Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spanish Catholic Church vs. "Pagan" Halloween

According to the London Times, the Spanish Catholic Church with the backing of the Vatican has come out completely against the celebration of Halloween. The article quotes an earlier, more lenient position taken by the Vatican as follows:

The Vatican appeared previously to take a more lenient position. Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, once said: “If English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year, that’s not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm.”

But the Spanish hierarchy begs to differ.

Wearing skeleton suits, dressing up as vampires, witches or goblins or slapping on fake blood is not far removed from communing with the Devil, according to the country’s bishops.

However, the bishops, with Vatican backing, have reserved their venom for the millions of parents who allowed their children to celebrate this “pagan” festival.

Father Joan María Canals, the director of the Spanish Bishops Conference Committee on Liturgy, condemned parents for permitting their children to go to “un-Christian” parties when they should be focusing on All Saints Day today and All Souls Day on Monday.

All Hallows Eve is the Christian appropriation of an earlier "pagan"--specifically Celtic--holiday called Samhain. As I discussed in my previous post, if one wants to do away with holidays that have "pagan" elements, one would also have to do away with Christmas and Easter. And I do not think the church is going to claim those as anti-Christian and communing with the Devil. Frankly, dressing up in cute, clever, and sometimes gory costumes going door-to-door asking for candy is a pale reflection of the "pagan" roots of the holiday. Easter is probably closer to its pagan background! Very helpfully, the article gives a history of the holiday from Celtic origins, to Roman appropriation, to Christianization, and finally Americanization (which is basically synonymous with commercialization):

• The Celts wore costumes made from animal heads and built large fires to celebrate their new year, which fell on November 1. New Year’s Eve on October 31 was known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) and marked the end of the “season of the Sun” (summer) and the beginning of “the season of darkness and cold”( winter). Although this 2,000-year-old version of Hallowe’en did not include trick or treating, it was far from dull.

• The Celts would burn crops and animals as offerings to their gods. Before the celebration, the ancient people would extinguish all fires other than the central bonfire, and scare each other with fortune-telling and prophesying

• The Romans later adapted this festival of the dead to honour the goddess of fruits and trees, Pomona. This is the most likely reason why, on Hallowe’en, we still bob for apples

• In the year AD835 the Roman Catholic Church made November 1 a holiday to honour all the saints. Although it was a joyous holiday, it was also the eve of All Souls Day, or All Hallows, so in medieval times it became customary to pray for the dead on this date

• Hallowe’en’s modern popularity can be attributed to the Americans. Because the celebration was largely free of any religious connections, it was quickly embraced by a broad swath of immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. Today Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion (£4.2 billion) on Hallowe’en each year

Nowhere in the early stages was there anything about candy, there was no trick-or-treating, and, although there were costumes, I doubt many of us are wearing real animal heads. There are scary stories, however. The bonfire sounds fun.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Es tu Paganus?

As all hallow's eve approaches, the NYTimes has an article on the polytheistic background of the highly commercialized holiday (well, aren't all holidays these days?): the autumnal festival of Samhain.

Many people probably know that most of our "Christian" holidays rely upon an older calendar of European religious festivals, referred to as "pagan":

Certainly, there is nothing new about Paganism per se. From Halloween to May Day to Yuletide, said Prof. Diana L. Eck of Harvard Divinity School, “There’s a way in which all of us, especially in the Christian tradition, follow a religious calendar that is pegged to ancient Pagan festivals.”

One might add all of the fertility imagery (rabbits and eggs) in Easter. It was recognized early on by Christian leaders that it would be easier to convert people and keep them in the fold if many of the practices and festivals of the older religions were retained in some form and re-framed in Christian terms--that is why Christmas is December 25th, which used to commemorate the Sol Invictus ("unconquered sun"), and now commemorates the "unconquered son." Even for those who converted and their successors, the older polytheistic practices and beliefs have retained a strong hold: we are all still their successors.

More generally, however, the article focuses on groups and individuals who self-identify as "Pagan" or even "Heathen," and their struggle for official recognition. Sub-groups include Wiccan and Druid.

"Pagan" is an interesting word to identify oneself by. It literally means "villager." During the spread of Christianity in late antiquity, it began to be used to refer to those who did not convert and held onto their earlier religious traditions. Since Christianity spread fastest through a network of cities in the Roman Empire, most of the holdouts lived in the villages; thus, the term "pagan" was applied to a particular set of religious practices. But it was a "dustbin" category--it referred to anyone who was neither Christian nor Jewish. It was a pejorative term.

