Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New view

Before I moved to New York, the view down Sixth Avenue was of the Twin Towers. Now a whole new landscape is growing - or better skyscape, since all the new towers are so reflective they change with the weather and sometimes, unnervingly, seem to disappear.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

They don't like paper here

Google saved my a-- today. My friend J and I, researching for the course we'll teach this coming semester on the history of The New School, were interviewing a past president of the school. He agreed to meet us at the alumni club of the famous old university where he'd done his PhD. When I checked online to make sure I had the address right, Google, which often guesses what it thinks you're about to write, suggested "Y--- Club Dress Code." Curious, I followed that link, and learned - 20 minutes before we were supposed to head up to meet the man - that I would have been turned away at the door for wearing the unpardonable:

jeans! Discovering this just in time I raced to a nearby store, bought the first pair of dark khakis I could find (thankfully on sale), zoomed back to my office, Clark Kented in a flash, and got to the club 10 minutes early, not a half hour before our distinguished interlocutor appeared. He led us up to a vast high-ceilinged room with clusters of comfortable chairs at discreet distances from each other. When we sat down and pulled out pads for taking notes, he let us know "They don't like paper here" - though we might take the occasional note if we kept our pads out of view. We went on to have a friendly and informative interview (without notes), but boy did those hallowed halls rub me the wrong way. Spend too long at a place like Eugene Lang and you forget how old boys work.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The wide world

Thank you to the alum who sent me this shot in the arm. This article names the dejection I felt at AAR, where the usual delight of discovering bright new voices was marred by the awareness that few of them would find jobs in this economic climate, but also finds hope.

Quite independently, a handful of scholars—established ones, tenured ones, reputed ones, etc.—tell me the same story in the hallways. They confess to feeling remorse about training graduate students. There are so many bright young people, but so few jobs. (The AAR reports 193 positions filled in 2005-2006, compared to 49 in 2008-2009.) They sound kind of despondent.
To me, though, this sounds like an opportunity. Maybe it’s a chance to finally throw religious studies a coming-out party. I’ve learned quickly how little the world (by which I mean, from here on out, the world that isn’t academia) knows about what religious studies even is, and how much the world needs what religious studies does. Now, hearing these professors talking like this, it occurs to me that religious studies needs the world, too. At the very least, the world has a bigger job market.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wait a moment

I'm feeling a little bad about my ungracious reaction to my housemate's Christmas tree. Though I hope I didn't show it I felt like something unclean had been brought into my house, like, oh I don't know, a Nascar shrine. He told me that he'd read online that Americans put trees up November 27th and there seemed no harm in starting something so cheerful a few days early - after all, Christmas trees are on sale and up in many stores. I told him our family tradition was that Christmas starts the 24th: Christmas is when Christmas starts, not ends! He'd heard of "Twelfth Night," hadn't he? (He had, of course, and, I imagine unlike most Americans, knew what I was referring to in mentioning it.)
Where did the date of November 27th come from? He told me he'd found it on several (surely Japanese) sites. It is, in fact, the start of Advent, which is a dark, not a cheerful season. Yes, it's about waiting for the light, but at least in recent years I've found each Advent to be discouraging, dispiriting. (Our church starts an Advent series next week called "It ain't all Jingle Bells"!) The world seemed not just in need of light, but beyond help, indeed, hardly deserving of that help. Seasonal affective disorder speaks! Let's see if that happens again this year... (Above is my wreath for the year, constructed of Hans Christian Andersenian discards from sadly premature Christmas trees.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011


What is a "windrose"? Nelly Sachs's 1949 poem "Hiob" begins:

O Du Windrose der Qualen!
Von Urzeitstürmen
in immer andere Richtungen der Unwetter gerissen;
noch dein Süden heißt Einsamkeit.
Wo du stehst, ist der Nabel der Schmerzen.

At first I thought it might be a pinwheel, but it's the representations on old sea charts of the directions of the winds, radiating lines which crisscross the map. (It was later incorporated in compasses, and more recently refined to show the relative strength of winds from different directions in a given place.) Job as "windrose of torments" on the map of human life and history: a powerful image. Must find a way to cite it.

17th century images from here and here

Fall's not over yet...

Friday, November 25, 2011

New look

Did I tell you my new glasses arrived? It took a month, but was worth it!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Heavens to betsy!

