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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.
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Meredith Monk’s Voice: A Sensory Experience That Reaches Beyond Anything in Print

by Krista Tippett, host

The singer and composer Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice. She’s also an archeologist of the human soul, with a long-time Buddhist practice. Meredith Monk in Songs of AscensionThrough music and meditation, she reaches to places in human experience where words get in the way — and she shared with me what she has learned about mercy and meaning, about spirit and play.

For years we here at On Being have meant to, planned to, interview more musicians. Then in the last months, for varying reasons, conversations with Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, and now Meredith Monk fell into place. What joy.

After this experience with Meredith Monk, I’m shying away from describing her with the label “performance artist.” Her music is avant-garde, but it also feels primal, ancient. She’s called herself an archeologist of the human voice. The woman we meet in this conversation is also an archeologist of the human spirit. She has a long-time Buddhist practice. Playfully, and reflectively, she mines life and art for meaning.

As listeners to On Being know, I begin every conversation, however accomplished or erudite my guest, by learning something about his or her childhood. We can all trace interesting and substantive lines between our origins and our essence, wherever we are in life. These can be joyful. They can painful. But they are raw materials that have formed us. In Meredith Monk’s case, a life in music was almost inevitable; three generations of musicians preceded her. She struggled with eyesight problems and issues with bodily coordination. Her mother — a singer in the golden age of radio — found a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which uses music to create physical alignment. Later on, as a young artist, Meredith Monk describes a moment of “revelation” that the voice could be flexible like the body — fluid like the spine — something that could dance and not merely sing.

She sang before she could speak in any case, as she tells it, and after experimenting with classical musical education in college, she gave herself over to her own distinctive voice, her own art, which is rich with songs that use words sparingly or not at all. As our show with her opens, you hear her singing a hauntingly beautiful piece, “Gotham Lullaby.” It is a demonstration of one of the things she talks about, eloquently, in this conversation — the power of music to reach where words can get in the way. This can be unfamiliar, even uncomfortable for the listener, as for the performer. But it is a deeply human experience, essentially contemplative and yet infused with the emotion that music can convey like no other form of human expression.

There is so much I carry with me out of this interview. It simply enlivens the world, and deepens its hues a bit. “The human voice is the original instrument,” she says, “so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.”My teenagers stretch me to appreciate that this is the redemptive effect even of music that is strange and unfamiliar to my ears and my body. Meredith Monk brings this home to me as well, but differently.

I’m also challenged by her insistence that in our media-saturated world, we must, for the sake of our souls, continue to seek out direct experiences like live artistic performance. Meredith Monk's Most Meaningful SongsThe very point of art, she says, like the very goal of spiritual life as the Buddha saw it, is to wake us up. The sense of transcendence we sometimes feel in these settings is not a separate experience but an effect of being awake, of being fully alive.

But this is too many words. Meredith Monk’s voice, and the radio we’ve crafted from it, is a sensory experience that reaches beyond anything I could print on this page. Listen. And enjoy.

And, if you have some time, I highly recommend listening to our playlist of Meredith Monk’s most meaningful songs from across the years, which she personally selected for us while doing research for my interview. Stream all eleven tracks and listen at your leisure.

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Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers

by Krista Tippett, host

Near El Fahser in North DarfurTwo girls walk through the market in the Abushouk Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, home to nearly 55,000 people, near the North Darfur capital El Fasher. (photo: Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images)

I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.

Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.

He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on this program across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.

And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.

Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.

In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.

He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.

We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.

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The Wide Lens of History and the Conjoined Realities of Our Past

by Krista Tippett, host

I always read the MacArthur “genius” grant lists with great interest. They uncover people who are making great marks on the world in their chosen fields, but are usually out of the spotlight. This year the name that jumped out at me was Tiya Miles. I was intrigued with the description of her as a "public historian" illuminating the meaning of “ancestry and citizenship.” There was a personal connection for me, too, as the particular history she’s unearthed has resonance with the world of my childhood in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory.

