Thursday, January 31, 2008


Just saw the new "Hansel and Gretel" at the Met with my friend D. During the intermission between the second and third acts, we were over the moon, couldn't find words of praise extravagant enough for the magic worked in the second act - except "magical." "I could go home right now," I said, and in a way it's a pity we didn't, as the final act - admittedly not an easy one to put on - was mere burlesque (with a tenor singing the witch), and the sublime music got lost. Nevertheless, I doubt I'll soon forget the exquisite rightness of the second act, which in this production (originally from the Welsh National Opera) took place in a big dimly lit room with botanical wallpaper and a long bare table diagonally down the center, which the children's play - and the music played glowingly by the Met Orchestra - turned into a forest first friendly then menacing... and then, as they nodded off to sleep, the most successful dreamlike sequence either of us had ever seen, moving with quiet slowness and lyrical gentleness. After what I've just said you won't believe me if I say that the fourteen angels of the children's lullaby are replaced by fourteen jolly chefs in balloon masks silently laying out a feast, as a fish-headed butler leads the starved children to red-velvet chairs... so I'll just say: you had to be there, I wouldn't have believed it would work so splendidly well had I not been there to see it. This is what the arts of the stage at their most inspired can do!

"Hansel and Gretel," by the way, is quite a lovely opera. D is German, so we both knew that many of the melodies are children's folksongs (not sure very many of the rest of the audience knew this), which made us that much more appreciative of the shimmering Wagnerian things he adds to them and draws out of them. And the story - well, Grimm's fairy tales are too cruel for today's child-rearing! This production dazzled also through the wonderfully true children's movements and play of the sopranos singing the title parts, clearly the work of someone who loves children and knows their rhythms and lightning-speed changes of mood...

We had a recording of "Hansel and Gretel" at home which I know well (I think this is the first production I have seen, but I have a very vivid image of how the last act should look - perhaps from a picture on the record cover?), and so it was my own childhood I was transported to for the first half of the opera - half-way into the magical second act. But once the children lost their way, after the sinister cuckoo song, it was my nephews I was seeing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Go figure

Had the first "Bible study" in the Cultures of the Religious Right class, something new and a bit tricky to do, not just because I'm not a Biblical scholar, but also because Bible Study is a devotional practice, and that kind of devotion has no place in a secular academic setting. But I felt that students needed experience with the Bible, and also want to test the hypothesis that a Bible study group is more like what we do in our seminar college than we might suppose - or at least, different for different reasons than we might think.

I decided a suitable first text was Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It's a story most people know, accessible and relatively straightforward, not to mention a part of common speech. At least one student didn't know this was the source of the phrase "good Samaritan"; in fact, many folks probably think the phrase redundant since the only Samaritans they've ever heard of are good ones! There were a few other points I was hoping to make, such as what a parable is (and isn't), and that the summary of the law which precedes this one ("'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'") consists of quotations not from Jesus but from the Hebrew Bible. I was also going to mention - though it has nothing to do with the evangelical religious cultures this course explores - figurative/allegorical readings, like this one from Origen (which is in background of the famous Good Samaritan window at Chartres below - my pic from July 2003: notice the Samaritan story coming up the center to undo the story of the Fall narrated around it): The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.

But in the heat of the moment, my contrarian pedagogy (or pedagogical contrariness) led me to suggest that it was an anti-religious story. The religious specialists in the parable, not to mention the legal scholar to whom Jesus addresses the parable, love their neighbors less than the outlaw Samaritan. Wouldn't we all be better off paying less attention to religion and more to our neighbors?

