Thursday, September 29, 2011

High five

I think I'm starting to "get" William Blake. I must be if "St. Peter and St. James with Dante and Beatrice" (1824-7), which seems like something from a Ringo Starr song about stoned skydivers, is speaking to me!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cathedral waters

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with the Lived Religion in NYC class (looking back at pre- Reformation cathedral life, and at this cathedral's efforts to reimagine in modern life those medieval civic functions), we happened on an extensive and impressive exhibition of contemporary art about water. Winn Rea's "Fountain," made out of cut pet bottles, was one highlight.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


We're having fun with Meredith McGuire's Lived Religion. I'm appreciating again the intelligence with which she has structured her argument. After the programmatic introductory chapters, she offers two specific traditions for consideration, the lived religion of Latinas and that of white Southern Evangelicals. The first is easy to understand as "popular religion" - indeed "folk Catholicism" is what too often comes to mind when discussion turns to lived religion, and McGuire insists that this be recognized as fully religious, not incompletely or only "culturally" so. But then she describes the lived religion of Southern Evangelicals in the very same terms she's developed in exploring the religious worlds of Latinas. It's a bravura performance! I found particularly charmingher discussion of the use of the cloying-creepy Precious Moments figurines among Evangelical women. One gave the figure at left, entitled "My love will never let you go," to her husband as he was struggling to overcome alcoholism. The figure at right, called "This too shall pass," was given to her by a friend when her husband died. McGuire cannily links this to the personal altars many of the Latina women she had described keep at home, in terms reminiscent of the theory of ritual.

In memory of her husband, she positioned the two pieces together - much like the Latinas' arranging of elements of their altarcitos - to represent to herself both the pain and spiritual reconciliation she had experienced. Such spatial arrangement of objects is an important usage of popular religious elements in lived religion. Physically juxtaposing objects that carry significant meanings is a domestic ritual that both reflects and performs the connections between those meanings. (87)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lully to Muhly

I've been up to my neck in opera. Last week started with an all-Verdi concert of the One World Symphony at Holy Apostles (with a sing-along of the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from "Nabucco" - what fun!), picked up speed with Les Arts Florissants' altogether splendid "Atys" on Tuesday and then went as fast as those neutrinos at CERN to attend a pre-preview of Nico Muhly's not yet opened new opera about Fundamentalist Mormons, "Dark Sisters," on Friday. I thought that was it for a while. (Next week's a biggie again, with the Met's "Barber of Seville" and a modernist-postmodernist "Three Penny Opera" at BAM.) But a friend picked up an extra ticket for the free outdoor simulcast of today's Met Gala Season Opener, Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," with Anna Netrebko and a stellar cast: how could I say no?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lived religion in NY

Great example of the kind of discoveries a lived religion approach might make possible, in this weekend's Times! By the time you trace out the ethnic and religious links (understated but clearly there) in this three-generational household in Chinatown, including no fewer than three adoptions, you'll see how well-earned the article's closing lines are:

Warren looked over. “The next generation won’t be doing this, I don’t think,” he said quietly to his wife.
“You never know, hon.” she replied.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What suits

It started with the question of what to wear. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the newly elected Prime Minister of Nepal, comes to your university, and because of your connection to a Himalayan research project you're invited to the lunch. You wear a coat and tie, of course? Not of course, since he's from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Indeed, he's giving a talk on the topic "What is the Relevance of Marxism in the 21st Century?" He won't be wearing a Mao suit but perhaps some traditional Nepali costume, or is it battle fatigues? He's the main theorist of a successful military insurgency - but a theorist... So you wear a jacket and a nice shirt but no tie. (He comes in wearing a suit and tie, though not in the dark colors of his entourage - the picture below is from a newspaper interview last year. In any case you're not at the same table, and better dressed than some of your colleagues.)
But it turns out this question was just a dress rehearsal for deeper questions raised by the PM's talk and the ensuing discussion. He named one by starting with a quote from Lenin about how much more useful and pleasant it is to fight a revolution than to write about it - what can a theorist, even one who's been part of revolutionary struggle, say? Isn't what's pleasing and useful at the level of argument or reflection likely to be irrelevant to practice if not indeed a distraction from it? More broadly, can you talk generally about the insights won of particular struggle, especially if your brand of Marxism insists that it is the "creative application" of universal principles in particular circumstances that keeps it revolutionary? And if you are now head of a government and helping birth the constitution for a democratic federal republic, whose words are at once the words of a Marxist and the leader of a state...?! Whether one could talk usefully about it or not, how can a Marxist build a bourgeois democratic state and economy? They're trying to do just that, we learned - what's appropriate now to make the communist revolution possible in the future - but the deeper questions just got deeper.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I am Troy Davis

