Thursday, February 28, 2008


Experienced one of those coincidences which can seem like ironies or synchronicities this afternoon. I had just finished a discussion of Marx's theory of capitalism and its affinity with liberal Protestantism, when my next door neighbor reminded me of a recent university policy on faculty offices which seemed straight out of our text. There is a connection, I promise.

In the "Fetishism of Commodities" chapter of Kapital, Marx writes: for a society based upon the production of commodities, … Christianity ... is the most fitting form of religion. His point, as we'd been discussing, was that especially liberal Protestant conceptions of "the abstract man" have a profound affinity with the alienation of modern man, who has lost a sense of participation in the world as labor and value are abstracted from the world of social relations. Premodern work (like fashioning a shoe for your foot so you can work in the fields) is satisfying because it is defined by and answers human needs, indeed the needs of specific people with whom you are through your work related. Modern workers, by contrast, are interchangeable cogs in factories which produce products whose value is determined not by their use but by their exchange value. Value is abstracted, labor is abstracted, and so - Marx seems to be arguing - is modern people's understanding of themselves. Modern forms of religion focused on individual religious experiences of "the infinite" are mute expressions of this alienated state, not of a new and closer relationship with the divine.

It's a socko critique of modern religious individualism, but as a teacher teaching this stuff one thinks one must have escaped the abstracting processes of the modern economy. Think again! My office neighbor took academic leave the year before I did, and when she returned her name had disappeared from next to her office door; it just said "Faculty office, 455B." When she asked about the card with her name on it, she was told it had gone lost, and the university's new policy was not to replace them. Soon none of our names will remain, and we'll look more like a hotel (or a prison) than an academic community!

We often complain about the take-over of our university (and universities across the land) by business-minded people (as I did last month), but this was the first time I made the connection to Marx. Academics of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your office numbers!

(The picture above is blissfully unrelated to the above. It's just a scene of a crisp winter day in the city, and my thanks for reading this far!)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An innocent outing?

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains a piece of "personal history" by Honor Moore, one of the daughters of the late Paul Moore, beloved Episcopal bishop of New York for the tumultuous years 1972-89, and a major voice for progressive causes in the City. (He died in 2003 at age 83; I was among the thousands at his funeral.) It's a quite lovely memoir, moving and well-crafted. But the title - "The Bishop's Daughter: A father, a faith, and a secret" - has me worried.

(If you have a New Yorker handy, read it before reading on in this post.)

The secret, it quickly becomes clear, is that Bishop Moore, while twice married, may have loved men (or loved men, too). But the piece is not muckraking, not shocked or scandalized. Rather, Honor Moore describes hearing from a man who had been the only unfamiliar name in her late father's will, and when she learns that he and her father had been intimate for thirty years, the feeling is not shock but a kind of relief or even joy. It all hinges on the way she has constructed the essay, in which this revelation turns out to be the missing piece which makes her father whole for her. Although it may help explain the failure of his first marriage, it doesn't undermine anything positive she has told us about him - his remarkable inspiring presence, his love for the church and his great contributions to it. Instead, it deepens them, complements them.

I started reading the article with much trepidation, fearing some kind of explicit or implicit revenge on a distant father who betrayed you (an all too common genre these days, alas, and a great way to sell books), and fearful that it would somehow undermine his posthumous reputation (as it would if we found out that, say, Cardinal O'Connor, had had a lover). But it won me over, and by the end of it I was grateful to Honor for having written it. But not everyone I know feels this way. (Discussion of this has only just begun, I'm sure.) One person thinks it was "sad and unnecessary"; Bishop Moore never talked about this, and his daughter shouldn't either. Yes. In general I'm opposed to outing people. But Honor's way of disclosing this hidden part of her late father's life isn't an angry outing but a joyful one. She doesn't see this as secret sin or hypocrisy, but something more like the true heart of the man she loved but never fully knew. It's a sad, yes. Perhaps even tragic. But this might make a posthumous outing sad and necessary.

My worry is that people won't bother to read the essay, or won't read it carefully, and will assume that she must be making some familiar argument about the church: the hypocrisy of its leaders, or its oppressiveness. These are familiar religion-and-sexuality topics from the news (including The New Yorker), and at a time when the Episcopal church is fracturing over gay bishops (among other things), I worry that few people will see Honor Moore's essay for what it is: a celebration of the contribution of Paul Moore and the sources of his being, and an argument for openness. Had he been born thirty or forty years later, he might not have had to lead a double life.

