"An Ojibwe Language Society Calendar" (photo: Hanson Dates/flickr)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
Working on an upcoming SOF show about endangered languages, I called a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University to get recordings of Ojibwe speakers for the radio program and website. His answering machine message was delivered first in Ojibwe and then in English. Then this week I called someone who works at an Ojibwe immersion school in Wisconsin, and his answering machine message was Ojibwe only.
It was a little disorienting but also inspiring to hear the language in this modern context, especially considering that Ojibwe is one of only a handful of Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada that is expected to survive beyond 2050.
I use Google alerts for myriad ideas and people I want to track for the program. Surprisingly, “krista tippett” has become one of the most useful phrases. She sits ten feet away, but it’s one of the best ways of keeping up with our host’s activities. Although we’re a relatively small staff, she’s a whirlwind of energy that’s hard to storm track — she speaks, she writes, she produces, she interviews, she raises two kids… the list goes on and on.
An alert for an article in Reform Judaism magazine came across my inbox this morning. The author? Krista Tippett.
What is it about Bible stories? For me they can be like catchy music; I’ll get one stuck in my head and then, while I wait for the bus or cut up vegetables or fold laundry, the story will run on repeat, offering its melodies, harmonies, dissonances. These ancient stories — so full of existential drama — can become obsessions.
I’ve been thinking constantly for the past year or so about the Book of Ruth. (Read the whole book yourself here.) Naomi, her husband and sons all dead, is in mourning. She’s planning to move home to Bethlehem. She tells her newly widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their families; they can remarry in their native towns. But Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, insists on moving with Naomi back to Judah. We don’t know exactly why.
Then, Ruth makes a speech as she announces her intention to stick by Naomi, and it’s one of the most famous speeches in the Bible: “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God,” she says. Ruth chooses radical commitment. She becomes a foreigner, abandons the life she knew, and moves bravely into a new one. I think about the courage that would take.
I like retellings of Bible stories too. One of my favorites is told on an episode of This American Life, “Sink or Swim.” (You can listen to it in their online audio archives. It comes in at about 44:20). In this story Noah is old and crotchety. He calls his sons “dummies.” His “old-school” work ethic demands that he teach his children right from wrong using most severe methods. God, in this story, likes Noah’s style. He chooses him, therefore, to save the animals and repopulate the earth after the flood. It’s a wild story that casts God as a big grouch.
In light of these adventures into the Bible, I appreciatively stumbled on an interesting blog over at Slate.com. Blogging the Bible is David Plotz’s analysis of “what’s really in the good book.” He spent a year making his way through the Hebrew Bible and writing about how the stories struck him. If you have any favorite stories, check out his perspective. It may give you new ideas to run through. Over and over.
Courtesy our friends down the hall at Minnesota Public Radio comes this feature on a design exhibit at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, and how design can tackle, head on, problems related to sustainability.
"In Western culture design is usually about styling, the appearance of things," said [Walker curator Andrew] Blauvelt. "Most objects, when you attach the word design to them, it usually means its more expensive, it’s more refined, it has higher quality materials, those kinds of associations."
The exhibit, called Design For The Other 90%, looks at how design gets past that chi-chi connotation to make practical improvments in people’s lives.
This reminds me of themes that came up during our An Architecture of Decency show. It also reminds me of an interview I once heard with Toronto-based designer Bruce Mau, who talked about a project he calls Massive Change:
Massive Change explores paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image and information. We need to evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome. We must ask ourselves: Now that we can do anything what will we do?
We use a third-party service, Disqus, for our commenting engine on our blog. Due to some changes from our blog service (Tumblr), older comments submitted before today are not showing up on our site. We haven’t lost them though; they just aren’t reconciling with the permalink for each blog post.
Jen Russell, one of the producers, couldn’t find that book but placed Out of East on my chair. This book has me reexamining my own preconceptions and some of the “facts” I was taught in my high school and university world history courses.
The wonderful quote above opened the first chapter; Paul Freedman, you had me at paprika.
It’s hard not to see life as utterly random and meaningless in the face of disasters like the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. And this is an issue that comes up again and again in theological circles, referred to as as the theodicy question: How could a just god let innocent people suffer and die?
On our show A History of Doubt, the historian Jennifer Michael Hecht addresses the theodicy question through the Book of Job. To test Job’s faith, God takes away his livelihood, his children, his status, his health, and finally Job breaks down and demands to know how God could do this to him, an innocent man. God appears to Job in a whirlwind and responds with a tirade.
Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?
Hecht gives her wonderful reading of this passage in her book Doubt: a History.
This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.
Krista explored the same theodicy question with the geologist Jelle de Boer, not long after the December 2004 tsunami disaster, in our show The Morality of Nature. Jelle de Boer pointed out that the horrifically destructive power of earthquakes and volcanoes is actually the same power responsible for bringing water and nutrients to the surface of the earth, therefore making life possible.
So through these volcanoes, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes…the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other and crack, and as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the earth, they are brought to the surface, and they bring not only those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.
That magma running under the surface of everything, ready to destroy and remake life, puts a dark spin on something the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote.
By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.
Killing Your Darlings Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
"You gotta kill your darlings." That was one of those sayings that permeated our discussions back in film school, something our teachers would tell us during the editing of our film projects. It means you have to be willing to let go of that shot or that sequence that you invested so much time, effort, and probably money into making but, for some reason, slows down the pace of the story or isn’t as strong as our hope for it. In some weird way, it’s like that Buddhist saying, "If you ever meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha." Don’t turn the Buddha or your "darlings" into idols that bar your path to enlightenment or a perfect film.
I’m now editing an interview for a show we are so eager to put out there about the 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., and equally provocative and challenging.
Sometimes we record an interview, and we have little trouble finding places to edit out. Sometimes the interview digresses from its core and we have to wrangle it back by cutting out some material. Other times, you listen to an interview, and it seems like every word is a darling. For myself, I count the interviews with Jean Vanier and Janna Levin in that category.
The other day, as we were doing our pre-edit listen of an interview with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who was greatly influenced by the late rabbi, there were more than a few times when I thought I’d burst into tears, whether from Arnold Eisen’s own storytelling or from his reading of choice Heschel excerpts. I’ve highlighted a few in this audio excerpt:
The first part features Arnold Eisen talking about Heschel’s advice to young people, his encouragement to them; it’s something that echoes with the self-doubt I felt for many years in my twenties.
Following that is one for the SOF blooper reel.
The last part is Arnold Eisen reading from Heschel’s writing. It’s gorgeous.
There’s another reading, in the interview, that comes after this one. It renders me helpless and it’s too good to spoil by throwing it out as a teaser, so you’ll just have to listen to the final show, which is a few weeks away.
Meanwhile, as I edit all this great material, I’m afraid that some of it will have to be lost for the sake of time constraints. But what do you let go, when it’s all gold? I’m having serious trouble killing my darlings.
It’s a fact of radio production that most of the material you gather never gets used. And even though I’ve only been making my own radio for 2 years, I am already haunted by some of the interview bits that I’ve had to edit out of my work. So, as we begin to broadcast our show about the Catholic Church this weekend, I’ve decided to rescue from obscurity this unheard portion the very first radio interview I ever conducted.
I interviewed Mark Schultz (standing on the far left of the photo below) back in 2006 for a story about Catholics who love the church even though they sometimes disagree with its leaders. He is the associate director of the Land Stewardship Project, an organization that advocates for family farmers. I talked to him and several other Catholics, but in the end my editor persuaded me to focus the story on my mother. And so the entire interview with Mark Schultz wound up on the cutting room floor.
I’ve never forgotten the night I went over to his house, nervous about conducting my first interview, unsure of how to work the recording equipment or even how to hold the microphone properly. But the power of what he said cut through all that. He talked a lot about the specifically Catholic values his parents instilled in him when he was growing up on the South Side of Chicago. But I was particularly struck by what he said about the Catholic crucifix — the image of Jesus nailed to the cross. I’d always had ambivalent feelings about the crucifix myself. I never understood why Catholics wanted an image of violent suffering to be the focal point of the church. But in this audio excerpt, Mark Schultz describes the very personal meaning he takes from that ancient Catholic symbol every time he sees it.
Kate posted a poem a while back that, she said, bonked her on the head. Robinson Jeffers, nature poet of the Central Coast in California, wrote this one that never fails to make me gasp. As the snows linger on in Minnesota, it also makes me a little homesick for the grandeur of the Pacific.
Editorial Note June 12, 2008: "The Great Explosion" is reprinted on many sites on the internet. In deference to copyright, the text has been removed from this post and a link to the text provided above. (Kate Moos, Managing Editor)
The poet Jason Shinder died last week. I studied with him at Bennington in the late 90’s. This recent poem in The New Yorker about his mother’s illness has the authority of someone who knows first hand the ravages of sickness.
