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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.

Expanding Our Definition of Dalcroze Eurhythmics

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Tree SpiritPhoto by Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Kathy Thomsen, president of the Dalcroze Society of America, took issue with the way we described the function of Dalcroze eurhythmics in both our script for "Meredith Monk’s Voice" and in Krista’s journal entry about the interview. Rather than slapping us on the hand, she provided this helpful clarification, which we will most certainly incorporate into the script if we rebroadcast this show again:

"I enjoyed listening to your recent interview with Meredith Monk but was dismayed to hear your description of a musical experience Ms. Monk had as a child. You said, "She learned a musical method called Dalcroze eurhythmics, a music method to correct early problems with bodily coordination." In the online interview you write, "Dalcroze eurhythmics uses music to create physical alignment."

Whatever benefits Ms. Monk reaped from Dalcroze eurhythmics, those descriptions are not apt. Dalcroze, a Swiss music educator (1865-1950) believed the body was the principal instrument of musical expression and response. Dalcroze eurhythmics engages the whole person — body, mind, and sensibility — in the captivating and often joyous pursuit of moving to music. This whole-body movement is purposeful, and is connected intimately to the music, which is usually improvised on-the-spot by the teacher in response to the students’ movements.

While improved bodily coordination may be a result of Dalcroze eurhythmics, its purpose is to promote discovery — discovery of music and of one’s deep connection to it. And Dalcroze is not just for young children. We have classes in colleges and music conservatories, in public and private schools, and in community music programs for people of all ages. I’m delighted to learn that Dalcroze eurhythmics was part of Ms. Monk’s early music education and that it left a lasting impression.”

Many thanks for the correction, Kathy, and we promise to get it right next time.

This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.
From trentgilliss:

“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”
This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.
From trentgilliss:

“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”

This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.

From trentgilliss:

“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”


A Lullaby To Lead This Week’s Show with Meredith Monk

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The music that kicks off this week’s show with Meredith Monk was selected with a great deal of deliberation. The avant-garde singer and composer has decades worth of music to choose from — some of it quite edgy for certain ears. We opted for this track to draw in as many public radio listeners as possible.

In many ways, this track from her 2000 album, Dolmen Music, is a bit more docile; “Gotham Lullaby” is also one of her signature songs, as Bjork can testify. The Icelandic musician recently reinterpreted it for the Monk Mix compilation, a double-CD set being released this Sunday.

Heads-up: if you’re in New York on Sunday, you really ought to attend the release party at Joe’s Pub. The line-up includes DJ Spooky (executive producer of the project) DJ Rekha, Don Byron, John Hollenbeck + Theo Bleckmann, Rubin Kodheli + the North Sky Cello Ensemble, Shodekeh, and Pamela Z. Fifteen bucks includes entry and a copy of the CD!

With all the high-tech boards in our recording studios, we still do Beta. Nay, SuperBeta! (Taken with Instagram at Minnesota Public Radio - American Public Media)
With all the high-tech boards in our recording studios, we still do Beta. Nay, SuperBeta! (Taken with Instagram at Minnesota Public Radio - American Public Media)

With all the high-tech boards in our recording studios, we still do Beta. Nay, SuperBeta! (Taken with Instagram at Minnesota Public Radio - American Public Media)


Meredith Monk: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Meredith MonkLast Wednesday, the artist Meredith Monk joined our host Krista Tippett for a 90-minute conversation via ISDN. We live-tweeted highlights of this interview and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with her in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

For those not familiar with Ms. Monk, she is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer who has been creating multi-disciplinary works since the 1960s. She is best known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques.

Also a practicing Buddhist, she is a member of the Shambala sangha. Her most recent album, Songs of Ascension, is inspired by a Zen abbot who described Songs of Ascents — songs which Jews were believed to have sung in biblical times on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to the top of Mount Zion.