It will be interesting to see how Honor Moore's essay (and the forthcoming book from which it is excerpted) are received.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Just came across an interesting new religious (sic) designation. Coined in 2003 by Jonathan Rauch (pictured right), apatheism is "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's." He happens to be an atheist apatheist, but many apatheists are agnostic, and a good many are in fact - he argues - theists. Many go to church or temple or whatever (if not as often as they tell pollsters they do) but for not particularly religious reasons, and it would never occur to them to have a religious opinion about the fact that some of their friends are of a different religion, or none.

Today's papers include several articles on a new Pew study of religion in America (available here) which finds a few remarkable things. The
New York Times article notes that a fourth of Americans have left the religious denomination of their childhood; fully 10% of the American population are ex-Catholics. But the factoid which caught my fancy was this one:
The survey also indicates that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth-largest “religious group.”

Something's garbled in this formulation - the unaffiliated are, by definition, neither a "group," let alone a "religious group"! But, as Jonathan Rauch would have predicted, many of the "unaffiliated" are nonetheless "religious":

The rise of the unaffiliated does not, however, mean that Americans are becoming less religious. Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion “as nothing in particular.”

There's no bright line between agnosticism and
apatheism, and none between these and religious practice. Indeed, I doubt you'll find a bright line between them and most of the "affiliated" either! Maybe most Americans are, when it comes down to it, moralistic therapeutic apatheists. (Remember MTD!)

Monday, February 25, 2008

So far away!

Well I haven't been able to get through to wish my nephew happy birthday, and his birthday, even in this time zone, is about to be over. Bummer. Having Skype set up is well and good but if the other end doesn't go online you're right where you started. Disappointed Miru-kun (above), my official birthday wisher (in years past I always sent a picture with him as a greeting), is all dressed up with nowhere to go! We'll keep trying... If only laptops were flying carpets!

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Today - well, tomorrow - well something like right now is someone's birthday. The today/tomorrow uncertainty arises because he's in Australia, where it's been the 25th for the better part of a day, while it's still a few minutes shy of the 25th here in New York. But since it's been the 25th for almost six hours in Geneva, where he was born, I guess it's happened. My nephew is five years old! Congratulations!

Or do I mean whoah... He's such a big boy already - but what's the hurry? (Don't you realize that as you get older, the rest of us have to as well?) How strange to think there were so many years when he wasn't around at all! (Nice of you to drop by!)

Hiphip hooray! Hiphip hooray!
Happy birthday, aaaaand mannnnyyyy moooooore!!!!!!!!


Most unnerving news story of the day:

Taiwan: Tons of Fish Wash Up on Beaches
About 45 tons of fish have washed up dead along 200 miles of beach on the outlying Penghu Islands after an unusual cold snap. News reports said 10 times as many dead fish were still in the water.

Who's ever heard of fish freezing to death? Vaguely apocalyptic, somehow.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mystery pic

Where do you suppose this remarkable religious edifice is?(Yes of course it's San Francisco, but I suspect you can see this fusion of two churches actually some distance from each other only from the window of room 903 of the Hilton Financial District - another floor up or down, or a room left or right, and you'd lose it.)

Snow again

Winter's still not over, which confuses me the more since I saw cherry trees starting to bloom just the other day, albeit in San Francisco. This it the view out back to the neighbor's yards to the left. (Click on the pic for fabulous detail.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

And suddenly, death

One of our students died today (or perhaps last night). I happened to be at the advising office right after his mother called to report that he had had a seizure on a subway platform, and fallen onto the tracks, cracking his skull. I did not know him personally, but know who he was. Some of my friends were his teachers, so I feel like I was on the verge of knowing him. (In a small college you can enjoy the illusion that any student you see might turn up in one of your classes eventually.) He would have been twenty-two in June.

Even in a relatively sheltered and privileged context like an expensive liberal art college, terrible things happen. And because each of us comes in contact with so many others, we are made aware of a lot more misfortune and tragedy than if we worked in a smaller or less intimate community. Through my students I know of much death and sickness, pain and depression and the suicide of distant friends. Even so, a student's death at your own school is especially tragic: such youth, such promise.

