It’s difficult to believe these days, when so many of us have had some experience of moving toward death with a loved one in hospice, or even a stranger on the CaringBridge website, how “badly” people died in this country until very recently. That’s the word Dr. Ira Byock uses. He began his life in emergency and family medicine and recalls that when people were deemed to be dying — when what was wrong with them was beyond “fixing” — they too often died in pain in the hospital or were simply sent home. Doctors practicing now still recall their training, implicit and explicit, that death was a failure of the body, and of medicine. We turned away from it, scientifically and culturally.
The palliative care and hospice movement arose first in England and then took hold in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s to compassionately treat the pain of chronic illness and all the suffering — physical and otherwise — as the end of life approaches. Its spread has converged with the continued advance of medicine. In our lifetimes, many forms of cancer have transformed from fatal diagnoses to chronic illnesses.
Dr. Byock sees this as a human opportunity and challenge. Medicine is remarkable, he knows from the inside, and will continue to get more remarkable with the passage of time. But we must “grow the rest of the way up” and acknowledge that we have yet to make one person immortal. Even while we fight for life with all the tools at our disposal, we have to reckon with the reality of death. The good news, as he tells it, is that there are riches to be gained in that reckoning. That edge of life — which our miraculous medicine allows some to perch on longer than ever before — can be a time of unparalleled repair and celebration. Like it or not, as Dr. Byock says, death completes us. These days more than ever before, we can shape that moment of completion together with those we love.
With this kind of thinking, Dr. Byock is taking the impulse behind hospice to a new place. He goes so far as to suggest that dying can be a developmental stage of human learning and actualization — like adolescence or mid-life accomplishment. He names “the four things that matter most” — words that can be transformatively spoken and enacted — at the end of life: Please forgive me.I forgive you.Thank you.I love you. These are four sentences, a mere eleven words, with a power to call up a lifetime of struggle in so many of our families.
I think here of that phrase attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes that has recurred so often in my interviews: the “simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity.” For in the time of life we call dying, as Dr. Byock describes, these elemental human capacities like thanks, love, and forgiveness can unfold in their most complex and immediately redemptive power.
I love this quote of the theologian Paul Tillich, which he put in the preface of his book The Four Things That Matter Most, and which points at the way being with dying has opened Dr. Byock’s imagination about the word “forgiveness”:
"Forgiving presupposes remembering. And it creates a forgetting not in the natural way we forget yesterday’s weather; but in the way of the great "in spite of" that says: I forget although I remember: Without this kind of forgetting no human relationship can endure healthily."
One difficulty of this conversation is that there are no rules for when, in any life or any course of medical treatment, we can know we have crossed the boundary between fighting death and facing it. Dr. Byock suggests that this is not an either/or but a both/and. Still, there is something fierce and sacred in us that resists the end of our life and the death of those we love. That same impulse resists the kind of contemplation that happens in this conversation as well. One of Dr. Byock’s most basic insights may be his most helpful: we must remember that, even in the 21st century, death is never really a medical event but a human and personal event. Dying is a defining feature, strange and mysterious as it remains, of living.
An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.
At a Crossroads: When a Young Hindu Converts to Christianity in Delhi
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
At a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.
Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.
In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.
Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Tornadoes, and Being Present in the Moment
by Joe DePlasco, guest contributor
This past Sunday, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to Mary Emeny at a dinner in Amarillo, Texas where we were showing highlights of Ken Burns’ upcoming film, The Dust Bowl. Mary, I later learned, is prominent in the arts and environmental communities in Amarillo. When I asked someone else at the table what Mary did, she responded, “She makes Amarillo worth living in for the rest of us.”
During our chat, Mary spoke about her trips to Vietnam as a young woman and, specifically, her work with Buddhist monks there on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. (Vietnam came up because Ken Burns is working on a film about the war in Vietnam.)
