Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More Controversy Surrounding Rick Warren's Inauguration Prayer

First the issue was the fact that Warren, a staunch opponent to gay rights, was even chosen at all. See here. Now, at issue, is whether he will refer to this first-century Jewish dude from Nazareth, whom some people worship as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity.

From the Associated Press:

Warren's inauguration prayer could draw more ire
By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll, Ap Religion Writer
Tue Dec 30, 9:35 pm ET

President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation drew one kind of protest. Whether the evangelical pastor offers the prayer in the name of Jesus may draw another. At George W. Bush's 2001 swearing-in, the Revs. Franklin Graham and Kirbyjon Caldwell were criticized for invoking Christ. The distinctly Christian reference at a national civic event offended some, and even prompted a lawsuit.

Warren did not answer directly when asked whether he would dedicate his prayer to Jesus. In a statement Tuesday to The Associated Press, Warren would say only that, "I'm a Christian pastor so I will pray the only kind of prayer I know how to pray."

"Prayers are not to be sermons, speeches, position statements nor political posturing. They are humble, personal appeals to God," Warren wrote. His spokesman would not elaborate.

Evangelicals generally expect their clergymen to use Jesus' name whenever and wherever they lead prayer. Many conservative Christians say cultural sensitivity goes way too far if it requires religious leaders to hide their beliefs.

"If Rick Warren does not pray in Jesus' name, some folks are going to be very disappointed," Caldwell said in a recent phone interview. "Since he's evangelical, his own tribe, if you will, will have some angst if he does not do that."

Advocates for gay rights protested Obama's decision to give Warren a prominent role at the swearing-in. The California megachurch founder supported Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his home state. Obama defended his choice, saying he wanted the event to reflect diverse views and insisting he remains a "fierce advocate" of equal rights for gays.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist who is considered the dean of the civil rights movement, said he hasn't yet written the benediction for the Jan. 20 ceremony. But he said "whatever religion the person represents, I think he has a right to be true to his religion."

Caldwell, also a Methodist, said no one from the Bush team told him what to say in his 2001 and 2005 benedictions.

The Houston pastor said he had "no intention whatsoever of offending" people when he quoted from Philippians and delivered the 2001 prayer "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ." In 2005, he still prayed in Jesus' name, but added the line, "respecting persons of all faiths." In the 2008 election, Caldwell supported Obama.

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who was a presence at presidential inaugurations for several decades, said it's wrong to expect members of any faith to change how they pray in public.

"For a Christian, especially for an evangelical pastor, the Bible teaches us that we are to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. How can a minister pray any other way?" Franklin Graham said. "If you don't want someone to pray in Jesus' name, don't invite an evangelical minister."

Graham, who in 2001 stepped in for his ailing father, ended the invocation with, "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit."

The lawsuit, which claimed that inaugural prayer was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, failed in federal court. It had been filed by atheist Michael Newdow, who separately sued to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Billy Graham, now 90, didn't say Jesus' name during presidential inaugurations, but made obvious references to Christ.

At Richard Nixon's 1969 swearing-in, Graham prayed "in the Name of the Prince of Peace who shed His blood on the Cross that men might have eternal life." In 1997, for Bill Clinton's inaugural, Graham prayed "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Leaders of other traditions with experience in interfaith work said they respected Christians who felt strongly that they should pray in Christ's name.

But they argued that a request for some modification is reasonable for a presidential inauguration, considering it's an event representing all Americans.

Imam Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University who travels to Muslim countries on behalf of the State Department, said that at interfaith events, he refers to Allah, or God, as "almighty creator of us all."

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, said he invokes "God" for interfaith prayer.

"I know that for Christians, Jesus is part of their Trinity," said Visotzky, who has taught at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Protestant seminaries in the U.S. "For me as a Jew, hearing the name of a first-century rabbi isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's not my God."

I think Burt Vizotsky has a mature attitude here: why should he be offended by other people practicing their religion? It is just not his God. In an interfaith setting, one should not efface one's identity to some lowest common denominator, but let every identity stand out and dialogue with one another. Each retains one's own religious identity, yet, at the same time, is sensitive to others' beliefs, practices, and traditions. So, what is the right thing to do? Is it better in this national setting to be vague and therefore represent "all Americans," as if that were even possible. Or is it more "American" to just be yourself, retain your individuality in the face of opposition? I personally do not care if Warren invokes Jesus, if an imam invokes Allah and in a national prayer speaks of the "seal of the prophets." I don't care if a Catholic refers to Pope Benedict XVI or if a Tibetan refers to "His Holiness the Dalai Lama." I don't care if a Jew refers to "Ha-Shem." While we're at it, why not have someone invoke Vishnu. I don't care if an atheist invokes...nothing! Let them all just be themselves, and not try to make others into their own image. This is not just an issue of "liberal hypersensitivity" and over-political correctness, as it seems to be billed. I am very liberal, but I am neither particularly sensitive nor politically correct (I have this strange belief that everyone should be offended from time to time in their most cherished value--whether religious, political, etc.--utopia for me is everyone offending everyone else; equality is everyone making fun of everyone else equally). No, because if we had a Hindu give the opening invocation, the fear would be on the other side, that Siva or Vishnu or Krishna may be invoked! No, this is an infection that seems to affect all sides. It would be best, perhaps, if we had as many different groups as possible invoke their deity or deities or non-deity to reflect the broad marketplace of religious options in the U.S. The problem is that we do not have enough time for them all to invoke these things at the inauguration. Yet the other problem is that if we pressure Warren to reflect all Americans by being vague, he'll end up reflecting no one. I can ultimately see both sides of the issue, but I think Polonius in Hamlet was right, "To thine own self be true." Just as I would hate for a Hindu to give in to pressure not to invoke his deity or deities, the same holds true for Warren.

Also, perhaps a bit of clarification on the last point in the article about a "first-century rabbi": Burt Visotzky wrote an article on the development on the term "Rabbi" and came to an interesting conclusion--that the earliest document to refer to someone as a "rabbi" in terms of "teacher" (rather than its etymological sense of "great one") is the New Testament in reference to Jesus. Interesting thing for the rabbinic movement (out of which all modern forms of Judaism really derive) that the earliest document to use this terminology is the Christian scriptures in regard to Jesus. By the way, I took a class with Visotzky on Midrash.

The Best-Selling Bible and its Commodification

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. In fact, it continues to be a best-seller year-in and year-out with an estimated 25 million copies sold yearly. Several people may realize this, but for those who have not been paying attention, the Bible now comes in all shapes and sizes. If you live in NY, just go down to the American Bible Society (just north of Columbus Circle), and you'll see Bibles as comic books, as survival kits, the green Bible, etc. The Bible has become adapted to all niche markets, or nearly so. As reported by the Wallstreet Journal:

It's an astonishing fact that year after year, the Bible is the best-selling book in America -- even though 90% of households already have at least one copy. The text doesn't vary, except in translation. The tremendous sales volume, an estimated 25 million copies sold each year, is largely driven by innovations in design, color, style and the ultimate niche marketing.

There's Scripture as accessory, wrapped in hot pink fake leather or glittery psychedelic swirls -- or sporting a ladybug on the cover for no particular reason other than it's cute. There's Scripture as political statement: A new Green Bible, printed in soy ink on recycled paper, highlights passages with an environmental theme.

There are gross-out Bibles for boys, which dwell on scenes of mayhem, and glossy teen-magazine-style Bibles for girls, complete with beauty tips. One of the latest entries, Bible Illuminated, offers an art-house take on the New Testament, juxtaposing the gospel with glossy photos of Angelina Jolie, Al Gore and anonymous victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Some people may be disturbed by the commodification of the Bible in this way, but it is nothing new--think of those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In a way, the comic book bible is just another illuminated manuscript for today:

The Bible "should be able to stand on its own" without adornment, said Mr. Frederickson. "It's a pretty amazing book."

