Daniel Mendlesohn in Sunday’s NY Times elegantly articulates what’s at stake in the most recent revelations about high-buzz memoirs that turned out to be complete fictions. Both memoirs told stories of suffering and oppression that was were not a part of the authors’ experiences. Of particular interest to me was Mendelsohn’s dissection of our excessive interest in “identification.” He writes:
While these statements [on the part of the authors explaining their intentions] want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.
I’ve just returned from one of my favorite weekend routines: an early morning walk through the park with my happy, bounding yellow lab, Oban. I live near one of the busiest parks in the state of Minnesota, but at 6:30 on a winter Sunday morning, it’s just the two of us, and, if we’re lucky, a few early-rising creatures. Today a chorus of woodpeckers guided us through a timbered path on the public golf course – the same path where last fall a large grey owl monitored our steps from atop a broken tree limb.
I treasure these walks with Oban for the opposing sense of solitude and companionship I feel with him. In simple ways, he reminds me about commitment and the reciprocity of relationship. I’ll walk along at a steady pace; if he runs ahead too far, he’ll turn around and wait for me to catch up, or if he lags behind, I’ll look back and find him running at me full speed to stay close.
We’ve talked about doing a program on the human/animal bond and its spiritual resonance (a topic of greater interest to the pet owners on our staff). Our recent re-broadcast of our program with Katy Payne reminded me of this. Since whales and elephants are not our domestic companions, I hope we can address similar themes of intuitive connection and belonging through the animals closer to our daily lives. I have yet to find a guest who would be a good fit for this topic. Any suggestions?
The project “…was conceived as a response to global religious tensions which intensified in the wake of 9/11. Professional and amateur photographers from around the world volunteered to explore New York City’s richly variegated spiritual life and discover how diversity in belief and practice enriches our own individual experience… Our project aims to remind us all how fortunate we are to live in a city where myriad beliefs coexist in peace and tolerance; we can connect to others and share comfort, sadness, hope and joy as we walk our unique spiritual paths.”
Here’s a few examples of photos from the Brooklyn exhibit:
Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America, is someone we’ve dubbed a “new voice for Islam.” A new book, meanwhile, is the result of six years of interviews with thousands of Muslims worldwide. There are great interviews on Altmuslim and ReligionWriter, respectively, with the two authors of this new book called Who Speaks For Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think. Some important ideas, especially as we are in an election cycle, though we have become used to hearing and tuning out these weighty analyses. I’m not sure we know what to do with them; one hopes our politicians do, though.
Says co-author of the book, Dalia Mogahed:
There are essentially three prisms or filters through which everything the U.S. does or says is viewed by Muslims worldwide. The first filter is the perception of cultural disrespect, that the United States does not respect Islam and Muslims. That I could talk about for a long time. The second filter is the perception of political and economic domination. It’s the perception that the U.S. believes, “Democracy is great, but not for Muslims,” and props up dictators so that the wealth of the nation can be exploited. The third filter is that of acute conflicts — Palestine, of course, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
These three filters are not independent of each other. They overlap, and one reinforces the other and is in turn reinforced by the other. The filters of cultural disrespect and acute conflicts, for example, overlapped in Abu Ghraib. So changing that won’t be easy; it will require both diplomacy and engaging people on policy.
I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s essay about Wikipedia (a warning: in his discussion of Wikipedia vandalism, he quotes some profane language) in The New York Review of Books. He notes the astonishing fact that 1500 articles are deleted from Wikipedia every day, and there are warring factions of deletionists and inclusionists battling each other all the time.
Baker has often written about his worry that overlooked but wonderful things are disappearing from the world. He once said in an interview, “It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded… my nine year old daughter’s personality… Card catalogues; things too.
Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled. I always think, thank God it’s still hanging there, even though people don’t really buy it for the popcorn anymore — maybe they never did — but now it’s a nostalgia item.” (If I knew more about Wikipedia, I would edit the page on Jiffy Pop to include Baker’s anxiety about its continued survival.)
It made me think of St. Irenaeus, whom John O’Donohue quoted on our most recent show. A second century bishop of the Christian church, he helped delete a lot of early Scripture from the canon, including all the writing of the Gnostics. But when it came to choosing which of the several testaments to the life of Jesus was the right one, he gave up his deletionist tendencies and became an inclusionist. It was due in part to him that the New Testament included four gospels instead of just one.
The response to my previous entry reminded me that we have been in pursuit of our next program on the topic of spirituality and recovery from addiction for awhile, and I don’t feel I personally am making great headway identifying the right voice(s).
There are a million stories to tell, of course, which sometimes actually makes it harder to find the one right story to hone in on. What are the stories that matter to you? Who would you interview? Who do you read on the subject? We’re truly curious to hear your thoughts.
I can’t think of my mother without thinking of Mahalia Jackson’s recording of "Move On Up a Little Higher", with its promise of seeing one’s loving mother in heaven, and its crazy-ecstatic refrain, It’ll be always howdy howdy and never goodbye, that makes me just fall apart. The heart-stopping idea is that loss is erased, that it’s just gone from us, in heaven.
My mother died in 1984, when she was 69 years old, of emphysema, in a race with heart disease. Her health was poor; in addition to lifelong asthma from hay fever and allergies, she had crippling osteoporosis and serious circulatory problems. She was also a life-long smoker, and — bless her — an alcoholic who stayed sober for over 25 years before her death. Like the other lucky ones of her generation, having squared themselves with their Higher Power and found sanity and sobriety in A.A., she smoked like a true addict, as Bill Wilson himself is said to have smoked, as if her life depended on it.
