Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Toast of the Town

As I have often previously observed, 1948 was in so many ways such a wonderful year. I was born. The State of Israel was born. The present Prince of Wales was born. It was a great year too in the infant industry of television. On June 8, The Milton Berle Show made its debut. And then, 70 years ago today, an hour-long TV variety show called Toast of the Town, hosted by New York entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan (1901-1974), also made its debut. It ran every Sunday, every season, until June 6, 1971. (On September 25, 1955, the show officially changed its name to The Ed Sullivan Show, and that is how it is remembered.) 

I was four years old when my family purchased its first television; and, as far back as I can remember, The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday at 8:00 p.m. was a regular routine in my family - as it must have been in many families. Often we spent Sunday afternoons and evenings with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was at one of those gatherings that we all watched together Elvis's famous first performance on Ed Sullivan on September 9, 1956. 

A lot of successful performers were introduced to the mass TV audience on the Sullivan show. The most famous instance of this, of course, was The Beatles. Sullivan had accidentally encountered the Beatles while passing through London's Heathrow Airport in 1963. Seeing their fans' over-the-top reaction, Sullivan sensed that they were, as he put it, Elvis all over again. A few months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles (photo) made their American TV debut on his show (a broadcast that drew an estimated 73 million viewers). And the rest, as the saying goes, was pop music history!

In addition to introducing new talent to a mass audience, Sullivan has also been credited with improving American attitudes to and treatment of mental illness, after a May 17, 1953, show at which Broadway director Joshua Logan talked publicly about his experiences in a mental institution.

The Ed Sullivan Show reflected the mores of the era (and its host's Catholic moral rectitude). Inevitably that would conflict with the emerging values of the late 1960s. Thus, when the Rolling Stones appeared on the show on January 15, 1967, they were famously required to change "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together." By that time, inevitably, the show's viewership was beginning to decline, its audience increasingly older (a demographic disaster in the mentality of advertisers). So CBS cancelled the show after the end of the 1970-1971 season. And that was that!

Variety shows fit the mood of the 1950s. It would be hard to imagine such a show today., when viewers would likely channel-surf throughout. While that reflects our changing tastes and reduced attention spans, it also highlights how TV and popular entertainment no longer represent any kind of shared common space in our society, in which we have mostly all retreated to our separate cultural silos. Because at that time there was usually only one TV set in a home and there were only three networks and hence limited TV choices, families watched TV together and shared a common inter-generational experience, an experience they shared with individuals and families across the entire country, creating a common national cultural framework which now no longer exists. That loss of shared experience and common cultural framework is hardly the sole cause or primary explanation for the many social, cultural, and pollitical divisions we are experiencing now, but it does represent one contributing factor.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Seeds Silent and Small

Jesus did much of his public preaching and teaching in rural Galilee. So it’s no surprise so many of his images and parables are agricultural in inspiration. That may make obvious sense, but it also may make them hard for most of us in contemporary society, whose background is non-agricultural, whose background is completely urban, to relate to. To me as a non-gardener, gardening seems incredibly complex, physically demanding, and just generally difficult. Wy would anyone want to do it? To me as a non-farmer, farming also seems if anything even more complex and difficult. And, of course, real farming really is hard work. Only non-farmers romanticize farming! But the parables we just heard [Mark 4:26-32] focus less on the human work involved and more on a more mysterious and silent part of the process. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is as if someone scattered seed on the land and over time watched it sprout and grow and yield fruit for the harvest.  If that first parable focuses on the mysterious, silent, and patient process by which the seed once originally sown sprouts and grows on its own, the second parable contrasts the full fruition of God’s kingdom with its seemingly modest and maybe even inauspicious beginnings.

Obviously, a lot of what we do in life involves effort, even strenuous effort at times. Yet we all know that sometimes there is only just so much which work and effort can accomplish. However ambitious and elaborate our plans, sometimes all we can actually do is plant some seed, so to speak, and then wait patiently to see what happens. If that is true enough in ordinary life and in our ordinary activities, how much more true is it in the mission of the Church? Much of what we do in Church life and in ministry is like that, planting seeds so to speak, sometimes in lots of different ways, and then waiting – patiently and hopefully – to see what happens.

Yet even in the first parable about the seed growing of its own accord, the farmer does do his part. There is activity on the farmer’s part, just as there is activity on the Church’s part - on our part - in the coming of God’s kingdom. The farmer makes his contribution, as God expects all of us to do. But, in both cases, the crucial action is God’s action – action, which occurs mysteriously and may mainly seem hidden.

