Friday, September 28, 2012


In the Chinese galleries of the Met, some photographs of lotuses by American photographer Lois Conner - with the painted scrolls, three each in gorgeous dark (above) and in jagged white (below). Sublime.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


We got to Weber's "Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions" in my first year seminar today, our one token classic text. I expected the jargon and style to be a source of difficulty, but we got over it. How? By making fun of (but writing down and learning) long German words. From Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen to Zwischenbetrachtung, to Eigengesetzlichkeit, and its roots in the Sanskrit svadharma elegantly to the revived polytheism of values. Smooth like a Volkswagen!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Went to the New York Public Library with a medievalist friend today to look at a facsimile of a famous twelfth-century Bible Moralisée from Vienna. I'm looking for an image from such a Bible for my Job book, since it makes typology inescapably and beautifully clear: often the relationship of type to antitype is rendered clear by a visual echo in the layout of the scenes. There's also text spelling things out. For instance, in this section of Leviticus above an episode of bread-baking is revealed really to be about the bread of life. (The type and antitype are horizontally pairs. This key starts in the second row.
Yeah, yeah - we remember that from Gregory the Great. Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the key to everything. But as you go on to the various dietary rules, the "moralized Bible" sounds other notes. (Here the pairings are vertical: top right and the one below; top left and the one below it; third down the left side and the one below it; etc.)
All those prescribed and proscribed animals and birds and fish turn out to refer to a fixed set of characters, miscreants, usurers, Jews, women.
Dreary monotony of the usual suspects! After looking through a few more pages, we were depressed and disgusted. Even as the art work exquisitely realized stories and relationships (often in interpretively wildly adventurous ways), the textual interpretation hollowed them out and filled them with the a blandly hateful content. It was like taking a beautiful multi-colored work and erasing the colors, replacing them with the numbers of a color-by-number coloring book for which you need no more than the smallest box of crayons.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

University center

The skin's coming on to the Fifth Ave side of the new University Center!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Invading space

Ever wonder what the fountain at Columbus Circle looks like to Columbus? I hadn't either. But Berlin-based Japanese artist Nishi Tatzu has built a living room around the statue, and for the next two months you can visit Cristobal and see the new world as he sees it. He is a gracious host, if a bit stiff - I don't think he was expecting company.
His living room has a television, some book cases, couches, a big coffee table with art books, the usual. His view, which I'd thought diagonally westward, in fact goes straight down Eighth Avenue.
Most appreciated by his visitors seems to be his witty wallpaper. 
I imagine it gets lonely up there. The golden goddess of Central Park waves to him from behind, but he at least pretends not to notice. Likewise the traffic snarling around and up the West Side. Perhaps it's true that he never got where he really wanted to go: Japan.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The answer

The answer was there for all to see, but who could read it?

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Miss one week and the Farmer's Market is a different place entirely! This table was overflowing with a dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes just a fortnight ago... now all that's left are the mini-est of mini-tomatoes, scattering to make way for battalions of squash.

A salty-crunchy surprise kick

In lived religion discussions I always emphasize that religious devotés (individually, in families, etc.) don't just unthinkingly assimilate an entire creed and suite of practices, but pick and choose, add and substitute to make the religion their own.

Most of my students think this is hunky dory. Some wonder if anything goes, however, a few ask if ordinary folks really have the resources to make good choices, and others wonder if this isn't the death of all traditions by a thousand cuts - what lets anything stay stable enough to be a tradition? If this bricolage really is something which deserves to be honored as "religious creativity," it can't be mere corner-cutting and self-indulgence, but formed by a serious effort (I'm partial to the word "faithful" here, but others don't like it as much) to live the tradition.

Analogs to all of those questions came to me in an unexpected place today when I was looking at the "Ratings & Reviews" of an online recipe for a lemon rice and eggplant-chickpea curry. It had an impressive 5-star rating from its reviewers. But, it would appear, almost none of the reviewers had actually followed the recipe! Here are some of the top ten reviews: (See if you can reconstruct the recipe from them!)

This was a super easy dish to make and took no time at all. I did not add the curry paste (not a curry person) and it tasted awesome. First time I have ever made eggplant and was happy with the result. 

This was yummy. My boyfriend, a big-time carnivore, was a little surprised when he asked me what kind of meat was in it, and I said, "none." I left out the eggplant because he is not a fan, and only added 1 1/2 tbsp of curry paste. I substitute the Basmati rice for Jasmine, because that's what I had in the pantry. I would definitely make it again, next time with chicken or perhaps even lamb, and I would add the full 2 tbsp of curry paste. 

Quick, easy to make and best of all delish! I have made this twice now and like adding more curry paste but then I am a big curry fan. I would recommend those new to curry to stick to the recipe as is. The cashews add a nice crunch and a touch of sweetness. 

