Program Particulars: The Novelist as God

August 20, 2009

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

(1:35) Jesuit Explorers and Scientists

Mary Doria Russell spoke about why she was drawn to write about Jesuits in an interview with National Jesuit News.

One of the reasons that I know about the Jesuits is that as an anthropologist I come across Jesuit ethnography in my work … There is a real respect for the belief systems in situ, and I think an admirable hope to share what these men really believed about eternal estrangement from God and eternal closeness to God. I think they showed a very good balance between respect for what they found and an eagerness to share what they had.

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(02:48–05:07) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

(03:25) Reading from Children of God

In the following extended passage from Children of God, Mary Doria Russell writes about the Jesuit chemist, Sean Fein, reflecting on the relationship between religion and science.

Humans and their ilk were God's problem, as far as Sean Fein was concerned, and the Almighty was more than welcome to them. But if Sean Fein, chemist and priest, rarely found reason to approve the results of his God's whimsical decision to bestow sentience on the odd species here and there, he could nevertheless admire the mechanics that ran the show. Iron and manganese, pried by rain from stone, swirled with calcium and magnesium in ancient milky seas. Small, nimble molecules — nitrogen, oxygen, water, argon, carbon dioxide — dancing in the atmosphere, spinning, glancing off one another, "the feeble force of gravity gathering them in a thin vapor around the planet," wrote chemistry's psalmist Bill Green, "like some invisible shepherd, drawing together his invisible flock." Cyanobacteria — the clever little buggers — learning to break the double bonds that bind oxygen in carbon dioxide; using the carbon and a few other oceanic bits and pieces to produce peptides, polypeptides, polysaccharides; throwing off oxygen as waste, setting it free. Genesis for Sean was literal: Let there be sunlight to power the system, and the whole biosphere comes alive. God's chemistry, Green called it, with its swimming, dancing, fornicating ions, its tangled profligate undergrowth of plant lignins and cellulose, the matlike hems and porphyrins, the helical proteins winding and unwinding. "Steep yourself in the sea of matter," the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin advised. "Bathe in its fiery waters, for it is the source of your life." This was a glory Sean Fein could appreciate, this was a glimpse of Divine Intelligence that he could adore unreservedly.

» Enlarge the image Neanderthal bone fragments from Krapina Cave in Hrvatsko Zagoje, Croatia.<br><cite>(photo: Muzej evolucije Husnjakovo, Krapina)</cite>

Neanderthal bone fragments from Krapina Cave in Hrvatsko Zagoje, Croatia.
(photo: Muzej evolucije Husnjakovo, Krapina)

(06:08) Neanderthals and Cannibalism

The Neanderthal bones Mary Doria Russell refers to were those those found at the Krapina Cave in Hrvatsko Zagoje, Croatia. Discovered in 1899, the cave was believed to be a site of cannibalism, because the Neanderthal bones were fragmented and showed signs of butchering. Russell spoke about her work on the question of cannibalism in an interview for The Global Spiral.

I developed a protocol for distinguishing the cutmarks made during butchery from those made for secondary burial, using anatomical and statistical methods that are still considered the benchmark for establishing cannibalism in prehistoric sites. It was a lovely bit of science, if I say so myself, and I was even more pleased that the Krapina Neanderthal cutmarks fell dead in the middle of the Secondary Burial statistics, which were 2 standard deviations off the Butchery mean.

A 1997 article for Science magazine by Ann Gibbons cites Mary Doria Russell's work, but also points out that the debate continued over cannibalism continued at other sites, where neanderthal remains and animal remains appeared to have been dumped in the same place, as though both had been used for food. In 1999, a team led by Alban Defleur and Tim White published clearer evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism at the cave site of Moula-Guercy in France. The bones appeared to have been butchered, and they were scattered among animal bones, like garbage.

But Professor Tim White noted that this didn't disprove that Neanderthals buried their dead. In an interview with the BBC, he said, "When you see some Neanderthals practising intentional burial and others practising cannibalism, that is a clear indication of behaviour that is multidimensional — a pattern that mirrors the behavior of more modern people"

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(12:26–13:19) Music Element

"Beach Creatures Dancing Like Cranes" from Desire Caught by the Tail, performed by Adrian Belew

">A Fabergé Egg from Romonov-era Russia, 1913<br><cite>

A Fabergé Egg from Romonov-era Russia, 1913
(photo: greenacre8/Flickr)

(12:33) Tsarist Russia and Cheetahs

Mary Doria Russell speaks about the research behind creating the two dominant species of Rakhat in an interview with Infinity Plus.

