Monday, March 31, 2008


In Cultures of the Religious Right, we've begun reading Tanya Erzen's recent book, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Religious Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. Ethnographer Erzen spent eighteen months at New Hope, the country's oldest ex-gay program (in San Rafael, CA). Her book is the first secular study which presents the men (and a few women) who come to ex-gay ministries in a sympathetic way.

Not an easy topic to discuss! Erzen does a good but not great job. Good, because she has humanized a population generally vilified by nearly everyone. But not great, because she doesn't really go that deep. The men (and a few women) who spend a year or more at a place like New Hope are suffering from a kind of divided self (to use a term from William James I've been using in the class), a self so divided it might better be called tortured. Erzen doesn't capture the torture because she doesn't really get the religious part - if only these guys knew that homosexuality isn't mentioned in the Bible, she implies, if only they knew that the few passages taken to be about it can be read differently! If only it were that simple. She doesn't really get the sexual part, either - the experience of your own desire as anarchic, meaningless, destructive.

I took the occasion to unveil my new view of religious studies as the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real (which you saw emerge at AAR last November, at which point I mentioned questions like: is there life after death, do animals have souls, is there purpose in the universe, does the devil exist?). No other discipline really does this. It also requires that we find ways of writing which don't take sides. This may not be possible, ultimately, but it is certainly virtuous to try! Sexuality is a perfect (if very difficult) test case for thinking of the non-consensus on the real - way more demanding than maintaining a studied agnosticism about the existence of a distant God, or an afterlife, or other things which aren't right here right now. Erzen doesn't really make it, since she makes clear throughout that she accepts modern secular views of sexuality.

To show what Erzen doesn't consider, I found myself giving an account of the sacred mystery of reproduction: nothing human beings do is as powerful or mysterious. That you can do other things with the organs designed for reproduction is uninteresting by comparison, and the difference between different kinds of misuse less significant than that between misuse and proper use, which is, I suggested, on the order of the difference between the finite and the infinite. I suppose that's a more Catholic than Evangelical view of sexuality, but I needed to make the point in the strongest terms - and besides: Evangelicals have been cribbing sexual ethics from Catholics at least since the mid 1970s. I didn't talk about sin, though. Oops.

I was surprised at how easy it was to rehearse this view. Is it the internalized Catholic upbringing? Maybe not (there wasn't that much of it, to be honest), or not just. The flip side of my religious studies persona, which enjoys the possibility of alternative realities, is the one which is slowly but steadily coming to terms with the fact that human beings live in perishable bodies of a particular design on particular parts of a particular planet, surrounded by the contingencies of evolution, history, language... While sexuality is a modern construct and understandings of gender vary culturally, it is a "brute fact of the universe" (as my friend Kevin Olson used to say), along with mortality, that some acts create new life. This is an astounding thing in some way qualitatively different from everything else human beings do. This isn't at heart a religious view, I don't think, but I can see how it might inspire or require religious elaboration like that I gave in class today. (This isn't to say that it's the only or even main source of normative heterosexuality, which is held in place by all the structures, habits and pleasures of patriarchal hierarchy.)

What would an account of New Hope look like which called in question not only the idea of a distinct homosexual identity (which Erzen thinks she's rejecting) but the very category of sexuality which sees procreative acts as no more than a subset, sometimes marvelous sometimes inconvenient? Now try not taking sides between that view and the contemporary liberal understandings and experiences of sexuality. Is it even possible? Could one describe even a single episode of desire? Wish us luck! We've two more classes to discuss Erzen but the methodological questions - and ethical one, too - will accompany us through the rest of the course.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Spring comes to Brooklyn!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Future present

Just so you don't think I'm all religion all the time, let me tell you about a film I saw this afternoon at MoMA in their new directors series: Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer." (He's just found a distributor, so it might be showing near you soonish.) It's a science fiction film which takes place in Mexico in the not too distant future. Like all good science fiction, its conceits are etnirely believable; Rivera said a number of elements in the film came close to coming true over the 10 years it took to make it!

In the world of the film the border between the US and Mexico has been closed, and the "American dream" has been realized: cheap foreign labor without the laborers. Instead, Mexicans get electric nodes implanted in their arms and neck (with the help of shady types called coyoteks), and through bright blue cables are connected to robot workers in el Norte (construction workers, orange pickers, nannies) they operate remotely. The same technology is used from the US, too, as security companies (we see one in San Diego) remotely operate drones who identify "terrorists" resisting American companies' monopolization of resources like water throughout the world - and kill them. The story starts as a Mexican American drone operator's first "mission" - televised and seen around the world in a show like "Cops" - destroys the house in rural Oaxaca where protagonist Memo lives.

The film is beautifully made and full of wisdom and wit, but somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Or maybe it's that the sum of its parts is so close to where we are that one turns away in affront...

Friday, March 28, 2008


Went this morning to the Mid-Atlantic Region meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I gave a paper in a panel of papers grouped by the organizers under the rubric "Theodicy." MAR is the minor leagues, and one of the three other presenters couldn't make it, so we were about six in all, which turned out to be all for the best - plenty of time for discussion.

The first paper, "Decay, Vitality, and the Spirit: A Pneumatological Perspective on Entropy and Emergent Systems," which I'd been dreading, turned out to be best and most interesting. The presenter, David Bradnick, is a graduate student in systematic theology at Regent University, the school founded by Pat Robertson, and the paper was first delivered (I just worked out) at a conference called "Sighs, Signs & Significance: Pentecostal & Wesleyan Explorations of Science & Creation." Thank God for the AAR! I would never otherwise have come within a hundred miles of hearing a paper with such a title delivered by someone from such a place at such a conference... indeed, I would probably have run a hundred miles to avoid it. And yet it was fascinating.

