Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chicago again

I'm off to Chicago for the weekend. A multi-media artist named Theaster Gates, the winner of our school's inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics, lives and works there. I'm part of a rather large contingent of New School faculty going to explore his fascinating Dorchester Projects - abandoned buildings reclaimed and repurposed as art centers - in quest of curricular tie-ins and ideas for a conference devoted to his work in the Fall. I'm also one of the intrepid few who took up the offer to sleep over in the Dorchester Projects. Yellow submarine, the arctic sleeping bag I bought for the Beatles-themed hostel in Darjeeling last January, is looking forward to a nice workout!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to religious ethics

Oh how I love "Exploring Religious Ethics"! I like most of the classes I teach a lot, but I dare say this is my greatest love - perhaps I should teach it more than once every two years. This iteration of it is shaping up very nicely, after a rocky start: it was scheduled for 8am, garnered the predictably miniscule enrollment, but then was moved to the quirky but pleasing 3:50-5:30 slot. Even better, we're in one of the original Lang classrooms on the 2nd floor of 65 West 11th Street, overlooking the courtyard. Night falls during class now, but over the course of the next months we'll feel Spring stretching out the days. And we're a perfect sized group - we all fit around a big table (actually cluster of tables).

At the first session on Monday I again showed the first of Kieslowski's "Dekalog" movies, heavy stuff to watch, especially with people you don't know yet, but it established the seriousness of the class. It resonates with some of the larger questions of the class I introduced - the relation of ethics and religion, the limits of the moral community, etc. - and our brief discussion was good. Then I suggested one could see it as a Buddhist movie, too, only to find that nobody in the class had any background in Buddhism. They hadn't even heard of the Four Noble Truths! And so a film about the first commandment led to a discussion about the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha.

Today we discussed Susan Wolf's now classic essay "Moral Saints" (it's more than 30 years old and we're still reading it). Wolf thinks our moral theories commit us to ideals of moral behavior we don't, in fact, think ideal. Someone "whose every act is as morally good as possible" would probably be no fun to be around: saccharine, dull to the pleasures of art and taste, and lacking in a rich inner life. It's fine that there are a few Mother Teresas out there, but we want our friends and family to be more complicated and interesting. Wolf's challenge: can we talk about moral issues in a way more adequate to common sense understandings of the value of rich, complicated lives and pleasures?

The article explicitly raises many important questions, central among them whether a good life is about more than being "good," whether there are such things as "non-moral" virtues and values, and how to think about supererogatory good and its role in the lives of individuals and communities. But the incuriosity about religious lives that it shares with most secular moral philosophy also make it a great start for our course - the more conspicuous for Wolf's appropriation of the category of "saints" without so much as a glance at religious traditions of sainthood. Saints are our topic for the first chunk of the class, which takes in many disciplines and classic as well as contemporary cases:

• Susan Wolf's "Moral Saints"
• William James's "The Value of Saintliness" from The Varieties of Religious Experience
• Cardinal José Saraiva Martins' “The Lives of the Saints Show the World ‘the Divine in the Human, the Eternal in Time'"
• The case for (and against) canonizing Dorothy Day
• Jataka Tales, including the perfect generosity of King Vesantara
• Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

The readings lean heavily on the Christian side of our course, but that will be tempered by the more general questions from Wolf and James, and balanced out in the next segment of the course, which focuses on Buddhist questions and traditions.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Before good and evil

A friend defended a dissertation on Nietzsche today. (Congratulations!) Among many other things I learned in the ensuing conversations, I found out that the hammer-wielding philosopher's entire oeuvre, including his notebooks, has been digitized. Like this page, from a notebook from 1874. It's comforting, somehow, to know that even he threw out drafts.

Monday, January 28, 2013


It's not even finished yet, but The New School's new building at Fifth Avenue
and 14th Street is already at the center of things!


Sunday dinner tradition successfully brought into the new year! Last night brought the total number of people who've been part of it to 20. Great fun and, usually, great leftovers too, like this veggie lasagne...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

We'll always have Paris

An alum shared a link to a website with early color photographs of Paris.
Unbelievably, these were taken in 1914, 1920, 1920, 1909, respectively!
That doesn't, of course, explain what these orange globes are...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Tutorial advising"

Our college is piloting a new kind of academic program this semester, tentatively called "Tutorial Advising." Students will meet regularly in groups of 5-7 with a faculty member, as in a course (they get 1 academic credit for it), but the purpose is discussing the sorts of issues and concerns specific to academic advising. Reflecting on their careers as students, their vocational and career plans, etc., with visitors, excursions, shared meals. I think it's a great idea.