Nonetheless, as one of the ultimate terms of creating an outsider, an other, in societies that came to be dominated by Christians, "Pagan" has been adopted as a self-identifying term for those who practice or who resurrected these earlier religious forms with some modifications: most ancient forms of European and Near Eastern polytheistic worship included some sort of animal sacrifice, which is excluded in modern iterations (yet this is true of all religious movements--the modern versions bear faint resemblance to their ancient forebears). I have a feeling, however, that the variegated movements that fall under this broad umbrella appropriated this term due to the need for official, governmental protection. It is, in a way, useful so that each individual group would not have to fight for recognition separately. I do not know, however, to what degree someone who practices Wicca would recognize their similarity with someone who is a Druid except insofar as their common history of exclusion and their struggle for recognition. But, on the other hand, the same may be said for the difference between a Russian Orthodox Christian and a Southern Baptist.

Es tu Paganus? To at least a small degree, most of us are even if by the shattered remnants that have survived the ages in new clothing, even if that is not our identifying term.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Swine Flu and Religion: the Hajj

Disease, particularly on an epidemic scale, often affects religion. I might point to what Thucydides, for example, says about religion during the great plague of Athens in the fifth century BCE at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. As people died of the plague and the plague spread, all social bonds broke down. He writes:

Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.47; trans. Rex Warner)

The complete abandonment of religion (and all law) is a rather extreme version of how disease affects religious observance. But less extreme but still significant changes, mostly coming from religious authorities have been put into play with multiple religions.

A couple weeks ago we heard about changes in Catholic services, when the common cup for Eucharist ceremonies was removed and holy water was no longer available to stem the spread of swine flu. Many churches--as with so many other institutions--are now decked out with hand sanitizer.

But perhaps the biggest change I have seen is in Islam: Saudi authorities are worried that the hajj, the largest gathering of humans on the planet, will be a breeding ground for the flu.

“The hajj is a central ritual of Islam, and our country tries to make it easy for everyone to come,” said Dr. Ziad A. Memish, the country’s assistant deputy minister for preventive medicine. “We’ve said we won’t turn away anyone who arrives at our borders. But we are recommending to other countries whom they should let come.”


While religious pilgrimages feed the souls of those who attend, they often endanger the bodies. There have been several outbreaks of meningitis in Mecca since 1987, and in 2004, Muslim pilgrims spread polio from northern Nigeria across Africa to Saudi Arabia and from there outward to Yemen and Indonesia.


It will be impossible to stop the flu from arriving, the authorities acknowledge, and hard to slow its spread. But they are trying to lessen the damage by keeping the most vulnerable pilgrims away. Every country gets an annual limit as to how many pilgrims it can send. This year the Saudis suggested barring anyone who is pregnant, under age 12, over age 65 or suffering from diabetes, chronic lung, heart, liver or nerve disease, or some other conditions. Psychologically, the ban is hardest on the old and the sick, Dr. Memish said.

In countries with large Muslim populations, many applicants get one or two chances in a lifetime at the pilgrimage that every Muslim is supposed to make, and “some people save money for their whole lives to do it,” he said. More than half of all pilgrims are over 50. In a normal year, many of those desperate to come before they die are pushed in wheelchairs or carried around the Kaaba and through the other rituals.

The new swine flu vaccine could end all the Saudi worries, but only a few countries have even small amounts available, and the Saudis want anyone with access to it to have the shots at least two weeks before arrival.

Godspeed to all making the pilgrimage this year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some Considerations of "Absolute Space" and Sacred Spacetime

In my work of developing a spatiotemporal approach or a "poetics" of spacetime, I have been reading through Henri Lefebvre's Production of Space. For the most part, Lefebvre privileges spatial over temporal dimensions, but, in his defense, he claims he does so because this is a tendency of capitalist societies--privileging of space and the subordination of time is a quality of what he is studying. Nonetheless, in so doing he does show a certain sensitivity to time's relationship to space and how this relationship shifts from society to society, or, perhaps more accurately, from mode of production to mode of production.

One aspect of space he considers is "absolute space," and it is his comments on this type of space I would like to use as a jumping off point in developing an understanding of sacred spacetime. He writes:

Considered in itself--"absolutely"--absolute space is located nowhere. It has no place because it embodies all places, and has a strictly symbolic existence. This is what makes it similar to the fictitious/real space of language, and of that mental space, magically (imaginarily) cut off from the spatial realm, where the consciousness of the 'subject'--or 'self-consciousness'--takes form. Absolute space is always at the disposal of priestly castes. It consecrates, and consecration metaphysically identifies any space with fundamentally holy space: the space of a sanctuary is absolute space, even in the smallest temple or the most unpretentious village church. The space of tombs, for its part, unless it contains a god or a monarch, is analogous merely to the spaces of birth, death or oblivion. Absolute space, being by definition religious as well as political, implies the existence of religious institutions which subject it to the two major mechanisms of identification and imitation. These mental categories, destined to become those of imagination and reflective thought, first appear as spatial forms. The material extension of absolute space occurs by virtue of these processes, to the benefit of priestly castes and the political power they exercise or serve.
(Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space, 236-7; trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith; emphases original)

