Variations on Washington Post Headline(s) about Romney Response
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
How often is the substance of a report informed or clouded or steered by the headlines that precede it?
Today’s Washington Post may be a fine illustration of this question. Take a look at the four headlines written for a single article by Philip Rucker. A reader can get a very different sense of Mitt Romney and the presidential candidate’s response last night to recent comments about his Mormon faith made by an Evangelical Christian pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.
So, a bit of context with a compare and contrast of each headline in its context. The lede for Sunday’s print edition:
"Romney Pushes Aside Mormonism Question"
And on this morning’s home page of WaPo’s website:
"Romney Condemns Religious Bigotry But Doesn’t Talk About His Faith"
The main page of the politics section reads:
"Romney Treats Issue of His Religion as Settled"
Finally, the headline that tops the actual article:
"Romney, His Mormonism a Campaign Issue Again, Condemns Religious Bigotry"
The Centrality of Desire in the Messiness of Human Life, and God’s Too
by Krista Tippett, host
Photo by Trent Gilliss
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I interviewed Avivah Zornberg. I had experienced her through the Bill Moyers series Genesis, and through her powerfully, lushly written books about the Bible. I brought one of mine into the studio that day — Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, a translation that sacrifices English clarity to let the visual wordplay of the original Hebrew come through. In the end, I closed my eyes, and did something closer to entering the text than discussing it. That’s what Avivah Zornberg makes possible.
That first time, for Passover, we were looking at the iconic story of Exodus, which has inspired so many people in so many places across time, far transcending its appearance as words on a page. This time, I sat down in her living room in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem and began the conversation by wondering where she might want to go. She was as delightful and gracious in her whole being as she is with her voice. We decided to start with the story of Noah and the Flood — chapter 6 in the book of Genesis — and see where it might take us.
This of course is one of those stories that many of us have heard in Sunday school, or seen in Technicolor at the movies, and heard references to and jokes about all our lives. But Avivah Zornberg knows the Hebrew Bible’s actual words and cadences by heart. She approaches it with the foundational mystical text of the Zohar. She applies the ancient Jewish art of midrash, reading between the lines with imagination, poetry, sensuality, and a sense of humor. And she uncovers stories within the story that open up the “biblical unconscious” and speak in unexpected ways to human life.
With her, we see that the biblical flood in some sense un-creates the world that has just been created. But the corruption that led to this undoing was not merely one of fleshly sin and violence; it was a loss of the connective tissue of language between human beings. “They have become so open,” Avivah Zornberg has written of the flood generation, “that they are closed to one another.”
Likewise, in Hebrew, the “ark” into which Noah retreats contains allusions to “word” as well as to “box.” This uncommunicative, self-absorbed man seems, upon closer examination, a strange choice for God to appoint to save all life on Earth. But precisely in his awkward imperfection, Noah embodies one of the qualities I love about the Hebrew Bible. It is an honest, unvarnished account of the messiness of life — the failed and flawed nature even of our greatest leaders. There are no storybook heroes in the Hebrew Bible. They are us, just as they are in real life. So even Noah, in one of those ironies of the human condition, finds himself imprisoned by the box/ark that is his claim to greatness.
That day in Avivah Zornberg’s living room, we walked backwards in Genesis — from Noah and the Flood to the creation story of Adam and Eve and Eden. Here too we find ironies that we recognize at the center of ourselves. From the Hebrew, Eden can also be translated as “delight” — “land of pleasure.” Everything is beautiful and perfect and delicious here. But it is the one tree in the center of the garden, from which God has asked Adam and Eve not to eat, that they desire.
The theme of desire — its centrality in moving human life forward, the way we struggle to both honor and order it — runs throughout Avivah Zornberg’s vision of how this text might tell us the story of ourselves. And, like the Bible itself, she does not condemn the fact of desire so much as seek to understand it. For the consciousness that desire enlivens is also a primary source of awareness and intentionality; it’s our choices that have the power to redeem us, not an impossible striving toward perfection.