But publishers across ages have recognized that the Bible can also be a profit center.

The monastic scribes who spent their lives copying religious texts in the Middle Ages threw themselves into their work as a measure of devotion -- but also to generate income for their monasteries.

By the 13th century, interest in the Bible had inspired a new industry of commercial publishing houses, which hired armies of scribes to crank out portable handwritten copies for university students. These publishers were the first to promote a sense of the Bible as a single book, with the chapters presented in fixed order.

"It was an essential text. Students would invest in it the way people today buy a computer or a car," said Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the manuscript library at the abbey of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

The Bible was the first book to roll off Johann Gutenberg's printing press in the mid-15th century. By the late 17th century, the ancient text was being printed in several languages and translations across Europe and the American colonies.

"Whether the Bible has got any transcendental truth in it or not, it is the most popular book, the most circulated text, of all time. It has never not been a No. 1 best-seller," said Christopher de Hamel, a British scholar of biblical manuscripts.

The difference may be the niche marketing. While earlier Bibles may have been unique in their hand drawn and written manner, or pumped out on a massive scale with the printing press, niche marketing is the product of more recent times. This marketing strategy has produced not a proliferation of Bibles, but a proliferation of types of Bibles:

The modern era of niche marketing began in the 1980s, when Bible publishers hit upon the idea of appending commentary aimed at particular audiences, such as women or teens. They highlighted the verses most likely to appeal to those groups and wrote volumes of supplemental material -- study notes, prayers, even advice-column-style questions and answers.

That format proved wildly popular; these days, you can buy Bibles tailored to alcoholics, archaeology buffs, fans of Japanese comics and any number of other interest groups. The Soul Surfer Bible, aimed at teen girls, sprinkles tips on catching a good wave, lists of surfer slang such as "tubular" (meaning, more or less, awesome) and life lessons about hope, faith and hard work into the traditional Biblical text. The Golfer's Bible draws on passages about steadfastness and contemplation to advise duffers on their swings. The Japanese Manga version retells biblical stories in comic-book form, complete with sound effects like "Biff!" and "Pow!"

I have been holding back. The article is really about providing context for a couple new hand created Bibles in Mobile, Alabama, which, although modern in style (one, though, is supposed to be "homespun"), remind me of the older days of scribes and illuminated manuscripts, works of art in themselves. So, do check out the website (linked above) and take a look at the pictures! The Manga Bible looks kind of cool.

Tips for Seeing Tonight's Planetary Show

A follow-up on my last posting about the coincidence of the Moon and Venus from (although I picked it up from Yahoo! News):

Celestial Show Set for New Year's Eve
Robert Roy Britt
Editorial Director robert Roy Britt
editorial Director
Tue Dec 30, 11:47 am ET

A delightful display of planets and the moon will occur on New Year's Eve for anyone wishing to step outside and look up just after sunset.

Venus, brighter than all other planets and stars, will dangle just below the thin crescent moon in the southwestern sky. It'll be visible -- impossible to miss, in fact -- just as the sun goes down, assuming skies are cloud-free.

Soon thereafter, Mercury and Jupiter will show up hugging the south-southwestern horizon (just above where the sun went down) and extremely close to each other. Jupiter is very bright and easy to spot; Mercury is faint and harder to see, but it'll be apparent by its location just to the left of Jupiter.

Jupiter and Mercury will set less than an hour after the sun, so timing your viewing just after sunset is crucial. You'll also need a location with a clear view of the western horizon, unobstructed by buildings, trees or mountains.

All the planets, along with the moon and sun, traverse an arc across our sky called the ecliptic, which corresponds to the plane in space that they all roughly share. For this reason, you could draw an imaginary line from the general location of Venus and the moon, down through the other two planets, and the line would point to where the sun went down. This line could also initially help you find Jupiter and Mercury.

Weather permitting, you can get a preview of the sky show on Tuesday, Dec. 30. On this evening, the planets will be in nearly the same place they'll be on Dec. 31, but the moon will be midway between Venus and the Mercury-Jupiter pairing.

One last trick:

Venus is so bright you can see it during daylight if you know where to look. Given Venus' proximity to the moon on New Year's Eve, this would be an excellent moment -- just before sunset -- to use the moon to help you find Venus and gain bragging rights for being one of the few people to be able to claim seeing more than one planet during the daytime (Earth being the other one).

Happy viewing! And have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Into the Western Skies

Having been couped up in NYC with all of its light pollution, I had not noticed something in the western sky that has been occurring, it seems, since November for a few hours after sunset. Indeed, while I am currently ensconced in the midwest and a much clearer night sky, I was startled to see an immensely bright object in the western sky very near the moon. At first I wasn't even sure what it was, but had a hunch which was proven correct by later inquiry--it is Venus, the third brightest object in the sky from our vantagepoint (after the sun and the moon).

On November 30, you could see it in conjunction to Jupiter. Tomorrow night, December 31, it will be at its closest conjunction to the moon! (So head out and look at the two brightest objects in the night sky next to each other.) On Jan. 22, with the help of binoculars or a telescope, you can see Venus one degree away from Uranus. Venus will continue to appear brighter every evening and reach its brightest appearance, appropriately, just after Valentine's Day.

If you, like me, went a long time without noticing, get out where you can see the night sky and take a look--it is really bright.

Get some info here.


What type of sentence (I asked myself) will an absolute mind construct? I considered that even in the human languages there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say the tiger is to say the tigers that begot it, the deer and turtles devoured by it, the grass on which the deer fed, the earth that was mother to the grass, the heaven that gave birth to the earth. I considered that in the language of a god every word would enunciate that infinite concatenation of facts, and not in an implicit but in an explicit manner, and not progressively but instantaneously. In time, the notion of a divine sentence seemed puerile or blasphemous. A god, I reflected, ought to utter only a single word and in that word absolute fullness. No word uttered by him can be inferior to the universe or less than the sum total of time. Shadows or simulacra of that single word equivalent to a language and to all a language can embrace are the poor and ambitious human words, all, world, universe. (Borges, "The God's Script," trans. L.A. Murillo)

By this standard, God's speech in Job falls far short, since God speaks for far too long.

Benefits of Religion: Self-Control

The NYTimes reports that, after collating evidence from 80 years of study from around the world, consistently those who are involved in their religious institution of choice have a higher level of self-control than those who do not.

This is an awkward question for a heathen to contemplate, but I felt obliged to raise it with Michael McCullough after reading his report in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. He and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.

This sounded to me uncomfortably similar to the conclusion of the nuns who taught me in grade school, but Dr. McCullough has no evangelical motives. He confesses to not being much of a devotee himself. “When it comes to religion,” he said, “professionally, I’m a fan, but personally, I don’t get down on the field much.”

His professional interest arose from a desire to understand why religion evolved and why it seems to help so many people. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.

These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.

“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” Dr. McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

The article also deals with the issue of self-selection: perhaps people already with more self-control go to church rather than going to church leading to greater self-control. But, in addition to this, the article goes through some well-worn information about the brain activity of those meditating:

“Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”

But for those of you who describe yourself as "spiritual" but not "religious," the results actually do not work for you!

In one personality study, strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low.

“Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”

It is about a community structure, a social mechanism, that inculcates particular values, that gives interpersonal communal support, while, at the same time, engages in collective rituals. Nonetheless, belief, too, has a place. Just going to church evidently doesn't count either:

Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.

But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.