Barbarous land.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Courtly perfection

A benefactor of the arts has given the Brooklyn Academy of Music a wonderful 150th birthday gift. He's made possible the return of Les Arts Florissants' famous 1989 production of Lully's "Atys" (1676), the favorite opera of Louis XIV. The voices, opulent Comédie Française costumes

(ninety tall grey wigs were fashioned just for this revival!), the strangely awkward courtly ballet, dynamic and witty but never silly staging, and the perfect pace and modulations of William Christie... A thing of perfection. (It's available on DVD; above one of the loveliest scenes.) 'Tis almost enough to make me think it might be a good thing to have wealthy people kicking around after all, though I'm not ready to take the next step and praise the ancien régime.
(Images from Raoul Auger Feuillet's 1713 Choréographie)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Explosive forces

First presentations today, in Lived Religion in NYC. Exciting stuff, which I hope I'll get permission to share some of here. For today, let me share a passage in Orsi:

Life in the industrial and post-industrial city demanded (and demands) constant resourcefulness, flexibility, creativity, and existential inventiveness. Modernist intellectuals and artists of the nineteenth century believed that the vitality, pace, and complexity of the industrial city would give rise to distinct art forms capable of bringing the "explosive forces" of urban society to life in art - an aspiration that resulted in a series of formal experiments that included "cubist painting, collage and montage, the cinema, the stream of consciousness in the novel, the free verse of Eliot and Pound and Apollinaire, futurism, vorticism, constructivism, dada, poems that accelerate like cars, paintings that explode like bombs," in Marshall Berman's words. So it has been with urban religious creativity: the world of the modern city has necessitated, encouraged, or simply made possible a tremendous explosion of religious innovation and experimentation.
quoting Berman, All that is solid melts into air:
The experience of modernity (1988), 145

The modern arts (appreciated by our founders as a form of "social research") have changed the way we understand not only art but the way we experience the world, time, space, personality, the human body... How exciting to think of urban religion as explosively adding to experience in this way. (Can't you just see religious stream of consciousness, religious dada, religious cubism?)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Talented tenth

As you know, I direct the First Year Program at my school. Besides arranging first year seminars, I also coordinate the First Year Workshops held each week by peer advisers (known as Seminar Fellows). The weekly meeting with the peer advisers is the best part of this job.

At today's meeting we were discussing how to help new students adjust to being on their own financially. (The topic, "Smart spending and living on a budget," was proposed by last year's Seminar Fellows, who know from personal experience that adjusting to the academic demands of college is only one of many important transitions first years go through.) Various students described tricks for keeping track of their expenses, from hiding credit cards to buying exactly the same groceries at Trader Joe each week to filtering all their expenses through a website called mint. Then one student said that whenever she gets money, whether from a job or from her parents, she gives away 10% of it, mostly to her church. Stunning how the practice of tithing can change one's understanding of economy and one's relationship to the world. What had been a discussion framed by scarcity and taking care of yourself expanded into a deeper discussion of our place in a shared world.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Slice of truth

So apparently the original original Ray's Pizza is closing, after over half a century. Not ours on 11th Street, which, like a dozen others, claims to be the original, and is the only one of which I have a photo handy.
(Actually, if you look at the awning you'll see they've carefully stated it's THE ONE & ONLY FAMOUS RAY'S PIZZA OF GREENWICH VILLAGE.) The one that's closing is in SoHo (on Prince Street), and the Times reporter finds confirmation of its firstness in its never having insisted it was first. In my perverse inconvenient-fact way I'm persuaded by the fact that it wasn't even founded by someone named Ray. Ralph Cuomo thought "Ralph's" sounded too feminine, hence "Ray's." That has the ring of truth.

