On Being Blog
We’re all a little giddy around here today. This morning we learned that we won a 2008 Peabody Award, for our program on Rumi. This is broadcasting’s highest award, and for us it is a sign of arrival. Speaking of Faith launched almost five years ago as a weekly show. In the beginning, many simply didn’t believe that it would be possible to put a program on religion on the air without alienating, inflaming, or proselytizing.
It has been a great adventure pulling that off. And it has been a team effort to say the least. I include our listeners in that - listeners who encouraged and supported us and their public radio stations along the way, saying that, yes, this subject is too important not to risk finding a way to do it differently and get it right. I’ve sensed this past year that we are hitting our stride, finding our voice, in so many ways, and this award feels like a confirmation of that.
We will keep risking, experimenting and, I hope, getting better and better. But, for today, we’re celebrating and not getting much work done! Take a look here at the great company we’re in.
As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?
In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.
The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)
(photo: TM Russia 1963, c/o Avi Abrams/Flickr)
But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.
These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.
We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?
While conducting some research for our upcoming show on humanism, I was reminded of an amazing truth about ancient texts. Greek philosophy doesn’t come to us whole; it is an inheritance in pieces. The passage of time always edits, and of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who died in 270 BCE, barely any original writing remains.
The scarcity of original texts can be difficult in some ways. We must learn what we can about him, Epicurus, from the philosophers who wrote about him after his death, the Epicureans. The most important of these writings, and the one source for texts by Epicurus himself, is a biography by Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, from 230 CE. It is not always easy to do research on a figure whose personal writings are so few.
But I have been grateful in the past couple of days that we have a small selection of texts directly from Epicurus. Ancient Greek philosophy often feels to me vast, far away, and incomprehensible. On the contrary, you can read Epicurus’ three letters, quoted in Diogenes’ biography, in one short sitting. The letter to Menoeceus is a summary of Epicurean ethics. It opens with these lines, “it is never too soon nor too late to devote oneself to the well-being of the soul.”
I’d say the same about the ancients. It is never too soon nor too late to find some ancient Greek philosophy online and read a little.
I was a history major, and I love learning history through its physical artifacts. Last summer I visited Gettysburg for the first time. While I was brought to tears standing on its hallowed battlefields, I was also riveted by the stories behind the many Civil War relics there — stories told through well-researched exhibits, and then extended to mini-dramas in my own imagination.
So I was intrigued when I received an e-mail that the personal Bible of Johann Sebastian Bach (a commentary Bible) was going to be on display at a local choral concert. We’ve received suggestions to do a program on Bach and his personal faith — an item on our very big, very long list of show ideas. For now, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Bach’s Bible up close, hear about its history, and learn what it reveals about his faith.
Dr. Thomas Rossin kindly gave me the opportunity to photograph the Bible and talk to him about it. Rossin did his doctoral work on translating the handwritten notes in Bach’s Bible and tracing its history. He’s the founder and conductor of Exultate Choir and Chamber Orchestra, and he was allowed to take two of the Bible’s three volumes on tour with him to display during Exultate’s recent performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor (never will all three volumes travel at the same time). He describes how Bach’s Bible has 350 entrances that give evidence to Bach as a person of faith (II Chronicles 5:12-13 “In devotional music, God is always present with His Grace”), and his understanding of those entrances greatly impacts how he approaches performances of Bach’s works.
An aside: the story of Bach’s Bible reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Red Violin, a fictional story about a 17th-century, hand-crafted violin that travels over three centuries. It includes a beautiful score with violin solos by Joshua Bell.
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth” when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”
About the images: top photo by jbushnell/Flickr and second photo by Genista/Flickr
OK. I had begun this post with a long-winded preface about SOF’s coverage of Islam, how much I’ve learned, the good I hope it’s doing, and all the rest. Nix that.
The fact of the matter is I long for a complementary, not-so-academic vision of Muslims — people I can relate to as a Westerner rather than continually being aware of that sense of otherness. For me, there’s no better path to this understanding than through pop culture. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Alsanea’s book Girls of Riyadh does exactly that. Her writing is not heavy-handed or overly didactic, but lithe with impact through colloquial language and subject matter that all blossoming young adults can identify with.
Although it’s fiction, one learns more about the lived reality of youth culture and the integration of Islam among the upper crust of Saudi socialites than the many news reports and documentaries that are “good for you.” In some ways, I found myself identifying with the plights of these four (five counting the narrator?) young women, their longing for independence and community of family, love, and career.
The cultural differences are vast and deep, but tellingly so are the similarities. I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language and slang used in Alsanea’s original text Banat al-Riyadh. The book’s a clever, fun, page-turning expedition. You’ll buzz through it in no time.