Saturday, February 28, 2009


As part of my somewhat accidental Lenten culture binge (I bought teh tickets in dribs and drabs over the last months, not noticing I was packing one week to the gills), I today saw two remarkable pieces of musical theater which conjured up the religious power of performance through performative enactments of religious worship.

The first, a matinee, was The Civilians' documentary-theater musical "This Beautiful City," about Colorado Springs' transformation into the evangelical capital of America and the rise and fall of Ted Haggard. The work was cleverly constructed and well performed against a wonderful set. The best bits to me were those where they recreated the young adult worship and praise at Haggard's New Life church - itself already intensely and self-consciously theatrical (picture source) - and a rather creepy spiritual warfare group called RHOP. If it presented two sides of its issues - theocracy and liberalism, end times evangelism and sexual tolerance - and not the middle, this may have been because documentary theater can't invent characters. If any there are (I feel I have to believe there are), how would you find ordinary evangelicals who take it all with a grain of salt? The closest, ironically, was one of Ted Haggard's sons, who said that he wasn't that surprised to learn of his father's misconduct - theirs is an interesting family and "it sounds Haggardesque." Instead of invoking end times battles with spirits he said the crisis was helping his father be a better Christian, indeed he's "closer to being human now than ever before." The Haggard affair happened just as The Civilians were in "The Springs" doing research; it was a windfall for them but also somewhat overshadows the larger more nuanced picture they're trying to paint.

The other was part of the opening festival for the new and lusciously warm sounding Alice Tully Hall, the U. S. premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s “anti-opera” based on Dante's “Vita Nuova," with the stage filled with the London Symphony Orchestra, the EuropaChorAkademie and soloists, including three choirboys from St. Thomas Choirschool. I'm not sure it's a great piece of music - many pieces of new music strike me as disjointed, this one switching from atonal to lushly neoromantic to minimalist repetitive to medieval Orthodox liturgical and a citation (I'm 90% sure) from the start of Richard Strauss' "Capriccio" - but it has its somewhat hypnotic moments. Most impressive was the spectacle of it, which led me to the conclusion that, at least in the context of this opening festival, it's a Bühnenweihspiel (Wagner's name for Parsifal) - thought perhaps the stage directions are part of the piece?

It began with an empty stage (empty but for music stands). As the house lights dimmed, the choir and full orchestra came in, talking quietly, dressed in black - no white shirts. Suddenly a voice, one of the boy sopranos, pealed out from the right aisle of the audience, incipit vita nova, echoed by another boy approaching the stage on the left and completed by a third who'd been sitting on the edge of the stage, his feet hanging over the side, looking a little terrified in his white shirt and striped schoolboy tie. As they came together, conductor Vladimir Jurovsky and soloist Mark Padmore (Dante) walked unobtrusively on, joined eventually by the stunningly beautiful Tatiana Monogarova (Beatrice). The voice of Amor was sung from the side balcony. As the piece progressed, the choir along the back wall churned and split into now two, now three choirs, now one again, before finally processing down the aisles singing a litany. But before this Beatrice disappeared from the stage. The lights even on the stage were dimmed for all of the second and much of the third act, until suddenly, in a vision of heaven, all the lights came back on and she reappeared at the side of Amor on the balcony, transfigured (by numerology: she died in the ninth month, nine is thrice three, three is the Trinity, and - this part was lost in translation - nova/nine is is also nova/new life), invoking the intercession of Christ. Eventually the lights dimmed again and the orchestra left the stage, in sections, carefully clicking off the lights on their music stands, percussion, then brass, then strings, until all that was left was a Glockenspiel and, after she left, a xylophone in the back. The audience wasn't sure what had just hit us, it seemed more and less than a concert performance of an opera. Bühnenweihspiel indeed!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sore winners

Well, the four-part Stuart Polly Interfaith study "A parting of the ways? Jews and Christians in the first centuries of the common era" ended last night. (The first three.) I'd like to say it ended in a draw, but in my estimation the historian Seth Schwartz won hands down. The fourth century is when Christianity was legalized and eventually became the official religion of Rome, and it was interesting to survey this period with an eye to the experiences of Jewish communities. Seth glossed the growing anti-Jewish rhetoric in theology and law as showing that the Christians were "sore winners." This was not just witty but profound.

