Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Saddled up for spiritual warfare?

I drove to Saddleback Church this morning - the Orange County megachurch home of Rick Warren, "America's pastor" and author of the megabestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. I've been up there twice before, and wondered what if anything might be at work beyond the clean-cut shopping-mall motivational-speaking "campus" with its many flavors of worship music and small groups to suit every taste and concern. I appreciated that the congregation was finding here something the cultural desert of Southern California doesn't offer: community, and a sense that you as an individual matter. The carefully controlled small group system seemed a brilliant way of shaping people's lives - but also liable eventually to empower dissent from Warren's message.

Today's sermon (delivered by winsome teaching pastor Tom Holloday) was about "How to look forward to a new year," a smart topic and engagingly delivered. As ever, there was a handout with blanks for the audience to fill in (Let go of your worries; Adjust your expectations; Take a step in faith; Hold on to God's love) and Bible quotes from a variety of translations (the lilies of the field really lose their lustre in the New Living Translation!). Interestingly, many seemed to be from the books of the Bible Philips Jenkins says are more popular in the global south and generally ignored up here - Proverbs, Hebrews, James. Warren was on the vanguard of evangelical leaders reaching out to Africa - has he been affected by Southern Christianity? The small bookstore had the thick new African Bible Commentary with a blurb on the front by Warren...

And yet Warren's Christianity is attacked by other evangelicals for being feel-good and untheological, nothing like the concerns for healing and struggles against Satan and his devils of many African churches... or so I thought. Another book in the bookstore, also with a prominent blurb from Warren on the cover, opened my eyes: Restoring a nation's Foundations: Prayer Strategies and Action Plans by Jimmy and Carol Owens, published by Foursquare, a Pentecostal publisher. This book is all about the need for spiritual warfare to save America from the devil's dominion! On a page opened almost at random, co-author Jimmy describes a vision he had on the Capitol steps in Washington, DC: That dome is a symbol of the seat of government of the country I love. Then, like a bolt, the awareness hit me: it also represents the seat of the Prince of America, the very front lines of the battle for the soul of this nation. Here he and a hierarchy of persons without bodies are working tirelessly, trying to control the minds of government officials, staff workers, lobbyists, strategists, advisers and other people of influence. There are probably more demons and angels doing their work in that building than anywhere else in the country. (93) The book calls for spiritual warfare for the soul of a "country under attack, from both inside and out" whose "Christian foundations" have very nearly rotted away!

I've known that such books exist, but had not thought Rick Warren had anything to do with such thinking. Or even if he did (I wondered what was going on behind that genial façade, and noticed that Saddleback's statement of faith is considerably more conservative than their feel-good publications), I didn't think he'd go public. But here he promotes this view (Jimmy & Carol Owens' God-given message can shape the destiny of our nation and our world). The book is there in the book shop for Saddlebackers to discover. And Saddleback's current line-by-line Bible study is looking at Thessalonians and Ephesians to "[d]iscover the truth about our inheritance, being alive in Christ, and spiritual warfare [!]."

I'm not sure what to think, but I think I'm worried. Not about Satan and "persons without bodies," but about Warren and where he's leading his flocks.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Winter does bring spectacular sunsets...

Facing the new

Just read a lousy book and a not-so-lousy book on the "new faces" of what's sometimes called World Christianity. The not-so-lousy one is Philip Jenkins' The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. The lousy one is Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement by Donald E. Miller and Tetsunao Yamamori.

Jenkins, who is credited with being the first to notice that the center of gravity of Christianity moved from the white western northern hemisphere to the non-white south (and Asia) a few years ago, here argues that Christians of the "Global South" don't just read the Bible differently than northern types, but read a different Bible. Passages and entire books which leave Northern Christians cold resonate powerfully with the life experiences of Southern Christians, who are familiar with famine, poverty, political oppression, animal sacrifice, polygamy, paganism and rumors of witchcraft. The Global South loves the Old Testament, especially books like Proverbs. In the New Testament, the Epistle of James is particularly beloved. Jenkins argues that the Bible has particular power for communities which have recently converted, especially if the Bible is translated into their language and is one of the first books they know - since they are "neo-literate," and still have the mindset of oral cultures.

The cases he discusses (mostly from Africa and Asia) are fascinating, and raise a lot of questions he carefully avoids addressing until the end, and then just barely. If Christianity will indeed be a primarily African and African-diaspora religion by the middle of this century, what does that mean? Should African and other Global South interpretations trump those of the more secularized but also more experienced North (more experienced also with Christianity, with understanding how it changes and doesn't over time)? He doesn't say so. It's hard to resist that argument that those people who read more of the Bible should have pride of place over those who leave aside much of it, but that doesn't mean that those who manage to take more of it literally - because their world is like that of the people of Israel and the early church - should have pride of place over those who read it figuratively or historically. Jenkins comes close to equating these two. And yet the challenge is real. How does one accept these changes in global Christianity and learn from them?

The other book - the lousy one - is an exercise in wishful thinking. Miller and Yamamori are Christian but not Pentecostal, and approach Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Global South as social scientists. They think they've discovered a new kind of Pentecostalism which they call Progressive Pentecostalism: instead of focusing exclusively on individual salvation (since Jesus is thought to be coming back any minute now), these Pentecostals are engaging in the needs of the world, taking care of each other and the needy. While they don't do anything as nerdy as listen to the theological claims of their research subjects the way Jenkins does, they commend something like what he finds: a "holistic" understanding of salvation which doesn't distinguish between the salvation of individual souls and the care of their bodies and communities. Now all that's missing is political and social engagement...

"Progressive Pentecostalism" makes Miller and Yamamori happy - it looks more like the kind of Christianity (liberal Protestantism) they are familiar with, and they can't help predicting that the rest of Pentecostalism will soon go that way too, though their evidence is still sketchy. (Jenkins on the other hand describes social outreach as a normal part of the Christianities of the Global South.) If Pentecostalism does indeed take up some of the causes abandoned by the withering away of liberal Protestantism and the eclipse of Liberation Theology, Miller's and Yamamori's kind of Christianity has a future! Their relief at this discovery is so palpable it undermines their argument.