Max Adler, rest in peace.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Back in NYC

We flew right over Manhattan yesterday, and I got to see all my stomping grounds! At left is all of Manhattan north of Houston - you might notice the Met sticking into Central Park midway up on the right, the illumination of the Empire State Building in the lower middle, and Union Square and Washington Square Park (our school neighborhood) below. And then it was Brooklyn, its peaks still gilded by the red light of sunset. To get to our place: from Grand Army Plaza (the oval where the park ends) take the road which heads off to the left and take the fourth right - it's where you hit clouds again. How do they fit together? Here's a picture from the flight out, which shows the rest of Manhattan (the Empire State Building and Midtown are at the right edge), and much of the rest of Brooklyn. Prospect Park is the dark area on the right; if you can see it as a squat arrow pointing up, we're just at the tip. None of that ineffable wonder of the views I fumbled to evoke yesterday, but it's home (at least for now). [Click pics for very detailed views.]

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

So much

Had dinner last night with my old friend L and his husband H. "We always start our meals by saying what we're thankful for," I was informed, which seemed sweet in a sort of cheesy way, if also a trifle manipulative. Perhaps I should mention that both L and H are life coaches, that L is an ordained Episcopal priest (among other things), that their lovely house is full of Tibetan tangka paintings, and that L and I have been driving each other crazy for 26 years. H started by giving thanks for L, and for friends, and for the food we were going to eat, and then it was my turn. I gave thanks for travel, and for old friends, and for delicious food, and then went off on an unexpected tangent: I was thankful that the skies had been clear the whole way from New York to San Francisco the day I flew over (Saturday), and that the intricate and beautiful texture of the land below had been highlit by snow, which made me at once insanely happy and somehow sad. Flying back today along the same route, cloudier but still clear often enough to be familiar now, I was again filled with a sense of - I'm not sure what: delight? awe? wonder? The best I can do is show you some of the pictures I took on the way over (and back: the one above and the last were taken today), and fumblingly suggest that it has something to do with scale (patterns we don't see as we live among them), and recapitulation (the same patterns appear on different scales, e.g., in geology and in botany - doesn't the picture above look like a leaf?), and ubiquity (everything is beautiful, memorable), and impersonality (this beauty requires no observer, and while human settlements are part of the large pattern it's not our pattern and we had no idea there was this larger pattern)... I don't know how to describe it. The best I can come up with is "so much" - not just too much to absorb, to notice, to appropriately reverence, but so much feeling and so much distance and so much intimacy. It's not excessive, it's anything but much of a muchness, but "much" is my word. It's not a beautiful word, but, repeated, it seems like a sound of praise which more than human voices might utter. I'm babbling!


Had dinner with my old friend C in Chinatown Sunday night, and then poked around some of the emporia looking for nothing in particular. But then we found, or were found by, a most unusual Buddha figure. It's one of six "pocket Buddhas" keyed to not-particularly-Buddhist things: not wisdom - detachment - compassion - enlightenment, but peace - love - harmony - happiness - prayer... aaand praise. Praise?! Hallelujah!! Buddha's found religion at last, glory be! This could happen only, I dare say, in America. If he's still anything like the Buddhas in the old country, though, it will do you a world of good to watch the little video we made, and bask in Buddhapraise (I added to the background noise).

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Well I've survived a first day of the 27th Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience. It started at 7:45 this morning and ended at 5:00 with no real breaks; even lunch had an agenda. Exhausting! But I'm learning stuff, so that's good. What am I learning? Well, one thing I relearn every time I attend the chairs' conference at AAR (which I haven't done for 3 years) and then promptly forget is that there are lots and lots of institutions of higher education in the US: large and small, public and private, research and teaching, community college and graduate. Hearing people's presentations and questions makes me aware how unrepresentative our experience is in a small liberal arts college, but also brings out some deeper or broader concerns that all of us share.
But the world of first year programs is much larger than that of religious studies departments. Everyone has first year students! Almost everyone is haunted by concerns about their "retention and persistence." And everyone seems to be doing the same two or three things - first year seminars and common reading programs, "(living-)learning communities," and assorted IT tricks - to try to improve "student satisfaction and success." The panels seem all to be describing different ways of juggling these big things, but the best ideas I've heard, and the newest, were in a panel called "The little things count."