This seems to be the strangest part of the study for me (there are some other flags to raise as well): how do you control for intrinsically religious and extrinsically religious? Do you just ask people which they are? Do people admit to coming to church only to impress people? Although perhaps they might in a laboratory setting, where none of their fellow churchgoers are around, where they don't feel the need to impress people.

Where's all of this going? How, then, can a non-believer become more self-controlled for a New Year's Resolution?

Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.

Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”

Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.

“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”

Maybe not belief in God, per se (let's not leave out the Buddhists who can be enormously self-controlled!), but integration into a system of beliefs, symbols, and practices.

Ultimately, however, I wonder what behaviors count as constituting self-control and what behaviors constitute a lack of self-control? Would not these shift from context to context?

Here are the behaviors casually dropped as mere examples (not the full set of behaviors) in the article (and these are not necessarily in any order of importance):

Conscientiousness to fellow human beings
Taking vitamins
Wearing seatbelts
Going to the Dentist

Lack of Self-Control:
Pre-Marital Sex

Whose values do these behaviors reflect? Whose do they fail to reflect? Or, were these values chosen for the NYTimes article for the newspaper's primarily American readership, while other valued behaviors from studies of other places and other religious contexts were excluded? The article does not disclose this information. The information about the brainscans showing the activation of the parts of the brain that account for self-control during meditation and so forth is interesting, but we might need to control for what counts as self-control.

Breaking News: Virgin Mary Gives Birth to Jesus IN PERU

That's right, according to Reuters, Virgin Mary gave birth on Christmas Day to a baby boy, whom she named Jesus. Virgin Mary's husband or Jesus' father is a carpenter by trade.

Peruvian Jesus born to Virgin Mary on Christmas
Mon Dec 29, 2008 10:02am EST
LIMA (Reuters) - Virgin Mary, a 20-year-old Peruvian woman, gave birth to a baby boy on Christmas day and named him Jesus, Peru's state news agency said on Friday.

The baby's father, Adolfo Jorge Huamani, 24, is a carpenter. Religious Peruvians compared him to Joseph the Carpenter in the Bible.

"Two thousand years later the story of Bethlehem is relived," read the headline about the birth in El Comercio, the main newspaper in Peru, a predominantly Catholic country.

The mother, Virgen Maria Huarcaya, delivered the 7.7 pound (3.5 kg) boy, Jesus Emanuel, in the early hours of Christmas at the central maternity hospital in Lima, the capital.

"A few days ago we had decided to name my son after a professional soccer player," the father said. "But thanks to a happy coincidence this is how things ended up."

(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Vicki Allen)

This is just too weird while I am in the middle of reading Borges, whose stories often discuss the repetitions of history, the circularity or convolutions of time, etc. He would eat this up!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Judas, God, and Hell

For those furiously revising and revisiting Judas traditions in the wake of the discovery and continued study of the Gospel of Judas, it might do some good to read Borges' short story, "Three Versions of Judas." It is, as usual, labyrinthine in presentation, provocative, and amazing! The story, using basically just the canonical Gospels and some heresiological reports, revises the relationship between Jesus, God, and Judas.

It suggests that Judas seems unnecessary. For a teacher who performs public miracles in the day and has a large following, it should not be difficult to find him. Therefore, Judas' betrayal seems superfluous. It seems to exist only for the purpose of damning Judas. Yet it is a superfluity that signals that something else is going on in the story, something subterranean.

The Word, when it was made flesh, passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from limitless satisfaction to change and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice, it was necessary that one man, in representation of all men, make a sacrifice of condign nature. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, alone among the apostles, sensed the secret divinity and terrible intent of Jesus. The Word had been lowered to mortal condition; Judas, a disciple of the Word, could lower himself to become an informer (the worst crime in all infamy) and reside amidst the perpetual fires of hell.

Judas, therefore, reflects Jesus, Jesus' descent. He is Jesus' counterpart, in some way. While the Word came into the world and the world knew him not, Judas is the only person to sense Jesus' divine nature. He betrays not out of greed, but out of asceticism. He does not mortify his body as commonplace ascetics do; he mortifies his soul:

He renounced honor, morality, peace and the kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure.

He premeditates the worst sin, the sin that lacks any taint of morality or any positive traits: betrayal of trust.

There is another thing to consider: if God became man in the fullest sense, God must be capable of sin. Sinlessness and humanity cannot coincide. To err is human, to speak. Moreover, to LIMIT God-as-man's suffering to a mere afternoon on a cross to save all humans is blasphemy. It seems too tiny of a price for the salvation of all.

Where is all of this leading? Mortification of the spirit is greater than mortification of the body. The world knew the Word not, but Judas knew him. Judas' betrayal earns him eternal suffering. To say that God suffered a mere afternoon is NOT ENOUGH. In short, to save the world eternally, God must suffer eternally.

The famous text, "For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of the dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:2-3) is, for many, a future vision of the Saviour at the moment of his death; for others (for example, for Hans Lassen Martensen), a refutation of the beauty which vulgar opinion attributes to Christ; for Runeberg, the punctual prophesy not of a moment but of the whole atrocious future, in time and in eternity, of the Word made flesh. God made Himself totally a man but a man to the point of infamy, a man to teh point of reprobation and the abyss. To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas.

To revile one's flesh on the cross was not enough. To become Jesus was not low enough. To save humanity, God mortified his spirit, and now and forever dwells in the torments of hell as Judas.

One and All; One is All

Whatever one man does, it is as if all men did it. For that reason it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew should be sufficient to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer was right: I am all other men, any man is all men. Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon. (Jorge Luis Borges, "The Shape of the Sword," trans. Donald A. Yates)

Another Borgesian Quote: "Funes the Memorious"

I was reading Borges' short story, "Funes the Memorious." It is the tale of a Uruguayan boy who, one day, falls off a horse and, when he awakens, sees the world anew. In fact, he has perfect perception--he can see clearly all the most minute details. He can feel the most subtle changes in temperature, etc. At the same time, he awakens to a perfect memory. He remembers everything, absolutely everything. Every detail, every sight, every sensation. He can recall a day, but to do so takes an entire day. By comparison, our perception and memory are a dreamlike haze:

For nineteen years he had lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything. When he fell, he became unconscious; when he came to, the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant and trivial memories. Somewhat later he learned that he was paralyzed. The fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (he felt) that his immobility was a minimum price to pay. Now his perception and his memory were infallible. (trans. James E. Irby)

To be able to see everything in its slightest detail and remember every detail: what an amazing ability and what a torture. For him, he could see aging occur by the second. His own hands one second are not the same in the next: he can perceive how they had changed in that second, and remember that change perfectly.

He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult fo rhim to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).

But, indeed, here is the rub. With perfect perception and perfect memory, how does one actually comprehend? How can one create thought? Does not thought involve generalization and categorization and so forth? Does it not involve organizing? In short, does not thought necessitate a certain degree of forgetting? Funes lives in a pure world of experience, of details. Yet he cannot see similarity, but only difference. He cannot compare, but only contrast. When everything, absolutely everthing, is different and must have its own label (even what we "vaguely" perceive as the same dog a minute later), how does one actually take in the world? When you see every detail, the smallest, minutiae, a single room may be overwhelming with pulsating life, much less anything larger.

With no effort he had learned English, French, Portuguese, and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

Interestingly, the narrator proceeds to tell the story in the manner of forgetting, that is, through indirect, and therefore imprecise, speech. One person's memory of another's perfect memory is itself imperfect, a product of forgetting, and therefore capable of secondary reflection, of thought.