What's annoying about their book is its vague assertion that the phenomenon of Pentecostalism shows that secular social scientists are "ideologues" for ignoring what they coyly call the "S" factor (is the spirit visible in Pentecostal life the [capital-S] Spirit?). Pentecostalism suggests to them that there are religious "realms of experience" which secular accounts of human nature don't take into account and can't explain. What's infuriating is not that they're making this argument, but that they are so wimpy about it - they hardly seem persuaded themselves. A case in point: [s]imply reducing the animation that occurs in ecstatic worship to what Émile Durkheim called collective effervescence … seems to us to be highly reductive, or at least a bit arrogant (219) Don't the words "or at least" imply that the argument is not excessively reductive? And the phrase "a bit arrogant" is no argument - it's a way of resisting an argument. (My students do it all the time when they can't find a flaw in an argument whose conclusion they don't like: "Hume is so arrogant!") In fact, Miller and Yamamori don't really show any need for a religiously-open social science:

[sociological accounts] fail to address the issue of whether individuals in the movement sometimes encounter a reality that is more than compensation for the trials of life or more than the ecstasy of group celebration. ... scholars within the social sciences often write as if they have offered comprehensive explanations when, in fact, sociological generalizations are just that—they are generalizations about trends and causation that avoid specific cases, which of course are where the Spirit operates (i.e., in deep encounters with individuals). (220-21)

"Of course" is another of my bugbears - it points as clearly as "obviously" or "plainly" or "simply" to a flaw or gap in the argument. Miller and Yamamori feel the Spirit at work "deep" in Pentecostalism, but are content for its workings to remain below the radar of secular social science. How very discreet of the Holy Spirit to leave our secular social scientific pieties intact even as it whispers our name. It'll change your life but none of your social scientist friends need ever know. Miller and Yamamoti claim too much for the Spirit and too little! Why bother?

Obviously (sic!) their argument gets me so upset because I am struggling with the same questions. It's easy to accuse others of lacking nerve when they don't make the argument you haven't the nerve to make yourself... I picked these books up hoping to be swayed, moved, turned around by the Spirit at work in global Christianity. It's harder than I realized, too many potentially mitigating factors. They do, however, show the excitement of the challenge of world Christianity (Jenkins) and the difficulty of really being changed by what one thinks one has learned from it (Miller and Yamamori).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wave tapestries

From the Guy Fleming Trail, high above the Pacific, and on an afternoon of high tide and bright winter sunlight, you get a stunning view of the waves on the beach below. Each set of waves makes a different pattern, interacts differently with its predecessors and the sand and stones of the beach. I find this series sort of fits one's mood at the end of a year as one looks back on its ebb and flow...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Exotic dancing slug (?)

Found this remarkable fluorescent creature in a tide pool this afternoon. It's about 3-4cm long. Anyone have any idea what it is?

[In fact it appears to be a Spanish Shawl nudibranch (Flabellina iodinea), well-represented on the California coast, and in online photo galleries - small wonder!]

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Not quite snow, but the chamisse (above) in Torrey Pines State Reserve sure feels festive. And the Spanish dagger yucca (at left) seems ready for new year's! Love those squiggles!

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas from

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jet blues

Flew back to California last night. I arrived in San Diego at 2:45 am rather than 9:25 pm, but still count myself lucky. Our plane, scheduled to depart at 5:50, boarded at 7:40 and sat on the runway for another hour, the northbound runway at JFK closed because of weather. I thought we had it made when we finally departed, and marveled at snowy landscapes dully luminous in the light of a full moon... Then, just west of Denver, our pilot informed us that we were heading for an 11:45 landing in San Diego, but San Diego has an 11:30 curfew, so we would instead be landing at Ontario, one of Los Angeles' regional airports, and complete the final stretch by bus (2 hours).

The flight attendant assured us that we were lucky to be flying Jet Blue; other airlines would have canceled the flight. Maybe so. But other airlines might have flown into San Diego: turns out the curfew is only for take-offs, not landings. We were diverted to Ontario so that the plane could pick up a new load of passengers, and fly them, red-eye, to Washington, DC! I'm happy those folks got to their destination in time for Christmas, but a bit resentful that this was at my expense in time and mid-night taxi fare.

Oh well, clouds have silver linings. Thanks to the delays I did get to hear a fine jazz combo play "In a sentimental mood" at the terminal at JFK (how I love Ellington!), see sparkling Las Vegas from the air, and experience San Diego's fourteen-lane freeways empty of cars.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Yule (b)log

This is a famous part of Christmas in New York, the WPIX yulelog, played for twenty-four hours on Christmas by a television station for people who don't have fireplaces but don't want to forego the traditions of Christmas around the fireplace. (The TV's probably already the focal point of your living room.) Quite ecological too, in its way, I suppose. Now you can download it onto your PDA or i-Phone - or blog! (Remember to press play.)
If you play it, youtube will connect you with many imitators. I experienced one, an updated (not improved) version on DVD, with my friends J and A yesterday - theirs looked more like something from a horror film, and the "crackling" soundtrack occasionally slipped into a brief Christmas carol and back out again, but it was in high-res and letter-box format! This fire never changes, never burns down. Even so, A had us when, at a certain point, she leaned forward and said "this is my favorite part!" and we all leaned forward expectantly...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

MoMA rocks

Went to MoMA today to see an exhibition which closes in a few weeks on Seurat's drawings. Very interesting. But I also got to see an exhibit of sculptures by Martin Puryear, an artist I did not know. The objects are large and beautifully crafted, mainly of wood, often hollow. (The whole exhibition's viewable here.) The piece at right, C. F. A. O. (Compagnie Française de l'Afrique Occidentale), is uncharacteristically figurative and spiky - an inverted African mask, behind which a dizzying maze of pine struts evoke at once the nails and other objects hammered into the heads of masks, a construction site, and Piranesi (wonderful plays of light and shadow back there), all in a wooden wheelbarrow... It's magnificent and terrifying.

And since I was going to MoMA anyway I had an excuse to check out their films series, where I was delighted to discover they were screening Lloyd Bacon's 1933 "Footlight Serenade," one of the most spectacular of the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. I brought along my housemate and his Finnish girlfriend, and it blew their minds. How racy the early 1930s were - "honeymoon house" sure seems like a brothel, for instance! And what an extra- ordinary mind Busby Berkeley had, building castles in the sky of women's bodies... though the "Shanghai Lil" sequence (check it out!) is pretty amazing, too, cinematographically but also as a historical document about the American view of China... and what to make of the fact that the soft-porny fountain of women in "By a waterfall" (also available on youtube) is followed by these military formations of American sailors? The first time I saw this film I was working on Watsuji, and a Pan Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere made a lot of sense as a bulwark against the threatening tide of titillating triviality from America...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Our better angels

The performances of the final scenes in Religion & Theater really bowled me over: such rich material, such serious issues, so well done. Seminars just peter out - in a class like this the class gives itself to itself at the end, with all the powers of theater! You could do a lot worse than read just the scenes they had picked to see the value of a course on religion and theater! (And these were largely plays we didn't read!)