What makes this conference different from those I'm used to is that faculty are in the minority. Most of the attendees are "student affairs" or "student life" professionals - people involved in advising, admissions, career services, etc. I've heard (and know from my own experience) that there is little communication between "academic affairs" and "student affairs" in most American colleges and universities, but not many of us faculty types care or even know, which drives the "student affairs" people up the wall. It's true that the "student affairs" people know and care about "the whole student," but in a setting like this one can forget that universities are really about acquisition and transfer of knowledge, not just social and intellectual skills.

Or maybe that's a naïve, faculty-centered view? In a room with people concerned with student experiences from the whole gamut of institutions of higher education it's clear that American college students do a lot more than study while at school, and get a lot more (or less!) from the experience than academic expertise, critical thinking skills, etc. Is the academic project the hub or just one of the spokes? I suspect that us faculty types might answer that differently (or less equivocally) than administrators, students, parents, alums...!

Like a movie

Greetings from San Francisco, where I am one of 2000 participants at the 27th Annual Conference on the First Year Experience. More of that anon.

What I need to tell you about today is a kind of sequel to yesterday's post, where I mentioned being made nostalgic for Japanese by the wonderful narration of benshi Sawato Midori, although I didn't have a chance to speak the language. Well, today I had my chance. As I went up to buy a book for the flight at JFK (Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, so far simply stunning), I thought I recognized the woman in the line ahead of me. It was indeed Sawato Midori! Since she was alone I dared introduce myself, and we had a lovely twenty-minute chat (in Japanese!), where I learned that she does benshi for more than Japanese films, including Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffiths' "Broken Blossoms," films of Abel Gance and Fritz Lang, and - the one I'd love to see - Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc." I felt like I had met the muse of early cinema! She in turn seemed happy of a chance to reminisce about her undergraduate studies of philosophy - she'd especially like Plato and Kant - and to reflect on Japanese religion; her view of things is like that of Meiji-period Christian Uchimura Kanzo, she said. She was so cordial it didn't seem like the big deal and wonderful coincidence it was. It was like, well, something in a movie!

Next time I'm in Tokyo I'm to look her up. What a great life, I sometimes catch myself thinking.

Friday, February 15, 2008

言葉は懐かしい/A la recherche des voix perdues

Had two experiences today which reminded me how I love foreign languages, that is, how I miss them. Hadn't realized what a monolingual life I've wound up leading, despite living in such an international city.

First, in The Bean, a coffee shop near school, one of a group of four French tourists was taking a picture of the others and I said Voulez vous que je prenne votre photo? and was rewarded with Vous êtes français? and an enjoyable conversation, which, alas, established that I am very far from French, even the simplest words having vanished from my vocabulary. But what a pleasure it was even to stumble through a conversation en français! What a sensuous, physical pleasure: the facial muscles you use for French are different from those in English, and I don't think I'm imagining that French sounds send different vibrations through your whole head, indeed your whole body. In any case, I want to go back to France! I want my French back, my French voice, my French head and body!

And then this evening I went with my housemate to the Japan Society for a screening of some animated propaganda films from the 1930s, narrated - live - by Midori Sawato (澤登翠). Turns out that when film arrived in Japan, silent of course, it was presented by storytellers called benshi (弁士), who were often a greater draw than the films. (They tapped into long traditions of narration, such as rakugo and bunraku.) To hear Ms. Sawato do the different styles of narration and the many voices needed for the eleven short films we saw was to see why: it is her magnetism and joyous engagement that I will remember (along with a few scenes of cute monkeys besting nasty bears, eagles and octupi). There was a Q&A afterwards, where she appeared alongside a scion of the benshi family which owned the films and an American translator. She spoke, needless to say, with beautiful clarity and feeling, and it was a delight to realize I understood most all of what she was saying and then to feel it was not done justice by the interpreter's paraphrase.