"Who we are and how much we split ourselves apart," says Jon Kabat-Zinn, often cannot be explained in a cognitive way. Rather than offer ”some definitive prose statement which is bound to be inadequate and incomplete,” the scientist and mindfulness guru offers (in the audio above and text below) the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s poem as a way of communicating his point about unity and fracture:
Love After Love
The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
Carrying Forward Sitting Bull’s Songs and Memories that Keep History Alive in the Hardest of Times
by Krista Tippett, host
I can’t say that I knew much about Sitting Bull when we began this research several years ago. His was the final name in our first series of shows on the spiritual legacy of historical figures. We here at On Being have delved into the universally recognized names of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Rumi. And we’ve explored significant theological figures of the 20th century, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel too. This fall, we’ll be launching a second series, beginning with the scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Producing these shows has been extraordinarily rich at times and at others extraordinarily hard. None of them has felt more complex or more daunting in the end than Tatanka Iyotake.
The word “elusive” also describes the process of approaching the facts of this man’s life and the meaning of his legacy. That is in part because of the complexity of this legacy and of the terrible history of the United States government’s treatment of native peoples, of which the story of the Lakota on the northern Great Plains is just a part. It is also a function of the relative privacy and largely oral nature of the historical record of Lakota culture.
Sitting Bull was a thorn in the side of the U.S. government that first gave the Black Hills to the Lakota, then wanted them back after gold (Sitting Bull called it “shining dust”) was discovered there. He refused to negotiate or sign treaties with federal authorities; he didn’t, decreeing from observation and experience that their promises were not good — and certainly not to be trusted over lands that he understood as a sacred inheritance. General Custer’s army attacked, and Sitting Bull’s troops improbably prevailed. Thereafter and until the end of his life, he was pursued as Public Enemy No. 1 by American journalists and politicians. I’ve read some of those reports; Sitting Bull was portrayed like the Osama bin Laden of his day.
After weeks and months of being steeped in what feels like this hidden realm of American history, I feel confident about the truth of that paragraph I’ve just written. I know, at the same time, that it is nearly as simplified as those newspaper reports of Sitting Bull’s day — one side of narrative made up of competing and utterly irreconcilable points of view. In the end there was, to be sure, violence all around.
Sitting Bull’s own relatives and people were divided over his leadership and his resistance to any partnership with the federal government. Members of his own extended family were implicated in his death. This is a wound they carry even today, layered among the many wounds they have carried forward out of the settlement of the American frontier and into the present.
In the end, Sitting Bull’s mistrust of treaties was vindicated by the history that followed. He is not remembered in Lakota oral history principally for that, or for the victory at Little Big Horn. He is remembered for qualities of character that were invisible to press and politicians of his time yet that inspire and strengthen his people even now: humility towards the land, compassion towards living beings, and the ultimate sacrifice of his life on behalf of his people.
Of all I have learned that makes me ashamed of this history and my implication in it as an American citizen, I am appalled that it was not until 1978 — 1978! — that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act guaranteed the right of the Lakota and other tribes to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies. And these were at the essence of Sitting Bull’s life and legacy. Ceremony is the very element of Lakota spirituality and lifeways.
Sitting Bull helped shape the vision quest and the Sun Dance. Yet even while his closest lineal descendant, Ernie LaPointe, was growing up, which is not that far away in our lifetime, his family lived in fear of speaking openly or performing these ceremonies.
It is very moving to hear from Cedric Good House, who lives on the Standing Rock Reservation where Sitting Bull died, how the vision quest and Sun Dance are now experienced as sources of healing, very much in the best spirit of Sitting Bull’s memory. Cedric Good House brought his son to our interview and is carrying forward songs that keep different memories and meanings of history alive in the hardest of times. I interviewed them in late November 2009. As we finished and said our goodbyes, Cedric Good House wished me a “Happy Thanksgiving” — a blessing that warmed me and stayed with me for days, containing, as it does, such a long view of history in which true generosity can be obtained.
He also offered the image of the pilgrimage some of the Lakota make on horseback each December, in memory of Sitting Bull’s death and life — from Standing Rock Reservation straddling the Dakotas to Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. This is painful history to know as my own. But I am grateful for it, and more complete. I’m delighted to know Sitting Bull by his real name, Tatanka Iyotake, and to witness his enduring teachings of humility, compassion, passion, and healing alive in our midst.
I consider these two books as complementary reading. Bill Yenne’s biography is meticulously researched and gives you a detailed understanding of Sitting Bull’s life within a larger historical and geographical context.