He was also a really good dancer, and I was once informed by someone watching him do amazing things on the dance floor that he was in the original cast of Grease, the musical. If it wasn’t true, it shoulda been. A fabulous teacher.
For anyone who thinks European society is utterly secularized, it’s interesting to read this article in The Guardian that, in the London mayoral race, religion is actually a prominent issue. Perhaps not in the way that we experience it in the US, but nevertheless. Hmm, I wonder if anyone reading in London might have some firsthand knowledge of this?
Catholics of all sorts have been responding to our call for their stories. They’ve been writing to tell us about their experiences in the Catholic Church — the beauty and the pain and the hope they feel belonging to this vast and ancient tradition. We have been amazed by the depth and feeling with which these people have told us their stories. In an upcoming show in May, you’ll hear for yourself the fruit of these insightful voices.
In the meantime, I am reading a new spiritual memoir about one man’s experience on the path to Catholic priesthood. Andrew Krivak spent nearly a decade of his life training to become a Jesuit priest before leaving the order, marrying, and having children of his own. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life expresses Krivak’s deep love for the years he spent with the Jesuits and offers a window into the complexities of one man’s discernment. Krivak describes difficult issues — especially the challenges of poverty, chastity, and obedience required of all Jesuits — with unblinking honesty. And he gracefully reconciles his deep appreciation for the wisdom of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Ignatius of Loyola with his very modern life. I have been savoring the book.
Kind of sad and/or maddening news coming from Britain: our former guest Ed Husain has, through his think-tank, received death threats. Whether or not one agrees with the political stance of a co-religionist, the last thing anyone wants to see is more death and violence.
Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”
As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts.
Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities.
Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom.
Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.
From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.
We’ve been asked to redo our staff bios on our About Staff page to make them more, well, human and quirky. Writing your own bio is a very odd experience. You refer to yourself in the third person, possibly like something Napoleon might do. We (and I do mean the royal “we”) hope to get those brushed up over the next few days and up online.
Editor’s note: Our parent organization, American Public Media (APM), is a large and diverse organization. Maria is the manager of software development for the company. She’s a fan of SOF who travels extensively and is planning an introspective journey to myriad spiritual sites around the world. We invited her to contribute to SOF Observed on occasion and reflect as she listens to Krista’s interviews and works with us on upcoming projects.
As SOF staff pore over hundreds of responses to the audience query about Catholic identity and we IT folks try to envision a way to capture that diversity in an online space, I thought about my own relationship with the Catholic Church. How would I answer that query? Has the archdiocese’s cracking down on my small community (The Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul recently issued letters to area parishes forbidding practices such as communal penance as a sacrament and allowing lay people to preach during Mass. My parish, St. Frances Cabrini Church, was among them.) tainted my relationship with the Church? Why do I still show up?
A few weeks ago I returned from gallivanting around that splendid place of my ancestry — Italy. My Italian companions and I toured through Tuscany and quickly came to understand the three essential components of a Tuscan village: hill, wall, church. Just as my pores exude of garlic after some crostini con pancetta, so too does Italy’s rich art, architecture, and traditions of the Catholic Church.
(photo: Maria Montello)
Despite my friends’ vitriolic commentaries about the Church as an institution, it was in the churches that we spent hours — our necks craned back to witness salvation history played out in frescoes dating from the fifteenth century.
In The Spirituality of Parenting, last week’s SOF guest, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, spoke of religion as a container for spiritual experience. What better place, for me, than a church — the physical manifestation of this container — to hearken back to that original experience in one of the best ways we know how: through art.
(photo: Maria Montello)
As we stood together marveling at the vaulted ceilings, Corinthian pillars and walls of light, I’d like to think we shared a similar sentiment: “I’m glad to have shown up.”
Over the past week I have been travelling. I must make a choice about my education, and I have been visiting the schools I am considering attending, asking questions of their students, staff, and faculty.
People who study religion are often full of questions. So at The Divinity School of the University of Chicago someone raised the following: “What resources do you have for frustrated Catholic women?” There turned out to be a bevy of enthusiastic resources: a nun, a professor, three students, and an administrator each spoke up, excited at the chance to start a discussion about the role of women in the Catholic Church. One Episcopal male student shouted, “You should convert!” The nun described a woman who had carved a church leadership position for herself without being ordained. The professor was still searching for an answer herself.
At Harvard Divinity School I spoke with John D. Spalding about his SoMA Review, which he founded in part because he couldn’t find a good platform for his slightly tongue-in-cheek articles on religion, politics, and culture. He is now its editor, and contributors include our own Krista Tippett. Also at Harvard, I visited a class taught by Harvey Cox about religious fundamentalism and politics (you can hear him on our program Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide). I looked for a book by David Ford, director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, in Harvard’s enormous library system; I found it.
All the travelling and talking about the study of religion and writing and ministry has left me tired and excited and thinking about what it means to be literate in religion. Stephen Prothero wrote a book last year called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. It documents some scary statistics about what we Americans don’t know about the basic tenets of the world’s major religions, and discusses the peril of maintaining such ignorance.
Inspired to the goal of being religiously literate, I am determined to learn more, to become competent in discussing religions in all their deep complexities. Luckily for me, there are thriving communities of people working on this project together. I’ll be joining one come fall, and I can’t wait.
CNN is broadcasting a presidential candidate forum on faith issues this Sunday, April 13, at 8:00pm ET that includes both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (as of this post, John McCain had not accepted the invitation to participate). I hate to admit it, but I think I’m not alone in acknowledging that my attention to this year’s presidential election ebbs and flows as the long months of campaigning continue. But I will tune in this weekend with hopes of hearing a substantive dialogue on ”pressing moral issues that are bridging ideological divides now more than ever, including poverty, global AIDS, climate change and human rights.”
I subscribe to a daily poem from the Academy of American Poets. For me, it’s the pause that refreshes, like the videos that Trent likes to watch. This one bonked me on the head. Click on the header above to read this beautiful poem by Alan Shapiro. (text of poem removed from post in deference to author copyright).
One of the more fabulous aspects of working at SOF is being surrounded by a crazy number of talented people from other other regional and national programs that are part of our parent company, American Public Media (if you’d like, I can try to explain the complexity of the public radio world and distributors some time). I’m overwhelmed by the wide array of topics and material being produced and, unfortunately, never get to hear.
It’s not often that our topic area overlaps so overtly with our next-door neighbors’ material. In this case, King’s religious and moral language wasn’t ignored or minimized for the political, the historical, the newsiness of it all. It wasn’t an anecdote. Sitting in a small crowd of 50 with my colleagues, I was engaged from the first photo, an image of King preaching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting in the background.
I was overtaken by his recorded words from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968, shortly before his assassination. I had never heard King like that before.
King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. His legacy today is more than that. His ability is to relate to one’s personal failures and struggles and say, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” As a husband and a father and a journalist, “I want to be a good man.”
We’re all a little giddy around here today. This morning we learned that we won a 2008 Peabody Award, for our program on Rumi. This is broadcasting’s highest award, and for us it is a sign of arrival. Speaking of Faith launched almost five years ago as a weekly show. In the beginning, many simply didn’t believe that it would be possible to put a program on religion on the air without alienating, inflaming, or proselytizing.
It has been a great adventure pulling that off. And it has been a team effort to say the least. I include our listeners in that - listeners who encouraged and supported us and their public radio stations along the way, saying that, yes, this subject is too important not to risk finding a way to do it differently and get it right. I’ve sensed this past year that we are hitting our stride, finding our voice, in so many ways, and this award feels like a confirmation of that.
We will keep risking, experimenting and, I hope, getting better and better. But, for today, we’re celebrating and not getting much work done! Take a look here at the great company we’re in.
As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?
With Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming U.S. visit, we’re taking the opportunity to start a broad-ranging conversation about the rich tradition of Roman Catholicism. With all the recent headlines, diverse practitioners of the faith have had little voice in telling their stories.
This is where you come in. If you are or were Catholic, we’d like to hear your perspectives on what anchors and unsettles you in this vast tradition. We’re receiving a tremendous response already, but we’d love to hear more. Feel free to comment on this post, or, even better, share your story and your images with us using our form. Cheers.
Honor Moore has a memoir coming out in May called The Bishop’s Daughter, which was excerpted recently in The New Yorker. It tells the story of her father Paul Moore, a prominent, progressive Episcopal bishop in New York who passed away in 2003, and it reveals what had been a personal and family secret: that this father of nine children and sitting bishop had many homosexual liasons and apparently at least one long-term relationship with a man.
Although Honor Moore’s account is understated, and written with remarkable compassion for her father, this story disturbs on so many different levels I’m not sure I can count them. It raises the spectre of the Episcopal Church’s deep division over the installation of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, a few years ago. It reminds us of the destructive power of the closet. It begs the question of how Paul Moore managed this falseness and somehow kept his world from absolutely crumbling. And, it surfaces another in a fairly remarkable recent string of revelations about sexual secrets in the lives of powerful and famous men — men, in particular, for whom keeping such secrets had extraordinary and inevitable consequences.
Adding to the pathos, a letter from three of Honor Moore’s siblings in this week’s New Yorker questions the ethics of her posthumously outing her prominent father. Certain to sell books, but what are we really learning (anything?) about spirituality and sexuality, and secrets?
In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.
The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)
But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.
These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.
We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?
While conducting some research for our upcoming show on humanism, I was reminded of an amazing truth about ancient texts. Greek philosophy doesn’t come to us whole; it is an inheritance in pieces. The passage of time always edits, and of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who died in 270 BCE, barely any original writing remains.
The scarcity of original texts can be difficult in some ways. We must learn what we can about him, Epicurus, from the philosophers who wrote about him after his death, the Epicureans. The most important of these writings, and the one source for texts by Epicurus himself, is a biography by Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, from 230 CE. It is not always easy to do research on a figure whose personal writings are so few.
But I have been grateful in the past couple of days that we have a small selection of texts directly from Epicurus. Ancient Greek philosophy often feels to me vast, far away, and incomprehensible. On the contrary, you can read Epicurus’ three letters, quoted in Diogenes’ biography, in one short sitting. The letter to Menoeceus is a summary of Epicurean ethics. It opens with these lines, “it is never too soon nor too late to devote oneself to the well-being of the soul.”
I’d say the same about the ancients. It is never too soon nor too late to find some ancient Greek philosophy online and read a little.
Last month, leading Danish newspapers reprinted the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protest and rioting two years ago. They did so as a demonstration of freedom of speech, they explained, after a plot was discovered (and stopped) to kill the man who drew the cartoon.
The reprints were cited as provocation in new recordings that surfaced, purportedly by Osama bin Laden, threatening reprisals in Europe. For a better understanding of the meaning of the original controversy from an American Muslim perspective, I recommend listening to our program with Vincent Cornell as a resource.
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth" when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”
About the images: top photo by jbushnell/Flickr and second photo by Genista/Flickr
OK. I had begun this post with a long-winded preface about SOF’s coverage of Islam, how much I’ve learned, the good I hope it’s doing, and all the rest. Nix that.
The fact of the matter is I long for a complementary, not-so-academic vision of Muslims — people I can relate to as a Westerner rather than continually being aware of that sense of otherness. For me, there’s no better path to this understanding than through pop culture. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Alsanea’s book Girls of Riyadh does exactly that. Her writing is not heavy-handed or overly didactic, but lithe with impact through colloquial language and subject matter that all blossoming young adults can identify with.
Although it’s fiction, one learns more about the lived reality of youth culture and the integration of Islam among the upper crust of Saudi socialites than the many news reports and documentaries that are “good for you.” In some ways, I found myself identifying with the plights of these four (five counting the narrator?) young women, their longing for independence and community of family, love, and career.
The cultural differences are vast and deep, but tellingly so are the similarities. I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language and slang used in Alsanea’s original text Banat al-Riyadh. The book’s a clever, fun, page-turning expedition. You’ll buzz through it in no time.
OK, I apologize. This satirical headline from The Onion touched my funny bone on so many levels that I had to share. I quickly remembered the horror of an 8th-grade boy who found his brand new, jet black concert t-shirt from Sammy Hagar’s 3-Lock Box tour a desert army brown after my mother bleached it. And, with the Lenten season in full swing and me washing every article of clothing and blankets in my house after a week-long flu, I immediately wondered if I had gotten sloppy with my own stuff.
If the headline wasn’t enough, they topped it with the secondary slug, “Error Not Caught Until After Holy Spin Cycle” and a great doctored image captioned “Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo assures reporters at a Vatican press conference that it is far too late for club soda.”
There’s a pretty interesting article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Noah Feldman looks at the historical and present-day functioning of Shariah, that body of Islamic law that is so freighted today with apocalyptic connotations in the West. In his article, he looks at the balancing of powers in previous Islamic empires, and how the constitutional developments in current Muslim-majority countries look to infuse Islamic principles into state law.
