Thursday, July 29, 2010


I am far from an expert, and can't even claim to be an aficionado, but I like opera. I like the lush choruses and soaring arias of grand opera and I like the more arid tonalities of modern opera such as Douglas Moore's "Ballad of Baby Doe" or John Adams' "Dr. Atomic."

Every once in a while it comes to me that a certain story or historical event would make a good opera. One such story -- that I imagined as an opera almost from the time I read it, decades ago -- is Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," and I was astonished to discover, in a lazy Google search, that a "Hadleyburg" opera actually exists. It was commissioned in 1982 by the Houston Grand Opera and written by the composer Hiram Titus. (You can even hear a couple of excerpts from the opera at Titus' web site.) Who knew!?

So, before Googling further, here is a list of other stories that I think could make good operas. (I am quite serious about this.) I would enjoy having you add to the list, dear reader, or let me know if a work already exists for any of these ideas (thus revealing how little I really do know about opera).

  • The biblical story of David and Bathsheba. Love, betrayal, murder, nudity!
  • The biblical story of David and Jonathan.  ("... for he loved him as he loved his own soul.") Love, betrayal, murder, (nudity?)!
  • The love story of George and Libby Custer, with an aging Libby reflecting. Flashbacks.
  • Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth" (I imagine a moving aria culminating in the scene in which the intensely homesick Beret curls up inside the steamer trunk that sits in the bare room of her prairie cabin. And a final chorus of all of the pioneers joining Per Hansa's solo as he dies with a westward look in his eyes.)
  • Shackleton on the ice. (This is a stretch.) Operatic material that comes to my mind would focus on a scene in which the men, exhausted, are sitting on an ice field while their revered Shackleton reads poetry to them. Another: A growing, hopeful chorus as the stranded men strain to see Shackleton returning with rescue. A moving finale as Shackleton is buried there at the end of the earth, on South Georgia Island. The romance of the opera would be supplied by his wife -- back in England -- pining for the man she knows she has lost to the great adventure.
  • The story of Jesus and the man born blind in the 9th chapter of John's gospel. This has no romance, but it has a wonderful set of fools, and dialogue between them and Jesus. This would be a short comic opera. Maybe Gilbert and Sullivan.
Well, dear reader...?

Saturday, July 17, 2010


"Everybody's ignorant, only in different areas." ~anon.

The line that is the title of this piece occurs near the beginning of James Dickey’s “Deliverance.” It is the response of a mountain man to city-slicker Bobby’s smart-aleck comment about the man’s hat. In the novel, the comment can almost be overlooked as a kind of throw-away; in the movie (especially after a couple of viewings), it becomes a Delphic omen, foreshadowing the what and the why of the disastrous events the bright young urbanites are about to experience in the backwoods.

But the warning of “Deliverance” is not just that the smart guys don’t know –- it is that they think they do: An almost perfect application of Jesus’ pronouncement to the self-assured folks in John’s gospel: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

I don’t claim to know Dickey’s literary intent with this line, but it strikes me as being an apt description of all who seek to navigate their way through the city streets or the backwoods of the human condition. We set one toe outside the bounds of our familiar experience, and “we don’t know nuthin.” The wisest among us are not those who actually do know – but those who know that they don’t know.

There is a discouraging new study in this area, reported recently on NPR, which indicates that when we’re wrong we don’t want to know. The facts will not dissuade us from clinging to the beliefs that –- one way or another –- we have come to hold. The emphasis of this study was on political thought (the findings were born out all along the liberal-conservative spectrum), but I have no doubt it also applies to religious belief, non-belief, health issues, science, education, and….

We are left with the irony that, although the wisest possible thing to say in a given situation may be, “I don’t know,” that is the very comment that is the kiss of death in electoral politics. (Any politician hapless enough to utter such a line will find it re-broadcast in and out of context until the cows come home.) In a similar vein, we get inane scenarios such as having a Supreme Court nominee defend a position she took in a college paper. A college paper! (My favorite professorial comment on a returned college paper is this: “Dick, you write very well. One would hope, however, to find your writing undergirded with the structure of thought.”) I was amused to note that nominee Kagan replied to the inquiry by saying, “If you really want a defense of a thirty-year-old college paper, here goes….”