  1. For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with composer/vocalist/performer/ Meredith Monk —@meredith_monk 1:02 PM 11 Jan
  2. "Singing was a natural kind of language for me. I read music before I read words." —@meredith_monk 1:10 PM 11 Jan
  3. "I think of the voice as a very kinetic instrument. I think of the body and the voice as one." —@meredith_monk 1:12 PM 11 Jan
  4. "Auditions are hard on the human level…I was looking for people who could sing well, and had a radiant generosity to them." —@meredith_monk 1:14 PM 11 Jan
  5. "Auditions are hard at the human level. I like to give back to people." —@meredith_monk 1:15 PM 11 Jan
  6. "I’m really trying to do something that makes the voice universal and transcendent." —@meredith_monk 1:16 PM 11 Jan
  7. "I had the revelation that the voice could be like the body. Like the spine, it could turn, it could fall…" —@meredith_monk 1:20 PM 11 Jan
  8. "I had the sensation of something ancient, primal, visceral, preverbal expression." —@meredith_monk 1:21 PM 11 Jan
  9. "As an artist so interested in uncovering the invisible, mysterious, inexplicable, things we can’t label." —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
  10. "I was thinking of the voice as the messenger of my soul." —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
  11. "Performing is such an amazing template of human behavior: of generosity, sensitive to the environment and to other people." —@meredith_monk 1:28 PM 11 Jan
  12. "We’re taught to be distracted and diverted from feeling the good pain as in open-heartedness of the moment." —@meredith_monk 1:30 PM 11 Jan
  13. "I wanted to spend the rest of my life making pieces about things you can’t make pieces about." —@meredith_monk 1:34 PM 11 Jan
  14. "The act of making artwork was the act of contemplating something." —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
  15. "How do we spend time on this planet? How do you do work that’s of benefit?" —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
  16. "Why does worship always go up? There’s this idea of heaven going up." —@meredith_monk 1:38 PM 11 Jan
  17. "In the Buddhist tradition there’s circumambulation, that’s a different form, going around." —@meredith_monk 1:39 PM 11 Jan
  18. "I love the idea of working with strings, the bowing arm is so much like the breath." —@meredith_monk 1:40 PM 11 Jan
  19. "Maybe I should’ve called it ‘Songs of Going Up and Down’" —@meredith_monk on her new work “Songs of Ascension” 1:43 PM 11 Jan
  20. "Play is something to really think about. That sense of playfulness is another aspect of being alive, awake." —@meredith_monk 1:45 PM 11 Jan
  21. "When it comes down to it, you leave love behind…the Beatles had it right." —@meredith_monk 1: 48 PM 11 Jan
  22. "If I do use words, they’re used more abstractly…The word dissolves into pure sound." —@meredith_monk on song writing 1:55 PM 11 Jan
  23. "The older I get, the simpler the work gets…the most essential is what reaches people the most." —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
  24. "Curiosity is a great antidote to fear." —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
  25. "All of us as human beings are part of the world vocal family." —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
  26. "The human voice is the original instrument. You’re going back to the beginnings of utterance…The memory of being a human being." —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
  27. "Most of my songs deal with emotion…between the cracks of emotion." —@meredith_monk 2:10 PM 11 Jan
  28. "It was like two young children just loving each other so much" —@meredith_monk on singing for the Dalai Lama 2:16 PM 11 Jan
  29. @rosannecash - Meredith Monk (@meredith_monk) loved your interview with Krista and would love to meet you! 2:19 PM 11 Jan

Photo of Meredith Monk by Jesse Frohman.

Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place. Of course, just remaining alive and Indian for the last 150 years has been one of the hardest things imaginable. A respect for blood is a respect for the integrity of that survival, and lineage should remain a metric for tribal enrollment. But not the only one. Having survived this long and come this far, we must think harder about who we want to be in the future, and do something more than just measure out our teaspoons of blood.

David Treuer, from the Ojibwe author’s op-ed in The New York Times on ”blood quantum laws” and how they have been used historically to cast out members without pure tribal bloodlines.

Hear him talk at length with Krista Tippett about how his Ojibwe language is the only vehicle that can carry forward the unfolding experiences of culture in the On Being show "Language and Meaning: an Ojibwe Story."


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.

Most young people don’t look at history through the lens of hip-hop. Once they see this very powerful and profound history, they get a whole different respect for the culture.

Khalid el-Hakim, from the Detroit Free Press

His Black History 101 Mobile Museum educates people on African-American history and culture by displaying selections of more than 5,000 artifacts from black history in the United States. Wish I was in Dearborn last night to see some of pieces on hand…

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor


Samhain, The Thinning Veil Between Worlds, with a Witch

by Peg Aloi, guest contributor

samhain (l´esquerda / la grieta /the crack )Photo by Jordi Puig/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Like most Americans of my generation, I looked forward to trick or treating at Hallowe’en for many years. It was fun to get dressed up and wander the neighborhood with a plastic pumpkin, feeling it grow heavier with candy and other treats. And in those days, the treats were wonderful: homemade cookies! Candy apples! Caramel popcorn balls! My mother made these home-made goodies each year, too, and neighborhood kids looked forward to trick or treat at our house.

Hallowe’en was a sensory holiday for me then, and still is. The colorful costume parades, the chill in the air, the crunch of leaves underfoot, juicy apples and home-made doughnuts, the smell of burning leaves and autumn bonfires: these sensual memories mean autumn to me. Walking home from a friend’s house in the early darkness, the sight of a tree without its leaves against a violet sky filled me with spooky dread, but also a sense of awe.

And Hallowe’en was always the point when it was clear that winter was really coming: you had to prepare a costume that you could layer with an extra sweater underneath, in case it got cold. On some level the gathering of sweets mirrored the hoarding of nuts by the crazed squirrels scrambling through the fallen leaves. Children dressed as fantastical beings in diaphanous gowns, silvery suits, clothing we’d soon forgo in favor of wooly skirts and itchy pullovers. One last decadent night of hell raising before hibernation! Hallowe’en came one week after my birthday, and it was like celebrating non-stop for a week.

But being a practicing witch means I have a very different perspective on this holiday as an adult. For modern witches, Hallowe’en is known as Samhain, a Scottish term meaning “summer’s end” that marks that halfway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. We also call it Hallows, or sometimes All Souls Night. Growing up a Catholic, I sometimes attended church on All Saints Day, the day after Hallowe’en, and, as a child, didn’t quite understand the connection between the two days, and assumed the church held their Mass the day after simply because the night of Hallowe’en was just too busy and who would want to go to church when they could go door to door gathering candy?