I took a few pictures; here are some. (You know that I usually don't post pictures of people I care about. It's not that I don't care about these students - I find that I care very deeply, and mourn the end of our adventures together. But I'm not telling you their names.)

However I will tell you the plays from which these scenes are taken: Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (Joe and Harper at right; Prior and the angel below); Archibald MacLeish's "J. B." (J. B. in anguish as Mr. Zuss/God and Nickels/Satan play chess); Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit" (they realize they are each other's torturers in hell); José Rivera's "Marisol" (Marisol overwhelmed as an angel tells of the rebellion she is leading); and Steven Adly Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" (Satan is called to testify in the trial of Judas). I don't have pics of all the scenes, including two more from Guirgis and one from "Inherit the Wind" (where I made a brief appearance as a bigoted judge with three lines).Do notice, please, how creative the students were, staging their scenes without lighting, without props, without, indeed, a theater! (We do a kind of "poor theater" here, faute de mieux!) Students made use of every part of the large hall where the class met. Particularly ingenious it was to make use of the elevator - as Prior in "Angels in America" flees the angel brandishing the book of death) she runs down the aisle to the elevator, frantically pressing the button, and somehow they manage to keep the scene going until the elevator door opens! A few interesting points in common across the scenes (which tells you something about the way religious themes or images lend themselves to theater, or are borrowed by it): lots of angels, several scenes in hell (or purgatory), and the inescapability of the problem of evil. So much more to learn! Hope they let us do this again, and again!!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Final scenes

Today's the last day of class - our Religion & Theatre students are performing scenes from a number of plays. They've even cast C and me in bit parts. C is a jailer in a prison play, and I'm the bigoted judge in "Inherit the Wind." I'm sure they're not trying to tell us something...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

This yoke ain't easy, or burthen light

I went to the 40th annual Messiah Sing-In at Lincoln Center tonight - I'd forgotten how hard Handel is to sing! Even when the words are "his yoke is easy and his burthen is light," the voices are like swimmers doing some busy bobbing stroke in a long swimming pool, each in their own lane. We were in the top back so the expected sense of getting lost in a loud crowd didn't quite happen... But I still like the idea of it all, and the intro reminiscing about the creation of the "sing-in" in the age of the "sit-in," the "teach-in" and the "love-in" was sort of cool.

But the point today at which I was ready to cast off the yoke was this morning, when a process my fellow faculty senators and I had come up with to allow faculty participation in the choice of a new dean seemed to be turning into a nightmare of bitterness and recrimination... Not among us four senators, thank goodness, but we still thought that a meeting we were running this afternoon would be a big scapegoating bonanza with everyone else turning on us. And this just a week after we received a volley of e-mails thanking us for creating a rare moment for faculty participation!

I suppose I should back up a bit. Our university has a reputation for being progressive, but this doesn't mean we're very democratic. At the faculty senate, where representatives of the several divisions meet to discuss issues of common concern, we noticed last month that faculty seemed to have no voice in the selection and reappointment of deans - something some divisions at least had once had. So we passed a resolution demanding a role. For us Lang representatives, the issue was more than theoretical: our dean comes to the end of his term in June, and has indicated informally that he will not be staying on. And yet no public announcement was made, so no decisions about composing a search committee or whatever were made or even discussed. By the time the faculty senate passed its motion in mid-November, it was already too late to hope for a national search, and one member of our faculty had been quietly taking people to lunch and letting on that it seemed he was soon to be appointed interrim dean, and what did we think of it... He would make a good dean, but this was no way for him to be appointed.

So we senators proposed a process (which I borrowed from a similar case at another division a few years ago), where (i) all faculty eligible to vote in faculty meetings would be sent a list of all faculty eligible to be dean in terms of seniority and rank; (ii) faculty could nominate people from this list; (iii) those nominated would have the option of running or withdrawing their names; those interested in standing for election would distribute a vision statement; (iv) there'd be an open meeting for the faculty to consider the needs of the college and the various vision statements [that's today's meeting]; and (v) after an electronic vote, the top three names would be sent to the university president (unranked). We ran this proposed process by the president, the provost, the Lang council of chairs and general faculty meetings, and it was approved by all. Then we had exactly two weeks for the whole process to happen - crazy, but the late start was not our fault - and we acted with amazing speed and integrity, not to mention before anyone else even started thinking about this.

Sooooo the list of eligible candidates went out (about twenty). Thirteen were nominated (including yours truly). And then ... twelve of these (including yours truly) declined the nomination for various reasons, and the thirteenth - our able faculty friend - produced the only vision statement. It was a very good vision statement, but now what were we to do? The process we'd designed hadn't envisaged this outcome, and in a sense had become moot: if our purpose was to construct a list of up to three names of faculty members who were nominated and willing to serve, we had succeeded.

Which left, however, today's meeting. And this morning, as everyone weighed in on what should or should not happen at the meeting, we senators were all ready to give up even this gentle involvement in politics forever! The irony, I suppose, is that things seemed to be getting so wildly out of hand because we didn't really need the meeting for our process, so people thought of a hundred other things a meeting would be good for or, if run the wrong way, would be bad for. All sorts of people weighed in on what our agenda should be, who should be invited, if the dean should be present, if there should be a vote, etc., etc. Meanwhile others were insinuating that we had rigged the whole process in order to arrive at this result, or, to the contrary, that we were incompetent for not having forseen this result. We were giving our colleague too strong a mandate, said some; too weak or ambiguous a one, said others... On and on and on, all through yesterday and into this morning - and remember that there are four of us senators, so everything had to be sent back and forth between us. And it's the last week of classes, and we all had classes today, meetings with students, etc.!

Well anyway, amazingly, we survived. More than that, it was a really good meeting! And now everyone is clapping us on the back again for designing such a good process. What happened was simply this: we had a three-point agenda and said so. The dean came for the first, and explained the demands of the deanship - very interesting. Then the likely next dean took questions on his vision - and convinced the remaining doubters that he's up to the job. Finally, we decided whether or not we still needed a vote of some kind, and passed a resolution recommending our colleague for a three-year term.

In relief, like prisoners who've escaped execution, we senators fled to a bar for a drink and rubbed our eyes. Could the meeting from hell have actually turned out to be an important moment of faculty governance? In one sense we're just where we would presumably have been without the process - same single candidate likely to be the next dean. But in other senses, everything's different. The nomination process showed both that there are many able and that there are few willing to take up the thankless position of acting dean, and today's meeting provided an endorsement of our best bet. And by fashioning a vision statement he's already begun a relationship of accountability to the faculty which we've never had with past deans.

