Joel Nickel

In November 2022 the Festival Chorale Oregon sang (once again after 40 years) Benjamin Britten’s “St. Nicolas,” a cantata dealing with the legends of Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra during the early years of the fourth century. The music was first performed in England in 1948. There seems to have been much historical interest in the Nicolas mythology, given the naming of numerous churches and secular merchandizing, which turned him into Santa Claus.

But first, the music and text. Both have been difficult for me, a “challenged” baritone, who has difficulty reading notes and words together with accurate pronunciation, timing and pitch. That said, my further distaste for these legends set to music was prompted by my theological background, that of a Lutheran pastor (ordained in 1965, so now “elderly clergy,” which puts me into an ineffectual niche in the current cultural scene). But, please let me explain. As a descendant of the reformation of the church by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, I inherited his disdain for the worship (some would say veneration) of saints that was then managed by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the control of consciences that garnered monetary benefits for the Vatican. Saints are to be honored, not worshipped; their relics may jog our memory and benefit us by association, but trafficking in relics and mythology during Luther’s day was much like crypto-currency in our day — authentication was impossible and fraud was rampant.

What the Britten libretto does is to highlight the ways in which Nicolas mimics Jesus. Jesus, while in a boat with his disciples, calmed the stormy sea so that “the winds and waves obeyed him.” So did Nicolas. Jesus walked on water. So did Nicolas. Jesus raised the dead. So did Nicolas. Whatever Jesus did, Nicolas seems to do him one better. Jesus overcame his critic’s arguments and so did Nicolas. However, nowhere does it say that Jesus slugged anyone into compliance and agreement as Nicolas did at Nicaea. The only time the name Jesus appears in the libretto text is when the mothers of kidnapped boys pray to “Mother Mary who lost Jesus as a child,” however, Jesus was lost in the confines of the Jerusalem temple, not to predators preparing for cannibalism.

My initial distaste for both text and music was recently overwhelmingly rearranged at the chorale’s tutti rehearsal with orchestra and organ. Thanks to a lively percussion section, the saintly voices of the “three salted boys” and the solo tenor voice of St. Nicolas, the strings and organ at full blast, I was startled at the sudden realization: this isn’t theology and church — this is performance and theater!

Back in 1948, this is exactly what war-torn England needed for its rebuilding effort: a reminder that the human spirit is indefatigable, that despite the folly of war and massive destruction God is still present, even though “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform . . . .” Britten’s “St. Nicolas” is very good theater; it can bolster the flagging spirit and vanquish nagging doubts, as it must have for a nation that experienced the shipwreck of war that required societal resurrection.

But our day in 2022 is a bit different than that of England in 1948. Let me quickly sketch a bit of history post-World War II, a history that I personally remember. There was a huge social sigh of relief and church-going gratitude that we in the USA survived the war without any damage to our cities or infrastructure. There was a numerical surge in church attendance, new church architecture and religious art. Churches overflowed. But theology had a problem: the horrendous evidence of the Holocaust, the slaughter of millions of Jewish people by Hitler and his Nazi followers, left us with the huge inescapable question: where was God? After the Holocaust, theology cannot continue without contending with this question. And faith won’t let us put God up on stage, doing a tap dance for our superficial pleasure, or worse, suggesting that God can be conjured up by our liturgical control mechanisms. The fact that the Holocaust happened in the land of Luther makes this question especially critical for Lutherans.

The author Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, tells the story of a lynching in Auschwitz.  A teenager was hanged on the gallows in a slow, excruciating death. One of the prisoners in the crowd, forced to watch the execution, called out, “Where is God?” After a long pause, another shouted, “Up there in front of us.” It was the death of God.

“If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God,” writes playwright Archibald MacLeish. In his play, J.B. (short for “Job”), one of the characters, Nickles [me? The “old Nick”?], says fatalistically, “There’s always someone playing Job.” At the end of the play, Sarah, J.B.’s wife, says, “Blow on the coal of the heart. The candles in churches are out. The lights have gone out in the sky. Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll see by and by . . . .” This is existential survival in the physical love of another human being, while seemingly abandoned by both church-led faith and science-imbued progress. But such love is singular and can be fickle. Is there any firm foundation upon which to build our hope?

The post-war theological “search for the historical Jesus” happened mostly among Protestant theologians; the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions seemed not to be as riled up as their co-religionists who have a “paper pope,” relying on the scriptural text for authority. The rigorous search sought to separate myth from history, finding reliability in some but not all of the words and deeds of Jesus. Critics of the so-called search say that the resulting image of Jesus that was found usually corresponded to the personality of the searcher. My personal response to this voluminous literature was to affirm the divine/human nature of Jesus the Christ, this mysterious rabbi from Nazareth whose parables are amazing and unequalled, whose preaching is counter-cultural, whose compassion is directed but overwhelming, whose self-sacrificial love is redemptive. I am still pondering the import, meaning and dimension of his resurrection. When you consider the picture of Jesus recorded for us in the four Gospels, what you have is a limited but abundant three-year chronicle of his ministry, starting among the most vulnerable and ending up crucified by the most powerful. As Luther would put it: “what does this mean?”

Lately even history is on the examining block, as Hamilton reminds us: the winners write history. Myth, for its part, seems to get in the way of our scientific minds and is easily dismissed. It seems to be an embarrassment to cultured Christians, as the legends of Nicolas are to me. Yet the Hubble Space Telescope and its newest partner, the James Webb Telescope, bring us visions of the universe that are millions/billions of years old, enhancing the mystery that maybe can only be personalized through myth. “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, creator of the universe . . .,” faithful believers cry out. We do face the ambiguous mystery of God in our perception of history and the meaning of life on planet earth. Jesus told a parable about those who were anxious about the presence of evil in the midst of good: the parable of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). The answer is that good wheat and evil weeds coexist; sheep and goats graze together (Matthew 25:32-33), but final judgment must wait until the end of time. Many human movements to eradicate evil have not turned out well given our universal sinfulness. Judgment is in God’s hands. God is good. Pray for good government. Meanwhile, do good to those who hate you . . . and that could be very dangerous in the world in which we live. Like St. Nicolas, be a “prodigal of love!”  Play on, Benjamin Britten!

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One thought on “ON STAGE: MYTH and HISTORY

  1. Really thoughtful, insightful article, Joel, though I’m not familiar with the Britten piece,which you were able to rationalize enough to go ahead and perform. As for history, I agree that when all is said and done in terms of historical-critical analysis, the evidence for the uniqueness of Jesus and his message, and its transformative power since he first shared the Gospel, seem just too strong to discount or explain away. As for the resurrection — the amazing spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church in the power of Jesus’ Spirit is exceedingly difficult to explain on the basis of anything like nostalgia for “good ole Jesus.” There had to be some unique phenomena taking place among those first disciples and their experience of the risen Lord. Paul in 1 Cor 15, inspired by the Spirit, explained that Jesus experienced a transformation from a mortal physical body to an immortal spiritual body that was still the person of Jesus, yet in a marvelous new bodily form. And Paul assures us that a transformation like that is what we Christians can look forward to when we die. That vision and hope is what motivates us to live lives of gracious witness and service, however God gives us opportunity.

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