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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Play That Funky Bluegrass, White Boys

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This eight-year-old banjo player and his older brothers (11 and 13) just might knock your socks off with this version of Earl Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special.” You ought to share this with your friends.

Sleepy Man Banjo Boys coverWhat may go unnoticed is the overtly religious language that peppers the The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys’ website. At the top of the page, embedded in the scrollwork of the trio’s logo, is a passage from the book of Psalms:

I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me.

And their first album is promoted with a passage from Isaiah:

Seek justice; encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Why is it necessary to note this? While we are wowed by the talent of these boys, we may focus on the facts — technique, teachers, musical influences, and so on — and forget or ignore that something else may be core to what they do and why they do it. And knowing this, in and of itself, adds to our understanding of American culture: in this case, God, Bible, family, bluegrass.

(via publicradiointernational)


Curating the Dead Sea Scrolls
Shubha Bala, associate producer

"Scroll" Jar and Lid
An exhibit showcases one of the clay “scroll” jars discovered in the Qumran caves that dates back to 100 BCE–70 CE. (photo: Craig Thiesen/Science Museum of Minnesota)

In late May, a listener from Mississippi, Emily Haire, was walking through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and noticed an advertisement for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. A few days earlier, she had listened to our show podcast about manuscript preservation in "Preserving Words and Worlds" and submitted this interesting observation:

"Walking through the MSP airport this morning, I noticed advertisements for the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum. I had just listened to the SOF a few days ago. I’m wondering how museum curators of religious artifacts interpret, or navigate, the distance between very academic topics and the knowledge base of the general public."

So, we decided to contact one of the curators and ask her question, along with some questions of our own. In the audio above, Mike Day, a senior vice president at the Science Museum of Minnesota, sheds some light on the decision-making made by their team about how they present these unique artifacts.

Also, in the unedited version of my interview (download mp3), he expands on how the exhibit touches people, and he even discusses the inclusion of the Saint John’s Bible. When the tape stopped rolling, he told me that the shape of the cave entrance in the photo above is an exact replica of one of the scroll fragments.

Cave 4 above Qumran
Excavations of the caves above the ancient settlement of Qumran yielded thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments. This particular cave, Cave 4, held approximately 500 manuscripts that were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1952. The scrolls stored here were placed on the floor or on wooden shelves, and the complete fragmentation of these fragile documents made it difficult to reassemble all the pieces. (Ed Fleming/Science Museum of Minnesota)


"An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land"
Krista Tippett, host

Land, Life, and the Poetry of CreaturesEllen Davis was one of my greatest teachers at divinity school, which I attended in my early 30s. One of the biggest surprises upon arriving there was finding the biblical texts themselves to be full of buried — or at least hidden — treasure that can be unlocked with careful attention to words as much as to expertise in theology or history. Ellen Davis both practices and embodies this art of careful attention to the power of language.

Being in conversation with her now, 17 years after she was my teacher, I am struck again by her precise and penetrating elegance of phrase and thought — and, again, by how she uncovers meaning in biblical teachings that have been obscured in Western imaginations by modes of translation and interpretation. From the very beginning of our conversation, as she notes the similarity between the semi-arid, fertile yet fragile ecosystems of Israel and of California (where she grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay), we begin to experience new layers of association between the Bible’s large, deep themes and present realities.

Ellen DavisThe most defining and consuming of these associations in recent years, for Ellen Davis, has been the “exquisite attention” the Bible pays to care and loss of land and creatures. She finds an “odious comparison” between the way recent generations of human society have lived and the Bible’s insistence on an existential human responsibility vis-à-vis the land and all the life that depends on it. She herself began to see the urgency of this theme of human responsibility — its abundance and nuance — while teaching the course I attended at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. As she taught her way through every book of the Hebrew Bible, her teaching assistants pointed out how “the land” seemed to leap off the pages in her lectures. There were people in those classes who had memorized the Bible growing up, and yet for all of us there was an arc of discovery here.

It was a thrill to draw her out on this as a journalist these years later, though we start in our interview where we started in that class, with a few translations of the Bible open to Genesis 1. What a pleasure it is to introduce you to my teacher in this way. And now, more than I could have realized then, this is an exercise with much larger ramifications than personal scriptural study. For as I’ve realized in the course of my work in this intervening period, a certain reading of the command in Genesis that human beings should “dominate” and “subdue” the Earth and its creatures emboldened and shaped the modern, technological, Western imprint on the world — ecological as well as political and economic. This has come through in my conversations as far-flung as Majora Carter in the South Bronx and Cal DeWitt in a Wisconsin wetland to the Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai in Kenya.

