1. For years I counted myself “above it all.” Never listened to the soundtrack. Never really wanted to. But when it became available on Disney+, at last I tuned in, albeit suspiciously. Reader, Hamilton is good. How good, the playwrights can debate. But there’s no question of the talent, creativity, and ultimate message of redemption and life. Even so, in 2020, it has been “canceled” — at least, many have wanted it canceled, for glorifying the slave-owning protagonists. (People are still tuning in.) Recently the issue was taken up by Jordan Ballor and Eric J. Hutchinson, in their essay “Forgiveness as a Political Necessity.”

Near the opening of the show, a young Alexander Hamilton reflects on the prospects for the movement for independence. War, it seems, is a necessity; the revolution is coming and Hamilton is committed to fighting for it. But, he wonders, “If we win our independence, is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”

In these brief lines Hamilton captures the two possible futures for America, one leading to life and the other leading to death. In recognizing these possibilities Hamilton shows himself to be a prescient student of history and the consequences of revolution. The dominant image called to mind by the word “revolution” is that of a wheel (from revolvere, “to revolve”) so that as the wheel turns, the cycle progresses. Those who were on the bottom end up on top and those who were on top are laid low — until the next turning of the wheel.

Here the question is not whether criticisms of the show are valid (for what it’s worth, Miranda has said that they are). The question is whether there is room in our culture, at some point, for the show’s central idea: “Forgiveness … can you imagine?”

Ballor and Hutchinson continue that forgiveness is not just a religious imperative, coming down to us from on high. Citing Hannah Arendt, they argue that even from a secular perspective, forgiveness is what makes society livable.

Without forgiveness, we are left with an endless cycle of retribution that comes (and come it does) for everyone sooner or later.

By denying the past qua past, mere retribution destroys the present as well. Arendt puts it this way: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

Arendt expands on this idea later. “Forgiveness,” she says, “is the exact opposite of vengeance.” Why? Because forgiving:

is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

Nothing is more purely reactionary than vengeance. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the only reaction that is also a new action; it makes an end so that it can make a beginning. If vengeance lives only in the past, replaying the original offense on an endless and obsessive loop in the manner of Groundhog Day, forgiveness has the uncanny ability of effecting a genuine and surprising scene-change. The director’s “Cut!” is not a call for violence, but rather an opportunity for a second act. So, too, is forgiveness.

2. Robert Burrows. That does sound like the name of a novelist, but probably not one you’ve heard of. Burrows once self-published a book that, in 2003, was reviewed by the Washington Post as the “worst novel ever published in the English language.” For the New Republic, writer Barrett Swanson interviewed the now-elderly Burrows:

I found Burrows in bed, his complexion sheet-white and cadaverous, a quilt pulled up to his chin. There was something regal, something monumental, in his bearing, and though I knew otherwise, I found myself thinking, “There he is. The worst novelist in the English language.” Marion [his wife] had received me at the door, and while she explained that Bob wasn’t in a place to discuss the book right now, she still wanted me to meet him. I approached the bed watchfully, and when his eyes latched on mine, he sprang to his feet with a gymnastic abruptness, hastening to shake my hand. “What can I do for you today?” he said, not out of colloquial reflex, it seemed, but with a spirit of genuine service.

Due to Burrows’ degenerating memory, it’s his wife Marion whom Swanson talks to at length. We learn that the man was more than his worst moment — far more, actually, in the eyes of the woman who loved him.

I found myself dancing around the question of why I came, not only because of its inherent awkwardness (can you tell me about your husband’s greatest failing? here, let me turn on my tape recorder) but also because I had grown to like Bob through the spiritedness of Marion’s telling. He had become more than a grim caricature, and the fullness of that personhood had exposed to me the mercenary greed of my visit. I saw that I had come here not because I wanted to recuperate Bob’s image, but because I wanted to be assured that I wouldn’t end up like him, that I could finish my novel in full confidence that my destiny would not follow his. …

At some point while Marion was telling me about her sons, both of whom adored their father, I asked about the Weingarten call [and the negative book review].

“Honestly, I don’t remember,” Marion said. “Ancient history.” 

This was the type of person who, I sensed, could rattle off state capitals while completing a crossword puzzle. There was no way she didn’t remember.

What a picture of grace — gracious forgetfulness. I’m reminded of Todd’s excellent post, from earlier today, on regret and divine amnesia. When it comes to the lowest moments in our lives, “Letting go of the past sounds like an impossible task, but it’s the very thing God has already done.”

3. If you need a bit of good news, here ’tis. For Wired, the brilliant Meghan O’Gieblyn has begun a tech advice column called “Cloud Support.” In the first installment, alias [508] wonders, “Why do I keep refusing to install iOS updates?” and admits the all-too-human fact that “there are times when I seem to get some weird pleasure out of refusing the update …” O’Gieblyn, aka Cloud, proceeds to analyze the unspoken moral underpinnings of prompted updates.

