This is where I practice yoga — a new enthusiasm and fabulous practice for spiritual and physical health. When not working on SoF, I am often here, doing 26 asanas and sweating profusely in 110 degree heat. As I have persisted in this fairly strenuous practice, I feel not only my body changing and growing more flexible, but my heart and mind as well. A Bikram class has a liturgical air. We practice the same postures in the same order in every class, and the directions from the teachers are formulaic, repetitive, based very strictly on the teaching of Bikram Choudry, the (sometimes controversial) founder. I find the cadence of the familiar instructions comforting and the repetitiveness deeply instructive and reassuring as it leads us through each posture and works its way into joints and sinews, renewing and re-arranging.
Yesterday, Krista had an interesting discussion with Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard. With the holiday season coming up and our schedule of programs cemented through the end of December, we won’t be able to evaluate and produce the program until 2008.
The question came up: Should we release the unedited interview to our online audience before we produce them?
The advantages are that our core audience gains greater and more immediate access; the disadvantages are that the guest may not get a fair first hearing and the core listener doesn’t have a produced, tailored program to compare it to. Believe me, I’m still taken aback by the magic of radio production. Shows I thought would be dull came alive with a professional hand.
It’s all a blur. I swear, if I hear the words “paradigm shift,” “hermeneutics,” or “exegetical” one more time…
Let’s see, what did I see today? A look at the function of hadith (sayings of Muhammad) in Islam, an eight-dollar chicken burger, a deliberation over which non-canonical sources were most pertinent to understanding the life of Jesus, theological and moral responses to social, economic, military and environmental issues, a look at Chinese religions, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
It’s all a blur.
I think the most relevant session I caught was the one exploring the theological and moral responses to massive sociopolitical problems. It seemed to me one of the only sessions I caught in the past three days that didn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Namely, in all this research of religion, what is the point? The point is to help us deepen human knowledge in the arena of religion—for the purpose of helping us respond to the central concerns voiced by religion: suffering, injustice, death, war.
I guess my interest in these themes, and the religious response to them, betrays my own leftist sentiments. I’m perhaps less interested in the supernatural wonderworking in stories of prophets than in the social import those events reflect.
In the Qur’an translation I’m currently most comfortable with, the translator (Muhammad Asad) reflects and comments on the life of Jesus in those verses that Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an. In Sunday school, we often were recounted tales of prophetic wonderworking at face value. We’re told that Jesus made a bird out of clay, or resurrected a man, and that the performance of these miracles was a kind of proof to the people around him that he was connected to the Divine in some way.
What Asad’s translation brought into sharper focus was the metaphoric significance of making a bird fly, which made complete sense within the rest of Jesus’ character as someone who relied heavily on metaphor and parable to make his points. Every miracle served as a teaching lesson with significance best understood by Jewish people of the 1st Century CE. In the same way, Jesus could call himself “son of God” and be understood, in the Islamic view, to be using specific a Hebrew expression implying a closeness to God without being an aspect of God.
I guess what I kind of found lacking throughout the conference was the look beyond the particularities of religion to see the greater point of religion. In the field of religious studies, I think, the scholar has a duty to maintain the breath in the tradition they are studying. Maybe that’s why I responded to the Rural Studio show when I heard it in its completed form. It was real and it was alive, without even being religious.
I also enjoyed what I caught of the session exploring the phenomenon of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a satirical religion meant to parody creationism and intelligent design. I first heard about FSMism a few years ago. The entire idea of this satirical religion is absolutely wacky yet, like most good satire, it acts like a mirror reflecting the wacky excess of real-life religion.
As an ardent fan of The Simpsons during my late teens and twenties, I relate strongly to irony. Typical “post-modern generation” behavior, I suppose. But in any case, the idea of play is something central to certain post-modern movements, and an idea found in this FSM phenomenon. And, let’s be honest, metaphors and parables are another form of play—wordplay, specifically. And I’m just a big kid. I love to play.
Well, I’m flying out of San Diego at 6:20 a.m. tomorrow morning.
I spent my first full day—and second day overall—here at the American Academy of Religion’s 2007 conference here in misty, hazy San Diego.
I’m not sure exactly what I wanted this morning as I headed down to the conference center. Actually, no, that’s not true. I always want to be blown away. I rarely am.