Statements such as, "You have a good point there, my friend," or, "I've never thought of it that way..." are considered "waffling," and of course admitting that one has changed one’s mind on any issue is tantamount to treason. I am reminded of Homer Simpson’s declaration, “I never apologize. I’m sorry, that’s just the way I am!”

I read an article recently about the “myth of the decisive leader.” The most successful leaders, it turns out, are not those who use their giant intellects and charisma to make unerring spot decisions, but rather probe with trial-and error, advice from multiple points of view, planning, precedent, etc. (I won’t bore you with a repetition of the joke for which the punch line is, “The smartest man in the world just put on my backpack and jumped out of the plane.”)

According to David McCullough’s “1776,” George Washington was such a decisive leader that he barely – just barely – pulled off more revolutionary victories than (blundering) defeats. Neither I (nor McCullough) take anything away from the fact that Washington was the right leader at the right time when I observe that he probably wouldn’t recognize himself as the paragon of military leadership that storybook history has made him out to be. In fact his ultimate victory had much to do with his British opponents' arrogant assumption that the colonists, well, didn't know nuthin," (spoken, of course, with a British accent).

I once heard the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin advise that a good thing to have in the back of one’s mind in certain arguments is, “I could be wrong.” I pay lip service to that advice, but I wonder how often I actually apply it. Yet it does seem that if there is an antidote to hidebound ignorance in relation to the facts, perhaps it is humility. In regard to the question of ultimate origins, for example -- and other questions of mystery -- the theologian, the philosopher, and the scientist are brought together in mutual humility.

The eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley’s famous contribution to philosophy is to conclude that we can know nothing except what comes to us directly through our senses (even then, says Berkley, all we know is the sensation –- we can make no conclusions about any concrete reality behind the sensation). A less cerebral way to apply this is to make the common-sense observation that I am formed by my experiences (and sensations) and you are formed by yours. How to bridge the gap? True openness of communication.

Perhaps this openness begins by acknowledging that, in fact, I do not know what you know. As John Updike, another chronicler of the human condition, has said, "We are all so curiously alone, but it is important that we keep making signals through the glass.” Otherwise, as with the mountain man and the city slicker, "We don't know nuthin'," and disaster ensues.

I continue to be intrigued by research that suggests that our deep-seated political and religious attitudes may be, at least partly, genetically based, as I mused on in an earlier post

Jesus' quote from John 9:14

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


What’s the opposite of being present at the creation? Present for the destruction? (Doesn’t have the same profundity, somehow.) Anyway, forty years ago I walked into Miller’s Drugstore, in the St. Paul neighborhood where I had just started seminary, and came upon a scene of mayhem: The soda fountain was literally being pulled out by a couple of earnest young carpenters, the red-topped counter stools were red-topped no longer, but empty poles waiting, also, to be ripped out. The owner, noticing my slack-jawed silence, said, “We can make more money with a greeting card display in the same space.”

I emphasize my “presence” because I certainly must have been witnessing the end of one of the last soda fountains in America – the passing of an actual era. I know there are soda fountains remaining, but the ones I’ve come across are cute artifacts and not full-service counters offering cheeseburgers, malts, and cherry cokes (mixed on the spot). Please, dear reader, if you know of a full-service soda fountain (especially one in continuous use in its original location) anywhere in the Midwest, let me know.

