Friday, September 28, 2007


Check out this amazing picture of the web of an orbweaver, just in front of the entrance to my parents' house in California. (Click the pic for detail.) My father (who took the picture) informs me: "The orbweaver is pretty big ... each evening he spins a new web, and each day the poor mailman has to go through it!"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Still time

Last night I finally watched Stanley Kramer's film of Neville Chute's "On the Beach" (1959). I remember reading the novel long ago, before Australia was a concept for me, let alone Melbourne, but it is in Melbourne that the last human beings alive live out their last few months before the cloud of nuclear radiation (from a war which has killed everyone else) makes its way down to them. It's not a particularly uplifting film, and the Australian accents of Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins (and the Englishish accent of Fred Astaire) are appallingly unconvincing. But it's powerful film-making, long shots, interesting music - indeed the soundtrack evokes all the lost places and people which the characters can't bear to think of... I thought I should include these scenes (pixilated because I watched the DVD on my laptop and then took a picture of it) because they show the route I so recently took every day down to the State Library of Victoria and, below, the plaza in front of it.These are among the final scenes in the film, and what we're seeing is all the people who are not there - all dead. (The government passes out suicide pills, giving a whole new meaning to the line "You'll never catch me alive, said he" from Waltzing Matilda, the main musical theme.) The second scene is the third time we've seen of this place: the first time a big crowd was gathered for a Salvation Army Rally. In the second, the crowd has thinned a bit. Now everyone's gone, and as flyers are pushed around by the wind, the banner calls out mutely...

Funny thing about black and white films, but also about films about the insanity of mutually assured destruction (MAD) - it seems like that world did end in annihilation. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part, wishing that the danger of nuclear annihilation has passed...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Had lunch today at Souen, our local macrobiotic place. I was actually heading for another place but went one block too far - and a happy reunion! Souen is a Japanese-run macrobiotic restaurant full of hanging plants; it feels like a crunchy place in a far smaller city. Their food is achingly healthy, but manages to be very tasty, as well!

I used to go to Souen quite a lot, until I took a visiting scholar from Germany there, who started going on about the faschistisches Gedankengut of the "radical health-food subculture," and how certain kinds of far-right young people in Germany congregate at such restaurants. (Hitler was vegetarian, remember.) I'd just learned from a colleague who works on Indian religion of the ways in which yoga centers in America support right-wing Hindu political movements in India - materially but also spiritually! Golly. Can it be a crime to eat kale?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A near perfect class

Our "Religion & Theater" class today was nearly perfect - a wonderful balancing and harmonizing of different materials, teaching styles and strategies. The reading was the second part of Mircea Eliade's The Myth of the Eternal Return, a powerful foundational text in religious studies whose working title was "archetypes and reptition." Already in the last class we'd discussed Eliade's claim that the rituals of many traditional societies involve the repetition of cosmogonic (world-creating) archetypes, practices in which traditional people find a deeper truer reality than in the contingency and suffering of ordinary life, and explored the ways in which this is and isn't like an actor's stepping into a role or mask.

This time we started with our customary stretch and went right into a walking exercise where, as we walked around, C asked each of us to walk like a warrior - then an innocent - then a lover - then a prophet - then a magician - then a prostitute - then a magician. We were to notice how our bodies shifted, posture, center of weight, etc., and then to find a single gesture which concretized the archetype and repeat it... then "shake it off, next archetype." Working with these archetypes (which aren't exactly the same as Eliade's but close enough for our purposes) is the centerpiece of a school of actor training associated with Michael Chekhov (above), nephew, incidentally, of the famous playwright.

