Godspell Positive Vision of Christianity

XXXI’ve been a fan of Stephen Schwartz for a very long time. I don’t think his importance in musical theater is fully appreciated. He, and not Andrew Lloyd Webber, was really responsible for modernizing musical theater. And, of course, whereas Webber has a very shallow well of melodies, Schwartz is very deep indeed. His first musical was Godspell, which I saw as a kid, but hadn’t thought about much until recently. So I just watched the 1973 filmed version of it. And it is very touching. It is a story of Jesus that I can get behind.

Of course, it is hardly accurate. Jesus in the Bible is not a very pleasant guy. You know all the things that people are saying about Glenn Greenwald, snarkily observing him “telling bold truths that the corrupted partisans are too blind to see, in a manner that in no way is sanctimonious, is an inspiring example for us all”? Well, that’ kind of Jesus in the Bible. And he’s not very nice or happy. He’s always scolding the disciples. I mean, if he ain’t the son of God, you would never want to hang with him.

But the only time the Jesus of Godspell gets really upset is in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then it is clear that he is feeling very vulnerable—not so keen on dying for everyone’s sins. Otherwise, Jesus is absolutely the guy you want to hang out with. Sure, he’s a little preachy. But he’s fun and he explains what’s important in life. And they all play and act and dance and have puppets.

There are some very interesting aspects of the film that I’ll bet really bug the more conservative of the Christians. For one thing: Jesus is not resurrected. But the disciples carry his body off as they sing and dance. From this, I take it that it is the message, not the resurrection that matters. It’s a kind of Gnostic approach to Christianity and salvation that I’ve always preferred. The whole “just believe in Jesus and you are redeemed” has always struck me as more Tinkerbell than any kind of a adult theology.

There’s another Gnostic aspect of this where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep go to heaven and the goats go to hell. But at the end, he comes back and tells all the goats to come with him. Not a proper reading of the Bible, I would say. But one most people would prefer: God gives the bad people a good talking to, and then we all get on with everlasting life.

Another interesting thing is that John The Baptist and Judas Iscariot are combined in one part. And the way it is played is rather like the Gospel of Judas, which had not been discovered until after this film was made. After Jesus is dead, John/Judas is the head pallbearer on the right hand of Jesus. And this leads to a very thoughtful ending where the disciples joyously sing and dance as they carry Jesus down and empty street. They turn a corner and the camera follows but long after them. Once we see around the corner, they are gone and the street is filled with people, going about their usual business.

What are we to make of this? To me, it is that Jesus’ message lives on. But it is drowned out by the banality of everyday life. Since the film was made (Four decades ago!) things have changed. Christians have become much more vocal. Or at least, a certain kind of Christian has become much more vocal. And they are not banal. If I had one word to describe them it would be: angry. Or perhaps: hateful. And I’m not here to tell you that this is the wrong reading of the Bible. But there are a lot of Christians out there (quieter Christians) who interpret the Bible the way Godspell does. I can’t imagine a Universalist not loving the message of this film.

In addition to all this, the songs are great. They are quite varied. The whole thing is very much like Pippin, which Schwartz also wrote. It is quite a joyous film. You ought to check it out if you have any interest at all. Here is a compilation of scenes set to “We Beseech Thee,” which is not in the film, but was in the play. It is sung by Jeffrey Mylett, who is in the film, but I assume the recording is from the original cast album:

Maya Angelou and My Education

Maya AngelouI just found out that Maya Angelou has died. I was never a big fan of her poetry, but she was a great narrative writer. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I read it in high school. And there was one part that I especially liked. It was in Chapter 5. The two children have been sent to live with their grandmother—Momma—because their parents’ marriage was ending. And she describes this incident where these poor white girls come by each morning to taunt Momma. They are the lowest of the low, but they think because they are white, they are above the blacks. But they must know this is not true, based upon their behavior.

When Momma sees them coming, she sends the children inside. But she will not let these white girls affect her. Here is most of the passage, but I will warn you, this passage is one of the reasons why the book is often removed from schools. To me, it is one of the most profound things I’ve ever read:

Before the girls got to the porch, I heard their laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking stove. I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes. They came finally to stand on the ground in front of Momma. At first they pretended seriousness. Then one of them wrapped her right arm in the crook of her left, pushed out her mouth, and started to hum. I realized that she was aping my grandmother. Another said, “Naw, Helen, you ain’t standing like her. This here’s it.” Then she lifted her chest, folded her arms and mocked that strange carriage that was Annie Henderson. Another laughed, “Naw, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pooched out enough. It’s like this.”

