Our Own Vines and Our Own Fig Trees: a Post-Independence Day, Post-Hamilton-Watching Sermon

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Like plenty of other Americans (and, given likely demographics, probably in particular like plenty of readers of this blog), my family and I watched the musical Hamilton over the July 4th weekend. Our second-oldest daughter, who was home to join us yesterday, had actually seen the show in 2016 on Broadway; for the rest of us, as familiar as we were with the music, watching the show was a new experience–and it was a lovely one, a wonderfully funny and dramatic, visually and aurally compelling, and historically challenging (in more ways than one), piece of filmed theater. It was three hours very well spent.

Most of all for me, I enjoyed spending time in the virtual company of Chris Jackson’s stylized portrayal of George Washington. All the musical’s theatrical depictions are hyper-stylized, of course (it’s fundamentally a work of fan fiction, after all), but there was, in my view, an astonishingly deep and consistent core to what Lin-Manuel Miranda put into the figure of Washington, brought to beautiful life by Jackson’s presence and baritone voice. That core connects with something mythic, something, frankly, scriptural. Appropriately so, since Washington’s central song in the musical, “One Last Time,” in which Washington instructs by example the unfortunately mostly unteachable Alexander Hamilton the decency and wisdom of knowing when to walk away from power and the contests over power it always involves, is the only line in the whole libretto which quotes the Bible–Micah 4:3-4, specifically. It reads (from the NRSV):

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

This is a messianic passage, and generally speaking, folks in contemporary democratic (or at least democracy-aspiring) states don’t like associating politics, and especially not specific political figures, with messiahs. And yet we do, constantly, all the time. After watching the music, my only comment on social media was to quote the devastatingly dark and funny (and, I think, fundamentally true) line given to the hilariously arch King George III, in the song “I Know Him,” immediately following Jackson’s rendition of the above song, when he learns that Washington was retiring from the presidency and John Adams had been elected to take his place: “Oceans rise / Empires fall / Next to Washington, they all look small.” In response to which, a commenter linked to this command performance of the song:

Many of the mostly self-identifying liberal readers of this blog will likely find themselves touched by this moment, especially in light of the Trump years which have followed it. Yet at the same time, many of those same readers–to say nothing of those few of my fellow leftists out there–are likely to find themselves, as I see it anyway, in a bit of a contradiction. Isn’t this kind of sympathetic idealization, which is really a kind of idolization, basically kind of wrong? Don’t we want to avoid getting all romantic about those who stand before us in leadership positions? Aren’t we obliged to respond to any kind of hero-worship, however wistfully expressed, with thorough-going critique, if not outright rejection? Shouldn’t we be, as one of my By Common Consent co-bloggers recently suggested, iconoclasts, tearing down images which presume to situate some felt ideal in the body of some invariably flawed (and, unfortunately often in our history of public statuary, affirmatively racist and criminal) person?

If you don’t see or feel this contradiction, more power to you; it may only manifest itself to people like myself who flirt with dangerous philosophical ideas. And I’m not being ironically self-deprecating when I call them “dangerous”–there is a lot of history which proves the danger of reading passages like Micah’s above and believing, as I do, that’s it’s not just poetically describing a hopeful vision of peaceful rest, but is also communicating the holiness, the sacramentality, of being in a place of peaceableness and rest. Start thinking that way, and soon you’re thinking: “where can I find such a place?” Or, “how can I make such a place?” And then, eventually, worryingly, “who can make such a place for me?” Could have President Obama? Despite his self-association with the old activist phrase “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he hardly governed in a manner which rigorously avoided any attempt to embody certain ideas for and on behalf of the American people. Nor has President Trump, for that matter. I mean, he did promise to “Make American Great Again,” right?

The perversity of linking the actions of President Trump–who has basically never made any serious effort to pretend that his administration reflects or represents or embodies any kind of general civic ideal–with this idealization simply shows up the problem, I think. The very fact that so many will criticize Trump for being unpresidential underscores that most of us think, most of us want, presidents of the United States to be presidential, even if our critical sensibilities tell us otherwise. (The same goes, though obviously to much different and often much lesser degrees, for pretty much all leaders of all communities, I suspect.) Some part of us wants them to embody something! And while many might articulate it differently, I suspect that that wished-for embodiment might best be described as a identification with a longed-for place, or way of being in a place–in the case of the president of the United States, an “Americanism,” if you will. A sense that, in other words, this person is making for us, showing us, the way it is supposed to be here. Here, under our own vines, under our own fig trees: it should be like this. Which means, I think, that while the substantive content is radically dissimilar, the phenomenology of putting on a MAGA hat may not be all that different from watching Hamilton and mourning that moment of classiness back in 2016. Especially when we think about it in connection with, and through a stylized and powerfully sung representation of, Washington at the moment of his Farewell Address, with such a thoroughly problematic yet aspirational phrase as “I want to warn against partisan fighting”! (It shouldn’t have surprised me to learn from my daughter that there was a gospel remix of this song with Obama speaking lines from the address.)

