May 3, 2017

Ian Johnson and the Souls of China

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and ...

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and booming big cities alike, what he came to see unmistakably over 6 years on the road was a restoration taking place across the peculiar mix of Chinese religion: Buddhist meditation, Daoist exercises, Confucian moral discipline.

In his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After MaoJohnson says the spiritual revival in modern China is centered not so much on the God questions as on how to organize Chinese life again around communities of belief, ritual and practice.  What Confucianist advice do you want before you invest? Do we head for a cave together for peace and quiet? What Johnson sees is a vast identity search in a people tossed and tussled by outsiders and now by a century of their own modern  revolutions, people still fiercely hungry in an historic boom time:

Theology does not play a huge role in Chinese religion… Using the tools of Greek logic to prove or disprove a proposition is not something you find too much in Chinese religion. Most people are happy to participate because they feel it gives structure to their lives, and ritual. Though we often think of ritual being empty or unimportant, it’s really the profound question of how you act in a certain situation. Like, what’s the proper way to mourn a dead person? What’s the proper way to behave in relation to other people in society? Those are pretty important questions. Those are actually quite profound. I think what also I found is that there’s a great exuberance in the religious life of China. If you think of a pilgrimage outside of Beijing to Myao Fung Shin, there’s a whole lot of people drinking and smoking cigarettes and cursing and yelling. It’s not all sitting, quietly meditating and saying, “Ohmm.”

 

– Ian Johnson in conversation with Christopher Lydon 4/10/17.

Podcast • July 29, 2015

New Ireland Says “Yes”

In today’s Ireland, yes means no. A democratic yes to same-sex marriage signaled no! to patriarchal priests and cane-wielding nuns; no to the bankers who led the country into a devastating crash; and no to the supposed ...

In today’s Ireland, yes means no. A democratic yes to same-sex marriage signaled no! to patriarchal priests and cane-wielding nuns; no to the bankers who led the country into a devastating crash; and no to the supposed glamour of “showband” music, the goofy rock soundtrack of all old Ireland.

Huckleback

The country’s young artists, of all gender and sexual identities, have set themselves James Joyce’s task. They’re casting off the old and saying yes — Joyce called it “that female word” — to the new. And they’re forging new selves, a new national conscience, along the way.

You can see the change in Irish writing, vibrant again: from the traumatized modernism of Eimear McBride and the expressive, depressive stories of Colin Barrett. And in music with Snowpoet’s accompanied spoken word and the haunting harmonies of Twin Headed Wolf drawing on Gaelic roots without the traditional styles’ limited worldview.

This summer Chris went to Dublin’s National College of Art and Design for a lunchroom chat with the painters, chefs, and musicians leading the charge. He was wondering what the “Yes” vote to marriage equality meant, really, and what’s next for Ireland.

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All music used in this piece is composed, performed, or produced by Irish artists. Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

June 11, 2015

The Pope and the Planet

Habemus problem! In an encyclical letter due next week, Pope Francis himself will intervene in the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face."

A week before the big release, this show had us excited about Pope Francis’s full-throated challenge to the status quo — the text in full of Laudato Si is now available on the Vatican’s website. But what he’s challenging (behavior that turns Creation, more and more, into “an immense pile of filth”) ended up sounding a lot like our guest Sally Weintrobe‘s psychoanalytic scolding of the wasteful parts of humanity:

It doesn’t go deep enough to say that this is a problem with capitalism. It’s a much, much older problem, the problem of the fantasy of the inexhaustible breast: that the earth is really a kind of a breast/toilet that provides endlessly in an ideal way and then receives all our waste. So I think the human race is being encouraged to grow up.

Meanwhile, our guest Naomi Oreskes got the celebrity-lightning-rod treatment in The New York Times — read more here.

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Habemus problem!

In an encyclical letter, Pope Francis himself will intervene next week on the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face.”

Trade deals and drilling permits are booming while the Kyoto spirit limps along. No wonder world leaders, eco-crusaders, and atheist scientists are all so hungry for some Good News. It’s time to kick the climate problem upstairs, but can a letter from Rome change things?

We’ll be speaking to Naomi Oreskes, who’s advising the Vatican on climate and turning scientific knowledge into a political message. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt indicted the tactics that oil companies cribbed from the tobacco titans and became a film phenomenon last year. As with tobacco smoke and acid rain, science isn’t enough to win an argument against opponents with a modest but dangerous specialty: getting people to question certain unpleasant realities.

Sally Weintrobe, our psychoanalyst of climate change, will put late capitalism on the couch and explain why we’re so eager to ignore the real world of droughts, floods, and our own climate change complicity. Dr. Weintrobe says a little more climate guilt is what we need in the global North, and maybe that’s where the church comes in.