Quote of the Day: Borges, "Library of Babel"

It seems like I am thinking about Babel/Babble lately with my last post and just (re)reading "Library of Babel" by Borges. I had read this short story in college, and it has persisted in my memory ever since. This library is eternal and infinite. Each room is a hexagon with the same number of shelves and books on each wall (except two). Two walls lead to adjacent hexagons, while a spiral staircase infinitely moves up and down to different floors with ever new hexagons. There are no two books alike in the library, but the books contain all possible combinations of twenty-five symbols, with all possible syntaxes, languages, books, writing, and, well, babble. As such, this same blog posting will be already found somewhere in the library (as well as any past and future postings I may write and miswrite). The inhabitants of this library are called librarians. The main character is a librarian who has been searching for the book of books, the catalogue of catalogues, all of his life...and has failed. This character reflectively writes:

In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe; I pray to the unknown gods that a man--just one, even though it were thousands of years ago!--may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified. (trans. James E. Irby)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Babble Before Babel: A Brief Essay into Excitable Speech

Sitting one Sunday in a Pentecostal service, I listened as someone began to “speak in tongues.” Such occurrences have a strange effect on me. I grew up in this church, and have noticed a sharp decline in the past decade or so of people speaking in tongues (and a slight recent resurgence), and so, at least psychologically, there is a strange feeling of comfort, of reminiscences of my childhood when such utterances occasionally occur. I care much less for the so-called “interpretation” afterwards, the attempt to make this excitable speech intelligible. It always seems like a betrayal of that speech, which, as excitable, should remain unknowable. At the same time, I am a scholar of religion. I cannot but think about that this is a phenomenon that occurs in multiple contexts throughout the world, whether a Shaman on the Eurasian Steppes (you can also see it in the movie Kundun, about the life of the current Dalai Lama), the Pythia in ancient Delphi, or a Pentecostal service in twenty-first century America: both the excitable speech and the attempt to interpret it. I now almost automatically notice the social and psychological triggers and very subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cues that allow and disallow this speech, as is true with any meditative or altered state. I also know the theological and historical paths this has taken: Acts 2, the xenolalia, or speaking in foreign tongues, which undoes the damage of Babel, restoring human communicative unity, and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 where Paul brags that he speaks in tongues more than any of the excitable Corinthians did. Yet, with Paul’s situation, it is no longer xenolalia but glossolalia, not speaking in foreign languages but speaking in completely unintelligible sounds—seemingly babble, like the Pythia. These babblings are the “tongues of angels,” or in the Pythia’s case, the tongue of Apollo.

These sounds, often derided by outsiders as mere babble, have absolutely no clear signification. This is not the infinite play of signifiers as discussed in contemporary linguistics, but speech that simply does not signify anything. But, in that may be its importance or its power for those who participate in this practice. Unlike the infinite play of signification, this non-signification has the potential to signify anything. Perhaps on some level, that is what I like about this practice of excitable speech: it is pre-signifying language. It is a non-language of infinite potentiality. That is also why I dislike the “interpretations” that always accompany speaking in tongues: it concretizes one particular path of signification excluding all others. For this same reason, I find the Delphic oracles as less problematic: they remain more obscure and ambivalent (at least the more famous ones), their meaning remains elusive or, in another sense, they remain in the realm of potentiality to a far greater degree.

But there is another element of the speech before speech, this non-signifying speech that I never thought of before. On this particular Sunday, I was sitting in church with my 11-week-old niece. In a moment of subconsciously Freudian inspiration, hearing her garbled cooing at the same time as the glossolalia struck a chord. It reminded me: God has given wisdom to babes and hidden it from others; unless one becomes like a child, one cannot enter the kingdom of God. Is this glossolalia, this garbled speech, this “babble,” a return to childhood, to the brainwaves of speaking before language, a return to the presignifying language of a baby? Is there a direct correlation between them? When anyone in any religious context (the Shaman, the Pythia, the Pentecostal), does this, does the practitioner’s excitable speech (unconsciously) recreate that early moment of non-differentiation? Moreover, when early Christians (or at least the author of Luke-Acts) thought they were reversing Babel with this, how were they imagining pre-Babel language? What was this “one language” before Babel? Jewish tradition says it was Hebrew; Hebrew is the language of God and all others were the “confusion.” Islam claims Arabic. And so on. Yet this speaking in the unintelligible tongues of angels may provide a different answer. I wonder, and can only wonder, if it is this excitable speech that simulates or reenacts the cooing of babies (those who have wisdom hidden from adults), which can only occur extemporaneously or in altered states of consciousness. At least in this context, by returning to baby-speak, practitioners of glossolalia return to pre-Babel speech, moving beyond (and by beyond, I mean before) differentiated speech patterns of any known and knowable language. By speaking in tongues, they return to childhood, they return to pre-Babel, and they precipitate heavenly speech (since they are all the same)—the unintelligible, unknowable speech of infinite potentiality that has not yet been ossified and confused into intelligible language. That reverses the situation: what we speak daily is post-Babel babble, and those moments of excitability designate the true speaking—speech that does not yet signify anything and therefore potentially signifies anything and everything, creating a surfeit of meaning so great that it is completely unintelligible.

Fantastic Reality, Real Fantasy: Reading Borges

For my winter break, I am reading Borges. In Borges, worlds collide, or rather they infiltrate one another. They are not the infiltrations of worldviews or of governments into one another, although secret societies are involved. Rather, it is the mutual infiltration of fantasy and reality. How reality becomes fantastic or fantasy becomes real. It is the task of imagining a world. A world of pure imagination, and yet to imagine is to rearrange what you know--or, more accurately, rearrage what you perceive. Perceptions become reversed, as in a mirror, turned upside-down and twisted all around, until you find a world of fantasy, a world of pure imagination. And then, once Borges has set up this alternate world of pure fiction and imagination, he starts pulling the threads of reality. He begins to drain our perceived world of its reality and the imagined world feels more real. In fact, it begins to impinge on our reality, or, perhaps more accurately, this imagined world begins to manifest itself unexpectedly.

Yet Borges takes this to another level of verticality--and one does feel some vertigo when reading Borges--in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Uqbar appears to be a fictitious country of no clear placement that appears in four pages of one copy of an encyclopedia, which, in turn, is an adaptation of another encyclopedia. In this unknowable and unknown Uqbar, Uqbarians fabricated purely fanciful stories of an imaginery planet, Orbis Tertius, named Tlon. Yet the imagined fictions of Tlon then begin to appear in one volume of an encyclopedia of Tlon. This encyclopedia catalogues all one needs to know about Tlon, although only one volume of it survives. One discovers its geography, its language, its mathematics, its metaphysics, and so on of this completely imaginary world, yet an imaginary world systematically catalogued in weighty encyclopedic form. The form is very important: it is both labyrinthine, appearing chaotic, but completely orderly, cosmic.

At first it was believed that Tlon was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally.

This world, an imagined world within an imagined world, recreates its past, which is as plastic as the future. Doubling accomplishes this, and a convoluted sense of time. If all things have a double, then when one loses a pencil, for example, you can keep looking to find its counterpart. These counterparts then develop counterparts. Images of images of images, reflected endlessly as if in a hall of mirrors, yet, the image itself is just as real. It is the simulacrum, images without an original copy. Or, more exactly it turns the simulacrum on its head--images in which ALL become the original or, in a Platonic moment, participate in the original. Each can be grasped, can manifest itself. If one creates an image (an imagined image) of what you might think the past would be like, you eventually will find the artifact of that image. Reversing the process, the image creates the original, the imagination creates the real. As such, Tlon itself, which is an image of an image, begins to manifest in this world, reshaping our world, transforming a fanstasy twice removed into our own cosmic perspective until we truly are the Orbis Tertius.