On the other hand, Ernie LaPointe brings the gift of simple storytelling to the page through the oral tradition of his family and culture. Reading one account gives a richer sense of the other, and through this we gain a better understanding of “parallel histories” in contemporary American culture.
Song of Sitting Bull at the Surrender of Fort Buford
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For the Lakota people, Cedric Good House of Standing Rock Reservation says, songs kept different memories and meanings alive. Sitting Bull sang the song above, Mr. Good House says, to remind his people of their way of living at a time when things looked most bleak — in what the history books describe as the “surrender” at Fort Buford:
"Our story says it was an exchange of lifestyle. People were starving. He chose that the better would be for them to have food and shelter. So he in turn took his rifle, he gave it to his son; his son gave it to Colonel Buford or whatever his name was. And he’s the one that called it a surrender, but it wasn’t a surrender. It was an exchange of lifestyle. You’re going to give this lifestyle to my son, not to me."
Last week Sylvia Boornstein told of the two wolves in the heart of the grandparent one "love" and what was the other??? The one I feed is the one that will survive. I think of it every day and have tried to tell it to my grandchildren. I've been calling the other one anger, but I don't remember what Ms Boornstein called it.
"One of my friends has a story that he likes to tell which I’ve heard now as a Native American story. I’ve heard it as every kind of a story, but as wise grandfather saying to his grandson — or it could be a wise grandmother saying to her granddaughter — I have two wolves in my heart: One is loving and one is vicious and they’re at war with each other. The grandchild is saying, which is going to win? And the grandparent saying, the one I feed."
If you’re ever looking for specific passages from our radio shows, remember that we make available a free transcript on each show’s website.
Why is it that you senior editor does not seem to have anything authentically substantial to contribute?
Unfortunately he’s a simple man who is trying his best but doesn’t quite meet the standards of all. Believe me, I know he aspires to contribute something substantial before he retires from public radio. In the meantime, he’ll keep on striving to clear that bar.
Please be patient with him, Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“Suzuki Roshi used to say that what was needed most in the monastery were people who were good at cleaning out the corners. The most perverting ideas are the ones that lie for years and years in the dark corners of our mind. Like spiders, they creep out while we are sleeping and spin their webs of illusion. Only when the mind is clean, in order, and uncluttered can the present moment be fully realized. If we hang onto past memories, trophies of our good-old-days, in time our mind and our home will be a museum instead of a place to encounter the present reality. The relationship between house cleaning, garden cleaning, and mental caretaking is not just symbolic. It is very direct.”—
"The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent." —Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.
"Shoah: A Table of Elements" describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.
"Shoah: A Table of Elements" is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.
Dov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
in my previous reblog. Ugh. You point out a personal deficiency of mine, something that’s haunted me for decades. A scene from Seinfeld (yes, I’m that old) immediately comes to mind:
MR. PITT:(staring at 3-D poster) I think I’m on to something! ELAINE: Mr. Pitt! The board of directors is on the phone. They’ve called an emergency meeting. They want you to be there to discuss the merger! MR. PITT: You said keep your eyes out of focus, which is misleading. You want deep focus! ELAINE: Mr. Pitt, you have got to stop staring at that poster! MR. PITT: I see something that could be a spaceship. Is it round? Is it pointy? ELAINE:(grabs poster, smashes it) No, you don’t see it, and you’re never going to see it! (grabs Pitt by the lapels, getting ink all over his jacket) MR. PITT: Hmm, what’s happened to me? (straightens lapels) When’s the meeting? ELAINE: In about twenty minutes. MR. PITT: Oh! (puts finger to face, smearing ink on his upper lip which now resembles a Hitler-style moustache) Do I have time to change? ELAINE: Um, no. MR. PITT: Well, excuse me, I’d better get straight over there. ELAINE: Uh, Mr. Pitt… MR. PITT: Yes? ELAINE: Um, there’s a just… (points at her own upper lip) MR. PITT:(sees Elaine’s hands covered in ink) Is that ink? ELAINE: No? (Mr. Pitt exits)
I’m public radio’s Mister Pitt of Magic Eye posters, and you’ve found me out.
