Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hospitality: according to Jesus or according to Hyacinth Buckét?: a sermon (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

In our gospel lesson, Jesus went to the home of a leading Pharisee to eat a meal on the Sabbath.  This in itself may be startling to anyone who was taught the old (and highly misleading) Christian stereotype that the Pharisees were ultra-conservative, “fundamentalist” wowsers who were implacable opponents of Jesus.  Obviously in this case, Jesus had a sufficiently good relationship with a leading Pharisee to be invited to dine with him on the most significant day of the week.

Anyway, on this occasion, Jesus saw his fellow-guests trying to finesse the seating plan, choosing for themselves those seats which were, as the British used to say, “above the salt”.  In response to this, Jesus said a few things about human behaviour whenever we are either the guest or the host at a dinner-party, comments which go far beyond mere table manners.

In regard to being someone’s guest, Jesus said:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

As well, in regard to being someone’s host, Jesus said:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Much of this is echoed in our lesson from Hebrews, where we are challenged:  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

All this is the direct opposite of the philosophy of hospitality that we see represented in that well-known television hostess Hyacinth Buckét.  Hyacinth was known for her elegant entertaining, particularly her “candlelight suppers”. 

Hyacinth Buckét was never one, however, for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.  Instead she always invited the notable individuals in her community – the elite, the crème de la crème - to attend her “candlelight suppers”:  particularly anyone who was in any way titled.  And, if someone titled wasn’t available, the mayor or the local MP would do, or else a retired military or naval officer, or – if all else fails – the vicar.

And, whenever Hyacinth was invited to any function, she could be counted on to try to wangle a far more advantageous position in the seating arrangements than she was originally allocated.

Back to our lesson, however, nothing of what Jesus said here is about cultivating the artificial humility which is very easy to find among many religious people.  You know what I mean, the continuous breast-beating (“I’m sinful. … I’m bad. … I’m horrible.”) which is far-too-common among many religious people.  It’s one reason why unhealthily low, and often dangerously low, levels of self-esteem are often found among religious people.  Jesus wasn’t trying here to encourage his followers to compete with each other in the humility derby or the low self-esteem stakes.  (“Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m humbler than you are!”)

Instead, Jesus was doing something far more positive.  He was encouraging his disciples, both then and now, to view ourselves as being linked with all humanity, with people of all sorts and conditions, and to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our celebrations, not out of any sense of condescension, or of superiority, or even of “outreach”, but because they are all part of the same basic humanity of which we are part. 

This is an important thing for us to note on a day which many Christian churches observe as Refugees Sunday.  All people are part of the same basic humanity as each other, even when politicians try to tell us we’re not.

In a sense, there are two ways to give and to receive hospitality:
  • There’s the Hyacinth Buckét style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in order to promote oneself and one’s own self-interest.
  • Then there’s the Jesus style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in celebration that we’re all part of the same basic humanity as each other.

The feast we shall share today is all about this Jesus style of hosptiality. 
  • The single most Christian thing that we as Christians do when we worship God is to share food. 
  • When we celebrate this sacrament of Holy Communion, we affirm that Christ gives himself to us most profoundly when we eat and drink in community.
  • In the Uniting Church, we celebrate an open communion.  All are welcome and encouraged to participate.  There are no barriers.  In this way, we try – however imperfectly - to reflect the example of the great hospitality of Jesus.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Bank managers, bookies, auditors, motivational speakers, Mary Poppinses, and Bond villians: Political leaders then and now.

Political leaders (and potential leaders) come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  I've tended to see that (in the past few decades, in a variety of western countries), leaders either of nations or of political parties have fallen into six major types:
  • the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Bookie",
  • the "Auditor",
  • the "Motivational Speaker",
  • the "Mary Poppins", and
  • the "Bond Villain".
The "Bank Manager" type of leader tends to be found inhabiting the moderate wing of centre-right political parties.  They were particularly prolific in the post-war years of the mid-1940s through early 1960s.  Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States and Sir Robert Menzies in Australia are the two classic examples of the "Bank Manager" style of political leader.

