Saturday, March 29, 2008

MAAR, Part 2: Friday

The Religion and Literature Panel, presided over by Johanna Monighan-Schaefer from Dickinson College

This by far was my favorite part of the program. There were actually 5 papers presented on this panel, and all of them were excellent. Some speakers were better presenters than others, but the ideas presented were all intriguing nonetheless.

The first paper was called “Irreverent Revelation: Paradoxical Powers of Religious Fiction” by Dr. Stephen M. Johnson of Montclair State University. I am partial to presentations by Dr. Johnson, namely because I took 4 classes with him as an undergraduate at MSU. He gets at least part of the credit for my continued interest in Religious Studies.

Dr. Johnson spoke about a book he reviewed recently called “Gothic Perspectives on the American Experience,” and is critical of the author for not including Flannery O'Connor or James Baldwin in his treatise. Dr. Johnson then goes on to talk about both writers—the bizarre characters of Flannery O' Connor, who were so disturbing that German editors asked her to remove some of them for German editions, as they would “offend German sensibilities.” He then reads excerpts from some of O'Connor's work, and from Baldwin's work. The basic themes discussed were the breakdown of cultural norms and beliefs that the “socially acceptable” have about themselves and those around them. He made strong recommendations to read both Baldwin and O'Connery.

The second paper was called “God and Time: Science Fiction and Theology” by James E. Siburt from Lancaster Theological Seminary. Using examples from three 21st century films (Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect, and The Jacket), Siburt examines our culture's obsession with time, and notes a progression in the films—they all depict time travel, but the protagonists have different levels of control over time in each film. In “The Jacket” the protagonist acts like Luis De Molina's conception of God—he enjoys a middle knowledge of multiple possibilities in the universe, and can choose the one he prefers. With the notions of time explored come the longing for a “better” time, the inevitable historicity of events, and the sense of responsibility one has regarding their control of time.

The third paper was called “Androgyny in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: Middle Space between Gender Polarity as Sacred Paradox” by Philip Browning Helsel from Princeton Theological Seminary. Philip talked about the transgendered and homoerotic leanings in Twelfth Night, and notes that they are quietly swept away at the end of the film—the homoerotic relationships are unacknowledged, and the twins are each married to heterosexual partners. In examining the literary criticism on this play, Helsel noted two different schools of thought—Thomas McCleary's idea that the homoerotic relationships were “narcissistic developments” that lead to “appropriate object choice” by the end of the play. As Helsel accurately notes, this was an interpretation that did not come about until after Freud, which makes it suspect. There was a tendency in early psychology to pathologize non-normative behaviors, and homosexual orientation was one obvious example. The second line of interpretation has to do with changing views on gender at the time of Twelfth Night (around 1603). Hermaphroditic images were previously viewed as symbols of mystical perfection, the soul perfectly united with God. After this time, there was a sense that the hermaphrodite was a monstrosity. Twelfth Night seems to espouse both views.

I was reminded of the Shakespearean definition of comedy when I listened to this paper. Basically, the chief characters get married at the end of the play—that is the defining characteristic of a comedy. It has nothing to do with humor as such. The marriage is seen as a resolution, but it is not necessarily a “happy” resolution—there is much criticism about this on other Shakespearean comedies.

The fourth paper was Alexandra Carroll of Catholic University of America's “The Devil in the Darkness: Mikhail Bulgakov's Mysticism of Darkness in The Master and Margarita.” This discusses Bulgakov's unfinished novel, “The Master and Margarita” (which seemed pretty complete to Ms. Carroll), and the mystical themes in the novel. Of particular note is the fact that the Devil is not seen as harmful—he is in fact a conduit for the reunion of Margarita with the Master (Jesus). I listened to her description of the storyline and the images presented of Night and Day—and I realized just how Kabbalistic this novel is. One of the characters, an atheist, begins his journey after two separate occurrences involving moonlight. The moon in Kabbalah is in the sephiroth of Yesod, just above Malkuth. The spirtual seeker first begins their journey up the Tree of Life via Yesod. However it is only a beginning. All of the images—from coming out into Sunlight (Tiphareth) to the descent into Hell (crossing Da'ath) are part and parcel of the mystical experience as described through the Tree of Life. The understanding of Satan in this novel is consistent with the understanding of Satan in occultism. The Satanic influence is as much a part of creation as others—Light cannot be discerned without Shadow. This is also a strong concept in Tantra.