Amazing! (I added another heaping teaspoon of curry and skipped the cashews) 

Made this last night for the first time. I skipped the rice part and just made the main part and it was absolutely delicious! I can't wait to eat the leftovers for lunch today. It would probably be great with chicken too if wanting to add a meat. I didn't have cashews, so used roasted peanuts and it gave the dish a nice salty-crunchy surprise kick. 

 the highlight of this dish has to be the rice. the vegetable topping is also great, reminds me a bit of ratatouille. ive already prepared this dish a few times, making various substitutions along the way, for example i replaced the eggplant with zucchini, chick peas with black beans. it always turns out great!

It always turned out great, but in what sense did these people actually prepare the same dish? The fact that they posted reviews of it suggests they thought they did. Enough to rate it and recommend it, in any case. My quandary. Do I cook "it" tonight? Do I join the community of those who have made the recipe their own, a community which honors the individual cook's exigencies, quirks and commitments, and teaches us how, when and why to make adjustments ourselves? I'd feel a fuddy-duddy for actually including chickpeas, eggplant, curry and rice!

One big challenge for lived religion understandings is explaining why traditions don't just entropically explode or subside or dissolve. One set of explanations involves authority, welcome and unwelcome, desired and feared, externalized and internalized, sometimes mystified as "custom." But a second is suggested here, a community which models a creative faithfulness, providing resources for and - perhaps - setting bounds to it. Enough to call it a tradition, in any case?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Thursday, September 20, 2012


The Los Angeles Times, to which I now happily subscribe online, has posted a dossier of amazing b&w photographs of storms by Mitch Dobrowner. This isn't even the most remarkable, but it's a good taste.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Slum clearance

Something cool and a little disturbing happened in class today. I was having yet another class read "Crossing the City Line," Robert Orsi's introduction to the pioneering 1998 anthology Gods of the City. It's the best synthesis of American religious history and urban studies I know, and a great introduction to "lived religion" too. It anchored all my "Religious Geography of New York" classes, and "Lived Religion in New York."

Orsi's essay begins with three vignettes, all in the devastated South Bronx in the mid-1980s - a Catholic nun who's moved there to be with the suffering, a German artist who uses an abandoned school for an art work, and an old African American lady who says there's "more bad than good" around. Orsi will go on to suggest that non-urban folks have been "slumming" in the urban for the better part of two centuries, quivering with fear and desire of otherness, poverty, sensuality and vice - the exploitative libertines but also the ascetic do-gooders, all of whom want and need the city to remain alien to small-town or suburban white middle class norms. It's time to listen to the voices of those who make lives in our cities, who "have always had to live in other people's idea of where they live as well as in real places on the ground" (6).

Why was this time different? Two of my students are from the South Bronx! More: one has lived near an intersection Orsi references, and the other went to the school run by the nun's order. They're surprised and even a little pleased to encounter their home rendered an object lesson in this book (no, one wouldn't say more than that it was "interesting"), but I'm aware that the imagined community of the book - its writer and readers - did not anticipate these readers (at least not as I imagined it). I thought I was doing my part to call out the fascination with the "alien city of fear and desire" by assigning Orsi but now I wonder if I've just been slumming all along.

I've a feeling it'll do me a lot of good to learn how to do right by these students.

Coming soon!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Armada of cheeses

Most of the cheeses we enjoyed at Sunday dinner this week - missing are only the French goat and the Norwegian (by way of Minnesota) Gjetost.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Waters of compassion

Ethics and religion are like water and tea, the Dalai Lama says, but water on its own is also nourishing. And "While we can live without tea, we can't live without water. Likewise, we are born free of religion, but we are not born free of the need for compassion."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Through new eyes

While at the Studio Museum of Harlem, I also saw a wonderful exhibit of photographs taken by high school students inspired by the museum's collections. These two stunners explicitly address the religious experience of teenagers. They're called "The After-Life" and "Religion Dior." I've written to the museum to convey my admiration to the photographer - and to inquire if there are more where these came from.

Mare nostrum

Went up to the Studio Museum of Harlem and to El Museo del Barrio to check out the wonderful mega-exhibition "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World." There's more of it in the Queens Museum, which I hope I'll have a chance to visit, too. It's a stunner! Combing online reviews I found images of some of the works: Dudley Irons' "Black Star Line" (1995); portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley; Mallica Reynolds, "Seven Brothers" (1966); Asilia Guillén's "Exodo Cubano" (1963). And, perhaps my fave, Marisa Jahn's brilliant child literacy project "El Bibliobandido."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hitting the presses soon

This just in: the Princeton University Press editorial board has given their final approval of my Book of Job: A Biography manuscript. It's really going to happen - perhaps appearing as soon as next Fall!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Post-Christian classroom

This year's "Theorizing Religion" class is like none I've had before. There are some real scoffers, but even the others seem to have a thoroughly post-Christian view of religion - or is that a post-religious view of spirituality? I had the class brainstorm for a definition of "religion" today and, even with my prodding, nobody spoke of god(s) or any kind of supernatural beings, other lives or worlds, scriptures, religious experiences, etc. A Heideggerian might have been amused that what they came up with was beliefs about death, "cause + effect, Nature" with "exemplifying practices," and "laws, codes about life." The circled terms above are those I smuggled in.