It's probably easier to teach an interfaith subject as a historian than as a theologian, but it was more than that. Seth seemed comfortable with a messy complicated history which put the lie to any retrospective simplification; there was a piety here in recognizing this complexity and not giving up on it. (Last night' debunked myth was that Constantine's conversion led to the start of the middle ages for Jews; in fact, things weren't so great for Jews before Constantine, the Christianization of the Roman Empire took a long time, and while it progressively "combed" Jews out of positions of civil authority it at the same time supported and strengthened Jewish religious institutions.) Peter, by contrast, seemed hamstrung by having to talk about the first centuries of Christianity without using the word "heresy," which last night played a major role, although dressed up awkwardly as "what in retrospect was deemed heresy." He reflected on his experience at the end, saying that it had been a learning experience for him to present "the same message" here that he offers at his seminary (I wouldn't have thought the "same message" is what B'nai Jeshurun asked for, though it's Peter's way of being honest), and of course I've found it a learning experience for the same sort of reason. But really: can't you tell the story of the origins of Christianity without speaking of heresy? Or to turn it around, can you tell it as a story of messiness and complexity?

The question isn't just rhetorical. Heresy seems an indispensable concept for Christianity. Peter reminded us that the Apostle Paul himself had said "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you" (1 Cor 11:19), and offered, somewhat lamely, that this suggested that divine providence favored a kind of religious diversity. (To his credit, in saying this he went out on a limb other Orthodox would gladly cut off.) But did Paul say that? The King James Bible translates it thus, but the Revised Standard Version and many other newer translations speak of "factions," not "heresies." Not that "factions" are darlings of the divine, or that this passage wasn't understood to refer to heresies for most of Christian history, but Peter's use of that translation in a talk in 2009 is a theological choice.

The stumbling block for Peter, the one he stumbled over the honest way not to ignore, was that in the theological tradition he was sharing, providence does need heretics for true Christians to define themselves against (even as they also identify with them, for every Christian knows himself to be a sinner like all sinners). Doesn't it also need the Jews, or some of the Jews, to reject and keep rejecting Christianity - and so deplore and punish? He tried to resist this rather obvious point, and was at his most eloquent and sincere when he concluded that since Christians have a cyclical rather than linear sense of time (since Christ is alpha and omega etc etc), the survival and thriving of Judaism, which all Christians "in their right mind" must acknowledge as the rock on which their faith is built, is a good thing - a different argument from those of the early Fathers he was describing. Is it that simple, or that complicated? Why must the "heretics" and the Jews be regular guest stars in the Christian story? Sore winners indeed. But... how to do better?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sartorial advice

You've heard me describe the different cultures, lingos and values of faculty and student affairs professionals. I encountered an interesting reminder of the difference in a committee meeting on faculty advising yesterday. A proposal we were considering, invoking a book called Making the Most of College, started: "Advisers help students derive the maximum educational and personal benefits from their undergraduate experience. A faculty adviser facilitates this outcome through knowledge of institutional resources ... of curriculum offered and support services, clarification of policies and procedures ... etc., etc." A sociologist on the committee asked if we didn't want something more philosophical as a start, something about the liberal arts education ideal of student-directed learning and citizenship, and I tried to strengthen his case by saying: "The language we have now makes us sound like personal shoppers at Bloomingdales!"

Should you not know what personal shoppers do:

Quite simply, our personal shoppers save you time. They'll pre-shop the store for you, then present an array of items for your review in a private setting at our store. However you choose to shop, our consultants are here for your convenience, to make your life a little less hectic.
  • They'll assist you in selecting the perfect gift for any occasion and any recipient - providing you the gift of time.
  • They'll shop the full store, from clothing to home and much more to insure they address all your needs - whether it's for yourself or something for your family or friends.
  • They'll identify your style preferences and select items tailored to your personal taste.
  • They'll suggest the most appropriate merchandise for any occasion, and will keep you abreast of the latest trends, in-store events and, of course, what's on sale.
  • They'll coordinate everything from alterations to gift wrapping, and they'll organize the delivery or shipment of your purchases.
  • They'll work with your schedule and budget.
But the punch line is what my friend, the director of advising, said. "Aren't you basically personal shoppers?" He asked this with such a deadpan that I still don't know how many layers of irony were beneath it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Endangered religion in the Village

Here's an excerpt from the Winter 2008-9 issue of The Anthemion, the newsletter of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Its proud account of its efforts to preserve two "endangered" houses of worship is interesting to read. (Click the pic to enlarge.) The description suggests that in both cases - the Congregation Mezritch synagogue on East 7th St and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection on East 2nd St - the houses of worship at issue are being protected from their own congregations' plans, presumably in order to grow (or survive) as religious congregations! What stand should the religious geographer take on such cases?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Barrow Street; New York; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; Earth; Solar System; Universe; Mind of God

