Monthly Archives: January 2018

A Personal Note

We’ve been listening to this soundtrack in our house a lot. My daughter and I are both pretty fixated on this show (I mean, in case this blog didn’t already give you that impression), and my wife likes it a lot, too, so it plays throughout the house as background in the evenings even as we’re in our own zones.

The other night, when “Tightrope” came on, I ducked into the room where my daughter was at the time and said, “This song always reminds me of your mom and me.”

“Why? You never did anything crazy, like buy an old building with wax figures of Marie Antoinette and giraffes,” she said.

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April and I dated all the way through college, and for the first 11 years of our relationship, she saw me for who I was. Every semester, I started dreaming about what I was going to take the following semester. I changed majors enough that it was easier, going through the course catalog, to point to the (non-STEM) majors I hadn’t considered than to list all the ones I had. When graduation approached, I juggled ideas for graduate school ranging from religion to public administration to political science to law to business to what-else-is-out-there. I wanted to do all the things.

I got a professional degree for a vocation (ministry) that I knew I did not want to pursue. While there, I talked my way into interning with the (then-World Series) Atlanta Braves’ chaplain, even though he had never had an intern. When I left school, it was to go into sports, where my career path was:

  • unpaid intern for Minor League Baseball’s AA Southern League
  • intern for NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) athletic program
  • director of media relations for a startup women’s professional basketball league
  • sports information director for NCAA Division II all-women’s athletic program
  • (accidentally become head of public relations for that same school)
  • sleep on my sister’s floor, two flights away, while telemarketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
  • dream of being the general manager of a Minor League Baseball Class A Florida State League team and run it like a circus

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When our daughter started to develop a personality, one of the things that popped up quickly was that she was a dreamer. April would look at me in those times when she set outlandish, slightly off-kilter goals (like founding “Dog Cirque du Soleil”) and say, “She is definitely your kid.” But, more seriously, April would say how glad she was that our daughter inherited my head in the stars rather than her feet so firmly planted on the ground.

While April would be the first to say that she is not a dreamer, she would also confirm that she knew who she was marrying and signed on whole-heartedly for the adventure. Even though my career path got a little more conventional, life with me still brings its twists and turns and off-kilter dreams, and she has continued to gladly dance on the tightrope with me.

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From Now On

From Now On (with a great backstory)

This last song on the soundtrack seems, in some ways, the most “gospel-y.” There’s a little flourish in the piano before the first chorus that has a gospel flair, and the sound, once the song gets ramped up, is very reminiscent of contemporary Christian music’s Rend Collective.

The theme is at least in part reminiscent of a core Christian message, that the essence of sanctification of a life is the stripping away of all that is not holy, until all that’s left is reliant on God. So while Barnum is singing to his circus family, the words could be offered by a Christian who has weathered similar hard times as prayer.

A man learns who is there for him
When the glitter fades and the walls won’t hold
‘Cause from then, rubble
What remains
Can only be what’s true
If all was lost
There’s more I gained
Cause it led me back
To you

Per the discussion earlier about how easy it is for those who have earthly success to embrace it as the source of their meaning rather than faith, the second verse echoes both the seduction of fame and power and the ultimate emptiness of it.

I drank champagne with kings and queens
The politicians praised my name
But those are someone else’s dreams
The pitfalls of the man I became
For years and years
I chased their cheers
The crazy speed of always needing more
But when I stop
And see you here
I remember who all this was for

It’s valuable to sit with this insight for a while, but I’m afraid I’ve already beaten the point into the ground in my earlier posts, so let me close with a different reflection from the song. Pasek and Paul weave two mantras into the chorus, “From now on,” (which is hearkens back to St. Paul’s call in 2 Corinthians 6 that “now is an acceptable time”) and “Come back home.” Literally, the “home” Barnum et al. refer to is a bar, which…, but more broadly, they are talking about a return to the circus life from which their family formed.

But some Christians hear “home” as “heaven,” not in this song but more generally. So let me talk about the afterlife for a minute, even though it has nothing directly to do with the show.

Among some of my non-believing friends, religious belief is sometimes equated with belief in an afterlife. This cuts both ways – while some ridicule religious folk for believing in life after death, others are a little wistful that they can’t find it in themselves to believe in an afterlife.

