Young, Scrappy, and Hungry: The Restless Hearts of Hamilton, Bruce Springsteen, and St. Augustine

img_0358

If you had told me in 2010 that in six years I would spend my Saturday nights watching a documentary on a musical about Alexander Hamilton or cheering its star Lin-Manuel Miranda as he hosted SNL, I would have scoffed at you. I was in high school when a friend showed me the video of the Pulitzer Prize-winning star performing at the White House for the Obamas, rapping about the life of Alexander Hamilton. I had been raised on 1776 and was consequently a loyal John Adams girl.

“I’m not into it,” I told her. “‘Bastard son of a scotch peddler and a whore’—you know John Adams said that, right? Hamilton was this self-made nobody who went on to centralize the government and make people like him poor. He sucks.”

Though retaining deep affection for John Adams, I’ve since eaten my words—and enjoyed every bite. I listen to Hamilton everywhere I go: in the shower, at work, in the car, on a run. I find myself working, writing, and running like Hamilton; I enter that data, write that cover letter, finish that mile as though the fate of the nation depends on it.

In many ways, Hamilton reminds me of another non-stop born runner and all-American immigrant dreamer: Bruce Springsteen. Whenever I’m not jamming to Hamilton on my jogs, I’m trying to figure out what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” actually is.

I’m sure I’ve lost most of you with that comparison. Hamilton is the hottest, hippest millennial hit; Bruce Springsteen is balding, baby boomer belting. Sure, he fills stadiums, just like Hamilton fills theatres, but it’s mostly middle-aged white dudes swilling BudLites and awkwardly shimmying to “Glory Days.” Plus, Hamilton repeatedly fertilizes on the Garden State, something that the jongleur of Jersey simply would not abide.

Hear me out, if only for your old man’s sake. Springsteen and Hamilton both arrived at a crucial moment in American history. In the early 70s, twentysomethings sneered at the false promises of Vietnam and the failed hopes of the 60s social revolutions. The same holds true of the world we millennials inherited: instead of successfully spreading democracy and boosting the economy, the Iraq War left many of us feeling hopeless and jobless. In both cases, the more critical, ironic distance gained from American imperialist stupidity, the better.

And then, against all odds and expectations, Springsteen and Hamilton thundered onto the scene. Young, scrappy, and hungry, neither had any patience for the disaffection and stalling—or indeed, any patience at all. Both are utterly lacking in “chill.” In her 2015 article in the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri celebrates Hamilton as bringing “the end of irony.” “Irony,” she declares, “has held us in its stifling tendrils long enough. We’ve exhausted so much effort trying to look like we’re not making an effort.” Hamilton, according to her, “has wasted no time trying to act as if it does not care…It’s not image-conscious. It’s genuinely passionate. And this is the source of its cool.”

That boundless energy also characterizes the Boss. Springsteen croons, yelps, grunts, and rasps. His concerts last over four hours; his songs number in the hundreds; his career spans four decades. “The man,” to quote Hamilton, “is non-stop.” And yet it is precisely this earnestness, energy, and eagerness that has lead millennials to reject him, per E.J. Dickson’s 2013 assessment in Salon: “I’m not going to proffer an in-depth sociological explanation for this sweeping wave of Bruce hatred, because I think ‘a widespread generational embrace of postmodern irony accompanied by a universal rejection of all that is honest and genuine and sincere pretty much says it all.” If both of these authors are correct, there’s some deep hypocrisy at work here, and it deserves investigation. How can we reject Springsteen for his sincerity, and yet embrace the same qualities in Hamilton?

Keep reading here!

 

 

 

A Letter to Dr. Brett Foster

November 10th, 2015

12:45 a.m.

Dear Dr. Foster,

I know you are well. You are resting in the love of your Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. You are better than you’ve been in years. Soon (quickly, Lord!) you’ll be better than ever.

I intended to write this before I knew you were gone. I meant to go hang out with my friends, and then return home and write this letter and send it to you. But now you are dead. I still want to write it, though. I still want to say the true thing.