Then we moved right into an improv: six groups of students were fiven a few minutes to work out a 2-minute performance - in silence - "evoking a sacred space." They did wonderfully, and the quality of the silence was so great that it felt like stillness. We had a long discussion after the performances which brought out very interesting things students had noticed in the skits of others, had planned in their own groups... and in some cases the skit had gone in a different direction than planned (neither uncommon in improv nor undesired). For one group whose members came to the center one by one and did some movements of worship; later ones were supposed - this was their idea - to watch the others as if they weren't sure of themselves, but then develop their own movements. In the event, however, the seven students' movements converged! Other students remarked on how attentive the members of the groups had been to each other's bodies, in each group - one of the gifts of silence. Another remarked that all the cynicism which had been on display in our first improvs (which I've already described for you) seemed to have disappeared.

Then it was my time to give a little lecture, interestingly different when you're sitting on the floor surrounded by a scraggly half-circle of students. I was just planning to do some quick review of Eliade (left) and flesh out his ideas about the centrality to religion of ritual and myth (which, I said, is something quite different from mere community-building and story-telling), and how they address - as mere explanations never could - the precariousness of human life, our powerlessness to control our destinies. These rituals and myths name truths about the human condition which modern secular discourse - but also modern "domesticated" religion - hardly have words for. But I became quite passionate as I made this argument, and ended (as planned, but with more feeling) with a brief account of how I came to religious studies, and to theater: religious studies helps me understand the ways in which human communities face the most terrifying and sad parts of their existence, even while making it possible the more dearly to cherish the love, the beauty, the fellowship which also happen. And theater, I find, I suspect, does some of these same things - every performance of a play consecrates a space and creates a world, new but old and in its way real in all the ways we wish our whole lives were real... Bla bla bla, I had fun, and I think I was getting through to people.

Finally C provided some background on Wole Soyinka (right), the Nigerian playwright whose masterpiece Death and the King's Horseman is our next text, and I showed a 2-minutes clip (thank you, Youtube) of Soyinka reading a poem (at an international poetry festival in Medellin!) and three short clips of Egungun dancing, which features prominently in the play.

Not bad for a single class: some famous actor training, effective improvs, rich discussion, impassioned lecture, video clips, the international community of artists... and it all fit together beautifully!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Singing sign language

I'm reading the new novella by Nigerian novelist Chris Abani, Song for Night (NY: Akashik Books, 2007). It is an almost unbearably beautiful book. Beautiful because of how it's written, the style but also the truth and tenderness of the writing; unbearable because of the story it tells - that of a fifteen year old boy soldier in Nigeria who has witnessed atrocities which take your breath away (his whole family is dead), and committed some, too, under duress or by accident. The landscape of war- ravaged villages, rivers full of corpses, etc. is described in short limpidly narrated scenes, but it's enough - any more would be too much, would shelter us from the realities described. (In this it reminds me of the stunning short stories of Ida Fink about the Holocaust in Poland.)

The novel's narrated by the boy, but it's not quite as simple as that. For starters, the chapter titles describe a sign language, which I found myself acting out more as I got farther in:

Silence is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat.
Night is a Palm Pulled Down Over the Eyes.
Death is Two Fingers Sliding across the Throat.
Imagination is a Forefinger between the Eyes.
Dawn is Two Hands Parting before the Face.
Love is a Backhanded Stroke to the Cheek.
Fish is a Hand Swimming through the Air.
Ghosts are a Gentle Breath over Moving Fingers.
Truth is Forefinger to Tongue Raised Skyward.
Mercy is a Palm Turning Out from the Heart.
Child's Play is a Forefinger Pointing to the Sky
while the Whole Body Gyrates.

Shelter is Hands Protecting the Head.
Music is Any Dance You Can Pull Off.

Perchance you found yourself miming them too...

Why sign language? Along with other children recruited to defuse landmines by a rebel army - the smaller and lighter the child, the better - his training ended with the cutting of his vocal chords so that when - almost inevitably - a child was blown up, its cries would not frighten the others. The children in his platoon communicate by a kind of telepathy anchored in this sign language. The book communicates in this telepathic way, too, and as a reader whose hands have shaped these words, you become part of an experience of extraordinary intimacy. The fact that the narrator may be dead - I haven't finished the book, some people he encounters have been treating him like a ghost, and a priest has told him that when people's souls are blown far from their bodies by an explosion their souls wander about in confusion, not even knowing they are dead - only adds to the strange power and terrible intimacy.