I grew up hearing a family legend about a Cherokee ancestor, though it was transmitted with little detail or enthusiasm. Tiya Miles’ African-American grandmother also had such a story, and she told it with pride. She had endless stories, and the vital link she made between past and present inspired her granddaughter. Tiya Miles took up the study of history. Then, as a graduate student, she stumbled upon the little-remembered history of some Native Americans, Cherokee landowners who held African-American slaves.

This is of course not merely a story about Cherokee people and black people but about all of us, all of our ancestors. Map of Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 1885The Cherokee were deemed one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the American government of that era. Growing up on land first given to, then taken away from, these indigenous peoples, I never questioned the backhanded presumption in this label they were given. Now, in conversation with Tiya Miles, I learn that their honored status was earned and conferred in part because of their “civilized” behavior of holding slaves.

This memory is as tragically nonsensical as any in the institution of slavery — so hard to reckon with and make sense of, it seems, that it literally fell away. Tiya Miles’ curiosity was first captured by a footnote about what was described as the first Afro-Cherokee marriage. She doggedly pursued a nearly non-existent trail to discover that this “marriage” was between a middle-class Cherokee landowner in his 40s and a teenage slave girl he had bought or procured by force. He had five children by her. He later won their freedom, but he never made her free. In arguing for their children, in fact, he proclaimed publicly that he had “debased” himself by bringing them into the world through union with her.

South (rear) elevationTiya Miles’ other ground-breaking research has unfolded across a number of years at the Chief Vann House in Georgia — a grand antebellum plantation owned by a wealthy Cherokee chief. She is a lover of old houses. She knew that slaves worked this plantation as every other. But when she went for a tour of the house and its history in the 1990s, no mention was made of these hundreds of human beings who yielded the abundance of that land. They had been forgotten, nearly erased from memory. Tiya Miles vowed to create a more ethical telling of their story.

Tiya MilesShe is keenly aware of the complexity, indeed the multitudinous slippery slopes, of setting out to tell a story — any story — more ethically. As an historian, she is nearly haunted by her knowledge that every story can be told differently from many different angles. Her approach is fresh and innovative — and the emerging field of public history is distinctive — in its insistence on setting stories this painful in a context that can hold both the hardest truths and the seeds of their own healing.

I love the idea of looking more deeply at history to find vital openings, new possibilities, for starting fresh in the present. In the history of this radio program, my conversations have revealed this possibility over and over again — from looking more closely at Charles Darwin in order to reframe the “science-religion” divide or how Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at history to see the surprising ingredients that allow profound societal and moral change to happen. I take heart in Tiya Miles’ learned insistence that even the most painful and divisive history is about “conjoined realities” — and that a wide historical lens will always reveal human beings’ connections to each other as something more generous than the darkest moments of our past.

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Bringing Ancient Celtic Wisdom to Modern Confusions and Longings

by Krista Tippet, host

"It’s strange to be here," John O’Donohue wrote, referring to life. "The mystery never leaves you." And creating "The Inner Landscape of Beauty" was a lovely, if strange and mysterious, experience.

O’Donohue was an Irish poet and philosopher beloved for his books, including Anam Ċara — Gaelic for “soul friend” — and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling and a defining aspect of God. I sat down with him in the fall of 2007 for a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation. Then just a few months later, before it could go to air, he died in his sleep, suddenly, at the age of 52. And so this hour of conversation has become a remembrance of him.

He would surely see this as a serendipitous continuation of his life’s work — of bringing ancient Celtic wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

We ended the show with his reading of “Beannacht,” a poem of blessing he wrote for his mother upon the death of his father. A number of listeners who read and loved John O’Donohue’s work wrote to us after we posted this and other poems he read to me during our interview:

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

And we’ve posted a pair of informative blog entries about our research into the beautiful, essential music for this show — including the style of Gaelic singing called sean-nos and the helpful contributions of an Irish listener from Belfast.

"Music," John O’Donohue said to me, "is what language would love to be if it could."

