Sunday, January 31, 2010


I'm not sure quite how it happened, but I've been elected a member of the Vestry of the Church of the Holy Apostles. I'm not even sure what a vestry does - although I know that it's part of the pride of the Episcopal church's inclusion of laity in decision-making, the term still has a Trollopian quaintness about it for me - but I understand this will be an interesting time to be part of the "lay leadership" of the church. We have a new rector/associate director of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (CHA is enmeshed with HASK), and all other senior positions - the associate rector's as well as that of the director of HASK and the main administrator - will turn over in the next year. Turn over or change: both parish and soup kitchen have been hit hard by the economic downturn... I'm happy to be of help in addressing all this (if I can indeed be of help) but I'm also glad in my capacity as a scholar of religion to have a chance to see this kind of change from the inside.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


For Religion & Theater, we're reading Richard Schechner's essay "From Ritual to Theater and Back," a classic of performance studies. Schechner tries to move beyond the stale commonplace that theater "originated in religion" or "ritual" by suggesting that the real contrast is between performances concerned with "efficacy" and those affording "entertainment," though in fact you never find one without a touch of the other. Indeed, they define a "continuum," and cultures swing back and forth along it. Written originally in 1974, Schechner in this essay is convinced that an age of entertainment is again giving way to one seeking efficacy. Mmmmaybe. In the meantime, enjoy some of his speciously precise but beguilingly beautiful diagrams. (He's part of the 20th century theater's convinction that it can and should be scientific: a system, a laboratory.) These first two describe a cycle of Aboriginal Australian initiation dances which parallels the life cycle. The one below purports to show that ours is a time of great theatrical significance (earlier points where the curves crossed: ancient Greece, the time of Shakespeare) and that the future must lie in ritual, efficacy, the avant garde, not in entertainments like Broadway and theme parks!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Die Farbe der Unschuld

I didn't want to go see Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" ("Das Weisse Band: Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte"). Haneke's the sort of sensationalistic cinematic enfant terrible I generally avoid (though I thought "Caché" was brilliant), and I rarely agree with the jury awarding the Palme D'Or at Cannes. But I did see it (it was supposed to be with a friend but he was under the weather). And more surprisingly, I appreciated it. It's a portrait of a north German village on the eve of WW1 where unexplained acts of violence happen (don't expect the film to solve the mystery for you), with striking images with the feel of old photographs and a measured pace (very different from the frenzied preview). What stays with you, as your efforts to resolve its questions reach uneasy stalemate, is the opacity of faces - there are many portrait shots of faces the likes of which one didn't think could be found any more - especially the faces of children, whose innocence Haneke regards with an almost Augustinian suspicion. Americans are inevitably seeing this as a film about the roots of Nazism but I think it's more and less than that. It's a depiction of the vestigial feudalism and patriarchy of premodern Europe more generally, but, as a Haneke film, implies misanthropically that it's naive to think evil historically contingent. This uncertainty may be read as shallow rather than deep as an account of human nature or particular historical periods, but as an aesthetic work the film seems to me valuably to capture the moral opacity of the pasts about which we tell our stories of transcendence, redemption, survival.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Did you notice the article in the Times last week which reported of a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showing: The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, com- puter, television or other electronic device... Indeed, the 7.5 hours (not including texting or cell phone calls) is more than that:
because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours. Sure makes a body feel analog...! (Pic's from today's Letters section)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I'm doing something a bit naughty in my "Reading Job" class. The class is advertised as all about readings of the "Book of Job," but we're not scheduled actually to start reading it until the fifth class meeting. And not because we're spending the first four classes looking at historical antecedents or contexts (which are in any case hard to find). Instead, I'm trying to expose the students to a multiplicity of Job traditions, mainly oral, before arriving at the text, so that they can experience the text as an intervention in this universe of Job stories, not its origin.
This is not news - it's a widely held view that the poet of Job took a preexisting narrative and ran with it. But the way I'm trying to seed the discussion may be novel. In the first class, we listened to two readings, one a short version read by Laurence Olivier (one side of an LP set called "The Living Bible" from the 1960s) and the other the newly released "Word of Promise Audio Bible." Both have cringe-inducing soundtracks, so we also listened to the quite atonal theophany from Peter Maxwell Davies' 1997 oratorio "Job." For today's class, students were asked to spend some time online seeing what Job-related things they could find.
Today, before asking what people had found, we passed around David Rosenberg's "translation," each student reading a page aloud, which includes pretty much everything the "Living Bible" version omits and vice versa. Some students loved it, others hated it - for some of the same reasons: it's in contemporary language, with references to current things like nuclear bombs, factories, railroad ties and abortion. Then students were given a few minutes to jot things down and had to tell the story of Job to a partner. After a discussion of Job and Job-interest in the Web, I passed around the Global Recording Network's Job account, which students had to read to each other, the listener imagining she was an animist hearing this for the first time. After analyzing and critiquing the omissions and insertions here, we looked over the four selections of Job in the Revised Common Lectionary, which give a quite different picture. Finally, I introduced Anna Ruth Henriques' Book of Mechtilde, a modern illuminated manuscript narrating the illness and death of the Chinese-Jamaican Sephardic author's mother, in which the entire text of the Book of Job is transcribed. Not just the story but the very language of Job - unabridged here - becomes the stuff for framing of experience.
(Pictures above are from this book.) By the time we get to the Book of Job itself (which we'll read first in Raymond Scheindlin's translation), it will seem both familiar and unfamiliar, old and new. But that's still more than a week away! Before that we read the "Testament of Job," a concretization of the "legend of Job" which haunted the Book of Job for much of the first millennium CE, and David Clines' incendiary essay "Why Is There A Book of Job and What Does It Do to You When You Read It?"