I didn't have a chance to actually speak Japanese, but felt a pang of recognition and nostalgia here too, the stronger, I suppose, because some of the animation we saw was aimed at children. My most important teacher of Japanese was a four year old, and if I didn't learn it as a little child I sort of did learn it as if a little child. O to get back in touch with my inner Japanese child!

Funny how much a foreign language can become part of you, not just intellectually but physically. Even, I suppose, since this involves body and mind, spiritually.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Like the Bible, only different

"It's like the Bible, everyone owns it but nobody reads it." Thus was Charles Taylor's impressive tome A Secular Age described by a friend of a sociologist of religion I met this morning. Taylor's an eminence grise in ethics and political theory, an inspiration to many younger scholars (me included), and this was supposed to be the magnum opus, the masterpiece which would ensure his academic immortality. It's been praised to the skies by other eminences grises and the Economist. But it's very long, chatty, and abstruse. Those who read it seem all, at least privately, to find it frustrating and poorly argued - if there's an argument at all. It may be for the best that people own but don't read it!

But I'm doing a reading course on this book with three of my best students (and we're already frustrated at the book's vagueness and lack of focus). What are we to do? The sociologist of religion suggested we give up on it and instead read some of the interesting responses which it has generated. If not itself the last word on secularism and its discontents, A Secular Age has at least provided an occasion for others to address the topic! I had been hoping the Taylor book might (well, a chapter or two might) anchor the first year seminar I have planned for the Fall, to be called Secularism at the Crossroads. That's impossible now (not least because it's so badly written), but perhaps some of the very articulate responses might serve: not A Secular Age but "the Secular Age debate"!

(The title of this post is inspired by a very clever video on youtube which redeems the slightly creepy "Yes we can" Obamaniac video by parodying it. Pretending to be a pro-McCain video, it ends with the caption LIKE HOPE, ONLY DIFFERENT.) (If you watch them, watch the Obama one first.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A vision of the future

I don't usually pause to read the poetry in The New Yorker, but this poem by Billy Collins caught my eye. (Feb 4th, page 58) I think the second and fourth and fifth stanzas are banal (deliberately?), but the last few lines make it all worth it.

When I finally arrive there—
and it will take many days and nights—
I would like to believe others will be waiting
and might even want to know how it was.

So I will reminisce about a particular sky
or a woman in a white bathrobe
or the time I visited a narrow strait
where a famous naval battle had taken place.

Then I will spread out on a table
a large map of my world
and explain to the people of the future
in their pale garments what it was like—

how mountains rose between the valleys
and this was called geography,
how boats loaded with cargo plied the rivers
and this was known as commerce,

how the people from this pink area
crossed over into this light-green area
and set fires and killed whoever they found
and this was called history—

and they will listen, mild-eyed and silent,
as more of them arrive to join the circle
like ripples moving toward,
not away from, a stone tossed into a pond.

Liberté, égalité, huh?

Bit of a shock in class today. We'd read the account of the French revolution in Noll's Turning Points, and I expected that everyone would have something to say about it. But that would have required that they knew something about the French revolution! Out of fourteen students, the best we could do (besides the student who asserted that the American revolution had been inspired by the French one!) was that one had read Hannah Arendt's discussion of the French revolution in On Revolution, and another had seen Sophia Coppola's film "Marie Antoinette." How embarrassing. Worse, what most of my students now know about the French revolution comes from an Evangelical textbook which sees all the evils of the 19th and 20th centuries coming out of it!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Good on ya

Kevin Rudd's official apology to Australian Aborigenes, his first act as PM:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Good on ya, Kevin.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I was already starting to think about spring planting, but winter's not finished with us yet. This morning it was eleven degrees - that's Fahrenheit! Wind chill minus nine. (In centigrade: -12 and -23, respectively.) But if you could look around the cloud of your breath, the air was as clear as I've ever seen it. On the B train going across the Manhattan Bridge, I saw more of New York Harbor than I've ever seen before - not just Lady Liberty, but Governor's Island, Staten Island, shipyards in New Jersey, all so clear it seemed like they were right next to and beside her. Didn't have the wit to have my camera ready, but it wasn't a particularly pretty view in any case - too cluttered!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

What would Jesús do?