The conceit (though based in reality) of a silent (silenced) narrator allows Abani to evoke and convey horrors which defy language, even as he uses language. A marvel.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Washed up

The great Cornel West (one of my teachers!) came to New School yesterday to help launch a new book by one of our star faculty, Simon Critchley. Long story short: I ain't buyin' the book. The philosophical tradition from which he writes came out of the discussion seeming bloodless and loveless.

Simon started portentously: ancient philosophy began with wonder, my philosophy begins with disappointment. Religious disappointment ("God is dead") and political disappointment (the failure of left ideals). The options before us seem to be varieties of "passive and active nihilism": "military neoliberalism" (the US status quo), "neo-leninism" (terrorist attempts to upset the world order) and - his preference - "neo-anarchism," a chastened refusal to be coopted by the state while still working within it, hoping that spontaneous groups will come together into a popular front. What's to motivate this unpromising movement (Simon thinks the neoliberals will win; the system's designed to maintain perpetual disappointment) is a sense of the "infinite demand" of ethics and the habit of laughing at ourselves emerging from having learned from Socrates and Montaigne how to die.

Cornel was flattering about "brother Simon" with whom he shares a deep concern for the pervasive nihilism of modern life, but Simon's proposal vanished like a soap bubble as soon as Cornel called him on starting with disappointment. That's a Romantic thing, said Cornel, deftly contextualizing it in late German idealism. As an African-American he doesn't expect the world to make sense, and so he isn't disappointed when it doesn't. Sad, yes, and angry. But not disappointed. Ethics and politics shouldn't be based in mourning for something which may never have existed, and is better built on the experience of love of the least of these.

I can't do justice to the discussion but by the end of it I was persuaded that Simon's approach, and the post-post-modern philosophy from which he draws his inspiration, has lost all contact with the world. The best response to his view came in the answer a school teacher in the audience offered to a question from another school teacher which Simon had not taken seriously. The question was: what do you teach young people when you are yourself heart-broken over human prospects (my paraphrase)? Simon had answered "tell them the truth, or they'll find you out" and moved on. The second teacher - he teaches elementary school - spoke of how students and teacher find and learn hope in each other, in the very process of learning together. As he spoke I could just feel the love which informs and is enriched by his teaching - the love Cornel had spoken of - and could sense nothing remotely like it in Simon's chilly sophistries.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Contemporary masks

Here's a scene from a masked performance of Euripides' The Bacchae in 2002, directed by Peter Hall. Agave (played by William Houston) holds the head/mask of her son Pentheus, whom she killed while possessed by Dionysus. The masks are by Vicki Hallam.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Here's a striking claim I found in an article about the use of masks in modern performances of ancient Greek drama ...

Masks are almost ubiquitous in non-western cultures. The western and Islamic worlds are unusual in regarding the mask as a mode of concealment, not a mode of revelation and transformation. It seems to be a correlative of monotheistic religions that they want human nature to be single, not multiple.
David Wiles, "The Use of Masks in Modern Performance of Greek Drama,"
in Dionysus since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium,
ed. Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (OUP 2004), 245-6

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Up and down

T, my housemate-to-be, was telling me about the intensive book tour he recently completed for his book on the history of sushi in America: four weeks of flying into cities, checking into hotels, signing books, giving readings, being taken out to restaurants (mainly sushi of course), interviewed for radio and newspaper and even television... It's an incredible high, he says. Even if only a few people come to your signing, you feel on top of the world. As people line up to get you to sign your newest book they say the nicest things - how much they loved your last book, how they love the way you write, how much they're looking forward to reading the next one.

And then, he said, they're all gone, and you're all alone in a strange city without friends.