For the two intelligent species on Rakhat, my ecological model was the relationship between cheetahs and Thompson's gazelles. It's a very elegant but very fragile ecological arrangement. We consider cheetahs to be the dominant species, because we tend to respect predators more than herd animals, but in reality, they are utterly dependent on the gazelles. If anything changed in the gazelle species, the cheetah could very well become extinct in a few weeks' time. For the events in Children of God, I drew on the culture of Romanov Russia. Recently the Cleveland Museum of Art had an exhibit of Fabergé Eggs. They were breathtakingly beautiful, but I could not look at them without trying to calculate the number of lives each one represented. How many serfs laboured all their lives to concentrate so much wealth in the hands of a single family that the husband could afford to give these eggs to his wife for Easter? It was staggering, and reminded me once again that there was a reason for the Russian Revolution of 1917.

(12:58) First Reading from The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell describes the appearance of the Runa, one of the alien species on the planet Rakhat.

[They were] bipedal, with forelimbs specialized for grasping and manipulation. Their faces also held a similarity in general, and the differences were not shocking or hideous to Anne; she found them beautiful, as she found many other species beautiful, here and at home. Large mobile ears, erect and carried high on the sides of the head. Gorgeous eyes, large and densely lashed, calm as camels'. The nose was convex, broad at the tip, curving smoothly off to meet the muzzle, which projected rather more noticeably than was ever the case among humans. The mouth, lipless and broad. They were covered with smooth dense coats of hair, lying flat to muscular bodies. They were as sleek as Siamese cats: buff-colored with lovely dark brown markings around the eyes, like Cleopatra's kohl, and a darker shading that ran down the spine.

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(13:16–14:47) Music Element

"Hot Sun" from Desire of the Rhino King, performed by Adrian Belew

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(22:46–25:45) Music Element

"Aurora" from Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street, performed by Jon Hassell

(23:08) Second Reading from The Sparrow

In this passage from The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell writes about the moment an alien being smells coffee for the first time.

In a culture walled in by tradition and heavy with stability, Hlavin Kitheri had created a new subtlety, a delicacy, a new appreciation of raw experience. What had once been merely obnoxious or ignored was now theater and song: scent's veiled and hidden opera. What had once been dynastic duty or meaningless carnality was resolved and purified, raised to an aesthetic voluptuousness that had never before existed on Rakhat. And, scandalously, the Reshtar of Galanta lured even those who could have bred productively to artistic lives of momentary and sterile but ravishing brilliance, for he had changed the world of those who heard his songs for all time. There arose a generation of poets, the children of his soul, and their songs-sometimes choral, sometimes singular, often the call-and-response of the oldest chants-propagated through space on unseen waves and reached a wolrd they could not imagine, and changed lives there as well. It was to this man, Hlavin Kitheri, the Reshtar of Galatna Palace, that Supaari VaGayjur now sent, in a strikingly simple crystal flask, seven small kernels of extraordinary fragrance. Opening the flask, breathing its vacuum, Kitheri was met by a plume of sweetly camphoric enzyme by-products giving off notes of basil and tarragon, by chocolate aromatics, sugar carbonyl and pyrazine compounds carrying the suggestion of vanilla, by hints of nutmeg and celery seed and cumin in the products of dry distillation created during roasting. And, overlaying all, the tenuous odor of volatile short-chair carbons, the saline memorial of an alien ocean: sweat from the fingers of Emilio Sandoz. A poet with no words to describe organic beauties whose origin he could not possibly suspect, Hlavin Kitheri knew only that he must know more. And, because of this, lives were changed again.

"Before the Big Bang"

In this video, physicist Brian Greene talks to a number of scientists about that moment of creation and what we can understand about it.

(27:34) Math Breaks Down at the Big Bang

Astronomer and journalist Phil Plait wrote about the breakdown of mathematics at the moment of the Big Bang on his blog for Discover Magazine.

The problem is, right at that moment, at T=0, our laws of physics… well, they stall out. You wind up dividing by zero a lot, which causes a lot of headaches. You get things like zero volume and infinite density of matter and energy. It's not that this moment didn't exist physically, or that something impossible happened, it's just that the math we currently use can't describe it….We have a relatively (har har) good grasp on how the Universe behaved after T=+0.0000000000000…1 seconds. But at T=0, fuggeddaboutit. And T<0? The way the math works, that question doesn't even make sense.

(27:45) The Universe Expands and Contracts

The new cosmology Mary Doria Russell refers to is a model put forward by Dr. Paul Frampton, Louis J. Rubin Jr. and co-author Lauris Baum. Their model was summarized in a January 31, 2007 article in ScienceDaily.

During expansion, dark energy — the unknown force causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate — pushes and pushes until all matter fragments into patches so far apart that nothing can bridge the gaps. Everything from black holes to atoms disintegrates. This point, just a fraction of a second before the end of time, is the turnaround. At the turnaround, each fragmented patch collapses and contracts individually instead of pulling back together in a reversal of the Big Bang. The patches become an infinite number of independent universes that contract and then bounce outward again, reinflating in a manner similar to the Big Bang. One patch becomes our universe.

(29:09) God Breathed Over the Face of the Waters

Mary Doria Russell paraphrases a line from the opening of The Book of Genesis, which is translated in the King James Bible as, "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." The New Revised Standard version of the Bible translates the same passage as, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."

