in the world, yet you don’t bother to cross the road to meet your neighbours; you have more food than you could possibly eat, yet that makes women like Heidi miserable.”

The West’s big problem, he believes, is that people have become too self-absorbed. “I don’t think people have become more selfish, but their lives have become easier and that has spoilt them. They have less resilience, they expect more, they constantly compare themselves to others and they have too much choice - which brings no real freedom.”

The Dalai Lama also speaks on homosexuality, marriage and other interesting topics guaranteed to surprise (and perhaps dismay) his trendy supporters here in the West. Read more excerpts by Dom here, and follow his link to the entire story.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Also Sprach Prince Igor

By Judith

Alexander Borodin was born in St. Petersburg and died in St. Petersburg. Russia, that is. So why doesn’t the Overture to Prince Igor sound more “Russian”? It’s lush and melodic, but there’s always something special about Russian music, something cold and lonely, like so much of the landscape. The Overture was more sunny, as though it could have been French or Italian. Perhaps that was Napoleon’s contribution. At any rate by the time the Polovtsian Dances were played, we knew that it was Russian, with an Asian influence from the Tartars (the Polovtsians).

This performance, however, was much different from any I’d heard before, with or without chorus. The conductor chose to take it at a ponderous pace, heavy and club-footed, when the dances should have been much lighter. This is the lovely melody made popular as Stranger in Paradise. It should sparkle and float as the women’s voices (or violins in this case) soar above the orchestra. The second dance is for men, but it still should have vitality. These men sounded as though they were dancing in molasses. The orchestra was just not quite in synch.

Making his debut with the Minnesota Orchestra with this series of concerts was conductor Roberto Minczuk. Born in Brazil, he was later a protégé of Kurt Masur, which explains a lot about the Polovtsian Dances. Masur has always been a bit ham-fisted for my taste.

Introduced by the composer Kevin Puts, the second part of the first half of the concert was the world premier of a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, Sinfonia concertante for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Violin, Cello and Orchestra. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am not a big fan of contemporary music. So much of it is like someone all dressed up and not being sure where to go. For example, the vision that springs to mind whenever I hear a piece by John Adams is a gerbil in an exercise wheel. He has a lot of energy and does his best to hit the ground running, but he never goes anywhere. The gerbil, I mean. Well, Adams too. So too this piece by Puts. I’ve heard worse certainly (the aforementioned Adams, for one), but this sinfonia had some potential, especially in the second movement, con moto; quasi Barocco.

Written in a style that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, Puts put his own spin on the sinfonia concertante. An admirer of Mozart, Puts was taken with the way Mozart’s compositions “arrived…at a kind of music that simply feels perfect.” There was melody here and movement; although it was never quite pulled together. Too much of it seemed unfocused and diffuse. This composition, unfortunately, did not feel perfect.

The highlight of the evening was a performance of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem written in 1896, five years after Nietzsche had published his piece which brought us his theory of the Ubermensch. While the first part of the piece was immortalized by Stanley Kubrick when he chose the theme for his film 2001, the rest of the work is not often heard. Too bad.

The piece moves from the familiar 3-note theme to a vision of music to come in the 20th century. In a bold move, it then harkens back to the Vienna of Strauss’ relative Johann, the Waltz King. The three notes recur throughout the piece, re-introducing the theme of Nature. Other Strauss characters make an appearance too, with Till Eulenspiegel popping up amid the strings. During the waltz section we see the future Marschallin float across the stage, although she wouldn’t make her real debut until 1911.

Each section of the orchestra is featured and each section was up to the challenge this evening. A few years ago I might have cringed at the thought of listening to the horn section take the lead. No longer. The brass is as solid and true as one could hope for. The cellos were rich-sounding and the violins soared in Das Tanzlied.

Strauss is being featured quite heavily this spring at the orchestra and it will be interesting to hear pieces from all periods of his long career. No doubt that the orchestra is up to all of it, although I think they can be better served by next week’s conductor Jacob Kreizberg.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spaghetti Western Opera

By Mitchell

There are those who say opera should be heard and not seen. These people may love the beautiful melodies, thrill to the soaring notes of the soprano and become lost in the passion of the tenor, but they can’t get beyond the action on stage. For them it all bogs down in the absurdity of the plot, the pantomime acting, the hokey translation of the libretto, or the ridiculous costumes. To them, the theater of opera becomes a distraction from the composition of opera.

Having seen the Minnesota Opera's recent production of Orazi e Curiazi, I might be inclined to agree with them. For one night, at least.

First, some background: Orazi e Curiazi (The Orazis and the Curiazis) was written in 1846 by Saverio Mercadante, a composer who straddled the transition period between the Bel Canto style of Rossini and Donizetti and the grand opera of Verdi. Mercadante was fairly popular in his heyday, but even within his lifetime he was soon eclipsed by Verdi and sank into a relative obscurity from which the Minnesota Opera sought to rescue him. (Orazi hadn't been performed as an opera anywhere in over one hundred years, and had never been staged in the United States prior to this American premiere.) Whether or not Mercadante would have been flattered by the attempt is anyone’s guess.