I may be thinking of this if, as proposed, the ERSEH team meets next June in Shangrila - not the mythical one, but a town in Yunnan which the tourism-savvy provincial government registered under the fabled name, to the consternation of tourism officials in other provinces.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Low dishonest decade

It's finally happened! I bought a smartphone, and no, it's not an iPhone. It took the near complete collapse of my derelict Razr to precipitate carrying out a decision I thought I made last December. But the decision's already vindicated itself. At dinner with some friends, someone told how the service on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at St. Mark's in the Bowery involved a reading of a poem much read ten years ago, but resonant today in whole new and disturbing ways. It's "September 1, 1939" by W. H. Auden - a parishioner of St. Mark's when he was in New York, incidentally - and by the time she was trying to remember all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return, and

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

I had the poem on my smartphone to put in her hand.

Friday, September 16, 2011

This is a great painting, Bruegel the Elder's "Kreuztragung Christi" or "Procession to Calvary" in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It's so full of life it seems almost cinematic. But should you hear that someone's actually tried to make it into a movie (perhaps he'll call it "The Mill and the Cross"), don't go see it! It shows only that film can be as mute and static as a painting - a bad painting, not this one.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Horizontal and vertical

I started today's session of Lived Religion in NYC with this image, "City Activities - Subway" from the "America Today" murals Thomas Hart Benton painted for The New School in 1930. (You'll recall that I'm obsessed by that series.) With the El Grecoesque vertical of the Halleluiah Lassie and Salvation Army street preacher, hellfire-lit scenes of city obscenities all around, trying to break through the top of the frame (but echoed by illuminated pugilists at his right), it was the perfect backdrop for a discussion of Robert Orsi's great 1999 essay on religion, cities and desire "Crossing the City Line."

With Orsi's help we started discussing something I suspect is an important part of my own interest in lived religion: the sense that it's in the lives of ordinary people that true human reality, and true religious experience, lie. But for ordinary people, try reading: poor people, people of color, oppressed people. One of Orsi's main arguments is that the city was an object of fear and desire for people in towns and smaller cities in 19th century America and beyond, and often the same things were the objects of fear and desire. (Benton captures that well!) These fears and desires are projected especially on immigrants, those Orsi calls "dark-skinned aliens," which messes up the lives of these people - but our focus was on those fearing and desiring, those who, like us, had come to the city voluntarily in search of something more real.
Orsi hears christological cadences in Jane Addams' desire, and we had fun unpacking the "kenotic" in Addams and Sister Marty, a Franciscan nun Orsi had described who lived in the ruined South Bronx of the late 1980s. These people didn't just come to change the lives of the people suffering in urban squalor, but to empty themselves out in order to be filled by these people's vitality, their closeness and openness to reality in all its pain and passion.

Not much more than in passing Orsi suggests that Sister Marty was probably inspired by liberation theology, so we had a good talk about that - something new to several in the class. Explaining it, its origins and implications, I recalled a conversation I had with my colleague S about "lived religion" and "base communities" (a concept from Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff): it is in the everyday lives of poor and oppressed communities that one will learn what the Gospel means to our time, will find the saving message of human liberation. The theology of the comfortably off is too likely to be compromised by ideology.

So perhaps we study lived religion not just because, as a matter of fact, religion is "lived" and not just thought or taught, and not just because ordinary people are capable of creating religious worlds just as elites are, but because we suspect the religious worlds of the ordinary - especially the lowly, silenced, marginalized - to be the truer, deeper ones. And we, well, we desire that almost to the point of passion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lived religion

Here's what students in Lived Religion in New York, none of whom has prior experience with the theory of religion, came up with when asked what they think "religion" involves. "Higher power" and "perceived [sic!] divine" are easiest to see in the photo, but I started out at top left. They came strikingly late, though before ritual. Other old flames like "god(s)" or the supernatural or the afterlife didn't show up at all. The closest, intriguingly, was the relatively early "a way of relating." "Relating tooooo... what? people? the universe?" I prompted, but it was meant more generally, and somewhat reluctantly explained as involving "fitting into something larger than the self." So are we as a class already seeing religion as "lived religion," untempted by other views?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Like Ike

One of the chestnuts of the study of American religion, which I'm claiming for New York City in my class this semester as the words were spoken in the Waldorf Astoria, is President Eisenhower's 1952 claim that everyone should have a religion "- and I don't care what it is." This has been celebrated as an articulation of the American civil religion - a faith in belief itself - and criticized as a voiding of all content from religion. But following up a reference in an article today, I find that Eisenhower never said that. What he seems to have said instead is interesting and quite different... but what made the article such fun is that it's written by the Biblical scholar Patrick Henry, who, with tongue in cheek, employs the strategies and terms of Biblical scholarship on an event so recent one might have thought recent enough not to require them.