(30:12) God's Eye Is On the Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell refers to a passage in the Book of Matthew from the New Testament in which Jesus is instructing his disciples to go out and preach to the people. He warns them to expect persecution, but says that they need not be afraid. (New Revised Standard Edition, Matthew 10:27-31)

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

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(31:31–32:06) Music Element

"Ah, fors'é lui che l'anima" from Profumo di Violetta - Trovesi All' Opera, performed by Gianluigi Trovesi

(23:18) God, the Cosmic Comedian

Krista reads a passage from The Sparrow in which a Jesuit character named D.W. Yarbrough explains his theology.

Oh, hell. On my best days? I try to keep my mind stretched around both experiences of God: the transcendent, the intimate. And then," he said, grinning briefly, "there are the days when I think that underneath it all, God has got to be a cosmic comedian." Anne looked at him, brows up. "Anne, the Good Lord decided to make D.W. Yarbrough a Catholic, a liberal, ugly and gay and a fair poet, and then had him born in Waco, Texas. Now I ask you, is that the work of a serious Deity?" And, laughing, they turned down the steps toward the cut-stone apartment they now called home.

(34:54) An Athiest Tempted by Faith

Krista reads from a passage in The Sparrow, in which a character named Anne Edwards reflects on her desire to have faith in a Biblical God.

There was part of Anne Edwards that was thrilled about the discovery, that glorified in being this close to history in the making. And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. Once, long ago, she'd allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God's presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she'd decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.

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(39:24–40:09) Music Element

"Into the Rainbow Vein" from The Campfire Headphase, performed by Boards of Canada

» Enlarge the image An illuminated version of

An illuminated version of "Dayenu" from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.
(photo: Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman)

(42:48) Dayenu

Mary Doria Russell refers to a popular Jewish song sung during Passover. The refrain Dayenu means, "It would have been enough" or "It would have satisfied us."

How manifold are the favors which God has conferred upon us! HAD HE brought us out of Egypt, and not divided the sea for us, Dayenu! HAD HE divided the sea, and not permitted us to cross on dry land, Dayenu! HAD HE permitted us to cross the sea on dry land, and not sustained us for forty years in the desert, Dayenu! HAD HE sustained us for forty years in the desert, and not fed us with manna, Dayenu! HAD HE fed us with manna, and not ordained the Sabbath, Dayenu! HAD HE ordained the Sabbath, and not brought us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu! HAD HE brought us to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah, Dayenu! HAD HE given us the Torah, and not led us into the Land of Israel, Dayenu! HAD HE led us into the Land of Israel, and not built for us the Temple, Dayenu! HAD HE built for us the Temple, and not sent us prophets of truth, Dayenu! HAD HE sent us prophets of truth, and not made us a holy people, Dayenu!

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(43:44–44:29) Music Element

"Dayenu" from Hannuka Music for Baby, performed by David's Stars

» Enlarge the image

"The Sacrifice of Isaac," by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-02.
(photo: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy)

(44:40) The Binding of Isaac

Mary Doria Russell refers to the story from Genesis in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son (New Revised Standard Edition, Genesis 22:1-14).

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.' So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, 'Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.' Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, 'Father!' And he said, 'Here I am, my son.' He said, 'The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?' Abraham said, 'God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place 'The Lord will provide'; as it is said to this day, 'On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.'

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(47:20–50:25) Music Element

"Last Night the Moon Came" from Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street, performed by Jon Hassell

(47:36) Third Reading from The Sparrow

In this final reading from The Sparrow, the Jesuit scientist, Marc Robichaux, delivers a homily at the gravev site of the first member of the Earth mission to Rakhat to die there, suddenly and inexplicably.

"The voyage was not without reward for Alan," Marc said. "But we are left with Anne's question. Why would God bring him all this way, only to die now?" He paused and looked at Sofia before continuing. "The Jewish sages tell us that the whole of the Torah, the entirety of the first five books of the Bible, is the name of God. With such a name, they ask, how much more is God? The Fathers of the Church tell us that God is Mystery and unknowable. God Himself, in Scripture tells us, ‘My ways are not your ways and My thoughts are not your thoughts.'" The noise of the forest was quieting now. Siesta was the rule in the heat of midday, when three suns' aggregate light drove many animals to shelter. They were all, priests and lay, tired and hot, and wanted Marc to finish. But Marc waited until Anne lifted her eyes to his. "It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne's last night and to receive no plain answers," he said. "Perhaps this is because we can't understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God's ways and God's thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable. Emilio's head came up and he looked at Marc, his face very still. Marc noted this and smiled, but continued. "The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne's are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God."

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(50:10–51:05) Music Element

"Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 - 3. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace - Poco più presto" from Brahms: Violin Concerto; Schumann: Fantasie, Op. 131, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kurt Masur, the New York Philharmonic

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(50:52–52:16) Music Element

"Clairvoyance" from Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street, performed by Jon Hassell

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is a retired paleoanthropologist and the author of four novels, including The Sparrow and Children of God.