And yet, the claim that piety makes people self-righteous rather than righteous may seem intuitively true to us in part because of the place of this parable in our sacred tradition! Go figure.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

King of cuts

Had a haircut today, at my usual (if of course infrequent) place. It's run by a nice man - a Tajiki Jew, I think - named Igor. This is what it looks like at night, not by day! The Elvis theme continues inside; watching over me today was a photo of Elvis received at the White House by Richard Nixon!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dirt music

My father gets some sort of daily science news e-mail, which he occasionally forwards to me. One recent one described the recordings by a John T. Bullitt of the sounds of the earth. He has to speed them up and raise them many many octaves, but you hear pops and gurgles and whirs and clicks from various seismic phenomena - and the dull roar of surf pounding the coasts of every continent in the background. Occasionally there is a loud echoing crash or boom from a larger quake. (To be honest it sounds the way my stomach does sometimes when it's vocalizing, so it seems like being in the belly of the earth.) My father sent the article to me because it sounded like my kind of thing to him (he's right) and also perhaps because Bullitt is a Buddhist, and finds these recordings meditative. In any case, within not very minutes of receiving my father's e-mail, I had ordered Bullitt's recording online. It arrived today and is quite fascinating.

The sounds are in stereo but really three-dimensional; they are positioned in different places deep within the earth. At the top of this post is the "score" of the second of the three tracks, with sounds recorded at Kodiak Island, Alaska; Piñon Flat, California; Obninsk, Russia; and Talaya, also in Russia, which together give you the sound you might hear if you were "1000 miles directly below the North Pole facing the eastern coast of Australia." It takes about 20 minutes to cover 140 days in mid-2006; the time is accelerated 10,000 times and the sounds are transposed upwards 13 octaves!

Quite different the explosive sounds from the time of the great tsunami, 3 days starting December 26, 2004 and accelerated only 245 times, the sounds shifted up by about 8 octaves. Here's Bullitt's "score": Troubling to listen to, but I can see how it might aid one's meditation, becoming aware of the vast cosmos of which human suffering is just a part, and yet not insignificant but true to the depths of cosmic experience.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bright winter afternoon in Washington Square Park - see the famous Arch?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Q'uran as literature?

Meet Tariq Ramadan, an important young Muslim intellectual from Europe. He made the news a few years ago when he was denied a visa to take up a visiting professorship at Notre Dame. His voice is independent, refusing to be a reassuring "Islamic reformation" type, at least not in terms satisfying to those who demand docility. In fact, he's the kind of serious religious liberal who could teach us what a real dialogue might look like.

Ramadan was commissioned to write an essay for a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review devoted to Islam. I liked the essay, "Reading the Koran," enough to include it in the readings for my course this semester (to help get beyond the sterile contrast of Bible vs. secularism). I want my students who don't know how to think of the Bible as anything but a book (if a special one for various vague reasons) to understand what might follow were a text revealed, and how to respond to other claims of revelation. Can one just substitute "Bible" for "Koran" in the below, and if no why? Can one substitute "Plato" or "Shakespeare,"and if so why?

Between the universe and the Koran, between these two realities, between these two texts, human intelligence must learn to distinguish fundamental and universal laws from circumstantial and historical models. This intelligence must display humility in the presence of the order, beauty and harmony of creation and of revelation. At the same time it must responsibly and creatively manage its own accomplishments or interpretations, which are sources of extraordinary success, but also of injustice, war and disorder. Between Text and context, the intelligence of the heart and that of the analytical faculty lay down norms, recognize an ethical structure, produce knowledge, nourish consciousness, and develop enterprise and creativity in all spheres of human activity.

Far from being a prison, or a constraint, revelation is an invitation to mankind to reconcile itself with its deepest essence, and to find there both the recognition of its limitations and the extraordinary potential of its intelligence and its imagination. To submit ourselves to the order of the Just One and of his eternity is to understand that we are free and fully authorized to reform the injustices that lie at the heart of the order or disorder of all that is temporally human.

I also sent the essay to the members of a subcommittee of our Literature and Writing programs who have been fashioning an innovative first-year curriculum of readings - which includes some religious texts (Genesis, The Gospel of Mark, and the story of Joseph as told in the Q'uran). I'd asked what they were trying to achieve, and suggested that we might get together to consider how their selection of readings might help students understand religion as well as literature - or at least not get an unnecessarily misleading view. Since everyone seems to think she knows as much as she needs to about the Bible, I sent on the Ramadan essay, ostensibly to help them think about how to select a reading from the Q'uran.