The "Bank Manager" provides calm, reassuring, stable, fairly non-ideological leadership, with plenty of gravitas and with a strong sense of the country being "in safe hands".  Although when a "Bank Manager" goofs up politically, he (and they're usually "he") goofs up spectacularly.  (Note: Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis.)

A "Bank Manager" leadership usually occurs after a significant period of centre-left government, when the electorate wants a bit of a "breather" after a period of rapid social change, so that public opinion can catch up with public policy.  An example of this is Malcolm Fraser's administration following the rapid social change of the Whitlam government in Australia.

"Bank Managers" sometimes also follow more aggressively right-wing leaders, providing leadership that, while still essentially conservative, seeks to be significantly "kinder and gentler" than that of their predecessor (George H.W. Bush in the US, John Major in the UK, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia).

While the "Bank Manager" style of leadership is usually considered a thing of the past, there have been some recent examples of "Bank Manager" leaders (or potential leaders):  David Cameron in the UK, Mitt Romney in the US, and (as I've mentioned before) Malcolm Turnbull in Australia.

Within centre-left political parties, the traditional leadership style of past decades (paralleling the "Bank Manager" in centre-right parties) is the "Bookie".

"Bookies" in political leadership frequently project themselves as "a man of the people" (and "Bookie" political leaders are overwhelmingly men, rather than women).  They promote themselves as:
  • conscious of their working-class origins,
  • fiercely proud of their racial, religious, ethnic, or regional origins,
  • highly street-wise,
  • everyone's "mate" or "buddy",
  • able and willing (in the right company) to drink like a journalist, smoke like a 1970s cabdriver, swear like a cop, and fart like a Labrador (but knowing when to refrain from doing so).
Even if the "Bookie" is a well-educated member of the upper-middle class, he'll cultivate an accent that says either "urban working-class" or "regional rural".  He'll drop the "g" from the end of a word, and (in the UK and Australia) drop the "h" from the beginning of a word.  In Australia, he'll also pronounce "aitch" as if it were "haitch".

Even if the "Bookie" has high personal standards of honesty and integrity (and, in my experience and observation, most do), the "Bookie" is usually well-connected with those whose ethics are far more casual.

"Bookies" are effective "retail politicians".  They are happiest making the rounds of the various ethnic social clubs, both those of their own heritage and of the wide range of other backgrounds.

Al Smith (Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 1924) was the archetypal "Bookie" politician.  Probably the most successful political "Bookies" in recent decades were Australia's Bob Hawke and the USA's Bill Clinton.  (Although both combined a predominantly "Bookie" style with a bit of the "Auditor".) 

The recent Bernie Sanders campaign in the US has shown that there is still some serious life left in the "Bookie" model of political leadership.

More recently, since the 1980s, the majority of centre-left political leaders are not "Bookies", but "Auditors".  "Auditors" arose after a time when centre-right parties made great inroads on power in the Reagan-Thatcher years, particularly by portraying centre-left parties and leaders as economic innocents and fiscal ignoramuses (as, admittedly, many were during the 1970s.)

The "Auditor" is a leader or senior figure in a centre-left political party who is a bit of a "policy-wonk" in terms of economic issues, who sometimes lets his/her sense of economic rectitude overcome his/her sense of social justice.   Essentially, the "Auditor" is the centre-left equivalent of the "Bank Manager" and has the gravitas of the "Bank Manager" in bucketloads.  Usually, the "Auditor" comes across as a bit ... well ... boring in their own personal style, as befits the financial professional after whom I've named them. 

Most centre-left political leaders in recent decades have been "Auditors".  Examples of noted political "Auditors" in recent years have been Gordon Brown in the UK, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard in Australia, François Hollande in France, and Hillary Clinton in the United States.

