Much ado about the Mikado

My earliest Gilbert and Sullivan memory is seeing a poster for our local amateur operatic company’s production of something called, The Mikado. The memory is distinct–a two-tone (this was the 80s) “oriental” (read: bamboo motif) page pasted in the front window of a neighbors’ home. Amateur opera was–at least at that time–quite popular in middle class England. And nothing is more quintessentially English than the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

1983_Mikado_poster

Recently the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society has come under fire for its production of The Mikado. You can read the details here. The central assertion is that it is racist–more precisely racial caricature.

Seattle Times writer Sandra Pian Chan points out:

When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.

I have no interest in defending the artistic merit of the Mikado since (a) I am not a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and (b) because I haven’t seen The Mikado. Quite a number of people–most all of them Asian Americans–I respect have publicly stated their opposition to the production on the basis of its racism and I, for one, am unable and unwilling to dispute that characterization.

At the same time, there is something disturbing about consigning cultural artifacts to the dustbin of history simply because the way they represent a person, culture, or event seems (or is in fact) either inaccurate or offensive or both (i.e., you guessed it, The Mikado). At the risk of drawing a lot of ire, bear with me as I consider a couple of observations.

As a cultural artifact The Mikado represents a snapshot of nineteenth century England. This is an England flush with Imperial aspirations, wealthy by way of mercantilism, militarily dominant across the known world, and all but unfamiliar with Asian, especially Japan. This is Britannia, which rules the waves. Of course ignorance of Japanese culture is exuded in The Mikado, how could it not be? The writers and the audience had never been there. In other words, the “Japan” in The Mikado isn’t really Japan at all–its a representation of an idealized Japan that exists to serve the deeper satire found within the piece. 

Must a piece of art be accurate in order to be artistic?

We are forced to ask a question: must a piece of art be “accurate” in order to be artistic? I think not. The are plenty of classics art that do not meet that most modern of all standards: accuracy. They are, as are all things, representative of the times in which they were written.

A second concern has been the issue of “yellow face”–the practice of non-Asians (usually whites) portraying Asians (often stereotypically) in artistic productions (usually by use of cosmetics). Obviously it is offensive to a person of one ethnicity to have someone of another ethnicity caricature them, but it’s not always a given that this is what is happening when a person of one race represents someone of another.

William Shakespeare set many of his plays in an Italy he had likely never visited. Granted, Italian culture was more well known in Elizabethan England than Japanese culture was in Victorian England. His actors spoke no (or little) Italian and portrayed people of a distinctly different ethnicity. The difference–why no one calls for Romeo and Juliet to be banned–appears to be the degree of similarity between Shakespeare’s Italy and what we know of Italy at the time. If there was a wider disparity, would we demand that Shakespeare be adapted? Probably.

All in all, I am warily sympathetic of calls to somehow alter revise productions of The Mikado. At the same time, I recognize too that calls to censor, alter, revise, or otherwise change pieces of art fail to honor the art as it was created. Perhaps the better way forward is more fully understanding the limits of cultural artifacts as well as their purpose in today’s culture. In other words, The Mikado is not being offered as an introduction to Japanese culture. Instead, it’s being offered as an example of nineteenth century English operetta with all the limitations that that entails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pastor's marriage

Pete_Scazzero_web

Our marriages are meant to be our first ambition in life. When we marry we make a vow to love our spouse exclusively until we die. That vow informs every decision we will make the rest of our lives….In the same way, if we are married, we have made a vow. That vow informs every decision we make. The pace of the church, and our commitments, take into account our call to be a sign and wonder for Christ through our marriage. We publicly vowed to make visible something invisible (the love of Jesus for His church) through our physical, earthly relationship.

For this reason, if we are married, our first ambition is not our work as pastors or leaders. It is Jesus and our marriage. These are inseparable commitments for all married people – especially leaders. All our fruit for Christ flows from this fountain of love.

 

Pete Scazzero

 

 

 

A Christian third way between decision and determinism

Marriage redefinition continues to be a critical issue before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will vote on it later this week. Ironically, no one has framed the issue quite as poignantly as same-sex marriage supporter Mark Achtemeier: “This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.”[1]

He’s right–however, not in the way he intended. Speaking to the Covenant Network–a GLBT lobby organization in the PC(USA)–Achtemeier claimed that nothing less than the gospel is at stake in denominational deliberations on marriage. Continuing to affirm the traditional Christian teaching on marriage–that it is a covenant between a man and a woman–would “undermine the credibility of Christian witness for a generation.”[2] I disagree.

Achtemeier employs what J. Todd Billings has referred to as a “correlationist” approach in his understanding of human sexuality.[3] This sort of approach–common, in different ways, to both liberals and evangelicals–attempts to “correlate” the Christian message with the pulse of the culture.[4].

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“This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.” -Mark Achtemeier

Like many correlationists, Achtemeier has no problem jettisoning the baggage of traditional ways of reading Scripture as a church: “After generations of erroneous teaching, it is within our grasp to move our beloved church to a truthful witness.”[5]

The problem underlying Achtemeier’s critique his presupposition that the pureness of Jesus’ teaching have become encrusted with layers of Pauline interpretation, not to mention centuries of reflection by dominant culture readers. To find the true message of the New Testament it is necessary to “leap over” the tradition and get back to the New Testament.

