Ed Simon Searches for Milton’s Grave While Getting Blackout Drunk in Pubs
By Ed Simon
After aimlessly walking about Bloomsbury on an intermittently rainy afternoon, I unsuccessfully decided to search for the grave of John Milton while nursing a wicked hangover, or as is probably more likely, while still being drunk from the previous evening.
Only my second week in London, I was supported with a modest graduate stipend for my research at the British Library, mornings spent at that modernist building with the red-brick facade not far from the Victorian ostentation of King’s Cross Station, requesting four-and five-hundred year old books brought to me by pleasant librarians at concerningly efficient speed.
Obscure books such as the Puritan-minded Anglican divine William Crashaw’s A Sermon preached before the right honorable the Lord Lawarre, Lord Govoernour and Captaine Genrall of Virginea….Feb. 21, 1609 and the Scottish New World speculator William Alexander, the First Earl of Stirling’s 1614 epic poem Doomes-day. Every evening, however, since I’d arrived from Philadelphia, I’d started at the pubs while the sun was still out, because what else could be expected with the unnervingly late northern dusk?
Pint after pint of real ale at the Queen’s Head not far from the library; drams of Jameson’s at The Boot; Guinness at Miller’s across from the train station and, when feeling homesick and slightly patriotic, Sam Adams at the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub. As A. E. Housman wrote in that most English of poetic cycles, 1896’s A Shropshire Lad, “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”
Ostensibly here to transcribe sixteenth and seventeenth-century books that endowed geographical discoveries with apocalyptic significance, the majority of nights were either spent at the theater or getting horrendously shit-faced, blackout drunk. If I knew what pub my nights started at, I rarely remembered where they ended, though by the good graces of Something I was always able to stumble back mostly safely into the University of London dorm which I rented for an amazingly cheap price.
That summer, London suffered through an uncharacteristic heat wave, and the thin-blooded British hadn’t outfitted any of the dorms with air-conditioning, while all the windows were suicide-proof, making respite impossible and requiring several cold showers a day just to regulate body temperature. On top of that, my room looked directly into Joseph Grimaldi Park, named after the nineteenth-century master of pantomime who is entombed there. Hot, sweaty, drunk, and watched over by the spirit of a dead clown—July, 2013. Continue reading →
Over the past few months, my wife and I have been using our non-voluntary time staying at home to watch our way through performances of all Shakespeare’s dramatic works, using the BBC productions filmed between 1978 and 1985 (and available on Britbox). I posted about this project, and now we have completed the process, 37 out of 37. But who’s counting? (!). I am here offering some further thoughts, referring to the plays we have watched more recently. Most of these plays were certainly not new to me, but seeing them produced changes and sharpens perceptions.
I am absolutely not suggesting that these BBC plays were the best productions ever made, and a couple were frankly not that good, but some were cosmic. If there ever was a better Hamlet than Derek Jacobi’s, I don’t know it. Then there was the Richard II, starring, um, Derek Jacobi. I see a theme emerging here. Anyway, there were lots more fine non-Jacobite plays as well. Much of the appeal of the BBC series was that, for better or worse, they served as a time capsule of concepts of performing and visualizing Shakespeare as they existed in that long-dead geological era forty years back. And yes, 1981 probably was the last time you could do a major Othello production with a white actor in the lead, even if it was Anthony Hopkins.
Spiritual And/Or Religious?
Watching or reading Shakespeare, you get an unparalleled look into the values and assumptions of the Early Modern world, and that is so critical for teaching or researching on the era. That is doubly true in matters of religion and the spiritual, broadly defined.
Shakespeare’s own religious attitudes have been a matter of mystery and debate for centuries. Yes, you can certainly find biographical hints of Shakespeare’s Catholic ties, or make him an atheist, as you wish. But it’s the perpetual dilemma of deducing an author’s personal views from what s/he writes. Because they write something, does that mean that it reflects their personal beliefs or attitudes? Are we hearing the singer or just the song? Continue reading →
Evangelicalism and MAGA culture are in a symbiotic relationship
In a new book edited by Ron Sider — author of Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger, which has sold more than 400,000 copies — a handful of evangelical leaders sound the alarm about the spiritual harm being done by the current White House occupant. In a book titled The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity, Sider and others lay out a case for opposing Trump’s re-election.
Too little, too late.
Trying to distance evangelicalism from Trumpism is anathema. They are in a symbiotic relationship; a person can not wash their hands of one and not the other, which is exactly what Al Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is trying to do. In his recent rambling answers to the New Yorker journalist, he said:
As a theologian and as a churchman, when I define evangelical, I’m really talking about a self-consciously orthodox classic Protestantism that is deeply connected to the church and deeply committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And then you have the media definition of evangelicals, which means anybody who isn’t Catholic or Jewish or something else and, especially as demographers look at the white population, identifies as some kind of conservative Protestant. They just are called evangelicals. — Al Mohler
In other words, “real” Christians aren’t the problematic MAGA people seen on the news. Trouble is, regular churchgoers are Trump’s biggest supporters. To be evangelical means you have to own the evangelical culture that has produced this “fruit,” to use churchy language.
