Thursday, February 28, 2008
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
(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
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:
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":
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
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Whoo-hoooo! 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!!!!!!!!
Taiwan: Tons of Fish Wash Up on Beaches
Who's ever heard of fish freezing to death? Vaguely apocalyptic, somehow.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Thursday, February 21, 2008
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
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Sunday, February 17, 2008
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...!
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
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
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
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.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
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
Saturday, February 09, 2008
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...!?
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
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
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!
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
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
Saturday, February 02, 2008
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.)