Until the next day, when it all begins again.

It's emotionally wrenching. The stresses and strains, the highs and lows, of teaching and the academic life are nothing by comparison. (In particular I realize, hearing him talking, how grateful I am never to be entirely alone - always part of a school, a department, a discipline, an educational culture. Not to mention the students!)

T's in town for the taping of an episode of Iron Chef America tomorrow morning, where he will be a guest judge for a fish cook-off. I don't get cable (though I suspect I could get a tape of this!), but if you happen to you might catch him flying high!

Monday, September 17, 2007


My housemate-to-be came up from Washington yesterday for a few days, which gave me a pretext for a dinner. Conveniently, the daughter of an old friend of mine in Japan - I hadn't seen her since she was in high school, and now she's a trained architect, married and lives in London - was passing through town with a friend who flew in from Tokyo, so it felt very cosmopolitan!

But the coolest thing was that we ate outside, by the light of candles under the stars (and planes - the flight path to La Guardia passes over our neighborhood on Sundays, I've since learned), serenaded by crickets. Our back yard is like our own little country retreat!

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Did I mention that the reason I managed last week's move so quickly was because someone (my coteacher C) had an extra ticket for the RSC’s King Lear at BAM, with Ian McKellen in the title part? Truth be told it took me a while to get into it, sleepless and frazzled as I was, but by the third hour I was gripped with pity and terror. (If it took me a while to get into it it wasn’t entirely my fault; all three daughters were played terribly, Gloucester was hollow and Edmund shallow.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lear performed before (not in English at least: I saw it in Tokyo once). And it’s been a good long while since I reread the play, so I got me to the library and found a fantastic edition of the play “with theater commentary” from the Applause Shakespeare Library: on pages facing the text, you can read about the different ways in which scenes, characters and lines have been played in famous productions of the past. An example; Goneril and Regan have joined forces to strip Lear of his retinue, and Lear has turned against them.

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age, wretched in both.
If it be you that stirs these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks.—No, you unnatural hags!
I shall have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall . . . I will do such things . . .
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep.
No, I’ll not weep.

Storm and tempest.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws
Or ere I’ll weep.—O Fool, I shall go mad!
(Act II, scene iv, 267-80)

Here’s some of the theater commentary:

With the words “O Fool, I shall go mad!” (l. 280), Henry Irving’s Lear fell on the fool’s shoulder and “sobbed aloud”; another observer called this a “wild wail” (Lear at the Lyceum [1893]). John Gielgud in 1931 said the words “in a voice become suddenly flat and toneless, quickened only with a chilling, objective interest in their no longer contestable truth” (Spectator). Another interpretation was Paul Scofield’s in 1962; his Lear lost “his wits purely in order to punish [his daughters]: ‘I shall go mad!’ [was] a threat, not a pathetic prediction” (Observer).
William Shakespeare, King Lear, Edited with a Theatre Commentary
by John Russell Brown (NY & Tonbridge, Kent: Applause Books, 1996), 97

Reading the play this way is electrifying. It’s making me aware in a whole new way of the extraordinary richness of Shakespeare’s language and characterization. It’s also helping me understand something I’m registering in many students in “Religion & Theater.” Actors and directors read plays differently than academics do, though — as this edition makes clear — there’s much each approach can learn from the other.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The commuting life

I've joined the rank of commuters, those I used to sneer at with other Manhattanites as "bridge and tunnel" types. In fact I have the choice of bridge or tunnel. The 2 and 3 take me (from the Grand Army Plaza stop) under the East River to 14th St., a block from school; the B and Q take me (from the 7th Avenue stop) across the river - you can see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and lots of Manhattan skyline! - to West 4th., a few blocks from the university library, or to Union Square... (Click on the map above and see if you can find your way! Hint: 2, 3, B, Q.)

