Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day. For the historically and theologically challenged among us, today is the 495th anniversary of the day when Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"  more commonly known as the "Ninety-Five Theses"  on the door of All Saints' Church (the Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Of all the people who have walked this earth in the 20 centuries since St. Paul brought his "gospel to the Gentiles" across the Mediterranean world, Martin Luther is my greatest hero. To be sure, Dr. Luther had his faults. He was often intemperate, and his rhetoric against the Jews  even granting the spirit of his age and the theological, rather than racial, basis for his rants  is offensive. Indeed, it was considered offensive even in his day. His colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, even commented at Luther's funeral (quoting Luther's erstwhile theological opponent, Erasmus): "Some have complained that Luther was more vehement than need required. I will not dispute against any, but I answer thus, that Erasmus has often said about Luther, 'God has given this last age a sharp physician because of the great diseases of the same.'"

Luther may not have been as formidable an exegete, or as balanced a theologian, as his younger contemporary Calvin was. But, I suggest, no one grasped the inner dynamic of the mind and temperament of St. Paul better than did the Wittenberger. Luther's 1535 Commentary on Galatians is no modern historical-critical commentary on the letter  how could it be?  but is as great a contextualization of the apostle's most personal and passionate letter as I have ever read. And those sensitive, effete theologians who today take offense at Luther would similarly take offense at the Paul who rained down anathemas on his opponents and hypothetically wished that the promoters of circumcision would have their knife slip and castrate themselves.

Most Protestant Christians today have never read the Reformer's great commentaries on Galatians and Romans, let alone the 1525 work Luther himself considered his greatest, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will). But they do (hopefully) know his greatest hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"), based on Psalm 46 and written sometime prior to 1531. In English translation, the text of the hymn reads as follows:
1. A mighty fortress is our God, 
 a bulwark never failing; 
 our helper he amid the flood 
 of mortal ills prevaling.  
 For still our ancient foe 
 doth seek to work us woe; 
 his craft and power are great, 
 and armed with cruel hate, 
 on earth is not his equal.

2. Did we in our own strength confide, 
 our striving would be losing, 
 were not the right man on our side, 
 the man of God's own choosing.
 Dost ask who that may be?  
 Christ Jesus, it is he; 
 Lord Sabaoth, his name, 
 from age to age the same, 
 and he must win the battle.

3. And though this world, with devils filled, 
 should threaten to undo us, 
 we will not fear, for God hath willed 
 his truth to triumph through us.  
 The Prince of Darkness grim, 
 we tremble not for him; 
 his rage we can endure, 
 for lo, his doom is sure; 
 one little word shall fell him.

4. That word above all earthly powers, 
 no thanks to them, abideth; 
 the Spirit and the gifts are ours, 
 thru him who with us sideth.  
 Let goods and kindred go, 
 this mortal life also; 
 the body they may kill; 
 God's truth abideth still; 
 his kingdom is forever.

I leave you with a video of the greatest setting ever provided for Luther's immortal hymn, J. S. Bach's Cantate BWV 80, performed admirably by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jesus on Forgiveness and Discipleship

Riding out the early stages of Hurricane Sandy thinking about ... forgiveness.

The catalyst for my thought was a thoughtful blog post written last week by Pete Enns. It is a subject with intense personal relevance to me, and highlights a nonnegotiable aspect of what it means to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

In the so-called "Lord's Prayer," Jesus famously encourages his followers to ask, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt 6:12). In this he clearly models the 6th of the 18 Benedictions in the most foundational of Jewish prayers, the Shmoneh Esreh (Amidah); and, as most instinctively realize, he here follows Jewish precedent in defining sins/trespasses as spiritual debts to God  moral obligations owed to God that we have failed to meet, and for which, despite our inability to repay them, we remain responsible. For those of us who recite this petition on a daily or weekly basis, it is all too easy to gloss over the second, conditional clause, which implies rather clearly that one who stubbornly refuses to forgive others demonstrates thereby that he or she has failed to grasp or appropriate God's kingdom program implemented through Jesus Messiah  and hence can hardly expect God to answer our self-serving plea.

That this is the case is made crystal clear in a profound parable of Jesus recorded by Matthew in Matthew 18:21-35. According to the first evangelist, the parable arises out of a conversation between Jesus and Peter. The impetuous "rock" asks his master how many times he should forgive his brother, and suggests  no doubt with a self-congratulatory magnanimity, as many as seven times. Jesus, almost certainly alluding in a contrasting way to Lamech's murderous boast in Genesis 4:24, replies, "Not 7 times, but rather 77 times." Avoiding the perils of undue literalism and legalism, Jesus' point is quite clear. Forgiveness is to know no limits. Indeed, forgiveness must be co-extensive with what needs to be forgiven. The reason Jesus' disciples must show such unlimited forgiveness is illustrated in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant which follows.