I took a walk in the rain and prayed for you this evening, Dr. Foster. The phrase that came to mind was this: “Dr. Foster was always for us.” I remember my silly freshman self when we read Dante in Lit 216, trying to show some Pre-Raphaelite paintings of him to you—you! a Renaissance scholar! Yet you treated me with such kindness that I never knew my error.

I remember my homesick junior self, writing a piece about my struggles and heartache in Oxford for the Record. I remember how you emailed me out of the blue—me! that one overeager freshman from lit 216—to tell me how much you enjoyed the piece.

I remember my crumbling senior self—frayed nerves, hollow eyes, broken spirit—writing another piece for the Record about staying tender in spite of pain. I remember how you emailed me—you! a man with terminal cancer, whose nerves were far more frayed, eyes far more hollow, spirit far more broken—to tell me that the piece moved you.

Dr. Foster, I barely know you. But what I do know is that you were for us. If you—busy as you were, frayed as you were, dying as you were—still were so for me, how much more for others, who know and love you better!

As you lay dying tonight, Dr. Foster, I walked, praying. I was listening to the Messiah, and maybe that’s what brought up this idea of you being for us. The final soprano aria takes its text from Romans:

“If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died—yea, rather that is risen again!—who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.”

What a profanation that text seems now. You know what can be against us? Cancer. Cancer can be against us. Paul didn’t include that in his famous checklist. Nakedness? Check. Famine? You betcha. Peril? Danger? Sword? All covered. But cancer? Nope. Not covered by your policy. You’ll have to pay out of pocket—slowly—limb by limb, cell by cell, breath by breath. Paul goes on to cover his bases (ass?)—“in all these things were are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Cancer too. I guess. Whatever, Paul. Martyrdom after a triumphant missionary career is better than this slow senselessness.

Dr. Foster, we are for you. Tonight, Arena Theatre staged a show structured around your poems. I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have been in it. I wish I could have been one of the people to show you that we are for you. Mark Lewis is for you. Martin Johnson is for you. Sharon Coolidge is for you. Matt Milliner is for you. Max Heidelberger is for you. Arena Theatre is for you. The English department is for you. Wheaton College is for you. Christian scholars and poets are for you. The church and the saints are for you.

Dante famously delivered poetic justice to the inhabitants of his inferno—the punishment perfectly suited to the sin. I trust Arena Theatre delivered justice to your poems tonight. I find it just that you, along with your poems, were delivered tonight.

Is God for you, Dr. Foster? We are. And if we are His people, then He is.

So much hangs upon that “if.” Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we are His people. We don’t act like it. We conflate our fears with His truth, and our anxieties with His will. Sometimes He doesn’t act like it. He lets our teacher, our scholar, our poet, our friend—die. If we are His people, then He is for you—even in cancer, even in death. If we are not his people, then no one is for you—not even in cancer, not even in death.

Dr. Foster, thank you for living in the “if.” Thank you for being for us. Specifically, thank you for being for me. Wheaton was hard for me. Out of dozens of my peers, I trust and am glad to know three, maybe four. But since freshman year—the year I met you, the only year I studied with you—I’ve said that it was the professors who kept me at Wheaton. You were for me the moment I walked into your classroom and started mouthing off about Beowulf and Beatrice and Odysseus and Oedipus. And to be for someone is to live in the “if.” It’s to live as one of God’s people, it’s to live as if God is for you. I’ve said many times that I want to be a Wheaton prof. I know now that, higher ed or not, teaching or not, Ph.D. or not, I can be a Wheaton prof. Because to be a Wheaton prof is to be like you, is to be like God. It is to be for someone.

I don’t know what I’ll do with this letter. If I’m being honest, it’s as much for Wheaton and for myself as it is for you, perhaps more so. Your death has given me greater freedom to ramble, to be maudlin, to play with words, than I would have had in an actual letter I’d send. And that’s what I hope for you. Right now, this instant. Freedom. Somewhere, you are free. Free from the body that is cancer-ridden (because when you get it back it will be whole and strong). Free from the pressure and pain of life on this earth. But above all, free from the “if.” It isn’t an “if” anymore for you. No more “if” we are His people, no more “if” I am His child, no more “if” I should have bothered to suffer. No more “ifs.” You know that God is for you, and that you were made for Him. And I hope—mystically, miraculously—you know of my freedom (impertinence) in this letter. You know I was an opinionated and impertinent freshman. I’m even worse now, and I (still a wanderer in the realm of “if”) trust that you know it and that you smile.