A popular style of political leadership in centre-right parties in recent decades, and the right-wing equivalent to the "Bookie", is the "Motivational Speaker".  The rise of the "Motivational Speaker" - paired with the rise of the "Auditor" - represents a major shift in the popular perceptions of political parties in many western nations.
  • The centre-left has replaced the centre-right as the political home of boring respectability and gravitas, with centre-left political leaders being the political equivalent of the local Methodist minister or high school principal.
  • The right has replaced the centre-left as the political home of the borderline con-artist, the sort of person known to Australians as a "larrikin" and to Brits as "Jack the Lad".
The political "Motivational Speaker", like the ex-athletes and similar types who make their livings addressing business conventions, is a person who can enunciate a viewpoint well, persuade an audience to believe their viewpoint, and make the members of an audience (and the citizens of a country) feel very good about themselves. 
  • The "Motivational Speaker" tends to be a bit of a con artist. 
  • They tend to be politicians within the right wing of centre-right parties. 
  • They're not all that heavy on policy details, compared to the "Auditor", but the best "Motivational Speaker" leaders rely on competent policy people to do their heavy lifting, policy-wise, for them. 
  • They're not all that strong on gravitas, but they can fake gravitas when necessary, almost as well as they can fake sincerity.
Many of the most successful centre-right political leaders in western countries in recent decades have been "Motivational Speakers" in their leadership styles, including Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US, and John Howard in Australia.  Charles Haughey in Ireland, George W. Bush in the US, and Tony Abbott in Australia were national leaders with a "Motivational Speaker" style, but whose leaderships were far more accident-prone.

Then there's the "Mary Poppins", based on the fictional character who was described as "practically perfect in every way".  The "Mary Poppins" in generally a centre-left leader who, at least initially, seems to combine the better qualities of each of the previous styles of leadership:
  • the seriousness and gravitas of the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Auditor's" ability to grapple with serious policy,
  • the articulateness of the "Motivational Speaker", and
  • the accessibility of the "Bookie" to members of the public.

Some "Mary Poppins" leaders have been serious disappointments, because of serious flaws in their approach.  In Australia, Kevin Rudd's anger management problems, in particular, ruined a promising political leadership.  In the UK, Tony Blair's willingness to be talked into participating in George W. Bush's Iraq fiasco had a similarly ruinous impact on his leadership. 

Other "Mary Poppins" leaders have had noted flaws, but are still viewed positively on the whole because of the impressive quality of other aspects of their leadership.  Both Gough Whitlam in Australia and Jimmy Carter in the US tended to be economic novices, for example.  However, this major flaw was overshadowed by:
  • Whitlam's significance while Prime Minister as a promoter of social reform; and
  • Carter's record as a global peacemaker, humanitarian, and human rights advocate after his presidency.

And there have been some "Mary Poppins" leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US and Pierre Trudeau in Canada, whose significant and inspiring long-term leadership seems to have reduced any of their flaws to merely amusing foibles.

With the two über-classy "Mary Poppins" leaders currently serving their nations in leadership roles (Barack Obama nearing the end of his presidency in the US, Justin Trudeau beginning his prime ministership in Canada), I'll reserve my judgement as to how history will regard them.  (I suspect, though, that history will be very kind to both Barry O and to Trudeau fils, regarding both in a class with Trudeau pere.)

And, then, there's the "Bond Villain"

In a sense, the "Bond Villain" is the anti-"Mary Poppins".  Like the various fantastic fictional villains found in the James Bond series of adventure films, the political "Bond Villain" exudes an almost mobster-like sense of menace.  Russia's Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are two classic recent examples. 

Unlike any of the other groups of leaders, all of whom declare solemnly (as candidates and in office) that they are in service to all the voters, not only their own supporters but the supporters of their opponents, the "Bond Villain" makes no such claim.  This is what makes the "Bond Villain" a "Bond Villain".  Like Richard Nixon and (more recently) Donald Trump in the US and Mark Latham in Australia, they speak openly of groups and individuals within the community they consider "enemies" and whom they see it as their duty to "screw".  (Latham's term, I believe.)