The story is a famous and memorable one. The servant of a king reneges on a debt of 10,000 talents. Considering the fact that a talent was the equivalent of approximately 6000 denarii (the typical day's wage for a common laborer, cf. Matt 20:2), this debt would have taken 164,000 years to repay! One might chalk this up to typical Jesuanic (or even Matthean) hyperbole, but the point is an obvious one: the servant had incurred an illimitable, unpayable debt. Yet the king, out of "compassion" (splanchnistheis) for the servant, forgave him the whole thing. But when a fellow servant is unable to repay a comparably piddling debt of 100 denarii (about three months' wages, but only 1/1,000,000th of the amount the first servant had been forgiven), the forgiven servant callously rejects  for Greek students who may be reading, note the durative or iterative imperfect ouk ēthelen, indicating a sustained or repeated refusal  his fellow servant's plea for patience, throwing him into jail until the time when repayment was made. Other servants privy to the situation then reported back to the king, whose response is hardly surprising: he rescinds the forgiveness just as he had previously rescinded the unpayable debt, and sent him to the "torturers" (in that society, not a hypothetical scenario; according to the historian Josephus [Antiquities 15.289-90], Herod the Great utilized them) for what amounted to a life sentence. Particularly important is verse 33, where Jesus, in the mouth of the king, articulates the issue in terms of mercy (eleos): "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" Following the end of the story, Jesus provides the sting with a dire warning: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Jesus is well known for his articulation of the so-called "Golden Rule" in his Sermon on the Mount: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 7:12). In this parable, however, Jesus proposes an even more foundational imperative. As Klyne Snodgrass has summarized the point, "Do unto others as God has done to you" (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008] 72). According to Jesus, there is a necessary correlation between God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of those who have wronged us. Failure to forgive will ultimately result in our exclusion from the kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate and will come again to consummate.

Jesus makes this point clear at the outset by explicitly relating the story to the situation brought about by the inbreaking of the kingdom of God (see verse 23: "the kingdom of God has become like [hōmoiōthē]"). As in Isaiah 61, said by Jesus to be fulfilled in his ministry (Luke 4:16-21), the kingdom of God is described as the ultimate expression of the law of Jubilee prescribed in Leviticus 25. And so Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he expected his followers to live their lives according to jubilee principles. Failure to do so would result in consequences too horrific to contemplate. It thus appears once again that, contrary to the beliefs of so many "Evangelicals" in America, the proper and necessary response to the gospel of the kingdom is an acceptance, not merely of the benefits offered by Christ, but the demands he makes as well.

And this is very hard to do, human nature being as it is, self-serving and mired in sin. Every time a gruesome, unimaginable murder happens, the news reports focus on the victim's loved ones, who cry for "justice" to be meted out to the perpetrator(s). But it is not justice that they want; it is vengeance, something scripture tells us is the prerogative of God alone (Rom 12:19). (As an aside, the one instance in my knowledge when this was not the case involved the horrible murders of children at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, PA, in 2006, when the victims' relatives clearly manifested the spirit of Christ in their response). God promises, "I will repay," and we who belong to Christ can take heart that God can be taken at his word. We, on the other hand, if we have truly experienced the transforming effects of the kingdom of God, must be magnanimous, merciful, and forgiving. Why? Because we have been forgiven, and by doing so we can, in a small way, experience what our Lord must have experienced as he endured a violent, criminal death on our behalf on Calvary's hill.

As I said, this is very hard to do. Most of us have been hurt by our supposed brothers and/or sisters in the Lord   most often in trivial ways like having our feelings hurt by insensitive comments, but sometimes in life-altering or even career-destroying ways. As many who know me are aware, my professional "career" was derailed, at least temporarily, by what I consider an inexcusable betrayal by a man I considered one of my friends as well as a colleague. The fact that I even say this demonstrates that I have not, as yet, adequately fulfilled what my Lord demands of me. But work at it I must, if I am to be a disciple of the one who gave his life for me. God knows that the debt I owed him far surpasses any debt my fellow human beings could ever owe me. Soli Deo Gloria!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Times Square: A Lament

One Times Square, with Times Square Tower
(2004) in background (2010, photo by author)
One Times Square, 1904
Times Square is, for many, the defining image of New York City. "The Crossroads of the World," as the official Times Square website calls it, is the mega center of the city's famed theater district. Chock full of crowds and stores, ringed with ostentatious modern glass towers, and illuminated by enough wattage to justify its moniker, "The Great White Way," Times Square is London's Piccadilly Circus on steroids. And what American hasn't brought in the New Year by watching the Waterford crystal ball drop down the flagpole of One Times Square?

To me, however, perhaps not surprisingly, Times Square's sheer gaudiness fairly reeks of the sort of tawdriness that too often marks our American culture, the kind where commercial style overwhelms all semblance of cultural substance. When the New York Times erected their new headquarters building in 1904 on the site of what was formerly called Longacre square, it was the second tallest building in the city (behind only the still extant Park Row Building downtown on the flanks of City Hall Park). Before long, a subway line was extended to the area and the first electrified advertisement appeared on a building at the corner of 46th and Broadway. 

The Paramount Building in 2006. The clock and globe
at the top were once illuminated (photo by author)
Times Square, 1965 (photo
When, in 1927, the glorious Art Deco Paramount building was constructed, and in 1928, the first electric news ticker was installed at the base of the Times Tower to announce Herbert Hoover's victory in that year's presidential contest, Times Square had already established its preeminent position as a cultural crossroads. But the Great Depression and the decline that marked all of America's great cities in the middle of the 20th century took their inevitable toll on the Square. Indeed, the Times Square as I remember it from my youth had deteriorated to the level of the squalid collection of flea bag hotels and sex-themed "entertainment" venues depicted in Martin Scorsese's classic 1976 film, "Taxi Driver." The Square retained its squalid reputation until the 1990s, when it was cleaned up and transformed to what, for all practical purposes, has become a Disneyfied theme park plopped down in the heart of America's largest city. To be sure, the enhanced safety and more family-friendly atmosphere that now characterizes Times Square is a welcome development. But, I ask, at what cost? Could not the bright lights of the entertainment district have coincided with an approach that could have preserved some of the area's historic character?