I’ll leave you with a line to entice you to listen to my conversation with Avivah Zornberg. She says of the power of Adam’s telling of the first lie:
“Brodsky said consciousness, human consciousness, begins with one’s first lie… That’s when we begin to be aware of the complexity in ourselves and the different impulses. And that’s where poetry comes from as well. You know, not only bad things come from saying two things at the same time. As long as you have a kind of straight unequivocal immaculate version of things, then there can be no poetry and there can be no tension, no desire again. Desire makes itself felt when language comes alive.”
“When your only female character exists to be bartered and abused, that is lazy writing. When you raise the stakes by threatening a woman with rape, that is lazy writing. When you demonstrate the ‘seriousness’ of a situation by describing a brutal rape, that is lazy writing. When you inject emotion into a flagging scene by making the man throw the woman against the wall, that is lazy writing. Not only is it lazy writing, but when rape is used lightly and cheaply as a convenient narrative device, it hurts people.”—
On my first day as a chaplain at Calvary Hospital, a palliative care facility in the Bronx — a place where every patient was near death — I was overwhelmed. In the other hospitals I had worked in, I had sat by the bedsides of patients who were frightened, lost, conflicted, and alone — whose lives were rife with hardship, and who often had few resources to help them make their way. But there had been — almost always — a future to reference: the possibility that addictions could be overcome, that illness might recede or be cured, that physical pain might be relieved, and certainly that a time would come — in a few days or weeks — when the patient would go home and resume his life. Almost always, hope was an assumption for me and for the patient. No matter how much suffering, hope was implicit in the fact of being alive.
“Later, when I learned more about history, it became more evident how it is all based on Christian values, like how there are a lot of squares across C, G, and F chords — I’m not saying it’s bad, but I wanted the musicology to be more based on nature. It’s like how kids are told, ‘If you train many hours a day for 10 years, you might get VIP access to this elite world.’ But not everybody wants to be a performer in a symphony orchestra, and kids are not encouraged to write songs and find their own style. That age is perfect for making things because you don’t have inhibitions; if you start developing your own musical language at 10, imagine how great it would be 20 years later.”—
Where do science and nature and music meet? And how do humans relate to them? Björk’s Biophilia sets out to explore these big ideas as a listening experience and as a music education project. She’s worked with some of the best iPad app designers to create an interactive musical experience for each track on the album too, where children (and adults) can remix and alter each song with various games so they can better understand the principles behind each piece.
The album isn’t out until October 11, but NPR Music is streaming the full album on their site. Today, treat yourself to the magic that is Björk.
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Shaking the Tree” by Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The music near the end of our memorial tribute to Wangari Maathai ("Planting the Future") struck a chord with our listeners this week. We received a number of emails wanting to know the name of the track and the album played right before the credits (I had no idea people actually listened to them! *grin*). So here it is: Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour performing "Shaking the Tree."
In the show's unheard cuts, I often hear how someone needs to change tape. Do you actually use analogue tape and if so, why? What are the advantages versus simply using digital?
You just made me smile thinking about the purity of reel-to-reel recording. I’m too young (yes, even at 41) and to new to public radio (7 years) to have been able to work with tape, but I sure would love the chance. But not on deadline!
Your question is a good one though because the unedited interviews you’re referring to are an anomaly. Most of Krista’s interviews are done in studio via an ISDN line, a high-quality telephone line, with the guest in another studio hundreds or thousands of miles away.
But, when we conduct a conversation face-to-face in the same physical space, we like to capitalize on the opportunity so we’ll often live stream video of the interview and also capture it with a couple of Sony Z1s, which only use MiniDV tapes. Then we amateurs do some post-production using Final Cut. Oh yeah, we’re analog and the transferring time of footage is outdated. So, we are looking into shooting with digital SLRs now: shoot directly to media cards, transfer for post easily on the Mac, and also allow us to shoot in some less-than-optimal environments.
