The rousing “Morning Glow” closes the first half of Pippin with the words “We have magic to do just for you…” The stunningly opulent and acrobatic revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical all the more enhanced by Bob Fosse’s deliciously sensual choreography mesmerizes us just as it did in 1972 when it secured its place as one of the longest running musicals on the Great White Way. I was completely enthralled. Take a look:
Yet in the end, the musical reminds us that meaning in life is not found in the “magic” — however magical that magic might be — but in the daily ordinary grinds of life. Unexciting, non-flattering, boorish and bland, the work of doing life is the work of doing life. No escaping it. No free passes. And…shooting up with glamor, fame, fortune, sex, politics, work, religion or the substance of our choice, while spectacularly intoxicating in the moment, winds up leaving us disappointed, addicted, broke, and unfulfilled.
Just as Pippin treats us to one spectacular scene after another with “they-are-not-really-going-to-do-that” cirque du soleil gymnastics, contemporary Western (and particularly American) churches and approaches to spirituality walk the same high-wire to keep us on the edge of our seats waiting for the next God-stunt. Praise bands that appear in the midst of a dry-iced light show, devotional books by a beautiful fit people that promise an enviable life for the price of a scripture, the “best-oh-my-gosh” sermon that enthralls, the spectacular holiday pageants, and (of course) the testimonies of people experiencing the impossible all assure us that the magic is out there. And if we are not experiencing the magic, then hold on, we will. The next sermon series will do the trick. We’ve got something going on here that will change.your.life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as much a consumer as the next guy. I love the spectacle and I want all these ecclesiastical gymnastics to sweep me up and whisk me on a prayer rug to an enchanting paradise. However…
… like Pippin, when magic’s promises fail, we are left wondering of what value is our faith. O, Snap. Here is the deal: Faith is not magic or spiritual acrobatics. Faith is the messy business of struggling with/against God in the midst of the ordinary vicissitudes of life. Faith is built, learned, tried, tested, held, lost, regained, frustrated, and experienced to grow strong.
Well, that’s no fun. Frankly, I was hoping for more. Sigh. Magic shows sell tickets. Struggles don’t (although having said that, I have no doubt that A&E would make millions if they mounted a reality TV shows entitled “Sinners.”) The Torah is filled with jagged, unfinished, complicated, confounding, thoughtless and messy stories. And, all of these stories bear witness to our own lives in all of their complexity and paradoxes. No magic. Lots of mess.
The hoopla this year about the movie “Noah” missed a central point about the biblical account of his life (Genesis 9:18-28) which, in my opinion, the movie portrayed rather tamely. For whatever can be said about Noah before the flood, his life was something of a slashed canvas at the end. He survived the flood, but did not survive well. Noah’s story ends rather ingloriously as one of his sons walks in on him (and probably did more than just walk in) naked and drunk. No family-values hero here. But then again, how well would we have survived a divinely induced human-0-cide only to be left on the planet with a few people, one of whom was a disrespectful son? Funny. We never talk about this part of the story. Too embarrassing? Messy? Hush-hush? There is no magic in this part. Only the kind of raw humanity that we all experience — the kind none of us like to talk about. Yet, the kind that is real and part of sacred text.
Torah doesn’t have magic “just for you…”. It has life. Torah brings acceptance — that at the end of the day — we can only be where we are.
And that’s ok.
PS: Fun fact. In the original 1972 version of Pippin, the character of Pippin was played by John Rubinstein, son of the legendary Polish concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Interestingly enough, Arthur Rubinstein was often known to speak about the need to really “live!” if one were to have anything worthwhile to say as an artist.