I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never be able to hold it straight, and the .410, our sawed-off shotgun, which stayed loaded and was fired every New Year’s night, was locked in the trunk and Uncle Willie had the key on his chain. Through the fly-specked screen door, I could see that the arms of Momma’s apron jiggled from the vibrations of her humming. But her knees seemed to have locked as if they would never bend again.

She sang on. No louder than before, but no softer either. No slower or faster.

The dirt of the girls’ cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms, and faces to make them all of a piece. Their greasy uncolored hair hung down, uncombed, with a grim finality. I knelt to see them better, to remember them for all time. The tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.

The girls had tired of mocking Momma and turned to other means of agitation. One crossed her eyes, stuck her thumbs in both sides of her mouth, and said, “Look here, Annie.” Grandmother hummed on and the apron strings trembled. I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles.

One of the smaller girls did a kind of puppet dance while her fellow clowns laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said something very quietly, which I couldn’t hear. They all moved backward from the porch, still watching Momma. For an awful second I thought they were going to throw a rock at Momma, who seemed (except for the apron strings) to have turned into stone herself. But the big girl turned her back, bent down, and put her hands flat on the ground—she didn’t pick up anything. She simply shifted her weight and did a handstand.

Her dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky. Her dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no drawers. The slick pubic hair made a brown triangle where her legs came together. She hung in the vacuum of that lifeless morning for only a few seconds, then wavered and tumbled. The other girls clapped her on the back and slapped their hands.

Momma changed her song to “Bread of Heaven, bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

I found that I was praying too. How long could Momma hold out? What new indignity would they think of to subject her to? Would I be able to stay out of it? What would Momma really like me to do?

Then they were moving out of the yard, on their way to town. They bobbed their heads and shook their slack behinds and turned, one at a time:

“‘Bye, Annie.”

“‘Bye, Annie.”

“‘Bye, Annie.”

Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, “‘Bye, Miz Helen, ‘bye, Miz Ruth, ‘bye, Miz Eloise.”

Note the girls call the older woman by her familiar name, and she replies respectfully to each of them. I felt then as I feel now, like the young Angelou: I want to kill those girls. But Momma was right. Momma is an extremely strong woman. And a better person than I.

Maya Angelou was 86 years old. She will be missed.

Democrats’ Senate Chances Keep Looking Better

Martin LongmanOver the weekend, Martin Longman, as part of his usual duties at Political Animal wrote, I Am Optimistic About the Senate Races. I am not quite as optimistic as he is, but I still tilt in his direction, so I thought it would be useful to go through his argument.

Let’s start with the bad news. He has given up on Tim Johnson in South Dakota. But he is also quite gloomy about John Walsh in Montana and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia. I think he’s being way optimistic on these last two. The Upshot provides a great comparison of five groups who are handicapping the election: The Upshot itself, 538, Cook Political Report, Rothenberg Political Report, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Of all three races, the best prediction for Democrats is Rothenberg, that finds Montana a toss-up—and if you go to their site, you’ll see even it thinks it tilts Republican. Anything can happen, of course, but this is a clear -3 for the Democrats.

Now we get to the more winnable races. First up, we have good ol’ Mark Begich of Alaska. Everyone seems to agree that this one is a straight tossup, except (strangely) 538, which gives a slight advantage to Begich, even though they still think the Republicans have the edge in keeping the Senate (or at least they did back in March when they last calculated it). Similarly, pineapple crusher Kay Hagan of North Carolina is looking the same, although The Upshot is slightly bullish on her. For Longman, this means we’re going to keep these seats. For old statistical me, I think it means we’ll keep one of those seats. So that’s a likely -1 for the Democrats.

He also noted:

Mark Pryor of Arkansas has opened up a double-digit lead in the polls, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana had a 24% lead in the April New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation Poll.

That’s putting far too good a spin on these races. 538 (which is out of date, but still) and Rotherberg both have these races leaning Republican. And Longman is putting way too much emphasis on that one poll. The Upshot only gives Landrieu a 41% chance right now. Again, I’d split the difference and give the Democrats a -1 on this. That puts us at -5 thus far—one less than the Republicans need to take over the Senate.

Longman also takes it as a given that the Democrats are going to take Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire. I tend to agree, and I have to say that I don’t understand why people give Mark Udall such a low chance. The best is 61% from The Upshot. But I think that the Democrats will manage to keep all those seats. But if the Democrats lose just one of those seats, the Senate goes red.

There is one other element here. There are two Republican seats that could go blue. The first is Georgia, which I wrote about this weekend, Could Michelle Nunn Win in 2014? On that race everyone gives the advantage to the Republicans. But I’m encouraged in this race. Nunn polls especially well against Kingston, and he seems to be the guy that the Republicans want to nominate. In the end, it is all going to come down to turnout. But I really do think that Nunn could pull this one out. Still, the best you could say is that it is a tossup.

The other Republican seat is just too delicious: Kentucky, where the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for election. At this point, everyone agrees that McConnell has a big advantage over Alison Lundergan Grimes. But McConnell is not well liked in the state, and if Grimes can find an issue that resonates with the voters, she could win. Thus far, she seems to be getting some traction with the Medicaid expansion. Other than the true believers on the right, I don’t think McConnell’s position on that issue makes much sense. “Why do you want to deny healthcare for poor people and not stimulate the Kentucky economy?” Still, you have to say this one is McConnell’s to lose.

Right now, The Upshot give the Democrats a 58% chance of keeping the Senate. And their likeliest scenario is exactly what I’ve just outlined: 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate. Given the Democrats hold the White House, that means they would have control of the Senate. Much will happen in the next five months though. I’d like to think that the economy will continue to improve. That makes many of the marginal Democratic candidates far more competitive. If that happened, it could easily end with the Democrats only losing one seat: 54-46 Democrats. But if the economy tanks, I think you have to assume the Democrats losing seven seats: 52-48 Republicans. But that’s likely the worst we would see.

It doesn’t look like the catastrophe for Democrats that many Republicans are expecting, even under the worst conditions.

Rude and Useless Comments

Who cares about commentsThere is an issue with comments around here that even after almost five years, I don’t get. There are people who agree with me and go into some depth about details. There are questions. There are people who disagree with me and make cogent arguments. And then there are people who just come around to yell at me. It’s very frustrating because these people seem to not actually read what I’ve written. They are angry at me and so they grab onto something I’ve written and blast me on that.

This morning I had such an experience. For some reason, my article Ayn Rand and Indians has been getting an incredible amount of traffic recently (it always gets a fair amount). I assume this is because a popular Facebook account posted it. I’m glad. I’m proud of the article. One thing I know a lot about is Ayn Rand. It’s kind of funny. There are a lot of libertarians who run around thinking that Rand is super keen without having read much or any of her work. They just take it on faith (Really!) that the smart woman had it all figured out. She didn’t. There are gaping holes in her work because she didn’t take philosophy seriously.

This brings us to the following comment by a guy who runs a Philippines-centric website VINCENTON with the subtitle, “Free Market Rocks.” There hasn’t been an article posted on it for almost two months, it gets almost no traffic, and the writing is entirely typical of a college student who is brashly going to “tell it like it is!” But don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen much worse. The main problem is that I’ve see so much like it. At least I can say this of Frankly Curious, it isn’t like any other liberal blog and the quality of the writing and analysis are at a high enough level to attract a decent sized audience that even includes some “name” writers.

Here’s the start of his comment:

I was about to make a long rebuttal to all your illogical responses to the well-thought-out, well-reasoned replies to your sophomoric, anti-logic analysis until I read this: “…the United States is the most savage nation ever.”

The two responses that he calls well-reasoned basically just repeated Ayn Rand’s initial philosophical error. If you say that everyone has the right to their own property, that means that everyone has the right to their own property. It does not mean that everyone has a right to their own property as long as you think they are using it as it ought to be used. That’s fascism. (I’ve noted before that her writing is a “bizarre mixture of fascism, anarchism, and Hollywood romanticism.”) They also made the mistake of thinking that there was an American Indian nation instead of all kinds of little nations with many different lifestyles. And above all, they made the mistake of thinking that the native peoples didn’t have the idea of property rights. This last bit really bugs me, because it not only justifies land theft, it justifies genocide, which is what we Europeans did regardless.