To be fair, many people of faith also focus on heaven and hell as a key motivator for faith. This is often how we open an evangelical call, at least if church marquees are any indication. My favorite is a New Year’s Day homily I heard a young priest give (he didn’t claim authorship): “Last night you raised it. Today, you feel like it. Repent, or you will inhabit it.”

I don’t find that line of reasoning particularly motivating. Nor do I find its opposite, extolling the joys of heaven, all that persuasive. It’s not that I don’t believe in an afterlife; it’s just that I think if your purpose for faith is achieving a heavenly reward, you’re missing the point of the whole thing.

Faith is not about a transaction but about a relationship. When we say we believe in God so that we can go to heaven, we reduce faith to an investment plan, where we contribute in order to achieve a future payout. I don’t believe that’s what God wants.

God wants a loving relationship with us, his creation. Love isn’t something you can commit to starting at a future date – you wouldn’t say to someone, “I don’t love you now, but I plan to begin loving you in five years, so let’s talk then.” Love happens in the now, and while it can grow with time and practice, if what we commit to is love, we commit to it today.

Now it may be that my beloved isn’t with me this moment but may be in the future. That doesn’t negate my love for my beloved right now; it simply means that when we are reunited, I will be able to experience and express that love in profoundly better ways. But even in my beloved’s absence, I can still soak in that love, and even when the separation is painful, the love is fulfilling.

That is how I can best describe my thoughts on the afterlife. To the extent that I love God now, I experience God’s love for me now, too, and it is wonderful. It is enough as it is to “justify” the relationship. If a better way to live out that love comes later, super. If not, this is enough. We experience heaven (the loving presence of God) and hell (the absence of relationship with God) now, in each moment. What comes after death, I suspect, is an amplified version of how we live today.

So if heaven is one of those things that “has waited for tomorrow, start tonight.”

Tightrope – The Christian Walk

There’s a Christian radio station in Florida whose slogan is “Always safe for the little ears.” The opening lines of “Tightrope” reminded me of this:
Some people long for a life that is simple and planned
Tied with a ribbon
Some people won’t sail the sea ’cause they’re safer on land
To follow what’s written
And that’s always been my problem with this station. It’s false advertising to say to a follower of Jesus that they will be safe. I know what they mean is, your kids won’t be exposed to a constant barrage of lyrics about sex and drugs. But, if they’re doing it right, they can’t possibly say that following the way of Jesus is safe.
Putting God first means risking everything you have. His first followers were all martyred, and from the time of Jesus till today, the one constant has been that Christians have been called to sacrifice their lives for the Gospel. The 20th century saw more martyrs than the 19 before it, and the trend continues in places like Egypt today.
Why? What is it that makes someone offer up their life for a religion?
The truth is, they don’t. Not for a religion. They give up everything they have to follow a person; more precisely, a personal God who they are madly in love with, and who is madly in love with them.
It’s not unusual to hear something in a song about romantic love and say, “Hey, that could apply to faith.” (Confession: In a class my freshman year called “Faith and Imagination”, I snuck into the classroom the night before class and covered the chalkboard with a question about whether God was really just the sum of earthly love, and listed some of the great pop songs that could go in the “hymnal.” I don’t understand why I didn’t get a better grade in that class.)
Here’s what sounds…faithful in this:
But I’d follow you to the great unknown
Off to a world we call our own
Hand in my hand and we promised to never let go
We’re walking the tightrope
High in the sky
We can see the whole world down below
We’re walking the tightrope
Never sure, never know how far we could fall
But it’s all an adventure
That comes with a breathtaking view
Walking the tightrope
With you
You pulled me in and together we’re lost in a dream
Always in motion
So I risk it all just to be with you
And I risk it all for this life we choose
 In fact, the Charity Barnum character in some ways best reflects the Christian life. She is joyful and creative and loving and hopeful and trusting but not blind. She knows what she is giving up: safety, comfort, acceptance. Yet she does it not just willingly but gleefully because of her love for P.T. Barnum even knowing he is nothing but risk and promise. That is the walk of faith on the tightrope of Christian life.
If what you want for the little ears in your life is truly safety, keep them the heck away from the Gospel.
If you want them to be fully alive and enjoy the breathtaking view that comes with that full life, well, that’s another story.