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Becoming Detroit: Reimagining Work, Food, and the Very Meaning of Humanity

by Krista Tippett, host

Grace Lee Boggs During an Interview with Krista TippettThis trip to Detroit came about because of technological failure. It was a tremendous gift, and a revelation.

The technological failure was the connection between my voice and Grace Boggs. Her ears, after all, are 96. And when we weren’t able to have a real, fluid conversation between St. Paul and Detroit, I immediately decided we would fly to interview her in her home. This was a relief, really, as preparing for the interview had made me long to meet her.

Ever since my conversation with Vincent Harding last year, her name kept coming up. Her identity is full of unlikely conjunctions: Chinese-American and an icon of African-American civil rights, philosopher and activist, elder and change agent. She was born Grace Lee above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. She received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1940. She had a heady life in intellectual, revolutionary circles of the early twentieth century, from Europe to Africa. Wall of Photos at Grace Lee Boggs' HomeShe moved to Detroit when she married the legendary African-American autoworker, organizer, and civil rights thinker Jimmy Boggs. Together they were the heart and soul of civil rights in the Motor City.

Jimmy Boggs died in 1993. Already by then, years ahead of what most of us are experiencing as the new global economic crisis, the post-industrial future had begun to show itself in Detroit. In this emerging world, Grace Boggs is at the heart of reimagining, renewing, and “re-spiriting” this city — seeing the possibilities amidst the ruins of abandoned storefronts, houses, and industrial plants that have defined our cultural vision of Detroit in recent years. She learned, she says, to “make a way out of no way” from Jimmy Boggs. She draws on everyone from Hegel to Dr. King to Margaret Wheatley when she speaks of our capacity to “create the world anew.” With all she knows, and all the change she’s seen, the sheer magnitude of years she carries, you can’t help but listen when Grace Boggs describes the tumult of our time as a rare and precious opportunity: “What a time to be alive.”

This sweeping statement might be less infectious if it were not planted in a world of engagement that both affirms and continually informs Grace Boggs’ thinking. You walk into Grace Boggs’ living room — which is also the ground floor of the James and Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership — and you are surrounded by joyful, passionate people who are literally recreating their corners of the world. She points them out as we speak. Gloria Lowe in front of her home in East DetroitAfter our interview, we are taken on a tour that is like a trip into a parallel universe to the Detroit we’ve seen in the news.

We meet Gloria Lowe, who is not merely putting formerly incarcerated and injured vets to work, but making houses livable and beautiful while creating urban models that are affordable and green. We meet Wayne Curtis and Myrtle Thompson, a couple who are tending one of Detroit’s 1,600 urban gardens. They’re not merely growing food, as they tell us, they are growing culture. Their way of talking about “food sovereignty,” about the necessity of flavor, about “nutrient density” reminds me of the chef Dan Barber.They are a living response to the question he’s often asked, of whether the local food movement is just for pampered elites. 

Wayne Curtis' public art work asking people to "Eat Local."

Detroit’s urban agricultural movement began as a matter of survival and became a matter of consciousness, and of reimagining the essence of human identity and community.

So many of my conversations are ultimately about the vast, seismic changes of our time. No city could be held up more easily as a symbol of the destructive side of this change than Detroit. But nowhere have I encountered people as animated by change, as “privileged” to experience it, as in Detroit.

In recent decades, Grace Boggs has become ever more attentive to the word “evolution” wrapped inside the word “revolution.” The identity politics and rights focus of the rebellions of the 1960’s, she says, paved a way for a more enlightened and slower revolution now — a new and deeper sense of a common human identity, from how we work to how we eat to how we govern ourselves. Ever the philosopher, she reminds us that “we’re not only being, but we’re non-being and becoming.” In Grace Boggs’ living room, and in the Detroit of hope which she helps inspire, these lofty words become something to live by.