The opera, set in the year 650 BC, tells the story of two families intertwined by marriage and engagement: the Orazi family of Rome and the Curiazi family of Alba, Rome’s chief rival. Camilla, the opera's heroine, is a Roman engaged to Curaizio, a soldier in the Alban army. As the curtain rises we find Rome and Alba about to head to war. Curaizio's sister Sabina is married to Camilla's brother Orazio, a military leader of Rome. (Got all that?) Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there is no animosity between the two families, despite the fact they are on opposing sides of the conflict. Everyone approves of the match between Camilla and Curaizio, and the wedding ceremony is about to start when Camilla's father Vecchio, a prominent Roman, bursts in with news: the Roman Senate has decided there will be no war with Alba. Instead, in a bizarre version of single warrior combat, it has been determined that three Alban soldiers will fight to the death three opposing Roman soldiers in winner-take-all combat. Opera being what it is, of course the three Orazi brothers are chosen to represent Rome, while the three Curiazi brothers will fight for Alba. (One wonders what might have happened had it been, say, the Three Stooges vs. the Marx Brothers, but that is another tale - A Night at the Opera, perhaps.) Well, with that the wedding is off, and so is the story.

Now, you might have noticed a passing resemblance, in the idea of brother vs. brother (or in this case, brother-in-law vs. brother-in-law), to the American Civil War. That idea apparently caught on with the producer, Eric Simonson, who decided to stage the opera not in the Rome of 650 BC, but in the American South during the Civil War. Just to make sure we didn't miss the similarities, he chose to outfit the Roman soldiers in gray, the Albans in blue. Oh, and all the women are in hoop skirts and mid-1800s hairstyles, and the home of the Orazi looks about like what you'd expect in America of that era. Talk about being hit over the head.

And here is where the entire concept starts to fall apart. It simply is not believable to have Civil War soldiers singing in Italian about the the glory that was Rome, the fates, and the whims of the gods. More than that, it becomes the fatal curse of opera - a distraction, a prime example of the action one sees not matching up with the sound one hears. At times, as in the scene where Camilla heads to the Temple to beseech the Oracle to end the conflict only to be interrupted by the High Priest and his assistants (a bizzare, ecumenical group of what appears to be a Catholic bishop leading two Jewish rabbis, complete with incense and appeals to the gods), it approaches a sense of surrealism - opera by Federico Bellini. Come to think of it, I don't recall Bruce Catton ever having written about the Oracle during the Civil War - it must been one of the sections of Gone with the Wind that they cut out when they made the movie. (It's true that Georgia does have both a Rome and an Athens, so I suppose there might have been some potential to the idea. But in general, Romulus and Remus don't set up well in the land of Homer and Jethro. Homer and the Iliad perhaps; but again that's another story.)

When you add to that the rotating sets designed by Neil Patel, sets that required cast members to move them about the stage during the action, you can see why one might have felt better served by closing their eyes and simply enjoying Mercadante's lovely music. Watching these Civil Warriors dusty from the haze of war, singing these beautiful Italian lyrics, it puts one in mind of nothing so much as one of those spaghetti westerns, where the words coming out of the characters mouths don't match up to their lip movements. It was that incongruous.

What was particularly appalling about the whole thing was that nobody alive had ever seen this opera in its original setting. It might be one thing if Orazi was one of those operas that companies performed every two or three years - you can understand how a producer might get tired of the same old staging year after year and be tempted to try something different, something new for the audience to consider. But we're talking about an American premiere, people - why not at least try to give us what Mercadante had written? It's a prime example of what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, that tendency of producers and directors to put their own stamp of individuality on a production, regardless of what the author might have originally intended.

(As a side note, on the way to the theatre I speculated on what the Opera might try in the way of bizzare staging or tricks for this production - they're notorious, in my opinion, for trying various gimmicks and reinterpretations. "Why bother?" Judie replied. "Nobody's ever seen this opera; they wouldn't be able to appreciate how 'clever' it is." "Oh, don't worry," I said, "they'll think of something." Later, while we were attending the pre-performance lecture, as the presenter told of the antebellum setting, I elbowed Judie in the ribs. "See?" I said. She nodded sadly.)

What's unfortunate about the whole thing is that with the production's many distractions, one could almost lose sight of the performances. Brenda Harris is an old pro when it comes to Bel Canto, and her performance as the tortured, tragic Camilla, forced to choose between brother and lover, was thoroughly satisfying in every way. If one could transcend the absurdity of the setting and make you believe in what they were singing, she could. Scott Piper, playing the conflicted Curiazio (do I defend the honor of my country or flee with the love of my life?), was very good as well - his clear tenor complimented the orchestra nicely, and his acting conveyed the weariness of war, as well as a fatalistic nobility. Alas, the same could not be said of Ashley Holland, the Southern - I mean Roman - general Orazio. Had he been playing Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, he might have pulled it off; but his bearish looks and ponderous movements around the stage simply didn't cut it. Additionally, his voice sounded forced, lacking the ease of the other leads - it seemed as if he really had to push it to rise above the orchestra. Christopher Dickerson, as the patriarch Vecchio, has a third-act piece in which he despairs at rumors (false, as it turns out) that his son Orazio has turned coward and fled. Perhaps he was just afraid Orazio had become Curiazio yellow.