Nothing, perhaps, signals the problems, as I see them, of Times Square more poignantly than the fate of One Times Square, formerly the Times Tower. As originally constructed, One Times Square bore more than a passing resemblance to Daniel Burnham's great Flatiron Building (1902) at 23rd, 5th, and Broadway. Both were built on triangular parcels caused by the imposition of the meandering Broadway on to Manhattan's street grid. And both were ornamented in classic Beaux-Arts style, lending a dignified ambiance to their distinctive wedge-like shapes.

Times Square, 1904. On the left is the Times Tower. To the right is the late,
lamented Astor Hotel with its exquisite mansard (photo

Times Square, 1919, showing crowds gathered to follow the World Series between the Cincinnati Reds
and Chicago "Black" Sox. In the rear to the left of the Times Tower is the old Knickerbocker Hotel (1906),
 still standing at the SE corner of 42nd, 7th, and Broadway (photo

One Times Square, 1960s
In a manner all too typical of the aesthetically-challenged 1950s-60s, the Times Tower was radically remodeled in 1961 after being sold to the Allied Chemical Company, who lent the building their name as they criminally stripped the facade of its limestone skin and terra cotta ornamentation. In its place they clad the building in an unornamented, marble and glass skin that remains to this day behind the massive advertising billboards that serve as its current public face, long after the building's associations with the company have faded into the mists of time. Looking at the building today, it is hard to imagine the beauty that once characterized it. And that, to me, is unimaginably sad.

What does this say about America and its culture? Nothing very complimentary, I'm afraid to say. I have nothing necessarily against advertising, even the type of garish electronica one sees today in Times Square. Nevertheless, I do abominate the desecration or destruction of beauty in the interests of such tawdriness. The preference of so many Americans of the cheap, shallow glitz of Times Square to the historic splendor of Soho or the city's unsurpassed cultural offerings likewise says plenty about the philistine character of the national aesthetic and intellectual consciousness. That is one thing I know for sure is not going to change.

I leave you with three pictures I took last week of the old Knickerbocker Hotel (now Six Times Square), one of the last unaltered survivors of the days of Times Square's original glory. The juxtaposition of its Beaux-Arts splendor with the banality of its tawdry modern neighbors causes me to shake my head in melancholy disbelief.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bruce Springsteen's "Factory": A Theological Reflection

Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
somebody's gonna get hurt tonight,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Bruce Springsteen burst into the national limelight in 1975 with his classic musical expression of naive youthful idealism, Born to Run. In what I consider to be his best song, "Thunder Road," the narrator expresses his desire for a better life, and entreats his girl to come along as escapes the stultifying life of his has-been home town: "It's a town full of losers/I'm pulling out of here to win." Well, in the following years Bruce  courtesy of former manager Mike Appel  learned first hand of the vicissitudes of life and the crushing of the human spirit that inevitably comes when "the promise is broken."  The result was his bitter and bleak classic of disillusionment, Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was finally released in 1978, and from which is culled the somewhat obscure, country-tinged ballad, simply entitled "Factory."

Springsteen's inspiration for this song came, not surprisingly, from his father, a man who bounced around from job to unsatisfying job, including stints in the old Karagheusian Rug Mill in Freehold, New Jersey (referenced in his 1984 song, "My Hometown") and a plastics plant that served as the direct inspiration for the lyric about encroaching hearing loss (Springsteen discusses this here). Considering the strained relationship Springsteen had with his father throughout his youth, it comes as no surprise to hear the deliberate allusion to the melody of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from Jesus Christ Superstar (especially evident in the instrumental bridge played by Roy Bittan and Danny Federici).

With haunting simplicity, Springsteen captures the soul-killing drudgery and (often) meaninglessness that characterizes so much work in both the industrial and (now) post-industrial eras in the West  and, just as importantly, the deleterious effects of such on human relationships both in the home and in society. What I would like to suggest is that, in doing so, the Boss has provided an exquisite artistic commentary on what the biblical Book of Genesis portrays as one of the consequences of humankind's fall into sin. Genesis 3:17-19 read as follows:

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”
It is essential to realize that the mandate of work itself is not the curse. Rather, the curse consists in the transformation of work, which is part and parcel of what being human entails, into toil. The "thorns and thistles" of the creation narrative illustrate the kinds of difficulties one inevitably encounters while laboring in the fallen world in which we now live. Humans, indeed, were created to work in their capacity as God's image bearers, wisely bringing God's rule to bear on the created order. But, as we all instinctively know, things are not as they are "supposed to be." And nowhere is this more evident than with respect to work. As anyone, like I, who has ever been employed to do industrial shift work can readily attest, work all too often bears the marks of tedium and insignificance, bringing with it mental anguish even as it hastens the physical breakdown to which we all eventually succumb. And this is especially the case when work is cut loose from its proper context as a means to glorify God and mediate his rule, and used instead as a means of self-aggrandizement in the arena of cutthroat competition for societal prestige and material comfort.

The Christian gospel is the good news that God has, in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, inaugurated the kingdom of God, in which the wrongs brought about by human sin will ultimately be righted as God's rule becomes manifest on earth as it is in heaven. This, of course, has ramifications for human work. To the extent that we still live in the midst of the "present evil age" (Gal 1:4), our work will always, to an extent, be made burdensome by the thorns and thistles that encumber all human endeavors. But work itself remains honorable and intrinsically worthwhile  as Luther and Calvin understood, each of us (i.e., not only the "clergy") has been given a "vocation," the responsibilities of which we are to discharge with obedient alacrity. As St. Paul said, "Whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord and not for men" (Col 3:23). This, I know from personal experience, is a hard thing to do. It is, for example, much easier to do what one finds enjoyable, whether that means teaching theology, writing blogs, or playing music (no matter the effort expended), than it is to work on a production line at midnight in a hot, filthy factory, manufacturing what, for all practical purposes, is junk mail. But obedience is obedience, no matter what the cost. And the heart of growth to spiritual maturity is the recognition that God is not in the business of making us comfortable, but of transforming us by his Spirit so that we actually do love God and neighbor as we were created to do.