As to the audio, we record everything digitally to a hard drive, split-tracking it (often mixing it with a Mackie board) to a ProTools interface on a Mac laptop.
Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.
Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”
Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”
Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?
About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Could you identify the beautiful chorale music that accompanied the Maathai program?
Oh, you’ve asked a question that warms my heart!
The choral music comes from an album titled Missa Luba, performed by the Muungano National Choir of Kenya. We played two tracks in our show with Wangari Maathai from that recording: the first song is the fourth section an African Mass — sung in Latin — titled “Sanctus” and the second, the African folk song “Kaunga Yachee.” (Did you know that you can listen to a streaming version of all tracks from our show’s playlist?)
The original version by Guido Haazen, a Belgian Franciscan priest, was composed for a Congolese boys choir. The liner notes of the Muungano choir’s album provide this helpful description:
“Missa Luba was written before the Second Vatican Council when Latin was still the official language of the Roman Rite in Africa. This setting combines the ancient Latin text with modified African rhythms and polyphony in a manner that seems to bring out the best in both.
The rhythms and polyphony of the African settings are directly accessible to all ages. Students can see how Latin was used in this adaptation of a musical form from Africa. The tempo has been reduced so that the typical African sounds become more like that of Roman chant. The examples of African music which follow can be used to compare and contrast with those of Missa Luba. One can note the difference in using indigenous languages when it comes to indigenous music.
Sadly, earlier this summer, Boniface Mghanga, the founder and leader of the Kenyan choir, died in a car accident at the age of 56.
“You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.”—
Hindus Celebrate the Triumph of the Good with Navratri
by Susan Leem, associate producer
An Indian folk dancer poses with her troupe. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
Hindus in India and around the world are in the midst of celebrating Navratri, the colorful and light-laden, nine-day festival also known as Durga Puja. Dedicated to Durga, Hindus celebrate the mother goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahishasura — the triumph of good over evil.
Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction and transformation, then permitted Durga to see her own mother for nine days in the year. The tenth day is known as Dussehra or Vijayadashami, an auspicious time in which Hindus launch new activities or the beginning of learning.
Indian folk dancers participate in a full dress rehearsal for the forthcoming Navratri festivities that will last until October 6, 2011. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian Hindu devotee reads a copy of the "Durga Stuati" in the 700-year-old Sheetla Mata Temple of the Durgiana Temple Complex in Amritsar on September 28, 2011 during the Navratri festival. (photo Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Hindus dressed as the deities Lord Ganesh (left), Laxman (center), and Rama (right) for Dussehra held at the end of the Navratri. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian idol maker works on a miniature clay statue of Hindu goddess Durga. (photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
After Durga’s visit to her mother, her image is cast into water to represent her departure on the tenth day after Navratri.
A young boy wades through the river carrying pieces of an idol of the Hindu goddess Durga after its immersion ceremony for the Hindu festival Durga Puja in Bhubaneswar. (photo: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images)
Wug graffitti on the street. (photo: Adam Albright/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This week we interviewed Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who is now a professor emerita at Boston University, about how we learn and use the most valuable of skills: human language. She’s best known for her wug test experiment, revealing that children develop general systems to learn language.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets and this Thursday, October 6th, look for the produced show via our podcast our on your local public radio station:
For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with psycholinguistics superstar Jean Berko Gleason. Join us! 1:27 PM Sep 27th
Dr. Gleason’s famous “Wug” test forever changed our understanding of how humans learn language. 1:28 PM Sep 27th
Professor Gleason settling in at the mic, asking Krista if it’s ok that she “doesn’t do religion.” 1:37 PM Sep 27th
Dr. Gleason says her early experience translating her older brother’s speech (he had cerebral palsy) sparked her love for linguistics. 1:44 PM Sep 27th
"Charles Darwin wrote notebooks of one of his sons and outlined how he acquired language." -Dr. Berko Gleason1:45 PM Sep 27th
"Literacy, written language is a very late acquisition in terms of human evolution."-Jean Berko Gleason1:50 PM Sep 27th
"It isn’t that kids learn language in bits and pieces, the children abstract the rules of the language in the same order." -Dr. Berko Gleason 1:55 PM Sep 27th
"There’s a broad spectrum of belief of how kids come to, say, two wugs." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:56 PM Sep 27th
"Your brain is not formed when you’re born, you have to build your brain." -Jean Berko Gleason 1:58 PM Sep 27th
"Language develops by interacting with other people talking to you." -Jean Berko Gleason. 1:59 PM Sep 27th
"Language development is a cooperative event, it happens between children and the people around them." -J. Berko Gleason 2:01 PM Sep 27th
Wangari Maathai: A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places
by Krista Tippett, host
Per Ludrig Magnus, the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, signs a condolence book for Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai in Nairobi. (photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour of "Planting the Future." I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked,” and continued, “For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here’s how she answered her own question:
"I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."