By some chance I have a surfeit of things coming up in the next ten days - two operas, two plays, dance, and two of the special concerts for the opening of the new Alice Tully Hall. If they're all as good as the new production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" I just saw at the Barrow Street Theater, I'm in for a treat. "Our Town" is one of the great American plays - some say the greatest. It's about the mystery of life, truest in a way in the most ordinary of moments, but most people know it from cloying high school productions, or from the the rather sentimental movie. This revival (which started in Chicago) is none of those things, and restores to the play the experimental frisson of a bare stage production (in 1938!) by a playwright who'd spent time with Luigi Pirandello. Director (and Stage master) David Cromer presents a deadpan production which lets the profundity sneak up on you. And deep in the 3rd act is a theatrical miracle you won't soon forget. Check it out while it's in previews, if you can still get a ticket!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cupcake theology

Today the Church of the Holy Apostles celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of Mother Liz Maxwell in our midst - with cupcakes. Well, not only cupcakes: The church was festooned with balloons and paper hearts with fan letters to Liz from the parish's children. Father John Dinaro's sermon (mindful also of the Academy Awards tonight) started with a reference to the mother ship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" which some movie critic had described as offering a vision of God, and ended (we were all thinking "no, he isn't going to... surely he's not..." but sort of knowing he would) with an allusion to Mother Liz. At the "shindig" which followed the Eucharist, a base baritone from the choir named Clifford sang "My Girl," accompanied by male and female "Cliffettes," and then there was contra dancing.

But it was the cupcakes which got me, perhaps because I had so disapproved of the idea. All of us had been enjoined to "bring a cupcake" which represented our relationship with Mother Liz, which I thought at once an invasion of privacy and a trivialization of it. But in fact the avalanche of cupcakes in different sizes and colors, three or four times what was needed to fill out the letters L I Z, became a perfect representation of a diverse and caring community, and how one of the gifts a priest like Liz brings to a community is to let all feed each other. (I'll see if someone took a picture and post it.) It wasn't quite loaves and fishes, but it's the kind of community practice which Samuel Wells, in God's Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics, rather provocatively argues can take the place of theology.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


As I set some urad dhal and red kidney beans to soak on the kitchen window sill this morning (I've been really getting into Indian food lately, thanks to MDH masala mixes from an Indian grocer on Curry Hill), I noticed I was being watched by a Buddha. In fact, every time I've looked down at the garden or out towards the Empire State Building, I might have been seeing it...

See it hidden in plain sight in the picture below, the yellow rectangle right in the middle! How could I have missed it?

Friday, February 20, 2009


Got to see John Ford's wonderful, rich, dark Western "The Searchers" (1956) at MoMA this afternoon. It's a classic in every respect, including that every time you see it you see more in it. It was my fourth time, and certainly not the last. If ever you have the chance to see it on the big screen, drop whatever you're doing and see it!

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Last night's interfaith limud at B'nai Jeshurun, the third of four sessions on "A parting of the ways? Christians and Jews in the first centuries of the common era," was relatively calm compared to the first two. Perhaps it's because the 3rd century CE is pretty obscure. But I guess we've also gotten used to the emergence and weirdness of Christianity, and the Christian theologian has relaxed enough to crack a few jokes. Next week, as we end with Constantine, we'll be back in territory we know.

So what was newsworthy (that is, generated questions in the Q&A) this time was not Peter Bouteneff's account of Origen's understanding of scripture, but Seth Schwartz's sly suggestion that there was no such thing as "rabbinic Judaism" in this period - or for most of Jewish history, for that matter. And this from the Gerson D. Cohen Professor of Rabbinic Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary! It was fascinating.

The main point was that after the destruction of the second temple and the suppression of the Jewish revolts, Jewish life was disorganized. Contrary to common belief, the rabbis didn't save the Jews because there weren't enough of them - barely a hundred by 300 CE - and because they had no authoritative role. It's not clear who they were - perhaps the descendants of mid-level bureaucrats from the temple, who had worked as arbiters on questions of law? But Roman law was now the law of the land. We don't know what they were doing; the idea that a synagogue needs a rabbi was many centuries away. Perhaps, Seth suggested, they were like those few leaders of Polish and Lithuanian yeshivas who survived the Holocaust and ended up working in factories and driving taxis because they had no other skills people would pay for.

Eventually a body of rabbinic texts emerged, but one of its most celebrated features takes on a different meaning when seen against this historical background - the recording and even glorying in disagreement, with Rabbi X saying one thing but Rabbi Y saying another. In late rabbinic texts, this is indeed consciously praised (well, dialectic is but not disagreement for its own sake, and not pluralism). The earlier texts, Seth suggested, probably recorded differing views simply because there was no authoritative way to settle a question. It was only later that the rabbis asserted the value of their quarreling, amongst themselves and even with G-d - as in the famous story of Eliezer and the carob tree where G-d approves of rabbis who have lost interest in divine approval - which Seth recounted, while noting also that the end of the story, less well known, is apparently less happy.

(Source: Howard Schwartz, Caren Loebel-Fried and Elliot K. Ginsburg, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism [OUP 2004], 67, by way of Google Books.)

Judson Church

Another kind of New York religion. (Remember to click pic for details.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More sinned against than sinning

The BBC, partly responsible for last year's nonsense about a supposedly "new seven deadly sins," has more news on the deadly sins and the Catholic church. It's nonsense this time, too, but this time the nonsense is the Vatican's. A study based on the confessions made to a now 95-year-old Italian Jesuit priest have been analyzed for gender difference. Turns out men confessed to lust more than any other deadly sin, and women to pride.

"Men and women sin in different ways," Msgr Wojciech Giertych, theologian to the papal household, wrote in L'Osservatore Romano. "When you look at vices from the point of view of the difficulties they create you find that men experiment in a different way from women."
Msgr Giertych said the most difficult sin for men to face was lust, followed by gluttony, sloth, anger, pride, envy and greed. For women, the most dangerous sins were pride, envy, anger, lust, and sloth...

The BBC's headline concludes Women are prouder than men, but men are more lustful, according to a Vatican report which states that the two sexes sin differently. Well, maybe. All the usual problems about surveys which rely on self-reporting arise here. But the confessional presents interesting further twists, too. In a society where women are supposed to be humble and self-effacing and men proud, wouldn't more women than men confess to pride even if (as if one could measure it) there were equal amounts in each sex? And if sexuality is considered part of healthy masculinity, wouldn't you expect more men to confess to lust? The BBC reporter not only failed to raise these sorts of questions, but mentioned that pride is traditionally considered the worst of the vices without putting two and two together.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Faith in the city

For Religious Geography of New York, I'm having students read Robert Orsi's introduction to his pioneering anthology, Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (1999). It's an amazing synthesis of history and urban studies, which argues that American religion - which tends to celebrate the rural - shaped and was shaped by a love-hate relationship with the urban. It's a complicated argument, full of ironies. Here's a taste:

For two hundred year, despite (or perhaps because of) the ceaseless urbanizing of the population, the city was cast as the necessary mirror of American civilization, and fundamental categories of American reality - whiteness, heterosexuality, domestic virtue, feminine purity, middle class respectability - were constituted in opposition to what was said to exist in cities. (5)

[C]ity people in the United States have always had to live in other people's ideas of where they live as well as in real places on the ground... Spaces on the urban landscape are both geographical sites where real people live and constructions of terror and desire among those who live elsewhere, including elsewhere in the city. (6)

Mainline American religion worries that people lose their moorings in the welter of diversity and temptation of the city. In fact, Orsi suggests, cities are sites for religious innovation and exploration - in part precisely because they provide so highly ramified an experience. That's sort of the point of my class, so I hope the students get it!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Running on empty

From Krugman we learn

Last week the Federal Reserve released the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial report on the assets and liabilities of American households. The bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation at all since the turn of the millennium: the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001.

I guess we sort of knew that. Throughout the Bush years we heard about economic growth which did not raise incomes, and that the Bush tax cuts were redistributive, concentrating ever more wealth in the hands of the already wealthy few. But effectively no new wealth at all?

Indeed, it's worse than that. For even as there was no growth, everyone was borrowing and spending as if there were growth all around and lots more just around the corner. (Well, not everyone.) Every pundit in town has noticed that Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme wasn't the only one in town. It wasn't just the subprime conjurers, but a whole culture: everyone thought you could borrow to buy a house which you'd be able to sell to some other sucker at twice the price in just a few years without a thought to where that sucker was supposed to find the money to ensure your nearly effortless and virtually instantaneous achievement of immense wealth.

What's got me puzzled and dejected is the layoffs resulting from the start of a slide towards reality, and that so many of them are abroad. Fifty million in the next year, I read somewhere. Were those livelihoods all premised on our delusions too? What would those fifty million otherwise have done? And what responsibility to we bear? I certainly don't know the answers to these questions, or even how properly to frame them. But it's just not right that others should be paying for our mistakes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Museum hopping

Spent today enjoying the works of two of the city's famous art museums. I only intended to go to one - the Metropolitan, for Beyond Babylon (though I was taken also by the premonition of Spring in the huge bouquets of pussywillows and peach blossoms in the great hall). But because the subways were messed up (again), I got a chance also to see part of the Museum of Modern Art collection which is (in facsimile) gracing the walls of the Atlantic-Pacific subway station. There's a virtual tour of the exhibit, but it's really worth seeing the works in situ and watching and listening as commuters respond - or don't.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ad Justin

The second Polly Interfaith Study at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun was even more interesting than the first. Some in the audience found Peter Bouteneff's presentation last week patronizing and preachy, so he started with an account of his experiences with interfaith dialogue. He worked for five years with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and referred us to Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue":

Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue
1st Commandment: The primary purpose of dialogue is to change and grow
in the perception and understanding of reality and then to act accordingly.

2: Interreligious dialogue must be a two-sided project—
within each religious community and between religious communities.

3: Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.
4: Each participant must assume a similar complete
honesty and sincerity in the other partners.

5: Each participant must define him/herself. Conversely—the one
interpreted must be able to recognize him/herself in the interpretation.

6: Each participant must come to the dialogue with no hard-and-fast
assumptions as to where the points of disagreement are.

7: Dialogue can take place only between equals, or par cum pari.
8: Dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.
9: Persons entering into interreligious dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious traditions.
10: Each participant eventually must attempt to experience
the partner’s religion “from within.”

Bouteneff has found that people appreciate candor. Only that way you can have "dialogue instead of denial." Especially if you're looking at the first centuries of the Christian church, the selective appropriation and rejection of Judaism is inescapable.

That's well and good, but other forms of denial crept in, most irritatingly a denial that he was doing theology. Even as he stressed that everyone knows "there's scripture, and there's the interpretation of scripture," when questioned he kept saying he was merely "letting the texts speak for themselves." Were he a naive Protestant, this might have been understandable (if still naive), and I can understand as a pedagogue that you don't want to have to say that an outsider can't understand even a single line of your tradition. But still. Especially when you're speaking to Jews, who understand the inescapability of interpretation and the indispensability of commentary, pu-leese.

To be fair (or at least honest), part of my response comes from denial of my own. The early theologians Bouteneff discussed - Justin Martyr, Melitto and Irenaeus - aren't important to me, their variously Platonizing views in fact nearly unintelligible. The post-Holocaust western Christian theology I'm exposed to is philosemitic in a way very few earlier forms of Christian theology were. Judaism is now thought of as the friendly older brother of Christianity, not as the Cain who killed Abel. But there seems no way around the fact that Christians read the scriptures they share with Jews differently than Jews do. For Christians, Second Isaiah is about Jesus - and so is most of the rest of what we call the Old Testament. Does this make Jewish readings wrong? Not necessarily. But incomplete, necessarily. (Some newer Christian theologies assert that Jews have no need of what the New Testament and Christian theology reveal about the Jewish scriptures, but that's still a Christian inclusivist reading.)

It's harder to say this (or think this) in a synagogue than in a classroom, which is why I'm very glad I'm attending this lecture series, for all its frustration. In a synagogue, every sentence about Christianity sounds different. Not just unfamiliar but potentially foolish, self-important and dangerous. I'm not sure what the mostly Jewish audience gets out of this experience, but for me as a Christian this is surely a good exercise.


SoHo's stainless steel's structures are certainly something special!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincolndarwin day

Today's the 200th anniversary of the birth of two giants: Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. I wonder if anyone celebrated the two together fifty or a hundred years ago? The accident of their coincident birthdays has tempted some to discren some other, more substantive link - were they both empiricists, both moved by a sense of the unity of human kind, both path-breaking nonfiction writers? - but that would be just silly (indeed, an instance of the kind of thinking which Darwin discredited). Let's just enjoy the celebration - a new penny for the great emancipator, and a somewhat naughty set of stamps for the great naturalist. Not that we'll get away with just a day. The bookstores are full of Lincoln books, and the web is overflowing with announcements of Darwin conferences, symposia, etc.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Marxist in the Vatican?

In Exploring Religious Ethics today, we discussed the first sections of Evangelium Vitae, the 1995 Papal Encyclical defining the "gospel of life" threatened by modern secular society's "culture of death." (Text available here.) Predictably, this was the first Catholic theology most of the students had read: "How does he get off saying what's a just punishment," asked one student, who was justly punished by a long explanation from me of the authority thought by Catholics to inhere in the Holy See - not an authority we need to recognize (though she's Catholic), but which it's important to understand, especially in connection to its sacramental role. (I'm still praying over what balance of justice and mercy is called for by this comment : "However eloquent and passionate he may be, I cannot get past his biblical shenanigans.")

It was also their first exposure to Catholic social teachings. To several, the critique of the alleged amoral "individualism" of modern society sounded like critiques they had encountered before - by Marxists. John Paul II must have been turning in his grave! But it was a revealing observation. The public voice of Catholic social teaching has been eclipsed by the single-minded attention to abortion by a religious right uncommitted to the rest of the gospel of life (for them, as some wag said for the first President Bush, "human life is sacred until the moment of birth"), and then undermined by the moral failure of the hierarchy's collusion with the sexual abuse of children.

I hope it was refreshing and edifying for them to encounter words like these, quoted approvingly from Vatican II:

"Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator."
(Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 27)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

View from my window at dusk... no frying, no fat, no oil!

Monday, February 09, 2009


Had a bit of a shock in my ethics class today. We were wrapping up a discussion of William Lafleur's Liquid Life: Buddhism and Abortion in Japan, a somewhat slippery argument for a "pragmatist" response to the "problem of abortion" like that Japanese Buddhists have supposedly found in the practice of 水子供養 mizukokuyô. I took this picture in 2000 at 長谷寺 Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, one of the mizukokuyô sites Lafleur discusses: each of the little 地蔵菩薩 Jizô figures commemorates, as Hasedera puts it, a child which unfortunately was not able to be born in this world (不幸にしてこの世に生まれることができなかった子供達) - a category which extends from miscarriages through abortions - and is given ritual care. Even if we accept that there are times when abortion is the best option, Lafleur argues, wouldn't we be better off acknowledging it as an occasion for regret in some ritual way, so as to hold on to a sense of our own humanity?

Lafleur's argument has many problems - not least that mizukokuyô isn't as old or as Buddhist as he claims, as we read in a chapter from Helen Hardacre's Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan. But I didn't expect anyone to say that there's nothing morally troubling or even interesting about abortion. You can disagree with Lafleur's claim that it is "natural" to feel "guilt" about abortion and still think that it is an occasion for sadness and best avoided where possible. (Acknowledging the sadness one can argue for better sex ed or, in the Japanese case, wonder why the Pill remains inaccessible without a prescription.) What's slippery about Lafleur's argument is that the kind of family planning he argues Japanese have been doing since the Edo period - called 間引き mabiki, after the practice of thinning out rice seedlings to get a better crop - used to involve infanticide as well as abortion, often but not exclusively for reasons of economic hardship. Since he also makes the very interesting argument that in Japan coming into and leaving human life are seen as multi-year processes mediated by social rituals rather than events that happen in an instant (see below), Liquid Life provides a broader context for reflecting on who becomes a member of our moral community, when, and how.

I decided to bring us back to our time and place with words familiar from the presidential race: "At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?" - the question the regrettable Rick Warren posed to Obama and McCain at Saddleback last August to which Obama (in)famously replied that it was "above my pay grade." I thought someone would notice that the question begs the question by using the word "baby," but instead one student answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: "when a woman decides to carry it to term." Before I could ask what it means to confer rights, or if the woman could change her mind after that, or if anyone else was involved, another student asserted that nobody has moral obligations to anyone unless s/he chooses to - in general, not just in this case. But the question was about human rights, I interjected; surely rights are - by definition - not dependent on the good pleasure of others? But then someone said - I kid you not - if you enslave someone they're a slave. Whoah. Whoooooaaaaah. Pro-choice people aren't supposed to make the abortion-slavery analogy.

I don't want to give the impression that there was any consensus in the room - only a few students represented the views I've just described, and I look forward to hearing the thoughts of the others. We'll see what happens when we read about the Catholic critique of a "culture of death" on Wednesday - but I'm already more persuaded that I live in one.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Boxing in shul

Had more fun watching a film today than I've had in ages (since "Ratatouille"). A combination of film, setting and audience made it a wonderful experience. The film was Edward Sloman's "His People," a silent film about the Jewish Lower East Side from 1925, and it was screened with a live performance of a wonderfully swingy new musical accompaniment composed by Paul Shapiro. The setting was the Museum at Eldridge Street - the first synagogue built by Eastern European Jews in America. Recently renovated, after sitting forgotten for years as the area became Chinese, Eldridge Street is a luminous space, a joyous mix of Baroque and Romanesque and Moorish, and has been lovingly renovated. Between the pews you can still feel the indentations caused by generations of Orthodox men rocking back and forth in prayer.

"His People" tells an iconic story of a scholar from Russia, reduced to selling things from a handcart in the New World. His favored older son Morris is sent to school and becomes a lawyer, his school fees paid by money raised by the scrappy younger brother Sammy, who's a newspaper boy - and becomes a prize fighter, to the horror of his father. But it's Morris who goes bad - falling in love with a rich girl uptown and, ashamed of his family, claiming he's an orphan - while Sammy (played by matinée idol-worthy George Lewis) continues to support his parents even though his father has disowned him. (Interestingly, Sammy's faithful girlfriend is Irish, while Morris's snooty fiancé is named Stein - a German Jew.) In the end, the father realizes Sammy is the truer son, but forgives a belatedly penitent Morris...

What became of the family after that is far from clear. Perhaps some of Morris' and Sammy's great grandchildren were in the audience!


Fears of "Victoria's worst day" have been exceeded. When I went to bed last night, the bush fire death toll had passed 40. By now it's nearing 100, and still rising. Black Saturday has outstripped 1898's Red Tuesday, 1939's Black Friday and 1983's Ash Wednesday.

[Over 130 dead as of Monday, and fears that the toll may rise to 200.]

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Courtesy of Google books, the brilliant one-page discussion of religion in Michel Serres' The Natural Contract (trans. Elizabeth MacaAthur and William Paulson [Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1995 {French original, 1990}], 47). The contract in question is described the page before:

Victoria burns

Here's the latest image from the Age website. Every report about how the situation is as bad as or worse than 1983's "Ash Wednesday" fires sends chills up my spine: half of Mount Macedon, the town where my sister and her family now live, was destroyed in one of the 180 fires started that day. I spoke to her last night and she said it really felt apocalyptic, with oppressive heat and the rushing sound of powerful winds blowing things around. (Several of their deciduous trees lost all their leaves already in last week's heat wave.) For now, her area seems spared, but I noticed a picture on the website of firetrucks under a dark sky near Warragul, where my brother-in-law's brother and their family live. May they, may all, be safe and protected.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Weather with you

In The Natural Contract, Michel Serres observes that since human beings came into our own through a social contract, we've lost sight of the need for some kind of equilibrium agreement with nature: we think we can live in time (le temps qui passe) but forget the weather (le temps). Seems harder to forget the weather these days. As southeast Australia fries (hottest day since record-keeping began in 1885 with Melbourne hitting 46 C / 115 F), two-thirds of Queensland is apparently under water because of cyclone-caused flooding. Meanwhile, all we got in New York today were some clouds that seemed like the downy feathers of a giant bird.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Worst day in history (potentially)

Meanwhile, our friends and family in Victoria are facing what Premier John Brumby is calling "the worst day in history" for bush fire danger. May all be safe and protected.

Removing the veil

"Wars have been started over smaller differences than this," said the Jew to the Christian in the the synagogue. But the Jew (from the Jewish Theological Seminary) wasn't referring to the difference between himself and as a Jew and his interlocutor (from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary) as a Christian. He was referring to the difference between his orientation as a historian and his partner's orientation as a systematic theologian. Was he trying to preempt misunderstand or courting it?

The setting was Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, whose limud (learning) program has since two years ago included an annual monthlong "Inter Faith Study." This year's topic: "A Parting of the Ways? Christians and Jews in the Early Centuries of the Common Era." I heard about it in my church bulletin (two of our members have partners who are members of BJ, and both couples attend both BJ's Friday and Holy Apostles' Sunday services), and thought I'd tag along to see what I might learn.

The historian started with a wonderful and completely nonreligious account of the history of Palestine, which experienced three peak periods (as can be verified by archaelogy) - the 8th century BCE, the 1st centuries BCE and CE, and from the late 4th to the 6th century CE. In between, the population was much smaller and little trace remains of who was there or what they were doing. The standard religious view of the period of our inquiry, he said, is that temple Judaism disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple, to be replaced by the domesticated and more ethically-oriented rabbinic Judaism we all love - but that's history the way the rabbis tell it. In fact, the centuries after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and the second Jewish revolt were periods of confusion and improvisation. We don't find traces of synagogues before the 4th century (though there must have been some), when Judaism defined itself against a Roman Empire now identified with Christianity.

I thought this a fantastic way to set the stage, but the Orthodox theologian - after emphasizing the deep differences in approach - didn't build on it. Rather, he focused on the apostle Paul's interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures through Jesus whom he understood "parahistorically" - Christ was eternal, there at the creation, and is the subject not only of what Christians call the New Testament but also (allegorically) of the Old. I'd forgotten that Luke has Jesus say as much to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (24:24) Paul, too, reads the Jewish scriptures typologically, and thinks the Jews have a veil over their minds when encountering the Pentateuch, which, when one turns to the Lord [Jesus] ... is removed (2 Corinthians 3:16). The theologian gave us a handout with these passages on it.