Here are some quotations of the fictively real place. Or perhaps it is more of a time, the plastic past or potential future. Or, better yet, a non-true, which is not necessarily false, trace of something that lies on the boundaries between memory and forgetting:

The metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

I like this type of metaphysics! It seems to have a much more worthwhile goal. Yet is this not the only metaphysics possible in the constant reproduction of images that in turn produce the original itself? Truth lacks meaning. Astonishment seems more fundamental.

One of the schools of Tlon goes so far as to negate time: it rasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, athat the past has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is onlyt eh crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process.

In literary practices the idea of a single subject is also all-powerful. It is uncommon for books to be signed. The concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous. The critics often invent authors: they select two dissimular works--the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say--attribute them tot he same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres...

Fathers without Borders

With the large growth of the Catholic population in the U.S., mostly due to the influx of immigration from Latin America, combined with a huge downturn in the number of Catholic seminarians, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is experiencing a priest shortage.

In an attempt to rectify this problem, many U.S. dioceses are recruiting priests from around the world, particularly Africa and Latin America, but also places like India, to fill churches in places like Kentucky (which has seen a surge in Latin American immigration in the past 10 years). Foreign priests-to-be also make up about 1/3 of all Catholic seminarians in the U.S.

The shortage is to the point that many priests, at the moment, have to serve four or five churches at the same time, rushing from church to church to perform mass. It is a crazy lifestyle, but one that reminds me of what the Methodists did in the 19th century, when their ministers had to circulate from church to church on horseback.

See the full, rather lengthy, article here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hoc Est Corpus Meum

You want to know where your Communion / Eucharist wafers come from? Well, if you are in the U.S., it probably comes from one place, a single bakery in Rhode Island that services 80% of Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Southern Baptist churches--interesting combination. This bakery has been owned and operated by the Cavanagh family for well over 60 years.

The family-owned company makes about 80 percent of the communion bread used by the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in the United States. It has a similar market share in Australia, Canada and Britain, and is now looking to expand to West Africa.

“We feel as though we’re a bakery, and all we’re making is bread,” said Andy Cavanagh, the company’s general manager, and part of the fourth generation of Cavanaghs to work here. “It’s not that we don’t have respect for what happens to it, but that transformation is out of our hands and takes place in a church. The best thing we can do is make sure the bread is perfect in every way possible.”

It seems kind of strange to me to speak of "market share" with regard to the body of Christ (if that's your belief). It is not just "eating Jesus" (which is how I refer to the Eucharist) but "selling Jesus." While Jesus has been commercialized with fun things like Bobble-head doll Jesus or Jesus action figures (you can get all the major deities), this is a market that at least is necessary for the regular operations of the churches. Although, I do admit that I like the Jesus kitsch. The Cavanagh family evidently does its job well, particulary not making their Jesus too crumbly:

It doesn’t crumb, and I don’t like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor,” said the Rev. Bob Dietel, an Episcopal priest.

Mr. Dietel uses Cavanagh altar bread at his parish, St. Aidan’s, in Camano Island, Wash. He likes that the large wafer, which he holds up and breaks during Mass, cracks cleanly.

A few years ago, the congregation switched to the wheat wafer the Cavanaghs make from the white.

“There’s a nice clean bread flavor, as opposed to the paste flavor you have with some other breads,” Mr. Dietel said.

Indeed, I bet if Jesus is all over the floor in crumbs, it would be quite a problem. I don't guess you could just vacuum him up?

I wonder, does transubstantion differ between wheat bread and white bread?

Perhaps part of the draw is the variety; you can order your Jesus Crackers in many ways:

There are plenty of varieties. The company sells both white and wheat flour wafers, in sizes ranging from one and one-eighth inches wide to nine inches wide. Some are double-thick, and all except the large ones can be embossed with designs including a cross or a lamb.

I wonder if you could request other designs? If you could emboss any design into a Communion wafer, what would it be?

Anyway, find the full article from the NYTimes here. Mmm....all this talk about eating Jesus is making me hungry.

Bibliotopia: Urban American Literacy

I should first note that when I say "biblio-" in the "bibliotopia," I am not referring to the Bible, but to books in general. Ask Stephen Prothero about biblical literacy in the U.S. This Bibliotopia is about where, in what cities, people read the most. USA Today has just reported on the top ten most literate cities in the U.S.

Tied at number one are Minneapolis and Seattle, which have alternated between number 1 and 2 for years, evidently:

For the past six years, the two cities have traded the first and second spots in the rankings, which analyze six key indicators of literacy (newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment and Internet resources) against population rates for cities with populations of 250,000 or more.

The study does not look at reading test scores or how often people read, but what kinds of literary resources are available and used. This is "one critical index of our nation's well-being," says study author Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.

The findings come at a time when newspaper circulations across the USA are declining, and online newspaper reading is increasing. Miller's analysis suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the availability of free online news is not to blame for the decline in newspapers' print circulation — and that neither is the decline in bookstores across the country caused by the rise in online book buying.

Cities that ranked higher for having more bookstores also have a higher proportion of people buying books online, the analysis found, and cities with newspapers that have high per-capita circulation rates also have more people reading newspapers online. Likewise, cities that ranked higher for having well-used libraries also have more booksellers.

So, basically, people who like to read will read everything and acquire their books either online or in a good old fashioned bookstore. I know I do both. It is convenient to buy books online, but there is something about browsing shelves, finding a book, and purchasing it at the store. My students looked at me incredulously this year when I talked of just browsing the stacks in the library when working on research projects instead of always using online methods. Of course, it is best to use multiple methods...

"Cities that rank highly in one form of literate behavior are likely to rank highly in other forms and practices of literacy," says Miller, noting that a literate society tends to practice many forms of literacy, not just one or another. are the top ten cities:
1. Minneapolis and Seattle (tied)
3. Washington, D.C.
4. St. Paul
5. San Francisco
6. Atlanta
7. Denver
8. Boston
9. St. Louis
10. Cincinnati and Portland, Or (tied)

Minnesota has TWO cities in the top ten (in fact, in the top 4!!!). They must be readers up there...although, when it gets so cold out in the winter, there may not be much else to do. My home city (or close to it) of St. Louis made the top ten, but alas my current city of NY is nowhere to be seen on the top ten. Nonetheless, if you are in even these cities, perhaps you should not celebrate too early. When comparing the U.S. to the world, the U.S. comes in 31st!

See the USA Today release here. And the report the release is based upon is here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas

Because it is my mother's favorite Christmas song, here it is: "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas."

What a beautiful view that default screen gives us!

Boardgames this Christmas

With the economy down and kids off from school, game consoles are down in sales, but traditional boardgames like Scrabble and Monopoly are actually way up in sales. They provide a rather cost-effective entertainment, family time, etc.

From the Times (London):

Board games have been forgotten lately, in favour of games consoles and brainteasers such as Su Doku. But now, with the kids on holiday and financially flummoxed families looking for cheap ways to entertain at home, they are winning again.

Initial signs suggest that sales of old stalwarts are enjoying a resurgence this Christmas. According to NPD, the market analysts for the toy industry, Mattel's Scrabble is topping the family games category, with sales up 21 per cent on last year.

In August this year, Monopoly's latest incarnation, Here & Now: The World Edition, launched simultaneously in more than 50 countries and 37 languages. The brand's September sales accounted for 9.6 per cent of the entire UK games market. With the world on its knees, a game where the aim is “to be the only player left after everyone else has gone bankrupt” is finding that the streets are paved with gold.

I know that with my budget I have been focused more on boardgames, particularly Trivial Pursuit (in several versions found at garage sales) with my gf, but also the occasional Scrabble. Then my family for the holidays always likes to play Boggle and Chicken Feet (a particular domino game). I occasionally get a Chess game in with someone, too. I was also just today at the mall thinking about picking up the ancient Chinese (and then Japanese) boardgame, Go. Indeed, boardgames have been around for MILLENIA, and I doubt they will go away anytime soon--as long as there is an economic recession, at least.

