Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What is the Prophetic Ideal?

Gustave Dore
"The Prophet Amos"
"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

-Amos 5:24
In the Hebrew Tanakh, the colorful collection of history, anthropology, and mythology better known to Christians as the Old Testament, a number of the prominent prophets decry the institutionalization of Israelite religion. Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah proclaim instead the communal and, in some cases, individual experience of the one, true God. They maintain that God can be best experienced (and, as the ancient Israelites believed, best appeased) through one's devotion to those moral laws, or mitzvot, concerned with righteousness and social justice. These courageous and outspoken men also possess an enmity for the organized priesthood. They insist that the Israelites needn't centralize their worship at Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, or at any of the other state worship shrines constructed within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Not surprisingly, excepting the rare case when a prophet's ideology was deemed politically expedient, Israelite state leaders frowned on religious populism and the theocracy ignored the prophet's pleas. Typically, the trouble-making prophets were ostracized, expelled, or hunted as fugitives. Yet, ultimately, the prophets' voices proved appropriately prophetic.

For most of their history, Jews have lived in diaspora, their religious faith and identity rooted in a universalist foundation of scripture, theory, and law rather than any centralized site or body. In fact, most contemporary religious historians believe that the flowering of the relatively archaic and essentially polytheistic Israelite religion into Judaism follows the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, in 587 BCE, and that this early, exilic manifestation of Judaism would undergo another upheaval and transformation after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, in 70 CE. In essence, these scholars suggest that the Israelites (and, later, the Jews) had to forgo state power before the moral idealism of their religion could be actualized.

Accordingly, then, the muscular, modern state of Israel poses challenges to Jewish moral idealism. But contemporary Israeli Jews aren't alone in their wrestling with this challenge. Almost 2,500 years after the Hebrew prophets condemned top-down involvement in spiritual matters, liberal-minded, religious individuals of all stripes continue to struggle against blindly restrictive doctrinal authority.

I do not intend to suggest that adherence to dogma is necessarily a bad thing. Moral hand-wringing is a natural component of ethical decision-making, and traditional values of the sort upheld by religious authorities offer each of us a valuable point of reference. But what of contemporary conflicts between religious action and the religious institution? What of those cases in which the civil and moral codes of a religion suggest that the adherent to those codes should act in some way other than that dictated by the religious institution?

Laura Goodstein's recent New York Times article, "U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny" provides an excellent example. Goodstein writes,
"In the last four decades since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns stopped wearing religious habits, left convents to live independently and went into new lines of work: academia and other professions, social and political advocacy and grass-roots organizations that serve the poor or promote spirituality. A few nuns have also been active in organizations that advocate changes in the church like ordaining women and married men as priests."
What could possibly be wrong with nuns advocating for progressive social change!? While I respect those individuals who dedicate their life to religious contemplation, aren't the monks and nuns that work for God outside of monastery and convent walls the most exemplary of all religious adherents? Aren't those individuals striving for Thomas Merton's brand of religiously-inspired activism representative of the 13th century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart's call for believers to "gratefully [return] all that God has bestowed [...] and, by that act of donation, enter the Godhead"? In the eyes of the Vatican, apparently not.
"The investigation was ordered by Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican office that deals with religious orders. In a speech in Massachusetts last year, Cardinal Rodé offered barbed criticism of some American nuns 'who have opted for ways that take them outside' the church. [...] The [Vatcian's investigation] focuses only on nuns actively engaged in working in society and the church, not cloistered, contemplative nuns."
If the Vatican has spearheaded the investigation only because the Church seeks confirmation that American activist nuns are "attending Mass and keeping the sacraments," all well and good. After all, attending Mass and keeping the sacraments are obligations of religiously observant Catholics, and an individual who has devoted his or her life to the church should certainly be upholding these traditions. If, however, the Church intends to castigate or defrock otherwise devout, responsible nuns for pursuing religious behavior outside of the church, the Vatican officials should be ashamed of themselves.