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The Art of Peace: From “Conflict Resolution” to “Conflict Transformation”

by Krista Tippett, host

John Paul Lederach is one of the most esteemed names in conflict mediation in the world today. He is also Mennonite, an icon of this tradition that passionately embraces the biblical command to “be peacemakers.” In our conversation in “The Art of Peace” he calls his work “conflict transformation” rather than the more commonly used term of “conflict resolution.” Across three decades, in over 25 countries on five continents, he has sought to help people transform their relationships with their enemies.

You can solve a problem without resolving a conflict, he points out. And you can resolve a conflict without setting real change in motion, without creating justice that will make the renewal of conflict less likely in the future. This, he says, is the true challenge of peacebuilding, one that always takes generations to accomplish. It is as much the work of creativity and “moral imagination” as of dialogue and commitment.

Community conflict process meeting in Kanchanpur, Nepal - John Paul Lederach

He tells remarkable stories from around the globe. These are stories that live below the radar of mainstream international news, and yet they offer powerful and empowering examples of real, systemic change in individual lives and in societies. He takes us inside a photograph of a dialogue, which you see above, between former enemies in Nepal. The participants range from ex-slaves to landless “untouchables,” to conservationists, to agencies regulating the use of forests. Their conflicts are the shape of the 21st century — a complex and perilous balancing act between the distribution of natural resources for a particular group’s survival and the greater good of preservation. Around the world, such conflicts are increasingly devolving into war. By contrast, in year seven of a ten-year process, these Nepalis are finding very creative and sustaining ways to honor their competing needs while nourishing a new common life.

Even as John Paul Lederach describes situations worlds away, his stories hold wisdom for all of us. Change, he asserts, always begins with a handful of people in relationship. In his writing, he makes a helpful distinction: while large-scale movements — including peace movements — can forge turning points, they tend to form around what they are opposing and do not necessarily carry the seeds of new, positive forms to shape the future. He is more interested in finding what he calls “critical yeast” rather than “critical mass.” To put it another way, in John Paul Lederach’s experience, enduring change is seeded not by large numbers of like-minded people, but by a quality of relationship between unlikely combinations of people.

This creativity and courage of relationship is evident in the Nepalis to whom he introduces us. It is there, likewise, in a remarkable organization of peasants in Colombia who have forged improbable relationships with warring militias, in whose conflicts they had previously been caught as victims and pawns. One of the principles of this group that has endured for over two decades is that “we will seek to understand those who do not understand us.” On the basis of formulating and living such an idea, they have created a heretofore unimaginably peaceful space for their children and grandchildren.

John Paul Lederach in GhanaJohn Paul Lederach with his daughter Angela in Cape Coast, Ghana. (photo: George Wachira)

This is not, however, an abstract or sentimental conversation that denies the hardness of the tasks at hand. That same “successful” group in Colombia lost its founders to assassination. In West Africa, where John Paul Lederach’s daughter Angie has followed in her father’s footsteps, the trauma of the horrific phenomenon of child soldiers goes far beyond anything that will be “resolved” in this lifetime. These young people have not only been brutalized, they have been forced to commit unspeakable violence against members of their own families and communities. We hear what John Paul and Angie Lederach have learned in a context like this about the non-linear and non-verbal nature of healing. He helps us understand why, even in the course of trauma in ordinary life, music and poetry can help us re-inhabit places in ourselves at the level of blood and bone, where violation has marked us and words cannot initially reach.

The Moral Imagination by John Paul LederachWe end this conversation in an unexpected place where John Paul Lederach’s life and imagination have led him — a fascination with the ancient art of haiku as a way to capture what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” that emerges again and again as human beings navigate the overlapping territories between violence, trauma, healing, and hope.

This conversation with John Paul Lederach is one of those redemptive experiences I get to have and share in this line of work — of discovering someone who is nourishing the world, though rarely making headlines. He emboldens the rest of us not to be overwhelmed by the unremitting images of violence and despair that come at us from every direction. He urges us to remember the importance of the immediacy of human relationships, especially the unlikely ones, and the worth of investing our imagination, courage, and time in them. This, too, is peace.