Unlike video games, which kids invariably complete and then forget, a good board game can last a lifetime - or longer. Games such as Backgammon, Mancala, Parchisi and Go have been around for thousands of years. Several sets of Senet, the world's oldest known board game dating to around 3500BC, were found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

That's right--you can't get past this post without a bit of history, particularly ancient history. I remember there is an ancient Greek game called "Knuckle-bones" as well. So, here's to boardgames this Christmas and beyond. Many of them are intellectually challenging, but only insofar as you have to out-strategize your fellow players (like Go). Others are part luck, part strategy, and those often level the playing field for everyone.

Evolution of Deceit

One of the themes I emphasized this last fall in my class is the use of deceit in literature. You can find it almost in any ancient document. It is rife in the Odyssey, Aeschylus' Oresteia, and perhaps most prominent in Genesis. You can find traces of it in the Iliad, in the Hymn to Demeter, and so on and so forth. It is probably the clearest common thread of mcuh of ancient literature. And...uh...modern behavior with all the recent scams and scandals in the news.

But, we are not the only ones with the penchant for deceit. It turns out it is quite common in the animal world, particularly among other primates:

In a comparative survey of primate behavior, Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found a direct relationship between sneakiness and brain size. The larger the average volume of a primate species’ neocortex — the newest, “highest” region of the brain — the greater the chance that the monkey or ape would pull a stunt like this one described in The New Scientist: a young baboon being chased by an enraged mother intent on punishment suddenly stopped in midpursuit, stood up and began scanning the horizon intently, an act that conveniently distracted the entire baboon troop into preparing for nonexistent intruders.

See the rest of this New York Times article here.

The Taqwacores: Muslim Punk

That's right; Muslim punk is spreading across the U.S. About five years ago, a book came out and spread among micro-networks of primarily young Muslims fed up with the Bush Administration's policies, general non-Muslim attitudes, and more conservative Muslim leaders. How do you critique and express frustration? Through punk bands. This book is about punk bands and Islam. The book inspired an entire subculture of young Muslim punk bands. That subculture is now inspiring an independent film based on the book, "The Taqwacores."

Here is the article from the NYTimes:

December 23, 2008
Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book
CLEVELAND — Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called “The Taqwacores,” about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo.

“This book helped me create my identity,” said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Conn.

A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. “When I finally read the book for myself,” she said, “it was an amazing experience.”

The novel is “The Catcher in the Rye” for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.

Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book.

A group of punk artists living in a communal house in Cleveland called the Tower of Treason offered the house as the set for the movie. The crumbling streets and boarded-up storefronts of their neighborhood resemble parts of Buffalo. Filming took place in October, and the movie will be released next year, said Eyad Zahra, the director.

“To see these characters that used to live only inside my head out here walking around, and to think of all these kids living out parts of the book, it’s totally surreal,” Mr. Muhammad Knight, 31, said as he roamed the movie set.

As part of the set, a Muslim punk rock musician, Marwan Kamel, 23, painted “Osama McDonald,” a figure with Osama bin Laden’s face atop Ronald McDonald’s body. Mr. Kamel said the painting was a protest against imperialism by American corporations and against Wahhabism, the strictest form of Islam.

Noureen DeWulf, 24, an actress who plays a rocker in the movie, defended the film’s message.

“I’m a Muslim and I’m 100-percent American,” Ms. DeWulf said, “so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American.”

The novel’s title combines “taqwa,” the Arabic word for “piety,” with “hardcore,” used to describe many genres of angry Western music.

For many young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks but repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders, the novel became a blueprint for their lives.

“Reading the book was totally liberating for me,” said Areej Zufari, 34, a Muslim and a humanities professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla.

Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found “The Taqwacores” four years ago.

“Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me,” she said, “and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together.”

The novel’s Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.

Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims.

Mr. Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad.

He said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.

After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.

One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called “Suicide Bomb the Gap,” which became Muslim punk rock’s first anthem.

“As Muslims, we’re not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves,” said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, “the Revolution” in Arabic.

For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.

Hanan Arzay, 15, is a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco who lives in East Islip, N.Y. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, pedestrians threw eggs and coffee cups at the van that transported her to a Muslim school, she said, and one person threw a wine bottle, shattering the van’s window.

At school, her Koran teacher threw chalk at her for requesting literal translations of the holy book, Ms. Arzay said. After she was expelled from two Muslim schools, her uncle gave her “The Taqwacores.”

“This book is my lifeline,” Ms. Arzay said. “It saved my faith.”

I think I just might see that movie.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Hanukkah with Matisyahu

If you want to celebrate Hanukkah Reggae-style, you can see Matisyahu and his giant mirrorball dreidel this week:

Matisyahu deployed what may be the only large, mirrored, rotating dreidel in show business — a Jewish answer to a disco ball — at Webster Hall on Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah. It was also the first of eight New York City shows for Matisyahu in his third annual Festival of Lights series, bringing different opening acts and guests each night. A large menorah was set up for a mid-concert lighting ceremony, with the blessings declaimed in Hebrew by an audience volunteer.

See more here.

A Christmas Song (Ph.D. Comics Version)

Homosexuality and Rainforests...WHAT? I thought that Rick Warren's analogy between gay marriage and brother-sister marriage was bizarre. I also thought his analogy between homosexuality and pedophilia ridiculous--unless he is stuck in Periclean Athens. But the award for the strangest homosexuality analogy goes to Pope Benedict XVI:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

"(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration.

"The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuality is not sinful, homosexual acts are. It opposes gay marriage and, in October, a leading Vatican official called homosexuality "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound."

The pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."

He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart)

Yes, he did. B16 just compared homosexuality to the destruction of the rainforests. I wonder if he was watching the Discovery Channel while writing his sermon, because, otherwise, this seems like the most bizarre analogy I have ever heard, and I cannot explain it. While Warren's comparisons were just outright distasteful, this one is just mindboggling. "Listen to the language of creation"? That's interesting, since biologists now tell us that there are many many animal species, particularly mammals, that engage in homosexual behavior on a regular basis. Would not this show homosexual relations to be natural, and, indeed, part of the language of creation? Or do all of these other animal species' behavior also indicate "a destruction of God's work"? Or is he just worried about the language of PROcreation?

UPDATE: There are some reactions to the Pope's speech recorded by the Times (London). Here is an interesting snippet from an ex-friar:

Mark Dowd, campaign strategist at Operation Noah, the Christian environmental group, who is a gay man and a former Dominican friar, said that the Pope’s remarks were "understandable but misguided and unfortunate".

He said that he understood the Pope’s vision of creation in which rainforests were protected and men and women "complement one another, reproduce and live happily ever after".

But he said: "The problem is that if you study ecology seriously as any intelligent man would do, and the Pope is a fantastically intelligent man, you realise that ecology is complex, it has all sort of weird interdependencies and it is the same with human sexuality.

"It is not a one-size-fits-all model, there are lots of differences, so therefore I think it is really sad that these comments betray a lack of openess to the complexity of creation."

The Angel of History

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History")

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Narnia is a mongrel thing, and so is Christmas"

On Narnia and Christmas: two things created out of a conglomeration of elements...but how old are they? An article from the NYTimes claims that MOST of our ideas of Christmas are...Victorian!

December 18, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
It’s a Narnia Christmas

EVERY Christmas, I re-read C .S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The holiday seems like the ideal time for an excursion into my imaginative past, and so I return to the paperback boxed set of “The Chronicles of Narnia” that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was 10. For me, Narnia is intimately linked with the season.