These days, I tend to celebrate this feast of the dead in somber and often unusual ways. The coven I work with has an elaborate cycle of rituals beginning in spring and culminating at Samhain with a rite called Harvest Home, in which a young “harvest lord” is symbolically slain by his consort as a sacrificial offering to fertilize the crops and balance the cycle of life, death, and rebirth: the Eternal Return. I have been to large public rituals where guests were invited to speak of their loved ones who had passed over; I have attended vigils that were peaceful and serene, with candles everywhere and plates of food left for the dead and denizens of the Otherworld.

Some witches celebrate this holiday as the Celtic New Year, and do rituals and rites appropriate for new beginnings. This year, Samhain occurs just after the New Moon in the sign of Scorpio, a very portentous timing. The sun has also just entered the sign of Scorpio, a sign associated with death and regeneration. It is said that at Samhain, as at Beltane (May 1st), the “veil between the worlds,” or the barrier separating the world of the living from the world of the dead, grows thin and permeable, and allows us to commune with our beloved dead and our ancestors. For this reason many witches and pagans create altars dedicated to their ancestors and dead loved ones, with photos and mementos, favorite foods or flowers.

If you haven’t noticed, this holiday has become enormously popular, with the big box stores putting out decorations and supplies as early as Labor Day, and with more and more emphasis on parties, costumes, and decorations, which can mean big business for retailers (a number of whom specialize in Hallowe’en year ‘round). Related holidays are receiving more notice too, such as Mexico’s Dios de la Muerte (“The Day of the Dead”), and I know a number of witches of European ancestry who decorate sugar skulls with their children. And nearly every television network is showing horror films this month, some of them every night. Is it that our culture is becoming more interested in occult matters generally, a sort of second occult revival? Or are we merely so susceptible to social trends and their trappings that we have no idea why we’re so obsessed with the baubles and symbols of death?

Or perhaps, in our yearning for some decadence in the midst of frightening times, we grab hold of outrageous forms of fun. We recall what used to thrill us and delight us as children (horror and sugar), and even if it’s about death, it makes us feel alive, and somehow comforted. We occupy our neighborhoods with treats, and flashlights, and gaudy clothes, and glee. And know we’ll make it even more fun next year.

And the witches among you (we’re there, oh yes), we’ll also decorate our doorways with cornstalks and pumpkins, and put candle-lit skulls in our windows. We’re staving off the darkness, too.

Peg Aloi at the CloistersPeg Aloi is an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose and film critic living in Albany, New York. She’s a practicing witch who regularly writes on media for The Witching Hour and Orchards Forever.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days. 

But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:

"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.

Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.

I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”

Yes. Most definitely. Long live Fresh Air on Tumblr:

some music for your monday: npr music is streaming the new wilco album ‘the whole love’ in its entirety. enjoy!

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Yes. Most definitely. Long live Fresh Air on Tumblr:

some music for your monday: npr music is streaming the new wilco album ‘the whole love’ in its entirety. enjoy!

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Yes. Most definitely. Long live Fresh Air on Tumblr:

some music for your monday: npr music is streaming the new wilco album ‘the whole love’ in its entirety. enjoy!

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

I’m not sure Apple even thinks about the competition. They’re uniquely themselves without worrying about anyone else. When I worked for Steve there was little discussion about the competition. The aim was for us to be the most extreme version of ourselves. When you adopt that approach, it causes you to think about things in a different way.

Keith Yamashita, from "The Apple Effect" in Saturday’s Christian Science Monitor

How should we be “the most extreme version of ourselves” in our own work lives? If more of us lived out this philosophy on the job and perhaps in our personal lives, would we be better off for it? I’m thinking, “Yes!” (within reason, of course). *grin*

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor


To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service

by Rick Elgendy, special contributor

Obama and Bush Pray at 9/11 CeremonyU.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.

Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.

The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.

Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”

With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.

Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.

But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.

In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.

Rick ElgendyRick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Tuesday Evening Melody: “Hallo” by DRC Music

by Chris Heagle, technical director

Cool new music and a good cause. Hard to argue with that.

This weeks’ track comes from a new project put together by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz fame. In July, he traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a group of 11 producers to record an album in 5 days… and film the whole process. The result is a remarkable collaboration across cultures called Kinshasa One Two. This song “Hallo” appears to be the early hit from the album. All proceeds from the record will go to Oxfam, which is providing aid to those affected by the deepening humanitarian crisis in the DRC.


Communing with Beauty

by Rita G. Patel, guest contributor

"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita G. Patel"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita Patel

The architect Christopher Alexander tells this story in The Timeless Way of Building:

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.

A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.

Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.

If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.

"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."
~Etienne Gilson

Rita G. PatelRita G. Patel is an artist, chef, and business consultant living in Rochester, Michigan. You can read more of her writing at Beauty’s Invitation and see her artwork at 365 Days of Print.

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