The argument was basically that the emergence of order in a cosmos characterized by entropy is so improbable it needs to be explained. Bradnick cited Stuart Kauffman, a mathematician whose At Home in the Universe I read a few years ago when we were all discussing "intelligent design" and recommending books to each other. Kauffman argues that we should not be surprised at the emergence of order (he's no theist, and goes out of his way to say his account shows design can exist without a designer) so one might think his argument has little to offer a systematic theologian. But Kauffman is honest enough to say that he can model a universe in which order emerges spontaneously but doesn't know what made it happen in this one, and Bradnick responded with a similar humility. Perhaps theology might provide a helpful "elaboration of scientific results" here - not taking the place of science but supplementing it? It's a discredited enlightenment idea that a single discipline should be able to explain everything about everything.

The theology in question was Pentecostal ("pneumatology" has to do with the action of the Holy Spirit, which Pentecostals - unlike many other Christians - believe continues to send gifts in our own time), and the suggestion was that the little pockets of emergent order in the otherwise entropic universe might be seen as Spirit bring order out of chaos in an eschatological way: a "proleptic anticipation of the new creation."

Describing it now I wonder that I wasn't appalled or amused, but in truth I was intrigued. Bradnick's a smart, thoughtful guy, well read well beyond his own tradition (he discussed not only scientific theories and Kauffman but more mainline theologians like Moltmann and Tillich) and all was offered with modesty and intellectual honesty. I spoke to him afterwards, and he told me he's written a fuller study of Pentecostal theology and science, emphasizing that both are traditions which take experience very seriously. Both are empiricist, open-ended and fallibilist.

If he were my only experience of a Pentecostal intellectual, I'd have to concur - and he is my only such experience. I've asked him to send me a copy of his paper - I'll let you know if it makes as much sense the second time through, but I have to admit that I'm intrigued. Something new!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Logics and rhetorics

I had the chance to speak with a specialist in Rhetoric the other day. She had fascinating views on many questions, but on one question I found myself asking, I found her wanting. The question was this: How do you feel about logic?

Now I'm hardly the most logical of people, and have run from the mathematistic pretensions of analytic philosophy, which glorifies logic, for years, so even I was surprised to hear myself ask this question. But as the rhetorician answered it, I remembered why I'd asked it.

The distinction between logic and rhetoric, like other disciplinary distinctions, is one we should challenge, she said. In fact, every discourse has its own logic and rhetoric, and it's important and empowering for students to learn this.

Yeah, yeah, I wanted to say - Foucault was in the air when I was in graduate school, too. But now I'm an educator, and frustrated at students who don't know how to make a logically coherent argument in part because they don't know why to. Isn't everything subjective, open to interpretation? Isn't an argument something you come up with in order to justify an opinion, and so by definition disingenuous?

The reason I was asking, I recalled, was a discussion I'd had a few weeks ago with two Indian economists who've recently joined our faculty (and become friends). They were troubled by students' resistance to evidence and argument, confused by their conflation of demonstration and assertion, and bemused at their view that it is "judgmental" to make judgments. Maybe students should - as I had to - suffer through a course on "Uses and Abuses of Logic" their first semester. It's distressing to think of what they are getting from their education if they're deaf to the demands and rewards of logical demonstration!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

God's cul-de-sac

In Cultures of the Religious Right today, we listened to a recording of a sermon of Rick Warren's on how to make wise choices. (I picked this CD up at the church three years ago; none were available at my recent visit.) I copied for students the worksheets with blanks to fill in, and all of us wrote down in our own handwriting that fear makes people sarcastic, shirk responsibility, stubborn and shortsighted, the need to get the facts, count the costs, plan your steps, announce your goal, step out in faith, do it in love, etc. I thought it brilliant to start with an attack on sarcasm ("it's insecure people's way of protecting their insecurity," he assured us), as this disables one kind of dismissive response to his deliberately prosaic preaching right from the outset. You're scoffing? This must threaten you somehow.

This was my fourth time to hear this sermon, and I was struck anew by its artful artlessness. It's not just that there is something for the audience to write down or circle every few minutes, just as one's attention starts to wander. Not just that it's full of earthy folk wisdom and friendly humor. It's that it can be heard at so many levels, from (1) an entry level where the message is entirely secular, the Biblical references merely a helpful set of metaphors, to (2) progressively more Biblical levels, where we realize that he's describing a "Biblical way of living" and not just a wise and successful one, and ending with (3) levels where miracles happen for the faithful, and hell awaits those who are too proud and presumptuous to pray. We'd just finished reading Susan Harding's analysis of the rhetoric of Jerry Falwell's ministry, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, and it was illuminating to see how different Warren is from Falwell, but also how he uses some of the same tropes. (I was going to write that Falwell would never have posed for a photo in a pool, but Harding includes a picture of him going down a water slide, fully clothed, in the PTL theme park.) (I wonder what wit decided to turn the Warren picture upside down for it's not-quite-parody of the risen Christ.) (And what kind of pool is that exactly?)

