Monday, March 31, 2014

Guided meditation

Interesting addition to our course soundtrack as we started the 2nd half of "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today: Joni Mitchell. The start of her haunting 1976 song "Refuge of the Roads" recounts an encounter with Chögyam Trungpa:

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
"Heart and humor and humility"
He said "Will lighten up your heavy load"
I left him for the refuge of the roads...                                   (source)

This made sense for the class, as one of the assignments over the Spring Break had been to watch that hagiopic about Trungpa. It also fit because here our weight shifts from considering in what ways "western modernity" has reshaped or distorted "Buddhism" to exploring how "Buddhism" might challenge or complicate "western modernity."

Our reading was the chapter on meditation in McMahan. It's pretty tame stuff compared to the intoxication, play and wrathful practice of Trungpa. But the juxtaposition helped me push the importance of teachers in Buddhist practice. One of the myths the "scientific Buddha" has left us is that meditation is an objective, self-correcting technology for approaching reality. Anyone can do it, and, doing it, will discover the truth. Do try this at home.

Trungpa's tantric tradition raises one kind of question about this: some of the fruits of Buddhist practice are very powerful, and can destroy as well as enlighten. You need a teacher to direct and correct your experiments with truth. From the perspective of the religious studies critics of Buddhist modernism a different question poses itself. As Robert Sharf pointed out in a famous exposé of the Vipassanā movement, there is no consensus among Buddhist traditions as to what the stages and fruits of different kinds of meditation are. People achieve what their traditions lead them to expect to achieve. The history of Zen-Catholic dialogue should make that clear - and also that this might not, for practitioners, be the end of the world.

We didn't talk about Sharf but about Descartes, author of his own set of Meditations, whom McMahan brings in in a fascinating way. His method of radical doubt would be congenial to a Buddhist, McMahan avers, if only he didn't recoil from the impermanence he discerns in desperate hope of something permanent - a self, which turns out to need supernatural backup as it tries to live. You don't need to be a Buddhist to see the flaw in the argument. Kant saw it! Ambrose Beirce's had a pithier way of making the leap of faith in the cogito clear: I think I think, therefore I think I am. The existence of doubting establishes only that doubting is, not that a doubter is. To McMahan, Buddhist meditation is thorough and thoroughgoing in a way Descartes' isn't:
(202) But can one adjudicate between the claims of an Augustinian like Descartes who sees through the shards of a skepticism-shattered self and world a God "closer to me than I am to myself" and a meditator guided by Sangha and Dharma to see the impermanence of dharmas?

Interesting discussions await, now on my best effort at Buddhist terms. Not that I'll be able to mirror back the complications simplified!


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Long time

At church today there was a young man I thought I recognized - but where from? He was only to happy to tell me during the coffee hour, as he had come there expressly in hopes of seeing me. Turns out he was in the second iteration of my "Problem of Evil" course at Princeton 15 years ago - the one with a film series in vast Dodds Auditorium (he said he still remembers "The Third Man"). He's been reading my Job book with some friends at his church, and found out online that I frequent Holy Apostles. Most people would have found my college web page and sent an e-mail, but this was charmingly different.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Moving pictures

Up to Ossining for a celebratory dinner with the Queer Christianities crew. The bleak weather - a far cry from the autumnal splendor of our last outing - only made the warm cheer that much more festive by contrast. And we went to see a perfectly silly movie, Wes Anderson's delirous "The Grand Budapest Hotel" before dinner - and watched a creepy old masterpiece over some New Mexico bubbly I'd brought afterward, 1945's "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Friday, March 28, 2014