Similar to the actual villains in the actual Bond movies, some of the "Bond Villain" political leaders maintain ostentatiously luxurious - and, occasionally, openly playboy - personal lifestyles (Berlusconi, Trump).

While the typical "Bond Villain" leader is a politician on the political right (Putin, Berlusconi, Trump, Nixon), very occasionally you'll find one on the left (Latham).

I hope this exploration of six styles of political leadership has been helpful. With the irredeemable exception of the "Bond Villain", we can find good political leaders in various nations among each of the five other types of leader.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The "Hillsongisation" of Bach?

Last weekend I attended a brilliant performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart. 

It was part of Hobart's Festival of Voices, a festival which is essentially a celebration of vocal music of all forms.  This is why the St. Matthew Passion was performed in July rather than on Good Friday, in Holy Week, or (at least) late in Lent, when we normally hear it.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, a large massed choir, and a number of noted soloists performed under the baton of the brilliant Richard Gill as guest conductor.

However, I'm not writing a music review of the performance but, rather, a theological and liturgical reflection.

Encountering both the music and the English translation of the text, I was struck by the heavily Lutheran character of Bach's church music.  Please note that, as is the case in many performances of vocal music where the text is sung in a language other than that of the audience, the translated words were projected on a screen over the stage area.  (More about the projection later.)

Now, the Lutheran character of Bach's church music should not really be too amazing.  Bach was a Lutheran.  He spent most of his career as an organist and choirmaster in Lutheran churches.  And he wasn't even an ecumenically folksy, Garrison Keilloresque, contemporary Lutheran, but a conservative, 18th century Lutheran pietist.

But, given the ecumenical embrace of Bach as the Christian composer par excellence, the specifically Lutheran character of Bach's music may not be too apparent.  In the churches I know where Bach's music is frequently played, the congregation has essentially made Bach an honorary Episcopalian/Anglican, an honorary UCA member, an honorary United Methodist, an honorary Vatican 2 Catholic, etc., whether Herr Bach would have wanted this posthumous designation or not.   But, looking at Bach's use of his texts, he expressed his Christian faith through his music in a consciously Lutheran way. 

Bach's texts for the St. Matthew Passion came from three sources.  Most of the text was from the Gospel of Matthew itself, from Martin Luther's classic German translation.  Other texts came from German-language hymns which were already in wide use in Lutheran churches in Germany ("O sacred head now wounded," for example), and for which Bach's arrangements of the tunes soon became the standard version of these hymn tunes.

And then, there were some original texts, written by Bach's frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who used the pen name Picander.  These texts, which included the words for some of the most memorable music in the St. Matthew Passion, expressed a pietist, individualised approach to Christian faith which was typical of the conservative Lutheranism of the day.  In a sense, some of the best musical moments in the St. Matthew Passion are accompanied by some of the most problematic theology in the work, at least for a critically-minded ecumenical Christian today.

I have  far fewer issues with whether or not I completely agree with the theology of a work of consciously "Christian" music when the music is a work from an earlier era and written in a specifically classical genre, than I do when the music reflects a contemporary or popular idiom.  I assume that our theology has moved on since Bach's, Handel's, Vivaldi's, Mozart's, or Faure's day and can still appreciate the beauty of the music, as well as the spirituality and devotion behind the music, without having to hold up a critical yardstick to every word and phrase in the text.  This is also why I can sing hymns by Charles Wesley (and other 18th/19th century hymnwriters) with enthusiasm, even if I differ with the details of Wesley's theology of the atonement. 

I really can't do this with many contemporary Christian worship songs, such as the output of "Hillsong", because I believe that worship music in a contemporary musical style should also reflect a contemporarily inclusive theology.  I find a certain dishonesty in worship music in which a contemporary musical idiom is matched with words that proclaim an ultraconservative theology.