As the Catholic theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote in The Prophetic Imagination, "The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." For the Catholic nuns, as for the Hebrew prophets millennia before them, the dominant culture is that of their respective religious institutions, one of staid and comfortable orthodoxy. I'm not a Christian, but were I one, and especially if I were Catholic, I would be up in arms over the Vatican's sanctimonious oppression of those exceptional nuns and monks who actually paid attention to the substance of Jesus of Nazareth's memo.

Photo credit: ripped from Wikipedia

Saturday, July 25, 2009

At Dawn I Have Birds

Walton Ford
Six color hardground and softground etching, aquatint, spit-bite aquatint, drypoint on Somerset Satin paper
44 x 30 7/8 inches

"Often, lately, the night is a cold maw
and stars the scattered white teeth of the gods,
which spare none of us. At dawn I have birds,
clearly divine messengers that I don't understand
yet day by day feel the grace of their intentions."

— from "Age Sixty-nine," by Jim Harrison

Image credit: ripped from the Paul Kasmin Gallery website

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, 2004

"The sound of the water so softly battering
Against the shore is decidedly sexual,
In its liquidity, its regularity,
Its persistence, its infantile obliviousness.
It is as if it had come back into being
A beginning, an origination of life."

-from "Lake Water," by David Ferry

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2004

Note: This is a repost, originally appearing September 2, 2007.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Other Peoples' Lives: The Sundurbans

Sundarbans National Park, Bangladesh
"From time to time, we passed solitary women trudging through the water near the shoreline, pulling nets behind them as they trawled for prawn seed. This practice, introduced in the past twenty years or so, has disastrously reduced prawn and other fish populations, and the constant pacing along the fragile shore by the women and children who drag the nets has contributed to erosion. In their flowing saris, the women presented picturesque silhouettes that belied the danger of their work, up to ten hours a day waist high in the murky water. As many as ten fatal crocodile attacks are documented each year, and, I was told, too many shark attacks to report. The most common are by dog sharks, which take a bite of soft tissue—a leg or buttock—but do not kill. 'They are considered minor hazards,' Dr. Sanyal said, with a sympathetic grimace. The Sundarbans's occupational hazards—crocodiles, sharks, cobras, kraits, swimming tigers, and cyclones—make it one of the most dangerous places in the world."
-Caroline Alexander, "Tigerland" (The New Yorker, April 21, 2008)

Photo credit: ripped from joiseyshowaa's Flickr photostream

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Barry Bruce, waterman

Smith Island, 2008

This short New York Times Audio Slideshow with Chesapeake Bay waterman Barry Bruce offers a lovely portrait of a man and a place.

Although I don't know Bruce personally, I recognize him as the hardworking, "salt of the earth" type that crowds the interior of Wachapreague's bait and tackle shop. Around and in Bruce, I also recognize my home ground: the salt marsh and bay landscapes, the docks and crabshacks, the marbles-in-your-mouth accent, the unquestioned appreciation of a providing God tethered to an overarching melancholy of things irrevocably changed.

It's easy to romanticize the sun-baked, hard life of a waterman, but I harbor no illusions. Crabbing is exhausting and painful work. The slideshow provides a sweet aural backdrop of lapping water and muted laughing gulls, but, in life, those pleasant sounds are marred by the irritating whine of the motor, just as the rich smell of the marsh is cut with the stench of gasoline. I don't intend, then, to sentimentalize Bruce's position, but having grown up around folks like him, the farmers and fishermen of the mid-Atlantic, it saddens me to recognize that their kind is nearing extinction. The Shore that shaped me goes with them.

Note: The Bruce slideshow is associated with a New York Times travel piece, "The Crab Houses of Maryland's Eastern Shore." This article is fine, but the slideshow, produced by Miki Meek with photographs by Karen Kasmauski, is the real gem. Watch it here.

Photo credit: Smith Island image ripped from texterella's Flickr photostream

Friday, July 10, 2009

Paradise: Here and Now (and To Come)

"Trouble in Paradise"

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is an imaginative and engaging consideration of what a "post-human" Earth might look like. The popular success of Weisman's book suggests that a great many readers are willing to entertain an End Times quite unlike that forecast by eschatological messianism.