Is this how a Tibetan lama looks like? Maybe so. I've asked the "Buddhism and Modern Thought" class to watch the hagiographic documentary "Crazy Wisdom: A Film about the Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche." The most important founder of Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the West, Chögyam Trungpa is - to put it mildly - a fascinating character. It'll be interesting to hear what students make of his unconcealed "drinking and womanizing" (as Joni Mitchell described it in her song about meeting him), but I suspect our discussion will gravitate to the ways he recreated the outward forms of British colonialism in Boulder. He gave his hippie followers elocution lessons in the queen's English, setting up an aristocratic "Court" complete with valets and maids, and the khaki-clad Dorje Kasung military guard.
All of this is described in this film as inspired "crazy wisdom," the kind of counter-intuitive, even mind-blowing demands which only a truly enlightened vajra master could or would make. I can sort of see how troubling and transformative it will have been for people coming out of the anti-war movement to have to cut their hair, put on uniforms and drill for hours - a leaning into the power of aggression which promised to be able to truly transcend and end it... and for Americans to have to engage in extended deadly earnest play at the British class system to wean them from the shallow promises of "spiritual materialism." Maybe.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

White city

The Chicago Architec- ture Foundation has a "LEGO architecture studio" - long tables with red cloth work surfaces along them and boxes of clean new white LEGO Architecture pieces. What fun! Most people build skyscrapers, many spectacular. Having limited time I just sought out unusual pieces and tried to find unexpected ways of putting them together.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Chicago redux!

From Galesburg to Lake Michigan on a beautiful, nearly warm day!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Western Illinois scenes

 Start and end of the second enjoyable day of what
friend H is calling Monmouth Jobapalooza!

The Book of Job in community

An invitation to give a talk in Monmouth College, in western Illinois, has not just given an excuse for a Chicagoful Spring break, but a chance to break new ground on Job. My talk was entitled "The Book of Job in Community: Theater, Liturgy, Care" and every bit as ambitious and wide-ranging as that promises. The thesis: the Book of Job isn't just about individual experience, but does its work for and through communities. You've heard versions of this as it unfolds (and it unfolds still, I don't think I've got the argument "down" yet), but this was the first time I could bring it all together. I explored Job and community in four settings: on the page (Blake's Illustrations), on the stage (local productions of Archibald MacLeish's "J. B."), in a monastery (Matins of the Office of the Dead), and in response to disasters today (Outside the Wire's first Job reading in Moline).

The larger interpretive point, I suppose, was that new dimensions of Job are revealed when you think about staging it. Who's on stage at each point? Who's hearing what's being said? And for whom, then, is each speech intended? Blake's great for that, since he not only has Job's wife smilingly at his side throughout - showing up as a directorial decision her exclusion from traditional tellings - but makes clear that the friends were there throughout the divine speeches. Interestingly - something I only really appreciated when preparing my powerpoint for this talk - they seem sometimes to be addressed, others not so clearly.
Especially interesting is "The Vision of Christ," where they are hidden behind, or perhaps sheltered, by Job, who will soon be conducting a sacrifice for their rehabilitation. They look over their shoulders in wonder, terror, amazement? Like the image of the friends I chose for my book cover, each seems to be experiencing something a little different. In Blake's Illustrations, Job is never alone, and never alone with God. And where are we in these images?

This was a fun way of disrupting the image of Job as entirely alone, stripped to almost nothing, confronting the great All. I made the point in another way with this striking image of Job reduced almost to a geometrical abstraction. It happens to be the inside cover of the first edition of MacLeish's "J.B." - and so not really very appropriate as in MacLeish's play, hapless Job is never alone on the stage, though he thinks he is. I didn't have time to talk about the particularities of MacLeish's play, focusing instead on the fact that it has been and continues to be performed in many community, college and high school theaters (including Torrey Pines High School, where I met Job through this play). I pasted together images I found online from recent productions and invited the audience to consider what it would be like to watch or perform a version of Job in a community setting like this, where performers and audience may know each other intimately.

The next illustration - included in part because my friend and host H is using my book in her class, and they just finished chapter 3 - was the "community theater" of the ancient and medieval Matins of the Office of the Dead. Using a lovely website of medieval Books of Hours, I played out my understanding of the way the nine speeches from Job are woven into the liturgy, in a sort of dialogue with the community Response. (This wasn't the setting for discussing how the Psalms fit in, that this wasn't really Job's voice but everyman's, and Christ's, too.) I suggested that the Response of "I believe that my redeemer lives..." accompanies and assists the departed soul's Joban journey from grief and the wish not to have been to the discovery "I know that my redeemer lives." This would be a good story even without what happens next - for "I know that my redeemer lives" (19:25) comes in the eighth of nine readings, and in the ninth and final one Job is back in the hopelessness of chapter 10.
I invited the audience to join me in reading the English version of this painful final speech in a 1538 prayer book I'd found at the Morgan Library, but it was just me. (You know of the text, small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand; the photo is the one we got for the book.) What deep wisdom here - even the most virtuous person's faith and sense of self melt in the crucible of mortality. But how much more grounds for solidarity. "The real power of this liturgical setting becomes clear only on repetition," I said, "and repetition is what liturgy is all about." I invited them to consider this liturgy as a performance of mutual intercession of the living and the dead across time.