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A Life “Circumscribed by Music” Unlocks Stories of Our Own

by Krista Tippett, host

Rosanne Cash surprised me right from the start, by calling her father Johnny Cash “a mystic,” and revealing herself as one too. As much as any person I’ve interviewed, she leaned in close. She was ready to meet me on the adventure a real conversation can be — one full of revelation and beauty.

Rosanne Cash after Interview with Krista TippettLanguage and music, in that order, were the early mediums of her spiritual sensibility. She describes herself growing up as something of a geek. She remains perpetually and intellectually restless. It took her awhile to find her own voice, indeed to imagine that a life of making and performing music could be desirable. She’d grown up experiencing the performer’s life — incarnate in her famous, beloved father — as hard on those one loves. As she found her own voice, she found her own delight in joining her energy to an audience. In that exchange, she also discovered all the elements of religion that she desired: truth, beauty, mystery, creativity, and a sense of the divine. 

We’ve put the word “time travel” in the title of the show we’ve created from my magical hour with Rosanne Cash. It’s a phrase that comes up again and again — especially when we talk about the music that emerged from her grief a few years ago when she lost her father, her mother, and her stepmother June Carter Cash within a span of 18 months. From this period, the Black Cadillac album emerged with gorgeous songs and poetry about love before life and beyond life. Past, present, and future are often linked in the songs she writes, though they often begin, as she describes it, with a single phrase or image.

There are echoes of Einstein here. Our ordinary sense of past, present, and future as distinct compartments moving forward like an arrow, he said, is a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” As it turns out, Rosanne Cash has long been aware of these echoes too, signing up for physics classes when her children were young, constantly in conversation with scientists now. She talks about songs in some of the same ways scientists talk about mathematics — as discoveries, waiting to be caught, as much as inventions. For Rosanne Cash, songs are embedded in the fabric of the universe; this image alone is a gift from my time with her.

I am left with a sense of a woman who has seen a lot of life and turned that into wisdom. She is raising five children, lost her voice for several years, and underwent brain surgery four years ago. She continues to work with these raw materials of experience and wrest purpose and joy from them.

Several people have told us that watching the video of this conversation moved them to tears. One emotional moment for her — better experienced on the video than by audio alone — comes when she tells me about performing at Folsom Prison in March of last year. There, her father created one of his most famous performances and an iconic album. While touring the prison, Rosanne Cash met a prisoner who served at San Quentin Prison when her father also played there in 1969, and was now spending the rest of his life in Folsom. Her eyes fill with tears as she describes her dialogue with these men about freedom, outer and inner, and the confusing human struggle to gain the latter, whatever our lives have brought.

There were clearly other stories here to be mined. But Rosanne Cash’s openness, and her music, unlock stories of our own. We end our conversation with music, with her song titled “The World Unseen.” It somewhat magically brings together the elements of Rosanne Cash’s life and all of our lives — of poetry and mystery, of loss and love, of time travel. Here are the song’s opening verses:

I’m the sparrow on the roof 
I’m the list of everyone I have to lose 
I’m the rainbow in the dirt 
I am who I was and how much I can hurt 

So I will look for you 
In stories of the kings— 
Westward leading, still proceeding 
To the world unseen
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Walter Brueggemann, a Disruptive and Hopeful Voice for All Ages

by Krista Tippett, host

Walter Brueggemann is a very special voice. He is one of those figures — another being Jaroslav Pelikan — who is not a household name but is revered in his universe of knowledge and accomplishment. He’s a kind of theological rock star. His name has been synonymous with the phrase “prophetic imagination” for three decades of preachers and Christian teachers. Students in all kinds of seminaries read him, and they are captivated by the man as much as his ideas. That’s my explanation for why the live video stream of our conversation is one of On Being's most-watched online interviews.

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter BrueggemannI too was thrilled to meet this man whose writings I have admired up close; he more than fulfills the promise of those writings. Walter Brueggemann is not merely an expert. He somehow embodies this tradition of the prophets that he knows as well as anyone living. He is wise and forceful, quick to laugh, passionately challenging, and fiercely hopeful. He demonstrates as much as teaches the way the prophets of the ages are disruptive of politics and culture as usual.