Still, in the United States, a significant percentage of the populace (maybe even a slim majority!) insist that dinosaurs coexisted with early man and that Judgment Day will involve supernatural intervention. For the rest of us, however, Weisman's predictions are more tenable than messianic adjudication and, because we're living through what scientists now dub the Sixth Great Extinction, his vision of mass extinction is also more pertinent.

"Trouble in Paradise"

I thought of The World Without Us when viewing photographic documentation of Steinbrener/Dempf's intervention at Vienna's Schonbrunn Zoo, an institution celebrated as "the oldest zoo in the world." Not all of the installation images impress me, but a few are coolly beautiful. The best of them serve as both a celebration of life's ambivalent persistence and a critique of our romantic notions of wilderness.

"Trouble in Paradise"

Note: Thanks to RSA Arts & Ecology blog for the heads up

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Amy Talluto
"Blue Pool"
Oil on canvas
40 x 52 inches

Reading Mary Duenwald's recent New York Times article "The Land and Words of Mary Oliver, the Bard of Provincetown," I was particularly charmed by the following passage.
From time to time over what she has called her '40-year conversation' with Ms. Cook, [Ms. Oliver] or the couple together would go off to places like Sweet Briar, Va., and Bennington, Vt., where Ms. Oliver would teach poetry writing. But their home base was always Provincetown.

'People say to me: wouldn’t you like to see Yosemite? The Bay of Fundy? The Brooks Range?' she wrote in Long Life, a book of essays. 'I smile and answer, ‘Oh yes — sometime,’ and go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor, no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything.'"
I'd like to accurately claim, as Oliver does, a deep familiarity with one landscape and ecology. Although I'm romantically rooted in the sulfurous soil of Virginia's coastal salt marshes, like many Americans, I've lived a relatively transient life, so far calling three states (and more houses or apartments than I can count on both hands) home. Still, the ascetic aspect of my temperament is moved by the notion of staying put, of refraining from travel in order to better cultivate continuity, peace of mind, and sense of place. The terms "provincial" and "parochial" have pejorative associations, but I believe there is a lot to be said for those individuals who appreciate their home ground as only a true local can.

If Oliver is right, rootedness is especially significant for artists. Reading some of Oliver's poetry last night, I rediscovered this early work, from 1963.

No Voyage

I wake earlier, now that the birds have come
And sing in the unfailing trees.
On a cot by an open window
I lie like land used up, while spring unfolds.

Now of all voyagers I remember, who among them
Did not board ship with grief among their maps?--
Till it seemed men never go somewhere, they only leave
Wherever they are, when the dying begins.

For myself, I find my wanting life
Implores no novelty and no disguise of distance;
Where, in what country, might I put down these thoughts,
Who still am citizen of this fallen city?

On a cot by an open window, I lie and remember
While the birds in the trees sing of the circle of time.
Let the dying go on, and let me, if I can,
Inherit from disaster before I move.

O, I go to see the great ships ride from harbor,
And my wounds leap with impatience; yet I turn back
To sort the weeping ruins of my house:
Here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact.

-Mary Oliver

Image credit: courtesy, the artist

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Les Seifer's Fairytales

Les Seifer
Acrylic, ink, crayon, pencil, and cut paper on panel
22 x 26 inches

Les Seifer's mixed media paintings evidence a playful disregard for the conventions of painting. The interactions and proclivities of Seifer's varied media inform the pictures' making; as a result, the paintings include unexpected compositional and color choices, even as they manifest the artist's formal command.

Les Seifer
"On These Earthly Shores"
Acrylic, ink, and cut paper on canvas
30 x 36 inches

Atmospheric and often gritty, the pictures also reflect the striking (and similarly unconventional) juxtaposition of past and future in urban settings. The layered imagery of Seifer's works is partially rendered or scrubbed out, a lost and found architecture of our evolving cultural landscape.

Les Seifer
Acrylic, ink, pencil, and cut paper on canvas
30 x 36 inches

A native New Yorker, Seifer is clearly inspired by the diversity and mutability of the city's outer boroughs, but his saturated, pooling colors and hodgepodge approach evoke a less specific sense of nostalgia, one that is universally understood. Even the darkest or most anxious of Seifer's works celebrates human imagination and potential; his pictures are dreamlike and fundamentally optimistic, poetic records of our increasingly plural mythos.

