Friday, August 31, 2012

Reading outside the box

Hey, remember the Book of Job book I was trying to write? Well, the readers' reports are back, and positive! They're not very detailed on the content, which would be worrisome except that I'm confident that they actually read the manuscript. Why? Because one of them wrote this:

While our author is a good word-smith when it comes to the broader strokes, in the details, he can give you fits.  Some of the sentences he writes remind me of verbal box-canyons:  you enter but you have a lot of trouble getting out the other side.

He's right, of course. Even after many drafts and concerted efforts at accessible writing, and the assistance of one of the clearest writers I know, my language tends toward the gnarly. But still I'm thrilled. He's what every writer dreams of: a real, close reader!!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lived religious geography

My first year students hit the jackpot today. I'd talked them through the walk we made (part of) on Tuesday, explaining why I'd chosen each site, and then asked them to think of a few sites in their hometowns they might show someone interested in the "lived religion" of the place. Each then shared her/his tour with a neighbor, and the neighbor reported on something that struck them from this tour. Great things emerged!

My tour:
• Roman Catholic church of St. Francis Xavier to suggest the individuality of congregations, how much bigger and varied a big church may be than its official line, and the paradigmatic lived religion of queer Christians;
• Limelight Marketplace (in erstwhile Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion) to evoke secularization, prise apart religious life from religious buildings, and suggest that nightclubs, if not malls, might offer some "religious" solace;
• Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art to explore the continuum between religion, spirituality and art, and to think if cultural centers like museums might serve religious needs too;
• the Salvation Army to introduce the privatization of religion thesis and the ways religious organizations have reacted to it;
• Village Presbyterian Church for more building secularization but also to tell the story of the cohabitation of different religious communities in the same building (and its limits);
Tiles for America, an example of the spontaneous memorialization which is a prime locus for lived religion, not explicitly religious but symbolic; and finally
• the 2nd cemetery of the Spanish Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel, to recall the palimpsest of grids in New York, and to raise the question: where are the dead New Yorkers?

What they came up with:
• a church in the Bronx which broadcasts its services live on a big TV screen out front, where they are followed by some people who aren’t comfortable with the community inside;
• a Catholic school, also in the Bronx, elaborately transforming the school auditorium into a church for holy days: altar, new lighting, etc.;
• Prosperity Dumplings on Eldridge Street in Chinatown
• Whole Foods, in London;
• a group which met on Sunday afternoons in Annapolis to solemnly ring fourteen singing bowls;
• the bedroom of one student, which has to Buddha statues as well as the signs of the bat mitzvah she organized for herself;
• stops on the Great Ocean Road where you can leave other people behind and be alone with the raw power of nature;
• a local video store in New Jersey, now closed, which was a family not only for those who worked there but for many others;
• hookah bars in Palestine, and here;
• abandoned churches in Chicago now inhabited by homeless squatters, as well as a Catholic neighborhood with shops selling all sorts of paraphernalia, and a tree a whorl in whose bark reminds some of the Virgin Mary.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Up the island

Walked up Broadway from Union Square to Lincoln Center with 
my friend R today, a beautiful day. He was embarrassed when I took 
pictures - "you look like a tourist!" - to which I happily pleaded 
guilty, at least until we got to the environs of Times Square!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Window shopping

First day of "Lived Religion in a Secular Age"! After syllabus preliminaries, I took the class on a walk around our neighborhood to try to unsettle their sense of religion. First stop, the church of Francis Xavier, vast and newly renovated Roman-style pile - and home to the city's most visible gay-friendly Catholic congregation, whose brilliant Pride Parade archbishop-bypass is a splendid example of lived religion. Next stop, the Limelight Markeplace, three-story mini-mall of fashion and accessories in a landmarked ex-Episcopal church - before it became a shopping center, it was site of the city's most famous nightclubs, Avalon and Limelight. Time was running short so I could only point to the Salvation Army headquarters' deliberately non-religious civic architecture, the portico of what was home to the Village Presbyterian Church and a Reformed Jewish congregation, and we ended at the Second Cemetery of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue across the street from school ... without having time even to glimpse the Tiles for America, last survivors of the city's explosion of 9/11 memorialization. Oh well, it was a start.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bright lights