I thought of the demise of Miller’s Soda Fountain when I happened upon another entrepreneurial transition a few weeks ago: The restaurant at Byerly’s Grocery in Burnsville has been closed to make room for a wine shop. Now Burnsville does not have the charm of a St. Paul neighborhood, but it’s about halfway between my small town and the Twin Cities, and I discovered the restaurant at Byerly’s twenty years ago when I was looking for a place to stop for lunch on my way to Minneapolis to make a hospital call. It was the only non-franchise restaurant I could find there in suburbia, and, although it was attached to the Lund’s-Byerly’s grocery giant, it had the feel of a down home diner. Although I usually sat at a table with a book for companionship, I would sometimes sit at the counter (immediate seating!): a perfectly designed horseshoe shape with stools bolted at large enough intervals to allow men of a certain age to spread out their newspapers (and their girth) and read and eat in silence, or turn to their neighbor and discuss the Twins. (The problem with many restaurant counters is that the stools are free standing, or too close together, so that while Moe is reading his newspaper, you’re maneuvering around his elbow to get to your eggs.)  During one of my last stops it dawned on me that most of the Byerly’s waitresses had been there the entire twenty years of my patronage. They were friendly and skilled, and one of them even called me “Hon.” (I read recently that for a good number of women and men, waiting tables is a chosen profession and not just the stop-gap “day job” that many of us have assumed it to be.)  I’m grateful for their service and interested in their well-being, but – since Byerly’s is, in fact, a giant – I’m not sure how to express it.

Both of these changes are examples of the heartlessness of commerce. I don’t mean this as a rant on the dark side of capitalism (I’ve done that before and will, undoubtedly, again) -- I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, and I respect those who do. The accountant who figures that the wine shop makes better business sense than the restaurant has skills that I don’t have. But it’s heartless. That is, the evaluation of the bottom line does not allow for the pleasure of lingering over a chocolate-banana malt (maybe with two straws) or the languid luxury of having a vigilant waitress interrupt my reading to ask me if I want one more cup.

Maybe I’ll do this: The next time I drive through Burnsville I’ll go into the new Wine Shoppe, buy a nice cabernet, and ask them if they can figure out a way to get it to Bev, the waitress who called me “Hon.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010


(My friend, Andrew Rogness, died of cancer in 2010. Andrew was a good man, a loved and loving husband and father, a great friend, a caring pastor, and a theologian of depth. This post is written in his memory.)

R.S. Thomas
The Welsh-Anglican priest and Nobel-nominated poet R.S. Thomas, in his poetry as in life, wrestled with doubt and the absence of God, but emerged with faith nonetheless (often seemingly in spite of himself). He would have agreed with contemporary theologian Douglas John Hall that "the Bible-writers will give up on the glory of God before they'll deny the reality of human suffering," and with the writer of the 23rd psalm that human life is, in fact, a walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

In his poem, "Geriatric," Thomas looks straight at these verities and discovers that not even God escapes the reality of suffering; he is "torn" by the brambles, too. As is typical of Thomas, he expresses a hope that sounds faint, but is actually so deep that it is beyond our ability to completely grasp.

(At the risk of providing cues that are an insult to the reader's intelligence: Charcot and Meniere are -- like Alzheimer's -- diseases [and, in memory of Andrew, we could add "cancer.] "Rabbi Ben Ezra" is the source of the Robert Browning line, "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be....")


What god is proud
      of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
      grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
      currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
      in a last desperate effort
to retain hold? Despite withered
      petals, I recognise
the species: Charcot, Meniere,
      Alzheimer. There are no gardeners
here, caretakers only
      of reason overgrown
by confusion. This body once,
      when it was in bud,
opened to love's kisses. These eyes,
      cloudy with rheum,
were clear pebbles that love's rivulet
      hurried over. Is this
the best Rabbi Ben Ezra
      promised? I come away
comforting myself, as I can,
      that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
      and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in,
      a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
      than we can understand.

Andrew has now emerged from the valley's shadow, and out of the brambles. Here's to green pastures and the fragrance of that other garden.

Douglas John Hall quote from God and Human Suffering, Augsburg, 1986
The poem, "Geriatric," from No Truce With the Furies, by R.S. Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 1995
More on R. S. Thomas here.