The best thing might actually just have been the drama of it. For today's meeting, for the first time ever (or in a long time), was run by the faculty: we senators sat at a long table, and invited the dean to join us for a report, and then he left the room; then we invited the candidate to join us and he then left the room; finally, we presided over a discussion concerning the faculty's views on the deanship. Isn't that what faculty governance looks like?

What felt best was knowing that we had, in the end, done our job: designing a good democratic process.

In any case: whew. Academic politics can be like a refiner's fire!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Got it!

I think I've cracked this sticky date pudding thing. Today's attempt (just take two), somewhat tweaked from last week's, turned out simply divine, moist, rich, delicious. And it looks like the Bungle Bungles, besides!
(Okay so maybe it doesn't look as good as it tastes!) Here's the recipe, slightly amended from one I found on a website of the Far North Queensland ABC:
300g seeded dry dates
475ml boiling water
1.5 tsp baking soda
50g chopped unsalted butter
150g brown sugar (= 3/4 cup)
3 eggs
1.5 cups self-raising flour

For the Butterscotch Sauce:
150g brown sugar (= 3/4 cup)
300ml heavy cream
80g chopped butter

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees (375).
2. Coarsely chop dates. Pour over boiling water, and stir in baking soda. Let stand for 5 minutes.
3. Pour date mixture in blender, add butter and sugar; chop (don’t puree).
4. In a mixing bowl add eggs and flour to date mixture; whisk.
5. Pour mixture into Bundt cake mold sprayed with Pam. Cook for one hour (when a toothpick comes out clean). Let stand for 10 minutes, then turn onto a serving plate.
6. As it cools, combine butterscotch sauce ingredients in a saucepan, stirring over low heat till sauce is smooth, and thickened slightly.
7. Cut cake in slices and pour sauce over it. Ready to serve!

Optional: serve with vanilla ice cream.

I've a hunch this will become the house dessert here at 265 Prospect Place, though now that I've crossed the baking threshold, who knows what comes next! Cheesecake? Sachertorte? Baba au rhum? Kalter Hund?

All theorized out

While I'm sharing end-of-semester reflections with you, here's the skeleton of what I told my Theorizing Religion students I hoped they had got from the class:

We’ve covered:
A history of an idea ("religion")
A history of a conversation (texts refer to each other, and we can intervene in their dialogue)
A history of a discipline (religious studies)

But also:
A history of other concepts and their interrelation (what religion is contrasted with: superstition, magic, science, morality, politics, art, etc.)
A history of disciplines (religious studies was in the vicinity at the birth of many others - and the disciplinary landscape is changing still)
A history of modernity (and our ways of understanding it/ourselves)

By understanding how we got here - why we think as we do about religion - you're able to think beyond the prejudices of the age, and well-prepped to recognize and respond to the challenges of a new world that is post-modern, post-colonial, post-secular, and globalized

In your responses and discussion you’ve found language for your own views of religion, whether you think it or its varieties true or false, good or bad. Keep testing it out on new experiences and traditions!

My tip is to keep an eye especially on:
Religion and politics, which are being renegotiated as we speak
Religion, privatization and gender; each of these affects the others, don't think you can understand any with all of them!

Sunday, December 16, 2007


You really never know who's reading your blog... Remember my little rumination on why the audience at a performance for the Feast of Virgen de Guadalupe in the cathedral in Los Angeles might have wanted to touch Suzanna Guzman, the soprano who played the part of the Virgen, while she was in costume? Well, Suzanna Guzman read my blogpost (!) and has written a really beautiful response to it. Check it out - and feel free to join the conversation!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

1000 tongues

Ever heard of the 1979 film "Jesus," also sometimes referred to as the Jesus film? Well, it's been seen six billion times, and is available in many languages. Many many languages - they're charging ahead, looking forward to their thousandth language. You can watch it in hundreds of language online.

I learned about the film from Philip Jenkins' The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, a book I'll be using as a complicating coda to next semester's course on the religious right in America (to break free from the secular/religious and American-centered approach the topic seems to invite, but also to show the parochialism of these approaches). Jenkins' argument, in a nutshell, is that the Bible is read differently in the two-thirds world than in the historic centers of Christianity, and, even more significantly, that different passages and books and stories and proverbs are most prized. (The Old Testament is more real to believers in the South because the world it describes, hopelessly foreign to modern Europeans and Americans, resonates powerfully with the lived experiences of many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.) And once the Bible is translated (and Jenkins notes that much depends on the sequence in which they're translated) it becomes the property of those whose language it is in; they see it not as coming from Europe, the US or wherever, but directly from God.

Jesus may look like an American from the 1970s, but he talks like one of you: in Aari, Aceh, Rabinal Achi, Acholi, Adangme, Adi, Adygey, Afar, Afrikaans, Aja-Gbe, Akha, Aklanon, Alaba, Albanian, Kosovar Albanian, Alur, Amharic, Amoy, Guerrero Amuzgo, Oaxaca Amuzgo, Anuak, Anyin, Apinaye, Chadian Spoken Arabic, Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, Hassaniya Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Modern, Standard (Egyptian) Arabic, Moroccan Spoken Arabic, North African Arabic, Sudanese Spoken Arabic, Aringa, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Assamese, Assyrian, Ateso, Atitlan Mixe, Aukaans, Avar, Awadhi, Central Aymara, Nahuatl Guerrero Aztec ... and that's just the languages starting with A.

As Jenkins puts it, the Anglo-American captivity of the church is over. Should I not be sharing this good news, these thousand new things that God is doing, with students? In fact I'm putting it side by side with some material on the youth-oriented "emerging church" in the USA, which has left the fundamentalists behind and is reimagining Evangelical religion in conversation with our culture, scientific, secularized, sexually liberated and all. Translation continues!

Kant in America?

A friend send me this hilarious spoof on the attack ads which start flooding American television stations as elections approach. The pacing and background music are spot-on, and it's pitch-perfect right to the very end!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Saxton Freymann

Just found a calendar for my sister (don't tell her) of food art by someone named Saxton Freymann. These are earlier pictures of his. Adorable, no?

In touch with the Virgen de Guadalupe

I read about an interesting performance for the feast of the Virgen de Guadaupe (it was Wednesday) at the cathedral in Los Angeles. Suzanna Guzmán, who plays the Virgen, describes something very interesting:
Ms. Guzmán, ... has performed as the Virgin seven times.
She said that she had sung all over the world, most recently appearing with Plácido Domingo in the Los Angeles Opera’s “Luisa Fernanda” last summer, but that only after a performance as the Virgin of Guadalupe have people wanted to touch her. It made her so uncomfortable, she said, that she now removes her mantle to take her bows to make sure there’s no confusion.
“It’s the most surreal event,” she said.