According to the The New York Times, what Eisenhower said is:

our Government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.

although a press release suggests he said "our form of Government." He was in any case speaking extemporaneously. He's saying nothing about religion in general, and rather more about the religious roots of American democracy. The context makes it even clearer. It's the report of a talk he gave suggesting that his WW2 Soviet colleague Marshall Zhukov had been demoted because of their friendship, and is part of his explanation for why he didn't talk about the ideas of the American founders with Zhukov. Here's the text from the press release, amended in small ways by later publication:

I knew it would do no good to appeal to him with it, because it is founded on religion. And since at the age of 14 he had been taken over by the Bolshevik religion and had lived in it since that time, I was quite certain it was hopeless on my part to talk to him about the fact that our form of government is founded in religion.
Our ancestors who formed this government said in order to explain it, you remember, that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind impels them to declare . . . "we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator..." not by accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but "all men are endowed by their Creator." In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of talking to Zuckov about that? Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.

What is Eisenhower's "concept of religion"? Big enough to include Bolshevism - but it's not what he was talking about in the oft-(mis)quoted line. That was the (nominally) Judeo-Christian faith of the Founding Fathers. What can we do with the line? Not use it as I've been accustomed to, as a report on a peculiarly American understanding of conscience. It's more and less than that.

But Henry isn't concerned with saving Eisenhower or his view. It's sufficient to him to suggest that recent religious commonplaces have origins in their way no less obscure or unambiguous than the world of late antiquity! Dropping words like Urtext, Sitz, argumentum e silentio and catena he traces how the words were misquoted and misconstrued and coopted by various authorities (which in turn remind him of how Athanasius put words in Antony's mouth, of a treatise of Cyprian, and much else besides), and works his way toward providing an annotated text of the sentence with 7 footnotes and 3 alternate wordings, and 2 additional philological notes. 

It begins to look as if the tradition of what Eisenhower said on December 22, 1952 (and even when he said it: Ahlstrom assigns it to 1954), is materially shaped by the polemical/rhetorical concerns of those who pass the tradition on. The statement can be treated as tragic, comic, ludicrous, fatuous, naive, sincere, traditional, innovative. It can be made to refer to government, society, church and state, the American Way of Life. (44)

Patrick Henry, "'And I Don't Care What It Is': The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion
Proof-Text," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49/1 (Mar 1981): 35-49

Monday, September 12, 2011

Train of sight

Buying new glasses frames is such a parlous thing, isn't it! I'm finally getting new ones because, well, because I lost the other ones yesterday. More precisely, they were pulled off my nose by a subway door at Grand Army Plaza. I kid you not! Glasses made it on the train, but I was left on the platform. I suppose I'm lucky it didn't take my nose too. The MTA Lost and Found hasn't found them yet; I'm not holding my breath. They served long and well, but it's not a bad thing to move on...

Trying out new frames is a strange push and pull of what kind of person you think you look like, can look like, should look like. Cool, warm, intellectual, nerdy, kind, hip? They're aspirational windows-of-the-soul. Once you've been doing it for a few years, there's lots of "been there done that," too. Not that you really know how they look anyway, since you need glasses to see ...! Or that other people really notice anyway. How are these? The picture was taken by a salesman at an optician near school - his top recommendation. I look dazed because I'm pretending to be able to see something over his shoulder. Could this be me? It's plastic again, and reddish, though larger than we've had in a while (tiny circles and letter box slits are out except among the terminally fashionable, the Europhile and architects). Hate them? Let me know; I haven't placed the order yet.

[Update, late November: I wound up getting these, Europhile after all.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A quiet anniversary - thank goodness. Nobody I know went to any of the countless special events and commemorations, at least not today. No small number stayed put at home, choosing not to risk ... well. I wasn't here in 2001 (I was in Berlin at an International Leibniz Congress), and wonder if I'd be in the way at these events, but friends who were here seem almost resentful that they're expected to show up. As if they needed to be reminded about 9/11.

Instead, I have for days been hearing people's experiences of the day, unforgettable. They remember magical escapes - people who would on any other day have been in harm's way but that day for some big or small reason were not - and the agony of not knowing if loved ones were among the dead. One had to wait eight hours for his partner to arrive - on foot from Brooklyn, walking backwards across the Brooklyn Bridge as the police weren't allowing people to cross into Manhattan - and tell him he had not, after all, gone shopping in the Financial District that morning. Others' agony hasn't ended, of course.