The pandemic lays bare how American politicians have ignored the past and its injustices. It’s time for repentance, not just prayer.
When President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and public health officials held a Saturday press conference on their plans to address the coronavirus, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was a surprising addition to the line-up.
Yes, Carson is a medical doctor. But his specialty was neurosurgery, not epidemiology. A public health crisis will certainly impact Americans who live in public housing and are housing insecure, but Carson did not address those issues either. Instead, he stepped to the microphone to celebrate Trump’s call for a National Day of Prayer Sunday.
But America is not in trouble because people are not praying; we face an exacerbated public health crisis because this administration has spent more time preying on the most vulnerable than lifting all people.
As Christian ministers who are called to preach the truth to God’s people, we are deeply troubled by the way this president continues to hypocritically manipulate faith as a cover for his ungodly policies. Though he has used racism to stoke fears in the nation and pushed policies that exacerbate racial inequality, Trump called on a black man to whitewash his incompetence and corruption at precisely the moment when the harsh reality of a global pandemic has exposed him.
Carson drew on the language of religious nationalism to frame the Trump administration’s response to the present crisis for a reason. “Developing your God-given talents to the utmost so you become valuable to the people around you, having values and principles—those are the things that made America zoom to the top of the world in record time,” Carson said. “And those are the things that will keep us there too.”
By obscuring America’s original sin of race-based slavery and the Doctrine of Discovery, which claimed divine right to seize native land, the myth of Christian nationalism that Carson was parroting allows Trumpvangelicals to hope for a triumphant future to match their imagined past. “No matter where you may be,” Trump tweeted, “I encourage you to turn toward prayer in an act of faith. Together, we will easily PREVAIL.”
Public health officials have made clear that the weeks and months ahead will not be easy. For those of us who pray, our posture must not be one of ALL-CAPS CONFIDENCE, but of humble confession. The day of prayer we need is a day of repentance. And it should begin in the White House. The Trump administration got rid of the White House global pandemic office, played down the threat of the coronavirus, and continues to portray a disease spreading within US communities as a foreign threat that can be shut out at the border. He has also attacked the Affordable Care Act, cut food stamps, proposed a budget that would cut Medicaid and Medicare, and systemically worked to defund government programs we need now.
But Trump is not the only one who must repent. The extreme poverty and systemic racism that will be exposed by this public health crisis were here long before Trump. One hundred forty million Americans are poor and unable to afford basic supplies to prepare for quarantine, uninsured or underinsured at a moment when the health of food and service workers directly impacts all of us. The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, and the more than 2 million Americans who live in jails, prisons, and detention centers cannot practice social distancing or self-quarantine if they are exposed to the coronavirus.
For decades now, we have invested the majority of our nation’s resources in arming ourselves with bigger and bigger weapons that could destroy the world hundreds of times over. But we have met an enemy that could be more deadly than any war this nation has ever fought, and we are ill-prepared to even test our citizens for infection.
We must be clear: It is not only Republicans who must repent. House Democrats passed a needed Families First Act to ensure access to coronavirus testing, paid family and sick leave, and economic protections as we all face uncertainty. But they allowed provisions that leave out millions of workers—many of them among the most vulnerable. We do not need prayer for protection. We need repentance and prayer for political courage and will to do justice. Then we need action because, as the Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.”
In the Christian church, this is the season of Lent—a time when we confess the ways we have fallen short and turned away from God’s justice. Though many churches have canceled services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the psalm appointed for this Sunday is a song of penance from ancient Israel (Psalms 95). It is not a song of triumph, but a pointed reminder that the potential for self-centeredness we see in corrupt leadership is in each of us. “Harden not your hearts as your forebears did,” the psalm says. The people who passed this song from one generation to the next also passed down the story of an evil ruler, Pharaoh, who had “hardened his heart” against their people during a plague and refused to grant them freedom. When we pray Psalms 95, we remember that Pharaoh’s have always triumphed at the expense of the poor and marginalized. But we also remember that the hard heart of Pharaoh is a temptation for each of us. We must repent in order to open ourselves to the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
As we face the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the lies of religious nationalism cannot save us. We cannot ignore the past and its injustices, which still shape our present. Nor can we put our faith in the false promise that our wealth and power will save us. No, we must humble ourselves and remember what every faith tradition reveals: that God is present among the most vulnerable among us, and that if we act now to protect those at the bottom we have the greatest chance of protecting us all.