Surreal, yes, for her. But for the viewers more than surreal. More like really real. They don't think they're actually touching the Virgen, but they're surely doing more than touching a symbol. It gets them closer to the Virgen. They're touching something real. Not the Virgen, but not not the Virgen. Perhaps one could describe it as touching her touch.

I think it's an illustration of the continuum of transubstantiation I waxed lyrical about in my closing thoughts on Religion & Theater.

PS This post produced an exciting exchange with Guzman herself! I've taken out one posting, which named names; here's the upshot:
Hearing from you because of my blog is like getting a rose at Dios Inantzin without even being able to be there! Thank you so much for your beautiful account. It's wonderful to hear more about what you were feeling, and to sense the rightness of Valenzuela's having you form the hinge as the fourth wall opened (to mix metaphors). It shows how complex but also how rich the interpenetration of performer and role - and religious object - in religious drama can be...
I should perhaps explain that my friend C and I are nearing the end of a semester-long team-taught course called "Religion & Theater" at Eugene Lang College, part of the New School in New York City. (C's an actor and director; I'm in religious studies.) Through readings of plays and theoretical texts from religious studies, acting exercises, improv and discussion we have been exploring the ways in which theatrical performances are and are not like religious ones. It's a suggestive topic (more like a world of topics), very hard to address at any level but platitudes: the "vocation" of the actor, the "sacred space" created by the fourth wall, the "drama" of liturgy, the "communitas" which theatrical performances as well as religious observances offer performers and viewers, etc. - even as actor training bristles with religious ideas from yoga to shamanism to transubstantiation! Would you mind if we shared your reflections with our students?

Save the date

I had a religious studies party at our place tonight, and it was lots of fun. We were about fifteen people in all, about two-thirds students, and I'd spread some Christmas lights along the wall and candles (including an Advent wreath) added to the ambiance. My trusty computer played a mix of religious music: Hariprasad Chaurasia; a new agey Chinese Buddhist CD called Paramita (bought in Taiwan); hymns in Pitjantjatjara, sung by the Ernabella Mission Choir in 1966; Chanticleer singing Renaissance Christmas music; saxophonist Jan Gabarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's surprisingly sublime collaboration Officium; some praise songs to al-Chisti by Yusuf Malik (bought in Ajmer); a contemporary Gospel music collection called Spirit Rising 2; and LeeAnn Womack's "I hope you dance." But the real hit of the evening was my first Sticky Date Pudding with Butterscotch Sauce, something nobody's heard of here - I learned of its existence in Australia myself - but everyone wants me to make again. (The picture's of the Platonic ideal - I didn't have a chance to take a picture of my own before most of it disappeared.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rorschach Test

Our final text in Theorizing Religion was Karen McCarthy Brown's Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, a pathbreaking work of feminist anthropology and a way of bringing the subject of study home to us right here in New York City.

McCarthy Brown is a white woman whose study of Haitian vodou over twelve years culminated not only in this book but in a friendship with "Mama Lola," the main object of her study, and in a spirit marriage to Ogun, one of the Lwa (Vodou deities) Mama Lola venerates and is possessed by (!). Because she includes this information in her account, the book never fails to produce strong reactions in students. Some love her for being so honest about the ethnographer's work - traditional ethnography writes out the ethnographer, and so neither considers the ways the ethnographer must inevitably affect the community she's visiting nor admits and explores the ethnographer's prejudices, reactions and changes in response to the new environment, so McCarthy Brown's putting herself in the picture actually makes her account more not less objective. Some think her marriage to Ogun (which means she has to save every Wednesday for him alone) is a sign of her seriousness and openness to the validity of the tradition she was studying. Others think that she has crossed one or several lines, as researcher and even as a person. They have strong opinions about what she should and should not have done, and should and should not have written about - the best kind of questions as we close our semester exploring how one does this thing called religious studies.

Indeed it's a good text to wind up with because it cracks everything open again. How should we approach our object of study? is "critical distance" desirable or even possible? can or should one approach the tradition one studies as a live option, as true or potentially true, or should one "suspend judgment" somehow? I think the stakes on these questions familiar from other interpretative disciplines are that much higher in religious studies because taking another religious tradition seriously means in some way taking seriously the possibility that the universe may be differently structured or peopled than you have assumed (remember my new brief for religious studies: we alone confront students with the fact that there is no consensus on the real). And because Mama Lola is a Vodou priestess, McCarthy Brown's book also forces anew (or new) questions of what should count as a religion. Reading this book some students realize (or have to admit to themselves) that, their own past pronouncements notwithstanding, they think religions have to have a hierarchy, or a sacred text, or a venerable tradition, or at least not be "syncretistic"... What fun!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Religion & theater conclusions

As promised, here (in condensed form) is my preliminary synthesis- summary in Religion & Theater. Not sure how much sense it makes out of context; I can amplify if you ask... but several of these are things I blogged at the time.

What will I remember from this course?

I’ll remember:
• Your wonderful improvs, starting with the first, and especially the sweetness of the sacred space improv
• The hand grenade effect of “Hell House
• The miracle of Guirgis’ Last Trial of Judas Iscariot bringing us together around being tricked

I’ll remember:
• Being shattered by Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman
• My delighted discovery that Atsumori’s a love story
• Horror at pure-hearted Hester’s killing of her son in Suzan Lori-Parks' In the blood, worse than Agave and Pentheus

I’ll remember:
• Working out how Sor Juana uses theater to make visible invisible transubstantiation in The Divine Narcissus (more on this below), which led to
• Seeing Waiting for Godot's “nothing to be done” as evoking Holy Saturday desolation

I’ll remember:
• A new way of reading plays — not as text but as something more like a recipe for a Golem (just add blood)
• The excitement of engaging the whole body (Fitzmaurice trembling!), non-verbal knowing and sharing, but also
• My surprise that many of you are leery of "efficacy"

I’ll remember:
• The joyful discovery of religion-like aspects of theater, but also
• Understanding Plato’s and Rousseau’s suspicions about the theater as dazzling us with attributes to the point where we become deaf to underlying substance, but also
• Appreciating that the actor’s piety (even monasticism) may present an openness to transcendence which audiences, seeing a play only once, never sense

I could go on and on… Instead, let me try to present some of what I’ve learned, under three headings

A. Religion & Theater

Our starting hypotheses were wrong, at least crude. Theater ain’t religion, and religion ain’t theater, and focusing on what they have in common we may miss what’s essential to them. But for that very reason it’s worth trying to argue out: t=r, r=t, t ain’t r, r ain’t t. One opening issue I still think a valid, and shared one, is the one raised in the essay by Donald Lopez: how do you generate and sustain visible belief? This seems a concern religious practitioners and theater practitioners share, in surprisingly similar and revealingly different ways.