But Francis is expected to take us back to bigger ideas than guilt. Awe of creation and care for “the least of these,” are the old values that welcome (even prefigure) the most complicated climate science. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist who combines love of nature with love of God — and who’s been pitching American evangelicals on climate as a moral issue for years — will let us in on a faith-science alliance that’s well underway and ready to save all of us gas-guzzling sinners.

We hear the most bracing telling, not in the skeptical speeches of Rick Santorum, even, but in the doomsaying of Paul Kingsnorth, a former eco-activist who has lost his faith in the ability of people to change. Here he is on the broken myths of our society too late to change:

Tell us: are you waiting to hear what the pope has to say about the environment and justice next week? And what will it take to move the needle toward real collective action on climate matters?

This Week's Show •

J.S. Bach’s Bitter-Sweet Passion

The music in this episode comes from Boston Baroque’s 2015 performance of the Saint John Passion, conducted by Martin Pearlman. From the great Bach’s hand, two masterpieces of church theater survive. Both tell the trial and crucifixion ...

The music in this episode comes from Boston Baroque’s 2015 performance of the Saint John Passion, conducted by Martin Pearlman.

From the great Bach’s hand, two masterpieces of church theater survive. Both tell the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, one from the gospel of Matthew, the other from the later gospel of John.

This St. John Passion, first performed in 1724, is a “mis-shapen, personal and messy” piece, as one of Boston’s great Bach conductors Craig Smith used to say, in exactly the way the story is mis-shapen, personal and messy. It’s the musical account of a sadistic murder of a young visionary—to the howling mockery of a mob of his fellow Jews. Jesus’s sin was presenting himself as the Son of God. For Christians (like Bach) the death of Jesus becomes the redeeming moment in all of time, God’s sacrifice of his son for the sins of mankind.

But in the telling over the ages and especially after the 20th century, that merciless mob, yelling “crucify him, crucify him” in Bach’s oratorio made St. John Passion unlistenable even for many Bach lovers. This week we’re trying to make sense of a Western masterwork that has not just killer rage at the core, but also group labels on it.

The cast of this universal story is nearly all Jewish: Jesus, Mary, the apostles, the gospel writers, the elders of the temple–all but the viceroy Pontius Pilate are Jews in a Jewish outpost of the Roman empire. But in the text Bach set to music, the crowd mocking Jesus, screaming for his death, is identified–not as “the crowd,” or “the people” but as “the Jews.” And there’s the rub for modern minds.

If the Bach Passion is at all disturbing, is at all problematic, it’s only because the Gospels [themselves] are hugely problematic. It’s because, over centuries, medieval and early modern interpretations of that Gospel text added weight to an anti-Jewish core that couldn’t have been imagined by John when he wrote it… That doesn’t mean that these texts are necessarily tainted forever. The question is, how do you take traditions and evolve them? How do we get our contemporary values in sync without throwing out these traditions that are beautiful?… Deanna Klepper.

Martin Pearlman, who has led the Boston Baroque ensemble for 40 years but never put the St. John Passion on his program until this year, was the instigator of this conversation. It is his performance with the Boston Baroque players and singers (from February 27 and 28 late this winter) that runs throughout our radio hour. Our conversation draws also on the mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, who’s sung the great St. John arias and translated its words into English. Robert Marshall at Brandeis, and Deanna Klepper at Boston University are our historians of Bach’s music and the political and religious context of 18th-century Germany.

The ultimate villain of the piece is humanity in general… Everybody was playing a preordained role. [As a young man] I heard ‘the [Jews] shrieking’ and put it in the context of the Holocaust, the Nazis, Goebbels. The German language played a bad role, too. In those days you never heard the German language being spoken unless it sounded like it was being spoken by Nazis, if you go back to the 1960s… I like to think I’m more enlightened about it now. I think, in some sense, it’s something of an exoneration, because the Jews are part of the scenario, but the message being spoken… is a universal message, that we are all part of this crime, this deicide. Am I rationalizing too much?   Bob Marshall.

We’re listening not just for the hard feeling in and around this music but for the heart-rending beauty that’s more memorable in the end. The St. John Passion is a monument to eternal sadness and excruciating suffering rendered in musical language what no other language could. What do you hear in the music? Please, leave us a note in the comments.

Explore this timeline to follow the St. John from Bach’s Good Fridays in Leipzig, through controversy and revision, and into the halls of Boston. Image: “The Taking of Christ,” Caravaggio, c. 1602.The Long Road to Jordan Hal

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This Week's Show •

Violent Extremism, East and West

Next Wednesday the White House is convening a summit on ‘countering violent extremism.’ The details are sketchy — a press release announces that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, ...