The fifth and final paper was called “Some of the Best Stuff God Did: The Paradoxical Relationship Between the Erotic and the Divine in the Color Purple” by Tolonda Henderson of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. In a very spirited presentation, Ms. Henderson discusses the conflict between the “respectable, Church-attending” relationship with “God” that is decidedly non-erotic with the idea that God made everything, and that one should delight in creation—reference was made to orgasm. She discussed the different characters in The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and demonstrates the growth and changes the characters underwent as their life experiences changed their concepts of God and themselves radically.

This was all I experienced of MAAR—I was rather exhausted from 3 non-stop days, so I ended up bowing out before the final sessions. Overall, I met some interesting people, and learned some new things. I also have a ton of new reading material (not that I don't already have a list that could fill a football stadium). Always at the beginning in spirituality and scholarship...

MAAR, Part 1: Thursday

It is no secret that I have a keen interest in the study of religion. While I am a librarian by trade, I like to keep current in the Religious Studies field. This is a bit different from being interested in religion from a personal faith perspective—it's about studying religion and how it functions in society.

This year, I decided to attend the MAAR (Mid-Atlantic American Academy of Religion) conference. I am a member of AAR, and I hope to attend the national conference in November. In the meantime, I was interested to see what was being presented locally.

I attend a lot of library conferences, and I noticed differences right away. Library conferences are now replete with blogs and wikis for conference-goers to post their comments or reviews, for presenters to post their presentations, and for the posting of generally useful information. Not so at this conference; it was suggested that this was not the bailiwick of those running the conference. I think I might volunteer to spearhead this for next year.

Blogging would be useful for this group, because the style of presentation is not via PowerPoint or a prepared talk—it's the literal reading of academic papers. Some presenters did have slides or videos to go along with their papers. Given the nature of the discipline, there isn't anything wrong with this—but as a listener, it is difficult to keep track of all the important details of a paper, especially if the presenter speaks very quickly. As you might expect, some presentations were better than others. Sometimes the speaker was clear, but the paper was too jargon-laden for any but those specifically involved with the same research to understand.

I obviously did not attend every session, but here are some of the highlights from those I did attend:

“Religious Experience and Sociopolitical Power” by Stephen S. Bush, Princeton University. Stephen talked about the study of mystical/religious experience. He defines 3 separate schools of thought with regard to the study of such experiences: a classical “perennialist” school (Rudolph Otto, William James, Mircea Eliade) which believes that the person's religious experience is central to understanding these experiences—there is a “mystical core” to these experiences.. Around the 1980s, a “constructivist” theory emerged (Steven Katz) that denied there is a “mystical” core to religious experiences. Current theoretical discourse can be seen in the works of Robert H. Sharf. Sharf believes that scholars do not have access to the minds of mystics, and therefore the mystical experience cannot be studied—only the language used to describe the experience can be studied. Bush believes that Sharf has some convincing arguments that should change the way we look at religious experiences. However, not all of Sharf's arguments are convincing. Bush points to a study done by R. Marie Griffith, in the book “God's Daughters,” which focuses on the women in a Pentecostal community, whose submission to the males in the community is one of their characteristics. Griffith examines this community with a “critical empathy” model; she does not condemn the women for being submissive. However, this does not mean that there should be no criticism at all. Griffith seeks to find a balance between criticism and empathy with this approach.

Bush uses this study as a starting point for talking about how religion and social power may intersect. Focusing only on this study, and stressing that these are only starting points and not an exhaustive list, Bush comes up with 4 types of relationships between experience and power in this group:

1.One who undergoes one or more experiences, validated by the group, may gain authority within the group.
2.The content of the experience may provide power (e.g., experiencing God as Father, Husband, Lover, etc.)
3.Experience may be a compensation for deprivation.
4.Experience may make a substantial contribution to the religious community.

I found these observations to be interesting. Bush had suggested that these might apply to other religious groups, but not necessarily so—a universalism of these relationships is not implied. I asked him about the absence of religious experience for these women. In traditional Western mysticism, the absence of experience can mean that one is moving on to the “next stage” of their mystical relationship with God—John of the Cross's “Dark Night of the Soul” for instance. Bush replied that for these women, the absence of experience sometimes offered frustration—a woman being prayed over by the community who does not get well is then accused of not having enough faith. The woman resents the judgment, but will not openly say so to the group. In my own opinion, I find this all interesting, because it shows how tangible experiences (feeling “on fire” with God's love, speaking in tongues, etc.) sometimes act as “proof” of religiosity to others, when the fact may be that these experiences mean nothing at all. It is entirely possible that one will become an “experience junkie”, and practice devotion only to try to get the experience. It is no different from any other kind of attachment (needing one's morning coffee, etc.). The fact that one may be given authority because of these experiences also implies a need to “keep it up” to prove that one is in “right” relationship to God. What is also ironic is that in the Bible, Thomas is often chastised for not believing until he “sees” proof for himself. Christians are exhorted to believe without the tangible proof. This seems to suggest the opposite in social settings. I do think this has applicability outside of Griffith's group of women.