It's quite painless. Indeed, it can actually be a pleasure to have a 20 minute chunk of time to read on either end of your work day! Most times I can find a seat, too. 20 minutes is enough for a reasonably thorough scan through the New York Times (which also, incidentally, has slimmed down - but here I see the point, you can hold it, folded, in one hand). Or to make your way through a few scenes of a play you might be reading...

Thursday, September 13, 2007


These charming people are the members of a Brooklyn-based "paratheatrical" group called Dzieci who will be conducting a workshop with our "Religion and Theater students. Unpromising to look at, perhaps, but that's part of their approach. Here's their mission statement.

Dzieci (djyeh-chee) is an international
experimental theatre ensemble dedicated to a
search for the "sacred" through the medium of theatre.

Using techniques garnered from such theatre masters as
Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba and Peter Brook,
ritual forms derived from Native American and Eastern
spiritual disciplines, and an ethic based securely
in Humanistic Psychology, Dzieci aims to create
a theatre that is as equally engaged with personal
transformation as it is with public presentation.

Towards this aim, the ensemble balances its work on
performance with work of service, through creative
and therapeutic interaction in hospitals and a variety
of institutional settings. Dzieci believes helping others
generates a profound healing effect that not only serves
the patient but also strengthens the ensemble's work.

Dzieci is firmly dedicated to process. Our theatrical
creations come organically over a long period of time,
and a relationship with the world around us is essential.
Therefore, public demonstrations of the work in progress
are offered along the way, along with para-theatrical
workshops, which invite participants to experience the
work underlying our most current investigations.

note: "Dzieci" is the Polish word for "Children".

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A -- G -- I -- E -- D -- F -- C -- B -- H -- J

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What is religion?

In "Religion & Theater" today I did something I've never done before - offered the students a list of important definitions of religion. (In my other class, "Theorizing Religion," I just gave a sermon against the false clarity of definitions.) In fact, I made it a quiz to see if the students have any general knowledge about the theory of religion. Want to try? After ten definitiony things you'll find a list of the ten sources. I'll post the key tomorrow.

____ Religion is the creation and reenactment of myth for the purpose of realizing—in both senses of that word as "perceiving" and "making actual"—and celebrating the relationship of human beings with supra-human, spiritual forces.

____ Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

____ Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.

____ Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipal complex, out of the relation to the father. … [A] turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth.

____ The "sacred" is an element in the structure of consciousness and not a stage in the history of consciousness.

____ The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use.

____ [The reality underlying religious experience,] which mythologies have represented under so many different forms, but which is the universal and eternal objective cause of these sensations sui generis out of which religious experience is made, is society.

____ Religion is the smile on a dog

____ Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.

____ If one proceeds from pure experience, one arrives at polytheism.

The sources:

A Norman A. Bert, "Theatre is Religion"
B Edie Brickell, "What I Am"
C Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
D Mircea Eliade, The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion
E Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
F William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
G Karl Marx, “Introduction to ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’"
H Jonathan Z. Smith, "The Devil in Mr. Jones"
I Paul Tillich, "Faith as Ultimate Concern"
J Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation"

Monday, September 10, 2007

USPS spells OOPS

I got a parcel today! It was from me - sent by sea mail from the post office at Melbourne Uni on June 20th of this year. I was so excited opening it: I couldn't remember what was in it, though I vaguely suspected it was books connected to Australia and India. I was right for many of the books.

But I wasn't prepared for what else I found. The books were all jumbled up, a few torn, and there were three books which I've never seen before. (Belatedly I registered that the box had been retaped with U S Postal Service tape.) And someone else's appointment diary, a woman named Alisa ... ! Clearly my box and hers opened - were opened - at the same time.

What do I do? At the risk of seeming a stalker I wrote her an e-mail - her name and address are in the diary. I hope she's received a parcel with some of my books mixed in among hers and believes my story... and sends my books back, whatever they are!

