the greatest showmen

In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented ChristmasStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman.  I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t.  I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).

The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman).  Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all.  Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer.  In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol.  While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life.  As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point.  The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens.  (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.)  I wish this movie had received wider release.

The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype.  I suppose one would call it a bio-musical.  The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy.  The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams.  But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks.  The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers.  They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard.  They were going to see a bearded lady, period.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens.  Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers.  Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent.  Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis.  It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus.  I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America.  I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.

I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned.  Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.

 

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People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

In the Bleak Mid-winter

I graded a paper about Christina Rossetti this weekend, so I’ve been thinking about her poem “A Christmas Carol” and the various ways it’s been set to music, usually under the name “In the Bleak Mid-winter.”  Take a minute to read it, and I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready.

So, obviously, we don’t know if Jesus was born in the winter, and even if he was, there probably weren’t copious snowdrifts on the Middle Eastern hills.  But Rossetti’s poem doesn’t actually imply that the first stanza, which describes a winter scene, is the setting for the next three stanzas, which describe Jesus’ nativity.  The “long ago” of stanza 1 could refer to Rossetti’s childhood when she first learned what Christmas means.  (This would explain the childlike tone of the famous final stanza.)  In general, I think stanza 1 is best read not as a literal description of the setting of Jesus’ birth but as an impression of the dark (literally and figuratively), seemingly hopeless world into which he was born and in which we still live.

Think about winter.  It’s a difficult season for many people simply because of where the earth is positioned in relation to the sun, let alone because of the painful associations that the winter holidays have for many people.  I am fortunate enough to have virtually no memories but happy ones of the Christmas season, but I really struggle with winter.  I find the cold exhausting and the darkness depressing and disorienting.  Of course, winter has a beauty of its own–think of a cardinal against a backdrop of snow or the dark outlines of bare trees at twilight.  And winter has a few pinpricks of warmth (Christmas), hope (New Years), and pure fun (the February holidays: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars).  But these glimpses are scant compensation for a grueling three or four months (or longer, depending on where you live) of huddling against the “frosty wind” and facing a seemingly endless night.

When I think about long periods of darkness, the 400-year silence between the last Old Testament prophets and the birth of Jesus comes to mind.  Isaiah was prophesying about the breaking of this silence when he wrote these words, which Handel later incorporated into The Messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).  We, too, live in a time when we want God to speak up and explain why life is so hard and what he’s going to do about it.  But we, unlike those inter-testamental Jewish people, can look both backward at the moment where God came to be with us–Immanuel–and forward at the time when the Prince of Peace will “establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever” (Isaiah 9:7).  When he comes to set things right, winter will no longer be bleak.

 

Don’t try to do everything–but do something.

Last year, I enjoyed writing an Advent-themed post for each Monday leading up to Christmas (and I hope you enjoyed reading them), so I’ll be doing it again this year.  Christmas Day is a Monday this year, and I plan to post as usual!

Today, I want to give you a life hack from The Girl Who Tries to Do Everything.  Ever since Facebook started suggesting events in my area (sometime this past summer, I think), I’ve become obsessed with marking myself “Interested” in as many events as possible.  They all look so fun!  The events I actually show up to comprise, predictably, only a small percentage of the ones I star.  Also predictably, the number of suggested events that look really fun has increased sharply with the onset of the Christmas season.  And also predictably, I didn’t go to a single one of the events I was supposedly interested in this past weekend.  But I did have a lovely time at home decorating my tree, writing Christmas cards, listening to the same Christmas albums I always listen to, and drinking way too much hot chocolate.  So here’s my advice: Don’t try to go to every event and participate in every activity that comes to your attention this Christmas season.  But, conversely, don’t let your inability to do everything paralyze you into inaction.  Do a few meaningful things that make you happy–which may not be the same as mine.

Here are some things I’ve decided to do this month:

  1. Go see ONE Christmas play/show/concert: A friend of mine is stage-managing a production of White Christmas, and since I know that I love this story and its music (here is a post that addresses an interesting sartorial question from the film), I know that attending the show will be worth my time.  Accordingly, I’ve already bought myself a ticket and put it on my calendar.
  2. Pick ONE recipe to take to parties: Fortunately, several of the Christmas parties I’m attending this month are catered or at a restaurant.  But for those parties where I’m excepted (or feel obligated) to contribute food, I’m not trying a different ambitious recipe for each one; I’m making festively-shaped sugar cookies.  That’s it.  I do love to cook and bake–you know that if you read my blog regularly–but I can get serious burnout at this time of year if I’m not careful.  By reserving my cooking/baking powers, I should have enough motivation to contribute quite a bit to my family’s holiday meals at the end of the month.
  3. Look at Christmas lights: Along with listening to music, it’s one of the only forms of holiday entertainment that is free and can be done on the way to something else.  My neighborhood is making a solid showing this year, so all I need to do in order to infuse a bit of Christmas cheer into my day is take a slightly different route to my house.
  4. Make every moment special: That sounds like it belongs on an especially cheesy greeting card, but it’s actually quite practical advice.  In December, if I’m sitting down to grade papers or read a book, I plug in my Christmas tree, light all my candles (and there are a lot–I like to pretend I have a fireplace), put on some Christmas music, and make some hot chocolate in one of my festive mugs.  So I’m celebrating Christmas even when I’m not celebrating Christmas.
  5. Spend time with people: I’ve made it sound like I’m doing all of this alone, and I certainly do enjoy hibernating in my house.  But this year, I had friends over to help decorate my Christmas tree, and even though I didn’t attend any of those events I starred this past weekend, I did spend some time with people each day.  Because in the end, what we do is less important than who we do it with.  And that’s sappy, but I can say it because it’s Christmas.

beautiful sights in “Rust Belt” America

I put the term in the title in quotation marks because it often connotes ugliness and depression, and while it’s certainly true that much of America’s Midwest has experienced economic decline over the past decades, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty–in all its senses, including aesthetic beauty–to be found throughout this region.  Here are a few word pictures of beautiful sights I saw in Ohio and western Pennsylvania this past weekend.

