Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sacred Earth

As I’ve walked around campus the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen posters for an upcoming performance, “Sacred Earth,” by the troupe Ragamala Dance, who perform Bharatanatyam, a classical dance style from south India.

The performance is being promoted by the university’s Performing Arts Series as follows. I’ve highlighted phrases that invite commentary.

Experience transcendence. With magical grace, Ragamala dances the ancient temple art form, Bharatanatyam. Performed against a vivid backdrop of painted prayers, Warli paintings, on a stage covered with ephemeral Kolam rice flour drawings, Ragamala’s Sacred Earth transforms the stage into a sacred space. The stunning dancers give physical form to the spiritual expression of the Warlis and Kolams, illustrating the ephemeral nature of our existence and celebrating the ongoing, ever-renewing cycle of life.

I’m struck that among the performance’s sponsors is the “Ford Family initiative on Spiritual Meaning & Purpose.”

Thought question: What kind of experience do the performers understand themselves to be offering the audience? What kind of experience do planners here at the university understand that they are offering the audience? And what kind of experience do audience members understand themselves to be having? Artistic? Cultural? Religious? Spiritual? What’s the difference?

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Some time back I watched the film Koyaanisqatsi [yeah, chew on that one, spellchecker], the first in the Qatsi trilogy, but the last one for me to see. As with the other films in the trilogy, I remember very little now that it’s over–just a few images. I’ve never been stoned, but I’m guessing that watching the Qatsi films must be something like that experience.

As it happens, in the myth class I’m teaching, we recently read about the body of Hopi prophecies from which Koyaanisqatsi takes its inspiration, which predict a gourd of ashes falling from the sky to presage the Day of Purification. In the film (as I recall), those words get associated with slow-motion footage of a rocket, which I presume is meant to evoke the idea of nuclear missiles. “Koyaanisqatsi” is the term used in the prophecies to describe a disruptive endtimes period–some Hopi texts borrow the Christian dispensationalist term “Tribulation” as a translation.

I’m curious to know what Hopis thought about the filmmakers’ use of their prophecies. Wikipedia, fountain of all easily accessible knowledge, is silent on that subject. I know from the readings I used in my class that traditionalist Hopis themselves publicized the prophesies to non-Natives after World War II, when some became convinced that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the fulfillment of the “gourd of ashes” prophecy. (Later texts interpreted the prophecy as the future threat of nuclear contamination or simply as a reference to air pollution.) In a sense, the film Koyaanisqatsi is a measure of Hopis’ success at disseminating their prophecies to non-Native audiences–as they had wanted, at least in the first couple of decades following World War II. Alternatively, I could imagine the film being critiqued by Native activists as another instance of Euroamericans’ unwanted appropriation of Native religious goods.

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Ex-Amish and Hasidim on NatGeo

I’m relaxing, watching television. Stumbled onto the tail end of a NatGeo program on ex-Amish, young men mostly, who have left their communities and are now earning their GEDs, learning to play basketball, etc. The basketball business reminded me of a news story I saw some years ago about two young women who had left a fundamentalist Mormon community with the assistance of another ex-fundamentalist woman. One of the first things they were shown doing upon their “escape” was going to get makeovers. Basketball for young men; makeovers for young women–these are the symbols of normality; these are the benefits of mainstream life; this is what you’ve been denied.

The program immediately following that one was about Hasidim, Only for God. I’m watching it now, trying to decide how useful it might be for teaching. A Life Apart is the classic documentary on American Hasidim, but this has the virtue of being more recent. As I’m typing, the program has moved into a segment on an organization for ex-Hasidim. As with the ex-Amish, they’re focusing on the exes’ sense of cultural deprivation and illiteracy: They don’t get pop cultural references; they don’t know how to interact with the opposite sex; the young men have a yeshiva education but otherwise are at a fifth-grade level.

Meh. I’m inclined to think it’s not pedagogically useful to reinforce what I suspect is students’ natural inclination to see religious minorities like these as outside the realm of “the normal,” ergo deprived or constricted. More useful to destabilize students’ assumptions about normalcy and the desirability of their own cultural goods. Also the assumption that the particular set of cultural norms that constrain their lives constitute “individual freedom.”

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The Amish . . . and Christmas in Berlin

A few days ago I had a chance to watch the recent PBS documentary The Amish, which I’d missed when it first aired. Watching it reminded me of a visit I made to Amish country this past Thanksgiving with some friends. We ended up in a small town called Berlin, Ohio, on the evening of the community Christmas parade. (Church-state issues? Don’t ask, don’t tell.) It was interesting to see the mixed crowd–Amish families speaking German, crowded in alongside English members of the town, plus tourists like my group.

There were carols performed after the parade. We didn’t stay too long, but the songs sung while we were there were all in English. I wonder if there were German carols sung at some point in the evening.

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Road signage

Just returned from a weekend trip to Cleveland. Along rural stretches of the freeway, we passed billboards with evangelical messages like “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” One sign listed the first five or six of the Ten Commandments; I expected we would pass a second sign with the rest of the list but didn’t see it. Then there was a message with a more political slant: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. –God.”

Some day, a local Muslim community–like the mosque I saw alongside a freeway entrance ramp coming out of downtown Cleveland–will build up the nerve to put up a billboard that says something like “There is one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” How will the folks who put up the “Where will you spend eternity?” signs react? I pose that as an open question, not a rhetorical one (tempting though the latter option is).

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The Book of Purim

A Broadway musical parodying Mormons is parodied in turn by Jews. That’s how we roll in postmodernity. Oh, and as long as we’re throwing theoretical buzzwords around, there’s a transnational element here, ’cause the video was made in Israel by students from HUC (down the road from me, in Cincinnati).

There’s more where this came from.

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Lenten advertising

I don’t have photos to show, but today as I was out driving, I saw two signs marketing food products appropriate for Lent. A Skyline Chili by the highway was advertising “potatoes and tuna” as a “Lenten special.” Out in the country, between towns, there’s a little roadside restaurant that was advertising six different fish dishes “special for Lent.”

This is a first for me. Growing up in Utah and Idaho, I didn’t see Lenten advertising. Nor did I see it while attending graduate school in North Carolina–a sign of Baptist dominance, I presume.

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