One more thing. If, indeed, Christians are now in the business of implementing the victory over evil achieved by Christ in his death and resurrection, that means that we should not simply accept the drudgery or toilsome character of so much work in the present world, especially when it is "others" who experience the worst of it. Rather, we should do all we can to bring Christ's victory to bear on every sphere of life, and that by definition includes the sphere of work. By the way, this especially has relevance to those of us who are most materially comfortable and/or who have been fortunate enough to be employed doing what, for us, does not feel like "work." After all, as John Donne rightly expressed, "No man is an island, entire of itself" (Devotions upon emergent occasions and seuerall steps in my sicknes - Meditation XVII [1624]). We don't live life on our own, and we certainly ought not live as if we have no such responsibilities to others likewise created in God's image.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Rolling Stones and The Prodigal Son

Perhaps the greatest  certainly, along with the story of the Good Samaritan, the most well-known — of Jesus' parables is that of the Prodigal Son, recorded in Luke 15:11-32. Indeed, of all Jesus' parables, it is the Prodigal Son that has captured the imagination of Western artists, authors, and musicians. One thinks, for instance, of Rembrandt's profound The Return of the Prodigal Son (ca. 1661-69; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg); of his intensely personal self portrait, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel (ca. 1637; Gemäldegalerie  Alte Meister, Dresden); of Shakespeare, who used the prodigal son motif in his portrayals of Henry V in both Henry IV and Henry V; and of Sergei Prokofiev's score for Ballanchine's Le Fils prodigue (1928-29). 

Less well known, at least to academically-trained observers, is a somewhat obscure country blues number based on the story by the Reverend Robert Wilkins (1896-1987), who had originally recorded the song's music in 1929 as a blues entitled, "That's No Way to Get Along." After he converted to Christianity, he rewrote the lyrics and entitled the song "The Prodigal Son," which he recorded live at Newport in the summer of 1964. It is this version that the Rolling Stones covered exquisitely in their 1968 classic, Beggar's Banquet. The truncated lyrics, as sung by Mick Jagger, read thus:

Well a poor boy took his father's bread and started down the road 
Started down the road 
Took all he had and started down the road 
Going out in this world, where God only knows 
And that'll be the way to get along 

Well poor boy spent all he had, famine come in the land 
Famine come in the land 
Spent all he had and famine come in the land 
Said, "I believe I'll go and hire me to some man" 
And that'll be the way I'll get along 

Well, man said, "I'll give you a job for to feed my swine 
For to feed my swine 
I'll give you a job for to feed my swine" 
Boy stood there and hung his head and cried 
`Cause that is no way to get along 

Said, "I believe I'll ride, believe I'll go back home 
Believe I'll go back home 
Believe I'll ride, believe I'll go back home 
Or down the road as far as I can go" 
And that'll be the way to get along 

Well, father said, "See my son coming after me 
Coming home to me" 
Father ran and fell down on his knees 
Said, "Sing and praise, Lord have mercy on me" 

Oh poor boy stood there, hung his head and cried 
Hung his head and cried 
Poor boy stood and hung his head and cried 
Said, "Father will you look on me as a child?" 

Well father said, "Eldest son, kill the fatted calf, 
Call the family round 
Kill that calf and call the family round 
My son was lost but now he is found 
'Cause that's the way for us to get along"

If one takes Luke's setting seriously, the meaning of the story is fairly straightforward. In Luke 15:1-2 we read:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
No doubt it is true, as N. T. Wright suggests (Jesus and the Victory of God, 124-31), that the parable portrays the story of Israel in miniature: the story of exile and return, with the implication that he is the one in and through whom Israel's god was restoring his people (with Jimmy Dunn [Jesus Remembered, 476], however, I am confident that Wright's equation of the older brother in the story with the Samaritans and others who desired to hinder this return, is ill-founded). But the sting of the story lies in Jesus' subversive message regarding which Jews were in fact becoming the beneficiaries of this return from exile and experiencing the exhilarating release from debts provided by the eschatological Jubilee. Indeed, the purpose of the story, as Klyne Snodgrass has recently argued (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 139-41), is three-fold:

  • To emphasize the compassion and love of God, illustrated by the eagerness of the father to restore and forgive his erstwhile prodigal son.
  • To invite Jesus' listeners (and followers today) to celebrate the repentance of sinners.
  • To enjoin Jesus' listeners (and followers today) to take the same attitude toward sinners as the father displayed toward the prodigal.
The parable of the Prodigal Son fairly screams in its invitation to theological reflection. Especially those of us who are Gentiles by birth need to realize that the Prodigal Son, by working in the Gentile pig sty, had, like Israel in exile and the "sinners" of Jesus' day, constituted themselves spiritual Gentiles  people who, as the Apostle Paul said, were "separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12).  As such they (we!) "were dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1). Make no mistake: all of us are prodigals, and those of us who are "in Christ" have only the compassionate love of God to account for our new status. And this has necessary implications for how we both view and treat those who still remain spiritually "in the far country."

In a sense, I think most Christians give lip service to this truth, and in moments of their deepest spiritual reflection actually believe it. More often than not, however, the impulse to self-righteousness rears its ugly head, and they unwittingly assume the persona of the older brother. To invoke another parable, having uttered the repentant words of the toll collector, "God be merciful to me a sinner," they find themselves uttering  at least in their public persona  the proud words of the Pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."

