Wittenberg, the Play

Last Spring I blogged about a new play called Wittenberg, which is about three individuals whom history and literature place at the University of Wittenberg: two professors, a Dr. Luther and a Dr. Faustus, and a student, a Danish international student named Hamlet. See A play I have to see and A Reformation Comedy. In the course of our discussions, playwright David Davalos, who wrote the play, weighed in, making me want to see it even more.

Well, I did. The Rep Theater put it on in Columbia, MD, between Baltimore and D.C., so we went with some friends. The play is brilliantly written, extraordinarily learned, and stone cold hilarious. It truly is a comedy of ideas, depicting the conflict between Luther’s Christianity (outraged at the abuses of the medieval church) and Faustus’ philosophical rebelliousness (skeptical of everything except doubt). They are contending for the soul of young Hamlet, who, famously, has trouble making up his mind. Luther and Faustus–who are presented as friends, not as enemies– contending for the souls of each other.

Luther comes out OK. He is a foil for some Christian-mocking, but his conversion to a God of grace and his insights about faith in Christ come out loud and clear. So does his earthy personality and his rhapsodies about the value of beer. And his ideas stand up well against the merry nihilism of Faustus, who, however, comes across even better, at least in this production. Cosmic rebel that he is, Faustus ends up as something of a catalyst for the Reformation, which, yes, does have its rebellious moments. As for Hamlet, Davalos interprets him surprisingly the way I do (which is to say, correctly!) not as a melancholic basket case but as an idealist who comes to trust in God’s providence and His calling.

The play shows us what happens to Luther, showing him at the end making his “Here I stand” confession at Worms. It shows us what happens to Hamlet, showing him making his resigned, confident “the readiness is all” speech. But the play shows us little of what happens to Faustus. He is the philosopher of Goethe’s version, but it doesn’t show his guilt in causing the death of Gretchen (a manifestation of the “Eternal Feminine” that takes several guises in the play, but not this one). He is the professor of Marlowe’s version, but it does little with that unforgettable final scene in Dr. Faustus. OK, there is an allusion to the line about wanting the horses of the night to ride slowly, but nothing about how he sees the sunrise on his last day alive (“Christ’s blood streams in the firmament. . .One drop would save me. . .Half a drop”) and how he bitterly laments his bargain with the devil, which even now he could turn from, but his faith ultimately lurches to Satan instead of to Christ. I could see that the play might not want to give Luther such a clear win, but it could at least show Faustus dreading the moment of his death.

There were lots of academic jokes that I appreciated. Hamlet is a senior who still hasn’t decided what to major in. Dr. Faustus says that he might get excommunicated, tortured, and burned at the stake, but he will not get fired–he has tenure. Some of the jokes over-reached, such as Luther’s reading from the “Song of Solomon” as Faustus and the Eternal Feminine do a lewd shadow show. (What was the purpose of that? Is it funny that the Bible talks about sex? How does this scene line up with the issues of the play?)

The play does a lot with Copernicus’s reconstruction of the Solar system and the existential disorientation it created. Luther favors the old cosmology–which he did–though I wonder if Mr. Davalos knows about that other Wittenberg professor, Rheticus, the devout Lutheran who was the one who actually published and promoted Copernicus’s theories. (He probably interpreted them as this Hamlet finally does, as more of a Christocentric view of the universe, as opposed to the anthropocentric view of classical and medieval humanism.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to complain. Wittenberg was the most satisfying and enjoyable professional theater that I’ve seen in a long time. If it comes to where you live, see it. I hope it makes it to Broadway, gets a Tony, gets made into a movie, gets an Oscar, and on and on. It is far richer, more intelligent, funnier, and spiritually more significant than most of its competitors in today’s theater.