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Got to keep talking to be real

Rip up the day I was born
and the night that furnished a bed
with people to make me

the pillow from every night I lived
smother that day __ cover its light
so God can forget it

let death's shadow
hold the ether mask there
clouds obliterate it

a total eclipse
swallow it a tiny pill

and that sweat that night beginning me
black oil absorb it
a hole drilled deep in calendars

shrivel that night in the hand of history
let it soften in impotence
turn off its little shouts of pleasure

every science unsex it
genetic biology __ advanced psychology
nuclear bomb

So begins Job, in A Literary Bible: An Original Translation by David Rosenberg (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009). (Blogger won't let me put in a caesura, so I've had to put __ where there should just be an open space.) A bold retelling, and not only in its use of language: it starts at Job 3. The "brief prose tale" which frames it is mentioned in a preface, but Rosenberg has "focused on Job's speeches, the heart of the book." Accordingly, he renders Job 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26-7, 29, 30, 31. Not only Job's friends but God never gets a word in edgewise. Other interpreters have carved away bits of Job, but this is among the most pared down - unsurprising, perhaps, from the co-author of the Book of J.

I'm as interested in the language Rosenberg uses for those parts of Job he considers treating.

Our airwaves are just as filled with contending superstitions and folklore (disguised as commercials, propaganda or homily) as were the newsbearers of the ancient Middle East. Like many of the biblical poets and prophets, the poet of Job was a master of the satiric use of officialese.
In search of an English equivalent to the complex illusion of spokenness in Job's speeches, I found it suggested in American poetry's struggle with natural speech, especially as it absorbed the influences of jazz composition in the twentieth century. The shifts and changes in the flow of ordinary conversation, the often surreal collage of overheard imagery, heightens the sense of timing in the ear of William Carlos Williams - as it does for the jazz musician-poet, who composes as he performs. John Coltrane famously said, "You got to keep talking / to be real." I think the quotation is apt for the character of Job.

