Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: God and Hamilton by Kevin Cloud

I believe that in the musical Hamilton, Miranda has turned preacher, or perhaps prophet. The story he tells about the life of Hamilton reverberates with the central truths of the Christian Scriptures. It becomes a thin place for us, reminding us of the presence of God among us. It points us toward love, grace, and redemption, and inspires us to transform our lives as a response to this transcendent experience. - Kevin Cloud, God and Hamilton

I was a relative latecomer to the Hamilton phenomenon. It was probably 6 months to a year after the musical had debuted on Broadway, and then it was only by happenstance that I'd even heard about it. A family member had been dropping the show's name in social media posts a handful of times until I finally became curious enough about what she was talking about to do some research.

A Spotify listen later, I understood. Hamilton is a creative and daring presentation of the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father perhaps most known for the manner in which he died. Otherwise, he never served as president like many of his contemporaries and for that and other reasons has a less-celebrated legacy than others with whom he served in shaping the country in its earliest days.

Lin-Manuel Miranda set out to change that through a musical both acclaimed by critics and beloved by fans. Not only are the music and lyrics well-written, but its underlying messages regarding issues like women's and civil rights and immigration are timely, and the intentionality of having a multicultural cast provokes audiences to consider things from a new angle.

Early in God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton & the Broadway Musical He Inspired, Kevin Cloud likens attending a performance of Hamilton to attending a worship service. He reasons that the combination of the way the music and portrayal of events in the characters' lives engage the heart and the presentation of social commentary make for a transformative spiritual experience. He describes being moved to tears more than once during a single show, and identifies over the course of his work how much of what the musical shares may provide insights into many themes of Christian faith.

Cloud structures his book around twelve such themes, many of which will be familiar to Christian readers. He covers topics like redemption, suffering, death, sin, faith, grace, forgiveness, and so on. Most chapters reference scenes or songs from the musical version of Hamilton's life, but these are often augmented by other historical writings, including correspondence that Hamilton wrote to his wife Eliza and others, or entries from his journals. He also includes quotes from Miranda and others who have worked on the show onstage and off to round out the intent behind certain portrayals or moments. Cloud shows a depth of understanding of his subject that greatly augments the issues he explores in each chapter.

The theological parts of his work are more of a mixed bag. He often seems to be writing to an inside audience, and the language he uses sometimes assumes that the reader will already have an understanding of the Bible or will recognize some buzzwords. Having recently completed work on a book that combines pop culture with spirituality myself, I was especially sensitive to how a non- or nominally Christian reader might react to some of his chosen terminology. But it may be that this was intended as a study guide for those already involved in a faith community, and he wasn't very concerned with such things.

Even with that quibble, Cloud often doesn't allow for the themes that he explores to remain in the abstract. This is more pointed in his chapters that deal with Hamilton's origins as an orphan and immigrant, as well as his need to seek forgiveness after having an affair. The musical raises the real-life implications of these parts of Hamilton's life, not just for himself but for others going through similar things or with the power to change them, and Cloud does well in pointing out that Christian faith includes a calling to change those parts of the world that are unjust or harmful.

Cloud also does so while acknowledging the messiness of life, where everyone is both "sinner and saint." The character of Burr is an easy example, as he is often maligned for his role in Hamilton's death without much regard for who he was otherwise. Hamilton's own life provides plenty of examples as well: as brilliant and relentless as he was, he could also be abrasive and confrontational; his affair should not be dismissed, but neither should his long path of genuine repentance after be, either.

God and Hamilton is a thoughtful exploration of how a popular musical can inform a life of faith. Readers should be prepared for some jargon that Cloud assumes they'll already know, but also to wrestle with many challenges and complexities that the show itself presents as well.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)