Monday, October 25, 2010

blogging for academic credit part 2: Madison Ave. Lessons in Faith

Note: this was originally written for my NYU class about an even that took place on Sept 26.

He was trying to do me a favor. The security guard at the side of the press pen opened the gate as soon as he spotted my notebook. In the chaos of the crowd, I'd ended up standing in the middle of six very tall men, at the beginning of what was to be nearly three hours of speeches after the 25th annual Muslim Day Parade. I looked at the guard, into the pen, back at the crowd. I said, “No thanks. But thanks.” and he closed the gate and turned away. The parade officials were listing the names of their Board of Trustees. At the back of the shell hung a giant American flag. I walked back through the crowd into the bazaar.

Jabir Choudhry, one of the parade's co-chairs, told me that the purpose of the parade was to bring Muslims in the New York area together, “so that they could learn from each other.” I had seen this in varying degrees of literalness: multiple tents at the post-parade bazaar sold books from around the world. One tent offered sign ups for free Arabic lessons. But I learned something, too: despite what I'd been told in my theology classes, one doesn't really need to read the Qu'ran in Arabic in order to be Muslim. That is, practically speaking. I was asked, “Have you read the Qu'ran?” and replied, “Yes, but in English.” Three times I was asked, and three times, the reply was, “Oh, I don't know Arabic either.” I asked why. One woman, who preferred that I didn't use her name, said that for her it was something to learn as a way of deepening faith, not as a gateway. What was important first, she said, was that I believe, and know what is true. I thought about faith of a mustard seed. I thought about Latin Mass. I thought about Hebrew School and bat mitzvahs. It occurred to me that I had never before been proselytized by a Muslim. I knew some quotes, I knew some politics, but I didn't know the “why.”

I ended up back in the crowd before the bandshell, in a small group of Bosnian women who stood uncomfortably close to me, scolding their teenaged kids (in a small group directly behind us) and, once, pointing to my notebook. Four speeches in, one of the women muttered, “I haven't heard a word about Bosnia yet.” Although many of the speeches were about Muslim unity, standing up for one's self, and the importance of being proud of one's faith, what was being said on the stage at that moment was directed squarely at the journalists and other outsiders in the audience: Muslims must stand up and tell their own American narratives. The current narrative was wrong, and it wasn't going to be fixed by those outside of the faith.

The crowd thinned out by the end of the second hour of post-parade speeches. I was waiting around to hear Nihad Awad, Executive Director of CAIR and one of the two Grand Marshals of the parade. The press pen was nearly empty, and at least half of the men (and one woman) on stage had not yet spoken. I wandered off into the park, still in earshot of the speakers, and listened.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Site-specific martyrdom!

[I wrote this piece for a j-school workshop, but because the play's been extended, I am happy that I can actually post it and have it be relevant. Go see this show, if you're in the area. And if you're not in the area, you should come anyway. I live around the corner. I'll show you a good bar for a post-wonderfullness drink]

Murder in the Cathedral in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

T.S. Eliot's work has a way of marking out important moments in my intellectual life: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is the first poem I ever loved; "The Waste Land" the first with which I had a long term relationship. So it's fitting that I christened my move to Brooklyn, and the beginning of grad school, by seeing a site-specific production of Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral" – the story of Thomas Becket's assassination – at the Church of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The story: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, returns to England after seven years of exile. He's just barely reconciled with King Henry II, to whom Becket used to be a close confidante. The peace, for whatever reason, doesn't last and four knights go to Canterbury to murder the Archbishop. About three years after his assassination, Becket is canonized. Look it up on Wikipedia.

In Eliot's play, the four knights double as four tempters, each approaching newly returned Becket (played by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.) and offering a course of action. The first three parallel the temptations of Christ: physical comfort and safety, power, and treachery. Director Alec Duffy had each of the tempters wheeled down the center aisle at breakneck speed, accompanied by lumieres, and dressed in powersuits. Each were able, but it was the fourth tempter (played by Jordan Coughtry), and the temptation offered, that cut the deepest. This tempter offered martyrdom. In other words, exactly what Becket wants. In this scene, Coughtry, dressed as a saint, chases Simmons through the church and into the confessional, where a portion of the scene takes place out of the audience's sight.

The confessional scene was effective, but it is Simmons's delivery of the Christmas Sermon at the pulpit that shifted the production from a good performance to something a little more eerie. The sermon opens the second act of the play, after a brief intermission (during which, by the way, you can purchase and imbibe beer in the church). I have to admit that I wasn't yet paying attention when Simmons began to speak and found myself, not for the first time in the production, looking around the church to find the source of an echoed voice. Simmons's delivery is perfect. At the end of the sermon, audience members crossed themselves at the doxology and, after Simmons' amen, murmured its repetition.

"Murder in the Cathedral" was first performed in the Chapter House of the Canterbury Cathedral. I can see why this production also uses a church as a stage. It's one thing to see actors, dressed as clergy, barring doors against four actors dressed as murderous knights. But in this production, the actors barricade real church doors, locking us in with them, inviting us to feel a tiny bit of collective dread as Becket orders his men to let his assassins inside.