The Laurel Highlands with a dusting of snow: I always say that the temperature drops five degrees as soon as you cross into Somerset County, PA, and it sounds like a joke, but it’s a real weather phenomenon that others besides me have observed.  Last Wednesday as I drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Somerset County–the crown jewel (or the frozen heart) of the Laurel Highlands–was the only place where a powdered-donut coating of snow lingered, from a previous shower, on the trees and hillsides along the road.  I’m glad no new precipitation fell during my trip, but the snow coating added to the festive feeling of driving home for Thanksgiving.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Squirrel Hill tunnel in daylight: On Saturday, my dad and I took a day trip west to Ohio.  It was a sunny day, and when we hit Pittsburgh around 9:00 am, the city appeared to advantage, with the sun glinting off the rivers and the colorful bridges, which are always striking no matter how many times you’ve seen them and no matter how much bridge maintenance is occurring at any given time.  I remarked to Dad that Pittsburgh is fun to drive through (as long as traffic isn’t too heavy) because it’s a little like a roller-coaster, with tunnels, bridges, level changes, and exit ramps in odd places.

Patchwork farmland in Holmes County, Ohio: I’m not sure if Holmes and its neighboring county, Tuscarawas, actually count as part of the Rust Belt because they’re rural areas that have always (as far as I know) been rural and home to large Amish communities.  I did see a factory as we were driving, but even it looked old-fashioned and charming, with brick chimneys instead of metal.  Anyway, around 4:00 as we were leaving the retirement community in Walnut Creek where my grandfather lives, and the sun was just starting to think about setting, I remarked that the scene in front of us should be on a calendar (and it probably has been at some point).  Ohio has a gentler topography than western PA and West Virginia, with rolling hills rather than mountains.  At this time of year, the fields have been harvested but the pastures are still green, and the trees still cling to some leaves as they make architectural shadows against the hillsides.  The landscape isn’t dramatic, but the colors are, especially when the sun hits them just right.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt tunnel at night: There was a Penguins game Saturday night, so traffic was a little backed up going into the city, and Dad and I were musing about whose great idea it was to make tunnels the only non-aquatic way to enter a relatively major city.  The tradeoff, of course, is the breathtaking view when you exit the tunnel and immediately find yourself in the middle of a light show, with the bridge lit up above you, the skyscrapers lit up in front of you, and lit-up boats on the rivers on all sides.  On Saturday night, the effect was heightened by the gleaming yellow bowl of Heinz Field, where all the arena lights were on (apparently in preparation for Sunday night’s Steeler’s game?), and there was also a large, lit Christmas tree below us to the left.  The whole experience was like driving through a Christmas tree.

There’s beauty everywhere, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that hard to find in Western PA and Ohio.

I believe in America.

Because it’s the Fourth of July, and because I indicated last week that I’d be writing about the Godfather trilogy again, I titled my post with the first line of the first film.  In the opening scene, a minor character whose daughter was assaulted by two young men, who were given what he sees as a lenient penalty, is asking Don Vito to help him avenge her.  Fascinatingly, he begins with this qualification, following it up with “I have raised my daughter in the American way.”  It’s like he feels compelled to defend his chosen country before he goes on to express his frustration with its (in his perception) slow, unfair, and heartless (that is, emotionless) justice system–especially for immigrants like himself.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Godfather trilogy, in addition to being an amazing family saga, is a story about the Italian-American immigrant experience in the 20th century.  But right now I want to focus on those interesting opening words: “I believe in America.”  If you insert the name of another, older nation in that sentence, it doesn’t sound right.  You can love (for example) England, but you probably wouldn’t say that you believe in it.  That’s because America is an experiment, and on the timeline of world history, it’s still a relatively new one.  Another family/political drama I enjoy watching, the AMC show Turn: Washington’s Spies (as in George Washington), makes clear just how close this experiment came to never even getting off the ground.  So if I say that I believe in America, I’m implying that I’m rooting for the American experiment to turn out okay–and that I’m still waiting to see the outcome.

That’s why it’s possible to be a loyal American and still acknowledge times when the experiment has gone off track (and, at risk of getting slightly political here, I would say that immigration, in general, has been one of those areas where America’s efforts have often been clumsy).  In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative to acknowledge those times if you’re a person who truly loves and believes in America and wants what’s best for it.  This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of days ago in which I was trying to explain Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to a friend.  I started by saying that it’s not a patriotic song, and I would still say that it’s not, if by “patriotic” you mean uncritically proud of America.  But I concluded by saying that it’s also not an anti-American song.  For all of its references to the ugly, confusing war in Vietnam and the hardships of growing up in working-class East Coast towns where the factories are closing down, that song really isn’t saying “America is great” or “America is bad.”  It’s just saying, “Living in America is hard,” which is the same as saying, “Life is hard.”

Of course, I need to qualify what I just said by adding that there are a lot of countries where life is a lot harder than it is in America.  Nobody can deny that our standard of living here (and I’m not just talking about money, though that’s certainly part of it) is much higher than in most of the world, and we’re foolish if we’re not grateful for that.  But we should also acknowledge that America is a really big country, so my American experience is not going to be the same as yours.  And for some, life here isn’t easy.

So, America–I believe in you, and I’m cheering for you.  And I’m thankful that I’m allowed to speak up when I think you’ve made a mistake.  But I think you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!