I ask two questions. First, Do we translate our own acceptance by the all-compassionate God into a missional life in which we actively become God's agents in seeking and saving sinners? Second, Do we celebrate the repentance of "sinners," or do we  at least sometimes  long for God to exercise vengeance against them? Are there people, in other words, whom we consider to be outside the possibility of reclamation, people like Hitler, for instance, who have forfeited any "right" to be the object of God's saving grace? My fervent hope is that you answer the first question "Yes" and the second "No." Too often, however, I witness "Christians" rejoicing less in the salvation of the lost than in the comeuppance and "justice" meted out to criminals and other sinners. Remember one thing, however: the only contribution any person makes to her salvation is the sin from which she is saved. A grateful acknowledgement of that nasty fact should lead each of us to a fresh appreciation for the merciful love of the Father in heaven who has rescued us from our fatal plight.

In closing I leave you with two recordings of the Reverend Robert Wilkins, his original recording of "That's No Way to Get Along" from 1929 and his 1964 performance of "Prodigal Son" from Newport.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Why I Loathe Wild Cards in Major League Baseball

Cardinals players celebrating their victory over the Nationals, 12 October 2012

Last Friday night I said goodbye to the 2012 Major League Baseball playoffs. Despite what some might think, this has nothing to do with the absence therein of my beloved Phillies after their run of 5 consecutive NL East titles ended ingloriously with their mediocrity-defining 81-81 season. No — it had everything to do with the St. Louis Cardinals' defeat of the Washington Nationals to advance to the National League Championship Series.

Don't get me wrong. I have no special love, or even like, for the Nationals, either now or in their previous incarnation as the Montreal Expos. Indeed, Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo is near the bottom of my list of favored professional sports executives. Rather, it has everything to do with principle  a word MLB only seems to invoke when the issue is gambling and the continued banishment of Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame. What baseball has done with their playoff structure, I maintain, has irrevocably harmed the sport by cheapening the 6 month long regular season, a veritable marathon that effectively winnows the wheat from the chaff by exposing teams, who might play well for lengths of time, to be the flawed pretenders they actually are. As it is now, teams seemingly buried in late July can, by trading for a rented star, get hot over the last 50 games of the season, slip into the playoff picture via one of two wild card slots allotted per league, and ultimately be crowned the "world champion" of baseball. Baseball, after all, is a game of inches and often of luck, both of which tend to even out over the long haul. But over a 7-game series  let alone the infernal 5-game series and ridiculous, one-game wild card playoff  such "bounces" rarely even out. After all, the difference between a 100-win team and a 90-win team is only a matter of 6.2%, which often amounts to a hill of beans in a short series.

As a result, while so many Americans saw the Cardinals' elimination-defying comeback win over the Nationals as a thrilling example of the sport's unpredictability, I saw it as the triumph of a playoff-seasoned club, who didn't even belong in the playoffs, over a young, inexperienced team that nevertheless had managed the best record in the National League. The Cardinals, after all, only won 88 games, the 5th-best record in a 16-team league, 9 games behind the division champ Reds. As such, they slipped in as the second wild card team, having won 6 less games than the Atlanta Braves. Even worse, their one-game wild card game against the Braves was marred by a ludicrous infield fly ruling  I have never, in my almost 50 years of watching baseball, seen such a call on a ball more than 50 feet deep in the outfield grass  that at least potentially cut short a Braves' comeback rally. And so they advanced to defeat the Nationals.

A little history: from 1904-1968, the two major leagues (not counting the upstart Federal League in 1914-15) had no divisions, and the champion of each 8- or 10-team (expansion occurred in 1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL) league met in the World Series to determine the world champion. In my view, such a practice was both elegant and fair. To be sure, the clearly better team did not always win the series (the 1931 Philadelphia A's and 1954 Cleveland Indians come immediately to mind), but at least the vanquished teams still were crowned with their respective leagues' pennants. This was still the scenario when I started following baseball back in 1964 (for my recollections of the heart-wrenching final days of that season, see here). The Phillies, due to their historic collapse, finished tied for 2nd place, and hence had to stay home to watch the Cardinals defeat the Yanks in Mickey Mantle's final World Series. And that is how it should be. Frankly, the Phillies didn't deserve another chance. With the partition of each league into two divisions in conjunction with further expansion in 1969, a second round of playoffs was added. So far, so good. When the AL expanded to 14 teams in 1977, they kept the two-division format. In 1995, however, two years after the NL likewise expanded to 14 teams, baseball decided to take a leaf from the playbook of the NFL, and added a single wild card team, and concomitantly another round of playoffs, to its postseason schedule.

The results have been dramatic. In the 12 years from 2000-2011, four wild card teams have won the World Series, which amounts to a higher percentage than all the actual division winners in those years (4 out of 12 versus 8 out of 36). These include not only such famous teams as the 2004 Boston Red Sox and last year's Cardinals, but the "mighty" Cardinals of 2006, who won despite having posted a mediocre 83-78 record that, in itself, should have given the clueless Bud Selig pause. In the American League, three wild card teams have won the pennant, whereas the team with the league's best record has won only four times. In the National League, the situation is even more dramatic. Only once (the 2004 Cardinals) has the team with the best record won the NL pennant in the last 12 years. In that same stretch of time, six  count 'em, SIX  wild card teams have proceeded to the World Series. If that doesn't make a mockery of the regular season, I don't know what does. Granted, MLB is not as ridiculously generous in doling playoff spots as the NBA and NHL are. Thankfully (hopefully?) I will never have to mourn over the prospect of an 8th-seeded team like the 2011-12 LA Kings winning the World Series. Nevertheless, baseball, if it wants to make its grueling 162-game schedule anything more than a vast preseason, ought to do something to ensure that only the most deserving of teams get the chance to play for the championship.