The orchestra, conducted by Francesco Maria Colombo, was in good form as usual. Colombo, who last appeared here in 2005's magnificent Maria Padilla, showed once again that he knows how to handle the Minnesota Opera's Bel Canto productions. And a special mention should go to the chorus - many times an opera chorus simply provides window-dressing, either enriching the sound or acting as a Greek chorus. In Orazi, they had to do more than that, for Mercadante really asks them to be a crucial part of the plot in the way they advance the storytelling. The chorus didn't let him down.

Which is more, sadly, than one can say for this production as a whole. There was much to like, but ultimately Orazi collapsed under the weight it was forced to carry: what we were seeing didn’t match what we were hearing. A gimmick such as changing the time and setting of a story can work on occasion (think of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, set in Venice, California; at least it was clever and had some kind of logic); indeed, with talented production, it can work spectacularly. This was not one of those times.

When I closed my eyes, everything worked just fine. But an experience that could have been duplicated in my living room is not the experience I pay for when I go to the opera.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wish I'd Written That...

By Judith

"Now, don't tell me you're going to be silly," said Lady Mounteagle. "That's just what we meant; to link up the great religions of East and West; Buddha and Christ. Surely you must understand that all religions are really the same."

"If they are," said Father Brown mildly, "it seems rather unnecessary to go into the middle of Asia to get one."

- G.K. Chesterton, The Red Moon of Meru

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Happy Easter to All!

"But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said." (Matthew 28: 5-6)

A happy and blessed Triduum and Easter to all. We'll return on Monday.

The Spell of Good Friday

By Mitchell

Our Good Friday reflection from last year was based on images from the opera Parsifal by Wagner. Though not a sacred piece per se, it remains a piece of work of monumental beauty and emotion, and the religious overtone throughout is undeniable.

"You see, that's not how it is. It is the tears of repentant sinners, that fall like holy dew today to moisten field and meadow; thus making them fertile. Now all creatures rejoice in visible signs of the Redeemer, to whom they dedicate their prayers. Since they cannot see Him on the Cross, they look up instead to man redeemed, who feels free from dread and the burden of sin because of God's loving sacrifice. The grass and flowers of the meadows notice that the foot of man does not trample them today, but that, as God, with heavenly patience and mercy, suffered for man, so mankind today in pious gratitude spares nature with gentle tread. Then all creatures give thanks, all that blooms and soon will fade, and nature now absolved from sin today enjoys its day of innocence."

Click here for more from last year's piece.

Above: Placido Domingo as Parsifal

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What Kind of Disciple Was Judas?

By Mitchell

In the old Church calendar today was known as Spy Wednesday, and so it seemed like an good time to consider the question of Judas. He's been in the news a lot lately, what with this talk about the "Gospel of Judas," but Jimmy Akin provides an excellent debunking of that whole idea here.

No, what I'm wondering is what kind of a disciple Judas was. Was he ever any good? Almost invariably when he's mentioned in the Gospels, it's with the appendage, "who later betrayed Him." John in particular views him with total scorn - look at Monday's Gospel for example. ("This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.' ") Now, a lot of this could simply be understood as a retrospective look at Judas' character, written with the hindsight of his betrayal. But John calls him a thief, and so we wonder if there were other clues, indications that Judas might not be what he claimed to be.

When Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the word, heal the sick, and so forth, He would have included Judas. So one wonders: did he ever heal anyone, ever cast out demons? Did his preaching ever make any converts? Did he do his fair share of the work, or was he content to sit back and let his partner do all the heavy lifting? Perhaps he lacked the gifts of the others, or possibly it was never in him at all. "You're better at this than I am," he might have said (almost apologetically), explaining why he'd do all the talking when they arrived in a new town but would leave it to the other disciple when it came to things like healing.

Eventually this would have started some talking, especially in a group as close-knit as the apostles. Would they have looked strangely at him, whispering when his back was turned? Did they see his failures in those key areas to be signs of weakness, of the possibility that he wasn't like the rest of them, that he was a fraud? That would explain a great deal of John's hostility, for example. "There's something about that one that bears watching," they might have thought. In today's parlance, he might be considered high-risk, a misfit, someone who didn't belong. This isn't to feel sorry for him, merely to suggest that the signs might have been there from the beginning, telling the other disciples to watch out. We'll never know the answers, of course, at least not in this world. It's possible that someone has already written at length about this topic, one of the early Church fathers for example. But the question continues to intrigue us.

In his homily today Fr. Pavlik looked at this question from another angle. Where the other disciples heard the teachings of Jesus and took these teachings to their hearts, Judas merely heard words. Where the other disciples made Christ an integral part of their very lives, Judas simply went through the motions. He attended all the meetings, went along on all the trips, was seen in public with his fellow disciples at the side of Jesus. From all outward appearances, Judas was loyal, attentive, indistinguishable from the other eleven.

Jesus knew better, of course, and quite possibly so did the rest of them. Outwardly Judas may have appeared a model disciple, but Jesus knew what was in his heart. And perhaps this is the lesson we should all take from Spy Wednesday. We attend Mass, we listen to Christ's words in the Gospel, we lead what we like to think of as a Christian life. Outwardly we make an impression on others.

But what will Christ find when He spies on our hearts? Will He find His love, His teachings, His imprint? Or will our hearts simply reflect our own vanity, our concern with how we look, how we are seen by others, how we perceive ourselves?

That is the mystery of Judas, and as we enter the Triduum let us pray that we find the answer, the one that can come only from Christ Jesus.