In the whole area of music written for Christian worship, I've often regarded (in recent years) the two extremes of the continuum of styles and content in terms of Bach at one end of the spectrum and Hillsong at the other, with my own preferences strongly at the Bach end of the spectrum.   I'm thinking now that perhaps this dichotomy is a bit too hard-and-fast. 

Perhaps performing the St. Matthew Passion in July, rather than during Holy Week, was part of the problem.  During Holy Week, a strong focus on the crucifixion is part of the context for all Christians.  For many Christians, a Holy Week-like focus on the crucifixion at other times of the year tends to imply an eccentrically conservative theology is present.

And the use of the screen may have contributed to this notion.  I associate words projected on a screen, particularly words with a Christian content projected on a screen, with the style of Christian church where a very conservative theology is found alongside an emphasis on contemporary worship music.  I associate the use of a screen and projector with a Hillsong style of church music, not with a Bach style of church music.

But then again, there were many present that night at the Federation Concert Hall for whom the important reason they were there was that the music was by Bach, not that the performance was of one of Bach's specifically Christian pieces. 

While I'm not advocating the Hillsongisation of Bach, I'm beginning to realise that Bach is not an inclusive, 21st century ecumenist in his approach to Christianity, but a conservative 18th century Lutheran pietist, warts and all.  But that should not mean that those of us who are inclusive, 21st century ecumenists necessarily find a barrier between ourselves and either his music or his spirituality.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Attila the Hun, Robin Hood, and Jimmy Buffett: How to Understand Political and Social Populism

In his 1977 song "Margaritaville", the American singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett ended the first verse with

"Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know that it's nobody's fault."

Later verses end with

"But I think, hell, it could be my fault"


"And I know it's my own damn fault!"

For many people who reflect on their misfortunes, it's very hard to go on Jimmy's journey.  It's just far too difficult for some people to reach "It's my own damn fault!" when reflecting on their own misfortunes, whether personal or otherwise. 

For some, it's even much too hard to get to Jimmy's starting point of "But I know that it's nobody's fault."  Many people really want someone else to blame, particularly in the area of politics and economics.

And, for those who want someone else to blame for their circumstances, they really want someone to blame who is different from themselves:  ... someone black, ... someone foreign, ... someone Muslim, ... someone Jewish, ... someone feminist, ... someone gay, ... someone who's an immigrant or a refugee, ... someone in a suit, ... anyone who is somehow different from me. 

And when this sort of blame game happens on a regular basis, you've got a case of populism.  Populism is what happens when large numbers of people seek a scapegoat for their political or economic problems, and when the scapegoat is some easily identifiable (and usually highly vulnerable) group within the wider community.  Examples of political populism in elections this year include the Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Sanders) campaigns in the United States' presidential election, the Hanson and Lambie campaigns in the Australian parliamentary election, and many advocates of the "Leave" case in the UK "Brexit" referendum.

It's difficult to put populism easily into any conventional place on a right-left political spectrum. 
  • On issues of racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, most populists are usually somewhere to the far right, near Attila the Hun.
  • On economic issues, many populists are frequently somewhere to the left of Robin Hood.
Populists in most countries are frequently alienated from major political parties of both the centre-right and centre-left.
  • They dislike the centre-left parties because of these parties' enthusiasm for racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity.
  • They dislike the centre-right parties because of their economic conservatism.  Most populists will have family members and friends who are among the best customers of the modern "welfare state", and they don't want to disrupt any of this.
  • As well, most populists distrust the flamboyant piety expressed by many conservative politicians in many countries.  Populists are among the most secular members of any community.  For many, three or four generations have passed since there's been a regular worshipper of any sort in their family.  Since their childhood, most populists were taught that "religious people" are a bunch of killjoys, wowsers, and hypocrites intent on spoiling their fun.
One other thing about populists, they tend not to be "joiners".  You probably won't see them at church obviously, because of the whole "killjoys, wowsers, and hypocrites" thing I just mentioned.  You probably won't see them at Rotary, Lions, CWA, or any other community group either.  Work, home, and (in many cases) pub are the environments in which a populist will be comfortable.  Populists don't get out a lot.  That's one of the things that makes a populist a populist.