Heavy stuff! Happily the final illustration was the video about "Outside the Wire" doing their first reading of the Book of Job in Joplin, Missouri, on the first anniversary of the tornado which destroyed most of the town and killed 161 people. Live streaming was a bit of an issue (the college president, who was in the audience, quipped "Job's friends waited seven years for him to speak, we can wait a few minutes") so I spoke about the Sandy-related readings I'd attended as it loaded rather than after, which worked out fine. We watched the first half, enough to get Paul Giamatti's searing reading of Job's despair. I knew it would speak to this audience as tornadoes have wreaked havoc in these parts recently, too, and the first question was from someone whose mother lived in one of the affected towns. He appreciated how spending time with Job allowed the communities visited by Outside the Wire to acknowledge losses and griefs which otherwise were pushed aside by a frenzy of rebuilding, a celebration of newly reforged community spirit and generosity which seemed almost not to want to confront the enormity and finality of loss. It was a good discussion with tough and important questions. (I should have taken notes!) 

Afterwards the president, a chemist, told me he thought it was good the way the best scientists' talks are. Where humanists tended in his experience to write their talks out, attentive to the importance of finding exactly the right words for things, scientists were more likely to throw a graph or data set up on the overhead and try to make sense of it live with an audience. That sort of matches what I was trying to do. Still trying to make sense of all this, but excited at all the new data I'm finding and the new perspectives it's opening up!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In the pink

"Welcome home," starts the video introducing NASA's amazing panorama of a decade's worth of infrared images of the Milky Way taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. A long sliver, only 3% of the night sky, captures more than half of our galaxy since it's flat and we're in it. You can zoom in, too - here's the brightest whorl at lower right from the scene above:

Good Samaritan

I was, I confess, a little distracted by the Eiffelesque struts of Chicago's Episcopal Cathedral of St. James this morning. Until, that is, la reverenda Liz Muñoz delivered a brilliantly compelling sermon on the Samaritan woman at the well, delivered without notes from before the altar, and filling the whole big barn with its energy. She framed it by telling us of efforts to develop a liturgy for quinceañera, the coming of age ritual for Mexican and Mexican-American girls. Someone told her she had been using the story of the Samaritan woman, which at first seemed entirely inappropriate - an outsider, a woman who "had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband (John 4:18)? But apparently the 15-year olds hear something else: the story of a marginal woman, a little "uppity," who keeps the faith despite being abandoned by men (only men could initiate a divorce in Jesus' time), and who becomes a leader because she recognized the Messiah, who "told me everything I have ever done" (4:29, 39). A whole new story, it felt like. Lived religion and contextual theology at their best!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Break

Greetings from Chicago! I'm here for two days, then swinging down to Monmouth College where a friend has set up some speaking gigs. I spent much of today at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my favorite places - and one which has considerably expanded in size since my last visit. As you can see, I sped through the museum's many collections, stopped in my track by individual works, among them these.

Detail from one of the Thorne Miniature Rooms,
Cape Cod Living Room 1750-1850 (c. 1940)

 Six female musicians, Tang Dynasty (8th C.)

Relief with Buddha Shakyamuni meditating in the Indrashala Cave
and Buddha Dipankara, Gandhara (2nd/3rd C.)

Detail (Dance) from Marc Chagall's America Windows (1977)

Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris, 
Trompe L'Oeuil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (1658)
Flowers and Fruit in a China Bowl, attr. Juan de Zurbaran (c. 1645)

El Greco, Saint Martin and the Beggar (1597/1600)

Perugino, Scenes from the Life of Christ (detail) (1500/1505)

Hale Woodruff, Twilight (c. 1926)

Christopher Wool (recent)

Bodhisattva, Gandhara (2nd/3rd C.)

