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...

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