"Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!” —Mary Doria Russell » download (mp3, 13:13) Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
A couple of weeks ago when we were taping Krista’s interview with novelist and retired paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell, the conversation briefly touched on some of her musical tastes. Intrigued by what I had heard, I did some further research and learned that, growing up, Mary Doria Russell was the kind of kid who “liked the Stones better than the Beatles, Beethoven better than Mozart, and orchestral music better than string quartets.” These days, she says, her “calm, well-ordered and intensely bourgeois life” apparently continues to seek refuge in large-scale, emotionally-charged, musical productions.
As someone who was coming of age in the 80’s, I was surprised to learn that Ms. Russell, who is approaching 60, is quite a fan of what she calls the “big hair” bands of those days, and even claims to have “worn the oxide” off her cassette copy of Def Leppard’s 1986 release, Hysteria. On one of the e-mail exchanges I had with her she said, “Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!”
So, I decided to give her a call, hoping that we might get a little deeper insight into the musical affections of a “well-ordered” novelist — affections that include Beethoven, Chopin, and Puccini but also Van Halen and, of course, Def Leppard.
In all seriousness, Mary Doria Russell has been very open and on record about her tastes in music. I appreciate her being such a good sport about it in this conversation.
Ad Astra Per Aspera » download (mp3, 2:12) Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Last week Shiraz shared a section from Krista’s energetic conversation with Mary Doria Russell discussing the meaning and influence of music in Russell’s writing. He also wrote about the Golden Record, a phonograph record that was included on the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, with the hope of making contact with another alien species. Mitch, our senior producer, collected a few audio samples from the Golden Record and put together a beautiful sound collage that was included in the program, and which you can listen to above.
Carl Sagan, the director of the Golden Record project, said that “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” His statement hints at an understanding of this endeavor that’s not only useful for extraterrestrial species, but also as an opportunity for introspection. The contents of the Golden Record serve as a time capsule, allowing us to examine which aspects of its content still seem universally human, and which may already seem outdated or consequential.
I can’t help but wonder how this message might have changed now — and how both its form and content might be different. What new art forms might it include now? What images, or perhaps videos? Would it be a Golden DVD, a Golden Hard Drive? Let’s hear your thoughts on what might belong in a “message in a bottle” from Earth, circa 2009.
Ad Astra Per Aspera is a Latin phrase recorded in morse code on the Golden Record. It translates as “through hardships to the stars.”
A nice piece in the New York Times on the perils of reporting on the Israel/Palestine issue. Here at SoF, we’re trying to find some way of addressing the recent conflict, and exploring a few tentative ideas.
I realize I’m not saying anything here. As much as I can personally hope for peaceful resolution of the situation, I’m afraid of that can of worms, of talking about it. War reporting oftens places the media in the role of moral arbiter, but trying to assign moral legitimacy in this conflict is going to take another 5,000 years to sort out. So we have to find some different approach to this. It’s a tough one, maybe the most contentious issue out there. From Ethan Bronner’s piece in the Times:
It turns out that both narration and mediation require common ground. But trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus. It feels like I am only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write because the fervent inner voice of each side is so loud that it drowns everything else out.
Repossessing Virtue: Greg Epstein on Human Solutions and Not Divine Ones » download(mp3, 11:47) Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
We last spoke to Greg Epstein in the wake of a Pew poll on the American religious landscape, finding that 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and he has been an emerging leader in trying to unify that growing population of the non-religious — to create a community driven not by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.
So as we turned to Greg Epstein again, we wanted to know how he’s seen his community experiencing the current economic crisis. Epstein once defined humanism as “philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” It turns out that the current economic crisis has refocused his community’s vision of what that “greater good” should look like.
Our guest from this week’s The Buddha in the World program, Pankaj Mishra, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times about the literary scene in China, specifically focusing on the work of Yu Hua and his novel Brothers. Not specifically related to what he was talking about in the program, but worth a read nonetheless. His skeptical take on the Asian dance with Western modernity continues.