I'm not too worried, though, about populists becoming politically active, even if I find their politics rather scary.  If a populist feels able to influence the political system, he/she is far less likely to vandalise a place of worship, beat up someone on the street, ... or worse ... than if he/she feels unable to influence the system. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

“The Good Samaritan as a management issue”: a sermon (Luke 10: 25 - 37)

(The pulpit area of the church is set up as if it were a business office, the office of the Human Resources manager of Samaritan Software, with a desk, a coffee cup and a pile of papers. During this sermon, I will take on the role of the HR manager of Samaritan Software. As the sermon begins, I am sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and shuffling papers.)

(Standing up) Ah, Ben, thanks for coming in before you went home. Your supervisor wanted me to have a word with you to see if everything’s all right. You know that here at Samaritan Software, we’re a caring company.

We care about our customers. We care about our staff. As a member of our sales team, your job is to care about our customers. As Human Resources manager, my job is to care for you, particularly as you’re an old friend from high school. So, how are things going? …

No, it’s just that, well, yesterday, you came into work three hours late … with no medical certificate … and with blood on your clothing. Is, um, well, is everything OK at home?…

Really, let me get this straight, so that my notes are right: you saw a man on the side of the highway … injured … unconscious … in his underwear … bleeding … probably robbed and beaten up. … Hmm … You did some CPR and stopped the bleeding … bandaged him up … Well, that First aid course we sent you to last year proved to come in handy, didn’t it? ….

And after he came to, he was in obvious pain, but the ambulance was taking ages to get there – as usual - and you decided to risk taking him to the hospital yourself. … You helped him into the back seat of your car, which explains the blood on your clothing, Waiting in the emergency room was a nightmare, but once a doctor was able to see him, you left your credit card details at the desk and came straight back to work. Is that right? …

Look, Ben, I don’t see any problem! You’ve got a few sick days up your sleeve, so if the boss won’t just treat this as a one-off compassionate situation, we’ll just make it a half-day sickie, so, no problems! Besides, Ben, in times like this, Samaritans need to help each other out! …

What do you mean the man by the road wasn’t a Samaritan! …

Well, then, what was he? ….

(agitated) He was a what? … He was a what? … You must be kidding! You’re not. …. And you tell me you gave CPR to a … to a … Ewwww! How could you? Have you no self-respect, Ben? You remember the songs they sang about Samaritans back in high school. … Yes, and I also remember the songs we sang about them. (chuckles) Weren’t they funny? (chuckles) … You know, Ben, you had no sense of humour back in high school and you have less of one now? … Does your family know that this man you helped was a, … was a … (angry) Yes, Ben, I know the word. The man was a Jew, and Samaritans have no business helping Jews. … The next thing you’ll tell me is that after helping your Jewish mate, you volunteered to help some Roman soldiers change a wheel on their chariot.…

(coldly) Look, Ben, we pay you to sell software, not to be the Mother Theresa of the highways. And we pay you pretty well because you’re a good salesman. You’re going to have to decide whether your job is selling software or playing Albert Schweitzer. … If it helps you decide, selling software pays much better.

(a bit more calmly) I’ll have to give you this, Ben. You’ve got guts. No brains, just guts. Here’s what I’m going to do, this time and this time only. When I write my report, I’m not going to mention that this man on the side of the road was Jewish. As far as my records are concerned, people can think the man you helped was another Samaritan, and far as the boss is concerned he was another Samaritan. Deal? …

Good idea, Ben. You’ve just saved your job. The boss isn’t anywhere near as tolerant as I am.

Anyway, Ben, it’s time to go home. Give my best to your wife and kids. See you later. …

(takes drink from coffee cup) I won’t tell this to Ben, but I wish I had his courage.