But I shouldn't generalize. The scoffers and a voluble Buddho-Pagan dominate the discussion. Are the others intimidated, silenced, resigned? I've heard over and over that Lang classes are full of casual anti-religious judgments but had not really experienced it in my own. But it's still early. The others may open up (I'm trying to create openings). And even the scoffers must have signed up for the class for some reason.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

That time again

That sinking feeling

Another greatest classic - this time in the Lang First Year Café Night series: Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." Three dozen students sat patiently through it, but when my colleague B tried to lead a discussion about it, nobody said a word. It's too hard to read, a silent,
black and white propaganda film about revolution, its hero no individual but a mass coming to consciousness of itself? Perhaps. But maybe it was
something else. When B, near her wits' end, asked if anyone could think of a more recent film which "Potemkin" in some way reminded them of,
someone finally piped up. "Titanic," he said, because in both someone commands someone to "shoot them like dogs." But there may have been a deeper wisdom in the analogy. The main thing this generation knows about the USSR is that - like the Titanic - it wound up going under.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Wall of sound

My parents spent the weekend here, and on Sunday my mother wanted to hear a big gospel choir, so we went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle. It was the 3 o'clock worship service (third of the day), and the famous choir was in street clothes. The choir, at least 180 strong, entirely filled the stage of this converted theater. This vast tableau took the place of an altar, and even of a sermon, a living picture of the broad community of Pentecostal Christianity, cutting across racial lines like no other American religious group.

Theirs was a mighty sound, but they were amplified by a small forest of microphones, and still had a hard time breaking through the synthesizer and rhythm sections at times! It was mainly banal Evangelical praise songs (You are mighty, Jesus is My Friend, etc.), except for one electrifying top-tempo gospel-style Glory Halleluia! Each song repeated often, ascending in volume, modulating chromatically upward and upward, plucking audience members one by one from their seats, their hands upraised or outstretched. Overpowering though it also is, the experience of this music speaks to people through people.

I was reminded of the international chorus assembled at Engage, the GLBTQ Asian conference I attended in Hong Kong (third picture down here), which drew from similar choirs singing similar praise music in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and providing a different but no less moving witness.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


What a week! A concatenation of Film Forum series let me see two films which have long been honored as best ever - Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) and Jean Renoir's "La Regle du Jeu" (1939) - on the big screen: my first time for the Renoir, for the Welles it's been decades. Both are feasts for the cinephile, but "Kane" now seems a little precious, while "Règle" remains for me a work of devastating perfection.

Prospect Heights masjid

Exploring some of the less developed parts of Prospect Heights to see the studios of artists (thanks to the Brooklyn Museum's GoBrooklynArt program) I happened on a new mosque just blocks from my home.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


My old high school friend J found this dizzying secret dance here.
Leibniz paper #1, seven weeks away!

Divine gifts

Nobody pays attention to party platforms except the opposition. So you can imagine the delight of the Republican operative who did a search for "God" in the 32-page Democratic Party Platform and came up with nothing. (There's a discussion of the contributions of communities of faith, but no mention of God by name, unlike the name-dropping Republican platform.) I'm not sure it's big news, since there was only one use in 2008 - which has since been restored.

We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their [God-given] potential.

Why bother, you might think. I thought so. And then I was describing it to one of my first year students (none of whom has been following the conventions) and suddenly it seemed that, although it will win no points with anyone at this point, there is a difference between "potential" and "God-given potential" as political terms. My potential is mine, and my concern. My God-given potential is something else, something of broader concern. We have a duty to God to allow those potentials God has given people to develop, all people's, not just our own. And perhaps we have a duty to God to develop our potentials for the sake of all - though that might seem a stretch to some, I grant, a flashback to the day when there were thought to be duties to God, to others, and to self, all interconnected.

There are plenty of reasons to support democracy, and to pursue the common good. God-given potential in all is a Christian one. It's actually quite a radical idea. That talent of yours? You didn't build it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Bobst matrix

NYU's Bobst Library, which we New Schoolers also use, has installed a screen to ensure that nobody ever again leaps to his death from its galleries. I'm sure we'll soon get used to it, but before we do it's worth appreciating how like the cascading ciphers of the Matrix it is at its best, not so inappropriate, I suppose, for a repository of knowledge.