Yes, we know that it is also Rosh Hashanah, but we’ve published so
muchalready about the Jewish High Holidays that we thought it was
time to blow another new year’s horn. That it happens to Ethiopia’s big day is
convenient because it gives us a chance to tip our hat to some music that would
feature prominently on the KtB soundtrack, if KtB had a soundtrack: Ethiopiques, the excellent collection of albums of Ethiopian
jazz and pop from the 1960s and 70s, released by the aptly named French label Buda Musique.
No, it’s not particularly “religious” or “spiritual” (though the guy who gets
up to show off his two-step is clearly moved by something), but here’s the KtB
angle: A friend of ours recently had a cab ride with an Ethiopian driver in
Washington, DC. He was playing one of Ethiopiques albums on his stereo and we he
heard that our friend knew and liked the music he nearly drove off the road.
“You must go see them play!” the cab driver said.
“Where would I do that?” our friend asked.
“In Addis Ababa, of course! They are old men now, and the young people don’t
know them. But they play in all the churches!”
We’ve just received an email asking us to clarify our religious affiliation
by choosing one of the options on this long and peculiar menu:
NO - None BP - Baptist BU - Buddhist CA -
Catholic CG - Congregational DC - Disciples of Christ EP -
Episcopal HI - Hindu IS - Islam JE - Jewish LD - Latter-Day
Saints LU - Lutheran LW - Other ME - Methodist MN - Mennonite OR
- Orthodox PR - Presbyterian PT - Other Protestant OT - Other UC -
United Church of Christ
It’s a pretty standard list used by colleges and other
institutions which find it useful to gather aggregate demographic statistics.
We’re sure we’ve seen this exact religious run-down before, but for the first
time we noticed that while there is just one type of Jewish listed, there are
two types of Other. Anyone care to guess what distinguishes one Other from the
Special bonus question for the salaried, Jumble-loving
time-wasters among you: Can you make a sentence using only words formed with the
letter groups above?
Six years ago today, sitting in front of a television with the rest of the
country, we jotted down a few thoughts that soon became a reflection on the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Two
wars later, we see some of the strange fruit those attacks planted: news of the
ongoing purge of religion collections in prison libraries across the
As it happens, we know a little bit about religion in prison – not because
we’ve done time, but because we once tagged along with a Buddhist nun who serves
as a volunteer chaplain at a federal lockup in Maryland.
It was quite an education, though not necessarily in Buddhist principles.
What we learned was that, for many prisoners, a weekly window of time for
fulfilling some sort of spiritual practice was the one right that could not be
taken from them for any reason, punitive or otherwise. And so it seemed that
like the old saying about atheists in foxholes, there were no inmates who were
unwilling to consider being Buddhists every Tuesday night. So long as being
Buddhist meant they could get out of their cells and sit for an hour with a bald
lady in robes, it sounded alright by them.
For the nun, the weekly routine involved a pass through a metal detector, and
then a check of any materials she was bringing in — usually a tape of ocean
sounds and a few photocopied sheets filled with phonetic renderings of Tibetan
prayers, which she would encourage her students to chant. It sounded something
like this: MA HA SA MA YA SATO AH, and never have foreign sounds been chanted
with such gusto as I heard that night.
Because Tuesday evening was the time for other religious groups to meet as
well, through the door drifted other sounds, other songs. Like the Tibetan
chant, they were all about liberation in one way or another, each subversive in
its own way.
We’re thinking of calling our friend the nun and asking if MA HA SA MA YA
SATO AH has set off any alarms.
KtB’s own Laurel Snyder has a lovely
remembrance of Madeleine
L’Engle at Salon. “Nothing was enough for L’Engle,” Laurel writes. “As an
author, she danced with demanding philosophical questions and toyed with quantum
physics. She wrote about faith with devotion, dabbled in ethics, psychology,
myth, art, politics and nature…” She did it all for an audience made up mostly
of teens and tweens, but not because she took any of those things, or her
readership, lightly. “You have to write the book that wants to be written,”
L’Engle said. “And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you
write it for children.”