“Their eyes had met, and an inexpressibly sweet sense of eternal tragedy had passed between them, between their generations—a legacy of weltschmerz as old as humanity.”—Kurt Vonnegut, a gorgeous line from Player Piano
"Where did you read the Bible?” she asked. My friend Karin used to teach religion in a Swedish public elementary school, which is why her question made so much sense to her but so little sense to me.
“In Europe,” she explained, “we see the clips of your news commentators, we see your President getting sworn in on a Bible, we know America is intensely Christian. But where do you learn it? Is it taught in the public schools, or do you just have really active Sunday schools, or what?” I quickly reassured her that in America, we keep religion out of the schools, since we are a secular nation.
“So where did you learn about Christianity?” she persisted. I had never considered the question before. I was raised Episcopalian, sort of, but my family rarely attended church. I only really started learning about Christianity when, having converted to Buddhism, I started reading books about world religions and would skim the chapter on Christianity on my way to the chapter on Buddhism. After I explained all this, Karin gave me a funny look and changed the subject. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about American religion.
American religion is very strange. At first, I thought my ignorance was an aberration, that I had been isolated in my private New England high school from the Bible-reading fervor that consumes America. The more I talked to my American friends, though — friends from all over the country — the more I began to get a sense for what I consider to be the unifying characteristic of nearly all American religion. It isn’t devoutness, or extremism, or reactionary zeal, but something much simpler: profound ignorance. One scholar, Stephen Prothero, summarizes the painful truth well in his book Religious Literacy:
“The paradox is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
Prothero backs up these accusations with some quite compelling studies. To give just two examples: Only half of American adults could identify any one of the four Gospels, and only a third were able to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity.
Well, so what? Many of my non-religious friends would take that sort of statistic as a sign of the worldwide process of secularization and the weakening stranglehold of the religious right on American public life. For them, America’s religious illiteracy proves what Nietzsche wrote over a century ago: “God is dead.”
Well, is He? Because if so, Karin’s question is something of an anachronism: Why read the Bible if religion is on its way out the door? The notion that rationality and modernity have been hammering nails in religion’s coffin ever since the Enlightenment is what sociologists call the secularization thesis, and until very recently, the secularization thesis was pretty much taken for granted within academic circles.
The funny thing is, we don’t really have any evidence for it. We’ve been assuming for a long time that religion is dying, but the world around us seems to be demonstrating just the opposite. As Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, writes in his essay “The Desecularization of the World,” “The world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.” He goes on to cite the two notable exceptions to this rule: Western Europe and academia.
Well, I guess God might be dead-ish for Western Europeans and academic elites, but Western Europe is a pretty small corner of the world, and even we academic types have to come down off the hill sometimes. When we do, we find ourselves crippled by an education system that pretends religion does not exist. As has become increasingly clear ever since September 11, religion is alive and kicking, and America is blundering its way through the 21st century, its education system trapped in the secularist fantasies of Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment pals.