Tony Soprano, Ojibwe Poetry, and "Technicians of the Sacred"
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
We do talk about big ideas at work. But we also talk about what TV shows we are catching up on. I happen to be watching the final season of The Sopranos on DVD. I will not include a spoiler here. But I will mention a minor but significant plot element that occurrs in one episode — an Ojibwe poem I first read in the break-through anthology Technicians of the Sacred years ago. Here it is, in one of its many variant forms:
Sometimes I I go about pitying Myself While I am carried by the wind Across the sky.
Seeing this poem turn up on TV was like bumping into an old friend in an unexpected place after many years. Watching the haunting impact it had on Tony Sorprano reminded me of my first reading of it, which might be something like: “Get over yourself. Life is changeable and various.”
But I actually learned something from Tony Soprano’s take on it, which I would characterize as slightly different — and oddly even more positive — than mine: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Life is a long, wonderful journey.”
Technicians of the Sacred changed how many writers thought about literature and poetry in the 1970s. It’s gratifying to see that it is still being carried by the wind across the sky.
With fewer travel commitments in the coming months, we’ll have more time to set up interviews and produce programs. So, we’re currently pursuing a number of interesting voices, recording interviews, and producing shows with interviews we’ve recently completed. Which all means that in the coming weeks and months, you may be hearing shows on:
The Gospel, as Done by Mick and Keith Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Yesterday morning I was making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, and listening to the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, one of my favorite of their albums (includes “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fightin Man,” etc.). This record has a great rendition of the story of the prodigal son, a biblical parable with a message that I have never appreciated, until yesterday.
I have always felt that there should be consequences for the younger son having left, blown all his money, and then comes back to be received into the fold of his family. And what about the elder son who remained there, steadfast and dedicated, his inheritance intact? What message does he receive, other than, ‘You might as well go off and blow your wad, too, because it doesn’t really matter’? Well, OK, so this really isn’t the message.
And yesterday it seems as though I had a eureka moment, long after most of you, I suppose. So, life isn’t fair, right? We all know that; we’ve seen it every day in the news where there are injustices and sometimes no consequences. But for a reader of the Bible, does one wish that God’s love be merely fair with consequences for bad decisions? I would think not. My guess is that we want it both ways: we want justice here on earth and for God’s love to be unconditional. What is wrong with that? But the story is not trying to reflect how it is here on earth, and only how God’s love is — unreasonable, irrational, and that is the beauty of it.
So what are the benefits of remaining on the farm? Or, in another way, what are the benefits of leading a life within the fold of God’s love? I would guess there are many different answers to this question, depending on whom you ask.
I also have to think, ‘What if the younger son went off, blew all his money, and became Buddhist?’ Would he still be “dead” to his father?
Before I arrived here in snowy St. Paul, not very long ago, I was living in Venice, Italy, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the old Castello neighborhood with a scientist of sperm whale sound and a landscape architect. I worked days at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, cleaning the base below the Calder mobile, washing the windows, selling tickets, and guarding rooms in which hung paintings by Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Severini, Miro, and Pollock. Doing a boring job in a beautiful place is one of the greatest opportunities for meditation I have had, and I spent many hours comparing Mondrian’s The Sea to the ripples on the canal outside the wrought iron grated windows.
I became fascinated with a theme I saw in Mondrian’s landscapes, Brancusi’s birds, and Giacometti’s human figures. Each of these artists purposefully spent years of his working life paring down, making an attempt to paint or sculpt the essence of a natural image, ever simplifying the visual language he used. They all believed, in some instances with a spiritual fervor, that it was possible to find and express essence.
When I was in high school, my best writing teacher came to me through Biology. She taught me to describe the beginnings of life in the “primordial soup” briefly, on one side of a piece of paper. This was a painful process of excision, of finding the fatty words lacking in meaning and cutting them until the essay became its leanest self. Poets use this practice too; they choose the briefest of all possible ways to spin the phrase. Annie Dillard’s latest novel, The Maytrees, was originally a 1400-page manuscript, now just over 200.
Wise cutting makes for good writing and sculpture, yes, but since being in Venice I have come to see cutting away excess as a meaning-making practice too. Isn’t this how ascetics craft their very lives? Wouldn’t all our lives be more sustainable if we could, like the absract artists, pare away the metaphorical fat?