This picture doesn't quite capture it, but the under-construction new World Trade Center shimmers at night when seen from 12th and Sixth.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Foodie Brooklyn

When I moved to New York in 2002, my friends J & A took it as the occasion to start a tradition of Sunday dinners, something A remembered from her childhood. In the intervening years we've had scores of wonderful meals at their flat on West 90th Street with visitors from near and far. It anchored my week, too. But J & A are in Minneapolis now (where I got to help assemble Sunday Dinner, Minneapolis #2 two weeks ago), and Sunday Dinner here in New York has become my responsibility. We started small but tasty today, just three.
Working with ingredients from the Brooklyn Farmers Market and the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, I served vichyssoise with a hint of nutmeg (and chicken stock from new housemate V), followed by a caramelized shallot-fresh corn-cheddar-herb-grape tomato quiche, and a salad of lentils, kale chiffonade, mint, oranges and goat cheese in an orange zest-coriander seed vinaigrette - all accompanied by a summery rosé. Then co-conspirator M provided sorbets for dessert, which went nicely with some inky pu erh tea I'd picked up in Kunming. A good start!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fresh face

I'm having a Lived Religion moment over a story in yesterday's Times. A woman in her eighties, concerned that her favorite representation of Jesus, a 19th century fresco in her local church, was being destroyed by water damage, restored it. The result doesn't look much like the original, it's true. But the original surely didn't look much like Jesus. The Times reports that the blogosphere has been having a field-day with the supposedly simian character of Cecilia Giménez' work - and I'm sure the Times article will inspire more. I'd like to know how Giménez and her community feel about her work. Apparently she did it with priestly approval and in broad daylight; the "disfiguring" was discovered only when the heirs of the painter of the fresco came by to have it restored. Who exactly has a problem here, and is it a religious problem?

Actually, I think I might use this in class. In their celebration of the religious resourcefulness of ordinary people, my "Lived Religion in New York" students moved too quickly to disdain specialist knowledges in religion, the ordinary person being assumed to be competent both to define and to find ways to meet her own needs. Since then I've been thinking about presenting religious specialists as sustained by ordinary people who need their special gifts and skills (who can then, and only then, shape these needs). Giménez may be unapologetic about her faithful attempt to render the face of her Lord, but also prefer the work of a trained artist... (Word is she's bedridden with anxiety over the ruckus she's caused.)

On the other hand, wouldn't it be cool if someone experienced a miracle cure in front of the new "Ecce Homo"?!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Go New School!

The new year is upon us, starting with a new cohort of incoming students. I met my Lang advisees one on one yesterday, and I spent the afternoon today with a group of first years from across the University's divisions in a joint academic exercise called Experience+Meaning, tapping the vitality of nearby parks to spark discussion and new ideas about public space. We had great exchanges, and came up with some nifty ideas for conveying our appreciation of the performative and interactive nature of private enjoyment of public spaces. It was fun to model the interdisciplinary conversation and the movement from theory to practice, from experience to product, which define this place.
Then I got some r&r at an orientation jam of the Jazz program. A faculty trumpeter was soaring as I came in, but I took this picture during the pause when he took a breather, and asked if anyone else in the room wanted to play. "Joe, Joe, Joe!" chanted some students, and a nerdy-looking white guy in the blue t-shirt of the orientation leaders picked up his guitar. They still needed a drummer, and found one, too, another orientation guide. Joe started haltingly playing solo and then, before one quite knew it, drums and base had joined, then the piano, and it was a combo, an ensemble, one riffing off the next, the music getting groovier and lovelier by the minute! I love this place, I thought.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Floating up from the past

Where the lamented Thé Adoré used to be, what seem to be very old shop signs have reappeared - a printer, and a children's barber. Or are they the first signs of what will next inhabit the little house on 13th?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Forgot my camera at home, but the camera on my smartphone did very well with the dazzling fountain at Lincoln Center this evening...

I was there for a Mostly Mozart concert (Andrew Manze conducting Bach 3rd suite, Mendelssohn's first piano concerto (with Stephen Hough), Mozart's Jupiter symphony), filling out a first week back which has included a brilliant play ("Tribes" at Barrow Street) and a disappointing film I'd waited all summer to see ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Coming up in the remaining days before the new academic year begins a jazz celebration, "Clybourne Park" and perhaps Kusama Yayoi at the Whitney.