Next Wednesday the White House is convening a summit on ‘countering violent extremism.’ The details are sketchy — a press release announces that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence”.

The details of the summit are sketchy — a press release declares that the meeting will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence”.

Meanwhile this week President Obama has asked for a limited three-year extension of war powers in Iraq, with his staff still hoping “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. We’re asking about the long-term plan to solve a long-term problem of grievance and retribution in the Muslim world: is there one? and what does it look like?

We’re in the last week of our Kickstarter campaign, and every dollar given now is matched 2 for 1. Please give, if you haven’t already!

In the 14th year of the ‘long war’ in the Middle East, we’re trying to contain a new threat: to catch would-be terrorists before they turn into the Tsarnaevs, or the Kouachi brothers who shocked Paris last month with their assault on Charlie Hebdo, or one of the hundreds of people worldwide who have flocked to Syrian battlefields.

There will be sessions on detecting warning signs on Twitter and Facebook and case studies from Singapore and the European Union. The National Counterterrorism Center has already drafted a checklist that will score families on their vulnerability to political and religious violence, on a sixty-point scale, based on factors like “perceived sense of being treated unjustly,” “witnessing violence,” and “experiences of trauma”. It’s pretty technocratic stuff!

Radicalization-diagram

On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, sometimes thought of us as the Republican Party’s thinking man, isn’t beating around the bush in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: we’re at war with radical Islam, we’re losing, and we don’t have a clue how to win. If, as Gingrich suggested last month, the ‘long war’ on Islamic extremism needs a grand strategist like George Kennan, what would the ‘grand strategy’ be?

So set aside the checklists and the so-called “clash of civilizations”. Let’s look at the biggest possible picture. What kind of common sense do we need to break this decades-long cycle of violence and revenge in the Middle East and here at home?

Moazzam Begg’s Story

Born in England, captured in Pakistan, and now twice freed on terror charges, Moazzam Begg is a controversial figure, but he’s one of the people we most wanted to hear in a conversation about the low moments of the terror war and the hope of a better future.

We knew his story and the horrible content of his testimony, but he surprised us by telling us just how well he’d come to know some of the guards at Guantanamo Bay. And he told us that he hoped that reconciliation could come in the form of truth and reconciliation, on the South African model.

This Week's Show •

The BSO’s Andris Nelsons: Maestro of ‘Emotionality’

The Boston Symphony’s new maestro Andris Nelsons is a boisterous young athlete in an old man’s job – one of the rising 30-somethings in front of the great orchestras of the world. And still he ...

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The Boston Symphony’s new maestro Andris Nelsons is a boisterous young athlete in an old man’s job – one of the rising 30-somethings in front of the great orchestras of the world. And still he seems younger than that and more different than we expected — almost childlike, when he’s reaching out with an open-arm hug for the sound he wants from his players. The look could be early Jack Nicholson, but the back story as we’re hearing it in his green room is boyhood in Latvia, as the Soviet era came apart 25 years ago. It matters that he was tuned musically between empires: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich on the Russian side, Wagner, Strauss and Mahler to the West in Germany. It turns out that Maestro Nelsons talks the way he plays: emotionally unguarded, with big-spirited ideas about where great music comes from, and how it connects with us. Backstage he is telling us — with grand gestures, some singing, much laughter — about some of the “thousand voices” in his head before a performance.

Of course these theological / philosophical / ‘to be or not to be’ questions are of course among the thousand. They are saying: ‘you are not a good guy’ or ‘you can’t do anything; it’s too early for you to conduct this piece, or that piece.’ Those voices are there all the time, but then they’re saying: ‘you must perform this piece — Tchaikovsky 6 or The Rite of Spring — and you can’t produce it in just a professional way.’ It’s saying: ‘you have to be emotionally involved with all your professionality and your personality as well.’

In The Rite of Spring, there is a lot of this orthodox, mystical, natural, wild thing. In Stravinsky I couldn’t call it religious in the sense of Christianity, but of course there is a search for explanation, trying to find what it is, what the world means… I think even Stravinsky is maybe not flirting but coquetting when he says it’s not emotional. It is what’s inside the human soul. When it’s over, I feel energized… You feel energized from the earth, but also you want to take a shower…

Of course I am like a big child, and I hope to stay like that. Music expresses our inside world, and for me as a conductor, to have a chemistry with the musicians is extremely important. If we perform and we are not on the same ship emotionally, I don’t believe we can perform any piece honestly or very well… In this close human familiar feeling consists our humanity. And love, in a way. I love my musicians, and I respect them. I encourage them not be shy, to show their emotions. Of course it goes together with knowledge, experience, professionality and a tradition, you know. It is not only spontaneous feeling. But how can you perform “Tristan” if you don’t love. For example, loving my family. It all comes through the small things. It’s like chamber music, and then it can spread. It all starts with your family, and if you experience that you can share and love in a wider range. Sometimes I think it is easier to invent an airplane than to experience real love, for example. And it is actually worth much more to raise a child as a good person than to invent an airplane.