UPDATE: AdoroTeDevote has been thinking about Judas too, with a very provocative, heartfelt piece that asks more interesting questions.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

And One More Thing

By Mitchell

Jimmy Akin with a really good piece on the immigration debate, which includes both hard economic reality and a very sensible look at the real "social justice" issues involved. Hint: there's more to it than what some of the bishops would like you to think. For example:

The effect of illegal aliens in the agricultural industry is not that they do work that otherwise wouldn't get done. It's that they depress the wages in the agricultural industry to the point that such jobs are unattractive to Americans.

In other words, when discussing the idea of social justice (or, as the Strib would put it, "dignity"), we must consider the effect that immigration has on both jobs and wages in this country, and the effect that has on American workers. What is it they say about charity beginning at home? Perhaps the same could go for social justice.

Ah, I think Chesterton would have some strong thoughts on this...

More on the Immigration Debate

By Mitchell

Mona Charen with a terrific column today on the immigration protests. Excerpts:

Too many Americans, particularly those who control the schools, have abandoned the goal of assimilation -- the idea that Americans had a right to demand that immigrants learn our language, abide by our laws, adopt our customs and abandon loyalty to any other power. Exalting multiculturalism and multilingualism, and encouraging separatism on the part of minorities, liberals are in effect asking Americans not just to open their doors but to tear down the house.


Most galling to many Americans (both native-born and naturalized) is the attitude of entitlement displayed by the illegals who thronged the streets in recent weeks. To stage a demonstration demanding anything when you are not in the country legally is an act of supreme chutzpah. But what do we expect? When immigrants arrive, they find school systems bending over backward to offer bilingual education, Mexican pride festivals and Spanish language options at the bank, supermarket and post office. Our intellectual climate tells them that separatism is the way to go.

This is not to suggest that Mexican immigrants abandon pride in their origins or forsake their cultural heritage, merely that they do what every other immigrant group has done -- integrate in public and save the mother tongue for the home. It would also be fitting for them to remember that gratitude is becoming; entitlement is not.

Meanwhile, over at NRO John Derbyshire (don’t always agree with him, but gotta give him props when he’s on) offers suggestions on how to answer the canned statements that come from those who want to open the borders up:

  • "They're just coming here for a better life." Well, that's also the reason people rob banks. If you rob a bank and get away with it, you'll have a MUCH better life than you had before. Should we legalize bank robbery? [a comment which has become a point of contention in The Corner; is he putting illegals on an equal status with bank robbers? I think not; he’s simply pointing out that there are a lot of things you can do to make your life “better”; better does not necessarily mean better, if you get my drift.]
  • "Many of them have sons & daughters in the military, fighting in Iraq." On general grounds, I think hiring illegal immigrants into the armed forces is a lousy idea. When the Romans ran out of citizens willing to fight, they hired Germans, and look what happened. Still, any illegal who has served in combat on this country's behalf ought to be given citizenship, though I'd make his relatives go through proper channels. At least we'd find out how many is that "many."
  • "Deporting illegals would mean splitting up families." Only if they chose to split up. If a man is illegal, his wife legal, and their child a citizen, I'd deport the man. They'd have to decide among themselves whether to split up the family or not. The wife and child could go with the man, if they didn't want to be split up.

Why is this such an emotional issue? I think Mona Charen’s concluding paragraph sums it all up:

The fashion of multiculturalism has sparked exactly the opposite of what its propounders intended. Hostility to foreigners has increased because Americans have declining confidence that immigrants want to or can assimilate into the larger society.

Reflections on a Musical Weekend

Guest Comment

Hadleyblogger Bobby is back with one of his regular commentaries on the music scene in South Carolina. He raises some of the same questions we've raised here in the past: the status of live musical performance today, role of the producer and director in interpreting a stage work, the etiquette (or lack thereof) among modern audiences, the sorry state of "sacred" music in some churches, and more.


I'm still tired as I write at 7 AM following arriving home at 2 AM the previous evening from Carousel in Hartsville on the second half of a two-night, two musical weekend. It was a way to mingle with a few friends, and more than a fair share of incidents.

Friday night was back at my alma mater for A Little Night Music of Sondheim, and because of the loss to that hated rival school (whose radio station in that market is the Air America station, while my alma mater is the O'Reilly / Hannity / Ingraham station), I couldn't wear my college ring or "that" shirt and tie combination with the suit.

A Little Night Music -- I was able to sit in the fourth row, behind a group of friends who made an entire row. A full orchestra and the works . . . and guest artists (including a paper company executive) made the evening fun. But for some reason, I still can't identify Marion (my pianist from a pair of recitals) even after all of these years. And what was the situation with those ladies in front of me standing together as their "heroine" came on stage for the final bows? They jumped so early I was reminded of my voice teacher's warnings to me -- "don't instigate the standing ovation." ["Words we should all live by" - Mitchell] A hug from Brittnee Siemon (a dear friend I've made from classical music) and also Mariel Angel Estrella, making her debut in the music department's events (she's a nursing major) (and old stories), were able to pass the time.