What to do? My proposal is simple, elegant, and fair. Next year the Houston Astros, members of the National League since their inception as the Colt 45's back in 1962, are scheduled to move to the American League (remember, I still hold a grudge against the NFL for moving the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers to the AFC following the merger with the old AFL back in the '60s). The result will be that both leagues will now have 15 teams, which means, among other things, that there will always be at least one interleague series going on throughout the season (the very thought of which raises my blood pressure to unsafe levels). I say, leave the leagues as they are, and regroup each into two divisions, the champions of which would play for the league pennant, the way they did from 1969-1993.

I am well aware that this is a solution that stands absolutely no chance of being implemented, for two reasons, neither of which could ever cause me to relinquish so much as a rat's behind. The first of these is money, of course. More playoff series means more money and exposure for the league. More playoff teams means more cities with fan bases ripe to spend their hard-earned money on officially licensed team merchandise. 

The second reason is fan interest. For better or worse, most fans don't really care about the philosophy of awarding baseball titles, and casual fans often get their interest piqued only when their home team is contending for a playoff spot (real fans, of course, care about the regular season all the way to the end, no matter how far out of the chase their team is; over the years I have had lots of practice in this regard; I am a Phillies fan, after all). More fans, more excitement, more money. That, in a nutshell, is baseball's primary concern. It just is not my concern. And so I suppose I will have to assume my customary mantle, that of a grumpy contrarian, as I long for a season when my Phils will once again deserve to compete for what, to me, is the most important sports championship of all.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Joe Biden, Rudeness, and Paul Ryan's "Malarkey"

I love Joe Biden.

Now I know that, by writing that simple sentence, I will have lost more than half of my reading audience. I am a Christia an evangelical one at that  and such Christians in America have been programmed by a relentless stream of propaganda to believe that "liberals," and Democrats in particular, are evil incarnate. That  is the legacy of Jerry Falwell and his minions, who deftly used the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the issue of abortion in particular, to shift political discourse away from its traditional focus on weighty matters of domestic (economic and justice issues) and international policy to matters of culture and sexual morality. As a result, legions of Christians have fled the Democratic Party to find a new home in the Republican Party, which consequently has been transformed away from its historic character as the party of business and the wealthy to what it is today: a party that, while not abandoning its foundational economic principles, has adopted the public face of conservative southern culture. I certainly understand, and even respect, Christians who feel compelled to vote Republican on single issues such as abortion. But what I don't understand is how so many Christians are now apparently ready to turn a blind eye to the increasingly radicalized economic policies of the GOP  or, even worse, to defend such policies  all of which are designed explicitly to benefit the wealthy and weaken the societal safety net instituted by FDR. The Bible, after all, has little to say about abortion, and what it does say is hardly unambiguous, but it has plenty to say about social justice, love of neighbor, compassion, and mercy. One would think that Christians in the GOP would work to make the party more "compassionate" in its conservatism, to really put some flesh on the bones of what, in George W. Bush's mouth, was a mere slogan.  But no. Thus far they have been content simply to swallow the Republican lines about Ayn Rand and "Austrian" economics hook, line, and sinker, with nary a pricked conscience in the lot of them.

Enter Joe Biden. Needless to say, I don't agree with all his policies (disclosure: I am pro-life, though I would be unwilling to proscribe all exceptions). And, at times, I have winced at some of his so-called "gaffes." But, paradoxically, it is in these gaffes that he truly resonates with me. What they evince is a man whose passion in advocating his deeply held views is not mitigated by an overt concern about what other people think about him. Like me, he is an American of Celtic descent (Biden Irish Catholic, I Scots-Irish Protestant) who was raised under middle class conditions in the Philadelphia area (I in West Philly and Havertown, Biden in Claymont and Wilmington, Delaware) and roots for the Phillies and Eagles. Like I have always hoped to be, Biden is fearless, confident in the truth of the positions he advocates, even when he might be mistaken.

As a college professor, I often espoused viewpoints that were, to say the least, politically inexpedient for a man in my position. And, so I have been told, I did so with a passion similar to, and no doubt inherited from, my very Irish, and East Orange, New Jersey-raised father. But I always warned my students to divide what I said in half, in that my purpose was often to jolt students out of their evangelical, pietistic complacency so they could view the biblical text with new eyes. Not surprisingly, a few students failed to get the message, and the supposed offense they (or third parties not privy to the original discussions) took got me into trouble on multiple occasions.  At times, I didn't even need to say anything. Just my "body language" or facial expressions were enough to incriminate me. That, I suppose, is one of the perils of transparency. And Joe Biden, if nothing else, is transparent to a fault.

Last night's Vice Presidential debate was interesting as much for the reactions it generated as for the light it shone on the issues at stake (though I would maintain it succeeded more on that score than the Presidential debate last week). Democratic partisans were ecstatic, viewing Biden's performance as the needed corrective to President Obama's inexplicably wan performance in Denver. Republican partisans were outraged at Biden's "rudeness" and the "disrespect" he showed Congressman Ryan. Those who remained undecided (are there really any of these left?) were mixed in their reaction. A CNN poll had it 48%-44% in favor of Ryan, whereas a CBS poll had it 50%-32% in favor of Biden.