There's something to this. It is in any case an exciting poetic tribute to Job. Here's how it ends (489-91):

this is my voice
reaching out for the ear
open to hear it

where is the hearing the time and place
to make my suffering real
an indictment a list of crimes

even if it were longer than a book
I'd carry it on my shoulders
with honor

I'd wrap it around me like a royal robe
bind it around my head
like a royal turban

I'd walk up to my judge
and lay out my heart like a map
before him

this incredible gift of a heart
my true thoughts

hlding the history book of my life
open to this light
light is my defense!

as confident as a prince
I'd put my life on the line
in the words that are given me

in this court invisible to me
transparent as clean air
before the judge I live to hear

and if my land cried out against me
indicting me with the tears
that ran down its furrows

man made
on the face
of the earth

if I plucked the riches
its fruit
__ filling my mouth
and gave back nothing

not even a thought
in gratitude

if I have planted
any cause for anger
in the minds of its tillers

if one migrant worker cried out
because I forced the breath
of integrity out of him

then instead of wheat
let my hand reap

let it force to no end
this thistle of
of a pen

let weeds grow
and cover this page
instead of words that grow wheat

and here for now is ended
the poem
Job speaks.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New semester

A new semester of classes started today. My conversation partners for the semester's adventures are thirty-two "Religion & Theater" students, mostly actors; my colleague C, which whom I'm team- teaching that class; and ten students, mostly religious studies majors or minors, for a seminar on "The Book of Job." Fun and more fun!

C and I have taught "Religion & Theater" once before (as you might

recall), in Fall 2007, and a very different course on Job was one of my first at this school, in the Fall of 2002.

As actors will be the first to tell you, it's always interesting to do something a second time. This year's "R&T" is slimmer - fewer plays, more time to circle them with more explicit religious themes; we're also taking advantage of the Spring to have students experience Purim and Palm Sunday. As for "Job," well, we're writing a book!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Decline and decay

Cornel West to Barack Obama (courtesy of the BBC):

If you cannot keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Miles Horton and Dorothy Day [and] Cesar Chavez, in the states, connected to the empowerment of those Frantz Fanon called the “wretched of the earth,” you will end up just another colorful caretaker of an empire in decline and a culture in decay.



The Supreme Court's ruling on corporate spending in elections may or may not finish off our already broken political system, but it does confirm one of the central ways in which ours is a moral culture in crisis. The majority's argument was based on the fact that, in American constitutional law, corporations are individuals - a travesty of the 14th amendment which Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan's 2003 documentary "The Corporation" explored and exposed. What's really undermined here is not just democracy but a sense of the nature and value of personality, even humanity. "The Corporation" used the diagnostic manual of the APA to test the "personality" of the corporation, and found it a certifiable sociopath. More than democracy doesn't work when sociopathic behavior is permitted or even encouraged.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" is worth seeing just for the opening credits, a soaring shifting serenade to the world seen from a plane window. It's thrilling and thrillingly beautiful, just as flying is (and - as my inner cinemaphile feels obliged to add - just as watching a film is). But don't just see the opening credits; the rest of "Up in the Air" is thrillingly good, too. For the film isn't just about a tiny class of professional travelers who feel at home in planes, airport lounges and hotels, but about all of us who have a second home in that floating world. I do, though I fly less than I used to, and I recognized the so bearable lightness of such being with pleasure, even delight (such a smart film!). Then with pain and even grief.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stranger than fiction