With love, gratitude, and joy,

Nancy Ritter

Champagne, the Pontiff, Traffic, and other Autumnal Meditations

Today–somewhere between the Oxfords on my feet, the cilantro in my teeth, the champagne, the traffic, and the rain–fall blew in. All the best and all the worst things collided. My best girl friend and my best gay friend met; my anxiety and her sorrow met; District Taco and slow metro trains met; delight and drudgery at the internship met; grace and shame and fear and joy met. All of it smashed together and it was glorious and it was hard.

This year in DC, fall brings with it Pope Francis. It seems peculiarly appropriate that he comes in the fall, and for two reasons. The cynic in me finds it appropriate that the Pontiff arrives as the summer and the faith in this country die. Survey after survey reports that millennials are leaving church in droves. If “the best of all lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” then the worst Pope is coming to speak to the best generation.

The optimist and romantic in me, however, finds it appropriate that he comes in the fall because fall, like the crucifix, shows us that beauty can come with that death. As the leaves droop down from the trees and their colors bleed into one another–red and orange and yellow and brown–so Catholic and Protestant and gay and straight and Republican and Democrat and married and single and old and young make their way downtown and merge together in DC. We make our way into this powerful, petulant city to see him so that the pope can show us [veiled in word, in encyclical, in bread, in wine] what it really means to droop down from a tree and bleed. The last things, St. Paul tells us, are the most beautiful, and if this is the last season of faith in this country, truly, it is a beautiful season.

The last part of today was the loveliest–and also the hardest. Bollinger champagne, bright red pots on a stove, colorful knee-highs, rain, chocolate cake, J.S. Strauss waltzes, tea, and Harry Potter fangirling are all lovely. Traffic, crowded metro trains, cough syrup, wadded up tissues, and tears shed on someone else’s mother’s lap are hard. But somehow they all bleed and droop together. They make the mystery known as fall, as grace, as the crucifix, as friendship–depending on what name you call it. Words fail. But that’s why we punt to mystery and call ourselves Anglo-Catholic-doxians and love the equinox and plan to get up at the crack of dawn to see a man who will show us the man who will teach us to do it all better.

Welcome, Pope Francis. Welcome fall. Welcome, rain. Welcome, grace. Thanks for stopping in for a season.

Hi friends.

As you may have noticed, it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here. This post is to let you know that I’ve switched mediums for a while. I intend to return to this blog, and probably soon-ish.

But! in the meantime, I’ve started another project on the interwebz. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve been collecting quotes since I was a sophomore in high school. I have now filled three [small] notebooks, and have decided to slowly publish the collection online.

So, if you’ll take a brief jaunt over to my new Tumblr, you’ll find quotes on theology, love, music, womanhood, philosophy, art, books, poetry, nerdiness, fanciness, etc. Hopefully, reading my collection of other people’s wisdom should tide you over until I find some more wisdom of my own.

How to SUCK, by James Collinson

James Collinson (1825-1881) was a British painter. If you want to be a crappy human being, take some lessons from him. In 18 easy steps:

1) Move to London. Become tight with cool people, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, members of the revolutionary Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

2) Manage to sleep through all their meetings, and refuse to go on late-night moonlit rambles with them.

3) Fall in love with Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel’s sister and the model for his portrait of Mary [and also the greatest woman poet of the Victorian Era, but no big deal, casual, she’s just really pretty and quiet]

4) Propose marriage to Christina Rossetti, who, unfortunately, rejects you because you’re a recent convert to Roman Catholicism and she’s Anglican. Bummer.

5) Reconsider your faith. They’re not that different, right?

6) Re-convert to Anglicanism.

7) Propose to Christina Rossetti. Get accepted, even though you’re still financially dependent on your parents and she’s not all that crazy about you and she’s only seventeen, so how could she really know what’s what anyaway?

8) Make her crazy about you over the course of a two-year engagement.

9) Reconsider your faith. Also your engagement. Maybe you’re supposed to be like St. Elizabeth of Hungary and drop this whole marriage thing so you can serve Jesus better as a Roman Catholic?