I write all this not to critique this, but to sermonize on behalf of it. I like, and more importantly actually believe in, this part of politics (which means, this part of living in society with other people, no matter what the organization of that society may be). I like and believe in this admittedly dangerous sentiment; it has always–at least for as long as I can remember thinking about any of these matters–appealed to and made intuitive sense to me. I think it is not only a very human thing, but also, at least always potentially, a very good thing. I was up early this morning with a headache; it was still dark out, and the lines of “One Last Time,” and particularly Jackson’s gorgeous and plaintive singing of them, kept ringing through my head. And I found myself reflecting upon all the ways in which I’ve felt myself spiritually pulled towards feeling some real truth in, and thus wanting to defend, this conceptualization of our life as embodied, historical, dialogic, relational beings over the decades. Traditions, holidays, civil religion, public expressions of faith, presidential rituals, civic associations–they’ve all been part of this decades-old argument I’ve been having with myself (and others) over what it means to intentionally (and thus more often than not romantically) make, and then consequently to be in and belong to, a place. These vines, these fig trees, and being able to find in them, or having them revealed to us or invoked for us as, a peaceable place that is our own. My thinking about those places have changed over the years. I was much more willing to think nationally about places in the past, whereas now I think much more about local places, and the peace of the home and the neighborhood they can bring. That’s a holy thing, I believe.

It is also, unfortunately, always potentially an exclusionary thing as well. Our vines–go away, they’re not yours, they don’t belong to you! That’s a dangerous sentiment, or at least as a Christian and a man of the left I can’t help but feel that way. The holiest–and thus, if you’d prefer I use the secular terms I consider to be equivalent, the most empowering and equalizing and democratic–approach to this messianic passage of scripture, the truth within it that calls to us, I think, no matter what the scale of the communities we live within or the character of the leadership which exists within them, is this one:

When Miranda put into Washington’s mouth the lyric expressing a retiring president’s wish to be “at home in this nation we’ve made,” think, I would suggest, not of nation-states, but of the original meaning of “nation”: natio, or as we might say today, a “peoplehood.” It is both reasonable and even moral, I think, to long for, to look for the embodiment and instantiation of (and, yes, to memorialize through song and statuary, with the understanding that statues can come down and, just as Hamilton did, songs can be resung), one’s people and place, one’s vine and fig tree, one’s home. But that longing has to co-exist with the imperative to enable all of God’s children to have their people and place, their vine and fig tree, their home. Maybe their and our homes will turn out to be–will constructed to be, will be sung by someone like Christopher Jackson so as to be revealed to be–one and the same. As the hippies used to say, maybe all us critters have a place in God’s choir–or in the Hamilton ensemble, for that matter. I won’t presume to think that I could take Washington’s place under his vine and fig tree. But maybe he can make space for me, and vice versa, all the same.

Comments

  1. Started watching and couldn’t make it past the the drinking Samuel Adams in the pubs scene at the beginning.

    There’s so much that’s bizarre about it that it’s hard to express. Probably a work of bizarre art in it’s own right for the strangeness it evokes alone. I felt like I was being shouted at rather than inspired or given insight into the human condition that would point tons need for salvation.

    But who knew all those Mormon videos and art depicting strong white, European ethnicity projecting European things weren’t actually retrogressive but ahead of their time?

  2. “Fan fiction” is perhaps a good way to look at Hamiton. I was struck with how much the musical followed and captured the spirit of Ron Chernow’s amazing biography, yet at the same time recognizing that there was a lot of interpretive content included. Still, if it prompts people to read the biography (as the musical’s 2016 debut did for me), then it is worth it. Especially as it emphasizes how minorities and the marginalized can identify with our white, deist, slave owning founding fathers, and find common ground, That perhaps is for me the best message of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. There is something in it that everyone can identify with, and claim as their own.

  3. Kristine says:

    Sute–the drinking might have been the most realistic bit of all: https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-george-washington-bar-tab-20180222-story.html

  4. Russell, I haven’t seen Hamilton, but I definitely plan too. It has been highly recommended by many of my friends and relatives.