Wittenberg, the Play

Stupid Questions

Every weekend, the comics section in the Washington Post holds a humorous contest called “The Style Invitational” in which readers can send in their humorous contributions. This week readers were challenged to send in “stupid questions” for companies’ customer service representatives. The entries were indeed humorous. Here are a few, but you might enjoy them all:

[The Winner] To the White House: My 2006 Chrysler Sebring is hesitating when I step on the accelerator. When can I bring it in? (Jeff Hazle, Woodbridge)

[second place] To Procter & Gamble: I love your Charmin toilet paper, but I hate those rolls that dispense from the underside. Can you tell me where I can buy rolls that dispense from the top of the roll? (James Noble, Lexington Park) . . .

Ikea: The table I ordered arrived, but all the legs are broken off! (Beverley Sharp, Washington)

General Mills: I just turned 18 and I was wondering if I have to give up Trix now or do I still count as a kid until I’m 21? (Adam and Russell Beland, from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon) . . .

Rolex: I recently purchased one of your fine timepieces and I just noticed that there is an extra “L” in the logo. Would removing that be covered under the warranty, and if so, can I just take it back to the stand where I bought it to have that done? (Dan Ramish, Arlington)

OK, now you do it.

Not a prophet nor the son of a prophet

Liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, editor of “Sojourners” is saying that the satirical comedian Jon Stewart of the “Daily Show” is a prophet. Wallis thinks the Old Testament prophets were all about condemning social injustice, so since that’s what Stewart does, he is one too. Stewart himself rejects the compliment and even the idea that his satire is based on condemning social injustice:

“Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit. The targets we choose, the way we go about it — it’s got more of a personal venting aspect than a socially conscious aspect.”

Part of the problem with what Wallis says is that he gets tangled up in language and its figurative possibilities. I might say that I predicted that the Nationals would lose their last game and I was right, so I am a prophet. But that doesn’t make me, you know, a PROPHET. There needs to be some supernatural stuff going on–specifically, the working of God’s Word. This can happen in ordinary preaching. But, again, that doesn’t make the pastor a PROPHET prophet in the Old Testament sense.

I’m intrigued with Stewart’s honest and insightful analysis of his own humor: that it’s selfish, that it’s just venting. It has been said that only conservatives can be satirists, since that genre requires the existence of objective standards by which to measure society and to find it wanting. Can you think of examples of that kind of humor?

Lutheran humor

As I mourn the loss of Strange Herring and continue to mourn the loss of Luther at the Movies, I’ve been thinking about Lutheran humor. I do think there is a distinct Lutheran comic tradition. Consider the just-alluded to blogger Anthony Sacramone, Gary Larsen of the “Far Side” cartoons (also on hiatus! Lutheran humorists lack perseverance!), Dr. Seuss, Lyle Lovett, Martin Luther (the only profound theologian I know of who in the midst of a searching Biblical discourse can make a reader laugh out loud), and. . . who else?

I have noticed also in the Lutheran blogosphere, with friends at church, and amidst pastoral gatherings a certain manic humor that I don’t find elsewhere. How would you characterize it? It has a dark edge, a recognition of human sinfulness and the bondage of the will. Also a satirical flavor that must come from seeing human pretensions and, like God, holding them in derision. It is kind of absurdist too. And there is a freedom about it that can only come from the freedom of the Gospel.

Have any of the rest of you picked up on this? Is there also a Calvinist sense of humor, or a Baptist, charismatic, Catholic, or other Christian tradition’s sense of humor? (That there is a Jewish sense of humor has been much studied. Is there a Muslim sense of humor? A Buddhist sense of humor? Or are some religious traditions just too serious?)