The first thing to consider is that absolute space differs from abstract space. Absolute space is not abstract, geometrical (Euclidean) space. The question is how is absolute space both everywhere and nowhere? Is it what consecrates as Lefebvre claims, or is it what is consecrated? Consecration--the creation of holy space--indicates a degree of separation and if there is separation and such differentiation, it cannot be everywhere in fact. Although it can be anywhere and everywhere in potential in the sense that consecration of space could theoretically occur to any space, turning any space into absolute/sacred/holy space. It is in this sense that, Lefebvre next says, it is "ritually affixable":

Being ritually affixable to any place and hence also detachable therefrom, the characteristic "absolute" requires an identifying mark. It therefore generates forms, and forms accommodate it. Such forms are microcosms of the universe: a square (the mandala), a circle or sphere, a triangle, a rational volume occupied by a divine principle, a cross, and so on.
(ibid., 237)

The "identifying mark" is its differentiation. Its marks are, indeed, its symbolic elements--they are the elements upon which meaning and, perhaps, a surplus of meaning is imputed. As such, it can be affixed to any place, but cannot be all places at once, except insofar as it contains all places. In this consideration, therefore, absolute space is the macrocosm. It consecrates, if we give absolute space agency as it seems Lefebvre does (which seems problematic to me), other spaces to become absolute spaces as well as microcosms. Thus the village temple, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., are microcosms that mirror the macrocosm. But, as the first paragraph quoted emphasizes, it is not just by imitation of the macrocosm that the microcosm becomes absolute space, it is also by identification. The macrocosm that contains the microcosm is fully present in the microcosm contained within it. So, although one might say that absolute space is everywhere insofar as it contains all space, on the other hand it is only accessible through the differentiated, marked spaces that are in some way holy. This means that we have to move a step beyond Lefebvre. He has suggested three relationships between macrocosmic (my word) absolute space and microcosmic absolute space: (1) the first consecrates the second; (2) the second imitates the first; and (3) the second identifies with the first. But imitation and identification are not quite enough to explain the relations of the two and encompass the claims that absolute space is everywhere and nowhere. Beyond imitation and due to identification, these differentiated, marked microcosms must also participate in the macrocosmic space.

I would contend, moreover, that these maneuvers pertain to time: we might say something about "absolute" time (which to me sounds like a nice substitution for "eternity") and absolute time's consecration of a marked time (through liturgies, rituals, etc.) and marked time's imitation and identification with absolute time, which, moreover, participates in absolute time. It is something that is again "ritually affixed." But this ritual affixation, moreover, suggests something else: it is a moment, an event, that concurrently organizes or coordinates this marked time with the marked space. Indeed, once we take agency away from "absolute" space and/or time, it give it to the ritual actors--the "priestly castes," perhaps--through the ritual actors' bodily movements and manipulations (and movement is where space and time coincide since one always moves through space and time together) the differentiations and relative sacrality of the entire spatiotemporal environment are created (or, in Lefebvre's terms, produced and reproduced).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Illustrating Genesis: R. Crumb's New Graphic Version

Today I purchased R. Crumb's new The Book of Genesis: Illustrated. Many bibliobloggers have been discussing the release of this book lately, showing a pre-released page or two. My local independent bookstore, Book Culture, has had this featured on their shelves for weeks now, even though it is much before its official release date of October 28. Kudos to Book Culture for being able to get this weeks before it is available elsewhere.

I have merely glanced at it so far, so my comments are necessarily cursory. The illustrations are very earthy--even those of angels and God (although God appears a bit luminescent). It freely depicts what the Bible describes (e.g., Adam "knowing" Eve, or any other sex scene in Genesis with some nudity--such as bare breasts or butts, and, when not explicitly nude, nipple outlines show through clothing). I was interested in looking at Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, which illustrates the internal turmoil of Abraham through his facial expressions, particularly his eyes, which have both a searingly hard and troubled look, and the drawing of sweat. If you turn to Jacob wrestling with the man/angel/god, that figure looks just as human as Jacob. One recurrent element I find interesting is the use of jewelry. Women are often depicted with nose rings, men with earrings, and there are necklaces galore. Crumb is very interested in hairstyles and beardstyles. Styles of jewelry and hair clearly indicate social elements of gender and class. It shows an attention to middle-eastern styles of dress and detail.

It looks to be an enjoyable rendition of Genesis. It is the only copy of either a complete or portion of the Bible that comes with a warning: "Adult supervision recommended for minors." I think this should be the case for the Bible when not illustrated! Not necessarily for the sexual encounters described, however epigrammatically, but the violence involved.