One theme was crossing the Red Sea, which Warren amusingly paraphrased - in a manner immediately comprehensible to his exurban Orange County congregation - as "God's cul-de-sac." Trapped between the sea, cliffs and Pharaoh's approaching armies, God has Israel just where he wanted it, and when we face our own Red Seas, he has us just where he wants us, too. At this point, God wants us to take risks. If we take wise risks, and make a public declaration of our goals, God will help us achieve them - as he helped Warren achieve the aims of his ministry when he founded Saddleback a quarter century before and declared his intention to create a large community on its own large piece of land, or when he, more recently, called for 3000 hosts to have small group meetings in their houses and got more than 3200. "What is your own personal Red Sea right now," he asked genially?

This is a good example of something you could take in a number of different ways. "Red Sea" may be just another way of saying "tough choices you need to make," and it is probably true that in the face of such a choice making a declaration of your goals is a good idea. But of course the People of Israel didn't just say "we gotta go through it" and swim; God got them out of the cul-de-sac by having his agent, Moses, command the waters to part. They were saved by a miracle, and a courageous leader who disregarded their sarcasm, shirking, stubbornness and shortsightedness. So you can take a self-help message from Warren, or a quite different one: God works miracles, and you'd better accept that and expect them. And, if you're prone to scoff, you may need a strong leader. And what about the rest of the story? Do we need to ask ourselves who Pharaoh and his armies right now are, for whom God has planned a different Red Sea experience?

What's fascinated me from the start is the sliding scale in everything I've encountered at Saddleback. It's never all-or-nothing. You can start on the journey with an effortless baby step, or even find yourself already on the way: I thought it was just his good common sense advice I was seeking and following, but now I find that it's been something more for some time already. Like their "campus," which looks entirely secular - like a community college - until you look and notice a slender crucifix high above, and a baptismal pool tucked around a corner. The garden, full of fake rocks and fun trails for kids (see below; for more pictures), is in fact a prayer garden, with scenes - unmarked - of 40 Bible stories for you to discover, once you've read those stories, and once you know to look for them in the garden. I'm sure there's plenty more, and can imagine the pleasure of discovering successive layers of meaning.

For Warren-like preachers, that's the way to win back the unchurched for Jesus - incrementally, with no forced decisions, no embarrassing altar calls or public hand-waving, and none of the moralistic holier-than-thou posturing many associate with churches. For his critics, it seems like a way for people to go through the motions without ever actually making the decisive commitment: Warren never talks about sin or salvation, at least not explicitly. But I suspect that if you got deeper into his world, took the courses and joined a small group, you'd learn to hear that, too, at work in his sermons. (Is it not sin that makes us scoff?) He speaks in a kind of code the unsuspecting first-time-goer would never notice.

It's brilliant rhetoric, but also unnerving - you'll recall that I was spooked to find a book on spirit warfare, blurbed by Warren, in the bookshop at my last visit. I won't be sarcastic about it; it frightens me. I know where he's coming from, but I don't know where he's going.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Careers of the saints

The second edition of Margaret Urban Walker's fantastic book Moral Understandings arrived in the mail today. Just in time: I was able to brandish it while critiquing the somewhat pathetic conclusion of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, which I think I've told you I've been reading with some students. No, we haven't read the whole work - we portioned it out - but I think we've read enough. Worries about his argument and his biases have accumulated, and the final chapter - although it's Taylor's most eloquent - confirms them. In short, A Secular Age is wishful thinking: he's a Catholic Christian of some description, but is embarrassed by the Bible, faults the church for authoritarianism, reads no theology (there's certainly nothing about the Trinity or Christology)... Instead, he speaks of the need for transcendence, a flourishing which goes beyond the human, the importance of creative attunement to tradition, and poetic language which doesn't foreclose the possibility of meaning beyond the immanent. Yeah, yeah, I thought, as if: that's not Christianity but an emaciated 19th century idea of theism.

But then, in his final chapter, he praises the communion of the saints, one of my own faves:

Neither of us grasps the whole picture. None of us could ever grasp alone everything that is involved in our alienation from God and his action to bring us back. But there are a great many of us, scattered through history, who have had some powerful sense of some facet of this drama. Together we can live it more fully than any one of us could alone. … What this fragmentary and difficult conversation points toward is the Communion of Saints. I’m understanding this not just as a communion of perfected persons, who have left their imperfections behind; but rather as a communion of whole lives, of whole itineraries towards God. (754)

Sounds nice until you think about it more. And when you think about it more you notice a few serious problems (well, we did). First, this has nothing to do with the actual Roman Catholic cult of the saints, the "whole itineraries" of whose lives are not the point. The point is that they are available here and now to help us, whatever they got up to in their lives. (Less important that they led good lives than that they left good relics!) Indeed, someone the itinerary of whose life was complete wouldn't be a saint, just a dead exemplar - posthumous miracles are required for canonization because only those count as saints who aren't dead, though they've passed on from this life. Second, dead exemplars are what the Romans and other pagans learned from, and one of the inspirations of the secular humanities in our own time. The project is intelligible and in its own way inspiring - it's what I do - but it has nothing to do with Christianity. Third, the communion Taylor celebrates is a communion with the dead, rather than the living, something continuous with a troubling inability or willingness to take human relationships seriously we'd noticed already in the book's opening chapters.

