I love this week’s program with Kate Braestrup, chaplain to the game warden service in Maine. Simply, her practical theology just makes sense to me — a daily translation of spirituality into caring, useful, deliberate action. And I’m glad we were able to add a Unitarian Universalist voice to the many diverse religious perspectives we delve into, just in the way we like to, exploring that perspective through a person’s “lived theology” (Krista Tippett phrase).
This was one of our programs that came together randomly and quickly. Krista saw a reference to Braestrup’s memoir a few months back, and she was curious about her story and her journey to Unitarian Universalism. We got a copy of the book, and as I read it I was immediately absorbed by its reality and humor, and by Braestrup’s wisdom, searching, compassion, and gutsy movement between grief and hope.
We booked the interview, grateful that our guest was willing to drive almost two hours from her small coastal hometown to Portland, Maine, so we could record her conversation with Krista via ISDN (the best broadcast-quality audio connection possible). Right after the interview, we decided it would be a good balance to the other voices, viewpoints, and topics we’ve done in recent weeks, so we front-burnered it into production. You’ve perhaps read other producers’ accounts of how some shows take time to find the right voice or precise approach, brewing like sun tea to get the best flavor. Others are like good espresso — best when ground fresh and served immediately. To me, Kate Braestrup is like that fine espresso, giving me a jolt of optimism and inspiration. (Full disclosure: I don’t drink coffee, but I was a barista for a short time).
We edited, wrote, listened, edited again, tossed around titles, planned content for the Web site. Mitch took cues from the interview and laid in Cole Porter music, but he wouldn’t give in to the “Sweet Home Alabama” reference near the end. And we laughed questioningly at Kate Braestrup’s description of a t-shirt one cop wore in a D.C. bar crammed with law enforcement officers — words I’m sure have never before been uttered on a Speaking of Faith program. Not suitable for radio, so you’ll have to listen to the unedited interview to hear them.
I exit this program with a new appreciation for the work of law enforcement officers of all kinds who are theologians in their own way, as Braestrup describes:
"Law enforcement officers, like all human beings, are presented with grand questions about life’s meaning and purpose. They consider the problem of evil, the suffering of innocents, the relationships between justice and mercy, power and responsiblity, spirit and flesh. They ponder the impenetrable mystery of death. Cops, in short, think about the same theological issues seminary students research, discuss, argue, and write papers about, but a cop’s work lends immediacy and urgency to such questions. Apart from my familiarity with and affinity for police culture, I was sure working with cops would take me right up to where the theological rubber meets the road."
Each day I read the e-mails you send us about how you experience the work we do here. Some days, when the inbox is flooded with generic promotional materials for authors who have published books like The Bad Breath Bible, it can feel a chore. More often, however, I am inspired by the very personal messages you send about this program (both its finest points and its flaws).
The e-mails that include moving personal stories, or that articulate the value of the show in a way none of us ever could, shoot around our inboxes with messages attached like, “Nice reflection on something we’ve been thinking about,” or “So good to get this now,” on a day when things aren’t going so hot.
The point is, having the chance to read your e-mails has completely changed my attitude toward making contact with the people who produce the content of our culture. I’ve learned that authors aren’t as far removed as they feel when I hold their books in my hands. Musicians want to know how people respond to their work. Artists are looking for signs of the impact they have. Any chef is grateful if you send word to the kitchen that you particularly enjoyed something she made.
Because you taught me this, I recently wrote to one of my favorite authors (who lately became a staff writer at The New Yorker) to say how much she has impacted my life, how grateful I am for her work, and congratulations on her latest achievement. Within hours, she wrote me back to say I made her day.
So thanks for all your thanks. Your messages have taught me in a new way that showing gratitude matters, that it can inspire work and create joy. I look forward each day to knowing what you think.
How an Idea Becomes a Show Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
Each week at SOF, we get together in a small conference room to talk about the upcoming production schedule and other mundane matters, and for the last 15 minutes or so we toss around potential future topics for shows. A few months ago, I tossed out a vague idea for a show about endangered languages. This weekend that vague idea becomes a reality as our show “Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning.”
Coming up with a good idea for a show is the easy part. What’s hard is finding the right person to speak on that topic. In this case, Krista wanted to find someone who was trying to save the language of his or her own people, who could also speak about how the loss of that language could result in the loss of cultural and spiritual practices. But there are thousands of endangered languages around the world. Where to start?
I went down several blind alleys — contacting the Living Tongues Institute, doing Nexis searches, e-mailing linguists — before I made the lucky decision to contact the novelist David Treuer. I was familiar with his work, I knew he was Ojibwe and that he had a background in anthropology, so I thought he might know someone who was working on a language revitalization project. He wrote back to my e-mail the next day.
You’ve come to the right place! I just published an article in the LA Times about that very subject. In addition to writing and teaching I am involved (with a group of others) in efforts to preserve and protect the Ojibwe language. Our most recent effort is research (recording, translating) aimed at creating the very first Ojibwe grammar book; work which runs parallel to spiritual and ceremonial work.
Suddenly, this huge, unwieldy topic of endangered languages had acquired a specific language — Ojibwe — and on the day Krista interviewed him, David Treuer helped bring into focus the specific people engaged in trying to save that language. My favorite moment in that interview was the story David tells of interviewing the Ojibwe elder Eugene Stillday, who recounted a childhood moment of sitting in his house when his entire family was sick with influenza, and the only thing that kept him from freaking out was staring at the flickering light in the stove. To me, that light in the stove seemed like a metaphor for the language itself. The light helped keep Eugene Stillday calm, and the language helped keep the memory of that day alive.
That story became even more real when David Treuer’s brother, Anton, sent us the actual recording of Eugene Stillday telling the story in Ojibwe. We wanted more recordings of Ojibwe speakers, but Anton Treuer was leaving town, so David suggested I check with his friend Keller Paap, an Ojibwe immersion school teacher in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, it was Keller’s last week of school before summer, which is always chaotic for a teacher. He said he would try to find some recordings, but it took him a little while to dig through what he had. As our deadline for finishing the show crept closer and closer, I kept checking my inbox. Then, just in time, Keller sent me his recordings, and they were magic. We used the sound of him speaking Ojibwe to his three-year-old son at the top of the show, and we closed the show with the recording of him singing an Ojibwe song he wrote with his students.
It was amazing to finally hear all those pieces fit together. To me this is what radio is all about: the marriage of words and sounds that go beyond words. David Treuer has some profound things about the power of language to keep culture alive, but hearing Keller Paap literally passing that language onto his son and the enthusiasm of his students singing in Ojibwe, that just makes the whole thing real.
Katherine Marshall, who has spent three decades in international development, sounds like a really interesting voice. Later this week, she’ll be co-moderating a panel in Washington with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. It’s a meeting of American Evangelicals and Moroccan Muslims who are both concerned about global warming. I introduced myself and she says she’s got tons of stories. I’d love to hear more about this Moroccan thing. Anyway, out to lunch now.
Spending the day here at the first day of the PUSH Conference in Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. I’m actually on the beat for our show idea on the ethics of international aid and development. PUSH, in the words of organizer Cecily Sommers, is about looking at the polarizing forces in our world, and what the space in between those poles offers (sounds familiar). PUSH is an ideas conference that brings together interesting thinkers who have inspiring ideas. Some of our past guests can be found here, like Eboo Patel and Anthea Butler. I think I saw Nathan Dungan in conversation with someone.
The space between those poles is what they’re calling The Fertile Delta, which is the theme of this year’s conference. This morning’s “pole” is economics. Some pretty inspiring stuff so far, and I hope to have some more thoughts later on in the day.
Every six weeks, we convene as a staff and talk about ideas for shows for the next two to three months. We’re never lacking in ideas, but finding knowledgeable voices that can carry an hour conversation takes some effort. One of the subjects near the top of our list is the ethics of global aid, particularly with Zimbabwe’s recent crackdown on CARE, a multi-national, non-profit organization fighting global poverty.
For me, the subject came to the forefront while reading Paul Theroux’s challenging, insightful travel account in Dark Star Safari. After serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, he revisits Africa and sees a starkly different and yet an eerily similar continent. He’s pretty hard on charitable aid organizations and missionaries, to be sure, and wonders — well, actually posits — whether good intentions have led to an industry that needs to sustain itself in order to carry on its business model:
"…this was the era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount, studied as closely as the coffee harvest or a hydroelectric power project. Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier."
Theroux’s idea that aid and missionary organizations might actually undercut the stability and long-term efforts of people they are trying to help is challenging. The spot of “tough love” seems to be drenched in the hard-nosed, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that I often experienced growing up in North Dakota. I cringed initially. But, some germ made sense. Although I’m not in Africa, I face these tests while walking to work in downtown St. Paul when the same destitute man regularly asks me for five bucks. When do I become that microcosmic institution?
Where is that line and when do good intentions steal a struggling people’s identity, raid an individual’s sense of resourcefulness and pride? When do others who prosper have an obligation to intervene and help those who can’t help themselves because of forces beyond there control — political regimes, long-lasting droughts, diseases, etc.? Who are some of the wise voices you’re reading and hearing about that are immersed in this struggle that can speak personally about these situations?
"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.”