Monthly Archives: November 2008

More To Learn

Yesterday afternoon before class, I spent a little more than an hour at a lecture given by Stanley Hauerwas in honor of Jean Vanier (who himself contributed a series of reflections after the lecture). These two were together at Duke to conduct a workshop on “Living Gently In A Violent World” and to celebrate the publication of a book by that title on which they worked together. The lecture was vintage Hauerwas, and emphasized the work of Raimond Gaita; here’s an excerpt from Gaita’s A Common Humanity published in the Guardian); Vanier’s reflections (from which I will not try to quote) touched me deeply, as a pastor and as a person.
Hauerwas offered a sympathetic exposition of Gaita’s work, only at the end noting that Gaita signals a sort of hiatus, an aporia, precisely where the faithfulness of such figures as Jean Vainer (and Mother Teresa — Gaita’s chosen exemplar) stands to provide the enacted rationale for the pure love with which people demonstrate the sort of life Gaita finds admirable but inexplicable.
I’ll have to catch up on Gaita, now, but Stanley emphasized Gaita’s focal interest in the “pure love” that he saw as the only plausible alternative to an urbane condescension toward those who bear irremediable afflications; this, it seemed to me, provided any number of important clues for themes and arguments at the heart of my “beautiful theology” projects.

Can’t Wait

I understand that many people are eager to hear whom Obama will appoint as Secretary of the Treasury — but the appointment I’m waiting to hear about is Attorney General. So very many legal contortions have been imposed and made conventional during the past eight years that a new AG will have quite the Augean stables to clear out. Even just an enthusiastic spasm of declassification would provide a great deal of interesting reading material….

Welcome Indeed

I got an email this morning from my former student Vito Aiuto; he was in seeral of my classes at Princeton, I think — Greek, and at least one exegetical class (maybe the Biblical Theology class, maybe even Matthew or New Testament Theology?). Vito’s been busily pastoring in NYC since those long-ago days, but he’s also been hanging around and singing with his friend Sufjan Stevens (Vito is credited on Michigan, which includes “Vito’s Ordination Song,” and I think he sang on some of the Songs For Christmas cuts, but I can’t find any credits).
Now, Vito and his wife Monique are getting set to release an album of their own on Asthmatic Kitty, as The Welcome Wagon; their album will be called Welcome To The Welcome Wagon. I’m getting ready to listen to an advance copy, and I can’t wait — you can download a free sample on the album website. Chec it out, spread the word!

Approximately Prophetic

I haven’t seen anyone point to David Weinberger’s post from the 2004 Democratic convention (least of all David himself), but I’ve remembered it all campaign and thought it was worth a link after Tuesday. David — still firmly supporting the idea of eight years of a Kerry presidency — wrote:

The good news for Hillary is that she might get State Department when Obama is President in 2012.

Now, it seems as though Kerry might be Secretary of State, and it may be the case that Sen. Clinton’s trongest position for the future lies in cultivating a role in legislative leadership, but it’s worth noting that our friend perceived that when it came down to a Clinton vs. Obama primary campaign, Obama would win and would become president — and he perceived it well before Obama was even anywhere near being a declared candidate.

Telling Me Something

Pippa — who is participating in NaNoWriMo and now has a blog (and even Si is blogging again) — has observed as Margaret and I wrestle with the extremely narrow job market for people with our capacities and qualifications; in her own sweet way, she has offered her help by pointing me to this page.
Somehow, I don’t see this application as a promising possibility — but I suppose I can hope. At least it’s likelier than this position in the National Security Decision Making Department at the Naval War College.


I’m feeling a wee bit lonely recently, so I think that after I present my paper to Duke’s New Testament Colloquium tonight, I’ll motor down to the airport in search of companionship. Not just anyone, mind you; I’ll be looking for a theological ethicist, one whose Tuesday birthday was eclipsed by the recent national festival of Obamania. I hope I find someone….

Note To Self

Scheduling a discussion of Romans 13 for the day after Election Day probably doesn’t qualify as a stroke of genius, but it sure turned out well. Great discussion, none of it determined directly by yesterday’s events, but manifestly intensified by everyone’s heightened attention to questions of who has authority.

Tell You What

If five years ago, you had pulled me aside and suggested that in 2008, the leading candidate to be President of the U.S. would be an intellectual who teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, I’d have thought you were raving. If you then said, “Oh, by the way, he’s Black,” I’d have figured it had to be a Republican neo-con — no way could a liberal Democrat galvanized the US electorate. I’d also have been dubious about the Republican party nominating for vice-president someone who pals around with avowedly anti-American secessionists, or that a Not Ready For Prime Time comedian and writer stood a decent chance of being elected to the Senate from a midwestern state. This has been a strange election cycle.

