On Being Blog
Earlier this week, I wrote about a photograph of a Lubavitch assembly. In response to a comment in our Flickr community, I was doing some research and happened upon a couple of lists about the top 50 most influential rabbis and the top 25 rabbis from the pulpit. Sharon Brous, the Conservative rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, from our Days of Awe program was included in both. Not only is she young and vibrant, she’s also one of the few women on these lists. She’s worth paying attention to in the years to come.
Also, Ari (the aforementioned commenter) encouraged us to speak with some Orthodox Jewish voices for future programs. Perhaps Rabbi Schneerson would be a good biographical portrait to pursue. Any other suggestions? (Note, these don’t have to be rabbis.)
OK. I’ll admit it. I’m a lurker in the Jewish blogging community — my favorite being Rachel Barenblat’s smart and always provocative Velveteen Rabbi. In a recent post, she wrote about a friend, Seth Brown, who has translated the Torah into rhyming verse and is releasing one chapter a week on his blog From God to Verse.
For the past five years, writing the annotated guide (“program particulars”) meant to complement each week’s broadcast has been a labor of love. I’m not theologically trained, so I wanted to better understand passing references made by Krista and her guests — particularly when it came to quoting sacred texts. The Web is handy, but, it lacks the depth of scriptural translations little known outside seminaries and divinity schools.
Occupants of my desk as I write. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
Aiding my research, Krista and Kate have kindly directed me to translations I wasn’t aware of — everything from M.D. Herter Norton’s rendition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to A.M. Silbermann’s translation of the Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary, from JPS’ Tanakh to Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses. Here, I discovered a world of poetic interpretation that surpassed the more literal translations I was familiar with. These translations seem to capture the spirit and cadence of the original language that might evade other versions.
Barenblat cited two phrases from Brown’s work that struck my ear instantly: “when God was creating” and “all wild and waste” from the first chapter of Genesis. The sensibility of the Tanakh and Fox’s translation are distinct. And sure enough, these were two of the four texts that Brown referenced.
The latter phrase is distinctly Fox, “when the earth was wild and waste.” The former stems from a refreshing Jewish perspective. The past is present; God not only created the universe but continues to create today. It’s an ongoing cyclical process:
First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
And now from the Tanakh:
When God began to create heaven and earth—
Although I’ve handed off writing particulars to our younger, more intellectual producers, I still get excited (yes, this job has ruined my street cred with my friends) when I see endeavors like Seth Brown’s. Once you traipse down this path of discovery, you’ll be forever changed.
USA Today has produced a nifty interactive feature in which they’ve taken data from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and represented it graphically. The “topography of faith” section is a simple map that provides a breakdown of religious and denomination affiliations by state. I scrolled over my home state of North Dakota (yes, I’m a tad bitter that they statistically lumped it together with South Dakota as if it were a territory…) and was surprised to see the large percentage of Evangelical Protestants. And, as you canvas the states, take notice of the gold “unaffiliated” bar.
The section breaking down religious beliefs gives you an integrated comparison of how different faith traditions and denominations within American Christianity responded to specific questions. Tip: use the sort by button.
Some of my interpretive observations about the subtleties of responses:
- People are optimistic, or, if you prefer, more willing to believe they’ll be rewarded for their good deeds rather than being punished for their bad acts. More than 74% of the total population believed in a heaven where good people living good lives are rewarded; but 58% of the total population subscribed to the idea of hell where bad, unrepentant people are eternally punished.
- Only a majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%) and Mormons (57%) believe their religion is the one true path to eternal life.
- One group, the Buddhists, had a simple majority who believed that people should adjust their beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances.
- Almost all groups (sans the unaffiliated) pray regularly, with more than three-quarters of Evangelicals, Black Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses praying every day.
- Less than half of Hindus, Black Protestants, Muslims, Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses
do notaccept homosexuality.
- Buddhists were the only group who didn’t have a majority believing there are absolute standards for right and wrong.
Take a look and tell me what caught your eye.
As part of her trip to Los Angeles to participate in the 2008 Women’s Conference and lead a conversation of L.A. faith leaders at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Krista was a guest on Tuesday’s Patt Morrison program on KPCC (a regional public affairs program for Southern California Public Radio). Here Krista is the interviewee, responding to questions from Patt Morrison and her audience about such topics as the role of religion in government and society, the politics/religion dynamic in this year’s presidential election, atheists and humanists in the interfaith spectrum, how we think about fundamentalism today, and listening and hearing as important virtues in our religious dialogue. Listen to their 25-minute conversation.
I’d like to talk about some of the journalistic, editorial, and aesthetic considerations that go into using audio clips in Speaking of Faith. We’re not a documentary program, so we use clips sparingly to keep the focus on the conversation. When we do use these elements, there are a number of reasons:
- To illustrate or cap off a theme that was just discussed by Krista and her guest;
- To elaborate on something that was implied in a conversational moment (e.g., a passage in a book written by the guest)
- To cover something that was cut from the interview (e.g., part of a question or answer, the explanation of a concept, a reference to some historical event, etc.);
- To break up a block of interview that goes on too long; or
- To add something worthwhile to an interview that’s been cut relatively short.
We had a couple of needs to satisfy in this program with Vashti McKenzie, and created room for two audio clips. One, we decided, had to be of Bishop McKenzie preaching.
I have to admit that I was breathless after watching her Easter sermon at Trinity. There’s this hypnotic build-up to a series of emotional crescendoes. She’s like an orchestral conductor at work. The most powerful, moving, and provocative parts of her sermon are, inevitably, the ones where she reaches those crescendoes. You can’t take your eyes off her. She’s forceful when she’s up there. And it’s tempting to use a clip of that moment in her sermon to illustrate her style of preaching.
The problem is that to go from an intimate interview with Krista to the middle of a highly emotional sermon is jarring to the ear. Worse still, there’s the danger of taking powerful preaching out of its context, turning it into a sound bite, sensationalizing it, pushing people away from it, and hurting the people who are closest to it. That’s exactly what happened earlier this year with the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not something we want to contribute to.
Because of time constraints, we are looking for a quick snapshot, but a snapshot that tells a story. I use the word “snapshot” deliberately because of its ties to our journalistic cousin: photojournalism. Is it possible to tell the story of a complex issue in one photograph? Is it possible to capture the essence of a human being in one portrait? Maybe, maybe not. But to stretch the analogy further, think of a great photograph accompanying a great article — sometimes it tells its own story. Sometimes a photo or an image layers itself onto the richness of the text, helping to give it concrete shape.
In various sermons we considered excerpting from, there were positives and negatives. In one, she’s putting out this intense call to a young generation to rise up and be heard, yet ironically her own voice is drowned out by an unfortunate echo, especially during moments of high intensity. Her Easter sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ is powerful, but does it work as well with an outside audience as it does to members of the church? Are there stories that are short enough and self-contained enough to illustrate her socially conscious preaching and her pulpit personality?
We had trouble isolating something like that from that Easter sermon. And really, because it touches upon the Jeremiah Wright controversy (something we delve into in the second half of the program), we couldn’t use it at the end of the first half, where we had some time for a clip.
We needed to cap off the idea of her social activism, and the reference to “merry-go-round agendas” in her National Cathedral sermon seemed like a great fit. Plus, she talks about Moses, who was so important in abolitionist theology. She’s also strong and forceful, and the audio quality is good.
It’s not an exact science, and we do have a lot of back and forth for elements like these, listening to a clip by itself, listening to it with the preceding segment, talking it over, asking ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and going forward until we’re all satisfied that the clip has added something to the interview rather than detract from the Krista Tippett conversation that we all enjoy.