I’m not alone. In Britain, stage productions of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” are a holiday staple, for good reason. The book rests on a foundation of Christian imagery; its most famous scene is of a little girl standing under a lamppost in a snowy wood; and Father Christmas himself makes an appearance, after the lion god Aslan frees Narnia from an evil witch who decreed that it be “always winter, and never Christmas.”

That I’m not a Christian doesn’t much hinder my enjoyment of either the holiday or the book, but the presence of Father Christmas bothered many of Lewis’s friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, whose Middle-earth was free of the legends and religions of our world, objected to Narnia’s hodgepodge of motifs: the fauns and dryads lifted from classic mythology, the Germanic dwarfs and contemporary schoolboy slang lumped in with the obvious Christian symbolism.

But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.”

Christmas as we now know it is much the same sort of conglomeration, and when people call for a return to its pure, authentic roots, they’re missing an essential quality of the holiday. Narnia is a mongrel thing, and so is Christmas. As is often the case, this mongrelizing is the source of its strength.

Complaints about the corruption, dilution or fundamental impiety of Christmas have been made for centuries. The Puritans so mistrusted the holiday that its celebration was outlawed in 17th-century Boston. Around the same time, the German theologian Paul Ernst Jablonski asserted that Christmas amounted to a paganization of the authentic faith because the date, Dec. 25, had been appropriated from a festival for a Roman solar god.

(Some Christian scholars, including the current pope, have actually argued that the appropriation went the other way around, and the solar festival was in fact a heathen bid to co-opt the feast day of an increasingly popular monotheistic cult.)

On the other side, non-Christians who relish the holiday like to point out that many Christmas icons — the decorated tree, the Yule log, mistletoe — were originally sacred to Celtic and Northern European pagans.

Yet even the Yuletide customs that are supposedly pagan holdovers must be taken with a grain of salt. We have no written records of the cultures from which they supposedly derive; everything we know about them comes second- and thirdhand from Roman or Christian writers pursuing their own agendas and relying, for the most part, on oral sources.

For decades, historians and folklorists have understood that oral traditions are not very reliable when they refer to anything reputed to have happened more than 100 years ago. What’s presented as hoary legend is in fact more likely a justification of present conditions than an accurate account of the past.

Druids, for example, have over the years been refashioned as the descendants of Noah, as bardic romantics, even as sexual egalitarians; in fact, much of what people think they know about the ancient beliefs and rites of Northern Europeans was concocted by early 20th-century occultist outfits like the Ancient Druid Order and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

The British historian Ronald Hutton describes this sort of thing as indicative of “the power of literary fiction over fact.” We believe what we choose to believe, and Christmas is no exception.

In recent years, popular histories like “The Battle for Christmas” and “Inventing Christmas,” have shown that many of the holiday’s most hallowed rites, traditions we think of as extending back at least as far as C. S. Lewis’s beloved Middle Ages, were invented less than 200 years ago by such 19th-century literary figures as Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and, of course, Charles Dickens. More than Christian or pagan, Christmas is a Victorian fabrication.

Is this, though, such a bad thing? The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity. Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.

Our contemporary, semi-secular Christmas is similarly a collection of everything yearned for: warmth, plenty, peace, family, conviviality. Like Narnia, the holiday is a fantasy, but there are times when a fantasy is exactly what you need.

Laura Miller, a staff writer at Salon, is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.”

While I am a bigger fan of J.R.R. Tolkien than of C.S. Lewis, I still say here's to fantasy without purity! I am a huge fan of eclectic and "mongrel."

Obama and Warren Controversy

Some people were worried when Obama and McCain appeared at Saddleback Church for their first public meeting on the same stage months ago during the Presidential seemed then mostly due to separation of church and state issues. Now people are upset that Warren is offering a prayer at Obama's inauguration...not because of separation of church and state issues (there is ALWAYS a prayer at these events), but because of Warren's positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. While I personally differ with Warren on these issues also, there are a few things to make clear. Warren is NOT like Dobson or other evangelical leaders. He does not incite divisiveness in the way they do, although he's made some rather crude analogies vis-a-vis gay marriage lately. He does try to create coalitions with people who differ with him on many issues: thus he has been effective working on issues of poverty and HIV/AIDS with people who oppose him on other social issues. Although he does not support gay marriage, he did not energize his media machinery to pour support into Proposition 8 either (and he lives in California)--on the other hand, his prominent position in making certain statements surely has an effect. He also, unlike other people like Dobson (the old guard religious right in general), does support hospital visitation rights, etc., for same-sex couples...although this comes across as a second-rate consolation prize for marriage, separate and unequal.

Oh, by the way, recall Obama's position on gay marriage during the election? Anyone? It actually isn't far off from this (at least on the surface). It was one of the things that he and McCain agreed on.

Nonetheless, here is a full article from the NYTimes about it:

December 20, 2008
Obama’s Choice of Pastor Creates Furor
CHICAGO — With his choice of the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has found himself enmeshed in a new controversy involving a pastor, facing criticism this time from liberal and gay rights groups outraged at the idea of including the evangelical pastor at a Democratic celebration.

Mr. Obama’s forceful defense of Mr. Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has signaled an intent to continue his campaign’s effort to woo even theologically conservative Christians. As his advisers field scores of calls from Democrats angry because Mr. Warren is an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama has insisted that a range of viewpoints be expressed at the inauguration festivities next month in Washington.

“That’s part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here this week. He added, “That’s hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.”

The growing alliance of Mr. Obama and Mr. Warren — each of the two publicly refers to the other as “friend” — suggests that Mr. Obama hopes to capitalize on the signs of potential generational and political divisions within the evangelical Christian flock. For his part, Mr. Warren is increasingly being spoken of as a kind of minister to the nation, a status previously occupied by the Rev. Billy Graham.

V. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, whose consecration caused a painful divide in his church because he is openly gay, said that when he heard about the selection of Mr. Warren, “it was like a slap in the face.”

Bishop Robinson had been an early public endorser of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, and said he had helped serve as a liaison between the campaign and the gay community. He said he had called officials who work for Mr. Obama to share his dismay, and been told that Mr. Obama was trying to reach out to conservatives and give everybody a seat at the table.

“I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table,” Bishop Robinson said, “but we’re not talking about a discussion, we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.”

It is not Mr. Obama’s first brush with trouble at the intersection of religion and politics. In his presidential campaign, he struggled with how to handle his longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose sermons on race and patriotism stirred outrage. After initially defending him, Mr. Obama ultimately broke ties with Mr. Wright and the church.

Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Obama inauguration, said Friday that including Mr. Warren was not a decision based on politics. Ms. Douglass said Mr. Obama and his team had not second-guessed the decision to invite him, despite the controversy.

“This is a guy with whom he has found common ground on issues such as fighting for social justice on behalf of the poor, people who have H.I.V./AIDS,” Ms. Douglass said. “There are many areas where they do agree and have had a very productive discussion.”

Among Christian conservatives, reaction to Mr. Warren’s acceptance of the invitation to deliver a marquee prayer at Mr. Obama’s inauguration was subdued or supportive, perhaps in part because few Christian leaders are inclined to publicly criticize someone with enormous popularity among American Protestants of all stripes.

Some politically minded Christian conservatives took a cynical view of Mr. Obama’s motivations.

“In my view, the new president is trying to exploit Warren,” Gary L. Bauer, the Christian conservative organizer and former Republican presidential candidate, wrote on Friday in an e-mail newsletter. He urged supporters not to take Mr. Warren’s role as an endorsement, calling attention to Mr. Obama’s distance from the pastor on social issues.