Did you catch the article about Jesús Malverde in the Times the other day? He's a popular saint from northwest Mexico - not officially beatified or canonized - who is thought to help people avoid being caught by the police. A sort of bandit who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, he was hanged by the police in 1909. He's prayed to when people try to sneak across the border, but is also thought to be the patron saint of drug dealers! Indeed, Malverde symbols in cars are things cops look out for as telltale signs. Courts in California, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas (we learn in the article) have ruled that Malverde trinkets and talismans are admisible evidence in drug and money-laundering cases.
Jesús must really deliver the goods if he's worth the risk! Who says the saints have no power in our disenchanted age, or - in any age - that their power is mediated by the church or its values? Have I told you that I think that a course (or a section of a course) on the cult of the saints would be sufficient to blast to smithereens the Protestant frame of modern thinking on religion as accessory to ethics (varieties moralistic therapeutic deism, basically)? I wonder if there's a patron saint for that battle...!?
(The top picture's from one of my fellow flickrers, the bottom from the Times)

Dream large

Had the chance yesterday to visit the "I have a dream" drama course at PS 33, a public elementary school in Chelsea (which happens to be diagonally across the street from my church!) whose students live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects nearby. My friend C (with whom I co-taught "Religion and theater" last semester) directs a program where some of our students work with disadvantaged 3rd and 4th graders in drama workshops, as well as helping them with their homework. (The whole thing is sponsored by the I Have A Dream Foundation, a brainchild of the same Eugene Lang whose name graces our school.)

This year the 4th graders are doing fairy tales, and yesterday it was Hansel and Gretel. We began with the volunteers (including me) performing a little skit of Hansel and Gretel, and then we broke up into groups, each including 5-6 kids and 2 students. After some warm-up (which these kids hardly needed, several were bouncing off the walls!) each of the five groups did some acting games and then worked out their own version of the story and then performed it for the reconvened group.

I hadn't realized that part of the exercise was to adapt or even update the story in question, and thought the group I was in (replacing a Lang student who couldn't come) was pushing it by having two Gretels (nobody wanted to be Hansel, and in fact the two girls instead wanted to Vanessa and Myla - not their own names, incidentally) and no mom (I was dad and sadly explained that mom had died of starvation), and both a witch and a rapping warlock living in a house made of Snickers bars (the rapping warlock had initially demanded "can I be a celebrity? I want to be a celebrity!").

The other versions varied even more, and quite ingeniously. In one, Hansel (with two sisters) called on his cell phone when they got lost in the woods, and left a message for his parents ending with "And if you see George Bush, tell him he sucks!" to which Gretel added "Obama!" But of course there was no cell phone reception in the woods. By some miracle I don't quite remember, there was reception in the cage into which the witch locked all three, so someone let them out and they snuck out and baked a poison cake which they brought back to the witch. (Somehow mom and dad reappeared and ate it too!) In another, Hansel and Gretel's mother becomes the witch, and leads Hansel and Gretel away in handcuffs. A bow and arrow-wielding hunter shot the two witches in a third, setting the children free.

The kids' adaptations of the story are at once illuminating and disturbing; in their versions, as in their interactions with each other, you get a window to the world of their homes and families. Are these kids too young to believe that Hansel and Gretel could actually save themselves - aren't kids in America supposed to believe they can do anything? - or is the story of more complicated (or just a coincidence)?

It is clear the kids love the program and are in some measure getting it - relating your experience to things outside it is good, performing for others and watching others' performances is valuable, learning can be fun! (And our students are learning lots too about the value of education and the precious lives being short-changed by too many schools, and not a small number have discovered vocations involving children.) It's a pretty neat thing C is doing here - and fits with the appreciation of the powers of theater I have been learning about from her. I think I'll try to visit the class a few more times and learn more about some other fairy tales!