Moving beyond the hubris of such a position, one is struck by its implausibility. Let us grant that prior generations of readers of Scripture were not perfect—no stretch of the imagination. Let us also grant that they were, in their own unique and culturally-influenced ways, guilty of sin. Despite this, they are still the church. And it is clear–at least to me–that we are as guilty of our own sin and just as subject to cultural myopia as prior generations have been. Indeed, that is why we require tradition: to enable us to see beyond our own limited perspective. As Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton put it,

 

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.[6]

In their defense, progressives wish to step outside of their cultural moment too. The problem is that they wish to appeal to the future–a future that is, by its very nature, yet to be and therefore unknowable to all except God. Traditionalists will be “on the wrong side of history.” In a way, this is an appeal to the tradition of subsequent generations and based on the false presupposition that we can somehow know what the future will be. It was Hegel who originated the phrase “wrong side of history,” it was quickly co-opted by the Marxists, and that such a phrase is possible points to the view of history that underlies it.[7]

To the progressive, there is a perfectly marked out trajectory of human progress and those who history lauds are those who align themselves–as apparently has Mark Achtemeier–with the arch of that history. The prophet Amos said: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land–not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:5). Our current moment is not the fulfillment of Amos’ words. It is, however, reminiscent of the underlying principle: it is easy to marginalize or even to compromise the witness of Scripture, even with the best of intentions.

Traditionalists have not paid significant enough attention to the pastoral implications of a change of theology of human sexuality. We need to be clear that this is not simply an issue of hermeneutics, theology, and cultural observation. We must be clear that the traditional teachings and practices of the church have resources enough to provide for the full life of which Jesus spoke for all people, including those with same-sex attractions. What we do with our bodies matters. We are not simply souls who connect to Jesus and then use our bodies as we wish and as gratifies us. Speaking to that tendency in the ancient world, Paul wrote:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”[8]

The church has become captive to culture. We have divided along the lines of decision verses determinism. Traditionalists often posit that being “gay” is simply a lifestyle choice. Progressives often argue that being “gay” is the product of biology–an unchangeable orientation. Both of these explanations is overly simplistic. Choices and experiences are involved in sexuality as is our biological make up.

What the church is missing in our discussion of human sexuality is any notion that there is a third way of conceiving of this that is different from decision or determinism. That third way re-appropriates the ancient church’s understanding of the Christian life as one of practices and beliefs that inculcate virtue into the life of Christian through the communion of the church. This is needful, of course, far beyond simply the issue of our human sexuality. As the church moves into a post-Christendom culture, it is vitally necessary that we develop practices that will sustain us as a missionary people in the midst of skepticism.

Notes

[1] Mark Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: http://covnetpres.org/2014/06/will-know-fruits/ (accessed 17 June 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition.” Pro Ecclesia. Vol. XXII, No. p. 135-136.

[4] Billings notes, “[T]hey start with our own cultural agenda, questions, and needs, and then correlate an answer from the Bible in those terms.” p.137.

[5] Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: http://covnetpres.org/2014/06/will-know-fruits/ (accessed 17 June 2014).

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[7] Jonah Goldberg, “The Empty Threat of Future Judgment.” National Review (March 2014) available online at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373856/empty-threat-future-judgment-jonah-goldberg (accessed on 17 June 2014).

[8] 1 Cor 6:9, ESV.

The virtue of self-acceptance

selfacceptance

It is often said today…that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others. This is certainly the release we must seek to give our people. But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or to forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have, in the sense of agape, is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. There is endless talk about this in the church, but little apparent belief in it among Christians, although they may have a conscious complacency which conceals the subconscious despair which Kierkegaard calls ‘the sickness unto death.’

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal

 

I wonder how effective we are at helping people to experience the deep love God has toward them in Christ?

If Tim Keller is right that flourishing and effective congregational ministry can only happen where people repeatedly encounter and experience the love of God in the gospel, then surely this has to be at the heart of the church’s ministry.

Moreover, this communication of God’s love for us has to be married with the Christian virtue of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance isn’t a virtue in our society. We favor self-improvement–you can make yourself into anything you want to be if you only try hard enough, buy and use the right product, and surround yourself with the right people.

Self-acceptance means coming to the place where you’re able to accept yourself as you are. You can only get there through coming to accept God’s unconditional electing love that chose you just as you are not on the basis of your idealized self or even your future self. No. God saved you because he loves you. And he loves you because he saved you. File that under the category of “mystery.”

The unlived life

Everyone has dreams. Some abandon them. Others embrace them. Some try and fail. Others fail to try. Many find a new success in their failures. It wasn’t the success they thought they’d experience. It was a peculiar success whose genesis lay in the failure of their first dream.

Entrepreneurs know this. They try ten things, eight of them fail. They re-invest in the two that don’t.

Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art is a must-read for anyone seriously committed to taking any sort of risk in life, not just for the creatives for whom the book was written. He writes, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.”

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It’s resistance that makes us put down the book proposal we’ve almost completed. It’s resistance that smacks us in the face when we sit at the computer to write our sermon. It’s resistance that gently whispers that we could never do what we’ve always dreamed of doing and what others say they can see us doing.

Our society is ordered around distraction: “we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of [our] unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction” (War of Art, 31). What’s easier: two hundred words or two hours on Facebook? What’s more important?

Spend some time today thinking about what you really want to do with your life.