The fiction section of the New Yorker this week has a piece by E. O. Wilson, who apparently has a novel coming out. The story "Trailhead" is about ants, Wilson's great passion, but really about the "superorganism" which each ant colony is. It's a pretty didactic piece of writing, perhaps necessarily so, explaining how a virgin queen gets impregnated, starts a colony, lays eggs a few at a time, each of the first generations taking on a different role in the emerging colony, and how the colony thrives through various kinds of entirely altruistic behavior and, eventually, when the queen dies, slowly collapses, stormed by a younger colony. It has a cast of thousands, who communicate with smells and gestures, but none knows what stage of the story it's at. The sense of drama - a problem, trouble - is introduced by starting the with the death of the queen, something none of her attendants is equipped to notice at first. Eventually things fall apart and Lamentation and hope were mingled in the population, until it becomes clear that all is lost: Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice—they could fight or run from the horror. There was nothing else left in their collective mind.It is a good yarn, if more Herodotus than Sophocles. What does it mean to put it in the fiction section? We're given to understand that this is the story not just of the trailhead colony but of any and every ant colony. They have no more varied personalities than their constituent populations. The quick (probably kneejerk) human reaction is to say that there couldn't be literature about a superorganism. But that may be just what Wilson and the fiction editors want me to think, and then rethink. The point can't be that human societies are sort of superorganisms, too - Wilson wouldn't want us to conclude that, especially not as a mere metaphor. As social animals we're more interconnected and consilient than we want to admit, but a superorganism we're not and never have been. Is the point that we, as social but not part of a superorganism, have the peculiar fate to have the sorts of lives which literature articulates - and perhaps need literature to articulate it? Something in between perhaps. In Consilience, Wilson suggested that there's a limited repertoire of story templates for all our myth and literature, selected by evolution, which can be elaborated on but never successfully transcended. The difference is between repertoires, not between species with a fixed repertoire and others without one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Went to MoMA today to catch the Bauhaus exhibit (which closes Monday) and to see "Ocean of an Old Man," a new Indian art film about the aftermath of the Great Tsunami in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but also had a chance to look into the Gabriel Orozco show. Part of it, suspended in the middle of the atrium, was the skeleton of a grey whale (salvaged in Baja California) painted with concentric circles, at once two- and three-dimensional, found and constructed, art museum and natural history museum. Orozco's art, like that of many in his generation, comes close to being gimmicky. But often enough it transcends gimmicry to achieve something deep. "Horses Running Endlessly" (1995, above) prances deliriously in and out of chess, rules, teamwork, differen- tiation, conflict, direction, purpose. "Yielding Stone" (1992, above) is a ball of plasticine, a material which doesn't harden and can't be fired, weighing just as much as its artist, who rolled it around a city, making "a body that is vulnerable to time, to the city." There's something beautifully true about this unbeautiful blob.

Meanwhile back in San Diego

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There's always a Job

It's been a week since the earthquake in Haiti, and one kind of horror has followed another. The terror of those trapped in buildings, the grief of those unable to save them, the threat of hunger and disease, the terrible smells, the looting and violent responses to it, the burning of unclaimed bodies, the ever-spreading, ever-deepening sorrow. In today's Times we learned about the bodies being buried in mass graves without any effort to identify them:

Along with everything else stolen by last week’s earthquake, Haitians must now add another loss: the ability to identify and bury the dead. Funeral rites are among the most sacred of all ceremonies to Haitians, who have been known to spend more money on their burial crypts than on their own homes.

It is the product in part of familiarity with death — the average life span of a Haitian is 44 — but also the widespread voodoo belief that the dead continue living and that families must stay connected forever to their ancestors.

The cover of the new New Yorker may express the particular awfulness of this, though I find myself troubled by it. Painted two years ago by Haitian Frantz Zephirin, the faces in its walls can't have meant anything like the bodies lost in the rubble today. They're the recently dead but properly buried. Haiti's religious world is more involved with the dead than ours, surely, but through myths about Vodun Haiti is always associated in American minds with death.

Why feed that myth? How different is it really from the idea that Haiti is cursed?

In the same New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" George Packer notes that Haitian history is a chronicle of suffering so Job-like that it inevitably inspires arguments with God, and about God. Job has been invoked already in Packer's reflection: A man named Lionel Gaedi went to the Port-au-Prince morgue in search of his brother, Josef, but was unable to find his body among the piles of corpses that had been left there. “I don’t see him—it’s a catastrophe,” Gaedi said. “God gives, God takes.” But Packer's Job story is that of an innocent man betrayed by his friends.