There are four pilots, and I'm doing one. Two are targeted at specific majors - one in screen studies, one in psychology. The other two, including mine, are as wide as the phrase "liberal arts." Mine will give me a chance to continue some of the great discussions which came out of our "Buddhism and the Future of the Liberal Arts" roundtable. In fact, it's called "Buddhism & Liberal Arts." Here's the tentative description:

This advising tutorial uses the phrase Buddhism & Liberal Arts as a kind of kôan, framing a shared journey exploring old and new meanings of learning, vocation, and the meaning of life. We’ll tap into ongoing debates about the nature and relevance of “liberal arts,” in theory and in our own lives at Lang, braiding them with Buddhist questions and practices, and with shared experiences on and (mostly) off-campus. 

Students will help assemble readings and other shared experiences which turn on the dualities of school/life, study/practice, contemplation/activism, personal/political, spontaneity/discipline, self/nonself, and path/destination. We “turn on” these dualities in four ways inspired by the history of Buddhist reflection: 
1) we let a given duality serve as the center of our discussion 
2) we complicate it in every way we can, teasing out its presuppositions and implications and challenging them 
3) we explore ways of breaking free from its constraints, and finally 
4) we consider ways of reclaiming the duality that can make it real and helpful for us as we think about shaping our lives. 

Learning Outcomes: 
• Becoming more intentional about your liberal arts education, and more thoughtful about how to translate it into your life and the wider world 
• Developing a practice of reflecting thoughtfully about your academic journey and life choices 
• Helping to craft questions and conversations for pursuing these concerns with others

We'll meet ten times for 90 minutes, only four of them at school. We'll meet twice at the Rubin Museum of Art, once at MoMA, once in a park, once at a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, once at my house (to prepare a meal together). I'm quite excited, but it will all depend on finding the right students! That's the task of the next few weeks...

Friday, January 25, 2013

You saw it here first

My essay about teaching "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" has seen print!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Baby, it's cold out there

That's 16˚ Fahrenheit, not Centigrade! In Centrigrade it'd be -8˚.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fire and ice

Wow, can you believe this photo? It's near a warehouse fire in Chicago so the frigid temps were aided in their artistry by water from firetrucks.

How to make it in America

The new ad campaign of the New York State Lottery is so adorable I have to share it with you. Yes, of course, buying a lottery ticket is something like the opposite of feeding your piggy bank, but who cares?
It actually reminds me a lot of ads in the Tokyo subway. I wonder if the artist, apparently named Yumyum, is Japanese?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

lande of mystery and wo

I can't show you the exquisite little 1538 prymer in Englysshe sette out alonge after the use of Sarum I found at the Morgan Library today, but you'll get to see it, as it's my final missing illustration for my book! 
Instead I offer you a picture of one of the apparently Assyrian lionesses which guard the (no longer used) original entrance to the library, quite an interesting complement to New York Public Library's signature lions.

Here's the translation of the Office of the Dead's final reading, Job 10:

Why from my mothers wombe / hast thou me out brought 
That wolde to god / that I had ben clene 
Consumed away evyn to ryght nought 
So that none eye / me euer myght haue sene 
For then shulde I be / as I had neuer bene 
Nowe brought in to thy worlde / and streyght agayne out sent 
Oh that my lyfe dayes full soone are gone and spent 
Wherefor good lorde spare me yet a whyle 
That I may bewayle my sorowe / or I go 
From whens is no retourne / I meane that wretched yle 
Whiche is the lande of mystery and wo 
Couered all with death / in darknes ouerthrow 
Where is no rule / nor ordre at all 
But horror euerlasting / and payne contynuall 

The Prymer's a pocket book, smaller than my own little book will be, so the image will be big enough that readers can read it, and wonder that these desperate words come just after Job's certainty that his redeemer lives, and on dying

... these same eyes shal se hym manyfest 
This conforte sure remayneth in my brest…

Monday, January 21, 2013

Abundant gifts of this good land

Quite an inauguration after all! I wasn't expecting much, and the President's speech, like most of his recent speeches that I've heard, was a bit disappointing. It seemed like a laundry list of projects and promises, all of them worthy, of course, but loosely and not quite convincingly strung together. It seemed to be leading up to some grand climax which didn't materialize. But I was glad to hear climate change taken seriously, the strongest and most basic case for a welfare state, and of course the rising tide of inclusion encapsulated in the names "Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall"! And Obama's address was flanked by eloquent words by a Civil Rights Movement veteran invoking a "great cloud of witnesses," and a gay Hispanic poet's tender evocation of the everyday work, intimacies and decencies of America - all showing as they were telling that this land really is your land, this land is my land.