This American secularity is strange, perhaps even stranger than American religion. We are okay forcing our children to swear a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, but the vast majority of public schools aren’t okay teaching our children who Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha was. These figures may or may not have been divine (how should I know?), but let’s not for a second pretend they don’t matter. Every American should graduate from high school with at least a basic understanding of the five major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), religions which most Americans today have a hard time even naming.
So where did you read the Bible? What about the Qur’an? The Bhagavad Gita? Let’s turn our public schools into a safe, critical environment where these texts, so foundational to the cultures of the world, can be read. Until we do, America shall remain crippled, staggering blindly through a world where religion, like it or not, still matters.
Zoe Chace’s report for Planet Money on the budgetary meltdown in Greece has got to be one of the better pieces of information journalism I’ve heard on NPR’s morning air. Lost in the debate of bailout-no bailout over Greece’s debt — and the necessity of Germany floating it — runs an undercurrent: the narrative of belonging to a unified Europe, and the varying perspectives of Germans on their responsibilities and the kind of community they want to be part of.
Chace’s focused narrative and inclusion of the voices of Germans from several walks of life deepen our understanding of some of the motivating factors driving this debate. She gives the listener a sense of history: how that past is living forward in the German psyche and how their identity — as a broken people, a vibrant culture, and a affluent nation — is predicated on the past and on whom Germans want to be in the future.
My only regret is the reporter’s use of “Kumbaya” in the piece. As I’ve shared before, I’ve taken Vincent Harding’s story to heart and will never use that reference again in such a way. Nonetheless, it’s a slight quibble and this type of reporting on thick subjects is something I long to hear more of.
Did anybody else listen to this? What’s your take? I’m also thinking through this as we push forward with a more ambitious agenda for On Being online in the coming year. Let’s talk.
“The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”—
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rufus Wainwright performs in KEXP’s studios in 2007. (photo: Laura Musselman)
What do you do on a 16-hour family road trip to Montana with two sons under five and a wife riding shotgun? Play a lot of music — and sing badly. But, there are certain songs, certain performers that bring on the quiet. And this live performance from Rufus Wainwright is one of them.
Fumbling around my pickup’s floorboard pickup while cruising down I-94, my fingers serendipitously happened upon an unlabeled compilation CD I had burned in 2007. Etched with grit and gravel, it actually started playing. The opening track: Rufus Wainwright’s live version of “Going to a Town” that he performed at KEXP’s studios in Seattle while promoting Release the Stars.
Trying to conjure up meanings of the song’s lyrics would require too much exegesis, if you will, for this humble post, but Wainwright’s melodic challenging of America and its brokenness is valid four years later. Through this song, he forces us to remember what we once were as a nation — even if it’s a dream — who we’ve become, and what kind of people we might aspire to be again.
When I hear a ”Daddy, daddy. Play it again!,” I know he’s the right notes.
“I know the country is open to a renaissance of spiritual-moral values, and the rabbis kill it. We have a rabbinate that has absolutely no connection to the people, no understanding of Jewish history, no understanding of the Zionist revolution.”—
—David Hartman, Jewish philosopher and Orthodox rabbi
As this quotation from our interview with the unorthodox thinker indicates, Hartman’s is a voice that challenges all types of conventions. Our show with him is airing on more than 250 public radio stations across the U.S. this week and via our podcast. If you want the unexpurgated version (like all our interviews), we’ve made the mp3 available too. How’s that for transparency!
Have you read the book "America's Four Gods: What We Say about God--and What That Says about Us" by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader? I'd love to see Krista dive into a conversation about this book and what the authors have to say! The book really changed how I understand religion and its influence on American culture as well as my own understanding of G!d/dess
No, we haven’t. I’ll take a look on our book pile. After looking at the book’s description, my read is that it probably wouldn’t be the type of interview Krista might conduct for an hour of radio. We most often focus on guests who can reveal a way in through a person’s living out of a faith, tradition, and way of life rather than an author’s findings about a particular subject.