Friday, 1 July 2016

"Don't let's be beastly to the English .....": a post-Brexit lament from an incurable enthusiast for most things British

"Don't let's be beastly to the English ...."   As you may know, the title to this article is an homage to the title of Sir Noël Coward's humorous wartime song "Don't let's be beastly to the Germans".

In many ways, it's appropriate because, after the Brexit fiasco, many of us have been rather "beastly" to the English.  As a nation they've had an experience, in the past week, akin to waking up with a raging national hangover and an unwanted tattoo.  They're not really sure about the source of the empty pizza boxes in the kitchen, or the Masonic regalia hanging in the closet, or the stack of Watchtowers by the front door, but they suspect it's not going to be good when they find out.  The tattoo is the biggest concern, though.  Having the names of all your old girlfriends inked on your arm doesn't really make for a good look ... particularly if you're a priest.

This bizarre nightmare has been the national experience of most English people I know in the past few days, frantically looking up hangover cures on the 'Net while searching for emergency tattoo removal services in the Yellow Pages.

And then there are the jokes ....  Usually, the English enjoy feeling superior to everyone else, particularly the Irish, the Scots, the Americans, and particularly the Australians.  They tell jokes about these proud nations.  (And we all laugh, because Americans, Australians, and particularly Scots and Irish people have a sense of humour.) 

But now, everybody's telling English jokes!!!  Even the Canadians and the New Zealanders have someone other than their immediate neighbours to make fun of.  This is how serious it is.

Growing up in the States, I admired the English.  I tried to fake a British accent as a little kid.  (The problem was, it was Dick Van Dyke's atrociously bad fake Cockney accent but, as I said, I was a kid.)  I always spelled words like colour, odour, and centre in the British style unless I got marked down for it at school. 

For the most part, I preferred the British bands as a kid in the early '60s.  I liked the Beatles better than the Stones, but my real favourite was Herman's Hermits, which may give you an idea of just how uncool I was as a kid.

Even as a kid, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (initially in the Mr. Magoo version, later the book itself) helped shape my understanding of the potential impact of the Christmas celebration on our lives.   (And I even went and did a doctorate on stuff related to some of this.)  Since my childhood, I've always prided myself on celebrating a very English style of Christmas.

As my musical tastes matured, the first sign that I really liked classical music was courtesy of G.F. Handel and Messiah.  (OK, I know he was born in Germany, but he wrote his best stuff - including Messiah - in England, with English tastes in mind.)

As I discovered comedy in a big way, and developed a particular taste for witty, literate satire, of course I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan.

And then I discovered English television.  Now, with TV in the US, occasionally something great will happen.  Every few years or so, an American sitcom will come along that's another M*A*S*H, or a drama that's another The West Wing, or a cop show that's another Hill Street Blues, or a documentary series that's like ... well anything by Ken Burns, I guess. 

But with British TV (or, as they say, "telly"), every year brings something brilliant.  And people recognise this.  Here in Australia, where I've lived since I was 26, the class system reflects this.  The ultimate indicator of where you are on the social ladder is not your money, or your educational level, or your job title, or how fancy a high school you went to.  It's the percentage - out of your total TV viewing - of how much British TV you watch, compared to American programmes (other than reruns of those high quality American programmes ... such as M*A*S*H, The West Wing, Hill Street Blues, or anything by Ken Burns ... that qualify as being "almost British").  To be really upper middle class in Australia, you seriously have to be into your British telly.

And then, as a clergy-type myself, there is England's particular gift to the world of religion.  It's called, with typically English originality, the Church of England.  It has branches outside of England, called Episcopalian in the US and in Scotland, and Anglican almost everywhere else. 

Now the Church of England (sometimes called C of E), along with its overseas affiliates, is really cool in most places.  At its best, it combines stylishly traditional worship with good, classical-influenced music (similar to the Roman Catholics at their best) with intelligent and inclusive beliefs (similar to middle-of-the-road-to-liberal "Protestants" at their best).  In some places, the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans aren't at their best, but in those places where they are at their best , they are simply brilliant.