The Hebrew Bible’s prophets also sound devastatingly relevant in light of present realities, from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the wild fires in Australia. Ellen Davis and I don’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what comes to mind at the moment, painfully, when she recalls the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of land gone “wild and waste” — a kind of vivid reversal of the Genesis story of order out of chaos, light out of darkness.

Wendell Berry and His Wife TanyaFor Ellen Davis, poets among us who are rooted in a geographic place — Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, and Wendell Berry who she specifically identifies — are modern-day successors to Jeremiah. Yet the hard edge of prophecy is not the same as the hard litany of devastation that comes through by way of damning fact and information — the overwhelming pictures of despair that bombard us right now from the Gulf, for example, against a backdrop of accelerating statistics about phenomena like Arctic melting, species extinction, desertification. The lamentation of the prophets, as Ellen Davis puts it, is always followed by “consolation.” This is not based on a foolish optimism, she says, but on a hope grounded in a sober assessment of the reality to be faced. And in the course of our conversation, she offers much to take away that is deeply practical, organic in every sense of the word, like the way she would have us see the link the Bible makes between eating and being human, and its evocation of the lost “art” of being creatures among other creatures, a reality we seem to be rediscovering as a virtue and a pleasure.

Ellen Davis quotes her friend Wendell Berry in noting that, even on the heels of justified despair at the wild and waste we’ve made of the world, "when hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them."

And I’ll end with one of the poems Wendell Berry read for us — listen to him while you read if you’d like — that aptly frames this show:

Not again in this flesh will I see
the old trees stand here as they did,
weighty creatures made of light, delight
of their making straight in them and well,
whatever blight our blindness was or made,
however thought or act might fail.

The burden of absence grows, and I pay
daily the grief I owe to love
for women and men, days and trees
I will not know again. Pray
for the world’s light thus borne away.
Pray for the little songs that wake and move.

For comfort as these lights depart,
recall again the angels of the thicket,
columbine aerial in the whelming tangle,
song drifting down, light rain, day
returning in song, the lordly Art
piecing out its humble way.

Though blindness may yet detonate in light,
ruining all, after all the years, great right
subsumed finally in paltry wrong,
what do we know? Still
the Presence that we come into with song
is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.

The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.

—Professor Ellen van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar at Radboud University in The Netherlands. She claims the first sentence of Genesis is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew verb “bara” in the context of the Bible and other creation stories from Mesopatamia.

Translations of the Bible are debated and challenged all the time. In the case of the Creation story in Genesis, it’s often about the tense of the verb “create” and God’s role in the process that’s up for grabs. In a previous post, I compared three versions:

First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,

And now from the Tanakh:

When God began to create heaven and earth—

She says that the “bara” should not be translated as “to create” but “to spatially separate.” The impact of such a statement challenges the very notion that God created something out of nothing — and that humankind’s understanding of the story has been wrong for thousands of years.

Trent Gilliss, online editor

Genesis 4:9 Job 2:10 Matthew 27:31 Revelation 12:7

Animating the Word, with LEGOs
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Back in February we produced a radio/web package on the manuscript preservation work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. The Abbey is also responsible for commissioning The Saint John’s Bible, a new hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible using the tools of vellum, quills, pigments, gold leaf, and time-honored processes that declined after the advent of the printing press. The hope of the project’s champions is to illuminate “the Word of God for a new millennium.”

Another approach to that end is that of Reverend (he’s not really a preacher) Brendan Powell Smith — an actor, author, musician, and past theology student who has chosen a staggering collection of LEGOs, a hobby knife, permanent marker, and a camera to “animate” the Word and bring it to life in books and online. Smith’s Brick Testament has seen a lot of press worldwide and so you may have come across this before, but if not, I thought you might enjoy seeing just a handful of the highly imaginative and resourceful uses of LEGOs that Smith snaps together to retell Scripture.

You may notice that some of the dialogue in the images is black and some is grey. The black is actual Scripture and the grey, well, the grey might be called apocryphal or simply playful, or what Smith imagined what might have also been said at the time. His translation of choice is the New Jerusalem Bible, with some things updated in Smith’s wording to avoid copyright issues. Please note: some of the images and “playful” language of The Brick Testament may not be suitable for all audiences, but there is a content code to point out sections that some may find objectionable.

Illustrations courtesy of The Brick Testament.


