A is for Aviary: A letter of complaint to the Apollo Theatre

26 10 2011

I’m not a regular letter writer, but a dreadful trip to the Apollo Theatre on Monday managed to draw out the grouchy, sarcastic complainer in me… Well, I had to achieve catharsis somehow! It should be arriving through their letterbox at some point tomorrow morning – but in case you fancied indulging my venting, please find it posted below:

To whom it may concern,

On the morning of Monday 24 October I found myself unexpectedly unoccupied, and so decided to sidle up Shaftesbury Avenue on the off chance that I might be able to procure some day tickets for Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre.

The air was crisp and autumnal, the sunlight peeking tantalisingly through the clouds, and it was a real pleasure to saunter through the heart of the city. Not even the already-established queue outside the theatre could dampen my spirits as I daydreamed of the fun I might have on my day off: perhaps a nice espresso in a quirky Soho coffee house, a walk over the Thames, an afternoon on the Southbank, all topped off by treating my wife to an evening of theatrical entertainment. But I digress…

The 50 minute wait was a blend of trepidation and excitement. Would I be one of the lucky few able to get a ticket? I waited and hoped, charged with a nervous excitement, and so imagine my joy when I reached the front of the queue and discovered that there were, indeed, tickets available! I was over the moon. Not literally, I must point out, knowing, as I now do, how fluidly you at the Apollo like to treat the English language.

The helpful young person in the box office pointed out the available seats on his lurid-coloured two-dimensional chart. Balcony, Row A, seats 11 and 12, in case you’re wondering. And then he admitted ‘the view is a little restricted.’ Now I’ve been to plenty of theatres in my time, and have sat in many a ‘restricted view seat.’ My experience has varied: on occasions the view has indeed lived up to its name, perhaps with an overhanging balcony, or the odd handrail in my peripheral vision. At other times, whatever obstruction may have been in the mind of the vendor was really utterly unnoticeable and I have had a whale of a time. But knowing that ‘restricted’ can be a flexible and multifarious term, I asked just how restricted the view was. 

The answer was as follows: “I admit, you can’t quite see all of the stage. The line of sight is slightly obstructed by a lighting rig.” 

Well, in the moment, overcome as I was with the excitement of having made it through to the front of the queue to watch a play I’d been longing to see, I thought “that doesn’t sound so bad.” Never did it cross my mind that this might be a masterful display of that linguistic tool known as ‘understatement’; and an unparalleled example at that! I snapped up the tickets and quipped: “Well, I’d rather see most of the play than none of the play.”

They chuckled. I chuckled. Deep down they knew.

'Restricted View'?

Now, I am not the tallest man you’re ever likely to meet. My mother is a miniature 5 foot 2, but thankfully my father’s genes balanced me out, and placed me somewhere in the middle. At a relatively average 5 foot 11, therefore, I do not consider myself to be dwarfed or stunted in any way. But even a man of my average stature was unable to see over the rather excessively high wall that sat before me. 

Of course, I am quite aware that none of today’s staff would have been involved in the building process, so I hardly expect to be able to write to the person responsible for seat installation in 1901. But I was baffled by the thought that for 110 years you have been selling seats with a view of nothing but wall. It wasn’t an unsightly wall, it has to be said; just not what I had expected to see. As I sunk into my seat, I resigned myself to the thought that turn of the century theatregoers must have been in the region of eleven feet tall, and that it was a cruel twist of human evolution than rendered these seats useless for the modern man.

What disappointed me most was this: I was specifically informed at the box office (promised, one might say) that my sightline would be obstructed by a lighting rig, and yet in reality I could see no such rig! Not, that is, unless I stood up and peered over the wall. What is the world coming to, when even the objects of obstruction are themselves eclipsed? I paid for my view to be obscured by lights, and quite frankly, I feel cheated…

In order to see anything that might vaguely be considered a theatrical experience (let alone a lighting rig) I had to perch on the back of my chair. Not, please note, the upturned, unfolded seat of the chair, but the very back. And there I sat, on a two-inch wide strip of wood, my head between the feet of those behind me, for the entire first act. I was not alone. Most of the others on the same row adopted similar postures, shuffling every few minutes as the strip of wood caused an unbearable pain in the proverbial. (I considered sneaking to the toilets and taking a photograph of my dented derriere to send you, but didn’t want to give you the satisfaction.)

At the interval, the audience members of Row A were conspicuous by their waddling. A, I have concluded, stands for ‘aviary’ since everyone who sat there was perched like a canary. A few of us, unable to bear the experience much longer sought other seats for the second act. We managed to find some spare chairs at the far side of Row C where we were able to at last have an unimpinged view of a lighting rig and roughly 60% of the stage. Even there we found many people around us grumbling at the views, and since nigh on everybody was having to lean forward in order to see anything of the stage, we still had to squat, stand, perch, lean or otherwise twist ourselves in some yogic fashion in order to see. One chap commented to me that this was the second time he had come to see the show, since the first time he’d bought a day seat and hadn’t been able to see anything. He’d paid double the amount this time, and found the view to be only marginally better. 