Finally, and this takes us to Margaret Walker, it's not even really a communion with them, since each of us (if we count) is crafting an individualized itinerary. It's like what I understood at the labyrinth at Little Portion Friary - each person is on his own journey, encounters are sweet but evanescent - though without the labyrinth! (To be fair, Taylor presumably senses a shared telos in his reading of the saints of the past, and - in other settings than this book - might allow that there is some divine guidance at work. Or not.) The Walker connection is that the exemplary lives Taylor celebrates are not just lonely, subordinating relationships to other people if not avoiding them entirely, but an ideal specific to the moment in which we find ourselves. She derides the ethical systems of Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls, all of which stress the coherence and integrity of a whole life, for promoting an ideal of a "career self":

[W]hole-life narrative is not a necessary expression of human personhood. Instead, it is a recipe for the sort of selves that fit a specific economic and institutional environment. While this model of relentless self-definition and self-control strongly emphasizes individual responsibility for oneself, it eclipses our dependence on and vulnerability to each other, and it overshadows our life-defining connections to and responsibilities for each other. ("Getting out of line: Alternatives to life as a career," in Moral Contexts [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003], 195-96)

The ideal of the "career self" is in fact inaccessible to most people, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as a life open to multiple connections and responsibilities is arguably fuller than one which adds up to a clear Taylorian "itinerary." The appeal of the idea of the communion of saints isn't just that there are lots of them, complementing each other's idiosyncracies, but that they form a vast community of care, uniting the living and the dead, and showing that no life is more whole than the one open to the connections and responsibilities of relation. Say, maybe that's why Taylor doesn't get the Trinity, either!

(The lovely image of the community of apostles, evangelists, prophets and saints sharing a meal, above and below this post, is from the altar of the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico. It's a place I've twice spent time, and where my dear friend B - someone, incidentally, with whom I have often discussed saintliness - just spent Easter. Click on the pics to see who all's at this remarkable history-transcending gathering.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Back to school

Classes resumed today, after what feels to everyone like a lot more than a week. It isn't just Holy Week. It isn't just Obama's history-making speech and the distressingly petty and defensive reactions it's drawn in some quarters. It isn't just the buds on trees sneaking open... Maybe it's all the troubling thresholds we've recently crossed: $100/gallon oil, $1000/oz gold, and, just after the 5th anniversary of the invasion, the 4000th American killed in Iraq. Recession or depression? $4/gallon gas and 95 more years in Iraq under a President McCain? April's the cruelest month, but this year, with early Easter and the early change to summer time, it seems to have come early.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Who needs a church?

For Easter, I'd promised myself something low church, and managed to exceed my own expectations. No bells, no smells. No choir, no organ, no brass. No vestments, no candles. No pews... indeed, no church! Just a little rolling cart-turned-altar out in the open of Madison Square Park, bright but not quite warm on this early Spring afternoon. This is where Ecclesia: Church in the Park meets each Sunday for an interfaith service and to hand out sandwiches for the people who make a kind of home on the park's benches. The administrator of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen was there - it may be his brainchild - and so were several people from Holy Apostles, including the celebrant and preacher, the wonderful Mother Liz (and a lovely sermon it was, too). Thinking of everyone else jammed into churches in their Easter finery, smothered by the sound of brass and the heavy smell of lilies, I had to smile. "Jesus Christ is risen today..." sounded every bit as good with just our little circle of not particularly musical people, bundled up against the chill but luminous air, and the exchange of peace seemed to radiate out through it into the city and up to the open sky.

Fumble in the endzone

I made it through the Easter Triduum, the powerful sequence of services from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday to last night's Great Vigil of Easter. All the liturgical stuff was in place. But sadly, the spirit is willing but the flesh is week. And so last night's sermon nearly spoiled everything. Instead of awe and joy I felt indignation. One of our priest associates, call him Father T, is a good liberal Protestant in his leanings. As chaplain of a high school with students of many religious backgrounds, he's intuitively ecumenical. But not on Easter, not this way!

What he did was retell the gospel story of the women at the tomb, weaving in a poem:
The breeze at dawn
Has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep
You must ask
For what you really want
Don't go back to sleep
People are going back and forth
Across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch
The door is round and open
Do not go back to sleep

It's a nice enough poem, and not inappropriate to Easter morn, I suppose, and links up to the wind - breath - spirit which Ezekiel is told to prophesy to in the reading on the Valley of Dry Bones.

What am I saying? It's completely out of place! It's by Rumi, the great Sufi mystic. As a Sufi, he will have revered Jesus, but won't have believed in the resurrection. Why should he? But then, Father T seemed to be saying, we needn't either. Who needs the son and the spirit when we've got the Sun and the Breeze? It's a new day, and it's really all about you. Its meaning lies in "what you really want"! Don't press the snooze button! Puke. Can't we be Christian just this once?

If giving an ecumenical sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, why not bring in the Jataka Tales, the stories of self-sacrifice of the prior lives of Gautama the Buddha? Although there are awkwardly many of them - six hundred! - at least these are stories of death and rebirth!

Friday, March 21, 2008


It's that Friday again, the one where we sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

This negro spiritual comes at the end of our Good Friday liturgy, and our music director makes that tremble, tremble, tremble really agitated and awestruck, and the ending unspeakably desolate. But of course the whole service is desolation-inducing.