We here at KtB had an interesting weekend, quite by accident spending some
time with a couple of unexpectedly complementary classics: After Virtue and Love and
Death. The former, Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of contemporary
ethical theory, we had not read before and even now would have preferred to
avoid. The latter, Woody Allen’s great take-off on Dostoyevsky and other glum
Russians, we had seen many times, but not in ten years or more.
Yet it turns out they make great companions. The primary concern of After
Virtue is the history of Western philosophy’s attempt to justify morality
in a post-theological world — i.e. how do we all agree on what is good or right
when we don’t agree on the source for what is good or right? The primary concern
of Love and Death is making jokes about borscht and village idiots
while wearing religious obsession as lightly as Woody wears his flouncy
Boris: Oh, if only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak
to me once. Anything. One sentence. Two words. If He would just
cough. Sonja: Of course there’s a God! We’re made in His image! Boris:
You think I was made in God’s image? Take a look at me. You think He wears
glasses? Sonja: Not with those frames.
Woody Allen movies of course are frequently concerned with God, morality,
mortality, etc., but as often as not, his nasal existentialism seems like so
much shtick — much of Love and Death included. So it was a nice
surprise, when searching for a clip of the film, to find this gem instead: Woody
Allen interviewing Billy Graham, 28 years ago this month, September 1969:
The clip has two parts, both worth a look. What’s striking about the
interview is how warm and mutually respectfully both men manage to be, even
while disagreeing about matters of ultimate concern, even as each manages to get
off some good lines at the other’s expense.
Woody: If you promise me some wonderful afterlife with a white robe and
wings, I might go for it. Billy: I can’t promise you a white robe and
wings, but I can promise you a very interesting, thrilling life. Woody: One
For Woody Allen fans, it’s fun to see this kind of exchange happen six years
before Love and Death (and twenty years before his most morally
concerned film, Crimes and Misdemeanors). For everyone else, it’s
neat just to see two iconic figures of American culture sitting side by side,
seeming as natural a pair as they are unlikely.
Sad thing is, it’s impossible to imagine this sort of conversation happening
today. If it did, chances are it would be much louder and totally humorless.
(There might be some humor in seeing an abrasive blowhard like Christopher Hitchens fillet an abrasive blowhard like Bill
Donohue, but that would be humor of a very different sort.)
One of the themes of After Virtue is that the breakdown of shared
ethical systems, for better or worse, is the primary cause of the shrill,
combative nature of most public debate. So maybe the ability of Woody and Billy
to sit down honestly, genuinely, yet with no shortage of wit, can be seen as
instructive. Maybe a step toward more civil disagreement, in the religious and
ethical realms and everywhere else, can be found in Homer Simpson’s immortal
words to his television: Be more funny!
There’s nothing particularly religious about the recent record-breaking sale
of a jewel-encrusted platinum skull by the British artist Damien
Hirst. Yes, its $100 million price tag may be religious in the “Holy Shit!”
sense, but beyond that it just seems silly that so much could be made of a
Certainly there is something beautiful about it. How could there not be?
Encrusted with nearly a pound of diamonds and other gems, it’s a helluva knick
knack. Beyond the shine, though, it’s not much more than a heap of metal, stone,
and teeth (real teeth!) — and its absurdly inflated value only makes it seem all
the more so.
Yet the skull’s title “For the Love of God” makes it marginally more
interesting to us. After all, there is a long history in art, particularly in
medieval religious painting, of inserting bony reminders of our ultimate end
even as hope for the eternal is evoked. This is usually interpreted as a way of
balancing the image, both aesthetically and spiritually: yes, be glad you are
going to heaven; no, don’t forget that before that happens everyone you care
about will suffer and die.