I've been thinking about heaven lately. Or rather, I've realized that heaven is something I regularly think about. Do I even believe in heaven? What triggered the awareness (how interesting that thinking about heaven preceded this rather perplexed awareness) was our class discussion in Lived Religion of the survey results assembled in American Grace. Had anyone noticed, I asked, that a higher percentage of Americans reportedly believe in heaven than report believing in an afterlife? Nobody had, and the class quickly discounted the results.
I asked them to consider that the surveys might not be distorting. Could they imagine ways in which the results could be true? I was thinking of myself. I have all sorts of ideas about heaven, but none involves how or even if it exists. What sorts of ideas? I confess they're of the "who you meet in heaven" variety, but they're usually not about people I knew and loved who have passed away. It's not that I don't imagine, even in some way expect, reunion with them. Instead I imagine meeting people I never knew - grandparents and great grandparents and others back and
back, people who lived long ago and far away. I imagine meeting people who died in wars and famines and disasters, and those whose lives in our own time are miserable and short. I imagine meeting people of other religious traditions, including some I deplore, and atheists, too. I imagine bad people, even very bad ones, murderers and those who prey on the weak. What's going on? Part of it must be the effort to deprovincialize my religious imagination, to force myself to imagine salvation (or whatever) as more than just a gilded version of cosy
us-here-now. Eschatology, we're told, even this latitudinarian kind, isn't just about some future time but a way of thinking about this world and its travails. But I can't say my thoughts of heaven aren't also about what comes after death. I don't know how to express it, beyond the cliché that I don't feel that death is the end. "Feel" how, why? Psychology and sociology offer me their reductive analyses, but I'm undeterred. Is it a wishful denial of mortality, and of our responsibilities to the dead, not to mention the living? Could well be. Could also be true, though, no?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Wednesday

It's beginning to sound a lot like... I noticed some timid holiday music in shops in San Francisco, but return to New York find the holiday season in full swing. My Japanese housemate, eager to make the most of his four months in the US, has even put up a plastic tree! Before Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

San Francisco indulgences

Helped clean out the AAR book exhibit, then rather improvidently schlepped a heavy shoulder bag full of books all over San Francisco, SOMA to Embarcadero and up to the Coit Tower, with its marvelous views and murals; the ones below are Suzanne Scheuer's "News- gathering" and Bernard Zakheim's "Libraries": one paper reports on the destruction of Diego Rivera's murals in New York, and a man in green reaches for a book by Marx), past endless Italian cafes and the City Lights Bookstore (I could buy no more). I hadn't intended to go so far but for a walker this city is irresistible, especially on a bright clear day like today, and to see the water you just need to climb and climb. Worth it, though!
I also stumbled on a second remarkable Catholic novelty, the 2008 replica of Saint Francis' Porziuncola (3/4 original size), next to the National Shrine to the patron saint of this city. No photos allowed - this one, complete with spectral St. Francis mannequin, is from their site
- because it is a Holy Site, one of only five in the world so designated by the Vatican, which grants plenary indulgence of sins. I'd love to give this text to students with the directive, "Discuss." An interesting mix of authenticity and authentic replication - one stone inside the Porziuncola Nuova is original, and theothers are exact scale models; the marble floor surrounding is from a medieval church in Assisi, recut for this new use... Why shouldn't a 13th century pope's pledge to one place be extended by a newly indulgence-friendly papacy to another in a different continent and millennium?
Ended the day in Oakland,enjoying seeing the Cathedral of Christ the Light (where Benedict XVI's voice lives in reproduction, helping reproduce Christ's peace) in late afternoon and evening light, before the red-eye flight back home.