When I was a student, I remember being surprised to discover that the first of these parables is unique to the Gospel of Mark, and is not included (as most of Mark’s other material is) in either Matthew or Luke. That seemed strange to me then and still seems so now, although all these years later I have no more or better insight as to why that should be. But, however obscure this parable, however easy it may be for us to overlook, I think this remains a really powerful parable. It speaks to something many modern people in particular seem to worry about – God’s silence, his apparent absence from the world. The point of the parable (or so it seems to me) is to acknowledge God’s silence - but also to exclude our misunderstanding or misinterpreting that silence as being due to inactivity on God’s part. Silent God may well be, but absent he is not.

Both parables are about the wonderful way the kingdom of God grows – unstoppably mysteriously in the first parable, unstoppably successfully in the second.   So, despite whatever other human narratives it may be competing with for our attention, the narrative story-line of the kingdom of God is unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success.

Echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy of making the withered tree bloom [Ezekiel 17:22-24], Jesus’ parable illustrates the unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success of God’s kingdom in the mustard seed’s growth into such a great plant that all the birds of the sky can find space for themselves in its large branches. What an amazing aspiration! What an appropriate image for what the church is called to be in our time and place - what we, as Church, are called to be in our conflicted, fragmented, strife-torn world!

Our culture encourages us to be busy all the time and to be efficient, accomplishing a lot in our busy work – often at considerable cost to our health, to our happiness, to family, and to community. But, just as the farmer in the parable scatters seed on faith, with no certain knowledge of how it will grow, the Church has to sow the seed of God’s word in the world, not knowing how or when our efforts will find fulfillment but confident about the coming of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our world – the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, that we say we pray for in every Mass.

Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 17, 2018.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Religion's Terribly Mixed Signals

Ex-Catholic Mike Pence addressed the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this week and used that pulpit to promote the political agenda of his secular lord, Donald Trump. The one consolation in that sorry spectacle was that the previous day some members of the SBC had courageously spoken out against having Pence speak, and some 30% had supported that effort. Shortly after the Vice President's speech, the new President of the SBC, J.D. Grear tweeted: "I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention—but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do."

More pointedly, in a speech earlier in the week, Grear had said: "We believe that Jesus is the lord of the whole earth. He is the king of kings and he is the lord of lords. We believe that he, not any version of Caesar, is the Messiah. He is the Christ, the son of the living God, that salvation is found in him, not in the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, and that salvation did not come riding in on the wings of Air Force One. It came cradled in a manger."

That at least was a direct message and sent a somewhat clearer signal!

Monday, June 11, 2018

First Reformed (The Movie)

In First Reformed, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely, middle-aged parish pastor of a historic 250 year old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, that was once upon a time a stop on the Underground Railroad, but which is now down to a tiny congregation and reduced to something of a tourist attraction. It is overshadowed by the nearby Abundant Life mega-church, which actually now owns it. (The two churches and their ministers and staffs seem to cooperate on a regular basis.) Toller is lonely not just because his congregation  has dwindled to almost no one, but because his marriage has failed. Apparently, his wife left him after their son died in Iraq, for which she blamed him for having encouraged their son to go to VMI. 

Echoing Georges Bernanos' justly famous 1936 novel, Diary of a Country Priest, Toller is also seriously sick with a stomach ailment and keeps a diary. The film also immediately reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's 1963 film Winter Light. Like Bergman's film, also set in a small church in winter, this movie begins with a Communion Service. If, like Bernanos' priest, Toller is increasingly ill and keeps a journal, like Bergman's Lutheran cleric, Toller seems to be struggling with the meaning of his vocation and has previously been romantically involved with a parishioner. And, like Bergman's pastor, he is deeply affected by a woman's request to counsel her husband who has become apocalyptically anxious about the world situation - and who then kills himself. Very early in the film, Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who has become a radical environmentalist. Toller tries his best to reach out to Michael, but Michael soon commits suicide. Indeed, Toller is the one who finds his body. He also finds - or, rather, Mary shows him - a terrorist-type suicide-bomb vest which Michael had been keeping in his garage.

Mary shares her husband's environmental views but not his fatal apocalypticism. She wants to live. The encounter (and his interaction with a local church benefactor who heads a polluting corporation) has the opposite effect on Toller, however, who becomes increasingly obsessed with whether God will forgive us for destroying the environment. As his physical condition deteriorates, he also seems to deteriorate mentally and emotionally, turning the community's preparations for the church's 250th anniversary into preparation for his own act of suicidal, apocalypitc eco-terorism. Without revealing the actual and surprising ending, suffice it to say that that outcome is averted thanks to the one person who alone seems to represent any sort of experience of grace in his life. (I presume her name is not an accident.)