The response of conservatives to Biden's impassioned blitz of Ryan is, to me, an index of the Vice President's achievement of his primary aim, to wit, to right Team Obama's listing ship and build momentum and passion in its base. "Rudeness" and "disrespect" are in the eye of the beholder, indeed. Part of this reaction is, no doubt, cultural. Philly-style, in-your-face directness does not play well in other, more genteel places like the South and rural Midwest. With regard to "respect," Biden did walk on eggshells four years ago in his debate with Sarah Palin so as not to cause offense. But his role this time was different because the circumstances were different. President Obama, a man of serious intellect but often more interested in "seeming" reasonable and conciliatory, had widely been panned as the loser in the previous week's debate, inexplicably failing to call out Mitt Romney for comments he made that were (similarly) widely judged to be unspecific and misleading. Biden, under these circumstances, had to do what he does best: act like an attack dog, forcing his opponent either to state the inconvenient specifics of the Romney-Ryan economic plan or to prevaricate in an attempt to further obfuscate the issues. And this Biden did with cold efficiency, emphatically aligning his (and Obama's) policies with the interests of the middle class:
We (in the Obama administration) knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, 'No, let Detroit go bankrupt.'....But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend (Ryan) recently in a speech in Washington, he said '30 percent of the American people are takers.' These people are my mom and dad  the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. There are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, 'not paying any tax.' I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent - it's about time (Republicans) take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we're going to level the playing field.
The Vice President likewise scored with his revelation that Congressman Ryan had actively sought stimulus funds for his district in Wisconsin, the very stimulus he now lambastes as misguided and harmful to the economy. In addition, moderator Martha Raddatz did some of Biden's work for him, calling Ryan out for failing to provide specifics about what middle class deductions would have to be eliminated to pay for the tax cuts, once again heavily weighted toward the upper classes, his plan proposes. Indeed, in my view Ryan's entire budget is an exercise in playing economic Fantasyland, as academic pundits from Paul Krugman (here) to former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (here) have argued.  At the very least, Ryan and Romney owe it to the American people to be specific about their proposals instead of waxing platitudinous on the issue. My hunch, however, is that doing so would hurt their chances with the working class people they so desperately need to prove victorious in their campaign. As it is, the Republicans' success in turning the tax issue into a referendum on fairness for the rich (!), the only people who have benefited economically over the past 30 years, is the most amazing bit of political voodoo I have witnessed in my five and a half decades on this planet. It is, frankly, inexplicable to me that so many Christians have (only recently?) bought into this economic line.

For me the highlight of the evening came when Biden termed a criticism of President Obama's chilly dealings with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu "a bunch of stuff," later defining "stuff" as "malarkey."  The Irishman in me grinned at his use of this designation.  The theologian in me thought St. Paul would have called it "skybala."

One more matter bears discussion. This concerns the matter of Biden's supposed "disrespect" towards Ryan.  This, frankly, is "a bunch of stuff," especially coming from people who count Ronald Reagan's smirking "there you go again" quip to Jimmy Carter among their most favored political memories. One simply can't have it both ways. What this shows, above all else, is that what people see and hear, and how they evaluate what they see and hear, are inextricably tied to their worldview and belief system already set in place. And for those blissfully unaware of these preunderstandings and presuppositions, let alone those unwilling to re-examine them because of the existential angst such could potentially cause, no amount of argument can dislodge them from the beliefs they hold so deeply. Had Biden not forcefully called Ryan to account, he would simply have been following the failed template Obama had set the previous week (That, I suppose, is what Ryan's supporters had hoped Biden would do). Not only would Ryan have gotten away, like Romney did, with generalities and fudging of the truth; Biden also would have, like Obama, been judged as "weak," all the more problematic given his age and experience. Thankfully the tough Irishman, even if he overdid the smiling a bit, didn't back down in the interests of forced gentility. Agree or disagree with his positions, he is a man willing to fight for his convictions, and for that he garners my respect.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Ortlieb's Brewery and the Divine Lorraine Hotel: A Tale of Two Buildings

Ortlieb's Brewery, 28 June 2009
(photo by author)
Divine Lorraine Hotel, Memorial Day 2009
(photo by author) 

For those who love Philadelphia  and by that I mean those who love what has always made Philadelphia Philadelphia rather than the faux-trendy hipster hotspot many today clearly want it to be  last week was really both the best and worst of times. 

The Divine Lorraine in 1971,
as I remember it in my youth  (Library of Congress Photo
On the one hand, on Wednesday the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that developer Eric Blumenfeld had regained title to the 118 year-old Divine Lorraine for a little more than $8 million. Blumenfeld hopes to convert the  landmark building, at at Broad St. and Fairmount Ave., into 126 rental units with street-level retail and a potential restaurant deal with noted chef Marc Vetri. This is very good news, not only for lovers of architecture and historic preservation, but for all who have hoped for decades for the economic revitalization of Lower North Philadelphia. Built in 1892-94 by flamboyant architect Willis G. Hale as the Lorraine Apartments, the building originally housed the nouveau riches that, for a time, were flocking to North Broad Street. That time had long gone by the time it was purchased by cult figure and civil rights pioneer George Baker (The Reverend Major Jealous Divine) in 1948, who proceeded to turn it into Philadelphia's first entirely integrated hotel.  Since 2000, when Father Divine's Peace Mission sold the building, it has both gone through a succession of owners and been transformed into the graffiti-scarred hulk it is today. Most egregiously, previous owner Michael Treacy and his co-investors from Michigan and the Netherlands stripped the entire hotel of its spectacular furnishings before ultimately defaulting on their loan. When a small fire erupted at the hotel back in March, I feared the worst. Now, however, hope exists for this landmark structure where previously there had been none.