Would you have guessed that it was the Zurbarán (fils) at which I nearly burst into tears? Not sure why that was, though I have a tender relationship with both still lives and with the work of Zurbaran (père).

Friday, March 21, 2014


I thought that researchers on religion in China might find their way to New School after I spent a year there making connections, but why wait? We're on Chinese time now!

Yesterday we hosted a symposium called "The Religious Revival in Contemporary China," with two ethnographically oriented sociologists from Fudan University in Shanghai. Both presentations were fascinating, providing on-the-ground descriptions of emerging formations in the spaces between an officially atheistic state and the limited list of "religions" it officially condones. Even if weren't already a lived religion fan, these amazing category-stymying thick descriptions would make clear the need for theories more supple than our understandings of religion - even world religion - for understanding what's going on.

Fan Lizhu described the wave of new and restored ancestry halls in southern China, nominally no more than public spaces and representations of family pride but in fact the continuation of ancient popular religious practices which predate all the official "religions." Na Chen described the emergence of a new religion that calls itself Confucianism 儒教 - a term scholars shun (preferring 儒学 and 儒家), in part because Confucianism is not one of the five recognized religions. This new "Confucian congregation" combines popular religious practices - healing, talismans, chanting and veneration of ancient worthies as well as its three still living founders. Its main texts and teachings are ancient Confucian but it also chants parts of the Daodejing and, cannily, Confucian-sounding government policies such as Hu Jintao's "Eight Honors and Eight Shames" and Xi Jinping's talk of "harmonious society."

Fascinating stuff, which led to a wide-ranging discussion in our standing-room-only crowd. I was the moderator, and framed the discussion with Wilfred Cantwell Smith's famous claim that "The question, 'Is Confucianism a religion?' is one that the West has never been able to answer and China never able to ask" (The Meaning and End of Religion, 69). This may no longer be true, I suggested. In any case western attempts to understand Chinese practices and ideas involving heaven, human nature, fate, ancestors, morality and ritual long predate the modern discourse of religion, and provide a great starting point for a rethink of this discourse - especially as folks in China have been wrestling with it for over a century now. How exciting that I get to explore this, there and here!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring is near!

This pic was actually taken a week ago. Further unfolding is happening!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Monumental waste of time

There's one reason to see the film "The Monuments Men," and that is that our beloved Thomas Hart Benton murals appear in it. They are, as you know, one of my passions, and it's fascinating to me that on their way to the Met they came to be used in a scene of a New York bar in 1943. (The scene at right with Benton's Hallelujah Lassie doesn't even appear in the film.) There is, alas, no other reason to see the film: none.

Wise guy

It being the last class before Spring Break I let one of the students in "Buddhism and Modern Thought" take the class through an internet quiz. An article in the Times called "The Science of Older and Wiser" had caught her eye. We've been questioning stereotypes like "Eastern wisdom" and she was struck that its three examples of superlative, perhaps unattainable, wisdom were Buddha, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. Various views on the nature of insight and satisfaction for those well advanced in years are described, including that of geriatric neuropsychologist Vivian Clayton, who argues that wisdom consists of "cognition, reflection and compassion," and of sociologist Monika Ardelt, who established a scale for Clayton's categories by means of 39 questions. My student was intrigued by the idea that wisdom could be defined and quantified in this way, and who doesn't like a quiz? It was a sluggish morn and almost everyone had a laptop along so I said let's try!
I did it, too, of course, and this is how I scored. We didn't compare everyone's scores, but so far as I could tell from the somewhat uncomfortable discussion everyone scored higher than I did (though nobody over 4). None of us really believes in quizzes and scales and we know all the problems with self-reporting but it was, I admit, awkward. "Well I'm certainly older," I thought to myself, and wondered if I was being penalized for more honest reactions to statements like "I am annoyed by unhappy people who just feel sorry for themselves," "There is only one right way to do anything," "It is better not to know too much about things that cannot be changed." But I've gone through it two more times now, trying to game it, and haven't done better than a 3.7. Perhaps I was misled by another definition mentioned in the article, Ursula Staudinger's five parts to "personal wisdom":

self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities. 