He helps me understand that part of a prophet’s power is in wielding language poetically rather than stridently. Beginning with the words they choose, they transcend ideological splits that actually inhibit us from seizing the great challenges and problems of our time.

"I have a dream" is the line we all remember from Martin Luther King Jr., whom Walter Brueggemann identifies as a prophet of living memory. King wasn’t talking about “enacting a civil rights bill,” Brueggemann says, “except that he was.” He points out that the prophetic voice is not issues-based. It accomplishes the harder, more necessary work of reframing the big picture of what is at stake, so that we can take in the reality of our moment in a new way, with a new sense of what might be possible.

Prophets help us connect the dots between the world as it is and the world as it might be. Prophets tend to emerge in moments of chaos and change, and this is surely a description of our age as of the 1960s or of the era of the biblical fall of Jerusalem. Walter Brueggemann helps us reclaim some important language for being people of change and chaos: the healing necessity of “lamentations,” the difference between being bold and being strident, the hard and life-giving work of letting go of comfort for the sake of what is important. That work, he says to Christian preachers and teachers, has to happen in the pulpit as in life.

Yet, even as he challenges, Walter Brueggemann calls upon mercy, another word he recovers in all its usefulness and beauty. Indeed, he shows how the two are meaningfully fused. He reminds us that the Hebrew word (like the Arabic word) for “mercy” is derived from the word for “womb.” It is the ultimate image of knowing one’s own well-being to be bound up with the well-being of another. And it comes with an extreme amount of discomfort.

How refreshing to experience a voice that is at once deeply disruptive and beautiful and critical and hopeful without any of these qualities clashing. In Walter Brueggemann’s prophetic imagination, we experience a new way of being, of living, and of faithfulness. He reminds us too — and I find this point essential — that, alongside our pantheon of prophets across time and cultures, there are countless prophets of the everyday in communities everywhere who are not and will never be famous. So many of us long to transcend what he calls “the managed prose” around us; Walter Brueggemann shows us that while this is difficult and terrifying it is can also be exhilarating and life-giving. I’m very happy to bring Walter Brueggemann’s voice to the air in this season, at this moment in time.

Image of Walter Brueggemann courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.

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Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time

by Krista Tippett, host

Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.

Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.

For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.

Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:

"I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”

This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.

Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.

About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)

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Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

Livio_CMYKMario Livio speaks with Brian Greene (photo: ©The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination/Flickr)

When I first picked up Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? I knew I wanted to speak with him. Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that he is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.

In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge, twenty-first-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.

For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. This utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.

Livio’s question “Is God a mathematician?” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipresence and omnipotent powers” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what physicist Eugene Wigner called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.

Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely conversation in 2010 with the Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. Livio unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.

I was also interested to learn, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.

And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation brings me farther forward on this path.

I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.

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Monsters We Love: The Power of Stories in Every Era, in Every Medium

by Krista Tippett, host

When I first sat down to interview Diane Winston, I told her that I didn’t want to start our conversation with zombies and vampires. I didn’t want to spend all of our time on them, but they quickly became the focus of the entire first half of our conversation nevertheless.

Diane WinstonAs I had sensed, and Diane Winston helped me understand in a whole new way, monsters — human and otherwise — are an immensely playful and deeply serious way in to the story of our time. And television — as she and I first discussed a few years ago through shows like Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire — is a medium where more and more creative people are drawn to tell this story in fresh and surprising ways. Like it or not, TV is a primary place in this culture where we act out the ancient human compulsion to engage who we are, what we fear, who we aspire to be.

Not surprisingly, as much has changed on the planet in the past few years, much has changed on the small screen. There is what I’d call a whole new genre of total civilizational collapse. Art and drama confront reality by exaggerating it. The instability people are feeling and fearing from the economy onwards comes out in the new TV season through scenarios in which a mysterious plague has turned most of humanity into soulless zombies (The Walking Dead); total environmental collapse has sent humans back in time to co-exist with dinosaurs (Terra Nova); and aliens have disabled modern technology and wiped out government and civil society as we know it (Falling Skies). Falling Skies was co-created by Steven Spielberg, and its departure from the sweet memory of E.T. surely says something about shifting perceptions of the hostility of the world “out there” — extraterrestrially and terrestrially.