This Is Me – Rallying the Homeboys

“This is Me” is definitely the anthem and musical centerpiece of Showman, and it’s already shown up in Olympic commercials. It also is the song to which some Christians most object, as it celebrates what they call “expressive individualism” – the you-do-you empowerment philosophy that they fear separates morality and the good life from any external reference and anchors it solely in living your dream.
They have a point, but my take is a little different, thanks in large part to my semi-obsession with Homeboy Industries.
Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle inherited a poor parish in the gang center of Los Angeles in the 1980’s, when Los Angeles was the gang center of the country. So he started ministering to the gang members and helping the ones who wanted to escape that life.
I’ve never been to Homeboy, but I’ve read Boyle’s books, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. I have watched most of his public addresses on YouTube and know most of his stories. I tune in on Facebook to the 5-minute “thought for the day,” given by former gang members in their programs, or staff, or sometimes Father G himself.
One of the best stories he tells is about a gang member who was beaten every day as a child and learned to hide his scars. I can’t do it justice, so you’ll have to hear Boyle tell it himself.  It is with this man’s realization that “his wounds are his friends” that I hear this opening verse.
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are
This is the message, time and again, that the gang members of LA soak in.
Homeboy has become the largest gang intervention in the country, and Boyle and his charges have been everywhere, including the White House, to talk about how they have succeeded. I could roll out Boyle’s stories about Homeboy clients all day (and some days it seems like I do), but the uptake is that sometimes, not always, they succeed in surrounding former gang members in a circle of kinship and compassion that enables them to overcome the demons of their past and the despair of their present to accomplish a wholeness from which they can for the first time envision a future.
The chorus of “This is Me” looks like a self-empowerment battle cry.
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
I suppose it is. But it’s good to remember from whence came the confidence to utter it. This was a collection of outcasts who were given a chance to be something other than that. They were pulled from the isolation of being hopeless misfits into a collection of mutual misfits that became a company of performers and finally a family of mutual care so strong that even when their founder turned his back on them, their kinship gave them strength to rally on.
Christians can point to this as secularist fluff if they want, but not me. I would offer this, though. That ability to rise up, that resilience, usually rests on a deep knowledge that you are beloved, worthy of respect, dignified. We can do this for each other, in the family, in the Church, everywhere we build circles of compassion. But we are imperfect and we fail and we will eventually let each other down. If, however, you are blessed to know the truth on which Homeboy Industries rests its work, that you are God’s most beloved child, you are just what He had in mind when He made you, that He is a God of “no-matter-what” and not “one-false-move,” then the strength of the circle and the strength of the individual is unassailable, and the should can profess confidently, “This is me.”

Never Enough

Never Enough

I’m surprised by how simple this song is lyrically. It’s a powerful piece. I will admit that the first time it came up, the lyrics didn’t sink in; it’s really in the tearful reprise that you realize that what Jenny Lind has been singing is so devastatingly descriptive of the realization Barnum is about to have visited upon him.

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the nightsky
Will never be enough
Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
Never be enough
Never be enough

While the full version is a torch song, this chorus, sung in the reprise absent the love song, exposes the emptiness of the ambition Barnum has fallen prey to. Driven by the class-based disrespect he faced as a child (at the hands, literally, of his now-father-in-law), he sells out to achieve acclaim in respectable circles, neglecting his circus family (and his real family) to travel the country promoting the world’s most famous (opera) singer. He achieves what is his most burning desire, and in Lind’s chorus the curtain is pulled back to reveal that popularity, riches and power would never be enough to satisfy him.

This harkens back to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, when the devil offers Jesus, on a 40-day fast in the wilderness, with variations of all of these things. Where Jesus resists, Barnum surrenders. (Although, he gets a good bit of credit from the audience for not acquiescing to Lind’s adulterous advances, even as his rejection of her spurs his undoing.)

But I want to use this song to circle back to a theme that runs throughout the show, one which I mentioned earlier. I want to talk about why I think that God is a god of the outcasts.