Thursday, February 07, 2008


These columns are all that's left of the Village Presbyterian Church on West 13th Street - behind the face are condos. But the Greek revival porch is enough to make this the favorite New York religious edifice of David Dunlap, author of From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship. Come visit me at school and I'm sure to take you past it, though it might not be a day when winter light and bare trees marble the painted wooden columns in this way! (By the way, notice the surreal building squashed in at bottom right, and the rectangle of blue at upper right.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mutual appreciation society

Have I mentioned that I've become a flickr member? I started when I wanted to post the pics from last semester's "Religion and Theater" class final showing, then got myself a "pro" membership for Christmas., in case you don't know, is a photo sharing website. (My site.) I first heard about it at a workshop on new technologies and the liberal arts, and was intrigued to learn that most of its members are not in the US. It's full of pictures of just about anything you could ask for (I found a good many of Spanish Shawls, for instance, or "The last trial of Judas Iscariot," or Mount Macedon, or houses on our street in Brooklyn...) - and many of them are really beautiful. (Like the amazing woodblock print-like one above, taken by someone named Jon Wild in Manchester, England.) It's by turns wonderful and humbling to see how much beauty there is in the world, and how many eyes - with lenses - are seeing it.

The other thing about flickr that has me hooked is that it's a mutual appreciation society. Members can comment on each other's pictures, and all the comments without exception are positive, friendly, enthusiastic! (Very different from, say, youtube.) And when you leave a comment on someone's picture, they inevitably do you the courtesy of following the link back to your photo stream and looking around to find a picture they can say something nice about. And on and on. Everyone's so nice it's almost unbelievable... My first experience of the utopia of the (literally worldwide) web!

Suffer the little children

In Cultures of the Religious Right today, after discussing Mark Noll's account of Luther - whom I paraphrased as "the anti-Obama: no we can't" - it was time for our weekly group work on a Bible passage. For a variety of reasons I picked Mark 10:1-27. It contains Jesus' strongest condemnation of divorce (what God hath joined together...) and of wealth (easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God) as well as a happy scene with children (Suffer the little children to come unto me...), a reference to the earlier and generally neglected first account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Gen 1:27 (from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female), a digest of the decalogue, a proof text for the heresy of Arianism (there is none good but one, God), and, right after the camel and the eye of the needle, a no we can't passage:

And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?
And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible
. (All quotations are from the King James Bible)

It's way too much to do all at once, but we don't have a lot of time and I wanted students to see that right-wing (sexual ethics) and left-wing (economic justice) Christian social issues appear back-to-back in scripture. And I was curious to see which of the many possible topics would catch their eye. To my surprise (less in retrospect), students didn't even pause to notice the divorce discussion - it's invisible as an issue in liberal 2008, and they weren't surprised (as I'd expected) to discover or rediscover the two accounts in Genesis; we'll return to divorce when gay marriage comes up in a few weeks, and the two accounts when I'm ready to assert that it is impossible to read the Bible literally, and anyone who says it can be done has never tried it. The condemnation of wealth seemed old hat to them, too, so I pointed out to them that the passage appears (also) to be saying that the salvation of the rich is not impossible for God, but the salvation of anyone - rich or poor - is impossible for human beings; I think I'm right to remember that this passage was used in Pope John Paul 2's condemnation of liberation theology. What did they focus on instead? To my sadness it was this:

And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them ...
And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.

How the Catholic clergy scandals have poisoned the wells.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Christian histories of Christianity

In Cultures of the Religious Right, we're reading Mark Noll's Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. This is a textbook for colleges and adult learning contexts used widely in Christian (meaning especially Evangelical) institutions; I first stumbled on it in the bookstore of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Noll is a distinguished historian, long at Wheaton but now at Notre Dame, who is also an important gadfly Evangelical intellectual. Part of the interest of this book is the way he shows Evangelicals that the history of Christianity is worth knowing about (they tend to have what Martin Marty calls a "hop, skip and jump" view, starting with the New Testament and early Church, skipping to the Reformers, and then jumping to the present). Along the way, he presents an excellent overview of a very complicated history, and if he owns a "Protestant Evangelical" bias, he's scholarly enough to tell us and give us enough material (generally) to see alternatives to his interpretations.

This became clear today as we discussed Noll's chapter on the Council of Nicaea and the conversion of Constantine, which started and ended with discussion of political questions in 4th century Rome, discussing theology only in the middle. Nothing in his presentation excludes the view that Constantine's conversion may not have been sincere, that he was using the Christian church to pacify his empire, even as the bishops were using him to establish themselves while the theological stuff was epiphenomenal; indeed, he offers us the materials for such a view. When students in some consternation wondered "But isn't he supposed to be doing a Christian history of Christianity?" I responded, inspired: the most cynical and apparently anti-Christian account could be true and the religious view also true. Human beings are sinners, but God brings good out of evil. And indeed Noll gave notice in his introduction that this was one of the things the history of Christianity taught - that God looks out for his church and preserves it, despite the failings of human beings.