Many thanks for the correction, Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainliners—meaning they say things publicly they don’t really believe. They drink like Southern Baptists—meaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious. They talk like Catholics—meaning they cuss and use naughty words. They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed—meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time. They worship like charismatics—meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed. They vote like Episcopalians—meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side. And, they deny the truth—meaning they’ve got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks. Along with unfair stereotypes of other traditions, such are the urban legends surrounding the emerging church—one of the most controversial and misunderstood movements today.”—
Josh Kron’s article in The Atlantic and Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s dressing down of the journalism behind the piece has kindled interest in the emerging church movement again. But neither person offers a clear guide to what the emerging movement is. McKnight’s saucy explainer in Christianity Today (published in 2007, no less) is a good start. He dispels some myths about the emerging movement and lays out “the five themes that characterize the emerging movement”: prophetic, postmodern, praxis-oriented, post-evangelical, and political.
In his Time magazine article, "Heaven Can’t Wait," Jon Meacham contrasts two seemingly competing visions of heaven in contemporary Christianity. One prominent view envisions heaven as the ethereal place one goes when one dies. Images of winged angels, celestial music, golden thrones, pearly gates, and streets of gold variously occupy this vision of the hereafter. Heaven is conceived of as a future paradise of eternal rest filled with peace, light, and love. Everlasting life is seen as an eternal abode in the heavenly realm with God and the angels.
A second well-known view envisions heaven as how you live your life. This standpoint appeals to a younger generation motivated by causes and inspired by heaven to make a positive difference in the world. Guided by this outlook, these young evangelical Christians see themselves as agents of heaven on earth engaged in social justice and peacemaking. For this activist generation, heaven demands stewardship on earth in daily living.
According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, heaven is not a future destination but rather God’s dimension in our ordinary life on the earth. For Wright, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth along with the New Jerusalem coming from God in the Book of Revelation should invite work in the world for justice. Wright emphasizes the biblical hope of the bodily resurrection and new creation in the New Testament.
Meacham asserts that early Christians did not understand heaven in the same way as those who now envision a heavenly paradise after death but rather envisioned heaven as a two-step process. First, the soul left the body to a place of rest and peace. Second, a bodily resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth would bring God’s kingdom to earth. Meacham concludes that Christians have largely departed from these concrete beliefs about heaven by Jesus and his contemporaries. For Meacham, Wright and others are bringing this emphasis on the bodily resurrection and the New Jerusalem back to contemporary Christianity. The implication is an active Christianity bringing the Kingdom to earth.
Yet, these two competing visions of heaven and the hereafter need not be mutually exclusive. A vision of heavenly bliss and celestial paradise after death is a compelling way to describe what early Christians saw as the first — temporary — stage of heaven. Immediately after death one returns to God and enters paradise. Notwithstanding, the entire biblical account points to hope in a bodily resurrection and a new eternal life with God in the New Jerusalem. Life with God on earth will be exalted. According to the New Testament, heaven is not the final destination but rather a temporary holding place before the end of the world. One can easily hold these two visions of heaven in tension in one’s faith.
Meacham implies, however, that one cannot believe in heaven as the eternal place of rest and vindication and also work for social justice as an imperative. Thus, according to some, the image of heaven as a future paradise pacifies Christians, most especially the poor and marginalized.
Critics of African American slave religion, for instance, argue that it was otherworldly, escapist, and compensatory. The black spirituals demonstrate the rich imagery of heaven and the hereafter in slave religion as release and vindication in another life. These images of heaven no doubt enabled black slaves to endure hardship and dehumanization. Yet, black slaves also believed in imminent liberation on earth as in the biblical Exodus. They hoped for concrete material and spiritual liberation from bondage in the now.
Rebellious black slave insurrectionist Nat Turner, for example, asserted that blacks should fight for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through revolt. African American Christian slaves held in balance the hope of paradise in another life and the equally significant hope of heaven on earth. They were able to resist slavery in myriad ways by believing in the God of both the hereafter and the present. Thus, black slave religion was both otherworldly and this-worldly. Slaves embraced the hope of a heavenly paradise after death that would vindicate them and erase the pain of the present life. Yet, they also hoped in imminent liberation on earth and the belief that God would initiate a new era of peace and freedom for blacks here in America.