But I was most moved by the benediction by the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in DC. If you didn't catch it, here it is:

Let us pray: Gracious and eternal God, as we conclude the second inauguration of President Obama, we ask for your blessings as we seek to become, in the words of Martin Luther King, citizens of a beloved community, loving you and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

We pray that you will bless us with your continued presence because without it, hatred and arrogance will infect our hearts. But with your blessing we know that we can break down the walls that separate us. 

We pray for your blessing today because without it, distrust, prejudice and rancor will rule our hearts. But with the blessing of your presence, we know that we can renew the ties of mutual regard which can best form our civic life. 

We pray for your blessing because without it suspicion, despair, and fear of those different from us will be our rule of life. But with your blessing, we can see each other created in your image, a unit of God’s grace, unprecedented, irrepeatable and irreplaceable. 

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor. 

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will only see scarcity in the midst of abundance. But with your blessing we will recognize the abundance of the gifts of this good land with which you have endowed this nation. 

We pray for your blessing. Bless all of us, privileged to be citizens and residents of this nation, with a spirit of gratitude and humility that we may become a blessing among the nations of this world. We pray that you will shower with your life-giving spirit, the elected leaders of this land, especially Barack our president and Joe our vice president. Fill them with a love of truth and righteousness, that they may serve this nation ably and be glad to do your will. Endow their hearts with wisdom and forbearance, so that peace may prevail with righteousness, justice with order, so that men and women throughout this nation can find with one another the fulfillment of our humanity. 

We pray that the president, vice president and all in political authority will remember the words of the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and always walk humbly with God?”

[Gives a brief prayer in Spanish] 

Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, may God bless you all your days. All this we pray, in your most holy name, amen. 

Beautiful, and serious. Religion, and the religion of America, at its best.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Parting glances

The final component of my Job manuscript is nearing completion - the 12 illustrations, with captions. I have, of course, accumulated many more pictures than that over the years, some of which you've seen here. And I keep finding more. Here are three recent finds: an image of the printing of the first Bibles in China, a Byzantine illustration to Job 9:13, and a summary of the upshot of Job from the Ryrie Study Bible.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Coming soon, the ERSEH conference, where researchers - some whom we know, some newly joining the project - will be presenting fascinating
new work; I'll be sharing my "resource use decisions" model as part of the first, more schematic session, "Concepts and Debates."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Slice of life

New York slice in winter sun, with a syllabus in mid-revision!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Just got back from my final Vestry meeting at Holy Apostles. (I could have run for a second term, but pleaded imminent sabbatical as an excuse for not pursuing it.) I had a chance for some final reflections and mentioned that I was glad I hadn't known that the Vestry was also the board of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen as I would not have run, since I lacked the necessary skills. I still may not have the skills but I've learned an immense about non-profit organizations, about budgeting, about how boards work. I've learned also how much work goes into keeping a church going, and how many people work behind the scenes on all sorts of committees - and that the church is in a good place as far as that is concerned, with qualified and dedicated volunteers to serve on them.

It's hard to believe I've been a Vestry member for three years, until you think of how much has changed in these three years. I agreed to be nominated in part because I wanted to see a church go through a leadership transition, and that I have definitely seen. The clergy and most of the staff have changed completely. The physical plant has changed too - the Soup Kitchen serves food in the church now, and the Mission House next door has more spaces for more activities. The unsightly trailer that used to stand next to the church is gone.

But I've learned also to see that - well, not that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, because things have definitely changed. In particular, several parishioners have moved to other parishes, and new parishioners have arrived to take their places. Several of my fellow Vestry members resigned before their terms were out, and have been replaced by new people better able to work with the new regime. If I had spent the last three years away and walked in of a Sunday I'd be struck by the changes in the chancel, and by a more racially integrated congregation, and one with (a few) more families with young children. I'd wonder if it was "the same place."

What I've learned to see is that change isn't easy - something has to be given up to make space for the new thing - but it's normal. It is, indeed, the life of an institution. CHA's a different place than it was five years ago, but still a good place. And a good thing that is, too. If places did not survive changes of leadership, which means changes in personality (and personalities) as well as in vision, they would not survive. What keeps it going, what gives the new a chance to take hold and go new places, is a certain amount of inertia - or is it momentum?! - in the physical place, the community, the liturgy. (And, I should add, as an Episcopalian, the polity.)