In any case, room for improvement! And keep learning from my students!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Feel the heat!

Saw a great science documentary at Film Forum today, Mark Levinson's "Particle Fever." Did it explain what the Higgs particle is or does for the layperson? Not really. But it gave a compelling sense of why it matters. Well, perhaps not how but definitely that it matters to theoretical physicists (whom we see, along with experimental physicists, in all manner of engaging contexts). Stanford physicist Savas Dimopoulos says that the Large Hadron Collider (which had just confirmed a theory he's been working on for thirty years) filled him with pride: I felt a sense of pride for humanity. We little people on a little planet with tiny brains can go so deep and understand what happens. As a feat of international cooperation it's staggering, too. So many resources poured into the quest for basic knowledge... a thing of beauty.

Critical engagement

We're making our way steadily through David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Much in it is at least a little familiar by now, so I'm encouraging students to assess it critically: honor it for what it does so well, but also note what it doesn't do but could do. I want the students to approach it as a model of research, so to frame their praise and critique in terms of in principle doable research and writing projects.

For instance, McMahan opens his discussion with five skilfully drawn vignettes of representative figures of Buddhist modernism:
• Sara, a "Western Buddhist sympathizer" (in the UK)
• Yanisa, a rural Thai laywoman
• Rachel, an "American Dharma teacher" of Jewish background
• Lobsang, a "traditional monk" (Tibetan exile in India)
• Ananda, an "Asian modernizer" active in the West (his nationality strategically unnamed)

The first three are women, the remainder men. Through careful characterization and perceptive contrasts McMahan is able to describe a dynamic and multipolar and yet interconnected Buddhist modern world. They're very well done, but one can also raise questions. It's appropriate and helpful to ask if five is enough, and if these are the right five. One can also ask about the use of such types in the first place. But it's not helpful to say there should have been twenty vignettes, or two hundred.

I've also introduced two critical views from (Euro-American) Buddhists which should force us to size up McMahan's larger project from various angles. One is from a review of the book by Zen Buddhist David Loy:

McMahan is careful not to make normative judgments about what is or is not genuinely Buddhist; he takes the tradition as a whole, with all its multiplicities and inconsistencies, and is content to observe “the circumstances in which Buddhists must develop adaptations and strategies of legitimation.” Yet there is more at stake than the legitimation of Buddhism in the modern world, because what we really need to do today is to distinguish the aspects of Buddhist traditions that are most helpful from those—patriarchy, for example—that are not. The broader context for the development of Buddhist modernism—still in its early stages—is a globalizing civilization in ecological, economic, and social crisis. What can Buddhism contribute to help us address these crises? Ultimately, the fundamental issue is not Buddhist interaction with scientific reductionism or Romanticism but how the Buddhism that is emerging might best address the individual and collective dukkha [suffering] of our time.  

The other is from an essay by Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu to which a key part of McMahan's book is a not always convincing response:

Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their dharma gate—the homegrown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the dharma—we in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with dharma gates, though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism, instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question our own dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual dharma go. If we don’t, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side. 

Interesting discussions ahead - as we head from the half of the course on modern and Western takes on Buddhism to the half exploring Buddhist takes on the modern and West.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


One of my colleagues tagged me when posting a recent essay on the smugness of atheists on his Facebook page. Predictably it produced a volley of responses, one more smug than the other, which looks to have no end. Are atheists fools for believing in reason? Are theists fools for claiming everyone lives one faith or another? Are agnostics fools for thinking they've seen through the other two and so can get by without a compromising reliance on reason or faith? Facebook's algorithm recommended some links to stir the pot, including this one:

Friday, March 14, 2014

A hunch

Reading about "Buddhism Modernism" at the same time as I'm learning more about "religion" in China in the last century is giving me some interesting ideas. David McMahan, whose Making of Buddhist Modernism is our current text in "Buddhism and Modern Thought," makes clear that the bookstore is an important locus.