Lived ... secular ...

First meeting with the students in my first year advising seminar, "Lived religion in a secular age." An interesting bunch, if gender-imbalanced even for Lang: nine young women, two young men. Not necessarily a problem, perhaps an opportunity. But there's more. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I asked the students which pole of the course title - lived religion or secular age - interested them more. I hoped and prayed that it wouldn't be 9 to 2 for lived religion, and map onto gender lines. But it did.

(I hope nobody else noticed.)

Happily, the peer adviser who'll be running the first year workshop running parallel to my class was there too. A true model of Lang insight and sophistication she claimed the question on her own terms. She was interested in half of each pole, living and secular. Thank you! Now we can proceed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chances are

Listened today to a "webinar" on first generation college students (FGS), presented by the authors of a new book on the subject. FGS are an "invisible minority" who arrive in colleges and universities without the "cultural capital" of other students. They are less likely than other students to participate in extra-curricular activities or to avail themselves of the advice and resources offered to help students succeed. And if they are having problems, they are less likely to tell their advisers about them. So, the webinards argued, it is incumbent on advisers and faculty to get to know who their students are, teach them "help-seeking skills" and learn about their particular needs and hopes. Institutions might also consider various mentoring and learning community models, involving older FGS students, faculty and staff.

I was struck by this phrase, on one of the slides: Do not assume successful assimilation, and don't leave serendipity to chance. The former I get (though I know I could do it better), but the latter seems silly. Until you think about it. A big part of what we advocates of the liberal arts and of student-directed learning celebrate is serendipity - one aspect of the freedom in "liberal" arts - and it's certainly true that we try to establish a learning environment in which it can happen in various ways. But I hadn't thought about it in terms of privilege, or in connection with the culture shift demanded of FGS...

Monday, August 20, 2012


I'm getting with the program! Both of my Fall courses will assign not only readings and site visits but podcasts. They're from this project, put together by some graduate students at the University of Edinburgh. I've not had a chance to listen to more than a half dozen of them, but the idea is good, and when they're good they are very good. For instance, the conversation with Linda Woodhead about secularization theory will frame the subject for my first year seminar. It gives a beautiful overview of the topic, and why secularization theory remains important even as discredited. Indeed, it'll help me situate The New School in its special place as a bridge between European and American academic worlds, as it features Peter Berger's and José Casanova's contributions quite prominently.

The Religious Studies Project interviews teaching or attending conferences in the UK and so clearly has a British focus - not a problem unless you're unaware of it. To me it's a gift, a corrective to the preoccupations of American academe. It introduces a younger generation's map of what's living and what's dead in the field. And it's reminder of conversations with folks with assorted British accents and mannerisms back in my Oxford days!

Not all the podcasts are quite as satisfying as the Woodhead discussion, showing the difficulties of the genre. Interviews are hard! In one case, the interviewee seems to be playing dumb, reporting that only 40% of Buddhists in the American Religious Identification Survey indicated that they believed strongly in the existence of God, and contextualizing statistical factoids from ARIS with snibbets from interviews with American college students. In another, one of the major religioclasts seems to dodge all but his own questions to the field (kudos to the interviewer for pressing him). And in another, the interviewer interrogates a Norwegian scholar about the legitimacy of gender studies in religion with an aggressive obtuseness I thought long extinct, certainly among younger scholars. Think again!

A good interview doesn't just happen, anymore than a good article or talk or exhibition; it takes craft and care. A student of religious studies could learn valuable lessons from the content of these podcasts, as well as from their form - even when they're not entirely successful.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Another metal-clad construction going up nearby, this one in Brooklyn.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Remember the 65 Fifth Avenue building site? In the three months I've been away, the new University Center has been getting a skin.