It's interesting to sense how important the anniversary is to people who don't live here, although this can recall both the upsurge of generosity from around the nation, and the cooptation of the victims' deaths by a government bent on war. "Not in our name," not now either.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tribute in Light

from atop our roof.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


Went with my Lived Religion in New York class to the Eldridge Street Museum and Synagogue - first time I've been to this gorgeous place, an old favorite, since the installation of a window by Kiki Smith. The window was huge, bathing the place in morning light, but - especially from the gallery, where you saw how it drew on the existing colors and décor of the synagogue, it's glorious. ( Picture source.)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Jobs jobs jobs

The prospect of a double dip is doubly discouraging if you're a young person, or know many young people. This graph (source) takes you through 2010, but of course things have only gotten worse since then.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Don Carlo in HD

Can there be a more powerful spectacle of the evils of theocracy than the heretic-burning scene of Verdi's "Don Carlo"? I caught the Met's new and celebrated production on the rebound yesterday - the culmination of a festival of Live in HD broadcasts shown at Lincoln Center. But I imagine the effect was even more powerful inside the house, as a stage packed with scores of singers looks out over the audience, all their faces flickering red from the light of burnings at the stake. At the scene's end we briefly see the burned shapes of the heretics silhouetted behind the big banner at left, but the really powerful moment must have been when the whole opera house flickered red. And more generally when the audience found itself, like all the characters in the opera, trapped in a space with the bloody King Philip. No, I'm still not a convert to the film versions! For all the detail we get to see, the often overpowering whole - which includes not just the whole stage but the whole house - is lost.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Land of the free

Spent Labor Day throwing out food. It was at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (HASK), where I haven' t volunteered in quite a while. In the past, I was put at the beverage station like most newbies, passing out hot coffee (in winter), lemonade or iced tea (in summer) to guests who'd just received trays of food, but this time I got to know the other end of the beast. I was part of the Trays team. This meant that we had to get unwanted food off trays, pour out unfinished drinks, and save what metal spoons we could, before bringing stacks of twenty or thirty scuzzy trays topped with precarious piles of spoons through the melee of people receiving food to the dish-washing station. As ever at HASK, the chaos was contained, and the roles well distributed: as I thwacked trays of uneaten baked beans, potato salad, jello and hamburger fixings smartly on the inside of plastic bins, someone else rotated bins and replaced the bags - so I have no sense of the volume, the weight, of returned food.

But it was a lot; an entirely empty tray was a rarity. This is a shame, but has its reasons. Operating on a HASK scale - over a thousand meals were served today (and trays returned!), a bit below the usual tally - asking guests what they want before serving it isn't an option. (Except for drinks.) So the guests exercise choice by eating some and not the rest - and not just, I suspect, because not everyone likes jello or baked beans. Excluded from America's consumerist simulacra of citizenship and authenticity, it's a way of asserting a personality. No more than the rest of us are they defined by mere need.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


You'd think signing up for broadband in Brooklyn would be a piece of cake, but you'd be wrong. Turns out that the cable my housemates used until they left last November - it comes in from the street side, after passing over the roof, the length of the far side of the building and diagonally across the yard - was disconnected, and would need to be reconnected. Still, where's the problem? The cable's still there. Well, I learned from the installer, the box for reconnection is not in the yard but on the lot beyond ours, on a pole which has, since last year, been overgrown by vines. (It's the leafy ball at the center of this picture.) Unreachable from our yard - or the one beyond! Maybe someone could access it with a tall ladder from the overgrown lot next to it, he mused... But surely someone reached it from here to switch the connection off, I said, not quite understanding. "I only do connections," was the installer's reply; "disconnecting is a different department."

Saturday, September 03, 2011

End of summer

Amazingly, they're all tomatoes!

Friday, September 02, 2011

Wakeup call

The empty lot out back is being developed. No more sleeping in!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Shakespearian capriccio

The Fiasco Theatre Company's six-person "Cymbeline" at the Barrow Street Theater is a romp! The talented young actors sing and play music, too - Tallis, bluegrass, why not? "Cymbeline" is a capriccio, its plot as carefully contrived as an old-fashioned detective novel, so playing up the joyful artifice of it by doubling up characters makes it work all the better. Through its canny contrivances it makes you both want to be the pawn of a playful providence - where nothing is as it seems and everything works out in the end - and then, perhaps, not.