Packer brings together Pat Robertson's views on the curse with that of a housekeeper named Zed cited in an opinion piece in the Times by Pooja Bhatia entitled "Haiti's Angry God": If God exists, he’s really got it in for Haiti. Haitians think so, too. Zed, a housekeeper in my apartment complex, said God was angry at sinners around the world, but especially in Haiti. Zed said the quake had fortified her faith, and that she understood it as divine retribution.
Packer avoids taking a stand on the theodicy problem, instead commending the approach of President Obama: Obama’s answer was the opposite of Zed’s and Robertson’s: rather than claiming to know the mind of God, he vowed that America would not forsake Haiti, because its tragedy reminds us of “our common humanity.”
Choosing the humanistic approach to other people’s misery brings certain obligations. The first is humanitarian.

But of what is Obama's "humanistic approach" really "the opposite"? By using the word "humanistic" Packer implies it's the opposite of a religious view which "claim[s] to know the mind of God." A semi-conscious memory of another earthquake seems to be at work: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which is thought to have knocked the wind out of Christian moralizing interpretations of natural disasters. While Catholics conducted autos da fe and Protestants in London smirked in satisfaction at God's punishment of Catholic idolatry, who wouldn't side with the Marquês de Pombal who famously said the order of the day was not religious but to Bury the dead and feed the living?

But it's not as simple as religious vs humanistic. For one thing, Obama's understanding of "our common humanity" is surely religiously grounded and inspired: there are religious reasons to bury the dead and feed the living. More fundamentally, the opposition between humanistic engagement and judgmental religious fatalism is too simple. Humanists can be detached and fatalistic, too, while view's like Zed's aren't fatalistic but engaged in their way.

I applaud Packer's insistence that the US do more than bandage Haiti's wounds and abandon it again: to patch up a dying country and call it a rescue would leave Haiti forsaken indeed, and not by God. But can we make this argument without the humanistic imperialism which comes close to blaming Haiti's sufferings on its religiousness, on its pact not - as Robertson opined - with the devil but with God?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Left behind

In the Arts section of today's Times, of all places, an account of new research on the evident elective affinity between academia and politically liberal ideas. The new analysis by Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse offers a plausible explanation of something hitherto interpreted in pretty ideological ways. It's not - as liberals believe - that the life of the mind naturally makes a person progressive. Nor is it - as conservatives allege - that universities discriminate against conservative applicants. Rather, sociologists Gross and Fosse note that many professions exhibit a political lopsidedness to one degree or another, and suggest that being liberal and secular are part of the public image of the professor, the way this, like every other profession, is "typecast." This leads more liberals and fewer conservatives to aspire to become academics in the first place. (The conservative diatribe against pinko academics is as much a cause of the phenomenon as a reaction to it.) Typecasting's not all of it, of course:

Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I haven't posted for a few days. After the earthquake in Port-au-Prince it seemed obscene to write anything. After? During. The horror goes on.

Among those killed were the brother of my friend R, with two of his young daughters - the youngest was saved, shielded by his body. His body and that of one of the other daughters have been recovered; that of the 5-year-old remains in the ruins; Search and Rescue has given up.

Similar loss and open-endedness is besetting thousands, tens of thousands of other families. What can one say, but that one is sick with sadness?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This was a supermarket. This was a street. This was a city.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Back to winter!