And who said you had to choose between religion and theater? Maybe they can collaborate. Maybe they're on a continuum.

So the experiment’s a success. We learn through falsification! As we've multiplied our knowledge of theatrical and religious traditions, we've seen the fatuity of Bert's bold but bland assertion that "theater is religion!" but also that there's much to learn about religion and theater by exploring them together.

B. Theater & Polytheism

I find myself thinking there is an affinity between theater and the bleak confusing inhuman world of Greek polytheism: a world we do not control, but rather pushes us around for reasons which have nothing to do with us. As Martha Nussbaum argued in her fascinating preface to C. K. Williams' translation of The Bacchae, dramas such as this one show humans creating a fragile human world - a world of justice - in the spaces we are left between the animal and the god. It seems no accident that the Greeks speak to us anew post Galileo and Darwin; the disenchanted modern world is not that different from the world of the Greek tragedies.

(There is also another sense in which I’ve caught myself thinking about theater as polytheism, or even serial monotheism: the enthusiastic, almost fanatical giving of self to the god of the moment and then moving on to another god. Or is it sacrificing every other god to the god of theater?)

3. Religion & Christianity

The above are just hunches. The main thing I've realized is that the history of theater has a shape familiar from the history of philosophy, which you might call the zero-sum story: X flourished until the rise of Christianity, and only with the subsiding of Christianity did X return. It's the implicitly secular humanist story (though it's compatible with the more liberal Protestantisms) which structured the curricula of American colleges at the turn of the 20th century, and it makes "religious theater" as dubious a concept as "religious philosophy." Even those transitional pieces - Everyman and other Moralities - are read in a humanistic way as mainly symbolic or allegorical (which is why a literal-minded modern Morality like "Hell House" so throws us). The world of the sacraments is far behind. Marlowe does the work of secularizing/psychologizing a religious story for us in Doctor Faustus, and makes the religion-renouncing move seem not only liberating but excitingly dangerous.

The influential recent theories of Victor Turner and Richard Schechner, too, are secular humanist theories. Their accounts of "liminality," "efficacy," "communitas" and the like see theater/ritual/religion solving psychological and social human problems, but the relationship of the human (or the human world) and the non-human is off the map.

My favorite texts in this class - the ones I'm happiest we had the chance to introduce you to - are the ones which fit this theater-must-be-secular story least: the Counter-reformation works of Calderon and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Here is theather in full flower, but instead of retreating in embarrassment from the sacramants it makes transubstantiation the focus and key. Sor Juana seems to me to align the very essence of theater with the essence of her religion (which she thinks resonant with non-Christian traditions like Ovid and the Aztec). It's not proto-disenchanted Protestantism, but sees in the theater's remarkable play of attributes and substance a visible representation of the invisible reality of the Eucharist - and a reminder that the world (as conspicuously in Calderon's Life's a dream) is not fixed and inert but alive and marvelous. Theater isn't actual transubstantiation, but it's on a kind of continuum with it. (You might say it's what Thomas Aquinas called a "real analogy" of the workings of God.)

(The success of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses shows contemporary people still know – or are in some way still prepared to believe – that there can be exchanges and transformations between the human and non-human.)

I hope this course has exposed you to enough different texts and traditions to free you from the ghosts of an obsolete history of theater as essentially secular. Fully human it doubtless is, but this need not mean the denial of a broader theater of the world in which animal, god and human interact. Theater, we found Stanislavsky saying, involves transubstantiation: I challenge you to take this and run with it. Imagine that this isn't just as-it-were transubstantiation, and certainly not the closest thing to real metamorphosis in the world: that makes it mere sleight of hand, and ratifies views of the world as inert and meaningless. Might theater's powers of illusion and reality have the potential to take us beyond the limits of this constraining humanism?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The new world

In the propenultimate session of Theorizing Religion, we talked about the demise of secularization theory and the significance of globalization. The implications for the theory of religion are staggering, as I only fully understood as I was prattling on about it in class. *This often happens.) Most of the theory of religion presupposes the state system, the myth of the autonomous agent, the idea that there are different spheres of life - politics, religion, ethics, art, etc.- each with its own essence (or Eigengesetzlichkeit, as Max Weber called it, translating svadharma). The anchor for our discussion was this passage from a very useful summary of recent theoretical work called Globalizing the Sacred:

[M]any ordinary believers and institutions find in religion resources to bridge the multiple identities and functions that they must perform in an increasingly complex world. More importantly, religion helps to link realities that modernity dichotomized and that globalization has now destabilized: the global and the local, tradition and modernity, the sacred and the profane, culture and society, and the private and the public.
Manuel A. Vasquez & Marie Friedmann Marquardt, Globalizing the Sacred:
Religion across the Americas
(New Brunswick, NJ & London: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 29

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The church thing

I think I'm starting to get the hang of this church thing, you know, that a church is a community. You might think this obvious, and that I should know this as a religious studies person if not as a churchgoer, but I guess I'm dense that way. It's hard for me to believe there's actually a community - not defined by family, friendship or shared workspace - I could or would want to be part of.

To my shame, despite my oft-repeated refrain in class that we no longer think religious traditions are constituted, let alone sustained, by what is said from the pulpit (instead we ask who's in the pews and why are they really here, are they listening and if so what are they hearing, etc.), my relationship with Holy Apostles has thus far been focused on the clergy (two of whom I count as friends). My contributions to the proceedings have been confined to occasional lectoring (reading the Old Testament text or Epistle), and two sojourns with the Sunday school-childcare group. Not that the rector hasn't pestered me (as he famously and in the end effectively pesters everyone) to get more involved in some other way - acolyte, sacristan, hospitality, whatever - but I have resisted his blandishments. "I'm already a sort of clerisy at school," I say, "here I want just to be an ordinary lay person."

But the ordinary Episcopal layperson does get involved, as I'm starting to understand - and not just a self-selected group consisting of the holier-than-thou, the attention-hog and the busybody. My eyes were opened last week when I agreed to be trained as a subsitute usher, and was thrown right into it. The service is entirely different if you're an usher: before it begins you're greeting people and/or handing them prayer books and hymnals; during it you do the offertory collection, then bring it up to the altar; during communion you direct people to the kneelers; at the end you collect and reshelve the prayer books and hymnals; and one member of the ushering team keeps count of how many people attend and how many people receive communion. In short, you're all over the place - at the back, along the aisles, at the corners of the sanctuary. And the Eucharist feels completely different, seeing it from so many angles and participating in the choreography of it all, noticing, indeed, that it is at the center of all this choreographed activity. And since you have to show up a bit early, you see the legions of other lay people doing their various appointed tasks. It's actually a major operation with many precisely moving parts, and all but a few of them are laypeople.