School daze

Diving right back into the deep end! Today was the the second part (the first was in May) of the training for Seminar Fellows (SFs), the peer advisers/mentors who run workshops with our first year students. I handle the academic end, but there's a lot more the SFs need toknow about. This was one of the slides presented by one of the university wellness professionals. The survey data is imperfect - all students are invited to participate but only a small and self-selecting number respond. And our students may well answer more honestly than students elsewhere. But still. The SFs have their work cut out for them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Flying back home to New York was a bit of an adventure. Turns out I was flying from one NOAA storm warning zone to another! After an hour's delay and a boarding aborted midway, we finally set off about three hours later than scheduled and all was well, New York scrubbed clean!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Island of history

Went with friends on a lovely walk around lushly forested Pike Island this morning, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.
The island has not always been forested; early French explorers found it flat and grassy. At its tip, we found this floral marker, obviously fresh:
The island is sacred to the Dakota Indians, whose possession of the Minnesota land came to an awful end at Fort Snelling, on the western shore above, in 1862, where they were interned (many dying of starvation) and then expelled from the state. The battle started 150 years ago in Friday, and the anniversary is being marked by a series of articles about the Dakota chief Little Crow in the Star Tribune. I found a picture of what things looked like before the the crisis later in the day, while making my way through the wonderful Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Edward K. Thomas' c. 1850 View of Fort Snelling.

Monday, August 13, 2012


The 1929 Foshay Tower, Minneapolis' Flatiron and Chrysler Building, a Washington Memorial for the Northwest which long had the skyline to itself. Its builder was wiped out by the stock market crash barely a month after it opened, and was then jailed for mail fraud for 3 years before being cleared by presidents Roosevelt and Truman. In the intervening years the building changed hands often, getting more and more run down, but was rescued by the W Hotel group. Thanks!

Sunday, August 12, 2012


This morning's Minneapolis treat was a trip to a vast farmer's market, whose bright fresh bounty was some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. It reminded me a little of the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne - except that it's cheap, too! Dinner tonight, continuing a tradition of splendid homemade Sunday dinners for old and new friends: tomato and olive tart, eggplant gratin, a fingerling potato torta, bean and fresh corn quesadillas (two-ply: three blue corn tortillas per) and fried zucchini blossoms, to be followed by strawberries with creme fraîche and blueberry granita!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Flour power

Greetings from a new place, well, new to me - Minneapolis. Two of my dearest friends have just moved there. A city on the northern Mississippi River, it became the world's milling capital in the later 19th century. I have a few days to explore it with my friends, which started with a walk to the Mill City Museum, located behind the dramatic shell of a huge mill which was closed down in the 1960s and burned down in 1991, and next to the new Guthrie Theater, part of a vibrant new culture district.
The regulated falls aren't beautiful... no, water's always beautiful!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Left hoof

Enjoy this remarkable journey from Well, this isn't good through I didn't know what to think to It is an odd one. Greetings from Minnesota!
California, farewell!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

One more day in Del Mar! Always a pleasure! (Yes, that's the moon.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Coming (not quite so) soon, a new supercontinent. Here's what it might look like in 100 million years. Amasia will continue the series of Nuna, Rodinia and, most recently, Pangaea - you remember them, surely?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

States of theodicy

Stumbled on someone's recent plea for a more engaged, micro-level approach of theodicy attentive to narrative and ritual that took me back to my own thinking as a graduate student and young faculty member. The similarity was uncanny, down to an understanding of the universality of theodicy based in Max Weber, Peter Berger and Clifford Geertz. I'm claiming vertigo, not precedence; I've moved on! Can it still be possible, two decades later, for someone to come no farther than I did? A number of other scholars responded to his argument, and I found myself most in sympathy with a sociologist of lived religion.

[E]veryday people are actively involved in theodicy construction. Yet it remains to be seen exactly how much definition they truly find necessary. Is everyone terrified by the inexplicable? Or are some people able to tolerate, or even embrace, mystery in the face of suffering? In their attempts at formulating theodicy, on how many levels do symbols need to appear? Must they encompass the whole cosmos, or might a much smaller scale suffice? Are there people that need no formulations beyond an intuitive sense that, at bottom, the world is a good place and everything will be all right in the end?”
Kevin M. Taylor, “Meaning-Making in Everyday Life: A Response to 
Mark S. M. Scott’s Theorizing Theodicy,'” Religion and Culture Web Forum, Nov 2009

Have I gone over to the other side - the social scientific, empirical, ethnographic side? I plead guilty - though this also seems to me closer to where the people are, and where the genuine religious issues reside. What else have I learned from my promiscuous religious studies habit of keeping company more with social scientists than theologians? Maybe it's just the happenstance of simultaneously revising the Theorizing Religion syllabus, assembling a first year course on Lived Religion in a Secular Age, and boning up on Leibniz for a presentation on the Theodicy and lived religion, but I'm starting to think that the problem with what Terrence Tilley taught us to call the "discourse of theodicy" isn't just a luxury of professional thinkers, but a product of the nation state.