But I especially took exception to his quote of mine. I was responding to a commenter named George who said the Indians were all at war, implying I guess that they were savages who deserved what they got. Here is what I actually wrote in response, “Regardless, if being at war is what makes a culture savage (and I’m open to that idea), then the United States is the most savage nation ever.” So VINCENTON totally mischaracterized what I said and used it as an excuse to chronicle other nations’ savagery. It’s a typical strawman attack. And it wasn’t even a good argument on that basis because he didn’t show that these other countries were more savage than the US.

The main thing here seems to be that this young man was upset that I attacked Ayn Rand who is a hero of his. If you look at his About page, it doesn’t mention Ayn Rand, but it is filled with Objectivism dogma about “selfishness” and “ego.” And he’s written about her ad nauseum. He once wrote that Ayn Rand “is utterly hated by the Left because of her unassailable arguments against altruism, self-sacrifice, mysticism, communism, and all forms of totalitarian ideologies.” So the fact that I have doubtless read more of her (all of her, as far as I know) and have come to the conclusion that she is fundamentally fascistic, must be upsetting.

But his comment was very much like doorbell ditch. If Rand’s arguments are unassailable, why doesn’t he defend her? He doesn’t, because he can’t. Back in the 1980s, I heard Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff say that the United States stayed pretty much a free nation for a hundred years. During almost all of that time, we had slavery in this country. How any reasonable person could say that the United States was more free in 1850 than it was in the 1980s is beyond me. But for Rand and Peikoff, it is quite easy. If you scratch Objectivism just a little bit, you will see fascism and white supremacy.

In the comment, VENCENTON also called me a “creature.” This goes along with one of his articles, “The Left’s Endless Smears Against Ayn Rand.” In it, he wrote, “Evidence or proof is not important to these half-wit creatures.” But neither is it important to him, based upon his comment. Then, just three sentences later, he wrote, “Ad hominem attack is one of the best weapons of the left.” It would be hard to write a believable character who was this aggressively clueless. He is upset that liberals claim, “Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism is a cult.” He then goes on to write many paragraphs quoting Rand reverently as if he were quoting the Bible. It’s sad, but hopefully he will grow out of it. (For the record: Objectisism is very cult-like, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a cult.)

As all my readers know, I’m very angry about the state of the world. But what I don’t do is go to other websites where I disagree and shout at people. In fact, when dealing with someone I disagree with, I try to be as polite as possible. This often leads to very useful dialogues and surprising common ground. (Of course, I feel no such need when people are dumping on me here.) I wonder if people like VENCENTON think by shouting and running away that they win the argument. In their minds maybe. Meanwhile, seven days a weeks, there are new articles here. And the fact that I get more and more immature comments is a sign of the growing success of Frankly Curious.

John Fogerty

John FogertyI have the worst headache I can remember having, so it’s kind of hard to write. So forgive me if this is short. Last year, the birthday post was about Isabelle Carre, who I have such a crush on that her picture in on my computer desktop. But I don’t have much to add about her. It has been hard to get her films on DVD. But after I write this post, I may just get back into bed and watch Romantics Anonymous.

John Fogerty is 69 today. He is such an amazing talent. Bruce Springsteen called him the “Hank Williams of our generation.” That’s about right. Everyone remembers him from Creedence Clearwater Revival, but his work has been remarkably consistent. Like most writers, those earlier songs were raw because he hadn’t yet fully developed his own style. The problem with a fully developed style is that your work is not as universal.

But first, let’s listen to what is still my favorite of his songs and one of my very favorite rock songs ever, “Fortunate Son.” What I most like about it is its pure populist anger. Compare it to the supposed populism of the Tea Party where all the anger is focused on the poor. To them, the fact that most of our elected officials in Congress are millionaires just means that they are better. The fact that government policy takes money away from the poor and gives it to the rich is just great. They’re mad at hell and they don’t know what it is they’re mad about. Fogerty is mad that poor boys are the ones sent off to fight and die in wars. And that’s even more true today than it was then.

Fogerty is unusual in that he almost never writes love songs. But this song, “Broken Down Cowboy,” from his 2007 album Revival is just that: a love song for his wife of 23 years, Julie Kramer:

Happy birthday John Fogerty!