The joy that comes through faith is often long in coming and marbled through with sacrifice and loss. It is not easy to give up the idea of control of our lives, even if that control is overstated and maybe illusory. We are wired to embrace our ability to transcend and conquer our environment, and we are also wired to deny and avoid our finitude. It is psychically and emotionally easier to buy into a worldview in which temporal power and riches signify success. After all, they are manifestly evident. The people who get ahead in this world are the ones we notice.

In Christian circles, this has led to a heresy (I would say) referred to as the “prosperity gospel,” which holds that if you are holy enough, God will bless you with prosperity on earth – riches and cars and the like. I cannot for the life of me see how someone can profess with a straight face that this is coherent with a faith in a God whose own Son was crucified, whose earliest followers were all martyred (many in unspeakably tortuous ways), and whose current church flourishes most in areas of extreme poverty. In reality, you have to choose. You can’t serve God and wealth at the same time, and you can’t treat God like a vending machine that you feed in order to transactionally receive a goody.

If you are fortunate enough to be a (temporally) successful person, or even someone who has an outside chance of becoming such a person, it is really hard to choose not to pursue temporal success but to focus instead on cultivating spiritual virtues and a life of self-sacrfice. On the other hand, those who have hit rock bottom, and those who have never had a shot at respectability, they end up embracing the church, because that’s all they have. This is how the Beatitudes play out every day. To paraphrase Frost, church is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

There is a piece of this in-group, out-group dynamic that shows up in the show quickly but powerfully. In a conversation between performances, Lind discloses to Barnum that she, too, is an outcast; born out of wedlock, her family was ashamed of her. Might that have driven her to her success? Maybe. But even at the apex of her ambitions, she clearly is unfulfilled, still an outcast. All the shine of a thousand spotlights will never be enough.

Selling The Other Side

Very few people know the Harry Chapin musical Cotton Patch Gospel, which is really too bad. It’s a great retelling of the Gospel set in 1960’s Georgia, with a flexible and talented chorus of bluegrass musicians that make you actually kinda like bluegrass.
I mention this because there is a scene in which Jesus calls Matthew, the apostle, tax collector, and narrator of the story. Matthew is an auditor for the IRS in this telling, and Jesus’ complete lack of income, assets or employment befuddles Matthew. When Jesus invites Matthew to join him, it so turns the tables that the auditor freaks out and Jesus has to stop him, mid-shout.
Anyway, it’s that kind of audacious offer that Barnum makes to Carlyle, and he makes it in this song with some of the same tone and pitch as Jesus’ call to the apostles.
You run with me
And I can cut you free
Out of the drudgery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it’s crazy, live a little crazy
You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
Or you can risk it all and see
Don’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play
‘Cause I got what you need, so come with me and take the ride
It’ll take you to the other side
After Carlyle smugly demurs, Barnum again pitches to what he senses is Carlyle’s muted recognition that his life is empty.
But you would finally live a little, finally laugh a little
Just let me give you the freedom to dream
And it’ll wake you up and cure your aching
Take your walls and start ’em breaking
Now that’s a deal that seems worth taking
And that cinches it, because Barnum’s sense is correct.
This idea of giving up the security of conventional life to choose a chaotic and crazy one actually gets bandied around a lot in Christian circles to reflect the ways in which Christians who let “Jesus take the wheel” seem to end up living radically different lives than they might have expected (or wanted). But that’s the story as it gets told among those who are already pretty deeply invested in their faith.
In the outer world, Christianity (in America) has been identified far more with the conventional than with the radical. “Jesus freaks” are the exception, not the rule, and often Americans are pitched on Christianity not as a counter-cultural lifestyle but as a way to return to conventional respectability. I attribute this to the fact that, for pretty much all of our nation’s history, Christianity has been the de facto state religion. While different colonies followed different denominations and while there are trends toward secularism, there is still an alignment of conventional morality with membership in a Christian church.
I am not saying that I would prefer that Christianity be a persecuted minority. I have a friend who was imprisoned for several years in Vietnam for being a Christian, and I can’t say I would seek that out. But one of the central challenges of Christianity today (and, really, since the 4th century) is that in the interest of stability and sociopolitical acceptance, Christian leaders have taken on the mantle of state religion, which brings with it the responsibility to legitimize the conventions and norms of the society.
That’s not a good look for Christians, if you want to compare what gets held up as Christian values with the lives of Jesus and the His first followers. Living a life of radical love and total reliance on God to provide looks very different from a life of polite manners and a reliance on sensible retirement planning. I believe that one of the reasons to commit to a spiritual life comes in recognizing that all other sources of meaning and security are limited, if not illusory; making something limited your top priority is an idolatry doomed to disillusionment and disappointment. But in the last 1600 years or so, we keep trying to hold together these two callings – to be radical and to be conventional. So I guess I have to be patient while waiting for that realization.
Incidentally (and as a reminder that I’m not claiming that Showman is somehow secretly or subconsciously Christian), Barnum isn’t Jesus. It’s relevant, in many ways, that this song is not only about inviting Carlyle into the counter-cultural circus life, but also Barnum’s entry into respectability through Carlyle’s connections. We’ll see that this turns out poorly as Barnum is unable to serve two masters. Perhaps Christians will learn that lesson as well someday.