I’m my mother’s difficult youngest daughter, and one of her children who got the heritable propensity for addiction. Addiction: the blessing-curse that instructs me each day in who and what I am, as a guest on SOF once said. All by way of saying that having spent much of my childhood complaining loudly about my parents’ cigarette smoke and begging them to roll down the windows of our crowded Chevy station wagon to let some air in, I became a smoker in my late teens, and stayed a serious smoker long past the time most people had quit.
A year ago today, just as Krista Tippett and I were about to embark on the tour for publication of the hard cover Speaking of Faith, I too quit, using a smoking cessation medication called Chantix. Unbelievably, it worked.
It seems obvious to say I had no idea what I had been doing to myself with my cigarette habit, but it is sadly — even pathetically — true. And I don’t mean just the awareness that I was contributing to the threat of early death or ill health. I mean that once we lose our freedom, it’s almost impossible to know what it is to be free. Living life on a short leash didn’t seem odd, or unusual. It seemed like life. That’s one of the reasons so many of us, who in one form or another have had to come to terms with addiction, are actually grateful for it. As I am, today, marking 365 consecutive days of freedom, in memory of Marva Maxwell, my mom.
Just a few notes regarding the songs on this week’s SOF Playlist. Thanks, to Padraig for his suggestion of Lasairfhiona Ní Chonaola’s music, which I was able to find and place in this week’s program. Also, many thanks to Gerard O’Shea who wrote about attending a John O’Donohue memorial in his blog. In which he mentions that at the end of the service a gentleman named Jack Carley got up and sang “The Vale of Fermoyle,” in the sean-nos style (see blog entry below for more info and a beautiful example). Fermoyle is the birthplace of John O’Donohue and this song was one of his favorites.
Anyway, Gerard ordered a copy of that CD on Tuesday and was kind enough to e-mail a version of that song to me the very same day. Hats off to Cois na h-Abhna, Dooras in County Clare for providing the CD, There’s a Spot in Old Ireland. Though I was not able to use that song in the program, I’ve included it as a bonus track on the show’s playlist.
I also just wanted to provide an excerpt of the lyrics to Iarla O’lionaird’s version of Taimse im’ chodladh, which I have found translated as “I Sleep” “I am Sleep” “I am Asleep”, but I think you get the gist. Thanks to Bill Jones’ website, which offers a translation of the Gaelic. Here is an excerpt:
I am sleeping, do not wake me I hear you calling Come back again, I’ll show you how I am sleeping, do not wake me The day is dawning Come back again, don’t wake me now Just look high and low, and search round the town For the wildflower where we met the first time If you pull the petals all the spell may be broken Come back again, don’t wake me now
This song ends the program and I felt that this was a nice image of someone sleeping to round out the homage to John O’Donohue, not that I knew what the words meant when I was placing the song! Sometimes you get lucky. Anyway, that’s about it. I hope you enjoy the music.
One of the exciting aspects of my job as a producer is the opportunities our web site opens up for multimedia content. As soon as we started producing this week’s program, I wanted our audience to be able to see the Irish landscape John O’Donohue described in his conversation with Krista. I desperately wanted to see it. I’m of Irish ancestry (75%!, I’d proudly tell people on St. Patrick’s Day as a kid, dressed in my Kelly green shirt with a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button), and someday I hope to make it to that emerald isle.
When I asked John O’Donohue’s business manager, Linda, if she had any photos of John in Ireland, she graciously offered to put out a request to friends and family. Within days I’d received over a dozen photos of both the Connemara region where John most recently lived, and some of Fanore, a town in County Clare where John attended elementary school, and where he is now buried. Will O’Leary, a veteran Washington Post staff photographer and close friend of John’s, shared some of his photos. His wife, NPR reporter Jacki Lyden, was also a close friend of John’s (she recently offered a remembrance of him on NPR’s All Things Considered). Another longtime friend and professional photographer, Nutan, shared photos he took of John in 2005.
In producing the audio slideshow, I was struck with how well the photos illustrated O’Donohue’s language in his poem “Beannacht” — a word I’ve heard translated as both “blessing” and “passage.” It’s about finding comfort in loss, and I consciously tried to match the photos to the poem’s tone, mood, and pace. I learned that John wrote this poem for his mother, Josie, at the time of his father’s death. According to Linda, his father “…was a farmer and a gifted builder of dry stone walls — a dying art still much revered — from whom, John’s brother Pat said at his funeral, John learned the art of fitting words delicately and fittingly together.”
Colleen crafted a lovely audio slideshow (keep your eye out for her post) of O’Donohue’s recitation of “Beannacht” threaded with phototgraphs of scenic Celtic landscapes taken by several of his dear friends. And, since many of O’Donohue’s recitations won’t make it into the final, produced program, I wanted to offer them up here for download — or, if you prefer a more expedient and organized approach, through our podcast.
All of them are mp3s you can download. Just right-click your mouse and select save as:
As the newest member of the Speaking of Faith staff (I’ve been working for the show for almost 3 months now), I’m still navigating the somewhat awkward transition from fan to employee. This week’s upcoming show really brought that into relief.