Seifer's next solo exhibition opens on Friday, July 10th, at Ernden Fine Art Gallery, in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Les Seifer
Oil, acrylic, ink, crayon, pencil, lino cut print, and cut paper on canvas
30 x 36 inches

Image credits: all images, courtesy Les Seifer

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Repairing America (and beyond)

Micanopy, Florida

While visiting central Florida last month, an acquaintance told me that all of her Gainesville co-workers are fans of Rush Limbaugh's radio punditry. On the highways around the small city, I saw countless pro-life billboards and a good number of "NObama" bumper stickers on passing pickup trucks. Although the city's populace supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election (as did the state), it was very clear that the city represents a blue dot in a red region.

Contemplating this red state mentality, I recalled Thomas Frank's "Lie Down for America," an excellent, if depressing article published in the April 2004 issue of Harper's Magazine. Frank dissected, in his words, "how the Republican Party sows ruin on the Great Plains."
"Whereas earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues - summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art - which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends.

[...] 'Rural America is pissed,' a small-town Pennsylvania man told a reporter from Newsweek. Explaining why he and his neighbors voted for George Bush, he said: 'These people are tired of moral decay. They're tired of everything being wonderful on Wall Street and terrible on Main Street.'"
The same Wall Street-Main Street dichotomy was trotted out by campaigning Republicans four years later, in 2008, to cast the GOP as the party of the people. But did the tactic really work? After all, Obama won the 2008 election. Aren't rural and Middle America coming around, realizing that the Republican party doesn't have their best interests in mind, even in those cases where the social issues of the Right more closely align with their values?

I hope so, but I wouldn't bet on it. Middle America will jab an angry finger at someone, and faithful Rush can't be the enemy. Our country is already waging a war against Islam, so we know that the Muslims are "against us," but they're not pulling America's economic strings. And, as a general rule, black folks don't have too much power, Obama not withstanding. But, wait a second...aren't there a lot of socialist Jews whispering in Obama's ear? Hell, isn't he related to a rabbi!?

The July 2009 issue of Harper's includes two disturbing poll results.
Chance that an American thinks 'the Jews' were moderately or very much to blame for the financial crisis: 1 in 4

Chance he or she thinks they were 'a little' to blame: 1 in 7
This is a shocking statistic! I wonder what percentage of Americans believe that "the Jews" are no more culpable than any other ethnic or religious group?

Oh, but that's a silly question! After all, "the Jews" are the denizens of Wall Street, and Main Street folk like Dubya and Rush don't like that sinful, unAmerican place. It should be clear to me that the current recession - when should we start calling it a depression? - is not the result of the unsustainable, myopic economic policies of the last sixty years (amped up by Ronald Reagan, but embraced by both Democrat and Republican administrations). It's instead the vast Zionist conspiracy! The socialist Jews have teamed up with the capitalist Jews to forge an unholy alliance, and they're running the global economy into the ground!

Would that I could laugh off such frightening ignorance. Unfortunately, the bigotry is not evidenced only on the Right. In fact, the same study cited in Harper's showed that the registered Democrat respondents were 12% more likely than responding Republicans to blame "the Jews" at moderate or higher levels. There is a time-tested, inverse relationship between economic performance and anti-Semitism, and this correlation isn't affected, evidently, by political affiliation.

The New York Times reports today that "U.S. Job Losses Rise and Unemployment Reaches 9.5%."
"The American economy lost 467,000 jobs in June [2009] and the unemployment rate edged up to 9.5 percent in a sobering indication that the most painful downturn since the Great Depression has yet to release its hold."
Things are going to get a lot worse for Middle America. Finger pointing does none of us any good (and certainly not the tiny Jewish minority in the United States).

Still, I remain optimistic. As I wrote in January,
"Call it Obamatism, call it naive idealism, call it what you will...but it's time to participate, to put aside our generation's infantilism and get to Aristotle's happy work. [...] We will pass through our challenging stage of human social development but, fraught as it is, the need for an active and immediate commitment to bettering our world's future is great."
Jews call that tikkun olam, repairing the world. Get to it, people!

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2009