Well, we met yesterday, and they all hated the Ramadan essay. So far as I could tell, they hated it for the reason I'd recommended it - it insists that the Q'uran be read as a religious text. Someone who believed the Jewish or Christian scriptures to be divinely inspired would make a similar sort of argument: you can't read it as just another book! And even if you could, you would misrepresent a scripture's place in the literary history of a culture if you didn't attend to the way religious people read that text. But my colleagues were unmoved. We didn't have time to really discuss it, but their displeasure seemed to come down to the fact that the essay should have appeared in the Times Book Review at all. Not because it's an essay and claims that a particular book can only be read the way the essayist reads it, presumably, but because it's theological...

Would a secularist's account of reading the Q'uran be okay? And why don't we see that the same questions can arise about Jewish and Christian scriptures? The episode has made me more skeptical about "Bible as lit," and that much gladder to have assigned Ramadan's essay in my class!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Enrolling managers

Our university just hired a "Vice President of Enrollment Management." (That makes about a dozen highly paid vice presidents, in all.) So far as I can tell, "enrollment management" means making sure that we get and keep as many students as possible (optimally good ones), which means identifying new areas of student interest and creating or expanding programs responding to them, as well as tapping new bodies of students (like students from China and India). Interestingly, his background is entirely in the wireless world of the online. Our president's memorandum announcing the appointment notes that

[His] most recent experience is as the Executive Vice President Operations and Enrollment Management of Cardean Learning Group. He managed call centers in Florida, Illinois, and Connecticut, and restructured the recruiting team while maintaining productivity. He reduced student “melt” by 50%. He has most recently been leading business development efforts for new acquisitions and alliances. [He] entered the education space in 1999 as Vice President of Admissions with UMUC OnLine, a partnership with University of Maryland University College (UMUC). Under his leadership UMUC OnLine reversed a decline in out-of-state enrollments, one of the university’s most profitable segments.

Notice the upfront business orientation! Welcome to "the education space," forget universities let alone academe. We exist to meet and answer student demand, where- and whatever it might be! It's not our job to supply anything in particular. The university of the future would be pleased to offer you a degree in (fill in the blank). I'll book my passage to Bangalore!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Theatre lives!

Went to BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) Cinématheque last night to see "In the company of actors," a sweet little docco by Ian Darling about the Sydney Theatre Company's production of "Hedda Gabler," which was invited to BAM in 2006 and became one of the hits of the theatrical season. I wasn't able to get a ticket then - Cate Blanchett, who played Hedda, was apparently sensational - but this film was almost as good. Welllll, different but also very satisfying. The documentary charts the time from the company's reconvening in Sydney, 18 months after ending a long run, to revive and update the production until opening night in Brooklyn six weeks later. We're in rehearsal, which non-theater people almost never get to see! It's fascinating to watch the actors reinhabit their interpretations and move beyond them, as well as to see all the work involved in moving a production - different size theater, different shaped stage, etc., not to mention a very different audience. And it evoked for me very strongly the magical communitas of the stage of which I was getting vicarious glimpses last semester. It beautifully illustrated that and why theater is always of this moment, this company, this place, and so, as Blanchett at one point says, differs from literature: "theater doesn't have a static notion of truth." That the film also took a company I'd just seen in Melbourne to the very institution in which I was then sitting in Brooklyn added to the sense of joyous synchronicity!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

Remember Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? In it a race of vast pan-dimensional hyper-intelligent beings constructed the second greatest computer in all of time and space to calculate The Ultimate Answer to The Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After seven and a half million years of computing cycles, the computer's answer is: forty two.

"Forty two?!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."

From trusty Wikipedia (which sounds like a character from Adams but isn't) I learn that Adams created a puzzle for his cover picture of forty two colored balls (above), which, however, nobody noticed was a puzzle. "Everybody was looking for hidden meanings and puzzles and significances in what I had written (like 'is it significant that 6 * 9 is 42 in base 13?'. As if.) So I thought that just for a change I would actually construct a puzzle and see how many people solved it. Of course, nobody paid it any attention. I think that's terribly significant."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cultures of the Religious Right 2