Before I got this job, Whale Songs and Elephant Loves was perhaps my favorite show in the history of SOF. I remember listening to it more than a year ago, in my car, and there was that amazing moment when Krista points out how hard it is for people to really understand that their lives affect the survival of animals half-way around the globe. And Katy Payne gets very quiet and almost whispers, “Here we are on the radio; our task is to make this real. This planet, this planet is the only place where we have this kind of life. Let’s not blow it.” That just knocked me out. It seems so obvious, but when she states it that way I can’t help but marvel at the idea. This planet is the only place where we have this kind of life.
Flash forward about a year, and it’s now my job to get in contact with Katy Payne to find out if we need to update anything for the rebroadcast of the show. I dial her number, listen to it ring, and then suddenly that distinctive voice, somehow fragile and strong at the same time, is coming through my telephone. I tell her who I am and why I’m calling and she answers my questions, and I’m aware the whole time of how strangely small the world is, that a year ago I was marveling at the words over the radio of this woman who’s spent her life listening to whales and elephants, and now I’ve called her up and she’s listening to me. I’m almost surprised to find out she’s real. I thank her and say goodbye and she says, “Well, thank you. I loved that show. I think I’ll celebrate by listening to it again myself.”
Most of the interviews Krista does with her guests are remote interviews, meaning that we’re here in our studios while our guest is in another studio in another city. We connect through the magic of technology using a broadcast-quality line. From Studio P at American Public Media, Krista interviews Steve Waldman, founder of Beliefnet, on some of the themes in his new book, Founding Faith. We’re hoping to get this show turned around pretty quick because of a trip to San Diego some of the gang is embarking upon next week. More to come about that later.
Here’s Krista cozying up to the microphone. She usually listens to her guest with her eyes closed—no distractions.
American Public Media engineer extraordinaire Josh checks the mixing board as Krista and Steve Waldman chit-chat before the interview.
Rob (left) is about to give away the ending of Deadwood, Season 1, to Mitch, who says, “La la la, I can’t hear you!” Colleen is clearly sad about coming to the end of The Sopranos. The back of Josh’s head is lustrous! All this as we wait for technicians on the other end of the line to finish their setup.
One of our recent shows featured Ed Husain, an ex-member of radical student Islamist groups in Britain in the 1990s. The natural question for American listeners is, “What about the college scene here, now?” Neil MacFarquhar does a piece on this very question in the New York Times. “Experts in American Islam believe college campuses have become too diverse and are under too much scrutiny for the groups to foster radicals.”
“Whenever I was on the plane heading to Washington, my wife was kind of looking through… actually some verses in her Bible — and she handed her Bible to me. It was Romans 13, verses one through five, and verses four and five were the verses that she told me to read. And, I mean I’m not gonna sit here and quote Scripture or whatever, but if you’re interested in that, those are the verses I read. And I needed to tell the truth.”—
— Andy Pettitte, All-Star pitcher for the New York Yankees, at a press conference several days after he gave a deposition to a congressional committee testifying that he used HGH in 2002 and 2004.
The verses read:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.
I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.
Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.
As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.
I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.
What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.
When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.
In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.
The program’s trajectory has been a curious one, with a long tail no doubt. I watched the PUSH participants gasp in awe when Stuart Brown showed images of a polar bear and tethered sled dog frolick in the Canadian tundra. The collective sigh amounted to more than an “oh, isn’t that cute” sentiment.
I suggested the topic and Stuart Brown as a potential guest. To my surprise, Krista liked the idea. The idea of play didn’t explicity touch on religion or spirituality, but its implications spoke to the humanity of our nature, as children and now as adults.
We received a healthy number of comments after the radio broadcast/podcast release. And, more unexpectedly, the companion narrated slideshow of animals at play was so successful that it crashed APM’s Web servers. It’s been viewed by more than 2 million people - getting picked up by social recommendation engines such as Digg and by newspaper blogs in Boston and Seattle.
For me, this program is a reminder that one obligation of journalists is to be proxy agents for the public, to stand in and report on events you aren’t able to attend and tell stories that are relevant to your lives. I think we exemplified this, and have inspired other journalists to do so as well.
The former New York Times and Bloomberg journalist Doug McGill is someone we have tried to have on the show a few times and will certainly have on at some point. Schedules just kept getting in the way — mainly ours, come to think of it.
He writes wisely and compassionately about communications and the responsibilities of people who get paid to communicate, and he does so outside of the self-justification and defensive crouch professional journalists often like to adopt.
And, as we blog, we’re talking about how we’re doing it, what are the optimum lengths for entries, and whether or not we’re achieving material our audience is interested in. What do you think? What would you like more of or less of? More opinion and less personal narrative? More personal narrative and less daily journal? What do you look for in a blog?
Brian Lehrer interviewed Krista for his daily program on WNYC this morning. As a listener, I was appreciative that he read her book and asked open, insightful questions. (Sure, I’m guilty of being a little bit protective since I work with her. *grin*)
The interview generated some engaging — and sometimes loud — discussion on their Web site. You can listen to the mp3 and weigh in if you’d like. We’d like to read your comments or pose some questions you would’ve liked to have asked.
I know, I know. The title of this post doesn’t necessarily grab you like a YouTube video labeled “puppies do backflips on spinning wheel in lake.” But if you look beneath the hood of this Dodge Dart, you’ll find an amazing amount of information and some telling graphics. And, you don’t have to be a researcher or a pollster to appreciate this data either.
Type in your zip code and see the religious makeup of your county (I had no idea how truly Catholic St. Paul is compared to Minneapolis, or that Assemblies of God membership has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.), and the change that’s taken place over the past 20 years. Or, I used the country comparisons tool to gain some perspective on the similarities and differences between the U.S. and the U.K. while producing the site for this week’s show.
But, for me, the dynamic mapping tool provides a color-coded flavor of the U.S. religious landscape, not to mention socio-economic demographic data. All of which can be tracked as a slideshow. Groovy.
We’ve just completed our program in which Krista interviews British activist Ed Husain. Ed Husain spent several years in the 1990s in ideologically radical Islamist groups in the UK, where he was born and grew up. He wrote a book about these experiences, The Islamist, which has generated some fierce debate in Britain. (Check out our Particulars page to find links to some of that criticism.)
In his book, he makes a case for banning radical groups that he was part of, and makes causal links between those ideological groups and other, more violent groups that encourage terror tactics and violence. All of this has come in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London that, like the terror attacks here in 2001, have been emblemized by two numbers: 7/7.
Much of the debate has spun around whether or not such causal links do in fact exist, and whether or not his own experiences can speak to any sort of trend responsible for radicalizing youth in Britain’s Muslim communities.
It’s a sensitive topic, one that is difficult to remain objective about one way or the other. One thing I’ve experienced in reading the bubbling blogosphere is the cynicism the Muslim community feels toward the media. We’ve seen all sorts of talking heads and policy experts on the airwaves, telling us why terrorism has become a tactic used by Islamist revolutionaries. In fact, they rarely even frame it that way. The whole focus on terrorism — to the exclusion of positive developments — is problematic. Instead of opening up discussion, it paints people into corners, puts them in boxes, labels them as somehow different to “us.”
It’s this sense of “us” and “them” that Ed Husain talks much about in the show, particularly in the uncut interview. Having grown up in Britain, he has some quite pronounced views on social stratification and class segregation there.
But — and this is a big but — it seems to a cynical Muslim audience that it’s a short leap from calling something Islamism to stripping away that –ism, and just blaming Islam. The search for “moderate” Muslims by the media is held up proof of the media’s ignorance and complicity in framing how Muslims are portrayed. We’ve even had discussions here about what words we use to promote this show: do we catch the ear by offering insight into suicidal terrorism, or do we say that a radical has turned to a deeper spirituality?
In some sense, the whole usage of the term “moderate” reflects to what degree we view everything, in the US, through the lens of politics. Moderation is stressed repeatedly in the Qur’an as something to strive for, but no one within the Muslim community comes out and says, “Hey, world, I’m moderate!”
People do split into broad camps of conservatives, traditionalists, progressives, liberals, secularists, or what have you, but there’s a lot of debate over the terminology of these various shades of experience. Terms like conservative, moderate and progressive, having no real scriptural basis, seem borrowed from American media parlance. They can be useful shorthand, but sometimes obscure the nuance and complexity of today’s intellectual ferment. They can turn real people into distant intellectual constructs.
Some want to call this period of Islamic history the “Reformation,” borrowing again from an outside frame of reference. It honestly doesn’t matter what we call it. What matters is the substance, the story of our time in history, the opportunity, and the stakes we play for. People will criticize someone like Ed Husain for focusing on radicalism and calling for more discussion, for associating the Muslim experience with some problematic social malaise, or some violent ideology, when the daily lived reality is so far from that.
I myself find the issue of identity boring, because it doesn’t satisfy the real weighty questions that I wrestle with, things that are light-years away from the questions the media focuses on. I’m more concerned about purpose in my life, about goodness, about the music inside language, about if I should play PlayStation for another half-hour or start making dinner.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that someone like Ed Husain doesn’t have a story to tell. One can be self-critical without being self-hating. And I can’t say firsthand what it’s like in the UK, because I haven’t lived there. But Ed Husain talks about the North American Muslim community as a source for direct inspiration for him — there’s a strong streak of civic and social engagement in the Muslim community here. Just look to Krista’s interview with Ingrid Mattson or a recent interview on Altmuslim with Zaid Shakir. A great, high-profile British blog, Pickled Politics, seems to have a good pulse on the same reality in Britain.
That’s why Ed Husain has not abandoned Islam nor found it to be somehow inherently broken. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have criticism to offer about people who preach violence “in our name.” And nor does it mean, because he stakes out a claim, that he has the final, definitive answer. He doesn’t claim to, either, but he is part of a larger conversation. And if you have stories that inspire you, why not share them, and keep us honest?
No Better Time for a First Entry Than the Last Day...
Anna Marsh, Intern
I started in November as the show’s first-ever production intern. My time here has been brief but wonderful. You all should know that the people who create this show are every bit as bright, funny, insightful, inquisitive, and warm as you hope they are.
Two things brought me here: First, I am an unabashed super-fan of the program. Second, I am a student in my last year at Luther Seminary. My program there asks that I do an internship after two years of study, and I heard through a friend that SOF had one available — quelle chance! (Maybe three things brought me here, if you count dumb luck!)
I’m working on a Master’s in Old Testament — not my intended course of study upon starting seminary, but it absolutely captured my imagination. And Krista’s conversations with Elie Wiesel and Sharon Brous are among the things that have kept me energized, searching, and grounded during the past few years. I think we who feel at home in a religious tradition can make a bad habit of treating an insight from another as a threat instead of good theological medicine.
My time has been filled with both typical “intern” tasks and experiences that made me want to pinch myself. Sure, I did mail runs and my alphabetizing skills are now second-to-none, but I also got to do much of the initial research into our guests and those we’re considering treating on the program (most recently, this meant that I got paid to think about Abraham Joshua Heschel — be still, my heart!), sit in on interviews and see, first hand, the dedication and talent that make this show what it is.
During my few months here, I saw three new shows produced from start to finish; Janna Levin, Robert Millet and this week’s program with Ed Husain. Levin will hold a special place in my heart because she was the first interview I sat in on. Her energy is infectious — and everyone was electric after talking to her. She’s especially exciting for me because she is a young professor — a brilliant scholar who still manages to be cool and fun. If/when I get my Ph.D., I hope to still be as in love with my subject matter as she is and to engage others as profoundly as she does.
I’m headed back to school for a few more months to rack up as many language classes as I can before starting the grueling process of applying for Ph.D. programs in Hebrew Bible. So much to do: finish my Master’s thesis, learn another ancient language (Akkadian), another modern language (German), take the GRE… not to mention getting in to a program (fingers crossed!) and likely moving across the country.
So while finishing up here is bittersweet, I’m excited to go back to school and I’m looking forward to being a listener again — anticipating each week’s program and the spiritual nourishment it brings.
I can’t afford — personally or production-wise — to be on the road much of the time. But Kate and I are on a thoroughly energizing, enjoyable trip right now. And there is something amazingly wonderful about getting out like this every once in a while and looking out, while I speak, at a room full of bodies and faces.
The radio program has grown so much in reach and carriage these past years, yet what we do doesn’t change much. We just keep trying to get better and better at our craft. We create these hours of radio and pages of web content, put them up on the Internet and satellite, and move on to the next topic.
We know from e-mails that people receive our work and use and apply it — those e-mails helps keep me going every day. But to actually be in a room full of listeners is a pleasure and affirmation at a different level. I love radio as an intimate and mysterious medium. Seeing our listeners, on the road, adds another layer of discovery and mystery for me.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Lenten season for many Christians. For me, it brings back distant memories of frozen breaded fish cutlets, limited television, and sneaking an M&M here there when I was supposed to be abstaining from candy. All that time I merely considered it a mandate of my parents based on doctrine, and not, perhaps, a matter of moral obligation.
But, the 21st century is upon us, and a new set of options are surfacing. The Church of England is recommending a different approach. Instead of giving up food, how about minimizing your carbon footprint? The Guardian Unlimited reports that leaders within the Church say that Lent is an ideal opportunity to challenge adherents to exercise moral restraint in their consumption habits. The bishop of Liverpool is calling for a “carbon fast”:
"It is the poor who are already suffering the effects of climate change. To carry on regardless of their plight is to fly in the face of Christian teaching. The tragedy is that those with the power to do something about it are least affected, whilst those who are most affected are powerless to bring about change. There’s a moral imperative on those of us who emit more than our fair share of carbon to rein in our consumption."
The Church has even gone so far as to detail a list for the 40-day carbon fast. I’m not so sure I’m willing to part with my bath yet (day 14). *grin*
National Cathedral to Dupont Circle Yoga to Princeton
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
A fabulous turn-out yesterday at the National Cathedral. It looked like six or seven hundred people in the pews, filling the nave of the Cathedral for the Sunday Forum, during which Dean Sam Lloyd interviewed Krista — always a treat, I think, for the listeners to hear Krista’s take on the sorts of questions she puts to others. Keep an eye on the Cathedral’s site for video. (We’ll be getting a copy as well for possible posting here.) Also very nice to meet and work with our friends at WAMU on this visit, especially Andrea Travis, who really helped make it a fine event.
We made a quick turnaround and headed for a Bikram yoga studio in Dupont Circle… just the thing to wring out any remaining adrenalin and balance the energy after a big event!
My phone is not cooperating in attempts to send pics, so I’ll try to figure out what the problem is. Later today a train to Princeton for the final event on this trip. More soon!
I enjoy the reporting of Sylvia Poggioli, NPR’s veteran European correspondent. She was formerly known in my household as “The Pope Reporter” because I often had the radio on when her stories on Pope John Paul II aired. (She was a guest on our program on the religious legacy of the late pontiff).
Last week NPR aired Poggioli’s six-part series exploring the evolving identities of Muslim women in Europe. Her stories focused on women in Germany, France, and Britain, the three European countries with the largest Muslim populations. I always like reading reporter notebooks - here’s an excerpt from her notebook for this series:
As I traveled through Europe this fall to report for this series, I remembered the words of filmmaker Yamina Benguigui, my first guide into the world of what she called “ghost women.” French-born to Algerian parents, she broke with her strict patriarchal family and married a non-Muslim Frenchman.
In her documentaries, Benguigui explored the phenomenon of some young French Muslim women who, in the early 1990s, had taken to wearing the headscarf even when their mothers did not. While many of these young women said the headscarf was a mark of their cultural identity in a society where they felt discriminated, Benguigui said it was also something else: a way of getting around the dilemma of living a double life in two different cultures. Instead of breaking with their families, “they decide to take the Koran as a weapon against their families, by submerging themselves completely in religion, brandishing the veil and the Koran, they become the leader in the family … (the Muslim girl) will not be forced to marry and she can come home when she wants. She can drive a car and she’s completely free,” Benguigui told me in 1995.
Twelve years later, I met many Muslim women who still have not found their places and are still torn by two cultures. But I also met many Muslim women who are asserting themselves much more forcefully — either in identifying with European secular culture and demanding the same rights as their Western sisters, or by appropriating Islam for themselves, through a new female perspective. Or in a combination of the two.
While there is no distinct Europe-wide pattern, in many places a quiet revolution among Muslim women is under way.
Next week we broadcast Krista’s conversation with Ed Husain, author of The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left. Poggioli’s series is a good compliment to this show, and to the other programs we’ve done on Muslim women with Leila Ahmed and Ingrid Mattson, that help broaden my understanding of Islam worldwide.
Krista and I head out tomorrow for D.C. where we have another event in our 2008 World Tour, at the National Cathedral’s Sunday Forum. Our travels are exciting, and by far and away the best thing about them is meeting our listeners. It’s just an amazing gift. The event is at 10 am Sunday February 3rd, and is free and open. See you there!
A few weeks ago, Mr. Rogers came up at one of our production meetings, and Krista mentioned that she would have loved to interview him if he were still alive. I remember reading somewhere that Fred Rogers’s original intention in creating a television show was to try to find a space in TV broadcasting for grace.
Not a few days had passed when an episode of Mr. Rogers appeared on my family’s Tivo as a suggestion. I don’t know if PBS has just recently begun rebroadcasting the show, but I decided to see if my kids could connect with him, considering that they watch almost nothing but cartoons.
Having not watched the show myself in almost 30 years, I was surprised to realize how much I actually enjoyed it, especially the mini-documentaries about various factories (in this case, a sleeping bag factory). There’s something extraordinarily reassuring about watching one of the ordinary objects of our lives being constructed piece by piece.
My children were equally captivated, and within minutes my 3 year old was talking
back to the screen when Mr. Rogers asked her a question. Somehow, through the medium of television, he was able to make a genuine emotional connection to a girl that had been born a year after his death. In a CNN profile, Rogers said, “The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.”
Tom Stoppard’s new play “Rock-n-Roll” is getting mixed reviews here, but tickets are scarce, so I was thrilled when my friend Chris scored some for us. This is Stoppard’s chronicle of the intersection of pop culture and politics in then-Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
Stoppard, I learned from the program notes, was born in the Czech town of Zlin, where I — highly coincidentally — have a close friend, Hannah, who grew up there. Hannah, much younger than Stoppard, is a devout Catholic, for theological and political reasons (the Catholic Church was a staunch form of dissidence in parts of the East bloc).
I remember Hannah telling me about the day her father called her into the kitchen for an earnest, whispered confession. He apologized to her for not joining the Communist Party because he knew it would limit her chances, and he pleaded with her to stop going to Mass. Her teachers, the secret police, the Party, knew of it, and if she persisted, she would be sent to work at the shoe factory, and never be allowed an education.
Stoppard’s play is a history of the world many people alive today have never heard of. The Plastic People of the Universe, one of the world’s most obscure rock and roll bands, and Western rock, carry the zeitgeist of revolution and resistance, and their consequent cynicism and despair, in the final years of the Soviet Union. It’s a story that matters.
One of our several stops today was Beliefnet, perhaps the largest website devoted to topics of religion and spirituality, where we experimented with some video shooting for one of their features. That’s a “stay tuned” for now, but we enjoyed working with their crew, and while there we stopped by the office of Steve Waldman, the co-founder and CEO, who has known Krista for some time. His book, Founding Faith, will be out in March. Waldman was our guest for a couple of election year shows four years ago, notably, Beyond the God Gap, and he has an unusually balanced and insightful view of religion in the political scene.
Beliefnet recently published a poll of its Evangelical users that shows some interesting drift. Among other things, a larger percentage (38.7%) of self-described Evangelical participants named “reducing poverty” as their most important issue rather than those who said “ending abortion” (31.8%) was.
While it wasn’t a scientific poll, it was a large participating sample, and some interesting nuggets are found therein.
Responding to the Feedback on "Inside Mormon Faith"
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
As Krista and I hop from meeting to meeting here in New York, we’re overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of listener response to our program on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’re receiving very positive responses from non-Mormons and Mormons alike, from those who know and have studied the church as well as those for whom this was an introduction; at the same time, some listeners have expressed concern that this program was not critical enough to be journalistically valid.
Speaking of Faith models a distinctive approach to journalism about religion. The ethic of the interview is informed by deep listening and informed questioning. That is purposeful, based on her sense that adversarial questioning simply puts the interviewer on the defensive and shuts down the possibility of authentic and genuinely revealing answers. There are many legitimate ways to approach the multitudes of subjects in the news. This approach works for matters as deep and sensitive as religion and what we believe.
In the case of this show, her questions drew out a great deal of information that was new to many listeners. Some drove to the substantive core of distinctions between Mormon thought and traditional orthodox Christianity. As we also stated throughout the script, there are numerous controversies surrounding this faith in historical, cultural, theological, and social terms.
We didn’t omit to mention these “hot button” topics, nor did we dismiss them. But we did and do feel they have been often reported and examined in the mainstream media. We wanted to cover some new ground. We wanted to explore the basic parts of this faith that make it distinctive, and that are little understood.
We had a journalistic goal — to provide a more basic theological and human context for non-Mormons to understand this faith of 13 million human beings globally — and a broad and basic human foundation on which they might navigate the controversies for themselves.
We tried to determine where to post a response like this — on the show’s reflection page, to each individual, in next week’s newsletter? — and then we had to check ourselves and ask: “Are we too defensive?” “Are we overreacting and should we just allow our listeners to air their grievances?”
I am a “faithful” reader of The New Yorker - for all the kinds of writing and reporting they do. They’ve also by the way had some brilliant pieces on religion in recent years, as the whole field of journalism catches up with this subject, its importance in human life, and the intellectual and spiritual content that has been missed by traditional journalism for too long. But this kind of list still puzzles and throws me - an announcement of a New Yorker conference on “the near future”, with:
Where are the theologians? Why this assumption that philosophers and ethicists can hold their own in pressing, intellectual conversation - and have relevant and essential insight to add to the mix - and not religious thinkers?
I spent many years absorbed in the world of comic books. Then, after a while, I got sick of the futility of the superhero genre, where nothing of significance ever happened to these heroes. We know that Superman is invulnerable, but most other characters have "character shields" too. You know this from Star Trek (which I also can’t stand): Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Ensign Smith descend onto a planet (you know what happens next). Nothing ever happened to Kirk or the others because they’re commercial properties, not dramatic ones. Commercial properties can’t die.
In any case, I do think the superhero genre — one slice of the medium but by far the most commercially successful — can have moments of superb storytelling, like the mythic Kingdom Come, or the postmodern Astro City, that take on comic books that was grounded in the stories of everyday people. The "Confession" storyline was a favorite of mine. I’m also immersed in the first season of Heroes on DVD (now don’t tell me what happens!).
Comic books are also a global phenomenon, huge in Japan for example as a serious art form. Now there’s even this apparently wildly popular Muslim comic (if I can call it that) called The 99. It’s a secular adventure/superhero comic about a group of 99 individuals who gain special powers through these special stones, each one of which reflects on the the Divine Names of God as found in Islamic theology.
I personally find enjoyment from art that starts out in a neutral place and ends up having this beautiful undertone to it that gives me something more to think about, whether it’s religious, spiritual, scientific, philosophical, sociological — the list goes on and on. The archetypal X-Men storyline, for example, is about minority rights, identity and engagement. Chris Claremont, the legendary X-Men writer, said:
The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.
The everyday X-Men storyline, on the other hand, is often a bit more along the lines of a superpowered soap opera, or even Star Trek.
I’m not saying I’m going back to the superhero genre, because I think graphic novels are far more interesting (though I have no time to read them). Watchmen said all that can be said, I think, about the superhero genre, and is in my opinion the finest superhero comic (and possible comic, period) ever written. It plays with the genre and injects the kind of mise en scène we expect from high cinema like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m much more interested in work that is visual art proper, like Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis.
Still, I’ve downloaded the preview of The 99 off the website and plan to read it. It’s a case of popular art drawing from an Islamic base, as opposed to, say, something like Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code, or what have you, that draw from exclusively Judeo-Christian bases.
I traveled this past weekend to the Guest House of St. John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. I’m about to head off on some travel for my book tour — part of me looks forward to this, part of me does not. It will be exciting and exhausting, and I have a speech to write. But really all that was an excuse to get back up to St. John’s, a place I visit periodically to get quiet inside. I did get a bit done on the speech, but more important than that I slept and read, prayed with the monks, and collected my thoughts.
Before I left Kate handed me a tiny book of poems by Freya Manfred. I’m nourished and kept alive by reading, and always have been. I came upon a couple of lines from Manfred that I’ll keep. The first is just half a line that puts fresh words to an underlying energy and tension of life that fascinates me — the concomitant separation and twining of what is personal and what is communal. Manfred refers to this as “our braided paths and solitary ways.”
I like this language. She also has a poem about fear, which I think about alot as a factor in our common life, religious and otherwise. Fear is the very human very powerful emotion that lashes out as anger, hatred, bigotry, violence. I try to hang on to this knowledge — difficult as it is in the face of real anger, hatred, bigotry, and violence — as a way to cultivate compassion as a primary virtue for moving through the world. Freya Manfred adds some poetic images to my cumulative store of intelligence:
Fear is a thirst for solid ground, a cave and a fire, with a way in, and a way out.
Fear is not always old, but it’s always new. When old, it can be ignored,
like the midnight keening in the houses of the sane. When new, it’s nameless something about to happen —
not death, but all I can imagine. Fear leaves and returns.
There are no words to keep it away. If only there were words.
And yet, and yet — I persist in my faith that if we can at least name something — even the powerlessness of words in the face of the fearfulness in our world, we can begin to discern other ways together to approach and calm it.
While on vacation here in Oaxaca I was paging through a Lonely Planet guide on Mexico, trying to see about religious services and what the opportunities are for travelers. I was specifically interested in attending a Pentecostal service as it is the fastest growing denomination in Latin America, and I wanted to see how a service might be different from one in the U.S.
Aside from some general stats in the front of the book, there was nothing more than a museum-style treatment of old cathedrals, e.g. here is where you go to see this colonial-era cathedral, etc. Interesting that the editors would not think that travelers would want information of religious services, though, somebody (probably Zondervan) has that info covered in another guide. If not, there’s an opportunity there, I think.