Sunday, September 09, 2007


The move went without a hitch - even though U-Haul gave me a bigger truck (14 feet of storage rather than 10), and I was initially terrified of smashing into cars on the side, knocking over mailboxes, uprooting trees, and running over cyclists I never even saw. There's no rear view mirror in the middle, and the vehicle goes way way back. It's like having to make your way through a china shop while wearing a massive backpack you can't even see... When I returned the truck I had to sign a statement saying I'd been in no accidents and had harmed noone. I signed it, but more as an expression of desperate hope. How would I even know?!

But I exaggerate. A little. I've never wanted to be a truck driver, but this did give me a taste of that - I even cranked up the radio and bought myself a fluorescent yellow energy drink. And once I got on the road I quickly forgot about driving below the speed limit... (Have I mentioned that it's been over a year since I last drove anything, even a car?) By the time I left the turnpike for Brooklyn's potholed roads full of double-parkers (I can't really complaint - I double-parked to unload) I'd somehow developed a sense for the monster, and - to the best of my knowledge - caused no harm.

The move itself was incredibly quick - less than six hours from getting to Lackland Self-Storage with an empty truck to returning the once again empty truck 84 miles away in Brooklyn - thanks almost entirely to my friends: so grateful am I that I'm waiving my usual moratorium on names to say thank you Jennifer, Julia, Brian, Brian and Brisa! Without your help it would never have happened.

Unpacking's only just begun, but what pleasure to unpack (and even wash) familiar dishes! I have a thing for Japanese plates and cups, and this is the first time my pre-2001 cups, plates and bowls got to mingle with the post-2002 ones. The picture above is of some of the cups and mugs, many of which have stories attached: acquired over a dozen years in several places in Japan, Ithaca, Boston, Vienna, California, New York and as gifts. (I've thrown in my stubbie holder from the Ghan to let Australia partake in the festivities.) It is, I grant you, rather a lot of cups... but this just means that there will always be a cup for you when you come visit!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Out of the box

Can you imagine me driving a vehicle like this? I can't either, but by this time Saturday, I hope to have emptied my storage locker in New Jersey into such a vehicle and brought all my stuff to Brooklyn. It's not much but I can't remember what most of it is - some has been there since 2001!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Saint of darkness

Today is, I believe, the tenth anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, make that Blessed Mother Teresa. A book of her letters has recently been published which show a painful and often desolate spiritual life, which has, in turn, led to some quite interesting public discussions on the nature of faith. To the faith-bashers it is a vindication: even the most revered image of holiness in her time turns out to have been, they think, an atheist - though lacking the honesty to admit this to herself. Those who have come to her defense make a more interesting argument (which isn't to say the faith-bashers might not be right), taking the revelations as an occasion to challenge simplistic understandings of faith and its demands. Representative is a piece by the editors of the New York Times, called "A Saint of Darkness," which ends:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, the Roman Catholic author whose stories traverse the landscape of 20th-century unbelief. “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

O’Connor suffered from isolation and debilitating illness, Mother Teresa from decades of spiritual emptiness. But — and here is the exemplary part, inspiring even by the standards of a secular age — they both shut up about it and got on with their work. Mother Teresa, sick with longing for a sense of the divine, kept faith with the sick of Calcutta. And now, dead for 10 years, she is poised to reach those who can at last recognize, in her, something of their own doubting, conflicted selves.

I'm of two minds here. When a faith strong enough to go without food or water keeps someone going as they do something commendable (and much of what Mother Teresa did was certainly commendable) it's one thing. But what about the cases where what they're doing is something else? (Dedicated to the poorest, MT was blind to many others.) You can't reason with people who don't or can't reason with themselves. Mother Teresa's fidelity in extremis might be a consolation for mere mortals experiencing their "dark night of the soul," but it would be unfortunate were it to sanction or even recommend a hairshirt martyrdom like hers. Flannery O'Connor's characters are bracing to read about, but nobody should have to live as one.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Religion + Theater = Excitement