    However, I was deeply disturbed by your following comment: “My thinking about those places have changed over the years. I was much more willing to think nationally about places in the past, whereas now I think much more about local places, and the peace of the home and the neighborhood they can bring. That’s a holy thing, I believe.”

    I would argue that going the other direction is even for critical. Instead of thinking nationally, we need to think globally. About the struggles of our members in developing countries. About thinking of their neighborhoods and their plight.

  5. I don’t want to give the impression that I am dismissive of all thinking globally or nationally, Roger. It’s obviously vital that we attend as much as we can to those matters which affect those whom we are connected to simply by virtue of being fellow children of God, or fellow human beings on this planet, as well as by virtue of being fellow citizens of the state we reside within. But the context where I made that comment is vital too. I was talking about “what it means to intentionally (and thus more often than not romantically) make, and then consequently to be in and belong to….a peaceable place that is our own.” My own communitarian thinking about place-making used to be very wrapped up in matters both international (e.g., human rights) and national (e.g., American citizenship), but over the years it’s turned more and more local. Whether or not you agree with such a turn, your own language, I think, reflects the reasoning behind it. You write that we need to think about “our members in developing countries…[and] their neighborhoods and their plight.” A worthy sentiment! But while I can and must strive to show love towards those distant neighbors, and support actions which could bring needed support into their lives, I do not, in fact, live in those neighborhoods. There are things that the people who live there know that I cannot know, however much I research on Wikipedia. Those distant saints are members of our Christian community, but they can know their neighbors in a way that I cannot. And conversely, I can know my neighbors here in Wichita, KS, and serve them, in a way that distant saints cannot, no matter much they may express love for or seek to serve the people of Wichita. They’re not here; I am. My identification with the local isn’t an exclusion of the national or the international, just an acknowledgement that I have become much more interested in–and much more convinced of the possibility of–finding or building a peaceful place that is one’s own amongst the neighborhood one is actually in, rather than national or international communities that I can feel a Christian love for, but cannot claim to literally belong to in the same way I belong to the place where I am.

  6. I think physical distance in today’s Internet world has disappeared. Today, I can feel just as close (or at peace) with a neighbor in Calca, Peru, or Mbale, Uganda, as I can with my neighbor across the street or member of my Ward. If a physical visit is important, I can jump in a plane and be almost anywhere in the world in 24 hours. I enjoy interacting with humanity that is not just like me.

    Additionally, with the current missionaries efforts in Africa and South America, half of the Church members now live in developing countries. Those members are not just like me, and many are friends who could use some real help.

  7. Kristine,
    Oh, I’m not saying the drinking scene was “unrealistic” so I turned it off. When it comes to a play I’m not obsessively concerned with realism (if you could make it amazing and realistic, that’s all the better of course, but turning it into a metaphor of some time is ok too).

    I’m happy to watch historical fiction be it inspired or depressing or contemplative. But I just didn’t get passed that scene. The opening with Hamilton himself singing, I felt a bit of a hook pulling me in (even though it might lay on the cultural underdog metaphor a bit too heavily….), and then the bar scene was just a type of shout singing about things I couldn’t care about in a way that didn’t continue pulling on the hook like the opening did. Maybe I can get back around to it. It’s widely successful so obviously it speaks to a lot of people.

    As I consider it a little further, I think what the artistic favorite Jon McNaughton is to painted art, is what Hamilton is to theatrical art. I realize the former isn’t very popular around these parts, but I assume Hamilton isn’t very popular on the lds freedrom website. Both types of art have almost no subtlety and hit you again and again and again and again to make the point.

  8. Latam girl says:

    Sute- I’ve now seen it twice all the way through and we’re making our way through the third time. That scene was difficult my first time, especially because I wasn’t fully engaged in watching it. The second time through we used the captions, which really helped understand. While I like a lot of rap, it’s not my go-to and the different beat and cadence of the rap was hard to follow at first. I almost tuned out right around there as well. Give it another try. I think it was excellent. The music, dancing, lighting, set, and ultimately LMM’s portrayal of Hamilton as a flawed individual (I didn’t see it necessarily as a celebration of him) was insightful.

    Since last weekend, that’s pretty much all the music my kids (tweens) are listening to.

  9. Stephen Fleming says:

    Sute, I’m not sure which is sillier: stopping after the third song (the really good stuff comes after that and there’s lots of it) or claiming you can provide some sort of critique of the entire play based on such limited exposure.