And one thing the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans do really well is called Choral Evensong.  It usually happens late on a Sunday afternoon (or, sometimes, in the early evening) in a church with a good choir.  If you can imagine a combination of a well-planned religious service with a quickly-paced classical music concert, with the creamy texture of a chocolate thickshake, and the "kick" of a strong gin-and-tonic, that's Choral Evensong.

Now, with all these factors, I know that the jokes will cease.  Any electorate will sometimes fall for a well-organised scare campaign by far-right extremists during a referendum.  Abe Lincoln was right.  "You can fool all of the people some of the time.  You can fool some of the people all of the time.  But you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  The English have just proven this.

However, I believe England is more than just Mississippi with rotten weather, warm beer, strange food, and some nice, medieval cathedrals.  The people who gave the world Handel's Messiah, A Christmas Carol, Choral Evensong, and Are You Being Served? will rise up from this.  Let's give them a chance.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."

There was a sign, just the day after the Brexit fiasco, that England was returning to its traditional equilibrium.  In an international soccer match against (irony alert!) that traditional soccer powerhouse, Iceland, England lost.  Now, one of England's proudest national traditions is found in the ability of its national sporting teams to lose important international matches in an embarrassing way.  Directly on the heels of the referendum, England's international footballers showed their countrymen how to be really English once again.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."

Friday, 24 June 2016

Talking 'Bout My Generation

As a card-carrying mid-range Baby Boomer, born in the year the Korean War ended, there are a few Boomer-specific issues in my observation.

1. Baby Boomers spent the first half of our lives being considered too young to be taken seriously and the second half being considered too old to be taken seriously. We went directly from "whippersnapper" to "codger" somewhere around our 42nd birthdays, without ever going through the intermediate stage of "adult person who gets taken seriously".  Our working lives consisted of a stage of our complaining about "old farts" followed by a stage of our complaining about "young farts".

2. We missed out (mostly) on the various great tribal youth experiences of the later 20th century.
  • The generation before us were the ones who really experienced the decades of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis, the Beatles, and hippiedom.  We were the "little kids" when the Beatles hit the scene.  By the time when Baby Boomers were old enough to become hippies, hippies were already passé.
  • Similarly, the generation after us were the ones who experienced the era of the yuppie.  We were the generation who told yuppie jokes.

3.  Boomers are the first generation where it is fairly normal to reach retirement age with one or both parents still alive.  This is a very good thing.  It means that medical care has become increasingly better and the generation who are the parents of Baby Boomers are the first to really enjoy this improved care.

4. Boomers are the first generation where it is fairly normal to reach retirement age with economically-dependent children.  This is largely because of the social inequalities promoted globally (initially by pre-Boomer - don't blame Boomers for this! - politicians and economists) since the Reagan-Thatcher years.

5. Because of (1), many Boomers are under great pressure to retire, both from employers who see us as too old to cope and from our own desire to leave frustrating work situations.  

6. Because of financial pressures associated with (3) and (4), many Boomers are reluctant to retire. 

7.  Because of the time and financial pressures associated with (3) and (4), Baby Boomers don't associate the concept of "retirement" with such things as golf and travel, in the ways earlier generations did.

8.  We grew up in the shadow of The Bomb.  I was nine at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Many of us grew up assuming that the end of our lives would occur in the context of an exchange of nuclear weapons between the USA and the USSR, along with the lives of everyone else we knew.  When the Berlin Wall fell, many of us were confronted for the first time with the possibility that living to old age was a real possibility.

That may be one reason why so many of us made fairly inadequate preparations for retirement when we were younger, and why many of us are risk-averse and security-obsessed when we think about our financial situations.  We only started to take an interest in financial matters around the same time as Mr. Gorbachev was taking the steps he took to end the Cold War.