I'm always moved also by the Reproaches, a 10th century penitential litany which someone fairly recently revised. The original Reproaches apparently lent themselves to Christian antisemitism, letting the congregation feel persecuted with Jesus rather than acknowledge their own part in his persecution. It is not just Israel but all of humanity reproached:

O my people, O my church, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me. I led you forth from the land of Egypt and delivered you by the waters of baptism, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Response: Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us

I led you through the desert forty years, and fed you with manna. I brought you through tribulation and penitence, and gave you my body, the bread of heaven, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

What more could I have done for you that I have not done? I planted you, my chosen and fairest vineyard, I made you the branches of my vine; but when I was thirsty, you gave me vinegar to drink and pierced with a spear the side of your Savior, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

I went before you in a pillar of cloud, and you have led me to the judgment hall of Pilate. I scourged your enemies and brought you to a land of freedom, but you have scourged, mocked, and beaten me. I gave you the water of salvation from the rock, but you have given me gall and left me to thirst, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

I gave you a royal scepter, and bestowed the keys of the kingdom, but you have given me a crown of thorns. I raised you on high with great power, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

My peace I gave, which the world cannot give, and washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you draw the sword to strike in my name and seek high places in my kingdom. I offered you my body and blood, but you scatter and deny and abandon me, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

I sent the Spirit of truth to guide you, and you close your hearts to the Counselor. I pray that all may be one in the Father and me, but you continue to quarrel and divide. I call you to go and bring forth fruit, but you cast lots for my clothing, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with persecution and mass murder. I made you joint heirs with them of my covenants, but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty...

I came to you as the least of your brothers and sisters; I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Heady stuff, consonant with what we learned about ourselves on Palm Sunday, and nicely connected with the ethical mandates of yesterday, Maundy (= mandatum) Thursday. It's so hard to accept our part in abandoning and persecuting Jesus may be the reason he had to come in the first place. Tremble. Tremble.

Perfect union?

Barack Obama gave a speech on Tuesday which many are calling the best American political speech, the most important, since Kennedy. I didn't see it live, but read it first (you can too). Powerful when cut into sound-bites, it's an even more impressive achievement as oratory. It describes a complicated, difficult reality (where we are, how we got there, and what it will take to move on) but with a truthfulness and seriousness which makes hope seem realistic.

Seeing how it moves others makes it even more impressive - I was particularly taken by the response of Roger Cohen, the South African-born columnist for the International Herald Tribune. Cohen doesn't mention the words truth and reconciliation, but one could: Obama's offering a reconciliation based on truth about America's racial past and present. I've expressed my worries that people (including myself) are more drawn by the idea of Obama than by Obama himself, but with this speech I realized that even my idea of the idea of Obama was too narrow - and his way of offering truth makes the practical work of reconciliation possible and necessary.

Not a representative bit, since the speech works as a complex whole, but interesting:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.

I'm suspicious of "genetic makeup" arguments for all the usual reasons (and religious studies lights are flashing on the salvific ritual power of that which brings together all a society holds apart) but as he uses it - as he lives it - it seems like real promise of a wholeness in diversity which one might, coming from a more "genetically conventional" candidate, dismiss as mere pie in the sky. His feet are on the ground, our ground. Read the whole speech; it's what living ideas sound like, including the idea of America, rumors of whose death have been exaggerated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy Week

I haven't mentioned, I think, that this is our Spring Break - or that it is Holy Week. They don't usually coincide, but Easter is earlier this year than it's been for most of a century. And since I'm not leaving town, I have the option of really doing Holy Week this time. I wasn't going to. I mean, I wasn't going to overdo it, but now it seems I'm well on my way. In fact, at this rate I'll have been in churches of some description nine times the week before Easter rolls around!

Palm Sunday doesn't really count, but I'll count it. Monday I volunteered at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen with my friend C - not a religious event, but it takes place in Holy Apostles. Yesterday was "Son of Man" at Middle Collegiate Church. Today, I went with my friend F to Tenebrae at Holy Apostles. Tomorrow I thought I had the perfect excuse for missing Maundy Thursday - tickets to the opera! - but then happened to see that there's an earlier service at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (with Duruflé and Poulenc); so there goes Thursday. Then comes Good Friday: I'm ushering at the long service which starts at noon. This leaves an evening which I have a sneaking suspicion may get filled by a setting of the passion according to Saint Mark by Reinhard Keiser, a contemporary of Bach's, at Grace Church. Saturday is the Easter Vigil; I'm a lector. That should do it, but I might - like last year in Melbourne - find myself doing something rash on Easter Sunday, seeking refuge somewhere new and decidedly low church.

This was my first Tenebrae, a somber "service of darkness" - essentially the matins and lauds for these days. Over the course of the service of psalms sung in plainchant by the choir, readings and choral responses, the lights in the church are extinguished one by one, until only one remains - and then it, too, is taken away for a time.

Tenebrae has been celebrated at Holy Apostles for over twenty years.

This ancient service speaks poignantly to the pain and alienation experienced by so many in our world today. Tenebrae was initiated at Holy Apostles in 1985 by our late Director of Music, Frank Santo. For Frank, who himself died of AIDS, the slow extinguishing of the light and the austerity of the music which characterize this service symbolized the intense loneliness and loss that many people who are homeless and especially those with HIV have experienced. In this time of war and terrorism, the significance of his service is all the greater.

Over the years, Tenebrae has evoked many different faces of human suffering: disease, violence, death, poverty, isolation, oppression, abandonment, war, terrorism. As we hear the psalms of lament and meditate on the passion of Christ, our attention is drawn to God's presence with all who are in need, and we are invited to reflect on our responses to suffering wherever it touches our lives.
Framed this way, the service is terribly moving. As one feels the light dying, one imagines those stricken with HIV and dying before their time (our collection was for a clinic in Southern Africa), and I felt in a new way what it means that Jesus should have suffered as human beings do. This is some profound stuff, stuff unimagined by folks who only come to hear "Jesus Christ is ris'n today!" in the bright light and lilies of Easter Day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Indigenous and customized

Today was a day for indigenous things, and what a day it was. It culminated in the screening of "Son of Man," the South African Jesus film I described last week (Jesus couldn't come in the end so it was just me and Rev. Jacqui Lewis), about which more in a moment. But it started at the National Museum of the American Indian, a museum I've never been to and thought Spring Break offered a good chance to get to know.