I rode the subway back to Brooklyn with one of my fellow Vestry members (who is running for a second term), and we talked about the past, present and future of the place. He said he couldn't make out whether I was happy at changes or cynical about them. Maybe both, I said; I'm resigned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

It's time

Here's hoping we can bring gun safety to more of the country! We've a long way to go - some nine hundred more fatalities in the month since the Sandy Hook attack, apparently. I'm glad to be in a state which is pressing ahead. It's chilling to see how little regulation there is in most of the land outside the Northeast, California and Illinois. (This chart from the Guardian is interactive, if you want details.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Decisions, decisions

So the Job manuscript is done, finished, submitted! But there's one last thing to do - securing images (and permissions) for the dozen illustrations I've planned. They're going to be a gorgeous and richly varied lot, telling their own stories all while reinforcing my point that the Book of Job was never encountered in some pristine ahistorical form - as if there could be such a thing - but in particular editions and translations, with commentary, illustrations, etc.

My quest took me today to the American Bible Society, which has a collection of 46,000 Bibles in over 2500 languages. The objective? Job in an exotic language nobody would recognize, preferably from a brand new translation - to show that Bible translation is taking Job in to every world culture, and out of western sight and control. The Bible Collection's wonderful librarian was more than game, generously insisting that my request wasn't, as I had presented it, "silly" at all.

So here's the problem: although many of the newest translations are only New Testaments, we found tons of Jobs, and I don't think I can use more than one. Here are the finalists, each of which would make quite a different (but also very cool) point. Closest to what I'd had in mind is this 1995 translation into the doodly script of western Indian Oriya:
But that's not recent enough. And it turns out modern translation into Indian languages goes back to the early 18th century (not to mention the churches of St. Thomas). It would be an important reminder that Job has, in fact, been part of Asian and African Christianities for a long, long time (as indeed Christianity has been global from the beginning), but my purpose is to suggest the global Christian future. So here's a brand-spanking-new (2012!) Chinese edition from Hong Kong:
As you know, I have a sense that the future of Christianity will be in significant ways Chinese, so this would mark that. There's also an interesting note to Job 42:6 indicating the I abhor myself is better understood I abhor my words, and Job's whole final speech is marked out as a prayer - an actual devotional use you can see on the page (it's actually in blue ink), and not one I've heard of before! But then there was this, also 2012, in the Eastern Arctic language of Inuktitut:
Trippy!! It looks like something from a science fiction show! And in fact it's a phonetic alphabet devised by Canadian missionaries for languages which have no script of their own. This is also the last chapter of Job, where he says that he's heard of God by the hearing of the ear but now he sees him... In many cases the Bible is the first text speakers of endangered indigenous languages like this ever see, so that has a powerful resonance; it'd also make the words of Job which frame my book, his desire that his words be written down, poignantly real.

So what to do? I think I'll probably wind up with the Chinese - more significant, used by a vastly larger number of people, and a people important for the future of biblical interpretation. But it will be with a heavy heart. I'll have to find some other occasion to use the Inuktituk...

Monday, January 14, 2013


An article in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education laments the ways that "Facebook can ruin study abroad." Turns out that many of the American students studying abroad these days not only stay in constant phone/text/Facebook contact with friends and families back home but take their whole culture with them - playlists of thousands of songs, DVDs of reruns of favorite TV programs, etc. The internet keeps them up-to-date on favorite series, celebrities, etc., too.

The writer, Robert Huesca, stresses that study abroad programs are often structured in such a way as to encourage much of this; one provider even has the unfortunate slogan "More Culture, Less Shock." But even without typical collegiate hand-holding, it's clear that modern media make difficult the kind of immersion study abroad is supposed to be all about. His recommendations:

The task before us calls for creativity to harness the contributions offered by new technologies and discipline for regulating their threats. We should begin developing required assignments whereby students can demonstrate how Internet access, for example, enhances their international experience in ways that were unthinkable in the days of old media.

Likewise, we should adopt policies that check computer and cellphone uses that we know undermine cross-cultural growth and understanding. Just as some academic programs enforce "language pledges" that forbid students to speak English while abroad, we should institute "media pledges" that prohibit television reruns, instant messaging, and music libraries. We should then dismiss from the program those who violate the pledge.

Could one persuade today's young people to forego their mediated social worlds, though? They might not just be unwilling to give these up but wonder at the point of leaving so much of themselves behind. For that matter, could one get them to think in these terms even for their time in college?! Imagine the culture shock of being stuck in one place, with just the other people in that place, nothing to do but read books and talk about them! The American liberal arts college ideal is premised on the transformative potential of a kind of "culture shock," too, isn't it...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sephardic America!