I often like to purchase a programme; something to keep which can remind me of the experience. On this occasion I chose not to, though I doubt the experience shall slip my mind for at least a week or so, since I now have back pain now as a lasting memento. And for free! How exceedingly generous of you…

That said, the play itself was very stimulating; audiologically speaking. If there are not already plans for a radio adaptation of Jerusalem, I do hope you will consider it. I would like to vouch for it making an excellent radio play, having been, albeit unwittingly, privileged enough to have experienced a sightless version.

So please do accept my congratulations for your remarkable linguistic gymnastics. You have successfully reworked and relativized the English language to a degree I never thought possible. Who knew that a phrase such as ‘not quite all of’ could actually mean ‘absolutely not one square inch of the stage’ or that ‘restricted view’ really meant I could hardly see more wall if you sellotaped bricks to my eyeballs!

With ‘not quite all’ of my best wishes,

Liam Thatcher





Simple Displeasures

16 09 2011

At the top of my blog I just spotted an option to ‘Report as Mature’ by which they clearly mean pornographic and therefore only for the eyes of over 18s.

I object to the word ‘mature’ being used to describe that which is pornographic. Mature is a good word. Well-aged cheese is mature. A fine whisky is mature. Being wise and responsible is mature. Pornography is not mature; in fact, arguably the very opposite. Yet somehow we seem to feel that using a word like ‘mature’ makes it less of a taboo and more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s designed to make consumers feel justified in their actions? Like it’s a wise and respectable thing to partake in… A pastime for the discerning adult.

Actually, I don’t much like the term ‘adult’ either… Not in relation to pornography. As if to be adult means to be obsessed with sex! It is both possible to be adult and not to be enslaved by lust, and equally possible to be enslaved by lust, without being an adult. Let’s not use flattering rhetoric to make it seem like it’s respectable to watch pornography… “It’s what adults do!”

Same goes for so-called Gentlemen’s clubs. By all means, call them that if they’re genuinely clubs where Gentlemen hang out, but if they’re simply strip clubs that are trying to flatter their clients, then that annoys me.

And thus it makes my list of things I don’t like. Just in case you wanted to know…

__________

ps. I give it about 20 minutes between the publication of this post, and someone hitting that button.





Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth…

2 08 2011

Trevin Wax has posted a brilliant comment on Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, in which he’s picked up on a concern I’ve had for sometime with the battle between the Emergent and Reformed camps. I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect, but he beat me to it, and did a brilliant job.

Read the whole thing, please, but here are some of the key sections I would like to comment on:

‘Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And […] at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that?

[…]

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.’

He is absolutely right.

The thing I found most frustrating in the whole Love Wins fiasco was the lack of creativity, compelling writing and aesthetically-evocative engagement I saw coming from those who defended an orthodox position. As Wax said, we can write the 50 page responses with proof-texts galore, but they’re the ones writing the good stories.

I could list half a dozen responses to Love Wins which I think are genuinely, biblically excellent. DeYoung’s tome is outstanding. Carson’s Gospel Coalition session is very helpful. But neither of them has that ‘I must turn the page’ factor. None of them has me holding my breath, or causes a tear to form in my eye like Bell does when he pleads with me “but don’t you wish this were true?”

So we saw papers, articles, blogs and debates with people who dotted every I, crossed every T and painted a picture of a God with no heart, soul, or emotions. (Perhaps ‘painted a picture’ is too artistic a term: I fear ‘chalked up an equation’ may be more apt). In fact, sometimes I wonder if the god they defended wasn’t some wizened old coward with his hands tied, mumbling feebly “I really wish I could help… genuinely I do… but logic prohibits me!”

The thing we have to remember is that it is not, on the whole, those with neo-reformed predilections who are being swayed by Bell. It’s the emergent, arty people; those who’ve often been hurt by churches, or who tend to (rightly or wrongly) be wary of black and white statements and hardline positions. It’s the disaffected and suspicious; those who need to be wooed rather than lambasted. Therefore we can’t simply expect to speak to them in Reformedese, and imagine that they will respond positively. We need to engage with them on their terms, in their language, in a style they’ll understand and warm to.

So nobody with a predisposition to engage with the emergent style is going to take kindly to being handed a missive by Carson, or an angry rant by Driscoll (for different reasons: one has a lot of academic clout, but sometimes feels a little dry, and the other has a loud voice that gets people’s backs up immediately, irrespective of the content). That would be somewhat like complaining to your local street cleaner that he missed a spot, but doing so in finely honed, point-perfect, totally abstruse and impenetrable Latin. You’re simply speaking a different language!

(Ok, maybe it’s not quite like that. No offence to emergent guys or street cleaners… But there is an issue of language at stake here: tone, style, timbre and vernacular. And we can’t assume that because we technically speak the same language: ‘English’ we speak the same form of English.)