AAR 2011

It's been a full AAR - things wind down tomorrow morning - with more successes than failures. Friday's day-long Religion and Media workshop was a bit of a bust; the few interesting papers were hardly on the theme "What's next for texts?" and the culminating discussion about digital humanities in religious studies left me cold. I fled to a Mexican restaurant with a remarkable mural of Moses parting the Red Sea. The day was saved by a 35th anniversary celebration of Wallflower Order/Dance Brigade at the Yerba Buena Arts Center, which ended with "The Great Liberation upon Hearing," a suitably trippy new piece inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Saturday began with a panel of gay Bay Area pastors responding to Mark Jordan's new book on discussions of homosexuality in recent American Christianity - pastoral trumped academic insight, and confirmed my sense that today's teenagers may be beyond all our category struggles. A poetic plenary about walking as a religious response to massacre left me puzzled. A panel on the emergence of "religion"-like concepts in pre-colonial and colonialist Asia decentered the critique of "religion" as straightforwardly European: for instance Akbar commissioned governmental accounts of the Indian religious landscape which anticipate and may, through a work from 1813, have shaped the Raj's. A discussion of ways of teaching Native American religions provided much bibliography and many sobering anecdotes, confirming that my students in the Aboriginal Australia course's starting misconceptions were par for the course. (Asian) Indian dinner with old friends.
After mass at the Oakland cathedral, Sunday was full of moments of gratitude - moments where I'm thankful to be lucky enough to be experiencing something radically new. A plenary brought together scholars discussing the future of the study of religion, and one cited a recent Navajo poetess' retelling of Luke's nativity: the shepherds - women, of course - learned of the birth of Jesus from the animals. An SBL panel on African Biblical Hermeneutics let me witness how Southern African theologians approach faithful but decolonizing interpretation, in a discussion of the woman (not "witch," it was argued) of Endor and Old Testament divination practices with nearer correlates in Congolese experience than European. A genially combative Black Theology panel and a snibbet of a panel introducing the improbable but intriguing Jewish Annotated New Testament rounded out the day. Dinner was in Oakland with the friend who's putting me up.
Today began with "Queer eclipse," a somewhat spooked panel co-sponsored by the Gay Men's Issues and Lesbian Feminist Issues in the Study of Religion groups - spooked because these program units are being reviewed, and in recent years new and arguably more interesting program units on sexuality and queerness have cramped their style. Several people we're inviting to our Queer Christianities conference were there and shining. I had coffee with one, Japanese lunch (including the Financial Tower sushi above) with an old friend who's involved in fascinating discussions in her college of the place of spirituality and character in a general education curriculum, and looked through San Francisco MoMA with another friend, finding at most one work we were glad we had seen, Jim Campbell's "Exploded view" (below). Part of a panel on the wicked history of the study of religion, including an exposé on the category of "Spätjudentum," rounded out my conference day.
I wrapped the day up far from AAR, talking about Hume's essay "On Miracles" with a group of home-schooled 12 year olds, in the Berkeley house of an old friend from graduate school whom I've not seen in nearly two decades. She'd seen that I philosophized with kids in Brooklyn, and invited me over. While I have all sorts of objections to home schooling in theory, the practice was very enjoyable. I wound up focusing on Hume's argument that "if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense." Enough!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On the relic in the age of mechanical reproducibility

When I popped into the prize-winning new Catholic cathedral of Oakland for mass this morning, I did not expect to see an image of Christ from the port royal at Chartres, let alone 58 feet high in points of light punctured in aluminum. I didn't expect it to but it works, hovering above the proceedings like a sort of hologram, collapsing scale and distance by so knowingly naming them. Another sampling from Old Europe worked too, to my astonishment. As the bishop introduced the peace, his voice was suddenly replaced by the muffled sounding voice of an older man, not a native speaker of English, saying "let us offer each other a sign of peace." It was, I realized, a recording of the voice of Pope Benedict XVI. All very postmodern, in one way. But in another, very premodern. This is how relics work, and why.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Religion in the age of the smartphone

After classes today I'm off to the West Coast for much of a week! It's the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion - my first in two years, since last year's was displaced by Kathmandu - and it's in Frisco! So I'm going whole hog, including a special preconference on Religion and Media called "What's next for texts" all day Friday, and fun with Bay Area friends Monday and Tuesday (including a visit to a class of 12-year-old philosophers in Berkeley). Looking forward to sourdough, too, Chinese and Mexican food, and the Pacific. And, of course, finding out what the guild's up to these days, now that the trial separation with the Society of Biblical Literature has ended. I'll try to keep you posted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

HASK not

For our fourth Lived Religion in NYC fieldtrip (the others took us to Eldridge Street, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the Rubin Museum of Art) we did something rather interesting today. We went to the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. But we didn't volunteer; we stood in line, and ate sloppy joes, cole slaw and corn on the cob with the other guests. My original idea had been for us to volunteer, but that would involve arriving at 9:30 and staying at least until 12:30, not possible for busy students. A logistical constraint became a pedagogical opportunity. It is harder to receive than to give, and we got to see HASK from the receiving end. (Our presence contributed something though, if only conversation fodder: some folks evidently thought us refugees from last night's razzia on Zuccotti Park!) And maybe some of the students will make the not unprecedented move from guest to volunteer.