Here are a few pictures I have taken of the Divine Lorraine in recent years.  The first two were taken on Memorial Day 2009, while the next eight were taken just last month, on the 22nd of September.  Even in its advanced stage of decay and decrepitude, the glories of the old hotel are clearly evident.

The same hope does not exist, however, for the old Ortlieb's Brewery on the south side of Poplar between American and 3rd in Northern Liberties. What remains of the Ortlieb's complex is the last remaining brewery building in Northern Liberties, the erstwhile gritty, blue-collar neighborhood of breweries and tanneries that has, in the last decade, been transformed into the trendiest neighborhood in the city through a gentrifying process of renovation and, more often, of demolition and construction of "cutting edge" new housing.


On Thursday, Hidden City Philadelphia reported that developer Bart Blatstein, owner of the Ortlieb's property, had received a permit to demolish the property as early as the 24th of this month. Blatstein is well-known in Philadelphia, having earned his fortune by transforming a somnolent, underutilized stretch of Columbus Boulevard in South Philly with an acontextual cinema complex and big box retail more worthy of suburban Columbus, Ohio than urban Philadelphia. Over the past decade or so, Blatstein has become the major player in transforming Northern Liberties into the hipster paradise it has become.  To give Blatstein his due, he has done a wonderful job restoring a number of derelict properties, most notably Daniel Boone Public School (a former reformatory) and an old warehouse at 1011 Hancock St., into prime residential properties.  But he is best known for his scorched-earth demolition of Philadelphia's largest brewery, Schmidt's at 2nd and Girard, and construction of the super-trendy Piazza at Schmidt's as the first stage in its replacement.

Blatstein in effect replaced this ...:

The rear of the enlarged Schmidt's complex
in advanced state of dereliction, 1990s
The Schmidt's brewery in 1917

with these:

The Piazza at Schmidt's, 28 June 2009
[only hours before the murder of Rian Thal in the building on the left]
(photo by author)
Pathmark Supermarket, 2nd and Girard

These developments have been heaped with praise, not only by young hipsters, but by the architectural commentariat (e.g., the Inquirer's Inga Saffron). My own response is far less enthusiastic, if not entirely negative.  To be sure, good modern architecture is welcome, and can serve a good purpose in rejuvenating older neighborhoods.  Northern Liberties, in fact, is home to most examples of such architecture in the city.  But the inherent coldness of such architecture  the worst of which rivals the sterility of Soviet-style modernism  means that it is best experienced in small doses (indeed, even the famous, I. M. Pei-designed Society Hill Towers fail to cause offense primarily because of their sheer novelty in Philadelphia, in contrast to such buildings' offensive ubiquity in Manhattan).  Moreover, the very cheapness of their construction almost guarantees a poor aging process, especially in comparison to the stone and brick buildings that have always given Philadelphia its distinct character.  My suspicion is that the Piazza at Schmidt's, for all its trendiness quotient, will lose its cache sooner rather than later, when its novelty no longer can hide its sheer ugliness.

Blatstein has owned the Ortlieb's complex since 2000, even demolishing one of the buildings in the complex back in 2002, raising the ire of neighbors in the process.  In the intervening years, despite exploring the possibility of rehabilitating the buildings back in 2007, the buildings have deteriorated (a large tree even is growing on the roof of one of the buildings) to the point of being a classic example of demolition-by-neglect.

Blatstein has no concrete plans for the parcel, but his primary loyalty is to profit rather than to aesthetics or the historic fabric of the neighborhood (he is a developer, after all). His comment, "I would have kept the buildings if I would have felt it was a marketable commodity," really does not ring true. His further comment that preferences in the Northern Liberties community now lie toward "new construction" certainly bears the ring of truth, at least in part.  Rehabilitation of such a ravaged complex would cost lots of money, though it certainly could be done.  And there would be a large market for such a rehab. But it is cheaper, after all, to just clear the land a build from scratch.  With the current hotness of the NoLibs market, any new construction would garner more than adequate interest.

Nevertheless, I would maintain that, if he has any sense of civic responsibility, Blatstein should seek to save at least the 1914 brewhouse at the corner of American and Poplar.  Simply for historical reasons, the corner of 3rd and Poplar has seen production of German lager since at least 1860, and Northern Liberties ultimately became the epicenter of lager production in Philadelphia ("Brewerytown East") throughout my youth.  Revitalization of the neighborhood, to be optimal, needs to respect the industrial heritage provided by such large, lost enterprises as Schmidt's, Ortlieb's, and the tragically lost Burk Tannery only a couple of blocks north on 3rd Street.  The scale of these factories, in contrast with the tidy rows of their workers' rowhouses, defined this neighborhood, giving it its distinct character and, yes, its charm.  Indeed, the charm of old cities like Philadelphia lies in it old buildings, which in other cities are either rare or nonexistent.  Simply put, buildings like Ortlieb's and the hundreds of other old, often derelict, factories can't be found in other cities, at least to the extent they can in Philadelphia, the erstwhile "Workshop of the World."  My question: why would any self-respecting Philadelphian trade this birthright for the mess of pottage provided by slick, glossy new construction, which may have more glitz today, but certainly has less charm and is certain to have less staying power?

I leave you with  a number of photographs I have taken of the derelict Ortlieb's brewery over the past few years.  If I never see these buildings standing again, at least I have these to remember them by.

These first two pictures date from 5 July 2007:

These next six were taken on 28 June 2009:

The last nineteen were take on 15 October 2011: