The news that Great Britain formally apologized to the mathematician Alan Turing this week about bowled me over. Alan Turing cracked codes for the Allies during WWII, deciphering the Third Reich’s Enigma Code, and, according to some historians, shortening the war considerably. If that were not achievement enough for one life, his broader work in mathematics anticipated the creation of artificial intelligence, computers, and all of the constructs of the information age.
But, in 1952, when he admitted his involvement in a consensual homosexual relationship, he was prosecuted for gross indecency and subjected to chemical castration. Turing killed himself at the age of 41, suffering the effects of his court-ordered, hormone-induced “treatment,” by eating a poisoned apple.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this past week called the persecution of Alan Turing “appalling.” It took 50 years and some high-pressure campaigning by the likes of the scientific anti-religionist Richard Dawkins for the acknowledgment to come.
Our program with mathematician Janna Levin entitled, "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth," explores Turing’s life and legacy as she wrote about it in her brilliant novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which also fictionalizes the mathematical world of ideas around the life of Kurt Gödel, another scientific genius whose life was tragic in completely different ways.
Levin’s interview with Krista has also left me with one of my all-time favorite SOF aphorisms. “If we were quantum particles,” Levin asserts at one point, “quantum physics would be completely intuitive.” Her fictional take on the life and times of these two great mathematicians is very much worth exploring.
(photo: Alan Turing stands beside the Ferranti Mark 1 Console, the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer.)
Hi all. We receive a lot of glowing comments and rich stories about the impact of the show on people’s lives. We also get the occasional e-mail from a listener who calls us to task on a particular point (e.g., Why didn’t Krista push Brooks on…) or on covering more minority religions (Zoroastrianism for one) and so on and so forth.
But yesterday this e-mail from a listener in California got passed around (the links are mine):
"You have become increasingly irrevelant lately…..Your program used to have insight and focus in positive directions. The last interesting show to me was when you were mediating the three evangelicals. Everything since then has lost focus and energy.
"Lets hear an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor or that Muslim woman who is trying to increase women’s rights within that religion. Try interviewing some people who have made or are making a difference in society. You used too….Parker Palmer was a great interview, so was Jean Vanier…Do something on Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen….Let’s hear from some person who is making a difference in the Hindu world….
"All of these esoteric ‘ideas’ you’ve been engaging lately have become impractical and again, just plain boring."
Our production team debates the merits of these types of critiques to varying degrees. One staff member said we should take her comments to heart and consider our show mix. Me, well, people like Merton and Nouwen have been on our big list for a while, along with many others. Maybe we should push for them nearer to the top. But, the “three evangelicals” program with Colson, Boyd, and Claiborne was broadcast 16 months ago! Haven’t we produced any shows that were relevant and practical — and interesting — since that time?”
I have a list that immediately comes to mind. But I’m on the inside. What critiques do you have? Do you agree? We’re here to serve you. Let us have it, but, please, be kind and I promise I won’t bristle.
"If you’re ever having a bad day, go read some listener mail and it will make you feel better." These are the paraphrased words of my colleague Colleen Scheck. And she’s right. Each week we receive inspiring, insightful messages from SOF fans. We do our best to write back. This is one of several ways we interact with you, through words and e-mail, albeit electronically and from a remove.
Lately we’ve heard that some of you have formed your own discussion groups — online and in real time — that delve into the content of the show. A listener in Arizona recently launched a group that meets each week at a local coffee shop, and she’s also getting a conversation going on her blog.
A Quaker listener in southern California is using our Repossessing Virtue series — interviews with people like Rachel Naomi Remen, Joan Chittister, and Parker Palmer — as a platform for discussion with the adult education group at his local Society of Friends. He wrote to us, “…people were grateful for the forum in which to share what was heavy on their hearts.”
Salon participants Muna Noor and Richard Scheele Shane Isaac speak after the event. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
Over the coming year, Krista will be speaking in selected cities across the U.S. as part of a live events series — providing yet another kind of forum where dialogue can happen in real time. As plans for these live events get firmed up, we’ll be sure to let you know the details.
All of this brings me to a question: I wonder about the conversations that you may be having in structured and informal settings that we never hear about. Have others started virtual or real-time discussion groups? If so, we’d love to learn more about how these are taking shape. Also, is there anything we can do to help — or ways you can support each other?
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a name that’s been bandied about the office in the last several weeks as a potential guest. While scanning RSS feeds, one keys in on keywords one may not have paid attention to previously.
In this interview with The Humanist, the popular astrophysicist has some intriguing things to say about beliefs, education, and communication. When asked if he’s a humanist:
I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics—that’s what I identify with.
I gave a talk to the National Science Teachers Association. That is an important group of people, K-12 educators in science. I asked by show of hands how many people—because I knew it would get an interesting reply—didn’t own a television. Half of the hands went up. Of those who owned a television, I asked how many only occasionally used it to watch a movie, and half of the hands went up. So fully three quarters of that audience whose job it is to teach the next generation science don’t watch television, yet the average American watches thirty or forty hours of television a week. That disconnect is pedagogically fatal.
…and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.
On a new atheist’s style of communicating science:
In the category of worst practices, there are occasions where people—either humanist or atheist—are just completely obnoxious in a conversation with others. I even had a tussle with Richard Dawkins (I think it’s my most viewed YouTube clip) in which I accused him of being completely ineffective because he is so sharp of wit in the service of his point of view, and he is so well educated that he may fail to fulfill the directive of his title, which at the time was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. That implies that your conversation with another person is an act of persuasion in some ways, not hitting them over the head. You want to understand what is going on in another person’s mind and meet them there. Otherwise, you’re not as effective as you could be.
The Australian Broadcasting Company offers a lot of religion programming across multiple formats, so I like to keep an eye on what they’re doing. This week, the television program Compass is replaying a 2008 episode that followed two Muslim families during Ramadan. In light of our Revealing Ramadan project, I enjoyed watching this 30-minute video about how Muslims “down under” experience the holy month:
"Break-Fast At Mobinah’s"
Ramadan, the world-wide Muslim month of fasting and feasting, has begun and Compass follows two families through the most important event on the Islamic calendar. Fadi and his family are Lebanese-Australians who run a busy restaurant. Each day, on empty stomachs, they cook for crowds of ravenous diners who descend after sunset. Mobinah Ahmad and her extended Indian-Australian family work and study through Ramadan, and hope to lose a little weight along the way. The Ahmads also run Sydney’s largest Eid celebration to mark the end of Ramadan. What sustains them through the day when food doesn’t? And how can not eating bring you closer to Allah?
FB Friends Connect a Line from "The Novelist as God," an Islamic Mystic, and Norse Mythology
Raymond Sigrist:...At one point Ms. Mary Doria Russell quotes a character in her book as saying, “I don't need hell to scare me into behaving decently or heaven to bribe me.” ...I suspect this insight must be part of the wisdom which has been written into the collective subconcious mind of all of us. It is remarkably close to the words of the Islamic mystic Rabia: “O Lord if I worship you out of fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you in the hope of paradise, forbid it to me.” Rabia (from Early Islamic Mysticism, Michael Sells, page 163)
Eilan Loveridge:In Norse mythology there is Ragnarok, Destruction of the Gods, where the ruling powers cannot prevent the triumph of evil. Knowing this, they defy the forces of destruction."Victory or defeat have nothing to do with right and wrong, and that even if the universe is controlled beyond redemption by hostile and evil forces, that is not enough to make a hero change sides. In a sense this Northern mythology asks more of people than Christianity does, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the sombre satisfaction of having done right" ~JRR Tolkien
Over the summer, I’ve been doing research for an upcoming program we’re producing on the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. I’ve been on board with Speaking of Faith for under a year and so far, and all the shows I’ve worked on have featured guests who are alive — people like novelist Mary Doria Russell and torture expert Darius Rejali who can speak in the first person about their life and ideas. But this upcoming Sitting Bull show is different. Here we’re trying to find the right voice(s) to illuminate an iconic historical figure. At times I’ve felt like a detective as I’ve sifted through names and followed one lead to the next, keeping my fingers crossed that someone would return my phone calls.
Fortunately I’ve encountered some helpful and responsive guides who’ve helped steer the search. One of those is biographer Bill Yenne, author of Sitting Bull. He was nice enough to take time out of his day recently to answer my questions and offer big-picture advice.
One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures. Honestly, I haven’t resolved this as I’ve reached out to Lakota contacts in South Dakota and beyond. Being an outsider to Lakota culture, I’m still learning to find language that’s respectful and appropriate.
Yenne (pictured here) also advised me to do more listening than talking and to get over a deadline-driven expectation that things are going to come together quickly. He recommended traveling to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in South Dakota with a willingness “to sit down and hang out.” And not just hang out but also to give people gifts of tobacco as an offering. He said the legacy of Sitting Bull is complicated and we’re not going to get the story from one person.
Coming out of that conversation I was convinced that Mitch and Trent needed to make their way west to South Dakota with tobacco in hand. But Kate, our sage managing producer, shook me from this reverie. She said the demands of our weekly program couldn’t support such a plan, one that had no guarantee of finding the voices we needed.
So, with that, I regrouped with my colleagues to figure out where to go next. I’ll be sharing more of that journey, including conversations with former SOF guest David Treuer and University of South Dakota law professor Patrice Kunesh in the coming weeks and months. Our plans are still coming together, but, with each conversation, the path forward gets a little bit clearer.
In the past few years, we’ve produced shows for a biographical series, generously funded by the NEH, profiling well-known and lesser-known historical figures: Rumi, Niebuhr, Semple McPherson, Einstein, Heschel, Darwin. Many hours of research and speaking with scholars about these dynamic characters informs our radio and online productions. And each treatment reveals its own journey to that greater understanding.
As we are quickly learning, Sitting Bull’s legacy has many threads, many truths. We want to present you with the varieties we encounter. More than a matter of transparency, reporting what scholars and ancestors of this legacy share and how we wrestle with these dichotomies and mutual understandings is to present an in-depth look at this great man and the complexity of that heritage. And, in the process, we hope to demonstrate our due diligence and the important work of the many scholars who bring Sitting Bull to life.
I’ve asked our production staff to document and share with you, on this blog, what we’re learning about Sitting Bull — and the editorial decisions we make in the process, including what we choose not to do. We’ve done a fair amount of research over the years and delayed production so we could find the right voices that can speak to the themes, the ideas we want to tease out.
Nancy Rosenbaum, our associate producer, was tasked with making this happen and finding those voices. She’s done an admirable job, and we’re well on our way. Look for a series of posts from her (and others) in the coming weeks in which she’ll share more about her conversations with scholars and storytellers and family members.
And, if you have an feedback or recommendations, please leave a comment or contact us. We welcome good advice.
Revealing Ramadan: Samar Jarrah - “Fasting in a Place Like No Other” » download [mp3, 4:28] Trent Gilliss, online editor
One of the more difficult decisions of turning a group of 16 interviews into a limited-run podcast series within 24 hours was deciding who should be the voice to open the first day of Ramadan. Samar Jarrah eloquently captured a sentiment that we heard from many foreign-born Muslims who immigrated to the U.S. — that being a Muslim in America is to practice her faith, to fast, to pray, in a way like she would not have in Kuwait or Jordan or Egypt.
And, she expresses such joy and delight in discovering Islam anew. You can hear it in her tone. She’s still excited, and it’s been 20 years since she moved to the U.S. Hearing her story about rushing back from the Middle East to celebrate Ramadan in her adopted country makes me proud to be an American; but, she also makes me realize how tiring it must be to answer the same questions over and over again — about the veil, Islam as a violent faith, and so on.
We’ll be releasing her complete interview and essay in the coming weeks. Until that time, please enjoy this charming woman and her Ramadan reflection.
So many wonderful Ramadan stories. Only 1 hour of radio. Let them sit + collect dust? No! But what to do… Hmmm… Create a new project: Revealing Ramadan. 1 story per day for the month of Ramadan. And, share your story and images.
Whew! It’s hard to keep up with all the books that get sent to us for consideration. The table in our office fills up quickly each week, and since our territory is “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas” we get a little bit of everything. Some are good fits, others are too abstract; some come with thoughtful pitches about why the author would be a good guest for us, others have no relevance and I assume come just because we got on some publisher’s mass distribution list.
While we make earnest attempts to plough through these, the reality is we pay attention to program ideas from many diverse sources. But looking at the stack on the table this week made me wonder what summer reads our listeners are enjoying that might be of interest to us. Please tell us — but don’t send us a copy, OK?
For those of you who haven’t gotten to that late July issue in the stack of New Yorkers on your coffee table or just gave up and unsubscribed like me, Krista just clued me in on this satirical commentary by Andy Borowitz.
This series of mock diary entries about Britney’s conjectured conversion to Judaism experience all begin with “Shalom, Diary” until the final entry when she “abandons” the process because the rabbi won’t indulge her points system. Although it can seem a bit mean, Borowitz does get at the whole pop star conversion thing and the faddish tendencies of celebrities. Now, whether this is a publicity stunt or media speculation (based on this photo of her wearing a necklace with a Star of David pendant) to begin, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
A caution to more sensitive readers: the piece does contain a fair amount of foul language (and an excessive use of exclamation points for dramatic affect *grin*).
Last week I retweeted an article about the booming industry of cosmetic surgery in Saudi Arabia, and whether it’s halal or haram. And then, last night, I watched a roast for the 76-year-old comedian Joan Rivers on Comedy Central. Almost all the comedians focused their acts on her many facial reconstructions and sundry plastic surgeries. Yes, the barbs were brutal, but it jogged my memory about Rabbi A.J. Heschel's words about our growing vanity and narcissism and how it separates us from others, from ourselves, and even from God.
As we focus increasingly on ourselves, who do we leave behind, abandon? Heschel reflects on this in his essay “To Grow in Wisdom,” which was initially delivered at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging (yes, they still occur). It knocked me out in the first several paragraphs, talking about the idolatry of youth and the disregard for the elderly. His words couldn’t have been more prescient, and personally challenging:
"I see the sick and the despised, the defeated and the bitter, the rejected and the lonely. I see them clustered together and alone, clinging to a hope for somebody’s affection that does not come to pass. I hear them pray for the release that comes with death. I see them deprived and forgotten, masters yesterday, outcasts today.
What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father.
Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me. He proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.
In Jewish tradition the honor for father and mother is a commandment, the perfect fulfillment of which surpasses the power of man. There is no limit to what one ought to do in carrying out this privilege of devotion. God is invisible, but my mother is His presence….”
Heschel’s book of essays, The Insecurity of Freedom, contain many of these kinds of reflection. It’s a wonderful introduction to his thought and poetic approach to life and faith. If you’ve been wanting to read him but were daunted by The Prophets — or even if you’ve never heard of him before — I highly recommend revisiting his relevant outlook on the society he saw developing before his very eyes.
Though it is just over a month old, I found this comparison of American and Iranian revolutions to be still highly relevant as Ahmadinejad, now sworn in as president, attempts to control Iran’s international profile while "the world is watching."
“The moral is that there is no such thing as ‘mere’ entertainment. The human mind is an attachment machine, forming emotional bonds with stuffed animals, invertebrates and Izzie Stevens. A good drama might ease our loneliness, but a breakup is still a breakup”—
From my peripheral vantage point, it’s been an interesting summer to consider the character(s) of sport. Roger Federer finally won the elusive French Open, prompting reviews that “nice guys can come first.” Now that the Tour de France is over, media attention has turned to the "drivel" between Lance Armstrong and this year’s champion Alberto Contador. I’m still pondering how Tom Watson must feel after coming so close to winning the British Open, just missing setting a record for the oldest player to win a major championship. Hailed as one of the classiest players in the game, Watson drew praise and respect while the tournament temper of the most beloved player, Tiger Woods, was not overlooked in the media this time. (I’ll skip the continuing saga of steroids and baseball - see Mitch’s post.)
A nine-year-old boy shows his support for Michael Vick outside federal court in Richmond, Virginia in 2007. (photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
And now comes the annual return of the NFL. As training camps open, I find myself monitoring the future of Michael Vick now that the NFL has reinstated him post-dogfighting conviction, and reflecting on how forgiveness and second chances take the field in the elevated world of professional athletes. I’m a dog lover, you may recall, and so this one tugs at me closely. I’ve heard several reports that Vick is “a changed man” and sincerely sorry for his participation in dog-fighting rings. He’s returning to the NFL under the mentorship of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a magnanimous sportsman, who said of Vick:
"I think Michael deserves the chance to show people he has changed and learned from past mistakes, but my true hope is that he will make sound decisions about his future and, at the same time, let people know more about the person that I’ve come to know recently. I know the public will be skeptical, but I think, over time, people will find there’s a different side to him than what they’ve seen so far."
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, added:
"We support the principle that one should not only be allowed, but also encouraged to return to their chosen profession after fulfilling their debt to society. Michael Vick’s offenses were tragic and wrong and he has paid a debt through both prison and public ridicule. Now [Vick] can demonstrate that he can and will serve as a role model for young men in communities across the nation."
I think that’s the best possible outcome for this situation. Eventually a team will select him, so, a la Michael McCollough, I’m inclined to calm my revenge instinct (he should not be allowed to play or make big bucks in the NFL) and embolden my forgiveness intuition (give him a chance to prove himself and return to his profession). I’m skeptical, but I will hope Vick sets a new example and writes a redeeming chapter for modern professional sports.
“To leave an urban setting to live in a tent in the woods just like thousands of boys have done for the last hundred years: that’s a very spiritual experience. Sure, they get on the bus and cry their eyes out — I did at 8 — but after a few days at camp, something magic happens.”—
Through the Twitter vine, a follower of ours (@SOFtweets) turned us on to this brief article in USA Today. During this economic climate, I particularly appreciate the good will of this 25-year-old economist who’s printing out the petitions and physically wedging them in.
Producers and reporters from American Public Media (SOF/Marketplace/American RadioWorks) are gathering to discuss collective climate change reporting. I will be tweeting ideas and following the comments section here.
What’s the story we want to tell, and how do we want to tell it? I’m glad to bring your suggestions into the large and small group discussions. Please help as we’re planning shows for the coming year — leading up to and following on the heels of Copenhagen conference in December.
Context and Viewpoints for the Pope's Latest Encyclical
Trent Gilliss, online editor
With the Pope Benedict XVI’s release of his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Nancy wondered if we should do a short post pointing to Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio’s article in The New York Times or the press release issued by the Vatican. I recommended we hold off and suggested that perhaps Martin Marty might weigh in Monday’s issue of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
It never came, but last Thursday Rick Elgendy, a doctoral candidate in Theology, took the reins. His piece is smart and helpful, giving us perspectives from several sides and some historical context for this social treatise. We reprint it here for you:
The Radicalism of Caritas in Veritate?
The Vatican recently released the long-awaited papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which ranges from theological to political and economic themes. Now that the dust has settled, the encyclical and reactions to it can be seen to be rather remarkable.
Papal comment on social ethics is not itself unusual; Caritas in Veritate is the latest in a long line of encyclicals exploring Catholic social thought. What might be surprising, however, is the character of this encyclical, given its source. Benedict XVI, frequently remembered (from his days as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) for his participation in the institutional resistance to Latin American Liberation Theology, has long been perceived as reactionary by the masses and the media. Yet, this encyclical adopts positions about distributive justice that defy the presumption of papal partisanship. Benedict argues that charity goes beyond but “never lacks justice,” and that “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice.” Thus, “charity” given under the conditions of systemic injustice is not charity.
Elsewhere, Benedict discusses development (“authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”), world hunger (food and access to water being “universal rights of all human beings”), the moral responsibilities of corporations (to shareholders, workers, clients, suppliers, and “the community of reference”), and the role of the market (which requires forms of solidarity and mutual trust to fulfill its own function), as well as the usual “life” issues. In doing so, he represents the “seamless garment of life” described by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin: the essential continuity between the Church’s concern with issues ranging from abortion and euthanasia to structural inequality and international peace.
Though frequently presumed to be the source of authority for those who would, say, deny communion to pro-choice politicians, Benedict here refuses to accept the ideological categories assumed in American politics: The same theological commitments that inform his convictions about the integrity of life demand a reimagining of prevailing social arrangements. Catholic and non-Catholic onlookers alike might hope that the encyclical will inspire political discourse that reexamines the standard binaries and turns to principled and civil conversation before partisan rancor (as Benedict himself did, by most reports, in his recent meeting with President Obama, in sharp contrast to how others dealt with the president’s Notre Dame commencement appearance).
Reaction from some commentators has been as remarkable as the encyclical itself. Michael Novak, for instance, echoes Benedict’s theology, emphasizing that, “[f]or Catholics, all social energy flows from the inner life of the Trinity. Everything is gift.” Yet, Novak draws starkly different ethical conclusions: “Thus, it is no surprise when empirical research shows that people who are believers give more of their time and resources to the needy than do unbelievers, and people who cherish limited government (conservatives) give more than welfare-state liberals.” Whatever its “empirical” status, this is a strange response to an argument that charity is specifically not best expressed in noblesse oblige. Novak’s further comments clarify his intention, though, as he suggests that “[t]he Catholic tradition - even the wise Pope Benedict - still seems to put too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice, and good intentions, and not nearly enough on methods for defeating human sin in all its devious and persistent forms.”
George Weigel argues that the encyclical is the latest episode in a sordid history of attempts by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to insinuate its social thought into the mainstream. As a result, it is “a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine,” and those in the know could easily enough “go through the text…highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker.” Weigel finds those Benedictine sections “strong and compelling,” and exhibits suspicion about the other sections (because, at Justice and Peace, “evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account”). He concludes, “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include…these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.”
Weigel’s redaction recalls the work done in the Jesus Seminar, attempting to reveal the sayings and actions of the “historical Jesus” behind the veil of the New Testament. Though the Jesus Seminar uses four colors instead of Weigel’s two, the presumption that one can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the genuine meaning of the authoritative author from the accretions of inexpert subordinates, remains common to both. Apropos, then, is Albert Schweitzer’s well-known suspicion, expressed after decades spent on his own such searching: that the person resulting from such quests often bears a striking resemblance to ourselves. To assimilate the encyclical to our own status quo, however, would mean the tragic loss of its potentially prophetic voice.
Yes, television can be cast as frivolous fare — a kind of cotton candy for the mind. But as Diane Winston emphasizes, television narratives are extremely powerful. They illuminate our collective social concerns. The characters we meet in the shows we come to cherish — as Sotomayor testifies — can sometimes inspire big life decisions about who we want to become in the world.
Television also serves as a touchstone and provides points of connection across different life experiences. Yesterday, newly seated Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) shared how he grew up watching Perry Mason in suburban Minneapolis while Sotomayor took in the show from her home in the South Bronx. “And here you are today,” Franken said.
Opening Clip, from Battlestar Galactica Trent Gilliss, online editor
As I wrote yesterday, Krista and crew went gung-ho on the audio clips from TV series for this week’s show. We included a good number of clips and I thought that would suffice. So, as I was editing Krista’s journal for this week’s newsletter, I find her enthusiasm hasn’t yet waned, as she has promised her devoted readers that they could listen to the Battlestar Galactica clip selected to open the top of the program.
Here I, with Nancy’s help, have isolated, encoded, and uploaded an mp3 for your ears. It’s quite compelling, and I’m glad Krista made the offer.
The production staff diligently spent hours selecting clips from their favorite television series for inclusion in this week’s program with Diane Winston. We’ve even got a title: "TV and Parables of Our Time." Somehow, I am told, downloading and watching 24 and Lost and Battlestar Galactica and The Wire is really hard work. Ah fellow producers, “you suffer for your soup.” *grin*
The professor of religion and media at USC appealed to the heart of Krista’s eclectic consumption of TV series on DVD. After all, they actually have sat together and watched the tube. This enthusiasm spilled over into our search for actualities from these episodes.
And, this passion bore itself out in last week’s cuts and copy session. The script was extraordinarily rough. There were at least five spots for audio clips from some of those series. Then it really got messy — two or three clips with an average length of 3-5 minutes (one more than 8 minutes) were included in the listen. Heads were spinning.
What I experienced was an insider’s perspective. Script was trying to explain too much of each plot, and the opening scene from 24 (“8:00 AM–9:30 AM” - season 2, episode 1) was heavy. So we sussed out the needs of various listeners and focused on illustrating or accentuating a point made at the out-cue. The result: a much better, more listenable production.
What I realized is that I don’t watch that much TV — well, except for my utter obsession of the Tour de France on Versus — and felt a bit sheltered, out of the loop actually, when talking about these dramatic series. Not being part of these conversations and the larger culture is isolating. I’m an outsider who can only politely smile and lean in when Krista and Mitch and Colleen and Nancy start discussing characters like Snot Boogie and McNulty, or Cylons and Caprica, or Jack Shepard and John Locke.
My hope is that an unknowing perspective helps those of you who are in the same boat that I’m in. That Thursday’s podcast clues you in rather than leaving your face pressed against the window watching the family sit in front of a toasty fire, chomping on popcorn and sodas, with a 42” HD screen glowing in the background.
So, here’s a list of the episodes and scenes we considered. I’ve flagged in bold the clips we’re using.
The Wire. The vernacular of the characters is difficult track at first, but somehow your ear tunes in after a while and you get the gist. Nevertheless, the distinct dialects and slang used eliminated a lot of great scenes from consideration for the radio.
"Misgivings" (Season 4, episode 10) - In the scene we chose, Colvin meets with Miss Shepherdson to seek permission to continue the alternative class.
"Final Grades" (Season 4, episode 13) - This scene presents Colvin meeting with Wee-bay in prison and asks if he can adopt his son Namond.
"Corner Boys" (Season 4, episode 8) - Colvin gives speech about corner boys to the alternative class.
"Refugees" (Season 4, episode 4) - Here, Mr. Prezbo (Pryzbylewski ) tries talking to his class after a student has been slashed.
Battlestar Galactica. Probably Krista’s favorite series. And so we found a place for three clips in the program.
"Flesh and Bone" (season 1, episode 8) - Compelling scenes with aural allusions to waterboarding and torture, as well as rich dialogue about the being human and being an artificial life form.
"White Rabbit" (season 1, episode 5) - We used two scenes from this episode: one where Jack Shepard tells the group that they have to learn to live together or die alone, and the other in which John Locke speaks dramatically about looking into the eye of the island and seeing its beauty.
"Exodus part 2" (season 1, episodes 24/25) - A rich discussion between Jack and Locke on science and faith.
House. A late entry to the production process that wasn’t part of the first cuts and copy session. A clip from this series was selected because it’s a different genre of drama and it is a popular series still in production.
"Informed Consent" (season 3, episode 3) - Here we have multiple scenes featuring a patient who wishes to die and not be treated while Dr. House tricks him into continuing testing/treatment.
"The Socratic Method" (season 1, episode 6) - We strongly considered this scene with Dr. House and his nemesis Dr. Cuddy about the ethics of using unapproved protocols to shrink a patient’s tumor so it could be operated on.
Students who enroll in Diane Winston’s "Religion, Media and Hollywood" class at USC get to watch a lot of good TV. Even better, some of the best TV writers and producers in the business visit their classroom to discuss the influences, themes, and ideas undergirding their shows.
Fortunately for the rest of us, many of these guest lectures are videotaped. Take this 2007 talk by Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. He spoke to Winston’s students about the religious influences embedded in the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, including Mormon theology, numerology, and the signs of the zodiac. Moore talks about his development of the mythology of the 2004-2009 version of Battlestsar Galactica to reflect modern concerns around religious fundamentalism and a clash of civilizations propelled by different beliefs.
You can also check out other videos from Winston’s class, including House and Nancy Miller, creator and executive producer of Saving Grace. Both of these shows were mentioned in Krista’s conversation with Winston for our upcoming broadcast, “TV and Parables of Our Time.”
Our immersion into the world of neuroscience for this week’s program with Paul Zak has given me a label for one of the uplifting parts of my weekdays — my “oxytocin moment.” It’s the moment I exit work to pick up my 7-month-old son. Walking to the car, a rush of energy, excitement, and warmth comes over me as I eagerly anticipate how his smile widens when he recognizes me, and the giggle that bubbles up when I hug him and tickle him under the chin. I can’t get to him fast enough, and I’m certain one day a fender-bender will be the result of my mad dash to exit work and pick him up.
So now I interpret that rush to be a surge of oxytocin in my brain. The hormone has long been known for its role in childbirth and the mother/child bonding process that I acutely experience these days. But as Zak’s research is showing, it has other profound influences on broader social behavior, including our ability to trust. Since my brain fails to fire the neurons needed to comprehend neuroscience, I went looking for easily digestible descriptions of his work, and found a few helpful things.
His article, "The Neurobiology of Trust," in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American is a helpful overview, with simple visuals, of how he became interested in oxytocin’s relation to trust, how his experiment — the “Trust Game” — was conducted and its findings, and some of the implications of his research. Besides its impact on the field of economics, I’ll be curious to see if future insights emerge about oxytocin’s relationship to neurological disorders like schizophrenia or maladies such as social anxiety.
Also helpful, and fun, was a 2005 television segment from the Australian Broadcasting Company science program Catalyst. The reporter participates in Zak’s trust game as well as a related experiment using MRI imaging of his brain. He talks to Zak and other scientists about the biology of trust, from primates to humans.
And, given my current life status as a new mom, I enjoyed stumbling upon Hug the Monkey, a blog about the latest research and issues around oxytocin’s best-known function by science and technical writer Susan Kuchinskas.
NPR has taken some sharp criticism recently about a news policy against the use of the word “torture” relative to Bush administration policy regarding techniques employed during interrogation of suspected terrorists. I find Salon’s Glen Greenwald’s point of view pretty persuasive, as he critiques one version of journalistic balance (emphasis in the excerpt below is his):
"There are two sides and only two sides to every "debate" — the Beltway Democratic establishment and the Beltway Republican establishment. If those two sides agree on X, then X is deemed true, no matter how false it actually is. If one side disputes X, then X cannot be asserted as fact, no matter how indisputably true it is. The mere fact that another country’s behavior is described as X doesn’t mean that this is how identical behavior by the U.S. should be described. They do everything except investigate and state what is true. In their view, that — stating what is and is not true — is not their role.”
At SoF we had a similar editorial conversation with a different outcome when we recently produced a program with Darius Rejali on torture. In a world where there is a plurality of views on whether water-boarding, for example, constitutes torture, should journalists be prevented from calling it torture? Or, does that mean journalists are caving in to Orwellian “double-speak?” What do you think?
BTW, I should point out that while Speaking of Faith is heard on many NPR stations across the country, we are actually produced and distributed by American Public Media, and therefore not part of NPR itself.