What could be more commonplace than a Buddhist - or perhaps someone simply "into" Buddhism - going to a good bookstore, browsing a bit, purchasing a translation of a classic primary text, then going home and reading it? Besides meditation, most western Buddhists would consider reading Buddhist books one of their primary activities as Buddhists, and many have come to Buddhism through books. ([Oxford University Press, 2008] 16-17)

I've regaled you with Carl Bielefeld's hilarious account of what role texts actually play in traditional Buddhist societies of the past - reading them, especially as a lay person, is so rare as to be nonexistent. And we all know about how Buddhism is "invented" as a textual construct by western Orientalist scholars in the 19th century, and how this textual Buddhism, privileging a pure primitive teaching over later elaborations and practice, affected Buddhist modernizers in Asia. But the way these texts now reside in bookstores all over the place, where anyone can leaf through them (along with Rumi, The I Ching, The Gnostic Gospels and of course The Varieties of Religious Experience) and perhaps take them home to read, is worth thinking about on its own. The Orientalists were seeking a sure foundation in the oldest texts, but the denizen of the Religion-Philosophy-Spirituality-New Age section of her local bookstore has other interests. McMahan stresses the importance of "perennialism," the idea that all traditions articulate the same unchanging Truth, in making Buddhist ideas accessible to the West (71f). But nowadays people may be looking for something specifically "Eastern."

Like other large-scale religions ... Buddhism has become detraditionalized among many adherents, including the rapidly emerging affluent and educated middle-class populations of various Asian countries, as well as in the West among converts. Among western converts, detraditionalization occurs in part because most of them learn about Buddhism from books that portray it as part of an amorphous "Eastern mysticism" that is considered largely independent of institutional structures. Popular literature in the West often presents the "essence" of Buddhism as primarily about inner experience rather than its institutional and social realities. This approach has created a new kind of quasi-lay community of Buddhist sympathizers [a term from Thomas Tweed] who read popular Buddhist books and do some meditation and an occasional retreat but do not necessarily identify themselves exclusively as Buddhist. These sympathizers ... may not be committed to Buddhism in any institutional form, may reject or simply be unaware of doctrines unpalatable to late modern sensibilities, and may also be "Hindu sympathizers," "Daoist sympathizers," and "neo-pagan sympathizers." It is not just their eclecticism, though, that makes them particularly modern - the religious lives of many, if not most, traditional East Asians throughout history has been constituted by an amalgam of beliefs and practices from a variety of traditions. What marks such contemporary spiritually eclectic Buddhist sympathizers as embodying detraditionalized Buddhism is the fact that they quite consciously feel free as individuals to adopt or reject whatever bits and pieces they choose from Buddhism, as well as mixing and matching them with fragments from other traditions, thus creating their own personal religious bricolage. Autonomous reason, freedom of choice, and intuitive insight are implicitly considered superior to external authority, even though part of that freedom may include placing oneself under the guidance of a spiritual teacher. (43-44)

A few months ago I would have dwelt on how this conforms with the picture "lived religion" gives us of contemporary life, which of course it does (along with questions about its historical and cultural specificity). Now what strikes me here is a possible parallel with the unfolding religious world in China, and especially what I understand are called "cultural Christians" (wenhua jidutu 文化基督徒). Largely based at universities - professors and students - these are apparently people who have developed a keen interest in Christianity and embrace some of its teachings but don't choose to be baptized or join an actual church community. They learn about Christianity as part of "western culture" from books, and integrate elements of what they find into their lives without feeling the need to connect to the legacies of interpretation and practice of actual churches and denominations. Yang Fenggang, in the first book I read on the subject, stressed that this "religion as culture" sector - independent both of the state and religious authority - plays a distinctive and significant part in the story of religion in China.

It sounds like - for a few of the same and many different reasons - Christian traditions could be as textualized, dismembered, reassembled and hybridized in China as "Buddhist" ones are in the modern West. Especially in the context of a society which doesn't expect people to (at least claim to) belong to one or another faith tradition or community, there's no reason necessarily to expect that cultural Christians will wind up in what we would recognize as church traditions. It'll be fascinating to learn more about this in situ, to see how far the analogy goes...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Offense and Dissent

Have I mentioned that one of the fruits of our New School history class will be an exhibition about moments when displayed art rubbed up against political and community questions at The New School? Yes indeedy - going up at the end of the semester in the main university gallery, and remaining up through Orientation, under the (working) title "Offense and Dissent: Image, Conflict and Belonging at The New School."