I suppose this happens also in Catholic churches, but less so, and in bigger congregations I imagine only a small subset of parishioners participates. But Holy Apostles is just the right size that almost everyone is doing something every few weeks, not just the teacher's pets. It's kind of wonderful.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Winter means soup

Have I mentioned that winter has arrived? Snow occasionally dances in the air, and sometimes surfaces leaves and branches of trees for short spells - the leaves are decisively gone. Temps hover from the 30s to the high 40s (under 10C). Time for winter soups! So today's project (besides seeing "The Golden Compass," good work and don't believe a word about the film having dropped the wonderful but profoundly anti-Christian plot) was going to the famous temple for foodies Zabar's to get a pressure cooker. This is the one I got - from Kuhn Rikon, a Swiss company the New York Times apparently described as the "Mercedes Benz of pressure cookers." Better still, it was on sale. And my first project - Linsensuppe (lentil soup) of course - was delicious, and ready in minutes! Now all I need is one of those soft light-as-air down duffel jackets everyone's wearing (the next project) and I'm all set for winter!

Friday, December 07, 2007

If it's a trick

Our last play in Religion & Theater (from here on in students work on scenes for a final showing, and a final synthesis paper) was Steven Adly Guirgis' wonderful The Last Trial of Judas Iscariot. It's a very Catholic play in one way - full of saints - but it's also full of questions; the two acts are called "God help my unbelief" and "For God so loved the world" (admittedly in Latin). It's full of religious goodies but also a rollicking good show, full of humor, complex characters and surprise. Maybe because its characters (with names like Saint Monica and Caiaphas the Elder and Mother Theresa and Sigmund Freud) talk like people from a gritty cop show, it managed to charm all the students. Not just those students who are religious or sympathetic to religion, but those who think religion is the enemy of everything precious. I wouldn't have thought it possible. Maybe it's because Guirgis isn't proselytizing but rather showing a living religious world, with all its tensions and tendernesses and open-endedness.

One point on which everyone was pleased to agree - I thought people on all sides would reject it - was a claim which appears in the closing monologue by a heretofore insignificant character, the jailor of Judas Iscariot. Here's part of the monoloque, which tells how he met his wife, recounting their first date:

Two days later, we went out on a date . . . On the way back, I was driving her home, and we passed by this house where my friend Dave Hoghe used to live who had died . . . I hadn't been by his house since he passed. The family didn't live there no more. But when I saw the house, I got struck with this feeling, and I asked her if she wouldn't mind if we just pulled up in front of that house and just sat in the car for a while. She said: "Sure." So I parked, and we just sat in the car or a while. Quiet. Not sayin' nothin'. And before I knew it, Mister Iscariot, I was tearing up - 'cuz this kid, he had been a real good friend of mine, ya know - and then, I just started crying, Mister Iscariot. I couldn't help myself and I couldn't shut it off. And I was real embarrassed, and she just, she just held me while tears and snot and whatnot just poured outta me and onto her little white sweater . . . And she didn't mind about that . . . She didn't mind at all . . . At some point, I drove her home, and we got to her door, and, well, God, it was like, I'll tell ya - it was like peaches and dynamite . . . And before I left, I apologized to her about the crying and all, and she said: "Don't be a jackass, Butch Honeywell," and I smiled, but then I went on to explain my meaning, which was - you know - if you want a girl to think you're sensitive or something, then maybe taking her to the house of your dead friend and crying all over her pretty white sweater might be a good way to pull it off, and, you know what she said, Mister Iscariot? . . . She looked at me for a good long while with them all the way dazzling eyes of hers and then she just said: "Well, if it was a trick . . . then I'm tricked."

"If it was a trick, then I'm tricked" became our mantra, enthusiastically endorsed by skeptics, critics and true believers alike! I guess it captures something elusive but very important about faith which everyone knows but doesn't know how to articulate. (I didn't have time to ask students what the house of the dead friend represented in this entirely secular monologue which, however, recapitulates images and scenes from the religious stories encountered earlier in the play.)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Belief netted!

Do you know about BeliefNet and its silly religious personality test Belief-O-Matic? You answer twenty questions and it lists the traditions with which you apparently have the most affinity. It's a trip - and/but the misunderstanding of religions is profound. I tried it a few years ago and found my best religious fits to be:

Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (100%)
Orthodox Quaker (96%)
Liberal Quakers (92%)
Unitarian Universalism (82%)
Seventh Day Adventist (73%)
Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (70%)
Reform Judaism (66%)
Eastern Orthodox (62%)
Roman Catholic (62%)
Secular Humanism (59%)

There's so much wrong with this one doesn't really know where to begin! It takes the already odd idea that religions are mere bundles of beliefs to the point of absurdity by combining it with the bizarre but widely-held view that people choose their beliefs, compounding it all by mixing in the (appallingly irreligious) idea that religions are just ways of confirming or reinforcing your preexisting views! I invite you to try it, just to taste its absurdity (click the logo above). And then try to finagle your outcome by changing specific answers - I found I could move Catholicism near the top by changing my answer to a single question, and could bring Taoism (!) into my list by changing two.

I mention BeliefNet because it's just been acquired by News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's company. Their press release is pretty hilarious, too - requires no further comment from me!


World's Largest Spiritual Web Site Joins News Corporation Family

Fox Digital Media to Oversee Business as Part of Expanded Role

Los Angeles, CA, December 4, 2007: Fox Entertainment Group (FEG) today announced its acquisition of Beliefnet, a Web site that enables consumers to better understand their faith and build diverse spiritual communities by providing content and tools for a broad range of religions and spiritual approaches. Beliefnet, the largest online faith and spirituality destination, will become part of Fox Digital Media, spearheaded by President Dan Fawcett, which takes on an expanded role to support FEG's vast cable, TV and film brands online, and drive FEG's continued growth in the online market.

The acquisition provides Beliefnet with vast resources to further build and enhance its already popular brand. It also offers an online platform for FEG to distribute content from its extensive media library and for News Corp. to expand its faith-based businesses, including HarperCollins, Zondervan and HarperOne brands, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's faith-based programming initiative.

Additionally, Beliefnet will provide unique, world-renowned spiritual programming to the company's various businesses. Beliefnet will also partner closely with Fox Interactive Media, leveraging the group's world-class technology and "FIM Serve" targeted advertising delivery platform.