NMAI is located, with or without irony, in the 101-year-old New York Customs House on Bowling Green, near the ferry terminals. It's part of the Smithsonian, and I was going to see an exhibit of Pacific Northwest artifacts, mainly collected (under circumstances one would rather not ponder) in the 19th century, but for this exhibition selected, arranged and explained by contemporary Native Americans and Canadian First Peoples. It was sort of like some exhibits of Aboriginal objects I saw in Australia in spirit. Many of the objects were fascinating; some masks have the beauty and danger of Noh masks - wish I could have seen them in use.

A propos Australia, I overheard a guard tell someone there was a film showing at 1:00 so I went. (I was the only one person watching.) It was "Vis à Vis: Native Tongues," a 2003 TV film which brought two artists - a Western Australian Aboriginal actor and a Native American performance artist - into conversation by live video. (Kind of like Skype avant la lettre, and appropriate, somehow: these are artists grounded in their place, they're not globe-trotters, and don't need to be. New media's conquest of space can deepen the experience of place!) As luck would have it, the actor - Ningali Lawford - lives in Melbourne, so we got to see scenes of Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, just a few blocks from where I lived in Carlton. And the performance artist - James Luna - lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in San Diego County! This came pretty close to home, twice over. (I'm like many settler Americans who needed to go to Australia to become conscious of continued Native American dispossession back home, so this was just what the doctor ordered... I went to NMAI because of consciousness raised - in part - in Western Australia, but had yet to connect this consciousness with the part of the American West I call home.) Luna's work is powerful (though less his present exhibit than some of the earlier projects he showed Ningali and her friends and family); hope I can get a chance to see one of his performances live in San Diego!

But I had to move on and get ready for the evening, which I did by watching "U-Carmen," the first film by the team which put together "Son of Man." I knew it was a setting of Bizet's Carmen in a South African township with many of the same actors (Pauline Malefane, the splendid Carmen, is an even more impressive Mary in the later film), but was unprepared for it to be Bizet's opera, sung operatically with orchestra (but in Xhosa)! It's a marvelous film. (It's on Netflix.)

"Son of Man," which I've now seen four times (!), is a fine work, too. I won't tire you with what I offered the audience who had come to see the film in the lovely sanctuary of Middle Collegiate Church, well not with all of it. But let me tell you it did give me a chance to reflect on indigenization: seeing the familiar story made unfamiliar (but also familiar in new ways) in this different cultural setting lets one sense not just the supposed universality of the Jesus story, but the ways in which the received western version is itself an indigenization, albeit so old it's easy to forget about. So it was especially nice to be seeing this black South African Jesus and his powerful mother in a sanctuary lined with Tiffany glass windows of a very fair-haired lily-white Jesus!

What would a Native American or Aborigene Jesus look like, feel like?

In a comedy skit called "Black and Tran" which she performs with a Vietnamese-Australian comedian, Ningali Lawford asks: "How do we know Adam and Eve weren't Aboriginal? They would have eaten that snake!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Intellectual Robin Hoods

One of my students has told me about a wonderful - but presumably illegal - example of contemporary Robin Hoods. In high school he and his friends shared all sorts of digital things, and not just music: especially valued were pirate copies of Rosetta Stone language courses, and podcasts of the lectures offered by The Teaching Company. (I should mention that this student is from a quite disadvantaged background.) I find I kind of like the idea of poor kids educating themselves in this way, getting the goods which more privileged kids get at Ivy League schools. Indeed, it seems closer to what the famous professors who are hired to deliver the Teaching Company lectures are probably after: not providing diversion for baby boomers caught in traffic or working the Stairmaster, but liberating knowledge for young people who might use it to change their lives - and the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Beyond belief

In class on Wednesday I had students map out the relationship of belief (B) and unbelief (U) - we were trying to make sense of various accounts of conversion, and, specifically, various in-between states. (The car crash above tries to show the importance of trauma - and not being in a seat-belt. The one at lower left below seems an attempt to offer God's view; the little starting circles are "person" and "holy spirit." The labyrinth next to it - a different students' work - apparently has no exit.)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

While I wasn't looking, Spring has snuck into the garden out front!

Friday, March 14, 2008

New point of view

You may have heard that New York State has a new governor - I guess he'll be sworn in Monday. Actually, you probably haven't heard about him, but about his predecessor, who fell from the heights of moral crusade to opprobrium with stunning speed this past week. How and why a crusader against things like prostitution rings should himself have been a client, and thought he could get away with it, is one of the questions of the day.

His successor, the Lieutenant Governor and a veteran legislator, is newsworthy, too. David A. Paterson will be the first visually impaired governor in US history. This picture from today's page 1 alludes to it somewhat tactlessly. Happily, there's also a wonderful Op-Ed piece by a Steven Kuusisto, which suggests a different interpretation: Paterson doesn't need to see things to understand them, doesn't understand only what an unimpaired person would see from where he stands:

Blind people are invariably creative and resourceful. Obviously we’re good listeners. But what people may not know is that learning to have a keen sense for what others are talking about requires developing an equally sharp curiosity about human beings. When people talk to me, I can’t just listen; I am also compelled to take stock of the person behind the words. This means asking questions that might not occur to people who can see. One of my students recently observed that I ask people in my classes to explain the things that they customarily overlook. “You ask things like ‘What was the first thing you said to yourself this morning?’” she pointed out. “You challenge us to recall the forgotten things.”