The Walking Dead and its zombies, as I hadn’t quite realized until I dug into this topic, deserve special attention. Its second season premiere was the highest-rated television drama in the history of basic cable among viewers in the 18-49 demographic. It picks up some of the themes and touches of the wildly popular Lost. It turns them inside out as well. In Lost, bands of survivors were thrown together to find their way out of a supernatural place; along the way, they knew equal measures of love and loss, tragedy and redemption. In The Walking Dead, Earth itself has become a supernatural place in a horror story way. And the zombies — murderous creatures who used to be human and are now reactivated brain stems — are not the walking dead; the survivors are, as the show’s creators tell us up front. Life is reduced to a nightmare. Moments of hope and redemption are scarce and short-lived.

Walking Dead TruckA semi sports an advertisement for The Walking Dead on its payload. (photo: Ewen Roberts/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd)

As Diane Winston points out — and she is one of the sharpest watchers of these things I know — these plot lines are thick with ancient, abiding questions of meaning, of the presence or absence of God, of morality writ large. In this show, we play a scene taking place in an abandoned church in The Walking Dead, which is as overtly theological as anything I’ve seen on television in my life — complete with a cross, prayer, confession, martyrdom, and overtones of Jesus in Gethsemane and the sacrifice of Isaac. Diane Winston says to me, at one point, "People have been asking ‘Where is God?’ for thousands of years and why wouldn’t we be asking the same question? And why wouldn’t we want to represent it in our own language rather than in the King James version?”

It’s a relief, really, to turn from zombies to vampires, who populate a number of shows and who at least have emotional lives and relationships. True confession: I am a True Blood lover, as is Diane Winston. Vampires unlike zombies, she points out, are sexy. They are playful characters for projecting ideas about mortality, otherness, and the meaning of being human. And in part because their “true blood” is obviously fake, they fare positively in contrast to other monsters on TV right now who happen to be human — the serial killer Dexter or the teacher-turned-meth dealer and murderer on Breaking Bad. It is completely fascinating to hear what Diane Winston knows about the intentions of the writers of these series — the fact, for example, that Vince Gilligan, the series creator of Breaking Bad's bleak badness, is all about examining the reality that actions have consequences.

As a mother as much as anything else, I occasionally worry about the severity of these images as tools for examining morality. But Diane Winston’s perspective is bracing and comforting in some sense — reminding us to trust the power of stories which have endured through every era of human confusion and darkness. I remember the psychiatrist and author Robert Coles telling me how children know what to do with stories — and that we shield them from the world’s darkness and despair at their own peril. It is after all their world to make sense of, to navigate, and to repair.

And in the end, this is not a dark hour of radio. We’ve layered lots of great sound of various TV shows throughout my conversation with Diane Winston. We move beyond zombies and vampires to fascinating religious complexity in 24's successor, Homeland, and the fascinating back story to HBO’s Enlightened. It’s a strange and unpredictable mix that’s in the end funny and scary, bleak and hopeful, endlessly mysterious and endlessly familiar. Like life itself.

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The Lost “Art” of Being Creatures Among Other Creatures

by Krista Tippett, host

Ellen DavisEllen 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 for this week’s show, nearly two decades since 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.

The 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. When I interviewed Ellen Davis last year, we didn’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what came to mind, 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.

For Ellen Davis, poets among us who are rooted in a geographic place — Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, and Wendell Berry, whom 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 bombarded us 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. Wendell BerryAnd 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."

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.

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A Quest to Save the World’s Biggest Cats and the Story of a Man Who Found His Voice

by Krista Tippett, host

Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and this interview is as full of revelation and beauty as any I’ve done.