Introduced a friend to Bluestockings, one of the city's few surviving radical bookstores, yesterday and felt, as I always do when I go there, obliged to buy something. I wound up with a new graphic novel called El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin. It's not a great work of art, the style perhaps deliberately amateurish, but it tells a fascinating story about the "cryto-Jews" of New Mexico - secret Jews who fled Spain for Mexico, and then Mexico for New Mexico long ago. Could it be that the oldest church in the United States, Santa Fe's Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis (Santa Fe was established ten years before Jamestown), grew from what what was really a synagogue disguised as a church?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

'twas the season

Back in New York, where spent Christmas trees line the streets....

Friday, January 11, 2013

Western paradise

Flying over the West is a nearly mystical experience for me. Today's flight back to New York took me from gilt sea to snow-dusted desert.
Whoever made all this possible be praised.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Score one for the beach!

Winter storms haven't just scoured the beach at Del Mar; they've scored it too. If I were John Cage I'd know how to play it... I can almost hear it!

Land of extremes

As - we hope - the fire danger in Australia's southeast recedes, the Pilbara in the northwest is about to be hit by category 3 severe tropical cyclone Narelle, which created this terrifying wall of dust and water.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Google's eye view

Since my trip was mapless, I found myself trying to reconstruct my trajectory with google maps. Not that I would have known what grids and grooves I was passing by from a roadmap, either, or that every town between Redlands and Palm Springs had a megachurch or two... Here are some hills north of Palm Springs, the Cabazon dinosaurs in situ, subdivisions in Hemet and Temecula, and terraced hills near Fallbrook.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Belly of the beast

My two-day road trip took me today to the deserty east of Southern California. It's a whole other world once you leave the coastal cities for the "inland empire." Whose empire, you ask? I was kept company by a radio station whose motto was "For King and Country," with songs like

Sometimes it feels like I'm watching from the outside 
Sometimes it feels like I'm breathing but am I alive?
I won't keep searching for answers that aren't here to find.
All I know is I'm not home yet. 
This is not where I belong. 
Take this world and give me Jesus.
This is not where I belong.


Yeah don't you know who you are? 
You are more than the choices that you've made, 
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes, 
You are more than the problems you create, 
You've been remade.  

(although my corrupted ear heard the fourth line of this last as more than the god that you create, which I thought was brilliant). Contem-porary Christian music isn't half bad; I imagine it could keep you floating in a hopeful squint, your feet almost not touching the ground....

My main destination was Palm Springs, where a friend and colleague was spending time with extended family. Palm Springs is trippy, but decidedly worldly. Not so my second destination, a few miles west: Cabazon, home of what they claim are the "World's Biggest Dinosaurs."
The biggest, Dinny, was built in the 1960s, his pal Mr. Rex in the 1980s. (Dinny contains a shop, which has alas been closed, but you can still climb up into Mr. Rex's head.) In recent years the site's been bought by young earth creationists. The shop/museum includes standard dinosaur toys and  panels debunking evolution, together with a small library of creation science. There were also robotic dinosaurs who move as you approach - one being attacked by a knight in armor on horseback whom I later realized was St. George. But the kicker was the dinosaur garden. There are dozens of dinosaurs small and large here, every so often keeping company with animals evolutionists would have you believe weren't their contemporaries. But what do they know? The books I picked up in the shop find dinosaurs in the Bible - in Job 40:15-18 (as we know!)- and explain why the word "dinosaur" isn't in the Bible. The King James translators write of "behemoths," "leviathans" and "dragons" because "dinosaur" is a 19th century neologism! Main point: humans and dinosaurs lived together in God's familiar world. Particularly poetic was theeloquent pairing of a Tyrannosaurus with a little lamb. To me it called to mind Isaiah's peaceable messianic kingdom: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid... (11:6) but I guess it could also be doing Job theophany work: Where were you when I made this? But that might all be more serious than this means to be. Creation science museums, being about debunking, are tongue-in-cheek, as Susan Harding showed (The Book of Jerry Falwell). The gift shop display of ice age human-dinosaur cohabitation sells "Good Humor" popsicles. 
The rest of the trip was enjoyable, too. I was especially taken by Palm Springs' wind farms - here as seen from behind Mr. Rex's grin - and the barren-looking mountains they colonize. And all around is the desert which, this ruined mattress suggested, may not be where we belong.