The peculiar menace of such prompts is that they present us with a false choice, the kind of bargain parents give to recalcitrant toddlers so as to flatter their sense of agency: We are not asked whether we desire the new software, only whether we will take it now or later. In fact, I should mention that your problem may soon enough take care of itself. Many of the new OS’s make updates mandatory — or “seamless” — meaning that they download automatically without the prompts. This will probably make your life itself more “seamless,” though it will also rob you of the pleasure of refusing.

As for the source of that pleasure: It could be that delaying the updates is an ascetic impulse. A world of ever-increasing comforts and commodities is wonderful, of course, and arguably more than we deserve; but it fails to demand much of us in return — no sacrifices, or acts of heroism, or exercises of the will. Perhaps you are spacing out your exposure to novelty so as to build character, or to increase your sense of wonder when you do finally accept. Or maybe, in refusing, you feel as though you’ve had a say in the trajectory of the future — that pressing “later” asserts a democratic will on questions that do not appear on any ballot.

At the end of the day, the root cause of your refusal is less important than your ability to see it as deliberate, so that it ceases to feel like one more automatic impulse. The machine’s prompting is mechanical. Your rejection of it makes you human. Once that’s cleared up, you should continue delaying the updates until you are no longer given a choice, so long as it imbues your life with a sense, however small, of meaning. This is one thing all the advances of technology cannot provide for us. We must find it where we can.

4. Speaking of false agency, here is “Your School District’s Reopening Survey” — a bit of humor from McSweeney’s, for the stricken parents out there.

We recognize that many families are naturally uncomfortable sending their child back to school given the virus’s uncertainty. As such, we have also designed a remote learning option in conjunction with an outside vendor who specializes in emailing non-working links to YouTube videos, as we realize that Google Classroom posed technological challenges. Your child should expect to sit in front of a screen for roughly eight hours per day, with allowances for quick movement breaks, meals, and the occasional primal scream.

Also, fans of the Well of Sound will get a kick out of The Dark Side of the Moon Is Coming Along Well, But Let’s Not Lose Track of the Big Picture, Which Is That We Need This Album to Synch-Up with the Wizard of Oz. Oh, and for anyone all-too-familiar with video calling at this point, there’s the op-ed “I Think That — No, Sorry, You Go Ahead.

5. This week at the New York Times, Mockingbird writers Carrie Willard and David Zahl were both quoted for an article about how families are finding grace and faith outside of in-person church. Super cool! And their remarks are both uplifting and down-to-earth — exactly what you’d expect from those two.

Carrie Willard, 42, an administrator at Rice University, said that for her two boys, 12 and 9, the “big-C challenge” is the ability to see God in other people rather than casting judgment because they aren’t making the same choices. But what she and many other families continue to grieve is the loss of their in-person community, especially during the holidays.

“Easter was this weird but not terrible thing,” Willard said. …

In some respects, Zahl said, the pandemic could be considered an opportunity to help children better understand their religion.

“For parents who see things like prayer, spiritual conversation, asking for forgiveness, and overall modeling of grace in practice as the heart of their faith, well, the pandemic has been something of a gold mine,” he said.

6. For Cabinet, Becca Rothfeld penned a magnificent mash-up about St. Augustine and Talking Heads. Musing on eternity, novelty, and boredom, the whole essay is provocative and thoughtful. For anyone interested, I recommend the whole piece, but here I’ll just share the first two paragraphs (ht KW):

According to medieval Jewish commentaries on the Torah, heaven will be dazzling and dramatic. It will contain chambers “built of silver and gold, ornamented with pearls.” New arrivals will pass through gates guarded by 600,000 angels and bathed in “248 rivulets of balsam and attar.” The righteous will attend elaborate feasts and lounge in lavish gardens. As a rule, paintings of heaven are more vague and more amorphous than paintings of hell, but avuncular artists still stuff them with cherry-cheeked cherubs. In the New Testament, John promises his followers that God’s “house has many rooms.”

I don’t know for sure whether any of this is literal — whether the saved will have real bodies to bathe or eat with, whether the cherubs will dirty any actual diapers. What I do know is that if these are metaphors for anything, they are metaphors for novelty. Whatever life in heaven is really like, even if it does not involve winged babies and banquets, it will never be boring. The many rooms there, be they physical or figurative, will each loom larger than the last.

7. Lastly, at 1517, Chad Bird hits a home-run with a perceptive diagnosis:

There are some sins we don’t want to hand over to our Father. Not yet anyway. They are our precious. We relish wallowing in the guilt they generate.

We feel better knowing how bad we feel.

There’s something very sinister happening. We’ve come to believe that:
our anguish is our atonement;
shame is our absolution;
tears are our baptism;
a body racked with regret is our eucharist.

This kind of repentance is anti-repentance, for it actually clings tightly to the sin over which it sorrows, because that sorrow is its consolation. If God forgives these sins, if he takes them away and tells us that we can’t have them back, on what will we rely? Then we’d have only his promise. Then we’d have to rely on someone else.

Strays: