Thursday, April 30, 2009


Behold my newest friend, a Yamaha clavinova. A full-size 88 keys, it really feels like a piano to the touch. And it can sound like a concert grand. Or a harpsichord. Or a marimba. Or a cheesy soap opera organ. Or chimes. Or heavenly choirs. Or electric guitars. Or another five hundred things...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Visited a session of the core course for our literary studies program today, my second visit impersonating a Biblical scholar this month! In the first, a GLIB - Graduate Liberal Studies - course, it was Matthew, the gospel I'd also recommended to the Literary Studies committee. (Remember how appalled they were by that essay by Tariq Ramadan I sent them?) This time it was Luke. Or so I was led to believe.

In fact, students had read the gospel of Loukas, in the Hebraizing translation of Willis Barnstone. A student gave a presentation about Yohanan, the dipper, preparing the way for Yeshua from Natzeret in the Galil. When she reminded us that Yohanan said he was dipping people only in the water of the river Yarden while Yeshua would dip them in fire, I couldn't resist asking: "can we call them the Little Dipper and Big Dipper?"

Barnstone's translation was an interesting attempt to rid the New Testament of ecclesiastical clichés and hellenisms (like "testament" for "covenant") and so restore Christianity to its semitic roots. (A review.) I can't judge it as a translation, except to say that it succeeds admirably as "defamiliarizing translation," and could be very useful for someone who still hasn't heard that Jesus was a Jew.

But what's it doing in a course designed to familiarize students with the sources of literary traditions? Does it help students see the aftereffects of the Bible in western literature or won't it rather conceal them? Forget the Yarden, and the unpronounceable word (starting with Shom-) which Barnstone puts in the place of the good "Samaritan." What happens to all the poetry in which bread has eucharistic overtones if all you know is that at Pesach in Yerushalayim the rabbi Yeshua broke matzoh with his students - even though it's surely what happened (if anything happened at all)? It is important for all sorts of reasons to know how classic texts, especially perhaps religious ones, have been mistranslated. But in this setting, the students need to learn the mistranslations if they are even to recognize the allusions and influences. By all means tell them there are problems of translation, but don't render the whole history of New Testament-inspired western literature invisible!

Analogously (and not in the new covenant) wouldn't it be a disservice to students to give them a translation of Genesis which has Eve giving Adam a piece of fruit - without identifying it as an apple (as all later tradition does, but the original doesn't)? Apples in literature is in large part the aftereffects of the Genesis story, but a Barnstone-like translation would pull the rug out from understanding it at all. Unless some balance of historical accuracy and fidelity to the texts the creators of literary tradition knew and used is found, the use - without comment - of a translation like Barnstone's defamiliarizes sources to the point of denying their role in history and culture.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Japanese maples on 12th St. - a beaut in any season.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Repeating cycle

Took one of my two Religious Geography of New York classes on a field trip to Eldridge Street today. Our ostensible destination was the Museum at Eldridge Street, the recently restored landmark synagogue with the lovely chandelier at right (see the stars of David?), but my purpose was actually more ambitious. A few weeks ago we spent a good amount of time making sense of a map of the early 20th century Jewish Lower East Side from Eric Homberger's Historical Atlas of New York (below) which shows several shuls (synagogues) on each block of tenements. Theses weren't buildings, but just rooms in apartments. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the first purpose-built synagogue - indeed, as our docent guide told us today, nobody knew what such a large Jewish house of worship was supposed to look like, neither the Presbyterian architects nor the poor Eastern European congregation! Now anyone can tell you that Eldridge Street's Jewish life is long past - the street's so full of Chinese stores that it's used in film shoots! But what you need your professor of religion for is to show you that the story is repeating itself. There are no purpose-built Chinese houses of worship yet, though there are many adapted buildings. But if you know to look for them, you'll find the neighborhood is crammed with religious places - like the tiny Pure Land Buddhist temple advertised by the yellow sign at left - making a home in the same inhospitable tenements.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Religion in the city... (not quite three dimensional, somehow).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring proceeds apace!

Bird outside my office window (you know these treetops). Our Brooklyn street and a ginkgo you also know. Petals (of a pear?) on 12th St.


I forgot to tell you about this article from the Times earlier this week, but it's important and disturbing. Bad news for academics. Excerpts:

Staff Jobs on Campus Outpace Enrollment

Over the last two decades, colleges and universities doubled their full-time support staff while enrollment increased only 40 percent, according to a new analysis of government data by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a nonprofit research center.

During the same period, the staff of full-time instructors, or equivalent personnel, rose about 50 percent, while the number of managers increased slightly more than 50 percent.

The data, based on United States Department of Education filings from more than 2,782 colleges, come from 1987 to 2007, before the current recession prompted many colleges to freeze their hiring.

Neither the report nor outside experts on college affordability went so far as to argue that the increase in support staff was directly responsible for spiraling tuition. Most experts say that the largest driver of tuition increases has been the decline in state financing for higher education.

Still, the findings raise concerns about administrative bloat, and the increasing focus on the social and residential nature of college life, as opposed to academics.


The growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers. The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements college face.

“A lot of it is definitely trying to keep up with the Joneses,” said Daniel Bennett, a labor economist and the author of the center’s report. “Universities and colleges are catering more to students, trying to make college a lifestyle, not just people getting an education. There’s more social programs, more athletics, more trainers, more sustainable environmental programs.”


In the 20-year period, the report found, the greatest number of jobs added, more than 630,000, were instructors — but three-quarters of those were part-time. Converted to full-time equivalents, those resulted in a total of 939,00 teaching jobs, up from 614,000 in 1987.

The largest number of full-time jobs added, more than 278,000, were for support staffs, and grew to more than half a million positions in 2007, from 292,000 in 1987. Colleges also added some 65,000 management positions, almost all of them full time; all told, they had 185,000 managers in 2007, up from about 120,000 managers 20 years earlier.

“Colleges have altered the composition of their work force by steadily increasing the number of managerial positions and support/service staff, while at the same time disproportionately increasing the number of part-time staff that provides instruction,” the report said. “Meanwhile, employee productivity relative to enrollment and degrees awarded has been relatively flat in the midst of rising compensation.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Changing LES

Was down on the Lower East Side this evening to see the college's Spring theater production - Shakespeare's "Tempest," directed wonderfully by my friend C, and starring lots of students I know - and noticed some interesting views along the way (not quite religious geography but almost). The block of Eldridge Street where the synagogue is was just cleaning up after a movie shoot, for which someone had gone all out for the Chinatown look: red lanterns, a dragon dance, and lots of fireworks and shiny confetti. A few blocks away sits a Buddhist temple, 正覚寺 (I don't know how it's pronounced), on whose roof stupa there's graffiti which might be a mystical Sanskrit character, I suppose! And a good few blocks beyond that (Norfolk St.) is what was clearly once a church, then clearly a synagogue, and now evidently abandoned. (It's Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, I learn from the Web, the Eastern European orthodox congregation from which the founders of Eldridge Street split; it seems to have closed just last year as its numbers dwindled to 20. (For images of the inside, see the slideshow in this article from the New York Sun.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Jonathan Miller's production of Bach's Matthäuspassion is justly famous, as the revival (or return) currently playing just this week at BAM confirms. Extraordinary musicianship: two choirs (each twelve singers) and two orchestras (each strings, reeds, and continuo with organ - all original instruments as far as I could tell) were arranged around a circle, with a single large table and a few chairs the only props. The separation of the two ensembles allowed the audience to hear the structure of the music better than I've ever heard it, and also added movement and drama. The members of the choirs sang by turns sitting, standing, gesticulating, and wandering around lost. The singers - and occasionally musical soloists - moved in the circle for arias. Everyone was in casual dress, so the production had a remarkable intimacy about it. And the music, and the story, soared.

I've seen a Bach Passion performed in a sort of circle before - I heard the Johannespassion in Vienna a few years back, performed by assorted Leipzigers and directed from the center by Peter Schreier, who also sang the part of the Evanglist - amazing, and amazingly unified. But the Miller production (perhaps also because it was sung in English, new for me) seemed closer to what a congregation does on Palm (or Passion) Sunday...

I have to mention another recent Passion I've heard about. The tech-loving folks at Trinity Wall Street twittered the passion on Good Friday, a whole new spin on "Were you there when they crucified my lord?" Neither here nor there, if you ask me (but I admit that I remain a twitter unbeliever). Here are some of the tweets they sent out - from their website, in the jumbled order in which they appear there:

twspassionplayvia @_Peter_of_:
is waiting in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas. I ran scared when the officers came but I need to see how this ends.

twspassionplay via @ServingGirl: Darkness and earthquake. I heard the curtain in the temple was torn in two. I wonder?

twspassionplay via @Pontius_Pilate: They want this done by nightfall. I sent my soldiers to break the dead men's legs. Are my hands clean of this?

twspassionplayvia @ServingGirl: is so tired. Caiaphas and the priests have been up all night questioning a man who claims to be the Messiah. And I wait on them.

The only tweet I can imagine working - catching the listener out as s/he goes on with whatever she was doing - they don't seem to have:

"The cock crew."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Enchanted evenings

Completed my trifecta of musical revivals tonight (which started with "West Side Story" and peaked with "South Pacific") with Diana Paulus' production (originally in Central Park last summer) of "Hair." Electric! They just don't write 'em like they used to.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A place for us?

Behold the results of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008 which (together with the Pew Religious Landscape Survey) set so many tongues wagging recently: nonbelief is the fastest growing religion in the land!, 10% of all Americans are ex-Catholics!, "the decline and fall of Christian America" (as Newsweek put it), etc., etc. I used it in class today (Religious Geography of New York) for other reasons. (I've put it in two pics so you get the effect of having it fill the entire overhead screen with numbers; you're more likely to be able to read it, too!)
The points I was making were two. First, that statistics are hard to read - and in the case of religion also very hard to generate: "self-identification" turns out not to correlate with religious membership, and neither of those lines up as you might wish it did with attendance at houses of worship, reported belief in God (!), plans for a religious funeral, etc. Religious demography is a minefield. ARIS is as good as they get, asking about far more than beliefs and identifications and allowing interesting cross-referencing, but even it has no categories for those between religious traditions, those committed to more than one, and the "spiritual but not religious," etc. Most of my students (this class confirmed) fall into at least one of those categories, so it hit home.

My second point had to do with two important themes from earlier in the course, and let the densely-printed tables stand in for The City: (1) Robert Orsi's insistence that urban religion is particularly interesting because the new arrival in a city can't simply build a new religious center, and probably can't continue her practices from before unaltered - the landscape is already built up, and with other people's religions - so is forced to innovate. (2) The view summarized by Anna Karpathakis: Soon after they arrive, immigrants learn that Americans are more tolerant of religious diversity than they are of ethnic diversity. Accordingly, immigrants use religion as a socially tolerated mans through which they can construct their own culture and identity.... In this sense, then, religious institutions serve different functions for immigrants than they do for white middle-class American Catholics and Protestants.” (“Conclusion: New York City’s Religions,” New York Glory: Religions in the City [NYU 2001], 390)

Imagine you're an immigrant, recently arrived in the city, I said. Someone from ARIS contacts you - you're in! you get to be part of America! But where do you fit? You do want to fit, to find a place for you! We'd been reading about non-religious Jews from the ex-USSR, who have started to construct their identity in pseudo-religious terms here. If you were one of them you could choose "No Religion/None" from the many many options. But - especially as you think of the legions of Christians in America (the interviewer's form has 47 varieties) - wouldn't you more likely pick "Jewish" out of solidarity with your religious confrères? A fit or a fiddle?

I could see all sorts of things falling into place. Who knew you could learn so much from a wall of numbers!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The wheels move

I've mentioned that the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine is committed to being the cathedral of the city of New York the way cathedrals worked in medieval European cities. So it makes perfect sense that it should have furnished the site for New York's first "Blessing of the Bikes" on Saturday. Apparently the Very Rev. Harry Pritchett, the priest who sprinkled water on 100 cyclists and remembered the 20 cyclists who were killed in the past year, read from Ezekiel:

When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 'Wherever the spirit would go, they went and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (1:19-20)

Can that obscure passage (an inspiration, come to think of it, for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials) have been waiting for this day?

Clair de lune






Being-in-the-world:To what might it be compared?Dwelling in the dewdropFallen from a waterfowl's beak,The image of the moon.

I wrote this poem by Dôgen on the board and it anchored our discussion of Zen ethics last Wednesday. (Translation in T. P. Kasulis, Zen Action/Zen Person [U of Hawai'i Press, 1981], 103) If you want to say it in Japanese:
Yo no naka ha
Nan ni tatoen
Mizutori no
Hashifuru tsuyu ni
Yadoru tsukikage.

A remarkable bird is the pelican

As word of the best rains in 20 years has got around, countless pelicans have converged on Queensland's Lake Machattie (many more pics here).

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Hard to resist the latest fizzy pop sensations from Europe: Belarussian-Norwegian violinist-singer-gummibear Alexander Rybak, favored to win the Eurovision Song Contest this year (and accompanied by the most freakish background dancing I have ever seen, a modern folk dance group called Frikar), and stout Scottish church lady-diva Susan Boyle, bringing the house down at Britain's Got Talent...

Elements of style

Check out this example of pedagogical brilliance I just discovered (by acccident, waiting for a friend who went to the 2nd floor bathroom at the Union Square Barnes & Noble). It's from a cute little chemistry book for kids (and the young at heart) by Adrian Dingle and Simon Basher called The Periodic Table: Elements with Style. Each element is designed like a character from a video game, and comes with a page of information about its distinctive properties, powers and affinities with others. It's like a better-designed version of one of those dense books on video game characters from which kids memorize reams of very specific information all the time. Brilliant, huh?
ahh, Spring...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Well armed

Timothy M. Dolan was installed as Archbishop of New York yesterday afternoon. I had live footage playing during my Religious Geography class, which started at 2 (on mute); it took most of the class just for all the bishops to finish processing in! Dolan signaled in his homily that he's going to continue the tradition, begun by Archbishop Fulton Sheen in the 50s and continued by Cardinal O'Connor in the 80s, of being a vocal and visible voice for Roman Catholicism in America. As Governor Paterson reintroduces gay marriage legislation, here come the culture wars again!

Looks like another time, another place

but it's 13th St! (Pic courtesy of the New School Free Press Flickr page.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More zenned against than zenning?

In religious ethics today, we came up against one of the toughest chapters in Buddhist history - the symbiosis of samurai warrior culture and Zen in medieval Japan (and later). Our source was Winston Kings's Zen and the Way of the Sword, which provides a relatively value-neutral account of the historic synergies of Zen and samurai life, then blows its top over some claims from D. T. Suzuki's famous Zen and Japanese Culture (1959). Here are two Suzuki quotes worth reading and gasping over:

The sword is generally associated with killing, and most of us wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used only by a [mere] technician cannot go any further than killing. The case is altogether different with the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He has no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy. This is the kind of sword Christ is said to have brought among us. (145, qtd. 186)

A man who has thoroughly mastered art does not use the sword, and the opponent kills himself; when a man uses the sword he makes it serve to give life to others. (166, qtd. 185)

King can hardly contain his indignation at this, which seems to him a sort of lobotomization of conscience. As you can imagine, we had quite a time discussing these passages, too! I didn't tell students about the ways in which Suzuki, the most important writer for the understanding of Zen in America for decades, is now seen by scholars. (I was lucky enough to be at the panel in 1991 - at my first AAR! - where Robert H. Sharf fired the first salvo in the Suzuki/Kyoto School wars.) Instead I pointed out ways in which Suzuki's account of Zen - even in passages like these - is continuous with things we've discussed from other Buddhist traditions (like dana in Theravada), and insisted we need to face the difficult question: is samurai Zen a bastardization and travesty of Buddhism or the elaboration of a potential there all along?

It's not that I think (as King worries) that Zen is a moral void, compatible with almost any form of life - indeed I had students read Zen Action/Zen Person, Thomas Kasulis' sympathetic account of Zen ethics, before we read King. And it's not that Christianity's getting a free ride in my class - it's divine command ethics next. But this week's texts reminded me of Ch'an master Lin Chi's advice:

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

In that case at least, the victim would be killing himself, and gladly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Artful Buddhisms

Went over the weekend to see a big show at the Guggenheim (resplendently restored for its fiftieth anniversary), "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989." The show was less enjoyable in situ than it has proved in retrospect, now that the annoying explanations recalling orientalist ideas of a unified "East" (and from which native Asian subjectivities are strangely absent) have faded into a background drone. In particular, I'm very glad to have seen the difference between works inspired by a touristic understanding of Zen Buddhism - spontaneity and immediacy and perhaps emptiness, but celebrated in abstraction from any actual Buddhist practices - and more recent works which show the imprint of Buddhist practice. The former, to oversimplify, are about eternal moments and sudden enlightenments, while the latter explore duration, rhythm, and the slow unfolding made possibly by repetitive practice. A nice sort of hinge is offered by "Cold Mountain Studies" (1988-90), a series of 35 ink drawings inspired by Chinese calligraphy by Brice Marden (above is one; a few more here).

Monday, April 13, 2009


You probably want to hear about the New School protesters but I'd rather show you some pictures of the Spring. Not that there's nothing to say about the protests, but that it's still not entirely clear who did what to whom or who's most to blame. What is clear is that a few protesters scored a major publicity coup, joining ranks with anti-capitalist protesters around the world (I was asked about them by someone in Australia!), and that the president, who called the NYPD on them, has proved his manliness to his constituency, facing down the reckless unworldliness of his restive academic charges. Neither side is likely to back down, especially as it sees the other preen, which is probably bad news for us in the middle, who are trying to bring some stability and confidence to an institution already wobbly because of the president's past caprices. Most of us are just saddened by events. Good thing there's Spring to lift our spirits! (Above is the view from my office - not entirely unlike its splendor in autumn; left that from my bedroom in the early morning; below 12th St., and Verdi Square yesterday afternoon - all are worth enlarging with a click.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Happy blur of religious holidays

New York Times columnist Judith Warner (whose columns often address the trials and rewards of parenting) wrote a sweetly understated piece about religious traditions, as she prepares for Passover with her mother but also Easter, somewhat ironically entitled "This I believe." Nobody in her family is particularly religious, but some things - the words to the Passover seder, the hymns she had to sing going to an Episcopal girls school - have become almost "instinctual," a comfort, and their own kind of legacy... How to pass this on to children is her question to us. The essay ends:

“I think that enough harm has been done in the name of religion,” said Julia [her daughter], who had not long before studied the conquest of the Incas and had moved on to the colonization of Africa. “I don’t want to be a part of it.”

I don’t care what they say.

Writing this – while my mother shops and cooks, polishes silver, sets the table, decants the wine – I am thrilled at the prospect of later celebrating Passover with our motley Jewish-Catholic-Episcopalian crew, commemorating events we don’t believe in, confirming an identity that doesn’t quite fit, united in the love of one another.

And on Sunday, I am going to Easter services, in a church [Unitarian] where people define rebirth and renewal in all sorts of personal ways. My mom, I know, will be happy to come with me.

The column's worth reading, and so are the responses, some of which are predictable but most of which are thoughtful; some are downright surprising, like this one from an Alecia Stevens :

Thanks for this. I was raised as a Christian and the way I look at it, it is my “karma” to be that. It is as good as any other religion; no better, no worse. It’s just the one I got. And my job, as a mom, is to MODEL a spiritual practice for my children, so that they may know what that feels and looks like. When they are adults, they can choose to practice or not. They can choose to be Buddhist (as is my step-son) or a Hindu or Jewish or a Christian or whatever else they like. Or nothing at all, but I doubt that will happen. I do believe that our being born into a faith is no small matter. Even the Dalai Lama suggests you think carefully about changing your faith.

I am so grateful for the ritual of my Episcopal service. It transports me to a world between Heaven and Earth (I use Heaven metaphorically.) Life is so very hard and so very beautiful at the same time; I do not know where that is more perfectly expressed than at my church service where beauty, death, forgiveness and rebirth are celebrated weekly.

And this one from a Danielle Saunders:

A primary reason I have decided to raise my daughter in the mainstream Roman Catholic faith that my husband and I were brought up with–even though neither of us is very religious–is so that she will be less inclined when she’s older to adopt a more “radical” faith. I’ve known too many people who were raised by resolutely secular, even atheist, parents yet later became Mormons, fundamentalist Christians, and, in one case, a Muslim (though she did later leave Islam). Others joined non-religious but cult-like groups like SAGE, EST, etc. I firmly believe that many people who are raised with no spiritual traditions or beliefs will eventually seek one and, unfortunately, may fall victim (as I see it) to unhealthy or extreme religions.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Upaya of the Lotus Sutra

As I was trying to teach about Mahayana Buddhism today (in Religious Ethics) and the broad significance of upaya kausalya (skilful means/ expedient devices), the Lotus Sutra came to my aid. In its 2nd chapter, the Buddha explains:

There are not two,
nor are there yet three [teachings],
Save where the Buddha,
preaching by resort to expedients,
And by merely borrowing
provisional names and words,
Draws the beings to him.

It came to me that all was contained in those four words: names, words, provisional and borrowing, considered in that order. Names suggest things have essences when in fact they're empty, and words make it seem things can be named; in fact, all language use - skimming the surfaces of conventional truth - can only be provisional, though few realize this; the Buddha skilfully borrows the words suffering beings are using - the only ones they (we) can understand at that point - in order to lead them to enlightenment and ultimate reality beyond the snares of these and all words.

I'm not sure whether I drew the students to me; I certainly felt things make sense to me in a new way. But I also felt a little like Dogen, drawing an entire philosophy (indeed an antiphilosophy) out of four words in a sutra taken out of sequence - is my Mahayana a bit too generic?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Cloverleaf map

Can't resist posting this, which appeared unidentified in a Times review of a PBS program April 1st. (You know how I love maps.) It seems to be from a Hannoveraner, as the caption is Die gantze Welt in einem Kleberblat/ Welches ist der Stadt Hannover meines lieben Vaterlandes Wappen. (Actually it's by someone named Heinrich Bünting, and dates from 1581; you can see it in detail and learn all about it here.) Amusing the addenda to the cloverleaf: England hovering above the red leaf, Denmark and Sweden fading off top, and America, Die Neue Welt, pushing in from the southwest..

Monday, April 06, 2009


I was a visitor in the course of one of my colleagues today, who thought it would be fun to have students read The Gospel According to Matthew in a course on tragedy in various genres. I figured it was a set-up - like George Steiner, he was going to insist that Christianity just doesn't get tragedy - so I tried to think of a way to at least be a stumbling block. Here's what I did - I'm not saying it worked, but at least he wasn't mopping the floor with Matthew on the Monday of Holy Week.

I started by playing Ella Fitzgerald singing "Get thee behind me, Satan," noting its modern sense that temptation is probably something it's human to give in to, and that I'd return to it. After a quick introduction about how Christians never just read a gospel through, I focused on two passages, which between them let me raise several important points. The first, the reference to the "sign of Jonah" (12:39), was chosen to stop sneering about superstitious credulity at miracles - none of the healings and exorcisms count as signs here, so don't get hung up on them - and to underline that the NT builds on and may require the OT.

The second, "Get thee behind me, Satan" (16:23), I picked to show that even Peter, who's just "got" who Jesus is, still doesn't really get it. He's still thinking in human rather than divine terms in thinking Jesus needn't go to Jerusalem to be crucified. And yet, just five verses before, Jesus - who'd warned against building a house on sand (7:24-27) - had announced that Peter was the rock on which he would build his church (16:18)! As in other passages (like the explanation of parables), the author of Matthew here veritably insists that human interpretation will not get what's going on in the story of Jesus.

But something even more interesting is going on, I suggested. Does Jesus perhaps snap at Peter like this because he's tempted, too? This is the turning point in the story, after all, where preaching in the hinterland turns toward trial and death in the city. Think back to Jonah - the "sign of Jonah" is explained in terms of three days and preaching to outsiders, but Jonah's also the Bible's most reluctant prophet. My point wasn't that of the gospel according to Jonathan Bach or José Saramago. It was, rather, that the humanity of Jesus must have taken affront at various points at his superhuman destiny (most famously in the Garden of Gethsemane) - and that our readings often do, too. The writer of Matthew wants us to be tempted to read the story as a human story - even as a tragedy.

He also wants us to know we're so tempted. Get thee behind us, Satan?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Yale University Art Gallery gleanings

20th-c. Kuba (Congolese) raffia skirt. And one of Richard Serra's "Stacks."

Saturday, April 04, 2009


I just spent two days in New Haven, nominally to attend a conference called "Exploring the Post-Secular." After a long day of that yesterday I'd had enough - actually, not enough, as the conference didn't convince me "the post-secular" is a meaningful phenomenon or category - so I headed with my friend R to the current show at the Yale Rep, Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff's contemporary adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "Notes from Underground," savagely brilliant and disturbing (so disturbing I can't really recommend it, though you might be glad to have seen it). Today R took me around Yale's intoxicatingly pretty buildings - behold the history of writing from the entrance to Sterling Library, some of Yale's striking spires, and law & order carvings from an entrance to the Law School. And at the Yale Center for British Art I was able to see an exhibition I'd heard good things about called "Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts." It shows images of (among other things) animals, geology, competition in nature and society, ecological fitness, native peoples from around the world and the play of the sexes which Darwin will have known, and later images which in various ways take his ideas into account. Fascinating. Trip to New Haven redeemed!