Next week (Good Friday) is her doctoral recital, and the dearest of dears (my voice teacher) is joining her for the ride. I'm going there and skipping my church's Easter "musical" (note there isn't anything of a Passion and Resurrection theme in the songs -- they are just the regular pop/rock songs people now sing in church) to hear a friend. [From what he's written in the past, I feel for Bobby - anyone with an appreciation for true sacred music seems to have no place in his church. - Mitchell] Brittnee is a youth choir leader and I hope her material is better than the junk our inept leader does. Of course, when the leader and the singers (one is just a year older than I am) states karaoké accompaniment exclusively, it's a wonder nobody wants to play at church when the leader wants it that way. He refuses to consider any instrumentalists, and I've called him over that.

[Bobby goes on to point out that his voice teacher is directing the performance of the musical Carousel that night.] But some things had me questioning -- and no, she is not to blame because she wasn't there to arrange the music -- the producer in question, Graham Wood, is to blame in my book since he's top brass.

  1. Why were sections on the sides of the centre in the lowest sections closed? Turns out there were a pair of speakers on each end to accompany the keyboard and bass guitar orchestral reductions.
  2. What was with the two microphones hung on top of the stage? It seemed they amplified the stage . . . big no-no there! (It did seem amplified to accompany the amplified instruments) Of course, we'll scatter that stuff Monday at our regularly scheduled lesson -- we've taken two weeks off because of her work there and my Cooper River Bridge Run last week.
  3. Don't be a Jigger. Billy's mistakes cost him, and with my father's death recently, I actually was reduced to tears at the end. (My friend and I are both without a parent each -- she lost her mother nearly five years ago, and it seemed her consoling of me was there again. Please pray as her grandfather has prostate cancer.)

Watch out for the stories! During some dead time as I walked into the theatre, a few attendees wanted to meet the director, and I obliged by giving them stories about our friendship. While the stories flowed, she popped behind me and I escaped . . . is there some sort of mind game from just knowing her and being able to simply laugh it off?

And oh, by the way: whatever happened to etiquette? Kids were in tee-shirts, jeans, and sometimes ripped. A few used their cell phones while in the auditorium (intermissions and pre-show mostly) in violation of the No Phones, Food, or Drink rule. (I keep my phone in my truck, charging, in concerts.) All of this looked odd when I only wear suits to these performances.

I know how you feel, Bobby. Whenever we go to the orchestra or opera we always dress up, and it seems as if we're sometimes outnumbered by people in casual shirts and jeans. Would it hurt to put on nice clothes just once in a while?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Prayer Request

Our good friend Julie at AdoroTeDevote suffered the loss of her Grandmother today. In the midst of her grief and a million other things, she's still found the time to come up with an amazingly reflective post on hearing and responding to God's voice. This is a piece that's well, well worth reading and contemplating as we enter Holy Week.

Please pray for the repose of her soul of Julie's Grandmother, and keep Julie and her family in your prayers as well. We remember that our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, and in this we take great consolidation and comfort.

That Dignity Thing

By Mitchell

Maybe they were hedging their bets with the headline to the online story at the Strib's website, but the headline that appeared across the front page of this morning's printed paper said it all: "Marchers Seek Dignity for Immigrants."

Geez, where do you start?

What they really mean to say is that the marchers were seeking a "legal status" for immigrants, not dignity. First off, the government can't give you dignity, just like it can't give you a lot of things. We're all born with dignity: the dignity of the human being, created by God, made manifest through the birth of Jesus as God made Man. Now, not everyone thought this was a good idea - Satan and the fallen angels rebelled against the idea of paying homage to a human being - but it's a fact nonetheless. If you don't understand that, then the rest isn't going to make any sense. But the point is that dignity is not the government's to give, any more than it is to take away.

Put it this way - do you think the Strib, or any other MSM newspaper in America, would ever have come up with this headline?

"Marchers Seek Dignity For Unborn."

Nah, I didn't think so.

But this idea must come as quite the revelation to the editors at the Strib. I mean, they must have been shocked, shocked, to find out that there was anyone left in America without dignity. Except, of course, for various special interest groups - women, minorities, homosexuals, disabled activists who could profit from embryonic stem-cells, and now illegal aliens. And anyone else looking to feed at the trough.

Perhaps it might occur to them at some point in time that there are those who would suggest that "dignity," at least they way the Strib thinks of it, applies not only to the unborn, who don't even get a chance to live life with dignity, but also the sick and elderly facing an enforced death. Of course, the pro-death faction has a much different definition of dignity when it comes to dying.

There is an inherent dignity to life, period. And maybe the reason liberals like the writers at the Strib don't get it is that they're become so infatuated with the deadly stench of decay from the hoary agenda they've pushed for so many years, they've forgotten what words really mean.

Just as they've forgotten what life really means.

My friend BaddaBlogger has a terrific piece on the issue today, as does Anti-Strib, the local watchdog on our paper of record. (A warning though, if you go to Anti-Strib - their posts aren't always family-friendly, which is why we don't link to the site on a regular basis. Forewarned is forearmed.)

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Princess Ida-know-about-that

By Mitchell

It would seem that one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern culture is the desire to make one's own mark on the scene. Our greatest fear is that of being a nobody, and, as the old saying goes, you're nobody if somebody loves you. So we go about our business trying to achieve that one great breakthrough that defines us, that brings us acclaim and admiration and, yes, love.

Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in the performing arts (with the possible exception of politics), which helps to explain why you hardly ever see a straightforward production of Shakespeare anymore. Every director becomes obsessed with putting their own personal interpretation on the play, so that in the end it's no longer, "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," but instead "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet," or something like that. Judie alluded to this the other day in her post on the Guthrie Theatre's new season.

It's not confined to theater, of course. Why do you think there are so many remakes of classic and semi-classic movies? Rather than think up a new idea, filmmakers come up with their own spins on already-established stories, often introducing some radical reinterpretation of the story (see The Manchurian Candidate, for example). Some of the innovations are more noticeable than others. Many of them are simply annoying.

Which brings us to the current production of Princess Ida by The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC). The GSVLOC is a more-or-less amateur company, dedicated to the work of G&S. They put on one full-blown operetta a year, and other occasional concerts as well. Now, since G&S only wrote fourteen operettas, and since the GSVLOC has been around since 1979, a certain amount of reinterpretation might become necessary - after all, how many times can you stage the same play? In last year's production of The Gondoliers they dressed the Venetians as Mafia types, but otherwise it was pretty free of gimmicks.

What, then, to make of the "Director's Note" that appeared in the program for Princess Ida? The director, Lesley Hendrickson, starts with an explanation that puts the story in context (always helpful since so many of the shows topical to G&S's time, satires on particular aspects of British life).

In Princess Ida William S. Gilbert turns Tennyson's epic poem, "The Princes," into a scathing attack on women's education. Though GIlbert's sneers are hard to take, today it is almost as hard to take them very seriously.

Hmm, no bias there, is there? Frankly, I find it hard to take any G&S production seriously. And I'm not sure you're supposed to. Have you ever read the plot of any grand opera production? Most of them are not exactly what I'd call slice-of-life dramas. In most operas, the plot exists to support the music. Satires, by definition, tend to exaggerate things to make a point. If you try to take Gulliver's Travels too seriously, I suspect you're going to be in trouble.

Ida further alienates modern sensibility by forcing an arranged marriage. As far as Gilbert was concerned, any reasonably intelligent and attractive young lady ought to be able to make a go of marriage with any reasonably intelligent and attractive young man. Romantic love he treated as humbug. Now, many couples in the G&S canon are paired up almost at random by the final curtain. But they, at least, were looking to be paired up: Ida clearly is not.

Right, we've got the point. Arranged marriage = bad. Acting from the heart, letting passions rule the day = good. Perhaps that's why the divorce rate in this country is as high as it is. Frankly, if you read the accounts of many arranged marriages, even into the 20th Century, you hear a lot of good things about them. As many of the participants themselves say, they had to learn to love each other, which meant that there was still something remaining in the marriage after the passion of romantic love might have faded away. Don't you think the director is really talking about the image of men dominating marriage, forcing their women to stay in the house, barefoot and pregnant, at least when they're not doing all the housework? Again, this is clearly an instance of reading "modern sensibilities" into a work that was contemporary to the mores of the 19th Century.

So how does one approach a modern production?

How about by doing it the way the authors wrote it, and keeping your editorial opinions to yourself?

An easy argument is that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it.

Right. Pretty soon women won't be allowed in the workplace at all. They'll be kept locked away at home, barefoot and pregnant. Remember The Handmaid's Tale? It's just around the corner, boys and girls.

Those of us old enough to remember the bad old days before the women's liberation movement can take a certain satisfaction in showing hte youngsters how tough it used to be.

Umm, were those the days before AIDS and HIV, before date rape drugs, mass pornography, skyrocketing abortions and the treatment of women as little more than sex objects? Yeah, I guess those were bad old days after all.

But one can also move beyond Gilbert's cheap jokes at women's expense and see more broadly human questions.

And if the director had read the libretto closely, she would have seen that Gilbert gets just as many jokes off at the expense of the men, who often come across as headstrong, brawn-over-brains types. It's called comedy, in case you haven't noticed.

How does one effedtively rebel against a clear injustice?

I don't know. Let's put one up there and check it out.

Can the use of force ever be justified?

Sure. How about the war on terrorism? Whoops, guess that's not the kind of force she had in mind.

Finally, isn't the cause already lost if one's principles are abandoned in the attempt?

Perhaps G&S might have felt the cause was lost if they'd read Director's Notes like this.

Some issues, I fear, will never become dated.

Just like the liberal's viewpoint of the world. Professional complainers, still stuck in the 70s.

Needless to say, after reading that I didn't know what to expect from the production itself. Were they going to turn the whole thing into some kind of liberal screed, touting women's rights and bashing Bush and the war? (Don't laugh - contemporary jokes are often inserted into G&S operettas - it's a kind of tradition.)

Thankfully, nothing of the sort was apparent in this production, at least nothing I could detect. Oh, there was one banner in the women's college that read, "Better Wisdom Than Weapons of War," (which reminded me of the old slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry," which I'm sure is not what they had in mind), but for all I know that could have been in the original production notes. Otherwise, this was straight-ahead G&S, all good, clean fun.

The performances were what you'd expect from a non-professional group, and that isn't meant in a bad way. The singers are almost always better than the orchestra, and the horns are almost always the weakest part of the orchestra. But both singers and musicians performed with a clear love of the work, and that's often enough to overcome many limitations.

Amanda Broge, as Ida, was head-and-shoulders over the rest of the cast. One hopes that this woman has a serious opera career in mind, for whenever she opened her mouth in song she became the immediate focus of the audience. It's not that she showed up the other cast members as being bad; it's just that she was so clearly so much more talented.