I timed the visit to come in the middle of our reading of a book about another well-known New York food charity whose name misleadinlgy suggests a religious connection, Courtney Bender's Heaven's Kitchen. Bender's participant observation is of the community of volunteers in the kitchen of God's Love We Deliver, an organization which brings food to homebound people with AIDS. The kitchen volunteers never see the recipients of their work, and don't talk about AIDS. They also, Bender found, rarely talk about religion. What do they talk about? Bender's a good listener, and describes the gossamer-like threads of spirituality, memory, habit, etc. which make this a community. GLWD's mottos are food is lovefood is therapy and food is charity. Bender finds the kitchen workers disdain such explanations as marketing; "food is the message." But the mottos do help define some of the very different and even conflicting rationales for feeding programs - it's not just nutrition - and I was eager for students to sense the wordless but eloquently polyvalent message of food prepared at a place like HASK, and to see the overlap of the different HASK communities: guests and volunteers (maybe even that both are outreach missions of the church)... Did they get it? We'll see once we discuss student reflections on Thursday.

The whole thing went much more quickly than I anticipated. I was expecting (planning!) to spend half an hour in the line but we were in in ten minutes. The food happens very quickly, too, and is quickly eaten. Not that anyone is hurrying you on; au contraire, you feel welcome to take your time, make yourself at home, and people do. But the staff and sixty volunteers pass in a blur. It's all friendly efficiency (and the food was tasty!). From experience I know that the stations of volunteers are involved in conversations as warm and disjointed as those Bender found at GLWD. But the contact between the worlds of volunteers and guests is like the interlocking of gears, perfectly fitting but touching only for the briefest moment. Both are in movement - am I letting a metaphor get out of hand here? - but in different directions. Part of the fulfillingness of volunteering at HASK is precisely being part of so well-oiled a machine. Is it also the precisely defined and limited contact with guests - not that different from GLWD's kitchen workers who never saw the people who ate their food? HASK has recently moved the food service volunteers into the church space, so volunteers and guests share the space. Have people's experiences changed?
(Pictures from here and here)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Spent the afternoon in 1946, my first proper read-through of Margarete Susman's Hiob und das Schicksal des jüdischen Volke, the book with which I'm planning to end the final chapter of my Job book. Often mentioned as the big Job book that got away, Susman's study of Job was published in Switzerland in 1946, at a time when nobody was paying attention. When it was republished in 1968, an editor indicated that Swiss books didn't make their way to Germany at the time it was published, and scholars of Judaistik ignored everything published in German between 1938 and 1968. It was reprinted again in 1996 but has never been translated into English.

It's a remarkable reading of Job as the Schicksalsbuch des jüdischen Volkes (217), a way of using Job to assert that the Holocaust was not divine punishment nor even divine testing but nevertheless painfully, paradoxically an indisputable sign of God's continued concern for His people Israel. Influenced by Rosenzweig she argues that the Jewish people represent humanity in a messianic way and suffer to atone for its sins - getting not thanks but persecution from peoples who flee the knowledge of their own nothingness before the Creator in violent illusions of nature and nationality.

Hätte nur ein einziger von ihnen ausgerufen:
“Warum du? Warum nicht ich?” (63)
[If even one of Job's friends had called out, "Why you? Why not me?"]

The depth of anti-Jewish hatred which had just led to the killing of the six million cannot be explained as an enmity between nationalities, races, majorities and minorities or even faiths. Jews are not at home in any specific time or place but exist im reinen Raum, in der reinen Zeit, in der reinen Schöpfung stehen geblieben, lebendiger, todfremder, menschheitsnäher als die anderen Völker (112) [in pure space, in pure time, remaining still in pure creation, more alive, farther from death, closer to humanity than the other peoples]. Defenseless before the violent folly of the nations they proleptically represent the peace and brotherhood of the end of time. But something satanic leads the nations to project all their demons on the Jews. From the Book of Job we learn that God permits this satanic agency, which makes the historical experience of the Jews distinct among all nations as a history of exile and persecution. It serves some kind of purpose. Even Hitler, Susman suggests, may have had a necessary part to play in unfolding the messianic story (214).