I really was in the warmest corner of the country these last weeks!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My California R&R ends tomorrow... three weeks of holiday and family rhythms. And of gorging on sea and sky and sand, reconnecting to the grandeur and intimacy, the regular irregularity of the natural world. Not optimal for getting into the Job groove, for whom nature was inescapable and often terrifying, but I suspect it'll find a way in, as one imagines the morning stars singing together in 38:7.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Morning sandscapes on the beach at Del Mar carved by an unusually high tide in winter, when the rarely seen bluegreen bedrock is visible - though sometimes it looks more like the body of a sleeping animal!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Nausicäa 3D

Went this afternoon to see the movie of the moment, and the future of movies: James Cameron's "Avatar." A satisfying experience, despite piles of eco-ethnic cheese and the by now uninteresting irony of a high-tech critique of technological society. It's epic! But what struck me was that the moon Pandora is really the planet of Miyazaki Hayao. Peel away the primitivism, the Pocahontas story, and the chase scenes and male hero necessary for an American hit movie and it's the world of the sublime "Nausicäa of the Valley of the Winds" with iridescent submarine-like plants and a wise forest whose roots and tendrils connect everything with a mass of Laputa's floating mountains above for good measure. The 3D works better in slow than in fast scenes (for one thing, your eyes aren't popping and snapping), and tricks used in 2D to conjure depth - especially things cropping up between us and the scene - actually make it seem less real. In mass scenes the blue Na'vi looked a bit too much like "Ants" to me, and the face of the avatar of hero Jake Sully (who slips into Aussie English at key moments: it's hard to be a double avatar as a Yank-Na'vi!) a bit like Shrek, but these are quibbles. It's a good time. And, in beautifully realized 3D, it's the shape of things to come. As in "Coraline," the 3D is most effective when not poking you in the eye, and most pleasurable when self-referential, as when we seem to be seeing through screens projecting 3D images of their own, but it'll soon seem as unproblematically "real" as a 3D world on a 2D screen. It'll probably be just a few years before not only films but our own camera-work are in 3D. I gather the first 3D digital cameras come out in the Spring, and monitors which can show them are on their way too. It's unnerving, somehow. Perhaps it'll seem less so when someone makes a film in 3D which isn't about a world fundamentally at odds with our own.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Natural wonders

Two remarkable things I learned on our trip to the desert, and the Wild Animal Park, which can really get a person thinking about nature and our place in it (if they're true!).

Poking around in some materials on this history of rocks to find out if a vein of rock in Little Surprise Canyon could be marble, we learned that marble is metamorphosed limestone. And limestone is made of seashells. Somehow this seems category-confounding. Marble is eternity, transcending the vagaries of life, isn't it? And yet even before Michelangelo confronted his blocks of Carrera Marble, to reveal the living shapes of limbs and bodies within them, they were already monuments to - products of - life. It's something Louise Bourgeois sensed, I think. (That's her above with "Eye to Eye"; at right the gorgeously unsettling polyplike "Cumul 1." Both were in the Guggen- heim retro- spective in 2008.)

The other startling fact came from our driver-guide in the tramway making its way around the big enclosures of animals. Cheetahs, who like the other predators get their own enclosure, are the fastest runners in nature, we learned, though only in bursts. Even for these bursts, they need lots of rest - on the order of nineteen to twenty hours of each day.
How much do you suppose their prey sleep each day? If this cheesy guide is to be believed (he said he thinks of the gazelles cheetahs chase as "cheetos"), only nineteen to twenty minutes. It makes a nature-red-in-tooth-in-claw sort of sense, though. And it just about demands to be applied analogically to human society, doesn't it. Some people lounge about all day, surrounded by luxury, while most can barely scrape together enough to live on... But don't stop there. As Hobbes famously articulated, in a "state of nature" each of us - even the strongest - could be the prey of any other. The fact that any of us is able to sleep at all owes to social structures: that's what social structures are for. But as Montesquieu is sadly not famous enough for having retorted to Hobbes, the "state of nature" doesn't exist in nature, at least within species. It's actually an image of social structures which have broken down, or lost sight of their function. Supposing each of us a potential predator enables the powerful to become predators, to naturalize structures they've turned to exploitative ends. It doesn't have to be that way. (Spoken like a cheeto!)

Borrego Springs

What is it about the desert's harsh beauty that is so life-affirming?