March 26, 2014

Cornel West on Emerson’s Enduring Importance

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of ...

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Cornel West, like Emerson, is a preacher with a national audience, and without a church. Emerson is his number one American writer, a soulful modern and a model public philosopher.

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

January 9, 2014

The Pope Francis Phenomenon

Pope Francis wants a church that’s “bruised, hurting and dirty” – his words -- in the streets with real people, not confined or clinging to its own security. He had the audacity as no Pope before him to choose the beloved name Francis for the saint of birds and nature, the saint marked hand and foot with the wounds of Jesus.
Mary Gordon on Pope Francis: Hope for Grown-Ups
Peter Manseau on Growing Up Catholic in Boston as the Son of a Priest and a Nun
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Photo by Getty Images

We’re searching the Pope Francis Phenomenon in this radio hour: the man from Argentina and his many messages from Rome, his body language, feet-washings, mob scenes in Vatican Square. He “even uses words” now and then, as the 13th Century Saint Francis urged back in the day.

Pope Francis wants a church that’s “bruised, hurting and dirty” – his words — in the streets with real people, not confined or clinging to its own security. He had the audacity as no Pope before him to choose the beloved name Francis for the saint of birds and nature, the saint marked hand and foot with the wounds of Jesus. As the votes were being cast to elect him last Spring, the name “entered my heart,” he said. “Francis of Assissi; for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others.”

We have to search his past, his plans for a faith and an institution that seemed to be limping. We want to search ourselves too: what is the human hunger Pope Francis has confirmed – not just Catholic or churchy — all across the world. What is the wave-length on which so many non-religious people “get” him? Why TIME magazine’s hands-down runaway pick for Man of the Year, 2013? And what does the blogger Andrew Sullivan mean when he says “you don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace…”? Delivering not hope, but “proof that hope is not groundless.”

Podcast • January 9, 2014

Peter Manseau on Growing Up Catholic in Boston as the Son of a Priest and a Nun

Peter Manseau wrote a brilliant op-ed in the Times a few months ago about married priests, a no-no in the Catholic Church, of course. But, nevertheless, his father was one, is one. He met Peter’s ...

Peter Manseau wrote a brilliant op-ed in the Times a few months ago about married priests, a no-no in the Catholic Church, of course. But, nevertheless, his father was one, is one. He met Peter’s mother in Dorchester years ago, married her and had to leave the priesthood as a result. They are still married today and his father still a priest, by his own lights. Peter is a devoted son but not an active Catholic. This goes in the file of the infinite varieties of religious experience – the individuality and courage and discrimination all kinds of people bring to their religious lives. We asked him to tell us his story of how this new Pope Francis has registered on his heart, his history.

Podcast • January 8, 2014

Mary Gordon on Pope Francis: Hope for Grown-Ups

Mary Gordon – a steady light among American writers labeled ‘Catholic’ – has strong, mixed emotions about the Pope who loves the same steamy Anna Magnani movies that the Catholic church used to ban. She ...

Mary Gordon – a steady light among American writers labeled ‘Catholic’ – has strong, mixed emotions about the Pope who loves the same steamy Anna Magnani movies that the Catholic church used to ban. She “burst into tears,” Gordon remembers, when she first read Pope Francis’ open-hearted interview in the Jesuit magazine America — his identification of himself as, first, “a sinner;” his picture of his church as “a field hospital after battle,” his sharp turn from “obsessive” fixations on sex. She got “hysterically giddy,” she’s telling me, then “scared.” Her tears signaled “how sad I’d been, for so long” about her church. Hope seems possible again, and disappointment, too. She makes writerly distinctions here – that “tone” matters and the Pope’s is a radical turn; but that his “diction” is different when he speaks of women in the priesthood. “His phrase was ‘the door is closed.’ What’s the one thing he won’t talk about? Giving full power to women.”

Mary Gordon is prized as independent-minded, feminist, faithful, and nuanced in novels and searching reflections from Final Payments (1978) to Reading Jesus (2009).

Mary Gordon gave us a roster of female theologians we all might get to know better: Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham,  Sandra Schneiders of Santa Clara, Lisa Cahill of Boston College, Margaret Farley at Yale and Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.