10) Re-convert to Roman Catholicism.

11) Break Christina Rossetti’s heart. And also her engagement to you.

12) Also leave the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Sure, they paint Jesus and Mary and stuff, but that doesn’t mean they’re compatible with a real Christian faith.

13) After the broken engagement, come upon Christina Rossetti in a park. Make her faint from shock at seeing you.

14) Move to Lancashire, and begin your studies to become a Jesuit priest.

15) Realize this is totally not for you. Move back to London.

16) Begin painting again, although not with those heretical, awful Pre-Raphaelites.

17) Suddenly come to the conclusion that marriage, like painting, may not be as bad as it seemed.

18) Marry Eliza Wheeler–“a vigorous, plainly dressed Catholic aged forty.”

There you have it, folks. How to suck, by James Collinson, a minor British painter whom history has RIGHTLY overlooked.

(By the way, none of this is from me. It’s from Jan Marsh’s biography of Rossetti, the Oxford DNB entry on Collinson, and here)

Reflections on the Past Year: The Parable of the Dogwood Tree/The Lament of the Blue Flower

Phoenix House is easily the least popular house on Irving Avenue. Raucous boys reign over Hunter House; determined women dwell in Hearth House. Phoenix House? We’re a quiet bunch: one opera singer, two musicians, one teacher, one archaeologist, one businesswoman, and one historical-literary-theological pedant all live within its four brick walls. One engaged woman, one dating woman–the rest, single, serious, and studious a sisterhood as Wheaton College could wish.

I like to think that it’s because we’re not-so-popular, not-so-visible that, by a certain twist of irony, we have the most beautiful foliage of all the houses on campus. Immediately outside our front door stands a beautiful dogwood tree that has just burst into bloom. A host of little blue flowers cluster at its feet–hundreds upon hundreds. Quite simply, it is glorious.

A week ago, I schemed about how I might engage this glory. My original thought was to don my favorite white dress [the ownership of which is “the highest ideal of earthly bliss,” per Anne of Green Gables’ dictum] and lie under this tree among the blue flowers until someone noticed my flagrant attempts at Pre-Raphaelitism. Blue flowers, for those of you non-historical-literary-theological-pedants, are the traditional symbol of longing in German Romanticism. ETA Hoffman and Novalis both used it as a symbol of sehnsucht–the ineffable longing that characterizes so much of the late 18th and early 19th century art I adore and will probably spend the rest of my life studying.

Today, however, clad in a magenta shirt and skinny, cropped jeans, I didn’t scheme: I improvised. In what was easily the best study break I took all week, I burst out of our front door, letting it slam behind me. I trampled the blue flowers underfoot and clambered up into the dogwood tree. Higher and higher I climbed, until I was perched on branches so precarious I could feel the wind blowing them and me.

I stood in a cloud of white blossoms. All around me, buds of white were bursting open to reveal splotches of pink. The dogwood, I suddenly remembered, symbolized Christ’s passion. In one of the few useful theological lessons I retain from my otherwise Schleirmachian heterodox heretical Episcopal day school, I learned about the dogwood/godwood. I remember being taught, via the tree that drooped near the picnic tables in the parish yard, how it told the story of our savior. The purity of his goodness stained by the red of the blood he shed as he hung on the tree: these were the white and pink blossoms surrounded me, hanging on the tree that upheld my dirty, flat feet.