After sleeping long but not very deeply, I spent the day puttering about, finalizing my syllabus - class starts tomorrow. (I have only one class this semester; presumably First Year Chair responsibilities will take up the balance of my time.) This picture adorns the cover of the syllabus for "Cultures of the Religious Right" - have I told you about that course? I first taught it two and a half years ago, in response to the election of 2004 and the infuriating "red America/blue America" babble which attended it. It seemed to me that the evangelical Christian subcultures of the US were ones which liberals needed to understand - and religious people needed to take seriously. This time around the political situation's a bit different, in part because George Bush is no longer on the ascendant (to put it mildly) but also because a whole generation of evangelical leaders has disappeared from the scene. The diversity of evangelical subcultures is visible as never before - even to the liberal press, which usually gets this stuff wrong. (They're wrong to say that it's business as usual again; the new generation of evangelicals supporting Mike Huckabee will soon generate their own candidates who don't reject Darwin, and they will be attractive and powerful.) I'll keep you posted on how it unfolds!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Home sweet home

After over a day's travel (22 hours from leaving the gate in Melbourne to arriving at the gate at JFK), I'm back home! It doesn't feel quite as long as it was, since it was nominally the same flight (UA 840) the whole time, though we had to deplane at Sydney and change planes at LAX (there was nobody to tell us where to go, welcome to America), and nominally all happened within a few hours on the same day, departing Melbourne at 12:55 and arriving at JFK just a couple hours later at 19:50! Or maybe it doesn't feel quite so long because the book I'm trying to read is endless (one fellow-traveler remarked she'd never seen such a chunk of book, opining that if you read it in bed you'd end up with a concussion!): Barry Hill's Broken Song: T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, about which, more anon. But now - to bed. School starts tomorrow!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Under the weather

I fly back tomorrow, and my last weekend here has been rather, well, dreary. High summer it may be, but this is Victoria so we've had rain and temps in the low twenties (C). And my sister and her family are all sick, with something my older nephew picked up last week, passed to his father, who passed it back, then got it back, and now my poor sister's been laid low and the younger boy seems to be teetering on the edge. (I escaped the worst of it - fever, lassitude, joint pain, shakes.) But this is what family's about, I suppose - in sickness and in health! - and it's nice to be able to take some of the pressure off my sister and her husband by diverting the kids. I trust we'll have a more summery next get-together in half a year in California!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sights of Melbourne

Here are some things I saw my last two days in Melbourne. In no special order: the clocks of Flinders Street Station, a Flat White, fronds of a tree fern in the Botanical Gardens, representative Victorian cottages and an ambitious striver, Rover Thomas and Fred Williams in the NGV, St Paul's Cathedral, café The Wall in St Kilda, a lovely salad made by my friend V and my old haunt the State Library of Victoria, decked out for summer.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Nice to be back in the land of Michael Leunig!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Old haunts

Came into Melbourne today to visit some old haunts. Lucky for me, they were offering exciting cultural events! The Playhouse in the Arts Centre was offering the Actors Company of the Sydney Theatre Company's justly celebrated production of Patrick White's The Season in Sarsparilla (who knew that White wrote plays, or that you could fit a whole 1960 suburban house on the rotating stage - I was reminded of Frank Castorp's Neustadt in the Volksbühne in Berlin - and let it stand for not one but three homes, housing three different families? director Benedict Andrews did a fantastic job, and Pamela Rabe led a stand-out cast), and the Mossenson Gallery in Collingwood had an opening for a show of recent work work from Injalak Arts in West Arnhem Land. I can't find any images of the play, so you'll have to make do with these images from the exhibition. (In order: Wilfred Nawirridj, "Yingana"; Elijah Nabegeyo, "Crying Boy Story"; Jeremiah Garlngarr, "Coronation Hill.") Wonderful to sense the intelligence and movement in these newest products of a visual tradition tens of thousands of years old.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


We made it nearly to the summit of Hanging Rock today, but made less progress in the peanut butter sandwich department. The bold crimson rosella below was more than willing to help out... but noticing that he had many friends in the trees around us, we decided discretion was the better part of valor. It was nice to see Hanging Rock again, and on a bright clear summer day (last time was murkier, more mysterious light), but it's even clearer to me that you can't capture the experience in a photo - it's an all-around bodily feeling, as paths (or are they not paths?) beckon from all sides, leading up or down or around a corner into a dark cave, a narrow ravine, a tiny forest between towering volcanic stones... Hope the pictures below give some idea at least.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pleasures of high summer