When I first met Yu one evening in Shanghai in 2006, he confidently described to me his vision of “Brothers” as a social and moral critique of China’s evolution. Yet he was suffering from a version of postpublication angst common among authors — the cankerous feeling that his work, and its vision of China lurching between political authoritarianism, extreme poverty, consumerist excess and moral depravity, was not being taken seriously enough. High sales and popular acclaim had not taken the sting out of the venomous reviews. But almost three years of a sustained critical assault on “Brothers” seems to have hardened Yu. He now sees the attacks in sociological rather than literary terms, as exposing a fault line between generations, and his detractors as typical of China’s new nationalists — people too young to have any memory of their country’s previous traumas but obsessed with boosting China’s image as a rising power vis-à-vis the West.
Repossessing Virtue: Ayman Amer on No-Interest Banking and a “House of Finance” » download (mp3, 20:24) Amara Hark-Weber, Production Intern
Throughout recent discussions of our current financial crisis, I have been struck at how few leaders are willing to imagine changes or alternatives to the system that has faltered. In this conversation, Mount Mercy economics professor Ayman Amer delves directly into this topic, outlining financial alternatives as they are practiced in the Islamic world. He ruminates on the shared responsibilities of government, lending bodies, communities and individuals discussing how they can they work together for mutual success. Amer uses the Islamic financial practices of no-interest banking as an example of an alternative method that could realistically be applied here in the United States.
As a scholar with an understanding of the financial structures of both the Islamic world and the United States, Amer pushes us to remember that in times of assessment and reflection it is as important to look outward as it is to reflect inward. He helps us do just this, asking how can we improve our own practices and challenging us to see examples elsewhere.
The first entry I wrote for SOF Observed (which was never published as it was part of a blogging trial) was about the fallen Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. More than two years ago, news had broken about his then-alleged homosexual entanglement and solicitation of crystal meth. The e-mails were making rounds among the SOF staff.
Not only were all of us shocked like so many others, we were also discussing the news coverage. If I recall, most of us thought it was surprisingly restrained. Many critics of Ted Haggard who might have reveled in his demise, didn’t. And those who might have demonized his accuser were beseeched to pray for him instead. Boy, just thinking back, the Evangelical Right still held quite a bit of political sway. The NAE — of which he was president at the time — was rocked to its core.
We also found Haggard’s letter to his congregation, which was read to parishioners at a Sunday service, terribly and painfully tragic. I remember thinking at the time: Is this evidence of the power of sin over the most sanctified among us, or simply evidence of the power of homophobia and the closet to destroy human lives?
Well, perhaps I’ll be able to better discern the meaning of that question in a few weeks (or when it becomes available months later on Netflix?). Alexandra Pelosi’s — yes, Nancy’s daughter — short documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, will be shown on HBO through the month of February. If any of you watch it, I’d like to hear your analysis. One reviewer calls it “engrossing” and writes: “The man comes across as wounded, damaged, confused, deluded, in crisis with his faith, and very, very human. Curiously, his trademark grin is still in place.” There’s a trailer on the linked page above.
If you’re not a regular of TIME’s Swampland blog and are a political junkie, then I suggest you subscribe to their RSS feed (or at least bookmark the site). Our previous guest, Amy Sullivan, posted an insightful recap of yesterday’s prayer service to launch President Obama’s first day in office.
From (left to right) First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pray at the 56th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral.
Here are a few excised lines from Sullivan’s observations that resonated with me:
…I urge you to watch the service if you have the time. I’ve sat through a lot of these things and this was first time I was struck by the useful secular purposes that civil religion can hold.
This president is unusually grounded, but after a week of parties and concerts and celebrations and fanfare that would explode even the smallest ego, it seemed right to send Obama off to his first day of work on that note. “We need you to listen to the better angels of your nature,” Watkins [Reverend Sharon Watkins, head of the Disciples of Christ denomination] preached to an audience of one, “and by your example encourage us to do the same.”
What made the sermon such a useful model of civil religion is that Watkins rooted it in secular ideas as well as Scripture. “This is the Biblical way,” she said. “It is also the American way—to look beyond ourselves.” She quoted Emma Lazarus, a Cherokee legend, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Obama’s own 2004 DNC speech: “It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.” It was a perfect complement to Obama’s address yesterday, letting him know that those were nice words, but he’d better stick to them. Because religious communities, the nation as a whole, and the world will be watching to hold him accountable.
The Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins gave the sermon at the prayer service.
And further down:
Democratic interfaith events can sometimes be so packed with participants in an effort not to leave anyone out that they are not inclusive so much as exercises in box-checking. But the procession of religious leaders at the start of the service—Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal, Evangelical—had the feel instead of a celebration of the religious diversity that thrives more in the U.S. than any other country in the world.
The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III singing.
The Most Rev. Francisco González, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson (president of the Islamic Society of North America).
Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America
President Barack Obama signing the guestbook at Washington National Cathedral.
President Barack Obama signed the Cathedral guestbook: “Thank you for your prayers and support in the days ahead!”
(All photos taken by Donovan Marks and courtesy of Washington National Cathedral, with more photos here.)
Mary Doria Russell on the Music of Little Green Men » download (mp3, 2:12) Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
We’re all excited about this new program we’re working on featuring anthropologist-turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell. She frequently writes historical fiction, but Krista one day picked up her sci-fi epic The Sparrow (and its sequel Children of God), and was hooked. I guess being a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek influenced her a wee bit as well.
The premise of Mary Doria Russell’s epic is that music from another planet is detected by SETI scientists here on Earth. That’s how first contact is made. This leads to a group of astronauts being sent into space in search of the music’s source.
The idea of music traveling across the universe is not remotely fantastical. We’re already beaming transmissions from Earth into space in hopes of making contact with an alien civilization. In the 1970s, we sent out the Pioneer and Voyager probes to study the solar system. The two Pioneer probes each carried a plaque showing where the probes came from.
The two Voyager probes carried something far more ambitious: a cosmic message in a bottle known as the Golden Record. Although the potential aliens would need to build a device to read the record, once they do, they’ll find directions to Earth, and a wide sampling of sounds, music and images from life on this planet. That’s our attempt at making contact. So in this produced program with Mary Doria Russell, it seemed appropriate that we lay in some of that Golden Record music.
Here’s a short clip that ultimately was cut from the program, about Mary Doria Russell’s fascination with music. Enjoy. The full show will be up next Thursday.
A colleague at the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) alerted us to an effort taking place at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. They’re looking for audio and video recordings of sermons and orations commenting on President Obama’s inauguration.
This sounds like an exciting project and something to which I’d love to see our readers and listeners contribute. Following is a portion of the press release with details:
It is expected that such sermons and orations will be delivered at churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, as well as before humanist congregations and other secular gatherings. The AFC is seeking as wide a representation of orations as possible. This collection is one of many oral history and spoken word collections at the AFC that preserve American emotions and memories of important cultural events.
Congregations and groups interested in contributing to this once-in-a-lifetime documentary project are asked to record sermons and orations delivered during Inauguration Week 2009 and donate them to the Library of Congress. The donated recordings will be preserved at the AFC in order to enhance the nation’s historical record and preserve the voices of religious leaders other orators for researchers and scholars of the future. After being processed by archivists, the collection will be made available to scholars, students and the general public.
Individuals and groups interested in contributing to the Inauguration 2009 Sermons and Orations Project are asked to submit audio and video recordings made in digital or other approved formats. To be accepted into the collection, the recordings must be of sermons and orations that were delivered to congregations and other audiences between Friday, Jan. 16 and Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009.
In addition to audio and video recordings, the AFC is collecting written texts of sermons and orations (submitted in the form of print or electronic media), as well as printed programs from the events during which the sermons and orations were delivered. All submissions must be postmarked by Feb. 27, 2009, and must be accompanied by a signed release form and completed data form, found on the AFC Web site, www.loc.gov/folklife/.
For additional information about the Inauguration 2009 Sermons and Orations Project, including the technical specifications of the recordings that can be accepted, downloadable copies of the required forms, and instructions for submitting collections, please visit www.loc.gov/folklife/, or call the center at (202) 707-5510 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday – Friday, Eastern Standard Time.
Choosing leading images for each program is often a joyful experience. But, the editing is a sensibility game that leaves one restless at times. I want something evocative, differentiating — a photo that captures the bouquet of the program and not just the finish at the back of the mouth. For SOF, this means no stock images, no trite photography, no incredibly small packaged images.
Living in such an editorial crucible can create a rogue mentality, an editor who sometimes forgets to question context and sensitivity to the subject matter, and instead alienates or disregards the an audience’s feelings and intelligence about situations. Alessandra Sanguinetti, the savvy Magnum photographer, questions The New York Times’ choice of a somewhat romantic image for the front page of its January 14th edition — a time when heavy fighting was happening in Gaza.
Repossessing Virtue: Pankaj Mishra on the Dangers of Progress » download (mp3, 14:06) Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Looking ahead to next week’s refreshed and resonant broadcast of our Buddha in the World program, here’s some new material with the guest of that program, Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra. In the original interview with Krista in 2005, he had come out of a personal adventure retracing the steps of the Buddha and reflecting on his modern-day relevance. He had some powerful things to say about globalization, so we sought out his thoughts once more, this time on the economic crisis.
Now, as he did in that program, he critiques the ideologies of progress and globalization. But his critique makes me think of something in our Recovering Chinese Religiosities program: we often measure progress solely through economic terms; we measure China’s and India’s increased economic power as invariably good. And the logic is fairly convincing: if a country has more money, its citizens must have a higher standard of living, and must therefore be happier.
But, unfortunately, the opposite must also be true — that when we lose money, we lose happiness, because we lose security. Never mind “we” — maybe I’m just talking about myself. I am secure when I know I have a roof over my head, a job, food nearby, the whole nine. Yes, I admit it: having money makes me worry less about the future.
So how do we deal with this unhappiness and insecurity? As Pankaj Mishra says, we don’t have to invent some new solution to our way of living. Our traditions already have resources to heal us. We need to live like we’re bound to the people around us. Perhaps doing so — especially in a society where we value individualism and specialization — would have prevented the larger crisis. Well, who can say. We can’t really apply that program across society, but we sure can try it in our own lives. I suppose as the news gets worse day by day, being bound to other people is one way we might collectively stay afloat.
I’m personally thrilled to be doing this week’s show — which took a few of us up to one of my favorite places in the world, St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. St. John’s is one of the largest Benedictine communities in the world and has always been a remarkable place. Its wide orbit has touched many lives and many leading institutions, globally.
In the 1960s, as St. John’s was founding HMML, it also helped found Minnesota Public Radio (our parent company) as well as an ecumenical institute that formed my imagination in the early years of what became this radio program. I came to think of St. John’s as a spiritual center of gravity and a kind of secret center of the world. It is certainly one of those “thin places” the ancient Celts spoke about — a place where, again and again and with astounding creativity, the temporal and eternal seem to touch.
If you’d like to read about the ways in which the Benedictines of St. John’s inspired and shaped Speaking of Faith, we’ve excerpted some of my writing about it in a PDF file for you.
In order to counteract what has been called “blasphemous” art and open a “dialogue between the Church and artists,” the Vatican is planning on showing art at this year’s Venice Biennale. Bill Viola, someone we have been pursuing for a future program, is hinted at as a potential artist to be included by the Vatican.
The Venice Biennale is one of the most well known of the international contemporary art fairs, and Viola has shown work there multiple times. The 2009 Venice Biennale starts on June 22nd.
Repossessing Virtue: David Hilfiker on Strengthening and Liberating the Poor » download (mp3, 10:41) Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
We last spoke to Dr. David Hilfiker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he gave insight into the issue of poverty and its modern history. We’re hearing from him again after several years and, although much has changed, Hilfiker’s message about caring for the poor has remained consistent. He discusses how poverty is as much of an issue now as it ever has been, and how the current economic situation might provide an opportunity to renew a social contract between the affluent and the needy.
“Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.”—
There’s a certain amount of serendipity that offers itself to any person who works on SOF. But I have to be open to it, to be able to acknowledge that chance connection or a life lesson is often garnered during a pause rather than while railing to meet a deadline. This is my pause.
While writing an entry on Robert Coles’ book, The Old Ones of New Mexico, for our particulars page for “The Inner Lives of Children,” I re-read a profile about Señor and Señora Gallegos, owners of a small rural market known simply as “The Store.” I was looking for quotes on the relationship between children and their grandparents. What I discovered were threads of wisdom for living a virtuous life as a businessperson during these economic times.
Our series on the spiritual and moral aspects of the economic downturn is called "Repossessing Virtue." Perhaps we here got that title wrong. Perhaps virtue isn’t a matter of ‘possession’ at all but a series of tiny, indiscrete moments of character that emanates from within. You can no more own it than you can cage an electron. In my bones, I know that Señor Gallegos understands this better than most:
"The people near here like to come by every day. Some mothers send their husbands to the store each morning before breakfast. No wonder I have to be ready for them; they expect me to know by heart what they will be asking for. And why not? After all these years I’d be of no use if I couldn’t predict what my customers want and need. Still, with age one has to think a little harder. So, about six-thirty I am picturing the men, and looking at the shelves to see that I have what they’ll come for. Usually they don’t even have to talk much when they enter. I look at them and go for the milk or some cereal or some cans—and of course, I have the doughnuts near the coffee. They put the money for the doughnuts in the glass jar; that is separate. The rest I ring up.
"We charge more than the big markets in the city. We must. We don’t get to buy at the low prices a chain of stores can make the wholesale people set. Maybe one day there will be no stores like ours left. I apologize all the time to my customers. I tell them that if they would only drive twenty miles, they could do better. I know that some storekeepers like me have a fine time bleeding their customers—the people who can’t travel or are in a hurry for something. But it is not in me to run that kind of business. I am too old to do a dance because I squeezed an extra nickel here, and a quarter there, out of some neighbors of mine. I would have nightmares, thinking of what they wished me: a long stretch in Hell. And I would belong there!
"The older I become, the more I think of others. Have I been a good husband and father? Will my friends think well of me when the casket with me in it moves down the street toward the cemetery? What will my cousins and my nephews and nieces and neighbors and customers think when they stand there and see me put to rest: ‘He is a scoundrel who took away from the poor and cheated people by touching the scale with his hand and raised prices far beyond what was fair?’ or ‘He did the best he could, and tried to be honest, and had a smile on his face most of the time?’ I cannot say for sure; maybe I have been more thoughtless and rude than I will ever know. When God gives you the extra time he has given me, it may be because he expects you to examine yourself very closely, and think about what you have done wrong. I know that when I was younger I worried about money: I wanted there to be some for our old age. Back then I thought: If we live to be sixty-five, or seventy, we will be lucky, and we will no doubt be weak and so our son will have to run the store all by himself. But we lived longer, and here I am, still opening the store, so that my son can have a decent sleep, and see his children off to school.
"I didn’t grow rich; nor will my son. He would like to make more money, I know. He resembles me: he is torn between the desire to make money for his wife and children, and a great loyalty to our customers. How can you take more than is due you—especially when you know you are lucky to have the store and live comfortably as you do, and many of your customers aren’t at all in the same shoes? I have no answers; I wish everyone in the world had enough to eat, good clothes, and a roof that doesn’t leak over their heads. I tell our priest all the time that it is no joy, taking money from people who don’t have much, and who work so hard for the little they do have. He slaps me on the back and tells me that it is not me or Señora Gallegos or our son who are the enemies of the poor. He tells me about other stores he knows of, from his past work: the owners are politicians, and they push the people around and take every cent they can get. I feel good, hearing him speak well of me, but I still worry: God must know that I have had my moments of greed.
"There have been people I have not liked, and they have pushed me hard: Why do you charge such high prices? Why do you try to bleed us? I have tried to answer: it is trying and lonely running a store like this one, and if I give everything away, I will have to beg myself, rather than run the store. But I can hold firm; no one will knock me down, not when I think I am in the right. Sometimes I feel ready to fight; and sometimes I have said to myself, ‘Take all you can get, because they are the mean ones, and they will only respect a man who is as mean as they are.’ And you know, that is true: there are people on this earth who have contempt for a man who tries to be generous; he is seen as a fool, or up to some clever trick. That is God’s way—to put many different kinds of people here, and let us all prove ourselves to him."