I am uncertain exactly what to make of the film's surprisingly bizarre ending. (In contrast, Bergman ended Winter Light with the pastor and people reassembled for the afternoon service.)

Setting aside issues related to the film's surprising ending, the movie does in fact highlight many matters worth focusing on. Obviously, there is the whole dilemma of being a pastor of what his colleague at Abundant Life calls a tourist church that no one attends. Dealing with diminishment is a primary preoccupation of many Church institutions today. The film highlights how destructive diminishment can be in reality - both for the larger community and for an individuals whose vocational commitment seems thus called into question. 

It also calls attention to the impact of unresolved personal problems on ministry - and vice versa.  And it illustrates the serious importance of pastors being pastored - something Toller's colleague at Abundant Life tries to tell him, but which Toller simply seems unwilling or unable to hear. In a sense Toller's personal pastoral failure with Michael is replicated in the Abundant Life pastor's failure to get through to him. The need for mutual support among clergy - and what happens when it breaks down - is definitely on display in this film.

And, of course, the storyline highlights the dangers inherent in apocalyptic thinking. Ironically, Toller recognizes the politically distorted thinking of the young people he meets with at Abundant Life, but he cannot control the distortions that are coming to control him. It may be that Toller did finally find grace through Mary. But what of the rest of his life before that? Where was grace in his day-to-day life and church work? It may be that his Abundant Life colleague was not far from the mark in his advice!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Caring for our Common Home and Salvaging Ourselves

In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII's bull Inter Gravissimas introduced the Gregorian Calendar, the civil calendar in use now throughout the entire world. Back in 1582, however, the Protestant countries of Europe initially rejected the new calendar. The British empire (which then included what would soon become the United States) only adopted it in 1752. Today, of course, it would be almost unthinkable for a Pope to undertake such a seemingly secular initiative. Yet, for all the abundance of international institutions that have been created over the course of the last century, still no such institution has the credibility or authority the papacy once claimed in public affairs. 

De facto, it has been the United States, as the pre-eminent power in the post-World War II period, that has largely led international institutions and facilitated international norms of cooperation. At least that was the case until recently. The current US Administration's destructive approach to international order was on display again at the G-7 Summit in Quebec, but has been wreaking havoc for some time now, starting with the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, originally singed onto by 196 countries. Into this new vacuum created by the US abandonment of its leadership role, the Holy See seems to have stepped in, convoking a Vatican conference of executives of energy-related businesses on Energy Transition and Care for our Common Home.

In his address at the conclusion of the conference yesterday, Pope Francis, noting that many in the world still lack access even to electricity, challenged his hearers "to find ways of ensuring the immense supply of energy required to meet the needs of all, while at the same time developing means of using natural resources that avoid creating environmental imbalances resulting in deterioration and pollution gravely harmful to our human family, both now and in the future."

That, of course has been the dilemma regarding our natural environment ever since society's consciousness began to be raised regarding environmental problems some 50 years ago.  It is, obviously, impossible to revert to some pre-industrial way of life. There are not far too many people on the planet for human life to be sustained in such a way. Nor would most of us be willing (or even able) to survive in a pre-industrial life-style. Rather, the challenge - and the dilemma - has always been the salvage what is best and salvageable from our modern way of life in a way that mitigates the immense damage our way of life has done to our world, to what Pope Francis fondly calls our common home. Specifically, the immediate contemporary challenge - "a challenge of epochal proportions," Pope Francis has called it - is "to transition to a greater use of energy sources that are highly efficient while producing low levels of pollution."

When I was briefly part of a group researching the global resource crisis as a grad student at Princeton in the mid-1970s, it was apparent that the necessary technological solutions in the form of alternative energy sources had to be complemented by a change in values. As Pope Francis said yesterday: "Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!"

Undoubtedly real progress is being made on the technological front, but what of the equally needed progress in values? Saving human life one earth from the environmental destruction our immoral approach to technological progress now threatens is - or obviously ought to be - among our pre-eminent ethical and political imperatives. Still, self-referential, short-term considerations continue to muddle moral reflection on these matters.

Thus the Holy Father warned the executives: "Political decisions, social responsibility on the part of the business community and criteria governing investments - all these must be guided by the pursuit of the long-term common good and concrete solidarity between generations. There should be no room for opportunistic and cynical  efforts to gain small partial results in the short run, while shifting equally significant costs and damages to future generations." Quoting his own recent environmental encyclical Laudato Si' 53, the Pope repeated: "The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable if striking out on new paths in meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations."

Obviously, this lack of leadership is a cultural and pre-eminently political problem. It is ultimately a moral problem, which results in contemporary democratic society's inability to form true citizens whoa re morally able and willing to call forth morally mature leaders at all levels of governments and society.