My friend K came up from Melbourne yesterday, and we went for a walk in one of Mount Macedon's great and justly famous private gardens. (Mount Macedon used to be a hill station for the wealthy Melbourne businessmen starting in the 1870s - indeed their various vast estates were known as Hill Stations.) The garden now known as Forest Glade is on a hillside - starting nearly flat then making its way along the side of a steep native ravine - and a delightful mix of English, native and Japanese plants (among those I recognized at least). There are rhododendrons twenty feet high which must, when in season, be intoxicating as they hover above reefs of azaleas. Right now - high summer - not much is blooming, though the momiji (Japanese maples) were at just that luminous tender green which Japanese call shinryoku (new green)... And then there were the hydrangeas, hundreds of them flanking the paths, growing along hillsides, their serene blue heads bobbing beneath bowers of trees. I've always liked blue flowers - especially cornflowers, blue thistles, columbines, forget-me-nots and of course irises - but not hydrangeas, which seemed fussy or showy, their colors somehow artificial. I've come round! When integrated into a landscape as these are, they're a delight!

Saturday, January 12, 2008


My mathematician friend J tells me that voting theory is mind-bogglingly complicated (I paraphrase). A list of ten candidates could yield well over three million possible results.* Before I had a chance to scoff or wonder, the point was driven home for me by the critters you see above. This wooden puzzle I delivered from my parents to my delighted younger nephew was soon solved in the obvious way, but then we started exploring other options - older nephew is particularly intrigued. You see here the set we call mog, frouse, crish, hee, fick, tab, bedgehog and churtle. One could in fact array the upper halves in the eight slots on this board in over forty-thousand different ways, but there are (phew!) only sixty-four possible animals (including my favorites, the pair crish and fab). Now suppose these critters were all running for president, but might also end up as another's running mate...?

*In fact, what J was telling me was more mind-boggling still, and more disturbing. With ten candidates and a group of voters with fixed preferences, different ways of tabulating the votes could produce upwards of three million different outcomes: "everyone votes one way and yet depending on how you tally it up, you can get almost any ranking (not quite all 10! but a large chunk of them)."

Friday, January 11, 2008


While I was snoozing on the plane, Hillary Clinton surprised everyone (well, all the pollsters and everyone who read them) by winning the New Hampshire Primary. I'm glad of it, both because it keeps the Democratic race open and because it's Hillary. I wouldn't have said that even a week ago (I guess you're seeing that I just wasn't engaged with any side in this race until there were real stakes) but I smarted at the ease with which the press wrote Hillary off after Iowa, and wondered at how one could thrill (as I thrilled and thrill) at Obama's success in a historically racist country without at least acknowledging that Hillary's candidacy was epoch-making for this historically sexist one. To be honest, I smarted at the ease, the Schadenfreude, with which I had enjoyed her humiliation in Iowa.

Gloria Steinem hit a whole bunch of nails on the head in an Op-Ed piece in the Times:

Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women ...

[W]hy is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

Brava! Whoever ends up the Democratic candidate, we'll be a better nation for a longer and more soul-searching discussion of the merits of these candidates and all they bring and represent.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Easy flying

It's a long way from Del Mar to Mount Macedon, but it was a remarkably smooth ride. First, a half-hour flight in a cosy little Embraer from the even cosier Carlsbad Airport (which feels like it must be an outpost of nearby Legoland) to LAX, flying out over the Pacific toward the sunset then back across the stunning sea of lights which is the LA valley. Then in a big United 747 to Sydney, arriving after a refreshing night's sleep (they just told us to put down the window-shades and turned down the oxygen, I suppose, as we all slept soundly for 9 hours), just as the sun began to burn off the clouds... and then, after briefly getting lost in the Sydney international terminal as they cleaned our plane, the last stretch to Melbourne (whose airport, Tullamarine, is far enough inland you'd never guess the ocean was near). Here you can see the runway of Tullamarine at top right, the encroaching suburbs below, and, off in the distance, the silhouette of Mount Macedon, Melbourne's nearest mountain (you used to see if from incoming ships before you saw the city, too), and home of my sister and her family. It doesn't feel like I just jumped a bunch of timezones - and crossed the Pacific to the southern hemisphere!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Change of season