It’s an interesting move — again, both aesthetically and spiritually — to cut
out the balancing act as Hirst’s skull does. To present death not as a
counterpoint to all we hope for, but as something so wound up in the process of
hoping that death and desire each seem to be made of the other. Pretty girls
make graves, as the saying goes, and certain artists have always agreed. Dali,
Of course most of us don’t need to visit art galleries, or Google for naked
ladies, to be reminded of death. We just look in the mirror. Most are content to
know that there is indeed a skull behind the skin. Others, seeming to lack the
imagination to envision what lies beneath, make the inevitable impossible to
Without giving too much credit to a fellow who apparently likes a punk band so much he
literally defaced himself in its honor, is there any common ground between a man
with a skull tattooed on his face and a man who conceives of a skull worth $100
The question, it seems, comes down to desire and resources. Hirst, it should
be noted, is himself worth $300 million. He’s a long way from a starving artist,
and so it is natural that when he creates an image of death it would be tied up
with luxury, which for good or ill is bound to be among a rich man’s ultimate concerns. And what does the man with the skull tattoo
have? A pimply forehead. Twenty dollars worth of jewelry. In short, he owns his
face and probably not much more. Why wouldn’t he use it the same way Hirst uses
his wealth? Neither is particularly good art, but which skull would be more
memorable if you saw it walking down the street?
Personally, our current favorite in the human skull as ambiguous
statement on mortality or whatever category of the fine arts cost much less
to produce (in terms of both dollars and pain) than Mr. Hirst’s or Mr. Misfit’s.
It’s also the skull most likely to explain to future archaeologists why 21st
century humans were so obsessed with amusing themselves.
This just in from Fox News: Nepal Airlines has sacrificed two goats as part of its efforts to keep an older
757 in the air. Silly flying Hindus! Don’t they know the Sky God prefers Chinese
SU-27 fighter jets? (Keep the sound on for this one…)
But seriously folks, why is it that a story about goat sacrifice in Nepal
would get such play from Fox News? It might have something to do with the easy
other-people’s-crazy-religions potshot it makes. Yes, we also find it unlikely
that a slaughtered goat could keep a 757 airborne, but we also don’t doubt that
a little more digging would have found that the story is a bit more interesting
than Fox suggests. Our guess is that after lift off, the sacrifice was butchered
and served to the crew of overtime mechanics who, Sky God be praised, piously
got the plane off the ground.
One of the reasons KtB has seemed dead these past few months is that we (some
of us, anyway) were off on a lengthy Near Eastern adventure. We spent much of
the trip in Istanbul, light-headed with nargila smoke and ears-ruptured by
over-exposure to roving bands of Ottoman Army reenactors:
Turkey at the time was bracing itself for the election that finally found
resolution yesterday. The New York Times coverage of the outcome (“Turk With Islamic Ties Is Elected President”) is a good
reminder of all the ways it’s easy to get fumbled up when talking about
religion, secularism, and other words with meanings that are hard to pin
The defeat of so called “secular” forces by “religious” ones would seem by
the usual use of the words to be very bad news indeed. Yet Turkey’s secularism
has long been as religious in its own way as the Islamic elements the secular
establishment so fears. After all, this is a country whose supposedly secular
fealty to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk surpasses even American genuflections to the
Founding Fathers. It is illegal to defame Ataturk, for example, and every year
on his birthday, the country stops. No matter where Turks find themselves, they
take a moment to go out and make a tremendous noise. Truck horns blare, car
horns bleat, ships on the Bosphorus blow their stacks. Maybe this is not
religion in the usual sense, but there is certainly something very religious
We had gone to Istanbul to see the relics of the prophet Muhammad in the
state-run museum, the Topkapi Palace. We’d heard that it was a very strange
scene: the relics were said to be gathered in a shabby room in the back corner
of the museum for the casual perusal of tourists. The only nod to their
religious importance was as an old imam sitting in the corner, reciting the
Quran all day while Americans in flip-flops snapped his picture and squinted at
the displayed teeth and whiskers of the Prophet.
We’d gone to have a look at all of this: the odd juxtaposition of devotion
and tourism; the inevitable entwining of the political and the spiritual,
despite the muscular secularism of the state; and, most of all, the peculiar
place of the religious past in a country struggling to make sense of its
When we found the relic room, we were disappointed to see its entrance
blocked. Tacked to the plywood divider that kept hidden all we’d come to see,
there was a sign in Turkish and English: “Closed for
KillingTheBuddha.com is moving operations, revamping its look, and
inshallah beginning once again to publish in a regular way. We may look
more like a blog than we used to, but we will continue to bring you our usual
smarter-than-your-average-blog stories of gods and godlessness in the world
today. If you’re looking for something published on the old KtB, start by
looking here, and then check here.