“Spiritual Ecstasy and Death to Self in Bonaventure's Understanding of Contemplation” by Rebecca Howell, Lutheran Theological Seminary.

This was a very interesting talk on Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deus and De Triplici Via. Bonaventure identifies with Pseudo-Dionysius, though his conclusions are different. Pseudo-Dionysius has a negative theology (God is not this, God is not that). Bonaventure sees the seeker as being brought to God via “death to self”. Howell notes that while St. Francis arose to the mountaintop and and receives an ecstatic vision that leaves him with the stigmata, Bonaventure climbs the same mountain and comes down with a book outline. She notes that while the deepest stages of contemplation are indescribable, Bonaventure manages to intellectualize them anyway. (This is actually a problem of all of mysticism--”let me describe my indescribable experience to you.”) She mentions the use of liturgical symbols—the impossibility of contemplating God without “material means” due to the limitations of the mind. This is reminiscent of Hindu Bhakta, where the devotee focuses on an image of God, not because the image is actually a “correct” image, but because it allows the devotee to focus their attention on the greater reality the image represents.
Howell also discusses the use of the “positive talk of God's names” to create a sort of spiritual ecstasy. This is also in line with Hindu conceptions—one recites a sahasranama stotra or an ashottara stotra or namavaali to create the same result. I was reminded of a talk by Dr. Lise Vail at Montclair State University, where she discussed the use and meaning of sounds in Hindu worship. The recitation of the names can bring about a harmonious vibration with that sound that is synonymous with what we call “God”, or the ultimate reality.

I was also struck by the similarities between Bonaventure and St. Teresa of Avila—both cite seven levels of contemplation, with both conceptions including a sense of darkness or suffering, and a sense of silence/negation in which one realizes that God cannot be truly apprehended by the mind or intellect.

“The Mercy and Justice of God: Tertullian's Understanding of God's Preference for Repentance over Death” by Mark A. Frisius, Marymount University.
Mark's paper discussed Tertullian's writings in response to two writers in particular—Marcion and Valentian. Marcion suggested that the problem of God's mercy vs. his punishment could be resolved by suggesting that there were 2 gods—one was the Old Testament God that punished, one was the New Testament God that was merciful. Tertullian countered that God is goodness, and that any punishment meted out by God is for the greater Good of the person and humanity. Tertullian also suggested, against the views of the Gnostics (Valentian) that martyrdom was also a good thing. He believed that martyrdom led to eternal life, rather than permanent death. I am reminded of Elaine Pagel's book on the Gospel of Judas—the writer was in clear opposition to Tertullian's view (see my earlier blog posting on this).

Tertullian was extremely hardcore in the strictness of his belief. He did not think that anyone who was not Christian could be saved, and that once someone became a Christian, they absolutely could not ever sin again—it was unforgivable. Apparently there were some venial sins that could be forgiven with severe penances and public humiliation, but Tertullian doesn't say what these are. He was appalled by the idea that anyone should be allowed to sin. His eventual alliance with the Montanists was probably due to their severity and strictness. Eventually Tertullian fell out of favor with the Church—it was apparent that no one could ever meet his vision of the true Christian.

It occurred to me while Mark was speaking that Tertullian would have made a great subject for an Eriksonian psychohistory. Hmm...

“Job's Wife and the History of Consequences: a Lecture in Slides: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Interpretations,” by Choon-Leong Seow, Princeton Theological Seminary (SBL Plenary Talk)

I am not a member of SBL, but I attended this anyway. Dr. Seow was a fantastic speaker and presenter. He discussed the common conceptions of Job's wife as a shrew and a temptress. He examines the Biblical text, and finds that in the original language, Job's wife does not tell Job to “curse” God, but rather to “say some words to him so that he may die”. Dr. Seow suggests that this is because the wife is moved by his suffering, and thinks he would be better off dead than to live in such a way, without regard for her own widowhood if that were to happen. There is no suggestion that she has done anything wrong, or that Job is angry with her, even though he refuses to do what she asks. Muslims interpret Job's wife as an example of compassion, and Dr. Seow showed photographs of artwork depicting Job's wife from various churches and texts from around the world to support his agreement with that thesis.