Looking Back At Bragg

The Billy Bragg show last night was fine. It got off to a strong start with the opening set by the Watson Twins (whom I didn’t know would be there). They performed “Old Ways,” “How Am I To Be,” “Ain’t No Sunshine/Just Like Heaven,” “Bar Woman Blues,” “Only You,” “Sky Open Up” (a Cure cover), and “Southern Manners.” The Twins blend beautifully, and they work well in the bare-bones context of a Bragg solo tour.
After a short break, the Bragg set began. Billy launched directly into an apposite “Help Save The Youth Of America,” followed by a series of political exhortations, shaggy dog stories, brutal puns (“We’re the last pun rockers,” he deadpans), autobiographical anecdotes, and selections from his extensive repertoire of songs. From “Youth,” he proceeded to the newer song “Farm Boy,” then “Greetings To The New Brunette,” “Mr. Love & Justice,” and then shifted into a Woody Guthrie sequence with “Ingrid Bergman.” “Bergman,” though, established a consistent weak point of the evening’s performance: instead of just wise-cracking and urging his case for democratic socialism, he persistently explained, to the point of belaboring, jokes and allusions. He signaled this tendency by calling attention to the “more impressionable when my cement is wet” line in “Greetings”; for “Ingrid Bergman,” he instructed the audience not to think that Woody Guthrie’s volcano metaphors referred solely, or even primarily, to geological phenomena. He then performed “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key,” affirming that this song showed the same degree of carnality as “Bergman.” He then turned to Guthrie’s political passion, performing a down-tempo, blue-tinged version of “I Ain’t Got No Home” (link to Woody’s version and here, to Bruce Springsteen’s).
Bragg returned to his own material for “N. P. W. A. (No Power Without Accountability),” which underscored another problem with the evening: Bragg’s more recent material exchanges the articulate passion of his earlier work for an earnest (but less exalted) didacticism. It’s as though he feels obliged to write “Billy Bragg songs,” so he slathers songs with names and terms from current issues of The Guardian or Financial Times. As a result, his tremendous lyrical and performing gifts struggle to overcome the inertia from such lines as “The ballot box is no guarantee/that we achieve democracy,” even when he can sling the response, “Who are these people? Who elected them?/And how do I replace them with some of my friends?” “NPWA” has a propulsive tune, but the abbreviations of the names of international organizations weight it down. If Bragg had turned the chorus over to the audience, he might have been able to play off the energy of a rousing sing-along; instead, he sang the chorus himself, which didn’t do much to enliven the pace. On the other hand, his long narrative about observing the electoral process in the USA with three other bewildered Brits (he joked that they’re making a tour documentary about it, to be entitled “Noam Chomsky For Old Men”) amply communicated the bemused texture of his ardent political commitment.
He then returned to “Sexuality,” but he (again) over-talked the jokes in the fade-out. In a fine, strong cover version, Bill reminded his audience to look up Laura Nyro’s catalog, from which he performed “Save The Country.” Next was his own “O Freedom,” (a Guantanamo-aware restatement of the stronger “Rotting On Remand,” which shows how detail and relevance don’t need to derail a song’s politics). “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “The Saturday Boy” showed Bragg at his best, which he followed with a story about his recent (not-yet-released) composition, “Old Clash Fan’s Fight Song” — which showed he could still capture the Tube-busker vigor that propelled his career at the start.
He wrapped up the concert with “I Keep Faith,” which he dedicated to the audience: “Don’t ever think that a musician can change the world — not even Bono — it’s the audience that can change the world” (though he told the audience the song was for them, after the set he acknowledged that it’s written for his wife Juliet, and that their son Jack gets irritated when Bill says it’s for the audience). The transnational solidarity in which he vests his faith came out in a rousing “There Is Power In A Union,” and the set concluded with “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” (another song that, sadly, would have benefited from more audience participation, and fewer flat topicalized verses).
The encore commemorated the late Levi Stubbs with an emphatic version of “Levi Stubbs’s Tears,” the Watson Twins joining him for “Sing Their Souls Back Home,” and wrapping up with a solo version of “A New England” (with the Kirsty MacColl verse).
After the show, Bill amiably mingled with lingering fans, telling stories, posing for photos, signing autographs, and refreshing himself with a post-gig Corona (his beverage of choice during the gig is Traditional Medicinals” “Throat Coat”).
Dad, Pippa, and Uncle Bill
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Bragg fan, so I enjoyed the evening immensely (and bought the “Revolution Is Just A T-Shirt Away” t-shirt). Still, the night wasn’t as vigtorous, not as compelling, not as there as was the night Margaret and I saw him at the Keswick Theater outside Philadelphia. OK, he’s older, and the aggregate age of teh audience was older; but his habit of pattering through favorite parts of his best songs tends to distance both the audience and himself from his strongest material. That disarms the possibility of a star trip — he’s just a bloke, playing some songs — but it also undercuts some of the strength, the musical power, and the sense of shared exhilaration that energizes his audience and sends them out changed. Still, even an off night from Billy Bragg is funnier, more deeply politically moving, and more provocative than the best nights of plenty of acts, and many of us will long remember seeing Billy Bragg just three days before the momentous election of 2008.