New research is being done on three resonant episodes (all of which we discussed in our course last semester - though I guess I haven't shared images from the third with you: see below): the curtaining of the part of the Orozco murals depicting Lenin and Stalin in the early 1950s in what was then the school cafeteria; Parsons students' replacing their scheduled senior showings with an anti-war exhibit in May of 1970; and the furor over a racist image included in an exhibition of Japanese graphic design in 1989 in the university's central gallery. Exploring and analyzing these will be a large part of the exhibit; we're supplementing display of artifacts, archival materials, news reports, etc. with timelines commissioned from illustrators working in interestingly different styles tailored to the moments and genres at play.

But that's only part of it. The other part will be generated by The New School of 2104. We've sent out a lot of invitations, and received enthusiastic signmeups in almost all cases! Here's the invite:

In addition to the three incidents, we would like to have a fourth exploration that is a present-day investigation by faculty, staff and students at The New School in dialogue with an image/installation or an element of design that they regularly encounter at the university.

We ask that you

1.     Select either ­an artwork or an aspect of design that you regularly encounter at the university to which you have a strong reaction, positive or negative, that you may not necessarily share with others.  The work should be either an image or installation from The New School Art Collection that is in the hallways, offices, courtyards and hallways of the university OR it should be an element of design—graphic, interior or architecture—on campus. 

2.     Describe briefly why you are provoked or disturbed by the image/design: How do you encounter this work?  Why does it disturb or delight you? How do others feel? Does it exclude some people in its address?  Are you left out, drawn in, disgusted, bored, taken aback?  If you could effect a change with regard to the display, design or reception of this piece of work, how might you begin? 

3.     Suggest three questions that you would use to initiate a conversation with your colleagues to make such a change possible.

We are interested in all three aspects of your response – selection, disagreement and dialogue – and will include these texts with questions and the corresponding artwork/designs, as appropriate, as part of the exhibition.

The range of excited responses suggests that we've hit a nerve.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


One of the standard complaints about urban university campuses is that you rarely see your colleagues. People commute in and hurry back home and you see them, at best, in thankless committee meetings. You find out about cool colleagues at conferences elsewhere, or from colleagues elsewhere who assume you know everyone at your own school. Give us more common space, we've been demanding, so some of those potential synergies will happen here!

The University Center is designed for such synergies, and they happen with satisfying regularity. Today I had a whole series of delightful reunions. Right now I'm sitting in the 2nd floor dining hall, and have greeted a student actor I've known for a few years, and a student taking the East Asian religion class I'm auditing. (After class today she and I had exchanged sympathies - in less than three weeks on Daoism, how did we get from the ethereal austerity of the Daodejing to a 12-day festival on the tenth anniversary of Hong King's return to China, with three priests garbed red as gods presenting offerings to hundreds of other gods, as long phalanxes of supporters in yellow robes sang droning anthems?) The personal pizza's yummy, too, if not pretty - here a Margarita balsamic + pesto.)

And before that... I attended a meeting at the India China Institute, helping finalize an application for an extension of the Luce-funded project ERSEH, together with an urban environmentalist from NSPE and a digital mapping specialist from Parsons. Emerging on the ground floor of the Parsons Building I noticed some student work inspired by Japanese Shinto shrines (yesterday was the third anniversary of the 3/11 earthquake/tsunami), and soon found myself in a conversation about it with W, the university Archivist, whom I know from New School history shenanigans. We talked about the exhibition my New School history comrade J and I are helping put together in the big Parsons Gallery this summer together with gallery curator R - and then R happened by and joined us. As we chatted I winked to a student I haven't seen since last year... This is how a campus works, right?

And then, crossing into the new building on my way to pizza happiness, I bumped into someone from the Provost's Office I worked with last semester, as we eavesdropped on a trumpeter from the Jazz Program filling the empty auditorium with Miles Davis. Sweet!