The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Ever since Krista got me hooked on Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I have noticed very few episodes that didn’t offer some not-so-subtle references to Judeo-Christian theological influences. There are countless examples throughout the program’s four seasons: a “chosen” or select group of survivors travelling great distances trying to find the prophesied “home”; the twelve tribes of mankind; transitioning from pantheism to monotheism, etc. But one of the more blatant is the refrain at the end of most speeches in BSG, “So say we all” — basically serving the same function when a congregation says “Amen” after a part of a church liturgy. And hearing the pantheistic human characters say “Gods damn it” still catches me off guard.

In this week’s program, "TV and Parables of our Time," USC professor Diane Winston notes how the writers of BSG would also weave issues found in today’s real-life news into their story lines. She cites the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib as one example. Winston goes on to suggest that maybe we need good storytelling in order to process the events happening in our world, and that trying to understand the complexity of these events only through news media may not be enough.

As someone who finds the Bible in desperate need of an editor, I wonder if I would find the biblical stories more compelling if they had spaceships and cool sound effects and thrilling scores. Would I find the messages more relevant? I don’t know. It does makes me wonder if these modern narratives like Battlestar Galactica need to have familiar touch points, such as religious rituals and themes that we grew up with, in order to make a space-based story somehow more accessible to our terrestrial lives. Or do they just borrow from great stories, many of which can be found in religious texts? What do you think?



Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

juxtaposed:religion[Editor’s note: I was combing through a test blog for SOF that never made it into production. One of the entries I posted I regretted not publishing. The piece is timeless, so I thought I’d re-post for you design lovers.]

The design house of mike and maaike developed a wonderfully elegant and simple bookshelf for a curated series of bookshelves. Its title: “religion.” Niches for seven influential religious texts are carved out of a three-foot-long piece of hardwood and reverently cozied up to one another. Included are the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, Confucius’ The Analects, the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell), The Discourses of the Buddha, and the Torah.

You can get one of these lovely pieces, but it’ll cost you. The price: $2500.

A Historic Bible for a Historic MomentAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
With all of our recent talk of ancient manuscripts, there’s another (not quite so ancient) book in the news today: Barack Obama has chosen to be sworn in on the Lincoln Inaugural Bible. Read a bit more on the Bible’s history in this short interview with Library of Congress’ Clark Evans.
(photo: Michaela McNichol/The Library of Congress)

A Historic Bible for a Historic Moment
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

With all of our recent talk of ancient manuscripts, there’s another (not quite so ancient) book in the news today: Barack Obama has chosen to be sworn in on the Lincoln Inaugural Bible. Read a bit more on the Bible’s history in this short interview with Library of Congress’ Clark Evans.

(photo: Michaela McNichol/The Library of Congress)


The Process of Creating the St. John’s Bible
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Our show for this week — called "Preserving Words and Worlds" — focuses on the pioneering and valiant efforts of manuscript preservation being spearheaded by the Benedictine monks of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey & University. The importance of the words and language of these precious handwritten texts is vital to understanding other civilizations and cultures, as Fr. Columba Stewart and Getatchew Haile point out.

But, these two scholars speak as much about the importance of the container itself. The vessel gives context to the manuscript, and to the people producing and using these texts. Elements like the type of paper used, the binding, the style of calligraphy, the marginalia, the general wear-and-tear all indicate how it was used, who used it, and, in essence, its innate value to those people using it and their ancestors.

When I think about it this way, I better understand why the same institution also commissioned a multi-million dollar project to create the first handwritten Bible since the printing press was invented. It’s what they did in medieval times and that monastic legacy is being carried on today, albeit with the expedience of modern technology and communication.

Artistic efforts like these I find true and sincere, not a fancy facade masking an ordinary box. Hearkening to ancient traditions and materials, this illuminated Bible incorporates hand-ground inks and eggs and feathers and vellum with platinum, gold, and silver foils. And, being a project of the modern era, it uses computers and sophisticated software programs and broadband connection to lay out the book and communicate with a host of overseers in making everything’s correct.

This short video about the St. John’s Bible project is instructive, to be sure, but it also gives me insight into the magic of creating a manuscript — and the monumental task of coordinating it.


The Final Cut: Omitting the Samaritan Woman’s Story
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

Some interesting reactions to the Vashti McKenzie program this past weekend, both positive and negative. This interesting e-mail in particular was mentioned during our Monday morning staff meeting, coming from Kathryn in Davis, California. She mentions a segment around 01:12:00 in the full interview that we cut out of the final production. The segment is about 6 minutes long, and survived through a couple of rounds of edits before it was ultimately cut out.