"Beliefnet has garnered respect for its commitment to quality, editorial strength and unbiased approach to faith and spirituality from a broad range of consumers, religious and political leaders, journalists and advertisers," said Dan Fawcett, President of Fox Digital Media. "FEG's goal is to leverage these characteristics across a broader media canvas and provide programming, production, advertising sales, technology and marketing expertise that will enhance an already terrific product in a rapidly growing market."

Beliefnet provides devotional tools, access to the best spiritual teachers in the world, thought-provoking commentary and a portfolio of Web-based social networking tools to enable a supportive community surrounding each person's unique spiritual principles and beliefs. Its insightful and compelling editorial content has been consistently recognized by the American Society of Magazine Editors and the site has received numerous general excellence awards. Beliefnet strives for political and ideological balance and is not affiliated with any spiritual organization or movement.

"FEG's vast resources will enable Beliefnet to expand our audience, enhance our offerings and more effectively carry out our mission to help people find and walk a spiritual path that brings comfort, hope, clarity, strength, and happiness," said Steven Waldman, Beliefnet's CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder.

Savvian LLC advised Beliefnet on this transaction. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The Faith and Spirituality market is strong and continues to grow. According to the Pew Internet Project, over 82 million Americans and 64% of all Internet users utilize the Web for faith-related matters. In addition, a division of put the demand for religious and spiritually-oriented materials like books, DVDs, software, etc. at well beyond $8 billion.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Our hallway is feeling more like Manhattan than Brooklyn! Amazing to think that everything in Trevor's boxes will soon be happily accom- modated again in its accustomed shelf or drawer. But it feels really nice to have the apartment full. I'd almost forgotten that I like living with other people's things - as I have since 2001.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Because snakes are long

Haven't reported on the Religion & Theater class for a while. That's not because nothing's been happening, but rather because so much has. I was intrigued by Antonin Artaud's crazy ambition for the theater:

If music affects snakes, it is not on account of the spiritual notions it offers them, but because snakes are long and coil their length upon the earth, because their bodies touch the earth at almost every point; and because the musical vibrations which are communicated to the earth affect them like a very subtle, very long massage; and I propose to treat the spectators like the snakecharmer's subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms to an apprehension of the subtlest notions.
Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double
trans. Richards (NY: Grove Press, 1958), 81

I find I'm having a hard time getting theater students to admit to such an ambition, or even a less mad-sounding version of it. "Theater should be fun!" When presented with a contrast between theater as instruction or pleasure (Bertolt Brecht) or efficacy or entertainment (Richard Schechner), most students choose the safe, polite pleasure, entertainment. While they are certainly keen on riding the wave of energy of an audience, the transformations which intrigue them (though they are sometimes rather unambitious here, too) are their own.

Next week, C and I will be presenting our synthesizing thoughts on what the class has covered. With your leave, I'll post them here once I have them.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Water everywhere

Our snow is gone, but there's plenty of precipitation elsewhere. I understand very dry, indeed drought-stricken, places I know well have been getting rain in spades in the last day: two and a half inches in San Diego, and flooding in Melbourne (above)! I was going to say "strange" but it isn't strange anymore. One's come to expect freakish weather.

I feel a bit remiss for not mentioning Howard's decisive rout in the recent elections - he lost his seat too! - since this blog is advertised as having something to do with keeping Australia in mind. Today I can at least mention that his successor (imagine if we had so quick a succession in this country, instead of waiting most of three months from the first Tuesday of November to January 20th) has as his first act officially signed the Kyoto Treaty - not a moment too soon, since the Bali round will presumably supersede it.

By the way, I've decided to teach a seminar on "Aboriginal Australia and the Theory of Religion" or something like that in Spring of 2009, in case too many people at school have started to believe that I really went to Australia only to see my sister and "to find an apartment in Brooklyn"!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Snowed in

Trounced again by the talented Jesse!


Imagine my surprise on looking out the window this morning to find - snow! Seems like just yesterday it looked like this, and just a few moments before that like this...

It's been twenty months since I've seen snow! (But I do know more than the kids I saw on 23rd Street after church this morning, earnestly harvesting snow from parked cars and placing it in a sled they pulled along the already snowless sidewalk!) (Or is that a vision of things to come? I gather there wasn't much snow here last year for me to miss.)

Friday, November 30, 2007


My flatmate Trevor is finally moving in this weekend! (This sunny room - the brightest in the apartment - will be his bedroom, so one or both of these sofas - inherited from Paul and Alice, who found them on the street - will return to the street.) Three months on my own in this apartment have made me both more eager at his arrival and more anxious about it. But the anxiety is general (sharing what's come to feel like my space with someone else) while the eagerness is particular (what fun to share with him), so while the transition will surely have its tensions a happy ending is assured!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A joke?

Just got back from a packed room where Ben Lee, the university provost, presented the latest version of the "university-wide academic plan" part of the university's "strategic plan." We've all been hearing rumors about impending "consolidation" of the university's many divisions and myriad programs, so people from all over the university showed up, eager to hear if their divisions or programs would survive into the new plan, whatever it would be, and if so in what form. This presentation was originally scheduled for early October, so the suspense has has a long time to build. (The plan turns out to be vague and politic enough that new things will happen along side old things rather than displacing or reorganizing them, at least right away. Lang's dilution continues.)

It's hard to know how serious any of this is - the provost kept stressing that it was provisional, temporary - or how things will be decided. Provost Lee is rather a hard man to read. When he first came in and found people standing in the back and along the sides and sitting in the aisles, he remarked that he was tempted to call out "fire drill!" Although delivered flatly, this was potentially very funny, but it is an odd thing to say to a bunch of people who are wondering if the perennially New School is a place to try to stay or start planning to leave. So: was it a joke? Or was it a slip - consciously no more than a way of noting that the room was overfull but unconsciously registering awareness of the anxieties of the people assembled? Should we have laughed so generously?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Stolen gold

Argh, beaten at my own game! I wish I'd taken this picture (love that last burst of green!), but it's the work of the mysterious "jesse" who responded to my last post. I think I know who this "jesse" is - but the person I'm thinking of lives in Brooklyn, while the slide show from which I pinched this picture is called Autumn in Manhattan (though some of its pictures seem to be winter!). A sly slide? Should I fall for this or not? Sounds like a plot twist which snuck across the wall into his room from next door, where I'm told Paul Auster writes...

Monday, November 26, 2007


The ginkgo tree down the street from me lost all its leaves the other day - except for the little branch above and in the center of the picture below. The leaves were so thick and moist that it was almost like snow!