Grace, I realized, abounded here in this tree just as much as it abounded on that tree. It took laying the languor aside, tramping the blue flowers underfoot, and gaining a greater, higher perspective to see it–but there it was. There it was in the midst of my study, my sorrow, my sehnsucht, my sin.

~~~

But, as I clambered down the tree, jumped, and landed, crushing even more blue flowers, something seemed too easy. Was that all there was to it? A shift in perspective? If I just looked at my problems with a more divine perspective, would they recede just as the blue flowers did when I climbed? Surely, that might be the solution to the petty problems of the pedant–no job, no car, no boyfriend, no solid draft of the honor’s thesis–but to the sufferings, sin, sorrow, and sehnsucht of the world? Hardly a satisfactory one. Indeed, even a cruel one.

Over the past year, I’ve made a practice of kissing the earth when I find myself deeply moved by things. Most of the time, I’m alone; most of the time, there’s a moon out; most of the time I’m crying if not sobbing. The ground of Oxford, Headington, and Wheaton have all felt the pressure, affection, and gratitude of my mouth. It is a practice taken from Alyosha, “the red-cheeked monk,” hero of Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. It is the simple man’s response to the horrific, sadistic accounts his brother Ivan collects of the sufferings of children. Still, Alyosha says with his silent kiss, still I believe that the world God made is good.

The epigraph that opens the novel, however, is what interests me here. It’s a quote from the Gopsel of John: “Amen, Amen, I say unto you: except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

I feel as though I’ve done a lot of dying this year. I died to Oxford and all the romance and wonder it brought. I died to Wheaton and all the righteousness and wisdom it taught [sometimes]. Most recently, I’ve begun to die to friendships–to ears that were ready and willing to receive me in all my broken wholeness. And the terrifying thing is, I have no idea what fruit will come of all this death. It looks like a transcript and an ability to sniff out Gnosticism in the oddest of places will be all I take away from these four years. Climbing a tree and fancying myself a clever reader of the testament of nature doesn’t change that. A shift in perspective doesn’t change that.

Sometime in the next few weeks, you may see me lying in my favorite white dress under a dogwood tree, surrounded by blue flowers, straining after Rossettian perfection. The common critique made of Rossetti’s women is that in their loveliness, they are immobilized, fixed, dead. So if I’m lying there, looking sleepy and dreamy and dead, it’s because I’m trying to die. If you see me roll over and kiss the earth, it’s because I’m trying to believe. If you see me crying, weeping, sobbing, it’s because I’m lost in the blue flower of longing–hoping one day to be found fruitful and full of grace as the dogwood tree on whose strong, loving, conquering boughs I stood today.

For Wheaton: The Parable of the Fig Tree

I entered this semester done with Wheaton College. I was done fighting for friendships when so many people whom I would have considered close friends had abandoned me. I was done fighting my way through hundreds of pages of reading that never seemed to end. I was done with runny noses, hacking coughs, eight layers of clothing, and endless snow. I was done scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and seeing arrogance, drama, and contempt. Above all, I was done with evangelical Christianity–done with this strange culture, where sex both terrifies and obsesses us, where such things as chapel skips and Prez Ball music become crucial moral issues, and where we claim absolute, objective truth based on our personal, subjective experiences with a first-century Palestinian Jew who allegedly said some wise stuff.

Beloved, if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that we must be tender with one another. Indeed, we must fight to stay tender-hearted. We must lay ourselves open to hurt and wickedness and sin.

The temptation–I know it, it’s strong–is to return the ticket. “No thanks, Wheaton College. I’m not interested in what you have to give me. I’m not interested in hurting anymore. I’m not interested in homophobic fruit-slinging; I’m not interested in sexist shower-spying. I’m not interested in racist skits. I’m not interested in social media show-downs. I’m not interested in newspaper-thieving and journalistic sensationalism. I’m done.”

Beloved, stay interested. Stay here. Stay hurt. Stay human–heavy, hard, and heart-rending though that be.

That wise, first-century Palestinian Jew whom we all seem to think we know best once told a story about a fig tree. “As soon as a branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things, you know that He is here, at the very gates.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to imagine the growth of any trees in this long, grey, empty Midwestern winter–and a tender, fruitful fig tree is almost beyond comprehension. But, beloved, this is what we are called to: tenderness beyond comprehension.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It would be easier for me to put on a sundress, straw hat, and embrace the snowy earth beneath our feet than to keep my heart open to a community that has hurt me and so many whom I love. But that first-century Palenstinian Jew promised he’d be here if we did. And considering how confused we all are about what he says and how who loves and who he is, it would help a lot to have him back.

Summer is near, Wheaton. The end is near. He is near. As a second-semester senior, I think I feel more keenly than many the terror of that nearness. Until then, stay tender with me, my beloved, fruitful, fig tree of a college.

“Truly, I say unto you, this generation will not pass away until these things take place.”