There is no more a single Christian way of doing the history of Christianity (or anything else) than there is a single secular way. It was interesting to discover in Noll the materials for what you might call a "total depravity" history of Christianity. The agents of history are sinners, impure of motive and probably deluded about their own virtue. Some are aware of this and penitent, but none is without sin, and so human history will inevitably be a history of vice and hypocrisy and overreaching, if also of penitence and whatever helps the repentant sin no more. How fortunate that sinful human beings aren't the only agents of human history!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

3 degrees of separation to the winning touchdown

Believe it or not, I watched the Superbowl tonight. My friends J and A had to bribe me by feeding me their Gourmet-worthy hamburgers (I kid you not) and promising we wouldn't be watching so much as making fun of it, and I was permitted to watch all the ads. Even so, I didn't expect to stay through the dramatic ending - let alone to discover I was three degrees of separation away from Plaxico Burress, who made the New York Giants' second, and winning, touchdown. (The picture is courtesy of the New York Post.) It's not quite as charmingly it's-a-small-world-after-all as it at first sounds, though. Plaxico is the uncle of one of A's clients, and A is a lawyer for the Children's Law Center at the Brooklyn Family Court where the boy is at the center of an ugly custody battle.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Right on Target

I'd as good as forgotten that the Brooklyn Museum is just a few minutes' walk away, but was happily set right this afternoon. Someone I recognized from church stopped me on my way to the (lean) farmer's market and asked if I was going to the Museum tonight. Turns out everyone goes to the Museum for the First Saturdays, when all the galleries are open until 11pm and all manner of performances take place - all free, courtesy of Target. (I knew that Target was responsible for free Fridays at MoMA. Good on them for remembering Brooklyn!)

It's a wonderful sight, the museum full of people of all kinds - not just urban hipsters and tourists, as at MoMA - and today they offered a free performance by a fantastic modern dance group called Keigwin + Company, two free films, salsa lessons, karaoke, and much else. Very civilized! I remember when Target first arrived in NYC in 2005 with a spectacular if controversial issue of The New Yorker in which they had bought all the advertising, commissioning artists associated with the magazine to design scenes of New York incorporating the Target logo (that's one above). They've proved to have a very good sense of aim!

(Keigwin + Company has put the series of songs they danced tonight on youtube here and here. Each segment starts with a rather slow simple piece, then gets exciting.)

Friday, February 01, 2008


I thought I was going to have an effusive film recommendation for you about half past six this evening, half-way into Pere Portabello's new "The Silence Before Bach," but I'm not sure anymore. It's a non-narrative film with little snibbets of narrative (some hammy historical scenes including an elaborate early 19th century market, many minutes into whose chatter the legendary moment where a piece of meat is wrapped in a page from the manuscript of the Matthäuspassion for a Mr. Mendelssohn), some perhaps too-gentle suggestions that making music is the soul of civilization and some perhaps too heavy-handed reflections by the cantor of the Thomanerchor in Leipzig, who remarks that Bach leads all the boys in the choir, while from unreligious households, eventually to be baptized. The title refers to an aphorism of E. M. Cioran, who said that before Bach there was only silence; we also hear Cioran's claim that Bach's music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe is not a complete failure. Well, maybe; I have my Bach's-is-my-favorite-gospel moments, too, but happily there are others as well (and I don't just mean books). What made me want to recommend the film were an opening scene with a mobile player piano in an empty museum (which we later see is not empty at all but full of lights the seemingly undirected camera beforehand skilfully avoided letting us see), a baker's dozen of young cellists playing one of the suites for unaccompanied cello seated in a subway war hurtling below Barcelona, and the scene above, which comes right after a used bookseller hands someone a book by Simon Laks about music and the Holocaust and concludes that "music can hurt." I saw this picture in the Times review and somehow imagined the piano would be levitating (suspended by - why not? - piano strings). In fact it is falling and this is the moment before it crashed into the water, breaking up and producing horrible roiling patterns in the water, showing - well, what? The power of music or its vulnerability?