Here's another strangely beautiful image from the National Weather Service: a water vapor map of the Pacific - which I'm crossing tonight, diagonally from northeast to southwest! (My destination Melbourne's just off the bottom edge; as ever - and noted in my very first blog post - the Equator is two-thirds of the way down down the map.) Very different shaped weather systems in the Northern winter and the Southern summer! Wish me a good flight. I'll try to check when I arrive, Thursday in Australia but still Wednesday here in the US.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Ever heard of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD)? It's America's newest, and most widespread, religion. The term was coined by sociologist Christian Smith to characterize the religious views of American teenagers in the book he's just published with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford 2007), based on the first ever National Study of Youth and Religion.

Smith sums MTD up as a creed:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith finds MTD among religious teenagers of all faiths, and predicts that this will be the religion of the land - if indeed it is not already. The teenagers Smith and his team interviewed are by and large good and kind and decent people, but he's not altogether happy at this result. As a Christian, indeed an Evangelical, he is troubled by MTD, which dispenses with Jesus and even the need for Jesus. No savior from sin required if there is no sin!

This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. One fifteen-year-old Hispanic conservative Protestant girl from Florida expressed the therapeutic benefits of her faith in these terms: “God is like someone who is always there for you; I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying, and it always made me feel better.” Making a similar point, though drawing it out from a different religious tradition, this fourteen-year-old white Jewish girl from Washington describes what her faith is all about in this way: “I guess for me Judaism is more about how you live your life. Part of the guidelines are like how to live and I guess be happy with who you are, cause if you’re out there helping someone, you’re gonna feel good about yourself, you know?” Thus, service to others can be one means to feeling good about oneself. Other personal religious practices can also serve that therapeutic end, as this fifteen-year-old Asian Buddhist girl from Alabama observed, “When I pray, it makes me feel good afterward.” Similarly, one fifteen-year-old white conservative Protestant girl from Illinois explained: “Religion is very important, because when you have no one else to talk to about stuff, you can just get it off your chest, you just talk [to God]. It’s good.” And this fourteen-year-old East Indian Hindu girl from California said of her religious practices, “I don’t know, they just really help me feel good.” It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion. For the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life. It is also no wonder that most teens are so religiously inarticulate. As long as one is happy, why bother with being able to talk about the belief content of one’s faith?

... This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist—he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.

(This is from a lecture Smith gave a Princeton Seminary entitled On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith which you can easily find with a quick internet search.)

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Ever seen one of these? It looks like Gaudí or something contemporary, but this flame-rimmed terracotta vessel is from ancient Japan - Middle Jomon period, c. 2000 BCE. This one's in Cleveland, but the Met has one, not to mention the National Museum in Tokyo. They never fail to give me a thrill - I find myself grinning - as if history looped around, as if our earliest ancestors knew wild abstract asymmetrical things our next-earliest ancestors forgot. (Just whose ancestors made these is a tricky question. Not the modern Japanese, and possibly not the Ainu either...)

I found this picture in a beautiful book I got my parents for Christmas, Phaidon's 30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space. The book weighs a ton (good thing I ordered it delivered!), but that's because it has 1000 beautiful photos of art from everywhere. Their editors have a good eye, and, while there are obvious gaps, they get it right often enough. The conceit of the book is to present the history of art as if it were a single history, and so you're likely to find objects from Peru and China, or Iraq and Sweden, or Greece and Tanzania on facing pages (even as each object comes with a lengthy and generally helpful description). The juxtapositions are often stimulating. (The only thing that rings false is that each work is identified first by the present country: USA, Czech Republic, Yemen, etc.) I'd say it's a great coffee table book but with the caveat that your coffee table had better be pretty sturdy! The photos are gorgeous, and the book is full of wonders.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Something to barrack for

I suppose I should say something about Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucus, but I fear I'll just babble. The result is delightful, wonderful, and/but I'm still rubbing my eyes. Can this really happen? Obama characterized the result as proving "the most American of ideas — that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” Suppose that were really true...