I am a big fan of this show and admire your talent, Krista. The editing on this particular show disturbed me, however. By her own account, and yours, the essence of Vashti McKenzie is discovered in the the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s an incredibly profound teaching in the same way that Native American stories are so deeply wise and transformational. (One can understand how Christianity of the mainstream stumbled so badly by failing to understand the meaning of this core teaching. Rev. McKenzie finally gets it right.) And yet, it didn’t make the final cut.

When I look at what did make the cut — the emphasis on the Jeremiah Wright exegesis — and the timing of this interview, it tells me that you used Speaking of Faith and Vashti McKenzie to make an appeal to nervous undecided and conservative voters to support Barack Obama, much like the just released movie about George “W” Bush did.

This is your show, you can do that, and I hope it works. That said, the story of the Samaritan woman holds so much more meaning and value for viewers here and around the world than whether or not undecided voters now might feel a little better about Barack Obama’s Christianity. Rev. McKenzie’s teaching goes both to her core and the central mission of your show. Your rough cut managed to miss the mark on both counts.

There are a couple of things there. The first thing is the apparent support for a candidate. Depending on what we’re covering on a particular week, we often hear from listeners who think we’re supporting this or that political ideology. Just as an example with this program, some listeners suggested that even mentioning Jeremiah Wright at this stage meant we were trying to derail Sen. Obama’s bid. It seems to go with the territory no matter how much editorial rigor we subject a program to, and that’s fine, we’re happy to talk about our process.

But as with most Speaking of Faith programs, we try to contribute something to the conversation in the larger American community. Talking about race in the context of this presidential election might seem cynical, but I don’t know if there’s ever a wrong time to talk about racism.

Maybe the story of the Samaritan woman contributes to that larger conversation in a more enduring way than anything that can be said about the Wright controversy. Rather than reflecting an ulterior motive, this is where the desire to be newsworthy comes in. Krista is talking to someone who is a prominent leader in the African-American community, and who had close ties to Jeremiah Wright. There is a journalistic responsibility to address it openly. To be honest, in the full interview, I detected some reluctance in Bishop McKenzie’s voice as far as talking about the Wright controversy. There is more discussion of the controversy throughout the interview, but we edited a lot of that out because the segment we had in the final program addressed the issue without belaboring it. And there was some thematic redundancy between the story of the Samaritan woman and other parts of the interview. With our eyes on the clock, we make room for some things at the expense of others.

The show itself was meant to act as part of a reflection on how race and gender have been used in this campaign. And when we decide to re-broadcast this show at some future point, it’s highly possible that we swap out the Wright discussion — which will no longer be timely — with the story of the Samaritan woman.

For now, we’re still trying to draw something positive out of the uglier aspects of the campaigns. Bishop McKenzie talks about defining moments. In our public life, we often hear about missed opportunities to turn crises into teachable moments — “transformational” is a word Kathryn uses above. I don’t know, what do you think? Samaritan woman, or Jeremiah Wright reaction? Timely or timeless?

A Bible for the “Non Card-Carrying Christian” Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
The FontFeed showcased a provocative and, in my opinion, a refreshingly dynamic take on the cover art for a contemporary edition of the Bible. The colors are vibrant and engaging, which reminds people that the Bible is a living text pulsing with lessons for 21st-century readers. And, the depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden are playful and allusive, meant to conjure more questions than to answer them with overly weighty symbolism that would have bogged down the spaciousness of the art work. If you’re interested in opining on what the graphic designers missed or got right, Stand Firm, a blog devoted to “traditional Anglicanism in America,” has an active comment thread worth reading.
As Carl Rush, the founder of the UK-based design agency Crush that created the cover, points out, their intention was to make it the “must have accessory for any non card carrying Christian.” My regret? I can’t find a place where I can actually buy the tome. Help!
Here’s the image unadorned with titling and text. Click for better detail:

(Images courtesy of Crush Design & Art Direction)

A Bible for the “Non Card-Carrying Christian”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

The FontFeed showcased a provocative and, in my opinion, a refreshingly dynamic take on the cover art for a contemporary edition of the Bible. The colors are vibrant and engaging, which reminds people that the Bible is a living text pulsing with lessons for 21st-century readers. And, the depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden are playful and allusive, meant to conjure more questions than to answer them with overly weighty symbolism that would have bogged down the spaciousness of the art work. If you’re interested in opining on what the graphic designers missed or got right, Stand Firm, a blog devoted to “traditional Anglicanism in America,” has an active comment thread worth reading.