I can’t afford forgotten things. Blind folks must constantly keep track of what we learn and memorize our surroundings. For us, an unfamiliar setting that a sighted person could map out in a glance is a puzzle that requires agile problem-solving. On occasion we even need to ask strangers for advice.

New Yorkers will no doubt discover that Mr. Paterson will take great interest in the details of governance and that this will require him to take sincere interest in people. He’ll ask more questions than your average politician. And those who work in his administration will find that they are important not simply for knowing things but because they can describe how they learned those things in the first place. That’s perhaps the most important thing for the public to understand about professionals who are blind — we are by nature tireless in acquiring information, and we remember virtually every detail of what we read or hear.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Productive presents

My friend D and I surprised each other with presents the other day. I brought him Philippe Herreweghe's rendition of Bach's Easter Oratorio, because a few years ago I'd made D a copy of the Advent Cantatas and he said he'd listened to them every day - and, of course, because Easter is coming up. (If you don't know Herreweghe's Bach you should.) D, in turn, produced a present for me called Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, a book by a Bavarian literary critic (now at Stanford) named Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. I've read about half of it (it's a slim book) and am shouting halleluias. It's wise, a delight to read, and manages to do what its subtitle promises! I'd quote something for you but wouldn't know where to stop. Where would we be without friends?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I've been putting off making my summer plans, in part because I want to spend some time in Europe but can't bear to think about how much it will cost. (The other reason is the carbon karma of flying.) But the reality of the $1.56 Euro is inescapable. At Fairway today I found I could barely afford the cheese!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


There's an amusing article on syllabi in the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. It seems that in many places, course syllabi are getting longer and longer as professors - on their own and directed by their departments and schools - spell out what's permitted and what's not, what counts as lateness, how to behave in class, etc. They're more like prenuptial agreements than an invitation to a shared intellectual adventure. Some student affairs types tend to approve of these tomes - students feel more comfortable knowing exactly what's expected of them - but some faculty wonder if it doesn't make the relationship of faculty to student more adversarial than it should or need be. Both are right, I suppose...

Anyway, I was amused and appalled to read of a syllabus which stipulates that "the honor code applies also to extra credit work." Well, amused until I learned why it was there: a student had plagiarized an extra credit assignment; the student failed the class; the student challenged the grade to the school honor council; the student won, on the grounds that the syllabus had not made clear that plagiarism was a no-no even for extra-credit work! Hooda thunkit!

Monday, March 10, 2008


We keep having cold snaps and snow, but the birds and the trees know: Spring is on its way!
(Click on the pic and scroll down for an explosion of buds.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Nice glass

I sent off the final revised version of my essay on Kant's theory of race yesterday! (Today I went to church, the Guggenheim, and my Sunday night friends' for dinner.) This was what the first 2 pages of the 4th version of this (itself the 3rd) draft looked like. I am anything but an efficient writer. If only the texts get better with every revision...
It's nice to finish something (I started this essay in summer 2006) and be forced to admit that it's not only a lot better than when it started, but actually, if I say so myself, pretty darn good. But please: don't ask me to look at it again!

Incidentally, a student asked about my book the other day ("book? what book?") and I told him I have a full draft but am afraid to look at it, since things that seem inspired when I write them seem anything but when I revisit them; and then, the inspired revisions seem anything but when I revisit them, and so on... Not sure if the glass is half full or half empty, I said, but I am convinced it is a very nice glass.

A visa for Jesus?

I'm meeting Jesus during Holy Week. Well, sort of. Unless I don't.

What's definitely happening is that I'm offering commentary after a screening of a new South African film based on the life of Jesus called "Son of Man" a week from Tuesday. It's for a church one of my colleagues at school goes to, and she apparently recommended me for this after a few other leads dried up. Fair enough: even without seeing it (I'm screening it tonight) I can think of at least three angles I could take (comparison to other Jesus movies, Global Christianity, and the eternal currency of the "what would Jesus do?" question).

Their Holy Week programming theme is "Jesus on the Edge: Radical, Revolutionary, Rabbi," a bit edgy for my tastes but I can live with it. The catch is that they've invited the actor who plays Jesus to come, too. So I may be sitting in a church during Holy Week with a South African Jesus!

Or not: they're encountering visa problems. It would be hard not to make something of that, should the problems prove insurmountable.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Leaping to conclusions

I suppose I should at least occasionally report on something that's happened that day, rather than the day before, so let me say that we had a meeting this morning about the Religious Studies program, with the four core faculty, seven students, the Associate Dean and the Dean-to-be, and it went very well. The college is restructuring its curriculum, and it will be a while (a few years) before Religious Studies is built up to be a major, but it will happen - we have our future dean's pledge. (Indeed, he said that he had taken many Religious Studies courses himself as an undergraduate and they have been very important to him, which made everyone very happy.) And in the meantime there are a variety of formats in which students can pursue a major-like or minor-like course of study in religion. Students were delighted and (so) so was I. No leap of faith required after all... maybe because I organized this meeting.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Went last night to the opening of City Opera's "King Arthur" (Henry Purcell), choreographed by Mark Morris. If you've never been there, City Opera is an experience architecturally. I hadn't been in a few years, so had forgotten how like the last image of the opening of "The X Files" its version of a chandelier is... Anyway, "King Arthur" was a delight, though there was one thing one needed to know which we didn't figure out until the intermission. The piece has spoken as well as sung parts, and Mark Morris simply dropped all the former. Since the speaking parts included King Arthur and most of the other main characters, there was no plot. But once we recognized that - it was more like enjoying Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream - it was purest joy. Morris has an incredible sense for music, and his dancers respond to every smallest figure and texture in the music. And the orchestra, choir and soloists were terrific, too. In fact, divorced from the pretense of telling a story, every scene shone!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Another brick in the wall.