I can't say I was an Obama supporter before, nor that I am one now. But I suspect I may be well on my way to being one. (It's not that I was for anyone else - my friends and I have tried in vain to like Hillary, and Edwards talks the talk, but I've been pretty disengaged.) I wasn't for Obama before because Paul Krugman's been hammering away at his proposals for health care, etc., which seem too centrist - but mainly because I didn't take his candidacy seriously. I guess I wasn't audacious enough to hope. A black man president of the United States of America? I still can't quite believe he's real - that voice, strangely deep for someone so young; that intonation, too unself- consciously oratorical for this century; those words, more moving than they have any right to be, resonating with hopes one had forgotten one had ever dared to entertain... as if we could live in history, a history of growing justice and moral progress, and were not condemned to wander its disillusioned aftermath. (What he would or could accomplish is another question. "Change" and "hope" are pretty vague, and the next president has to pick up the pieces after eight years of the Bushies' squander, desecration and pillage.)

Just imagine if his were America's face to the world, and to itself! It's like something out of science fiction or something. He's like something out of science fiction. But I could live in a country which elected this man, and proudly... Not just with pride, but (as he mentions) with love. It is something like love! It's scary, it's exhilarating, it feels partly irrational. Is it him or the idea of him? Is it him or the country which has made him possible, the country he makes possible? As promised, I'm babbling so I'll stop. For now.

("Barrack" is an Australian sports verb, used as in the American "root" of "I'm rooting for X to win." "Root" has a different meaning in Australia.)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Après nous le déluge!

Never a dull moment in supposedly paradisaical California! There's a huge hurricane careening toward us - this gorgeous infrared picture from the National Weather Service, from about an hour ago, makes it seem quite dangerously beautiful. (You can see if it hit us here.)

Bit of a show-off, really, this new camera.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

In the pocket

Look what I got for Christmas! I'm very happy with my present camera (a Panasonic Lumix DMC-F27 with a 50mm Leica lens and 12x optical zoom) but wanted something compact enough I could carry it with me all the time. Little did I imagine something might be as compact as this Pentax Optio Z10 (light as a feather and no thicker than the diameter of a quarter) and still take excellent pictures and videos - indeed, it manages somehow to offer 7x optical zoom... don't ask me how! I'll never be caught without a camera again. (This picture is of course by trusty if somewhat concerned elder sibling Lumix).
Ahh, the sunsets of Southern California, different not only from one day to the next, but every minute! The above, f'rinstance, began as the below.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

(Not so) little feet

I'm not the only photographer in the family. My sister just sent me these photos... guess who's about to go nephews' shoes-shopping!

Have I mentioned that I'm heading down under soon - next week, in fact? I can't wait. Half a year's a looong time in the life of people with feet this size!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Which Biblezine is the one for you?

Ever heard of Biblezines? They are Bibles that look and feel (and even smell!) like glossy magazines. The generally contain the whole text of the New Testament (in the NCV translation), but much much more. And they are targeted at all sorts of different kinds of people, just like normal magazines are. Revolve, the first Biblezine, came out in 2003. It's aimed at teen girls, and full of photos and advice. (Here's a page from the 2007 edition.) It was the best-selling Bible of that year, so Thomas Nelson Publishers has now published Biblezines targeted at teen boys (Refuel), women (Becoming), men (Align), kids (Magnify), for young men of color (Real), tween boys (Explore), baby boomers (Redefine) and even the young masked spirit-warrior fans of Bibleman.

I own two or three Biblezines (students are fascinated by them) but have long wanted to be able to compare the whoel range without buying them all. The nice folks at have some sample pages from each on their website, including, for purposes of contrast, the opening page of the Gospel of Matthew. Here they are - can you guess which is which? (In each the text is as interestingly different as the layout. And if you click to see the larger view, you'll also get the source 'Zine.)