    Calling the play far-left kitsch akin to McKnaughton is simply mistaken. It’s a celebration of Hamilton, hardly a liberal icon. How often to you hear the left extolling the virtues of banking and credit? (If you’d have kept watching, you’d have heard those virtues rapped). Yes, one could argue there’s something liberal about having non-white actors in the roles, but I’d hope that Miranda’s simple message of wanting non-whites to be able to identify with the ideals of the Founding Fathers is uncontroversial. Miranda’s taken plenty of criticism from the left (it’s a musical people!) Again, if you’d have watched it, you’d have seen that your initial impression was mistaken.

  10. it's a series of tubes says:

    I think what the artistic favorite Jon McNaughton is to painted art, is what Hamilton is to theatrical art.

    Damn son, that’s one of the worst takes ever posted on BCC. And that’s saying something.

    Watching it on Disney+ is good, but like so many things, seeing it in person is far, far better.

  11. I hope it would be controversial. All good art is. And it’s pretty true as far as I can tell. The usual suspects line up for both. With some crossover at the margins. If you can tell me, tubes, that Hamilton doesn’t hit you over the head again and again and again with it’s multifaceted messaging via music, content, and casting, and delivery the same way that McNaughton doesn’t with every literalist aspect of what’s painted, then you’re probably just more biased than I am.

    S.Flemming – I also haven’t looked at McNaughton’s paintings for more time than I watched the Hamilton piece. What’s your point? I can get the jist at least an aspect of the creative intent pretty well without being able to summarize every act, song, or painting. The truth hurts. Both types of art require great skill. Clearly Hamilton has more going on as it’s a bigger production. But the analogy fits even if it hurts (I assume McNaughton fans are equally hurt by criticisms)

  12. Stephen Fleming says:

    Again, what you’re saying is silly and misinformed, Sute. I’m not hurt.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    If you can tell me, tubes, that Hamilton doesn’t hit you over the head again and again and again with it’s multifaceted messaging via music, content, and casting, and delivery the same way that McNaughton doesn’t with every literalist aspect of what’s painted.

    Sute – thanks for the clarifications. I’d suggest that, in particular, the dialogue/music in much of Hamilton was constructed as an intricate homage to many, many hip-hop and rap classics. There are various videos online where LMM explains his thought process and attempts to pay tribute to so many of those influential earlier tracks. Some of the connections are clear (Biggie’s “10 Crack Commandments”, for example), others are extremely subtle.

    So, to answer your question, I’d say no, it doesn’t repeatedly hit you over the head, but rather often winks to those in the know, and for those who don’t know it flies right by. I considered myself fairly well versed in the genre, and listening to LMMs explanations I found many that I had missed.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    I was a skeptic about Hamilton, as I am not a fan of hip-hop/rap and I didn’t believe it would live up to the hype. That is, until I watched it, and found myself completely absorbed into the production, the story, the music, everything. Loved it.

    My preteen daughter loved it too, mostly for the visual and auditory spectacle–the story largely went over her head, though she recognized the characters as portrayals of historical figures she knew.

    My boomer parents and in-laws, however, had reactions to the show that ranged from indifference to mild dislike. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying” “too loud, talking too fast” were coming reactions among that generation, including thinly veiled racist comments like “…*those* actors weren’t believable as our Founding Fathers” and “it didn’t seem historically accurate”. They completely missed the point, and instead waxed nostalgic for the lighthearted Rogers & Hammerstein fare of their youth.

    The show reveals a generation gap. People who grew up with the exclusive narrative of the Founders as faultless white heroes have a hard time wrapping their heads around these people being complicated, conflicted individuals, let alone seeing them portrayed by people of color. LDS narratives additionally celebrate the Founders as being “inspired”; a whole cottage industry of homeschool curriculum built around teaching the “faith promoting” (read White Christian-centric) version of American history has sprung up, sadly with Church members leading the charge. Hamilton skillfully turns this narrative upside down, and provides a refreshing perspective on America’s founding using another truly American genre (hip-hop).

  15. SisterStacey says:

    I haven’t seen it yet, as I don’t have Disney+, but I plan on subscribing soon. I wasn’t interested in it, as I’m not a fan of rap, but then I listened to the soundtrack and I love it.

    Sute, I’m not a fan of the pub song either, but you miss some excellent music after. Especially “Wait For It” which is such a great piece about faith and action. And all the King George songs.
    What pulls me to it is the story of Angelica and Eliza. I could sing “The Schulyer Sisters” all day. Plus, Lamar Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr (another complicated man) is a revelation. The song Hamilton and Burr sing to their children at the end of the War breaks my heart, because you know what happens to those children.
    I love it and I’m excited to see it.