Say what? Yes, the nation state. I've long presented (and critiqued) theodicy as a modern project, usually quoting Odo Marquard's assertion that where there is theodicy there is modernity and vice versa. But religioclastic critiques of the discourse of religion are inspiring me to see theodicy also as part of what might be called a Westphalian project, an understanding of religious identity and community as analogous to citizenship in a nation-state. Although law, theology and scholarship have implicitly and explicitly assumed such a parallel, sociologists like Peter Beyer have suggested that religion never was, and surely never will be, like this. Religious life is more local, more plural, less coherent, and decisively less otherworldly-as-opposed-to-thisworldly.

On the theodicy front, I've been making this argument for a while by way of Christian Smith's "little umbrellas" response to Berger's "sacred canopy" argument (another sociological debate!). From the sociological perspective, it appears that lifeworlds make sense to people as long as they are part of some community - it doesn't have to be the whole world, or an entire society, or just one community. The "legitimation crises" of "plausibility structures" turn out to be allayed (or at least allayable) at the subcultural level. Those are the insights behind the sociologist's response above.

(A philosopher or philosophical theologian might yet respond that the sociology is irrelevant: the problem of evil is a philosophical problem, and proffered solutions are either philosophically sound or unsound, whatever people make of them. It may be, as William James averred, that nobody has ever been convinced to believe or not to believe by philosophy, but that doesn't answer - or eliminate - the question of the reasonableness or coherence of belief. On the other hand, few religious traditions have promised the kind of coherence or reasonableness presupposed here...)

But the connection with the nation state? I confess I'm feeling it more than seeing it... but I'm sure there's something there. Here are some parts of the story, which reach back across the whole itinerary of my occupation with the subject.

I've long noted that the modern theodicy problem, sometimes known as the atheistic problem of evil, is a strange one. In essence it's a question about the existence of God dressed up as the question if God is worthy of worship. You remember the formulation credited to Epicurus: Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? But this question, I've suggested, is like the question "shall I leave my husband?" While that question can be formulated by anyone in wedlock, it's only meaningful if there's somewhere one might go; otherwise, it's really a different question, more like "how can I live with my husband?" Likewise, I suggest, the theodicy question only becomes a real question when God can be left, when a life as a non-theist (Christian, usually) is available. When I first made this argument, at a conference in 2000 (gosh I'm slow!), I wasn't thinking about plausibility communities. I suggested that God becomes divorceable only when the world comes to seem self-subsistent.



The good folks at the Guardian (which has in the last year become my news source of choice) are maintaining several different rankings for Olympic achievements. Beyond the official ranking they rank who has the most medals per population and per GDP. A lesson in geopolitics.

They have several other data visualizations, including team size, which their statisticians find most predictive. Given the Australian Olympic committee's claim that the difference between gold and silver is money, it might also be interesting to sort by Olympic training budget...

Monday, August 06, 2012

Lights, camera

As part of a project called "Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life," research subjects were given a disposable camera and asked to take pictures of places important to them, and then, later, to talk about each picture. It's a great way of letting interview subjects co-construct the research. And sometimes, as in this picture of a beloved public gazebo, it uncovers modes of experiencing one might never otherwise learn about. I'd love love love to find a way of integrating such Photo Elicitation Interviews (PEIs) into my upcoming first year seminar, "Lived Religion in a Secular Age." But how? Suggestions welcome!

Roman R. Williams, "Picturing Religion in Everyday Life," Sociology of Religion: Newsletter of the Sociology of Religion Section of the American Sociological Association 11/1 (Fall 2009): 4-5 and “Space for God: Lived Religion at Work, Home, and Play,” Sociology of Religion 71:3 (2010): 257-279, 259-60.