Stay tuned for Part 2, the Friday session...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rutlemania in New York

Wednesday night I went to New York to see Rutlemania. If you don't know who the Rutles are, you definitely need to check out their 1978 TV movie, “All you need is cash”. The easiest way to explain the Rutles is that they are a Monty Python-type spoof on the Beatles. Instead of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, you have Nasty, Dirk, Stig, and Barry. Eric Idle is one of the Rutles (Dirk), as is Neil Innes (Nasty). Neil Innes was in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the 1960s—and if you had the privilege (or perhaps misfortune) of seeing “Magical Mystery Tour”, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performs there. Neil Innes was also involved with Monty Python. If you caught “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” Neil Innes was the fellow doing the “Urban Spaceman” bit. You can learn more about the Rutles here.

OK, now that we've established who the Rutles were—this was not a show featuring the original Rutles. It was a Beatles cover band called the Fab Four playing the Rutles. My brother-in-law put it best: This is a band who makes its living imitating a famous band, who are imitating a famous band, who were famous for imitating a famous band. Got all of that?

Blender Theater on 23rd St. is a pretty nice venue. I scanned the crowd, and if parents hadn't brought their kids to this, I would probably be one of the youngest people there. Everyone there had to be at least 50, except their kids. OK, maybe not everyone—I at least had a few contemporaries. One guy came in looking a bit mod-ish; if Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend had a love child in their mod days, I think this guy would have been it. I also saw a guy who looked remarkably like Brian Connolly from the Sweet. Of course, it was not Brian Connolly, as Brian Connolly is dead. I dug the zebra-striped pants, though.

The show was pretty good. It was definitely a “tribute”--clips from the Rutles movies played in the background, and the band members acted out scenes from the Rutles history on the stage. They also played the Rutles songs at particular junctures in the film. They had 2 girls appearing with them, who seemed rather unnecessary (though they did play the “wives” of Dirk and Nasty at the end). Most of the acting was pretty poor, and most of the jokes made me groan (though Nasty got a good Paul McCartney-esque zinger in at the end; when the band is breaking up, he tells Dirk, “Why don't you go marry an English hooker? It'll only cost you 40 million.”)

Overall, they did a good job with the songs, and the film clips are always hilarious. I had “Goose Step Mama” stuck in my head for at least the next 24 hours. Some folks sitting near me expressed their disappointment that none of the original Rutles showed up—I think I have to agree with that.

Here is the set list, if my memory serves me well:

Back in 64
Number One
Goose Step Mama
Blue Suede Schubert
Hold My Hand
Between Us
With a Girl Like You
Living in Hope
It's Looking Good
Doubleback Alley
Love Life
Good Times Roll
Major Happy's Up And Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band
Don't Know Why
Piggy in the Middle
Let's Be Natural
Another Day (part)
Cheese and Onions
Get up and Go
Get Back (by that other group...)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


So, I found out today that my Mom has cancer.
To be rational, it may not be as big a deal as it sounds. It seems to be very localized, it’s breast cancer which has a high cure rate when caught early, and Mom is way post-menopause, so there’s no hormones feeding this thing. It may be no worse than having a suspicious mole removed. So, I’m trying not to get too concerned yet.

Nonetheless, it does bring up a lot of thoughts. Naturally I would miss my Mom if she died; of course, my parents aren’t getting any younger, and everyone dies some day. But there’s so much more that would go with her passing—the entire family has this subtle dependency on her which just isn’t good. I’m not particularly dependent on her, not compared to others, but she does do things for me (paying for certain home repairs, etc.) that I probably wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I’m not sure how my Dad would fare on his own. I have a disabled aunt, my mother’s sister, whose finances and legal issues would become my problem if my Mom passed away. I don’t even like dealing with my own financial issues. I happen to live in the same state as my parents, which creates this sense of obligation. I’m feeling the jaws of limitation, and I’ve never liked that—it’s why I’m not married and don’t have kids. No one would require me to do anything for my family here, but basically I would be a sh*t if I didn’t. That’s not a life change I want to contemplate.

There are also some out-of-state family that would be severely affected if something happened to her. As a rule, I do not get tangled up in the problems of thinking adults—it doesn’t help the person, not when they’re long-standing problems (as opposed to emergencies). Unfortunately, my Mom likes to get tangled up in her children’s issues. And if something were to happen to her, it would create some ugly situations. My sister and I do not want to be the ones to untangle these messes. But it would probably fall to us, being the most independent of the bunch.

Now, all of this is a bit hasty. The likelihood is that none of this will come to pass any time in the near future. But it reminds me that it’s possible. Time marches on.

I think I need to get out my copy of “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Onion: DOT creates new reckless driving lane