September 13th, 2007

Happy Ethiopian New Year!

Yes, we know that it is also Rosh Hashanah, but we’ve published so much already 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!”

September 12th, 2007

Two Types of Other

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 other Other?

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?

September 11th, 2007

Locked Up; Thrown Out

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 US.

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.

September 11th, 2007

A Final Wrinkle

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.”

September 10th, 2007

Death & Virtue; Billy & Woody

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 peasant blouse.

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 wing maybe?

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!

September 7th, 2007

Heady Days

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 glorified paperweight:


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, for example:


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 miss:


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 million?

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.


“Clown Skull,” Vik Muniz

September 6th, 2007

We Kill the Goat, You Decide

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.

August 29th, 2007

Relics & Renovations

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 down.

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 about it.

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 religious present.

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 Renovations.”

August 28th, 2007

Turn, turn, turn… 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.

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