Not an easy message, but 1946 wasn't a year for glossing over the cataclysm of history, especially Jewish history. I'm not looking forward to writing about this. But here let me say that I'm reeling at 1946, a year when the death of six million was known but nobody would talk about it. (That was, amazingly, fifteen years away!) Talk was about war and peace, capitalism and communism, humanity and despair. And the Jews Susman knew seem to have been thinking to save themselves either by converting to Christianity or joining the armed struggle in Palestine. The people of Israel's religious story seems to be over. Susman calls in Job.

In some ways most striking are Susman's warnings against Zionism - a purely natural, nationalistic Zionism, at least. While it's understandable that the Jews might want an end to a history of endless exile and persecution, she writes, they should understand that humanity cannot survive without their scapegoat function (133). The Jewish people hat kein Dasein für sich selbst. Als Vertretung aller Erniedrigten und Beleidigten der Erde ist es wie Hiob ausgesondert zur Vertretung des Menschseins überhaupt, zur immer erneuten Stellung der letzten mensclichen Fragen (234) [has no existence for itself. As representative of all the earth's oppressed and insulted it is like Job separated out to represent human existence itself, for the ever new posing of the final human questions].  This means no homeland and no safety until the end of the age, but it's herrlich, Jude zu sein. Denn es heißt Mensch sein (154) [glorious to be a Jew, for it means being human] at a time when the name of man is as unreadable as that of God (Der Name Mensch ist für uns heute nicht lesbarer als der Name Gott (171)). Theodor Herzl's wish to be a people like others is Satan's last trap (213). Susman likens it to Job's wish never to have born (188)! If it is to play its part in history, the Jewish people must follow the example of long-suffering Job - not King David. An awful apotheosis for the man from Uz!

It's difficult even to imagine the experience of the Jews before the state of Israel. Yet it seems important to mention this, and the ways in which Job's status as an outsider even within the Hebrew scriptures makes his experience cognate with exile.
Quotes from 1968 Herder-Bücherei edition

Saturday, November 12, 2011

African epiphany

I tried to catch up with some of the exhibitions I don't want to miss at the Met today. The main event was "Heroic Africans," which brought tears to my eye. Tears of joy at beauty? Not only. My heart often skips a beat when it encounters a thing of beauty but this was somehow different. I felt a strong sense of something like gratitude - something like the one I sometimes feel about some wonderful cultural development that makes me think how lucky to be alive when this finally happened - and a sense of recognition. The pleasure I'm sure I've cited Elaine Scarry for naming before, of correcting an error of aesthetic perception, when you get something whose beauty you could not before see. But it was more than that, too, since it's African art, a category I suspect I may have used with invisible scare quotes before: no longer. (The Times review promised just this epiphany.) I'm limited to images from the Times review (at least until I can get the catalog on sale!) so I can just urge you to go see. The 12th-15th century terra cotta Yoruba heads - the one above isn't even the most interesting, and no 2-d picture can capture the depth of these sculptures - are compelling the way Noh masks are. A whole series of Akan figures radiated enlightenment the way Cambodian Buddhist head do, and others, their heads lifted upward, eyes, still closed, enjoying some celestial vision, were rapturous like nothing I've ever seen. And that was just the first room! Wonders like the Chokwe mask at top of this post still awaited...

Friday, November 11, 2011

Leaves falling fast

When we come back to school on Monday, all these trees will be bare.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


I buy many books used, mostly online. I like to think they have had lives before they find their way to me (and it feels good to be supporting
used bookstores around the world), but usually I can only imagine those lives. This book, arrived today from Goshen, NY, brought its story along.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Urban forest

of year
when I
in the
of a

Here are some of the other happy forest dwellers.

Monday, November 07, 2011


Ever pushing the envelope, the Brooklyn Museum has let the curator of their Indian collection explore some internet crossovers. Through 1-to-1 juxta-positions, people were asked to rank 40 Indian paintings, first after 4 seconds; then with unlimited time; then with assign- ments like counting the number of figures, identifying the main color or describing it with key words or a sentence; and then with art historical context. I'm not sure what it proved, but it generated a lot of pretty graphs and charts that sort of look like information... And, as the curator points out, while it might seem philistine to give people four seconds to rank pictures, most of us spend much less time than that each time we enter a museum gallery and decide which works to focus on. Amazing? Meh...

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Foliage after all

Can it be that we had snow last week? On Prospect Place? Not possible!

PIntupi in Prospect

I should have known that, if it were to be found anywhere in New York, contemporary Australian Aboriginal painting would be at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It's just this one canvas, an untitled 1987 work of Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, but what a joy to discover! And how strange...