Timothy James as Hilarion, her prospective husband, had a pleasant tenor and a pleasing manner. His father, King Hildebrand, played by Waldyn Benbenek, had just the right touch of ham to play G&S, and Jim Ahren's King Gama (Ida's father) made for a very funny curmedgeon. His three sons, the dense warriors Arac (Christopher Michela), Guron (Brian Haase) and Scynthius (Don Moyer) provided some wonderful comic moments. The sets offered detail that seems nowadays to be missing even from the Minnesota Opera (which sells us poverty and tries to pass it off as minimalism). And a word should be said for Roderick Kettlewell, the conductor. The warm reception he received from cast members when he came out for his bow at the end suggests the glue that held the entire production together.

So it was a fun night at the opera. Which once again begs the question - what possible motive could have been served by that Director's Note in the program? Aside from putting the opera in context, it did nothing to further one's enjoyment of the production. As I said, if anything it made me even more nervous about what might be coming.

One is forced to conclude that the life of an opera director is a hard one. When Domingo or Callas were on stage, how many people even knew who the director was? And so in the end, one can only think that by interjecting her own political thoughts into the program, thoughts that had no bearing on what unfolded on stage, Lesley Hendrickson was making a last, desperate attempt to be noticed. We had no choice but to comply. Happily, Gilbert and Sullivan didn't have to pay her any attention.

Monday, April 3, 2006

John the Baptist - Model for Lent

By Mitchell

We’re used to considering John the Baptist during Advent (“Make straight the path of the Lord!”) but how does he serve as a pattern for Lent? That was the topic of Fr. Michael Keating’s presentation at the Church of St. Helena's Lenten series last Friday night - a stimulating, richly layered, and inspiring talk.

In the life of John the Baptist we see the model for the life of Christ, the lives of the great figures of the Old Testament, and the lives we are called to live.

Moses. Abraham. David. Solomon. Isaiah. Their lives follow a similar pattern:

  • an indication that they have been singled out,
  • an initial success in their mission,
  • a challenge to that mission,
  • a perception that the mission has ended in failure.
In looking at this pattern, let's begin with John the Baptist himself. His life starts with a miraculous birth, to a couple thought to be long past that stage of life. A birth so miraculous, in fact, that it causes people to wonder. (“And all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him,” Luke 1:66.)

As John begins his preaching he develops a following. (In fact, it’s likely he had a greater following in the first century than Jesus.) So well known is John that the King and Queen, Herod and Herodias, come to view him as a threat. Finally, after a challenge to the moral status of the royal couple’s message, John is imprisoned, and suffers an ignominious death by beheading at the whim of a petulant girl. End of story.

Notice how this parallels the life of Jesus, the Man Whose life he heralds. Jesus, too, is the product of a miraculous birth. There is the prophesy of Simeon that foretells great things. (“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against,” Luke, 2:34) Once His public ministry begins, His following grows from a handful of disciples (including some of the disciples of John) to several hundred. He, too, runs afoul of the authorities. He is imprisoned (betrayed, even, by one of his own followers), tried, and dies a most ignominious death on the Cross. Just another obscure figure who briefly rises to a modest prominence and then fades away. End of story.

Except, of course, that it isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.

John’s life didn’t end in failure. We know that. Here it is two thousand years later, and we're still talking about him. Jesus’ life didn’t end in failure, either. (Herod's fame, by contrast, only extends to being a footnote in our discussions on Jesus and John.) And this knowledge is central to understanding the Christian idea of life.

The pattern isn't limited to the Old Testament. Let’s move to a more recent example - St. Thomas More, for instance. A distinguished jurist. Lord Chancellor. Friend of Henry VIII. One of the most respected men in Europe. And yet he throws it all away on a dream, standing on a silly thing like principle. He is arrested and imprisoned, put through a sham trial, convicted on the basis of perjured testimony, and suffers an ignominious death. Some considered the life of St. Thomas More to have ended in failure. Yet we remember him today, even as the names of his accusers have faded into the dustbin of history.

The definition of success can’t be limited to earthly concepts. Otherwise, where would we be? Abraham didn’t see descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea. Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land. David didn’t build the Temple. St. Thomas More didn’t stop the remarriage of Henry VIII or the persecution of Catholics in England. By our standards, their lives ended in failure.

Of course, you might think, it’s obvious that these great figures weren’t failures in life. Who would dare to term the life of Christ a failure? Or John’s, or any of the others? So true, but the rewards weren’t at all obvious, not right away. After all, Christ’s disciples walked away from the Tomb thinking it was all over, finished, kaput.

It’s only with the passage of time and perspective that we can recognize the impact a life has. And even then, it’s often with the understanding that the greatest benefits may come tens or hundreds of years later. That’s why, as Fr. Keating stressed, our belief is built on faith, rather than feelings. We may all feel our lives to be failures, but it’s because we don’t have access to all the information. It’s likely that we’ll never know the lives we’ve touched, the influence we’ve had, the impact we’ve made, until we reach Heaven and are permitted to see how we’ve made a difference. St. Thomas went to the gallows with the certainty that his life was not one of failure, but he couldn’t know that, not based on any human feelings. His certainty rested on faith, and the knowledge that “Nothing is impossible with God.” (If you recall the pivotal scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence tells George Bailey that “no man is a failure who has friends.” George's problem was that he felt he was a failure, but didn't have the faith to accept the truth without it being shown to him - in a vision, as it were.)