Predictably, the audience, composed mostly of members of BJ, was affronted. "What prooftexts are their for your claims about the scriptures," asked one man not without hostility. "You mean Paul's?" "No, yours." I felt like saying that this was a historical discussion, a discussion of the emergence of new Christian as well as Jewish ideas and practices, but of course the theologian had explicitly closed that door. I thought he should say that one should understand what Paul was doing in the context of the chaos and improvisation which the historian had mentioned, that the Jesus movement was only one of many similar Jewish sects at the time. Why didn't he? I felt the theologian was making things unnecessarily difficult for himself (and for the other Christians in the room), but this isn't his first experience of interfaith work - he presumably knows what he's doing. As he made clear, he was speaking as a theologian, and for a theologian the similarities between Paul and these others are superficial and misleading, since Paul was inspired and the others were not, and Paul's inspired "spin" reveals the true significance of the Hebrew scriptures, which Jewish readings inevitably miss. But still: why point this out the very first night? I suppose his intention was to show how seriously he was taking this event by not pussyfooting around the deep differences between the two faiths - you can't really discuss the differences if you minimize them - but he must have known this would come across as arrogance.

Difficult! But in the remaining three discussions perhaps we'll learn to appreciate why the theologian was so brazen in presenting the nature of the difference between Christian and Jewish readings of Moses and prophets, and why the historian was so coy in presenting only historical background - and that that brazenness and coyness are not just the trademarks of theologians and historians, but might also be stances demanded by an honest encounter of Jews and Christians. Or not. (In a way I may have been expecting the opposite - a coy Christian and a brazen Jewish participant - along with the rest of the audience.) Had we a Jewish theologian and a Christian historian, we might be apprehensive in entirely different ways! I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Religion of the open air

Had one of those moments of flow, of synchronicity, of rightness today. I'd taken the students in a Religious Geography of New York class on a short walk through the West Village to Abingdon Square - that's the handout below, tho' the map and picture were on opposite sides of a handbill-sized paper. The map shows our trajectory: I had half the class follow the arrows and the others go the opposite direction, with us all meeting up at Abingdon Square. There we looked at the picture in the handbill, an 1893 "Open Air War Cry" of the Salvation Army (click the pic for detail), and tried to figure out which direction it was facing and which of the buildings remained. "What do you think happened to the cathedral?" I asked coyly. "Burnt down?" No. "Torn down?" Nope. Nothing happened to it - because there never was an actual building! It's the "cathedral of the open air," conjured up by people meeting in and claiming profane public spaces for prayer and proselytizing. (Our reading was Eliade on sacred and profane. Cities are often thought of as profane, with religious sites representing refuges: the Salvation Army was literally on the front lines doing battle with the profane.)

That was fun, but the golden moment was yet to come. I walked back with half the students along 13th Street, where we noticed the Integral Yoga center, the Methodist "Church in the Village" and the beautiful portico - all that's left - of what was the Village Presbyterian Church (which you know). Then, as we waited for the light at Sixth Ave, a student pointed to the sky and asked "What's that?" It was a wire extending diagonally across the Avenue, shining in the sun, which I'd never noticed. "Must be an eruv," I said, and then, "an eruv!!!" (The drawing above is the student's.) And indeed it is, as I learned here, source also of the map at right. (An eruv defines the space within which observant Jews can carry children etc. on the sabbath.)

Now how wondrous this discovery was may not be immediately clear to you. Here are some reasons why:

1) I walk across Sixth Avenue every day, and have for years, and never noticed anything.

2) I tried to find eruv maps for the Religious Geography class in the past but somehow never found this one.

3) It was a student who saw it - confirming in the most splendid way my mantra that the value of the kind of education we offer comes from learning to see through the eyes of everyone in the room, which I'd extended for this class to the claim that we see more of the city if we see it with others.

I set out to teach the class about one kind of invisible religious structure hovering above and challenging profane space (in the past) and, with the help of students, discovered another (in the present!).

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


This winter just keeps on giving and giving. Above is the view onto 11th Street from school mid-afternoon; below is our street this evening.

It's the little things

This series of witty minimalist LEGO works, called "I LEGO N. Y.," is so delightful I have to give you all of it. Not just because LEGO is a gift of the gods, but also because it captures something wonderful about the New Yorker Alltag. If you've ever lived in New York, you'll be laughing with delight as you look at them. They're by German artist Christoph Niemann, who lived for 11 years here before moving back to Berlin.