Karl W. Lampley is Martin Marty Junior fellow and a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Christian Wiman went almost three years, he says, without writing a poem. For most of us, this may seem inconsequential. For the editor of Poetry magazine and a man who has lived a poet’s life, this is a dramatic act — a shift in perspective brought on by an incurable cancer, hospitalization and surgeries and a bone marrow transplant.
Then, as a series of “dramatic things” happened to him, he broke his years of silence on the page with this poem revolving around “a kind of an Old Testament word meaning broken, sundered, torn apart.” The word? Riven.
In the audio at the top of this article, Christian Wiman explains a bit more about the poem and its shape. And, more importantly, he recites this powerful poem for all of us to hear and to share with others:
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made sing his being simply by being the thing it is: stone and tree and sky, man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made, means a storm of peace. Think of the atoms inside the stone. Think of the man who sits alone trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made there is given one shade shaped exactly to the thing itself: under the tree a darker tree; under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made the things that bring him near, made the mind that makes him go. A part of what man knows, apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
Easter Sunday Soundtrack #3: Rachmaninov’s “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Bless the Lord, O My Soul”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The On Being playlist for "Restoring the Senses: Gardening and an Orthodox Easter" has been on the repeat loop for most of this week. It’s exquisite, so I’m releasing each track over the next several hours (two are already up!) here on Tumblr. Reblog if you like, and share with your readers/listeners today.
Easter Sunday Soundtrack #1: “Alleluia, Behold the Bridegroom”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The On Being playlist for "Restoring the Senses: Gardening and an Orthodox Easter" has been on the repeat loop for most of this week. It’s exquisite, so I’m releasing some of my favorites this evening on this day of Pascha. Reblog if you like, and share with your readers/listeners today.
A Better Title for Our Show with Poet Christian Wiman?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It took several months, but I was finally able to make the case that Christian Wiman was a voice we needed to put on the air after seeing the strong response to his conversation with Bill Moyers on PBS. He was good; he also seemed nervous, and I wondered if that didn’t have to do with being on television being asked questions by one of America’s best interviewers.
And that’s where the beauty of radio comes in. Rather than setting up a face-to-face interview, we set up an ISDN line — an extremely high-quality telephone line that captures the intimate aspects of a person’s voice — with Krista in a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wiman in a studio in Chicago, Illinois. Methinks you’ll hear a somewhat different Christian Wiman that will add to the sum of your life.
That said, I’m not too wild about the title of this show though: "Remembering God." It doesn’t do the interview justice or capture what’s relatable for many listeners out there: being raised in a faith rooted in family and culture, losing that devotion and belief in a greater Being, and returning to some type of belief that perhaps is more mature but less intense.
If you get a chance, take a listen and tell me what you might have titled it. There’s no doubt we will rebroadcast this show, and I’d be more than glad to shepherd your suggestions so we can make way for a better title!
From Outside Faith and Within, Being Religious Is Being Transformed
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, "Remembering God," about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.
This anecdote from isopod can’t help but make you smile:
Pascha (Orthodox Easter) is the only holiday where I feel like I have to brush up on my language skills before the liturgy.
During the liturgy, the priest shouts “Christ is risen!” and everyone responds ”Indeed He is Risen!” in many, many languages. It’s also how people greet each other after the liturgy. I can remember the Russian “Khristos Voskrese!” but never remember that the response is “Voistinu Voskrese!” Greek is easier: “Christos Anesti! Aleithos Anesti!” (though, to be honest, this is probably more memorable to me because of too many viewings of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.) And because my priest’s sons love it, I still remember the Swahili, though I’m unsure of the spelling: “Kristu amefufuka! Kweli amefufuka!”
And beyond that, I’ll respond in English “Indeed He is risen!” with a smile and a shrug.
A Tight Focus on the Spiritual Side of Transitioning
MOVIE REVIEW The documentary Rites of Passage by Jeff Roy follows a 42-year-old practicing Muslim and Indian transgender to Bangkok for gender reassignment surgery and puts her Islamic faith and ethnic identity at the center of the journey.
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.
Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.
Rites of Passageis all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.
Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.
Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.
The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.
Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.
Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.
In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.
Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.
Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.
God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.
The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.
Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.
After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.
Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.
The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.
"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
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