This is in part because he is an extraordinary person. How many people have stories of looking jaguars and lions in the eyes in the wild and walking away? Or of encountering pygmy humans believed to be lost? Or of discovering an unknown primitive species of deer? But the inner odyssey that has taken him towards all these experiences, and that he has taken in response to them, is as remarkable.

Alan Rabinowitz was born with a stutter, before this condition’s neurological base was understood. His difficulty in speaking was so profound that it masked his intelligence and personality for the first 20 years of his life. He was isolated in school, put in classes for “retarded children.”

After being mute all day, as he tells it, he would come home and be able to talk to his animals — a redemptive experience, he tells us, that is shared by many stutterers. Out of ignorance rather than cruelty, his parents essentially left him alone with his pain. But his father did notice that the “Big Cat House” at the Bronx Zoo relaxed and delighted his son, and that after these visits his speech was a bit easier. For Alan Rabinowitz, these were experiences of relief, pleasure, and a painful empathy. He deeply internalized something I think many of us have felt in the presence of powerful, wild creatures circling in cages — a wild, heartbreaking animal with grief and longing. Alan Rabinowitz looked those jaguars and tigers in the eyes and said, I’ll find a place for you — a place for us. A few years later, after rapidly distinguishing himself as a wildlife biologist, he began to do just that.

He is very clear, though, that his earliest exploits of tracking raccoons and bears in the Great Smoky Mountains were as much about getting himself away from people as anything else. In the meantime, he finally found a therapist who helped him thrive in the world of speech, to become the “fluent stutterer” he is today. Soon he began to help create some of the world’s most innovative wildlife preserves where big cats could roam and flourish — first in Belize, and later in Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma.

Alan Rabinowitz with Dawi of the Taron - by Steve WinterHere is where a defining irony — a humanizing and deeply moving irony — of Alan Rabinowitz’s story comes in. Having traveled to the most remote places on earth, driven by his passion to save animals, he kept bumping up against people in unexpected, life-changing ways. He discovered the last 12 members of a community of human beings, Mongoloid pygmies. He had no common language with them, stuttering notwithstanding, and yet he tells us movingly of connecting with the elder of this tribe in a way that transcended words. With this man who was the last viable male of his race, and who could no longer find a mate, Alan Rabinowitz came to understand that he was ready to marry the woman he loved and begin a family.

I am fascinated, too, that in the span of his career, the science of wildlife conservation has made its own version of this circle — integrating a concern for human thriving as essential to the work of animal preservation. Panthera Pantanal 2009 Within a few generations, scientists have learned that the model of isolating endangered big cats in large protected spaces is not a defense against extinction. They need to move far more widely, need to exchange their genetic material, need in fact to coexist with human beings. The projects Alan Rabinowitz works on now are called "genetic corridors." And his organization invests in the flourishing of human communities as part of its investment in the survival of big cats.

There are so many amazing moments in this conversation, especially a story Alan Rabinowitz tells of facing off with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize in a preservation area he had created. The eye contact they shared transported him back to those moments of longing in the Bronx Zoo. But this time they could both walk away and both be free in ways he could not have imagined as a child. And today, as he tells us, he is facing a new inner frontier. He has been diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer that is forcing him anew to see the urgency of his life’s choices — to keep protecting the animals who need him and to be there for his family, including a son born with a stutter, who means the world to him now.

Alan Rabinowitz is as whole and healed as anyone I have ever encountered, by the definition of healing that my wise guests have imparted to me. He has incorporated his sadnesses and wounds, his suffering and grief, into his very identity. They have become part and parcel of the gifts he has to offer to the world. I am better for experiencing his passion and his generosity of spirit towards both animals and humans. I feel grateful to have been in his presence — the presence, indeed, of his wonderful voice. I think you will be too.

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The Centrality of Desire in the Messiness of Human Life, and God’s Too

by Krista Tippett, host

P1000372Photo 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.”
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Wangari Maathai: A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places

by Krista Tippett, host

Condolences for a great lossPer 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."
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