Online, though, we have much more flexibility and a shared but more expansive focus. This book just may be right up our alley. Thanks for the recommendation!
Wangari Maathai Dies But Spirit Lives on in Song and Deed
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.
You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
The Nobel laureate from Kenya died yesterday in a Nairobi hospital from a prolonged battle with cancer. We had the privilege of interviewing interviewing Wangari Maathai several years ago, and she remains one of our more treasured interviews. But, it’s a song she sang for us that is etched in my memory.
In the waning moments of our conversation in a Minneapolis hotel room in the midst of a blizzard, we asked Ms. Maathai if she remembered singing any songs during her days of planting trees (estimated to be more than 45 million now) in Kenya. She replied:
“…we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘There is no other god. There is no other god but Him. There is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?
And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common.”
She left us with this song (audio above), a native tune in Kiswahili that is often sung by members of the Green Belt Movement while planting trees. I used to sing it to my baby boys when they were upset in the middle of the night, a pacifier for both them and me.
On her Facebook page, fans are posting some beautiful, loving memories about her and the work she did. They’re definitely worth reading.
“I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits the drawing table and I’m dead. Kaput. Everything is over. Everything that I called living is over. I’m very, very much alone. I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any of those things. I feel very much like I want to be with my brother and sister again. They’re nowhere. I know they’re nowhere and they don’t exist, but if nowhere means that’s where they are, that’s where I want to be.”—
The celebrated author of Where the Wild Things Are and other award-winning children’s literature just released Bumble-Ardy at the age of 83. He recently lost several loved ones, including his long-time partner, and shares his thoughts on opening up to his mortality with The Associated Press.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.
Is there a thing you used to love to do that you don’t do anymore?
Maybe on the way to work or home from work, for minutes or hours, all alone, at three in the morning, on fine sunny days, in howling winter wind? For me it was biking. I’m no aficionado, but from my teens to my 20s, I always seemed to have a 10-speed Murray or a yard-sale Schwinn with barely there coaster breaks at the ready for an adventure.
But when I got pregnant years ago my lizard brain switched on, and I suddenly became mortally afraid of falling or getting hit by a car. I cleared out all the junk bikes like any other detritus. The safety and ease of buses and cars began to feel more and more normal. I thought I’d never made it back onto a bike until just recently when a friend convened a gang of moms to for a bike ride. The idea of riding a bicycle on city streets again was terrifying, but I knew these positive women and saw it as a rare opportunity to force myself back on the bike.
At first I was weaving and wobbling feeling awkward and tippy, even forgetting how hard you have to push the pedals to move. But soon my neurons found one another, fired in sync and I was stable, steering, braking. Didn’t know how to shift the tiny tabbed Shimano gears on the borrowed bike, but I grew back into the stance, the balance, the speed, even though I hadn’t moved any part of myself like that in half a decade.
From the quiet safety of an early morning city bike path, I marveled at the absurdity of how fear makes you forget to do the things that you love, and how much it takes to muster the energy to try them again.
What thing don’t you do anymore that you used to love?
Wednesday night at 11:08, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a man widely believed to be innocent. A last-minute delay went to the Supreme Court, where a stay of execution was denied.
Meanwhile in Texas, another man was executed. There was no widespread outcry for the life of Lawrence Brewer. His horrific crime was one of which he boasted, one in which there was no doubt of his guilt. He “deserved” to die.
I was troubled by the preoccupation with the “too much doubt” that characterized the Troy Davis case. Not because I disagree with the emphasis; the fact that our government would sentence an innocent man to death — and, by the way, “since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center — and then follow through on that sentence amid mounting doubt is appalling. A crime was committed in Georgia Wednesday night. One friend commented that the only physical evidence or weapon connected to the Troy Davis case was that used in the execution. That should make us shudder.
