Modernity is the Size of an Olive

A 2,000 year old Olive Tree in Israel

Recently, Ben secularized the idea, paralleled in Mircea Eliade’s study of religion, of “homogeneous” history. For Eliade, profane time – that is, time without divine intervention to organize it – is a vast, homogeneous expanse, the meaningless tohu vavohu (unformed and void) that precedes creation. Significant theological events punctuate these equilibria, giving birth to a radically new order, a “sacred history.” Some of these sacred interventions are familiar: the creation of the world, the revelations at Sinai or in the Cave of Hira, or the life and death of Christ. I’d like to talk about a more obscure theological event: the shrinking of the olive.

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Thundering at The Door: Vampires, Ibsen and Mad Men

Halvard Solness?

Reading Ben’s post on stagnant thought and homogenous time, I thought of a cultural rut that America seems unable to escape: an obsession with vampires. The past two years have seen “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries, ” not to mention a flurry of knock-offs. Today, the movie “Let Me In” comes out in theaters, a vampire film which is itself an adaptation of the Swedish film “Let The Right One In.” Even the venerable New Yorker has dedicated a panel in its three-day festival to the phenomenon. Of course, media executives often hop on the bandwagon of whatever superficial element seems to be selling tickets and DVDs. Still, I am curious about this cultural trend. What is so compelling about vampires right now?

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Legacy Admissions – A response to Richard Kahlenberg

The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg has recently published a pair of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education to promote his new book on legacy admissions at American colleges and universities. Dr. Kahlenberg makes no secret of his beliefs (the book’s title is Affirmative Action for the Rich), and while numbers make an occasional appearance in the articles, impartial social science does not.

Whether or not his prejudices should cast doubt on his credibility is a question we can leave aside, since his articles contain enough poor science to disabuse us of any sympathy we might have for his views. For a taste of Kahlenberg’s inclinations, here are the concluding sentences of his first article:

In a fundamental sense, this nation’s first two great wars—the Revolution and the Civil War—were fought to defeat different forms of aristocracy. That this remnant of ancestry-based discrimination still survives—in American higher education, of all places—is truly breathtaking.

If the professor genuinely believes that legacy admissions disgrace the spirit of our forefathers, one can only imagine what he must think about expensive private high schools and family businesses—institutions that are much more efficient than selective colleges at keeping wealth in the family, evidently an un-American activity. Perhaps he would prefer mandatory public education and a one-hundred-percent estate tax? And, for good measure, throw in a federal prohibition against hiring relatives. Continue reading

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A Savage Torpor: Southern historical awareness in Get Low

After Dylan’s sojourn into the cinematic world of sado-masochistic dungeons, I’ve been anxiously reminding myself that not all movies feature sexual deviants cavorting in dank, abusive environs. On a recent visit to my family in Tennessee, I saw a film with a very different setting—though still a prison of sorts—the American South at the nadir of the Great Depression.

Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black in Get Low

Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black in Aaron Schneider's Get Low

Faulkner’s legacy pervades Get Low (think Robert Duvall, not the Ying Yang Twins), though judging from Bill Murray’s sardonically unflappable character you would also expect to find Samuel Clemens’ seal of approval. A hard-on-his-luck undertaker with a sarcastic streak who complains he’s in the only town in the world where no one’s dying, Frank Quinn seems out of place in a 1930s American South that reeks of torpor and decay. But in a real Faulknerian irony, the biggest sore thumb in this musky Tennessee town is the character who most poignantly embodies the tragedy of the post-reconstruction South. Felix Bush, played slickly by Duvall, is part hermit and part curmudgeon. Having retreated for forty years to a backwoods cabin, Felix is blind to what little progress local civilization achieves. Wracked by guilt and scorning the outside world, he finally decides that time will not heal his wounds. Rather, his only hope for absolution is death and rebirth—which, in his eccentric logic, means pulling a Tom Sawyer, arranging to visit his own funeral. Continue reading

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How to Attack My Religion (and How Not To)

This post is being cross-posted at The Philosopher’s Stone, a fascinating blog which has gone from hosting Robert Paul Wolff’s full autobiography (!) to hosting an interesting discussion on the future of the left.

King James Bible

Jews are sometimes called "People of the Book"; fine, but it's not this book.

In a recent post on religion, Professor Wolff argues, “the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility.” Nor should religious people reinterpret ugly texts using tortured hermeneutics: “If… [Leviticus] is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities… It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.”

I do not speak for “serious” Christians or Muslims; frankly, I don’t even speak for many Jews. I do think Wolff is wrong about my Judaism, so I will defend forceful, non-literal biblical interpretation. But I have a problem: whether literalism is right or wrong, it’s certainly faster than the alternative. Citing a verse takes a moment; subjecting that verse to rigorous theological, historical, textual, and literary interpretation takes years. As a full-time student, I do not have that time. For that reason, and because I’m less interested in religious polemics than in neat textual quirks, I’ll argue indirectly, giving a tiny example of how the Jewish religious tradition can work. At the end I’ll explain the implications of my exegesis; if you’re unsatisfied, leave a comment (on my blog) and I’ll defend myself more explicitly.

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Chained to the Screen: Watching Black Mama, White Mama

Original Movie Poster

When I came across the line in Raffi’s piece on Chagaga decrying the women-in-prison genre of film, I said to Raffi, wistfully, “But I love Black Mama, White Mama…” To be honest, I only vaguely remembered liking it; it’s been some years since I’ve seen it, and I sometimes take satisfaction in contrariness. On re-watch, I happily found myself in the same uncomfortable position as the viewer of Chagaga: trying to work through an ambiguous text that simultaneously critiques and clings to the worst elements of the culture that produced it. Continue reading

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Bad Romance: Gaga and the Jews

Being religious, I am always happy to encounter blasphemy; it shows people still care. Katy Perry, apparently, does not agree: she’s been attacking Lady Gaga’s new music video, “Alejandro,” for combining “sex and spirituality.” This beef appears looks like the latest installation in the long-running American kulturekampf. Perry grew up Christian, is socially conservative (read: homophobic), but also poses topless for Rolling Stone. Gaga is classic blue state: beloved by gays, androgynous, totally artificial, and an almuna of NYU.

I don’t think much of this analysis. Indeed, following Dylan’s skepticism of common media narratives, I suggest that we rethink some old cultural binaries. I’ll do so through a video in which the extremes of sex and religion meet: the following Orthodox parody of Lady Gaga.

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