Directed by Alec Duffy with music by Dave Malloy, plays through October 2 [EXTENDED through October 10]. Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Admission is a suggested donation of $10, though they say “No one turned away.” And if you go in a group of 4 or more, admission is $5. The Church of St. Joseph is at 856 Pacific Street in Brooklyn, between Vanderbilt and Underhill. Official Website.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sharing is Caring

I was rummaging through an old internet account and found the following excerpt of an email from my old Hebrew Bible professor:

One other matter. Below you will find a list of common misspellings and

Note the correct spellings of:

Sacrifice, Israel (not Isreal!!), received (i before e except after
c!), circumcise (not circumsize!!), Pharaoh ( almost always the sounded
vowel, o in this case, comes second in the series!), separate, a lot
(not alot).

Facts: there was no apple mentioned in Genesis 3. The fruit is

Remember to underline or italicize titles or foreign words.

So, these are the sorts of mistakes that crawl under the skin of religion professors. I wonder what grumpy biology or poli sci professors send to THEIR students to welcome them back from vacation?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

hyperlink overdrive

In the fall, I get to do this. I'll be taking on this concentration.


It's all decided now. But here's what happened before: I learned how difficult it is to keep information quiet, even for unimportant people like me. Honestly? it creeped me out a bit.

I decided that I wasn't going to lie about it unless I had to. I'd try not to volunteer information. And that I'd tell my employer, officially, when I felt I needed to so that he wouldn't hear it from anyone but me. In all likelihood, I'd tell him early. But I didn't want it to be public knowledge until AFTER it was a certainty that I'd be going.

I didn't talk about my decision to go to grad school on social media. I asked questions, anonymously, on a message board. I talked to certain people over chats and email, and even phone. I told a few people face-to-face, some of whom I probably shouldn't have told. Alcohol may or may not have been involved. Hint: it was. Obviously, I told a good handful of people. I wasn't trying to keep a true secret. It was an attempt to balance an overwhelming need to blab it all out with the need to handle the decision professionally and rationally. And, at all costs, resist the urge to crowdsource my decision, once I had the two offers on the table.

In the end, I learned how quickly news travels through my mother. She told a friend, who told a friend, who happens to be the mother of my intern's boyfriend. Five days after getting my first acceptance, I walked into the office, and my intern said, "Congratulations!" I reacted with the kind of shock and surprise that actually made me take a step backwards, as if to get ready to escape.

Lesson learned: don't tell ANYONE something you need to keep even moderately under the radar. Not even your mother. But you'll probably tell her. And a few other people. So: be prepared for the inevitable, and get ready to deal with the consequences of a confessional culture.

Foucault was right! See here:

We have singularly become a confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday lives, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one's parents, one's educators, one's doctors to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to anyone else. The things people write books about. (History of Sexuality)

So maybe the internet is more an enabler, not a catalyst, for this inability to keep secrets.

Monday, March 1, 2010

R. Crumb's Book of Genesis

I've spent the past two Sundays in a good bookstore. Now, I'm poor. But I finally managed to pick up a copy of R. Crumb's Genesis.

I'm through Chapter 14 - Abram is still Abram, he's childless, and things aren't that great for Lot right now.

It took seven pages of Google results to find any sort of Christian response to the text. Instead: I found many Crumb defenders writing about the controversy based on quotes from reviews in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail (!).

Does anyone know of a long-form Christian response to this book?

I have a short list of Christian bookstores in the area. Maybe now is the time to start visiting them. I'll bring the book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'm in the middle of the wilderness, so to speak, which makes for brief posts. It's not an exciting or dramatic wilderness, sorry. No good story there. It's work, work, work.


In brief moments of downtime, Meghan and I have begun a conversation about time and memory in writing. She's a poet. I'm prose. And, for the record, I'm a terrible poet... unless limericks count. The conversation is in its beginnings. We have established that it functions differently in fiction and nonfiction prose, and that nonfiction has an unknown quantity of similarities to poetry in this sense. Last weekend, the two of us met a poet who wrote a book about the sudden death of her father. She put it aside for years. Then, one day, she wrote a poem. Eventually, she figured out that the poem was THE POEM, the one that bound that book together. And thus, the book was whole.

Once upon a time, I was obsessed with the following: Augustine waited 10 years before being able to write his confessions. I thought so much about post-conversion writing that I started to write as if devout myself. Made for interesting, if perplexing, pieces. I fantasized about wearing the cross I'd been given in ninth grade after my confirmation. I argued the Christian view in my classes. Fetishizing Christianity may not be exactly what I did, but it's how I see it now.

To be clear: I was dreaming of early Christianity - the world in which scholars spent their lives writing about the genitals of pre-fall man, and in which everything was exciting and new. Where Christianity was not the establishment for gentiles.

A Christian told me I'd be Born Again three years from when we met. We met three years ago this coming summer. At the time - this was during a thunder storm - I nearly bought it. She was crying, it was late, I was tired.

She told me I'd call her, or write her, and the time would be right, and I'd KNOW. We've lost touch. I'm sending her a note, already written, from a month ago but it still holds up as true. I can't find her address. Although time is precious, last night I dreamed of hand-delivering the note in the middle of the night, no return address left.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The story of Joan of Arc got distracted

I came for Dreyer's Joan of Arc, after starting Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (more on that later), but I stayed for "My Syrian Life Friend."

Am I late to the boat in discovering "The more Catholic, the better?"
It's kind of amazing. I've been here for the past 15 minutes. I'm going to take a cheap shot here and post two of the funnier videos I've watched. But then? Secretly? I'm totally watching this all the time now.

Seriously. My favorite part is how this guy's voice changes completely when he reads from the Bible.

Here's one more, pretty timely one:

I gave up rocking guitar solos for Lent. Good thing this snuck in just in time.