Saturday, August 27, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins.  She was a wealthy heiress, New York socialite, avid patron of the musical arts … and possessed the most excruciatingly unmusical singing voice ever heard on the stage of Carnegie Hall.  I first heard that voice around 1960, coming from the grooves of a 78 rpm record owned by my violin teacher.  By that time, less than twenty years after her death, her story was already laden with legend and myth.
The recordings were played for comedy value.  The picture that emerged of the singer was that of a deluded coloratura wannabe, rich enough to buy her way into a recording studio and ultimately into Carnegie Hall.  But it is perhaps precisely because she was so stupendously awful that interest in her has never waned.  Eight of the nine songs that she recorded in the Melotone Studio, including the one that I heard at my teacher’s home, were released on vinyl in 1962 and later on CD.  Several of those songs are now available on YouTube.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Sin of Slavery

In her speech to the Democratic National Convention last month, Michelle Obama spoke with poignancy about the fact that she, the descendant of slaves, was now living in a great mansion built by slave labor. “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Her speech was an acknowledgment of where we as a country have been and a recognition of how far we have come.  Sadly, it was met almost immediately by some who objected to any mention of the legacy of slavery, and by others who questioned the truth of her words.  Researchers countered the latter with clear evidence.  The White House and the Capitol building were constructed with both slave and paid labor.  Though records are spotty, and it is not possible to determine precisely what percentage of the work was performed by slaves, there is documentation of 385 payments made to slave owners for “Negro hire” (a euphemism of the day for the rental of slaves) between the years 1795 and 1801 by the commissioners in charge of constructing public buildings in the District of Columbia.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


July 6th marked the 601st anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer who was condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415.  One of the charges against Hus involved his vehement condemnation of the sale of indulgences by emissaries of the antipope John XXIII (who should not be confused with the 20th century pope of the same name) as a means of fundraising to finance John’s struggle against his rivals.  Hus argued that the Czech people were being exploited for John’s private benefit.
The complex theology supporting the issuance of indulgences had been developed in the 11th and early 12th centuries as the concept of Purgatory became more popular throughout Western European Christianity.  At first indulgences were granted by the pope, or less often by archbishops and other church leaders, to those who had expressed contrition for their sins and done some act of penitence.  The belief was that the indulgence would lessen the time that a soul spent in Purgatory, hastening the attainment of eternal salvation. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016


For those Christian denominations that follow the liturgical calendar, the church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, and is divided into seasons.  During the first half of the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, and concluding with the festival of Pentecost, scripture readings focus on the life of Jesus.  The second half, between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent, emphasizes the ministry and teachings of Jesus.  Trinity Sunday, which the Western Christian world just celebrated on May 22, and Christ the King Sunday, which will fall this year on November 20, are the pivot points between these two major divisions in the calendar.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Your God Is Too Small

“Your God Is Too Small” is the title of a book written by English Bible scholar and Anglican clergyman J. B. Phillips.  Published in 1961, it was quite popular among young Christians during my college years in the ‘60s and has never gone out of print.  Today paperback and electronic editions are available from a number of sources.
Phillips acknowledged that, while modern science, technology, and social interconnections have expanded immensely, for many Christians, our conception of God has remained static for centuries.  He challenged his readers to stretch their understanding beyond the formulas of ancient creeds and to recognize that God is expansive enough to encompass everything we encounter in contemporary life.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Religion in the Presidential Campaign

To one extent or another religion is a topic of discussion in the campaigns of most of the contenders for the U.S. presidency.  This column provides a brief run-down of the religious views, insofar as they can be determined from public statements and analyses, of the remaining candidates for the two major parties’ nominations.  I list them in alphabetical order by last name.
Having attended mass with his Catholic wife for many years, Jeb Bush formally converted to Catholicism in 1995.  From all reports he is sincere and devout in his faith, which clearly influenced many of his actions as governor of Florida.  In his presentation to a 2009 conference, he stated, “As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” and that attitude was in evidence when, for example, as governor he established the nation’s first faith-based prison and attempted unsuccessfully to compel a hospital to keep Terri Schaivo on life-support.  He differs from Catholic doctrine on the matter of capital punishment, however, having presided over 21 executions during his time as governor.  Since the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Bush has acknowledged that earth’s climate is changing due, at least in part, to human activity, but he has not articulated any clear program to address the problem.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A World of Lies

The Ninth Commandment, or the Eighth, depending on which numbering system is used, states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16, NRSV) Though in a narrow reading this refers to testimony in a court of law, it is generally understood to forbid telling a deliberate untruth in most circumstances.
Humanity has wrestled with the necessity for truth-telling and the propensity to lie for as long as written records exist.  The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who flourished in the fourth century BCE, is said to have walked the streets of Corinth with a lighted lamp, searching for an honest man.  In our own time theologian and professor Joseph Fletcher stirred widespread debate with the publication in 1966 of his book “Situation Ethics,” in which he argued that adhering to absolute rules such as “never lie” could produce cruel and unethical results.