In this week's "Bible study" I had students read about Joshua's destruction of the Amorites (Joshua 10:1-28). My reasons were three: it is as troubling an example of God's miraculous interventions in history as you could hope for (it is echoed in bits of the Left Behind books we've been reading); the sun's standing still is the crucial Bible passage in the Scopes Monkey trial (at least as dramatized in Inherit the Wind); and Jerry Falwell, about whom we're about to read, fashioned himself a latter day Joshua. But it also gave me a chance to show one of the great wonders of the web, The Brick Testament, a literal visualization of much of the Bible, verse by King James verse, in LEGO. (Here: verses 11, 13 and 26.) Not sure whether this makes the horrors of Joshua' clearing out the Canaanites more real or not; I'm gambling that it may make it more real, since we are all so inured to scenes of staged live-action violence that they don't feel real anymore, while the world of LEGO is supposed to be nice (like Jesus)....!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

In the box

My dossiers are done - here are nine of the fifteen I had to assemble. Each folder contains a 25-page personal statement, a CV, fifty pages of syllabi and course materials, nearly 300 pages of published stuff, and some twenty pages of documents generated during curriculum discussions. Don't know who the fifteen suckers are who will have to (at least pretend to) read all this! In fact, since I barely remember what's going on in most of this mass of Mark-generated verbiage, I don't even know how sorry to feel for them. Glad I don't have to, I'll tell you that, though - assuming the review goes through - I'll soon be receiving folders like these for colleagues in the same situation. No rest for the wicked!

(Wasn't sure what to call this post: "This is your life"? "Signed, sealed, delivered"? "Sliced and diced"? "My fifteen folders of fame"? or "Bound for glory"?)

Monday, March 03, 2008

Pleasures of narcissism

For an upcoming review I have been working on a "personal statement" articulating my achievements and aspirations in teaching, scholarship and "service." I'm trying to show that these things naturally affect and enrich each other - something often said about teaching and scholarship but less commonly about these and supposedly boring things like curriculum development. It's sort of fun, at least in part because in my case it's sort of true.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mall of America

Interesting piece in the Times today about a road in the Bronx which has thirty storefront churches on the same 2-mile stretch. (Apparently there are seven just on the block pictured above). That's a lot of little churches, especially when you consider that there are times of the week when most of them are full of worshipers! The article tells us that the shops were vacated when an earlier population left, and that surviving shop owners complain that all the churches are bad for business. (Most are shuttered most of most days, so there's not much customer traffic.) The congregations, we're given to understand, are immigrants, mainly from the Caribbean.

But something's missing, as is often the case in newspaper articles on religion topics... Is it the possibility that economic marginalization is a cause as well as a consequence of these immigrants' going to church in such numbers? Is it the possibility that these churches provide both economic assistance and/or an economic burden to their members? Is it that we don't know how these churches compete with each other for members (they surely must), or collaborate (they surely must, too)? Is it the possibility that not all of these members are immigrants? Is it that there's no reference to the fact that main street of many American towns is lined with churches? There's not just analysis missing here, but a lot of really interesting stories.

I wonder if Get Religion or The Revealer, my two favorite religion and media blogs, will cover it. (Yes, I mentioned the Times article in part as a way of commending these blogs to you.) Get Religion is five very smart, somewhat conservative religion beat journalists, who do a generally very good job of articulating what's missing or behind newspaper, magazine and television coverage of religion topics. (But they claim never to have heard of "black theology.") The Revealer is a bunch of religion-obsessed sceptics, scoffers and survivors, edited by Jeff Sharlett, who review articles and books. Great fun of a slow afternoon to see what's new in these blogs; I find I've learned an incredible amount, especially from Get Religion.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Easy glamor

Just made something classy for some new friends. I learned it in Paris. Stylish and tasty , it's really good for you, too. And easy as pie: roast a beet (I rolled it in olive oil first), cool (or wait a day), peel and slice; alternate with slices or orange and mint leaves; drizzle some olive oil over the top and let sit an hour or two. Enjoy!
Damn, missed my chance to post on leap day, 29 February! But I have a good excuse: I was busy planning the Religious Studies "Leap of Faith" party, which was a blast. Such a blast, in fact - with people sitting in various rooms, and some watching some Christian movies I was showing in another (my housemate's away), that I missed my planned "teaching moment." I had all ready a pile of copies of the place in Fear and Trembling where Kierkegaard likens the knight of faith to a ballet dancer - the original "leap of faith" yet nothing like what everyone thinks of nowadays. So I also missed my chance laconically to remark that Religious Studies at Lang's current existence is pretty well described by the juxtaposition Fear and Trembling / Repetition. We seem ever on the verge of extinction, yet here we are! Leap away.