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics, saw the invitation to Mr. Warren as a sign that Mr. Obama planned to keep courting religious conservatives as he tried to build a coalition behind his agenda to govern.

“This shows Obama’s pragmatism,” Mr. Green said, noting that Mr. Obama was in a sense paying Mr. Warren back for his signs of support during the campaign, including an invitation to Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church that reverberated through the evangelical world.

The Rev. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, said that he and Mr. Warren were friends, but they disagree on issues like gay marriage and abortion. And yet, he said, “I think it is a terrible mistake for anyone to view Rick Warren as being in the same category as James Dobson or Chuck Colson,” who are among the most prominent leaders of the religious right.

“He’s a new breed,” said Father Balmer, a longtime scholar of American evangelicals, who recently became rector of an Episcopal church.

He said that unlike many other evangelical pastors, Mr. Warren had not devoted as much time or effort in support of Proposition 8, a measure on the California ballot in November that amended the State Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

In a recent interview with the Web site Beliefnet, Mr. Warren said that allowing same-sex couples to marry was no different from allowing a brother and sister to marry.

But he also said that same-sex marriage was less of a threat to the American family than divorce. Mr. Warren said that he supported partnership rights for gay people, including insurance coverage and hospital visitation rights, a position that is not widely accepted among evangelical conservatives.

Richard Socarides, who was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton in charge of gay and lesbian policies, said the disappointment among gay-rights supporters over Proposition 8 made Mr. Obama’s decision to invite Mr. Warren more difficult to understand. He called it a “serious miscalculation that will anger a lot of people and will be hard to undo.”

“It’s not like he’s introducing Obama at some campaign rally in the South,” Mr. Socarides said. “He’s been given this very prominent, central role in the ceremony which is supposed to usher in a new civil rights era.”

Jeff Zeleny reported from Chicago, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Washington. Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.

It is interesting that he rates divorce as worse than gay marriage, which, actually, makes sense for a biblically minded person, since the Bible says very little about homosexual relationships and says a lot more about divorce. See my posting here on that. The whole thing about a brother and sister getting married being equal to gay marriage is just weird. But, here is the interesting thing about it (from a historical point of view). ONE: marriage between brother and sister IS attested throughout history--particularly among ancient royal families (most especially Egyptians). Although I doubt Warren was intended to activate those remembrances and was going for a more visceral reaction of disgust among conservatives--hardly a basis for legal issues. TWO: the passage in Leviticus that opposes MALE homosexual relations is embedded in a chapter that opposes incest. Perhaps he is picking up on the context of the one of two places the bible opposes homosexual relations (again, between men), although I am not sure if he is intentionally picking up on this relationship or not. While this analogy has a context in ancient Israel, if this context of his analogy is right, it is also part of selective reading, once again, since I'm sure he doesn't follow all the other rules of Leviticus either! So, he is going for visceral reactions and/or picking up on a book of the Bible that no Christian actually follows (except picking out this particular chapter). Neither of which sould constitute the legal parameters of marriage.

So, is having Warren offer a prayer at the inauguration a ringing endorsement of all of Warren's points of view? Not really--although Obama also technically opposed gay marriage during the election. Is it mere political maneuvering as the religious right maintains? I also doubt it. I actually thought Obama's defense made a certain amount of sense: we can disagree without being disagreeable. It makes a certain amount of sense in another way: while ideologically different, they both appear to me to be pragmatists. People who are willing to work with other people on a particular issue that they may agree on to actually get something done while bracketing those issues that they disagree, perhaps vehemently disagree, on. Isn't it this kind of coalition building that Obama campaigned on? Remember his lines that we may not agree on abortion, but we can all agree on reducing unwanted pregnancies, etc. To me, this is just an example of following through on his campaign positions. On the other hand, for people who have been struggling for equal rights and recognition all their lives, for people who have seen so many setbacks, there is a time to be angry.

For full disclosure, I was a TA for Randy Balmer (quoted in the article above) in his class, Evangelicalism, a class that exposed some of the frightening aspects of different varieties of evangelicals (and there are some very very widely variant groups under this fairly broad label) as well as, from my political position, some hopeful parts (especially evangelicals mobilizing for environmental issues, poverty, etc.). Indeed, as the article alluded to above, there are increasingly larger fissures among evangelicals not only theologically but politically. Some are becoming more and more entrenched on the far right. Others are becoming quite liberal and progressive. Yet most people are conservative on some issues and liberal on others--it is often, in my experience, issue specific.

Friday, December 19, 2008

At a Turtle's Pace

As I continue to dawdle through Walter Benjamin's essays, I am often struck at some details. In fact, as Benjamin reads, he writes. He reads for details, the obscure, buried detail the perspective from which brings new light upon the rest of the writing, or the world. To read this way, to see this way--which for Benjamin is the same, since he was one of the foremost proponents, if not the catalyst, for reading the world as a text--one must dawdle. Not necessarily with a great deal of concentration, although that is sometimes required, but more like someone walking, browsing without urgency. It is not skimming, for that suggests that one is in a hurry. Just as Benjamin read the world as a text, he strolls through texts. It is only appropriate that one of his footnotes best captures this attitude:

A pedestrian knew how to display his nonchalance provocatively on certain occasions. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flaneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had ahd their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularized the watchword "Down with dawdling!," carried the day. (Walter Benjamin, "One Some Motifs in Baudelaire," n. 6)

Benjamin is the literary flaneur, or the image of one in a world that no longer produced them. And it is the dawdling flaneur who best represents the art of reading, at a turtle's pace. It is the turtle who sets the pace of the world, in the ideal world that could not survive in the reality of industrialization, but only in an image, a displacement--the book.

Quotation; Interruption

From Walter Benjamin's "What is Epic Theater?"

One can go even further and remember that interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring. It goes far beyond the sphere of art. To give only one example, it is the basis of quotation. To quote a text involves the interruption of its context.

In a way, by quoting this text about quotation, I have interrupted Benjamin's context, his discussion of the "quotable gesture" in epic theater. As my quote stands, you may not even realize that this is about gestures or even theater, except that I have told you so. Yet this violence of extraction allows the quotation to take wing; it reinvigorates it with new life as I place it in a new context. Yet to quote also interrupts the context of placement. When I quote something, it interrupts my own prose, creating a cacophany of voices, or, to put in M. M. Bakhtin's terms, heteroglossia. I often find in reading other people's work that I find moving from someone's own prose to a quotation can be quite jolting. When reading my own work, I find that I skim through my own quotations. But that is probably because I already know them.

But quotation as an interruption necessary for all structuring is merely an example of interruption, merely part of the chaos necessary for cosmos. It reminds me so much of Aristophanes' hiccups in Plato's Symposium. After Pausanias (I think it was him anyway) gives rather beautiful if not overwrought sentiments about Eros, a solemn moment, Aristophanes begins to hiccup, bringing us back down to reality that we are participating in a drinking party in celebration of Agathon. This, too, is part of Plato's larger structuring devices, part of the larger point that we cannot maintain meditation too long, we cannot attain knowledge, pure knowledge, and stay there. We must, too, hiccup. We are not (yet) bodiless souls. This interruption, though, foreshadows that of Alcibiades, who crashes the party and, while everyone else gives a speech about Love, Eros, Alcibiades launches into a drunken speech in praise of Socrates. Yet, in this very drunkenness we find amazing sublimity mixed with crassness. Through Alcibiades' eulogizing, we find that Socrates, a very ugly man, may be the best illustration of the form of Beauty, a beauty well beyond sense perception, the desire/love for which (re)produces virtues, leading one closer and closer to the true knowledge of Beauty and Good. In these cases, indeed, interruption is the basis for order. Or, at the very least, it makes structuring intelligible and tolerable.