Well, we just had the first session of "Religion and Theater" and it was, well, amazing. First sessions of classes are usually awkward and formal with lots of boring organizational stuff from the instructor. Not this one! In 100 minutes we managed to:

• do some warm-up stretches (like an acting class) and some interactive walking exercises so we'd become comfortable with the space and with each other
• introduce the themes of the course and discuss the syllabus, requirement, materials, etc. (I'll be happy to send you the syllabus if you're interested.)
• break the class up into six groups who had 15 minutes to "invent a religion" - a 3-minute skit with narration
• watch the strikingly creative performances of the skits
• my synthesis of the themes and issues about religion which came up in the skits (it was all there: afterlife, ritual, community, love, worship, syncretism, new age, esotericism, sacraments, rites of passage, faces in the clouds, money, etc.)
• C's whirlwind introduction to Euripides, whose play The Bacchae we read for the next class

It was fantastic, the energy and enthusiasm growing steadily as we went from movement to discussion to improv to performance to analysis ... it makes the courses I usually teach, sitting around a table with a text, seem monotonous by comparison!

Actually, the six skits were so clever - remember that the students didn't know each other, had not time to think about this beforehand, and were given the simplest instructions - that I wish I'd had a video camera. Well, at least I can describe them to you:

The first group announced the appearance of an unknown religion deep within all of us, called "the." An initiate to "The ceremony" was baptized and went through the shapes of the letters T, h and e (the first looking like a crucifixion, the second like prayer, the last like yoga) before being surrounded by worshipers chanting the the the the in enthusiastic crescendo.

The second group presented a television informercial for "Astro-Yoganomics," a new synthesis of yoga, color therapy, reiki, crystals, massage and organic food. "Self + Health = Wealth" was their formula, and you can get their free DVD cost-free on the Shopping Network.

The third group had some students come upon a table at a Religion Fair where they discovered "Transhumanism," a movement offering immortality by "saving yourself on a disk." Your body may die, but your identity, if uploaded to their server, will survive forever (or as long as you've paid for). You can sign up and get confirmation on your cellphone.

The fourth group had a priest of the Cloudite Temple take a supplicant to ask the clouds - two women standing on chairs making wavy motions with their arms - for guidance. Invoking the pictures we all saw in the clouds as children (you say you see a boat, but I see a kitten), they taught us that the clouds know that each of us is different and yet the same.

The fifth group presented the Superfun Love-Everyone Fellowship, a circle of people who hugged each other and said "I love you" before tucking into a big cake; their secret handshake was forming your fingers into the shape of half a heart, seeking others.

The final group presented, in television news format, the first gay marriage in a subsection of a faction of a branch of a Protestant sect, version 2.0 b. The partners had to vow to be faithful until the other's financial status became problematic, and not to adopt children.

Is it just me, or is this amazing? Wonderfully creative, a fascinating cross-section of students' understandings of what religions are about, and of the different contexts in which they appear. And, as I said (my improv moment) as soon as they finished, they really did touch on a remarkable number of key features of religion as studied and lived. Wow! I don't think I've ever been as excited (I want to use colloquialisms here like psyched or buzzed or pumped) at the start of a class, probably because I've never had the chance to do this kind of collaborative course before, not to mention one in which we can do things with our bodies as well as our minds, and where the instructors feel for each other like members of the Superfun Love-Everybody Fellowship!

P.S. The Bacchae is going to wreck havoc with the cheery understandings of religion so far discussed...! Max Weber, who argued that it was the job of the teacher to provide "inconvenient facts," would approve.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

One year old!

My blog celebrated its 1st birthday yesterday! (I was without internet access so couldn't post felicitations.) Should we keep this thing going? I've added to the byline above, but the title hardly makes sense anymore... Picture me pondering this question in my temporary throne room - the one overlooking the garden - which will soon become a dining room (it's next to the kitchen) and then dining-and-living once T moves into the street-facing rooms in November.