When I have more time later, I will tell you the story of how our server at dinner last night just so happen to be studying to be a Pentecostal pastor, and he is planning to take us to his church on Sunday. What luck!
We occasionally receive press releases and program suggestions from listeners highlighting the many ways people are exploring the relationship between religion and art. It’s hard to translate visual art to radio, but we’re always talking about other arts programs, especially music, and our website opens up other options for us to consider. One recent alert came from the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore about their current exhibit: All Faiths Beautiful: From Atheism to Zoroastrianism, Respect for Diversity of Belief.
It features works from 50 artists on the subject of belief. They define visionary art as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” I asked for some examples of the work in the exhibit, and found beauty and mystery in “Untitled” by Edith Valentine Tenbrink and “Triptych (Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha)” by Christina Varga. Varga painted doors she found on a street in New York City. In trying to find an image of Muhammad to compare to her work, she learned about the Islamic tradition of not depicting his image. She chose to adapt it by using calligraphy she found in a Qur’an.
Images courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
We’re currently wrapping up production on our upcoming show called Inside Mormon Faith, which will be available for download as of January 24. Our new shows are always available by the end of the day on Thursday (depending on how crazy it is here to get the show out the door).
We’re also in the midst of editing a show in which Krista interviewed Ed Husain, a British Muslim who wrote a hugely controversial book in the UK called The Islamist (which I’ll get to in a second, too, because that’s generated some interesting discussions among us).
The actual radio program for the “Mormon show” (as we refer to it) is done. That means that the process that begins with the research for Krista’s interview and ends with the final mixing of all the different audio elements, is all wrapped up. The website, another huge production, is nearing the final stages of completion.
The topic of Mormonism has already generated some response from listeners, before the show has even made it to air. What Krista looked for in her interview with Mormon scholar Robert Millet was a deeper understanding of the spirituality that draws people into the faith, rather than the controversies that keep the rest of the world from understanding the practitioners of that faith better. What lies beyond the controversy? What the media chooses to focus on, usually, is not what informs a person’s daily experience.
One of the touchstones in the interview was an experience she shared with Dr. Millet about her experiences in East Germany. As many of you may know, Krista lived in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and had the chance to cover the opening of a Mormon temple.
The East German secret police, suspicious of everyone, had the temple under surveillance. Expecting to find some kind of anti-Communist sleeper cell, all they ultimately found there was a group of fairly ordinary, if religious, people.
Our discussions during the editing process were at times heated. We struggled to strike the right tone in our approach to a topic that has so many preconceptions attached to it already. This filtered into conversations from everything including what music to use to which of Krista’s questions to leave in and which to take out.
We’re naturally drawn to the human stories, the personal experiences. How much of that should be left in the final cut? Should it be trimmed at the expense of information that can radically change our view of a faith, but which can end up sounding dry without the lived reality of our guests? Do we have the right to question someone’s theology, when our own—taken out of the context of lived reality—can sound equally strange? The personal and the informational frame each other, but it’s never a clean 50/50 split.
Similar questions emerged in the editorial discussions around the Ed Husain show. Ed Husain spent six years in radical (though not directly violent) Islamist student groups in the UK in the mid-1990s. The memoir he wrote of those experiences has been debated and dissected in the UK, by every segment of the political spectrum, left, right, Muslim, non-Muslim, and everyone in between.
Immigration and integration have been problematic issues there for decades, and when the issue of so-called “homegrown terror” emerged after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, the issue only became that much more pronounced. Issues of labels and semantics, the use of some words over others (Islamist, radical, etc.), are hugely important in Western Islamic intelligentsia today. That discussion, in turn, filters down to the mainstream that regularly sees itself portrayed, labelled and categorized by media reports and investigations.
But we have to get past all that, or try to, and mine the personal experience once again. If we can find and share a compelling human story, that is something anyone can relate to regardless of their cultural background.
As is the case with the Mormon show, it’s become an issue of balancing not just Ed Husain’s personal story and the information we can draw out of that, but the (pre)conceptions we bring with us after reading his book, which we got from the UK as it’s not yet available to US booksellers.
His story makes for a compelling read. For some, though, the book creates expectations for how the final show should sound. For others, the book is a fine starting point, but something that needs to be moved beyond in our hour of radio. For others still, not having read the book leaves questions that might not have been addressed in the initial interview or the later edits.
What we aim to do is address these concerns in the narration Krista writes and reads between interview segments. Is the narration providing the right context or is it giving too much tangential information? Do we need a reading from the book? Do we just want to get back to the guest, already?
These two shows touch upon charged themes in our public discourse that we ourselves—as participants in that discourse—can’t help but get caught up in. What we struggle with is maintaining journalistic fairness (as opposed to strict objectivity) and the balance between one person’s tale and the larger story they themselves are part of. I think most people are surprised to know that it takes 8 people to put out a one-hour weekly program. Maybe it’s because we’re so busy wrestling with these issues day after day. Even after nearly four years of weekly production, the production is anything but cut-and-dried.
As reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian: “A decade of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo is continuing to kill about 45,000 people each month - half of them small children - in the deadliest conflict since the second world war, according to a new survey.”
I…I don’t know how to react to this. I just don’t know.
I just don’t know.
It makes the show we want to do on the ethics of international aid as pressing as, well, as it’s ever been. Our attempts to contact a potentially great guest in Uganda have been marred by technical difficulties.