Three Days

Jesus said, "Earthly life consists of three days: a yesterday over which you have no control, a tomorrow which you do not know whether you will attain, and a today which you should put to good use."

(Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Minhaj al-'Abidin; trans. Khalidi, Muslim Jesus)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some Sayings from the Muslim Jesus

Christ said to his followers: "If people appoint you as their heads, be like tails."

"Blessed is he who sees with his heart but whose heart is not in what he sees."

Christ said, "The world is a bridge. Cross this bridge but do not build upon it."

Christ said, "Be in the middle but walk to the side."

'Abdallah ibn Qutayba, 'Uyun al-Akhbar 1:266; 2:268, 328; 3:21 (Trans. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To Know and to Do

Jesus said, "It is of no use to you to come to know what you did not know, so long as you do not act in accordance with what you already know. Too much knowledge only increases pride if you do not act in accordance with it."

Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Zuhd (trans. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus)

A Don's Life by Mary Beard

Mary Beard, the prominent Classicist and always-provocative and insightful writer, has turned her blog, A Don's Life, which is associated with the London Times, into a book.

The book reprints some selected posts, as well as including quite a few comments (and I think that debate actually makes the book). It also has an essay, by yours truly, on the nature of blogging -- and why I am a convert to the genre, despite many initial misgivings about dumbing down etc etc.

I hope you'll like it.

This of course raises a publication question: why would anyone buy the book if they could just look at her blog for free?

Nonetheless, it sounds very intriguing:

I'd like to think that anyone planning to apply to a so-called "elite" university would find some reassurance here: Oxbridge interviews really aren't as mad as they are made out to be, and you'll find some useful reflections from someone on the "wrong" side of the interview in the book. You'll also find a glimpse of the day to day life of a don -- much less port, and much more hard work than is usually painted (though even the blog cant quite capture what my everyday life is like ... no student would fancy seeing our discussion dissecting her essay reprinted on the web).

You'll also find some debunking of classical myths (Did the Romans wear togas? Well, not often -- about as we wear dinner jackets). And you'll come across some sharp commentary on 'new' classical stories in the headlines, not to mention some expostulation about the world as we know it (why do mixed institutions make it so hard for women to find the women's loo?)

Not to mention the occasional pointed rant on "the erotics of pedagogy', or on the Elgin Marbles.

I frankly did not realize she had a blog. But I have added it to my feed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Anglicans, Catholics, Poaching, and Marriage

So there has been a lot of discussion of Pope B16's welcoming of Anglican bishops and priests who want to defect into the Catholic Church (after a re-ordination). From the Anglican side, it has been seen as "poaching" and "predatory" as discussed by the London Times. It is "poaching" more conservative Anglicans who have problems with the ordination of women and (openly) gay clergy. On the other hand, this maneuver to attract conservative Anglicans has instigated the paradoxical speculation of a possible result of "liberalizing" the Catholic clerical structure. Since the move by the Pope allows MARRIED Anglican clergy to defect to become Catholic clergy as married clergy, it will reopen or give momentum to the discussion of allowing married Catholic clergy. Married clergy are allowed by every other Christian tradition--Orthodox and Protestant--but hasn't been a part of the Latin rite in over a millennium. Will anything come of this?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Donne on Prayer

I have been reading some John Donne lately during my evermore frequent bouts with insomnia (is this the plight of all academics?), and I came across a couplet on prayer that I found interesting:

Hear this prayer Lord: O Lord deliver us
From trusting in those prayers, though poured out thus.

(John Donne, Litanies XIV.125-6)

I am fascinating by this prayer, since it is a prayer to deliver us from trusting in prayers--a truly paradoxical sentence.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Great Books" and "Middlebrow" Culture

There is an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Great Books movement and "middlebrow" culture in the U.S. As someone who teaches a quintessential "great books" course, Literature of the Humanities, at Columbia University--not quite a "middlebrow" culture--I found the article interesting.

I found the following few paragraphs interesting and strangely ironic:

In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.

The last bit refers to the famous "Quiz Show" debacle that has now been immortalized in film. What I find fascinating about it is that Charles van Doren's father, Mark van Doren, the much beloved literature professor at Columbia University, was a great proponent and foundational supporter of the "great books" movement and the development of the very course I teach now at Columbia. Though it may be different: the teaching of masterpieces of literature versus the mass-marketed book series. Nonetheless, I do wonder if van Doren, who inspired such a great American writer as Jack Kerouac, would disapprove of mass exposure of such masterpieces? I doubt it. His basic philosophy was that anyone who was an attentive reader could learn and teach such masterpieces.