As Carl Rush, the founder of the UK-based design agency Crush that created the cover, points out, their intention was to make it the “must have accessory for any non card carrying Christian.” My regret? I can’t find a place where I can actually buy the tome. Help!

Here’s the image unadorned with titling and text. Click for better detail:


(Images courtesy of Crush Design & Art Direction)


SoundSeen: Prepping (Smelling) Manuscripts with Columba
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Yesterday, a few producers (Colleen, Mitch, and I) drove about an hour northwest of Minneapolis to the town of Collegeville to scout locations for Krista’s interview with Father Columba Stewart. This small Minnesota town is home to the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey and University, and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML, or “himmel” as I’ve heard it pronounced).

If you’ve heard of their work, it’s most probably for the St. John’s Bible, a project commissioning the first handwritten, illuminated Bible since the printing press made its appearance in the 15th century. But, these archivists also preserve and digitize an incredibly large number of manuscripts from places all over the globe, including the world’s largest collection of Ethiopian manuscripts and continuing projects in Syria, Lebanon, Malta, Ukraine, India, and many countries in Europe.

For this morning’s interview, Mitch asked Columba to bring a few examples. So, he and Wayne Torborg pulled out a few and gave us a preview. If only you could smell them. Ooh la la!


Biblical Stories Are So Catchy

Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern

What is it about Bible stories? For me they can be like catchy music; I’ll get one stuck in my head and then, while I wait for the bus or cut up vegetables or fold laundry, the story will run on repeat, offering its melodies, harmonies, dissonances. These ancient stories — so full of existential drama — can become obsessions.

I’ve been thinking constantly for the past year or so about the Book of Ruth.  (Read the whole book yourself here.) Naomi, her husband and sons all dead, is in mourning. She’s planning to move home to Bethlehem. She tells her newly widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their families; they can remarry in their native towns. But Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, insists on moving with Naomi back to Judah. We don’t know exactly why.

Then, Ruth makes a speech as she announces her intention to stick by Naomi, and it’s one of the most famous speeches in the Bible: “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God,” she says. Ruth chooses radical commitment. She becomes a foreigner, abandons the life she knew, and moves bravely into a new one. I think about the courage that would take.

I like retellings of Bible stories too. One of my favorites is told on an episode of This American Life, “Sink or Swim.” (You can listen to it in their online audio archives. It comes in at about 44:20). In this story Noah is old and crotchety. He calls his sons “dummies.” His “old-school” work ethic demands that he teach his children right from wrong using most severe methods. God, in this story, likes Noah’s style. He chooses him, therefore, to save the animals and repopulate the earth after the flood. It’s a wild story that casts God as a big grouch.

In light of these adventures into the Bible, I appreciatively stumbled on an interesting blog over at Slate.com. Blogging the Bible is David Plotz’s analysis of “what’s really in the good book.” He spent a year making his way through the Hebrew Bible and writing about how the stories struck him. If you have any favorite stories, check out his perspective. It may give you new ideas to run through. Over and over.


Bach’s Bible
Colleen Scheck, Producer

I was a history major, and I love learning history through its physical artifacts. Last summer I visited Gettysburg for the first time. While I was brought to tears standing on its hallowed battlefields, I was also riveted by the stories behind the many Civil War relics there — stories told through well-researched exhibits, and then extended to mini-dramas in my own imagination.

So I was intrigued when I received an e-mail that the personal Bible of Johann Sebastian Bach (a commentary Bible) was going to be on display at a local choral concert. We’ve received suggestions to do a program on Bach and his personal faith — an item on our very big, very long list of show ideas. For now, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Bach’s Bible up close, hear about its history, and learn what it reveals about his faith.

Dr. Thomas Rossin kindly gave me the opportunity to photograph the Bible and talk to him about it. Rossin did his doctoral work on translating the handwritten notes in Bach’s Bible and tracing its history. He’s the founder and conductor of Exultate Choir and Chamber Orchestra, and he was allowed to take two of the Bible’s three volumes on tour with him to display during Exultate’s recent performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (never will all three volumes travel at the same time). He describes how Bach’s Bible has 350 entrances that give evidence to Bach as a person of faith (II Chronicles 5:12-13 “In devotional music, God is always present with His Grace”), and his understanding of those entrances greatly impacts how he approaches performances of Bach’s works.

An aside: the story of Bach’s Bible reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Red Violin, a fictional story about a 17th-century, hand-crafted violin that travels over three centuries. It includes a beautiful score with violin solos by Joshua Bell.

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