So far, so good. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with you or me? Yes, John the Baptist was a great man. Yes, I can understand how his life models that of Christ, or the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Yes, I understand how the great saints follow in his footsteps. But what am I to take from this? How likely is it that I’ll ever be called upon as a martyr?

It’s true that most of us won’t wind up as martyrs, at least in the literal sense. (Although based on the direction this society seems to be going in, the future is anyone’s guess.) But there is a different kind of martyrdom in store for the believer – the death to self.

Jesus Himself provides us the clue. If you remember yesterday’s Gospel, He reminds us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) And this, I think, is the central key to our understanding.

In verse 25 of that same passage from John, Jesus adds, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” For even if we don’t experience a literal, bloody death, we are still called upon to offer up our lives in a bloodless death – a death to ourselves. A death to our wants and desires, the weaknesses and attachments that hold us to this world and prevent us from focusing on the world to come. That is the kind of death that John’s life foretells for us. And while this can mean a literal bodily death, in most cases that death is simply the confirmation of a decision that came much earlier. Like the grain of wheat, it is only from the death to self that we start to bear fruit.

With this understood, let’s go back to the model of John one last time and superimpose it over our own. We are born, a miracle in itself. We live in the flower of youth, with the health and the enthusiasm that follows. We find success in our personal and professional lives; a solid career, a loving spouse, a caring family. At some point in our lives we feel as if we’re on top of the world. And then it changes. Our bodies begin to slow down, we can’t travel at the speed we once had. And we die an ignominious death: either through accident or the ravages of old age, when we’re reduced to mewling, puking infants.

We’ve reached the end of the line. No matter what we’ve accomplished, no matter how much wealth we’ve accumulated or prestige we’ve gathered or success we’ve achieved or fun we’ve had, we have not achieved immortality; by earthly standards, we have utterly failed.

But it is Christ’s death on the Cross that sanctifies our own deaths. It is our willingness to die to ourselves that allows us to join Him on that Cross. As we die with Christ, we shall also live with Him, in the Resurrection on the last day. And there we will, pray God, have eternal life. And there will we truly find the measure of our lives.

John the Baptist calls to us even now, from beyond the pages of history; he asks us to join him in following the Lamb of God. It is what our Lenten observation is all about. And through John’s example, may we find success in Lent, success that will carry us throughout the years, and into eternity.

The Out of Touch Leader

By Mitchell

What with everything that's been going on lately, it's been easy to lose touch with other areas of interest that fly below the radar. For example, Herb Ely has a terrific piece from a couple of weeks ago on a subject that's always of interest to me: the question of leadership. Herb asks the question "Are Leaders Always Out of Touch?" and seems to suggest they usually are. We're talking about all kinds of leaders here: political, corporate, religious. One of the things they have in common, in my opinion: they lose the foundation on which successful leadership is built. As Herb suggests,

The problem is, I suggest, worse that just being out of touch. Leaders become so committed to their frames of reference that they can be said to be in denial about coming disasters.

Herb's right that the problem is more than being out of touch. Perhaps we're talking about the same thing, perhaps not; but it seems to me that part of the problem is that these people are no longer grounded in reality. And by reality I'm talking about something more supernatural than listening to their advisors. Whittaker Chambers once suggested that without a moral foundation, capitalism was no better than any other kind of -ism. What we see in common so often in cases of failed leadership is that lack of moral structure to their plan.

In biblical times the role of warning leaders of coming disasters belonged to the prophet. In church history many men and women assumed the role of changing their orders and were called reformers. In modern times employees can always try to warn the public of a leadership failure by going to the press, the police or congress. These employees are whistleblowers – or informers.

Today there's a great debate going on about the role of religion - in public life, in politics, in the workplace. Listening to argument in the Church about issues such as abortion, homosexual marriage and women priests, you'd think there was even disagreement about the role of religion in religion. And yet it's clear that religion - in terms of a strongly developed and ordered conscience - is what's missing so much of the time when we discuss failed leadership. Are these people truly concerned about the primacy of one faith over another, as the multicultural mavens suggest? Or are they worried that the prophet preaches the words of a rival to their way of thinking, an inconvenience that prevents them from considering their own true love?

I've said before that religion is a very inconvenient thing nowadays. When you're all tied up in worship of the ego, the bottom line, the material good, the sensual pleasure - it's just plain annoying to have that whispering in your ear. That's why most of the prophets were killed, the reformers exiled, and the whistleblowers fired. Their glory only appears retrospectively, when we can appreciate them from a distance, at which point their disgraceful death becomes a victory that transforms the meaning of their life.

And at this point I think I'll stop, because I feel another, longer post coming on, from an extraordinary talk I heard over the weekend.

In the meantime check Herb's post out, which deals with this topic much better than I have!

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Why They Hate Us

By Mitchell

Or, perhaps, why they hate what we hope to become. For as we hope to become true imitators of Christ, it is not us but Him Who they condemn. The reading from yesterday's Mass:

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, "Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.

"Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.

Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God's son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected."

Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls.

Wisdom 2: 1, 12-22

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