You can’t just approach someone who loves grey areas and say:

‘Look, it’s just black and white! There’s no middle ground and you have to choose!’

But you can say gently and with a winsome tone:

‘Sure, that looks a bit grey. But there are even different shades of grey. And surely you can see that this shade of grey is darker than that one… and hey, this shade of grey is only one step away from being black.’

And thus we woo…

Ultimately, whilst I may favour the Reformed perspective, I am drawn to beauty. And I wish beyond wish that there were more people from the orthodox perspective writing with the same level of creative engagement as some of the emergent guys. Because frankly, some of the Reformed guys make me want to switch sides… Call it petulance, but I have artistic tendencies that are often unfulfilled by many of the guys I read or listen to. I have the odd postmodern gene bobbing along in my bloodstream, and if my head-shape were a little more regular, I daresay I might be tempted shave my hair and wear emergent, thick-rimmed glasses… If you catch my drift.

I want truth and I want beauty. Surely that’s not asking for too much?

We need to find ways of turning phrases, and painting vistas that are compelling and evocative, not simply perfectly lined up, puritanical and soulless. I don’t want to write (or read!) books that make people go “Well, I guess I have to believe that, even if I don’t like it, because at the end of the day he showed me more proof texts than the other guy.” I want to write and read books that make me see the beauty of unpopular doctrines.

As I write, I am on the train on the way home from speaking at a seminar at the Newday youth festival. At the end of the seminar a girl came and asked me if in the new creation she would remember her non-Christian friends. And if so, how could she remember them without feeling a sense of sorrow at their absence. We spoke for a while and settled on the fact that there will be a good number of things that we will come to with a fresh perspective “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Perhaps one of the reasons we won’t feel sorrow is that we will be captivated by a new understanding of judgment; one that emphasises justice over emotive-offence; one that sees things from God’s perspective at last. And the things that once seemed abhorrent may then shine like precious jewels.

If only people could begin to write in such a way as to help us see like that now… Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth!





The Octopus

16 06 2011

A whimsical poem on octopus shoe-shopping…

Polvo Niquel Moedas

The Octopus (16/06/11)

An octopus I can excuse,
For owning quite so many shoes,
But still I cannot fathom why,
Some women act like octopi!






Regalement from Literature is dead?

8 06 2011

In a few weeks’ time I’m going to see one of my favourite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard in a new production by Trevor Nunn. Sadly, Tim Curry, who was meant to be in it, has had to withdraw due to ill health… but still, I’m very much looking forward to seeing this play, even in the absence of his creepy eyebrows!

If you don’t know the play, it’s an absurd tragicomedy set ‘in the wings’ of Hamlet, following two of the minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s fantastically funny, a little depressing, and very clever. Though I’ve never seen a production, I’ve read it many times, and can’t imagine it will be anything less than brilliant!

In preparation for our theatre trip, I decided I’d like to re-read Hamlet, so I can get the most out of it… But then I stumbled across this from the First Things blog, ‘When the algorithm read Hamlet.’ Who needs to read the play now? I can take along some charts, and feel fully informed.

This is a slightly peculiar and counter-intuitive way of assessing art, but then again, I recall feeling much the same when I first read N.T. Wright’s assessment of how stories work in The New Testament and the People of God, but after much mulling and pondering, have benefitted a good deal from this somewhat rigorous approach.

So, is this the future of literary criticism? If so, is it a new lease of life, or a sign of the death of the discipline? Or to put it in more Shakespearean terms, is it a case of:

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

or

‘Alas, poor artform, I knew him well…’

__________

p.s. Before the pedants begin commenting, I know that there is no ‘well’ in the original Yorick quote. Wipe that superior little smirk off your faces!





Samson and Delilah

9 03 2011

I haven’t inflicted a ridiculous poem on you for a couple of weeks. So here you go. It’s a monorhyme (meaning that each line ends with a near-identical rhyme) on Samson and Delilah:

Sam and Del (09/03/11)

Samson was uxorious
His hair was quite luxurious
Delilah was injurious
Her love for him was spurious
She acted kind of curious
And then she made him furious
When feeling proditorius
She turned a bit coiffurious!!

_____

Glossary of terms:

Uxorious – Being excessively submissive to one’s wife
Injurious – Malicious. Likely to cause harm.
Spurious – Not being what it purports to be. Fake.
Proditorius – Treacherous, traitorous
Coiffurious – Ok, I made that one up… I seem to make up a new word every time I write a new poem. But hey! We. needed a word in the English language for ‘hairdresser-esque’





Greed

12 01 2011

About as much wisdom as I can muster so early in the New Year – a couplet on the perils of greed:

Greed (12/01/11)

If you’re lickerish with liquorice,
You’ll likely end up sickerish.

_____

Lickerish – adjective. Greedy.
Sickerish – Ok, so I made up that one up, but hey… My creativity is still in hibernation and will emerge from its state of torpor some time around mid February. Until then you shall have to make do with made up words.