The morning started with a two-and-a-half hour session entitled “From ‘Muslims in America’ to ‘American Muslims’.” For some reason, I bemoan the identity politics of current Muslim discourse, yet continue to go to things like this hoping for some kind of revelatory experience, something that’s going to speak to me.
But despite the excellence of the scholarship, I found precious few things that really spoke to me at that session. I did like Abbas Rezagar’s outlining of six broad categories of American Muslim identity, which corresponded vaguely and more comprehensively to my own theories that Western Islam is shifting to a model similar to that of Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.).
Omid Safi, a recurring guest on SoF and guiding voice of the session, offered the example of Engaged Buddhism as another analogy that could be used instead of the Abrahamic-Judaic idea of “reform.”
I tried to get a hold of Amina Wadud, a preeminent scholar dealing with issues of gender, but she seemed to have bolted out of the room before I even got out of my seat. Probably didn’t want to be accosted by radio producers soliciting interviews…
What I was left with after that session was the same spiritual vacuum that I am often left with after trying to be engaged by modern Muslim intellectualism and scholarship. It’s incredibly important, incredibly vibrant, and incredibly dull. I suppose I shouldn’t be looking for spiritual effervescence in academia, should I?
Disappointed, I wandered through the conference center looking for more, but expecting less. I walked past another conference room and saw the bobbing afro of Cornel West. I saw him in a crowd the day before, and recognized him from the few pictures I’ve seen of him (as well as his acting in the Matrix trilogy). His DVD commentary on the Matrix trilogy, performed with philosopher Ken Wilber, remains my favorite DVD commentary of all time.
He didn’t disappoint either in person. He was part of a group of speakers deliberating over a new African-American commentary on the New Testament. Other black scholars were also part of that session and also had a vibrant engagement with the crowd. I found more inspiration in their vibrancy than in the interminable deconstructionism of current Muslim scholarship. I’d love to hear any one of these great speakers on the show, none more than “Brother” West.
I skittered out of that session in time for another book commentary, this time a conversation about Bruce Lawrence’s The Qur’an: A Biography. Professor Lawrence was Omid Safi’s teacher, so there was a certain draw. I’d actually like to read the book to get a better sense of it, but Omid seems to like the book.
I found Lawrence potentially interesting as a prospective non-Muslim voice who seems thoroughly immersed in Islam, in the Qur’an, and in Sufism. He clearly has a love affair with Islam, while remaining non-Muslim—-a seemingly uncomfortable paradox that I found interesting.
By the time the plenary session with Templeton Prize winner Charles Taylor rolled around at 8:15, I was ready to pass out. There’s only so much academic talk one can take in, and the warm milk in the masala chai I had at a nearby Indian restaurant didn’t help matters.
I’ve had an interest in Charles Taylor since he won the Templeton Prize, considering he is a professor at Montreal’s McGill University. I would have liked to interview him at some point when I was in Montreal, but never had the chance.
Then, he was named as one of the co-chairs of the controversial “reasonable accommodation” commission created by the government of Quebec to investigate the rising cultural discontent vis-a-vis immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, especially among (rural) French Canadians who are whipped up into xenophobic frenzy by sensationalistic reporting.
His talk at AAR was about “religious mobilizations.” His overarching point was that religious mobilizations are happening, and that we shouldn’t ignore them or marginalize them. OK, I’ll bite.
Anyway, I caught up with him after the talk and told him I was hoping he’d mention the reasonable accommodation commission a bit, but he seemed reluctant to talk about it while the commission was pursuing its ongoing public consultations. French tabloids in Quebec have been instrumental in creating a charged cultural climate, so he felt he ought not talk about the reasonable accommodation issue before his work on that is done circa April. Well, OK. Anyway, I did get the number of his press attache.
After a long day of air travel, I’ve arrived in San Diego for the 2007 edition of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference.
I managed to make it down to the expansive San Diego conference center by about 4 pm, in time for what turned out to be a rather abstruse deliberation by a group of scholars about the interpretation of the Qur’an. I wish I could summarize what they were talking about, but, well, I have no real clue. Something about some lost manuscript or other.
Actually, a presentation in that session about the idea of “holy land” in Islam did bring up the Hajj pilgrimage. I get those crazy ideas, after the Rural Studio show, of going on some literal radio pilgrimage to Mecca, with some eloquent Islamic scholar who can reflect on the whole experience. Or maybe go down to the Ganges when the largest pilgrimage in the world descends on that river.
Later on, after killing some time in San Diego’s Gaslamp District, eating Cashew Chicken and a coconut-and-pineapple smoothie at a Thai restaurant, I made my way back to the conference center. A plenary session featured the president of the AAR, Jeffrey Stout, giving an address called “The Folly of Secularism.” I think he could be an interesting speaker to the continuing theme of atheism vs. secularism we’re trying to properly explore on the show. He made some interesting responses to secularist calls to banish religion, the kind of calls that are made by authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I do think a show with Stout would continue to provoke the non-religious segment of our listenership in a rather non-constructive fashion, though. If we did get him on, I think it would be in the context having two voices.
Note to self: come up with a proper schmoozing script to use when approaching potential guests. “Hey, loved the speech, babe, it was fab.” I did introduce myself to him afterward but, for some odd reason, I actually told him that I would get in touch with “his people.” Are these words actually coming out of my mouth?!
A couple of AAR Book Prize winners seem interesting, particularly Leela Prasad of Duke University, who won for her book on “oral narrative and moral being in a small Indian town,” namely the pilgrimage town of Sringeri, Karnataka. It triggered my interest because it seems it’s about stories of everyday people and how they construct moral meaning through religion, practice, poetry, and a bunch of other stuff.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to her in the crush of bodies, because someone overheard me introducing myself to Jeffrey Stout as a producer from Speaking of Faith. The young man then wanted to talk to me about how I got there. Funny, about a year ago, I asked Krista the same question, and here I am…
We arrived in Greensboro on Tuesday afternoon and headed straight up to Antioch Baptist Church (see image below) to see if there was any information on services during the week. We were hoping to gather sound of the church’s congregation, perhaps speaking to members who had seen the previous incarnation. Cruising down the 1.5 lane highway at a healthy speed, we eyed this tiny sign pointing down a gravel road (driveway) “Antioch Baptist Church.” The grass between the tire tracks was quite tall, giving me the impression that this church might not get used at all. As we walked up to the structure we knew immediately that this was a Rural Studio project, it was like no other church in the area (except for the other RS chapels).
Alongside the church is an elevated graveyard with headstones dating back to the early 1800’s. The juxtaposition of these old tombs looking upon the modern chapel below was striking, as was the fact that the only windows along the long walls of the church were the narrow strip which looked directly out at the graves.
As we walked along the grounds, which were surrounded by thick forests of pines, you could hear an old hound dog howling in the distance interspersed with long stretches of eerie silence. This combination seemed to say, Welcome to rural Alabama!
We left Antioch to head back to Greensboro and again, at highway speed this dog seemed to come out of nowhere. At least, it seemed like a dog, minus one ear. This German Shepherd was standing next to the side of the road waiting for us to pass, standing alert with its one good ear. Sorry, it was just too strange for us to want to get out and snap a photo.
While staying at the Muckle House in Greensboro, I’ve been able to talk to a pair of thoughtful young architects from Chicago who came down to work with Rural Studio on their own accord. They are committed to designing for community with “green” materials and practices. As we discussed the benefits and downside of LEED certification, I couldn’t help but think of this effort in my soon-to-be neighborhood of Bryn Mawr near downtown Minneapolis. The owners and architect blog about their aspirations for LEED platinum certification and how their budget prioritizes what green technology is of more value to them.
David Buege, the interim director of Rural Studio while Andrew Freear is on sabbatical, questions the long-term effectiveness of green building and sustainability in general. He wonders whether LEED certification isn’t just another highly profitable add-on service that some architects exploit. Long-term, land-use planning, he says, should be at the forefront of his profession. Without that, most other efforts will fail to make an impact on generations outside of our grandchildren.
People in the field he admires? Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University. They have proposed a radical plan of creating a Buffalo Commons stretching from Canada through the Dakotas right on down to Texas. This commons area would reclaim millions of acres of land and restore the prairies to their natural condition before colonial efforts seized North America. Anne Matthews chronicles their ideas in Where the Buffalo Roam: Restoring America’s Great Plains.