However, I found myself forced to wonder why we were comfortable executing Lawrence Brewer on the same night. The answer is obvious: Brewer committed and reveled in an unimaginably cruel hate crime, the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. I didn’t want to know about his crime, but when the phrase “I am Troy Davis” was splashed across various social media outlets, I felt like I had to add “I am Lawrence Brewer,” and I needed to know what I was really saying. Reading more about Brewer, I found a part of myself glad that he is no longer on this Earth. According to an article in The Huffington Post comparing the two death penalty cases, Brewer wrote a letter with these chilling words while in jail for Byrd’s murder: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”
No one in their right mind wants this man on the streets. But it seems to me that part of the desire to shut away and then kill someone like Brewer is not only that we want to maintain public safety — it’s that we are afraid to acknowledge what we have in common with him. We do not want someone like Brewer to be human because we do not want to see ourselves in him. I do not want to identify myself with a white supremacist whose racism led him to torture and murder a black man. It is easy for me to say that I would never commit such a crime, but what really separates me from Brewer?
Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This quote gets used a lot of the time to highlight the nice things about human community and relationships, the ways in which we can and should build one another up and take care of one another. That is absolutely right, but it seems to me that in this broken world, if there is ever going to be healing and reconciliation, we must admit that we belong to each other not only in our goodness but also in our darkness.
The reason that history continues to go through cycles of violence, even genocide, is that we continuously (and with good reason!) distance ourselves from the perpetrators of horror, so much so that we fail to recognize those same impulses in our own hearts. We condemn German citizens who did nothing while Jews were rounded up and murdered in their midst, and yet we allow men to be killed by the state, systemic injustice to deny basic healthcare to the poor, suspected terrorists to be held and tortured with no evidence but their ethnicity or nationality in the name of homeland security, and unjust wars to be waged abroad by soldiers with no resources to deal with the repercussions of taking a human life.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist (and the character portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking) said, “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’” I am reminded of John 8:7, where Jesus challenges the men accusing a woman of adultery: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
I am not advocating lawlessness and disorder. But, innocent or guilty, no human being should have their life taken by the state. We need to acknowledge the inhumanity of the death penalty as being the very thing we are trying not to see in ourselves when we wash our hands of the humanity of someone like Lawrence Brewer.
I have to point out the reactions of each victim’s family to these two executions. The family of James Byrd, Jr., whose body was mercilessly mutilated by Lawrence Brewer, who was unrepentant to the last, begged the courts not to kill him. But the family of Mark MacPhail, whom Troy Davis is accused of killing, welcomed his death, feeling that justice had been served.
I was 14 years old on 9/11. I watched our country’s sense of security crumble with those towers. I still cry almost anytime someone talks about 9/11. And yet, I have never feared terrorists. I do not worry about my safety when I travel. I have caught myself looking at Middle Eastern people with curiosity that borders on suspicion, but I have never really been concerned that he or she is a terrorist or would harm me in any way. What I do fear is that darkness that lies in the human soul, in my own soul, that darkness that leads people like the MacPhails to see death as a victory, that causes crowd members at a GOP rally to cheer when Rick Perry is asked about the record number of executions that have taken place in Texas during his term as governor. I do not fear people like Brewer. I fear the part of me that wants to cheer at Brewer’s death.
As a Christian, I believe that there is only one death in all of history that constituted a victory. If we celebrate any other human death — even the death of Osama bin Laden — we have, indeed, forgotten that we belong to each other, and until our memory is restored, we will have no peace.
I am Troy Davis. I am Lawrence Brewer. May God have mercy on my soul.
Sarah Stockton Howell is a student at Duke Divinity School and regularly blogs at The Fast I Choose.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
“For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.”—
—Troy Anthony Davis, speaking to the prison officials who executed him by lethal injection at 11:08 in a Georgia prison last night, according to an eyewitness account from an Associated Press reporter.
About the photo: A demonstrator outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 21. (photo: Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images)
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)
As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.
In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.
At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.
In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.
The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?
The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).
Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.
The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?
The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.
Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?
The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.
Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.
Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.
Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.