Strange Herring is quitting

Strange Herring, is going on hiatus. That’s one of my favorite blogs! The pillar of my old age! This is the second time an Anthony Sacramone blog has gone on hiatus. I’m still mourning the absence of Luther at the Movies. He says that blogging has become a chore and he wants to stop before it becomes a bore. How about this Cranach blog? It is sometimes a chore, but you don’t see me going on some hiatus. As for “Strange Herring” becoming a bore, he should let us be the judge of that. (In our household, if any of our kids said that he or she was “bored,” that would bring down harsh punishment for using the “b” word. That meant hours doing some improving activity.) I’m not surprised that Mr. Sacramone became a burned-out case. He would put up like a dozen posts a day. All you need is three! Or four! When you get on a roll, save the posts as drafts and post them throughout the week, automatically if you have the right software. All he needs is a little vacation at the beach and a greater sense of responsibility. We need all the Lutheran humor we can get. (More on that later.)

Automotive criticism

I have often said that ANY subject can be made interesting by good writing. As an example, I have often used writing about cars. I’m not all that interested in them, but I enjoy reading good writing about them. Consider, for example, Car Talk with Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers. Just as there are literary critics, movie critics, and food critics, there are car critics. The most entertaining of the breed has to be Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of one of my favorite television shows, BBC’s Top Gear. Here is his take on Honda’s new hybrid, the Insight:

Much has been written about the Insight, Honda’s new low-priced hybrid. We’ve been told how much carbon dioxide it produces, how its dashboard encourages frugal driving by glowing green when you’re easy on the throttle and how it is the dawn of all things. The beginning of days.

So far, though, you have not been told what it’s like as a car; as a tool for moving you, your friends and your things from place to place.

So here goes. It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.

The biggest problem, and it’s taken me a while to work this out, because all the other problems are so vast and so cancerous, is the gearbox. For reasons known only to itself, Honda has fitted the Insight with something called constantly variable transmission (CVT).

It doesn’t work. Put your foot down in a normal car and the revs climb in tandem with the speed. In a CVT car, the revs spool up quickly and then the speed rises to match them. It feels like the clutch is slipping. It feels horrid.

And the sound is worse. The Honda’s petrol engine is a much-shaved, built-for-economy, low-friction 1.3 that, at full chat, makes a noise worse than someone else’s crying baby on an airliner. It’s worse than the sound of your parachute failing to open. Really, to get an idea of how awful it is, you’d have to sit a dog on a ham slicer.

So you’re sitting there with the engine screaming its head off, and your ears bleeding, and you’re doing only 23mph because that’s about the top speed, and you’re thinking things can’t get any worse, and then they do because you run over a small piece of grit.

Because the Honda has two motors, one that runs on petrol and one that runs on batteries, it is more expensive to make than a car that has one. But since the whole point of this car is that it could be sold for less than Toyota’s Smugmobile, the engineers have plainly peeled the suspension components to the bone. The result is a ride that beggars belief.

There’s more. Normally, Hondas feel as though they have been screwed together by eye surgeons. This one, however, feels as if it’s been made from steel so thin, you could read through it. And the seats, finished in pleblon, are designed specifically, it seems, to ruin your skeleton. This is hairy-shirted eco-ism at its very worst.

However, as a result of all this, prices start at £15,490 — that’s £3,000 or so less than the cost of the Prius. But at least with the Toyota there is no indication that you’re driving a car with two motors. In the Insight you are constantly reminded, not only by the idiotic dashboard, which shows leaves growing on a tree when you ease off the throttle (pass the sick bucket), but by the noise and the ride and the seats. And also by the hybrid system Honda has fitted.

In a Prius the electric motor can, though almost never does, power the car on its own. In the Honda the electric motor is designed to “assist” the petrol engine, providing more get-up-and-go when the need arises. The net result is this: in a Prius the transformation from electricity to petrol is subtle. In the Honda there are all sorts of jerks and clunks.

Jeremy is not just trying to be funny. He is not just making fun of the car. He is dealing with actual technical problems in the vehicle. And if you read the rest of the review, you will find that he is not against alternative energy at all and that he has positive suggestions for how the automotive industry could proceed. He makes the point that for a new automotive technology to succeed, it will need to be at least as good and preferably better than what people currently have; otherwise, they won’t buy it. He gives credit to Prius, but puts his hope in hydrogen technology.


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