Dreams and Their Limits

Songs:

A Million Dreams

Rewrite the Stars

 

 

Let’s talk about the dreams. In both “A Million Dreams” and “Rewrite the Stars,” there’s a major theme about the human ability to create our own world. In “A Million Dreams” it looks like this:

‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

In “Rewrite the Stars” it looks like this:

It’s up to you, and it’s up to me
No one can say what we get to be
So why don’t we rewrite the stars?
Maybe the world could be ours
Tonight

In Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic The Nature and Destiny of Man, he argues that the essence of what sets humans apart, the imago dei in which we are created, is our ability to mentally transcend ourselves and see possibilities beyond our reality. The dreams reflected in both these songs reflect that transcendence, in that we can envision a world that is different from the one we inhabit now. That is one-half of the equation that for Niebuhr explains who we are and how we’ve gotten to this point. The ability to see beyond ourselves runs through all of human progress. Living in the shadow of Walt Disney World, it’s not hard to find examples of where dreams can take you.

But Niebuhr offers this caution. The byproduct of our ability to see beyond ourselves is that we are, perhaps uniquely among creatures, aware of our finitude, both in terms of our mortality and our perspective. We can see other possibilities, but we don’t have perfect vision of all the possibilities or perfect judgment of which possibility is best. That awareness creates anxiety, which both fuels the urgency of our drive to make our dreams real and colors our lives with the desperation of knowing that we will someday run out of time. That anxiety coupled with the limits of our vision act almost as traditional theologians would describe the doctrine of original sin. They are inherent in who we are and drive us to make selfish choices that are bad for us, individually and collectively.

In the almost 80 years since Niebuhr made that argument, technology has continued to push back against the limits of our finitude. Not only are we living longer (and some are arguing we are nearing a point when our rate of medical advances could offer a form or immortality), but we are stretching the limits of what we thought was possible and creating new realities. It is tempting to believe that we are close to transcending limits altogether. Maybe we really can rewrite the stars.

In the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Tower of Babel is what we offer as a warning to those who would imagine that they can rise above our station as created beings and take on he role of the Creator, but a non-canonical contemporary example (from Disney himself) may be more persuasive: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. Unintended consequences abound in all of the dreams we pursue; it would be wise to move with some humility in their direction.

That said, there have been some critics of Showman that say it fronts a philosophy of “expressive individualism.” They argue that this approach to life, which has as its highest good the full expression of whatever core identity a person finds in their heart, an expression they should pursue without regard to rules or norms of tradition or culture. (These critics hate Disney movies, btw.) Instead, they argue, you should stick to following the rules until they shape your heart to fit the “model answer”. This business about rewriting stars ignores the rules of astronomy.

This is another case where the culture-war mentality does God a disservice. Matthew Kelly is probably the leading voice on the third way here, although there’s also a theme in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life that might be helpful. In both cases, the authors make the point that your destiny is found in your core passions, but by recognizing that God gave you those passions you can give yourself the best chance of achieving that destiny.

If you feel a passion for playing guitar, you still won’t be the best guitar player you can be by just continuing to strum out what you feel like playing without any guidance or instruction. The passion inside you is good; by following God’s guidance you can best live it.

You can best pursue your dreams if you are willing to acknowledge their source…and their limits.