Winter/Spring 2013 (Vol. 41, Nos. 1 & 2)

Winter/Spring 2013 (Vol. 41, Nos. 1 & 2)

Defining Our Humanity by Kathryn Dodgson

Visiting the Void by Kate Yanina DeConinck
Many recovery workers periodically return to Ground Zero as a way of reconnecting with the values they experienced there.
Dying Well by Tamara Mann
We need to find better words and metaphors to cope with the reality of death.
Nurturing Jewish Philanthropy by Robert Israel
Recent financial scandals should redirect us to time-honored Jewish practices of philanthropy
Jews, Evangelicals: Analyzing the Vote by Mark I. Pinsky
Any hoped-for “Jewish–evangelical alliance” in the 2012 election proved elusive.
Risky Invocations? by Anthony J. Minna
State-sanctioned religious beliefs and activities will only bring conflict in a religiously diverse United States.

The Ethics of Representing Disaster by Julia Watts Belser
Marta’s story from the Talmud stands within a long history of representing crisis through womanhood, in which visual and textual images of women’s bodies become icons of disaster.
The Road of Excess by Sébastien Tutenges
Most young people who party want to live moments of communion, intensity, and freedom, and to carry these moments into the future.
Doubting Thomas, Restaged by Charles M. Stang
An insightful reading of “the Thomas of the text” as Jesus’s “twin” suggests that the cult film Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a faithful retelling of the Gospel narrative.
The Fog of Religious Conflict by David N. Hempton
Eleven reflections on religious and ethnic conflict, drawing on the author’s formative experience living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Exotic Ordinary by Michael Lambek
Action and passion coexist in this portrait of one spirit medium in Madagascar, evoking complex philosophical questions.

In Review:
Cancer Rites and the Remission Society by Paul Stoller
50/50 captures the rites and rituals of cancer patients
Exposing the Fine Lines by Chris Herlinger
Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence
What Broken Souls Can Teach by Will Joyner
Julia Lieblich and Esad Boškailo’s Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror
Right-Brain Religion, Left-Brain Science by Daniel Goodman
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning

We Lost Our Everything by Andrea Cohen
Saying Grace by Liz Waldner
Two Poems by Gerard Beirne

See also: Past Issue

Cancer Rites and the Remission Society

Paul Stoller

In Review | Film 50/50, Summit Entertainment, Mandate Pictures, and Point Grey Pictures, 100 minutes.

Human beings are creatures of routine. As our lives move along, most of us make relatively seamless transitions from school to work, from single to family life, all the while engaging in reasonably comforting practices (though these may shift as our lives change). During this life of customary comfort, we sometimes chance upon peak moments, episodes of intense happiness or pleasure that we savor before slipping back into the quiet satisfactions of everyday life. Immersed in our routines, we take a lot for granted. Most of us have food to eat, a place to sleep, and friends and family to enjoy. We also usually take for granted our good health. For most of us, illness is a nuisance for which we take medicine for a few days or weeks. On occasion, illness forces us to visit the doctor for more medicine, but our usual expectation is that these incidents are transitory way stations on the road back to a normal, steady state of health.

Imagine if this assumption of normal health is suddenly obliterated by a diagnosis of cancer. That's the scenario in the film 50/50, a compelling story of what happens when someone you know suddenly becomes a cancer patient with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. In the film, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young twenty-something radio journalist without a care in the world, begins to suffer from fatigue and back pain. He has had some blood tests and a CT scan, but doesn't think he's seriously ill. When he meets with his doctor to discuss the results of these tests, the physician, a middle-aged white man dressed in a lab coat, describes the test results clinically—in merciless doctor talk filled with indecipherable, polysyllabic terms. The doctor points to illuminated CT scan images as if their message is clear. Adam, who doesn't know what is happening, asks for clarification. With great reluctance, the doctor finally admits that Adam has cancer.

"What are my chances?" Adam asks.

Citing the severity and rarity of the cancer, the doctor mumbles, "Fifty-fifty." He clears his throat. "We have people you can talk to about this."

Adam, who is young, wonders how he could have cancer. He experiences the all-too-common initial reaction of denial, but eventually, he begins to confront his diagnosis and meets with a counselor, a clinically inexperienced young woman working on her dissertation. Numbed by the unexpected change in his life, he finds the initial session a waste of time. Who, after all, could understand what he is going through? His life has been completely upended and he's facing his own mortality at an unspeakably young age.

When Adam tells his friends and family about the cancer, no one knows what to say or do. His girlfriend, Rachael, a struggling artist, puts up a brave front, but she cannot deal with the existential uncertainties of cancer and leaves Adam for someone else. His friend Kyle is also challenged. He encourages Adam to lose himself in new sexual encounters, but, during chemotherapy, this approach doesn't quite work out. Adam's mother, who has been overly protective of him, continues her smothering overreaction, which prevents any meaningful mother-son dialogue. Adam's father suffers from Alzheimer's disease and can hardly recognize his son, let alone understand his fragile physical condition. Adam's co-workers don't know how to relate to him, either: Does he really have cancer? Is he really going to die?

Like all cancer patients, Adam has to face his disease alone. In the film, no one can truly understand what he's going through, except perhaps for two men—fellow patients—who sit next to him during chemo-therapy treatment sessions. They have an immediate and deep understanding of Adam's situation. With few words, these three men give one another comfort and move through the treatment process with measures of mutual support.

When one of his chemotherapy buddies suddenly dies, Adam is forced to confront anew his odds of survival. In the end, Adam survives risky surgery and realizes how much his mother, father, and Kyle love him. He also develops a romantic bond with his inexperienced counselor. Slowly, Adam's life moves into a profoundly reconfigured world that promises to be full of existential rewards.

One of my favorite scenes in the film 50/50 is a brilliantly rendered depiction of a cancer rite. It is Adam's first chemotherapy session. He is understandably nervous about having poison dripped into his body and wonders if the drugs will nauseate him. He also worries that he will be hairless, develop mouth sores, lose his capacity to taste food, become a target for infections, or experience debilitating fatigue and joint pain—all common side effects of chemotherapy. A nurse leads him to the treatment room, a relatively empty space with reclining chairs. He sees an empty chair next to two men connected to tubes through which chemotherapy drugs are dripping into their bodies.

"What stage are you?" the older of the two men asks.

Adam doesn't understand the question. He tells the man that he has a rare cancer with a fifty-fifty chance of survival.

The other patient says that those are pretty good odds.

Adam smiles, but remains terrified. The older gentleman offers him a plate of brownies that his wife has made. Smiling, the man says that they are laced with medical marijuana.

"We always partake during chemo," the other patient says.

Adam admits that he hasn't used marijuana. The older man encourages him to try it. The other patient smiles his encouragement.

And so Adam consumes several brownies and gets high. The chemotherapy session glides by and Adam leaves his first session on top of the world.

This scene underscores the importance of rituals in our encounters with serious illness. In no way does the scene trivialize the moral seriousness of confronting a life-threatening illness like cancer. Rather, it implies that if you have to face your mortality, as does Adam in the film, then it might be best to do so in the company of people who know what you know. Why not eat some marijuana-laced brownies and soar to the stratosphere of a good high?

In treatment settings, such ritual lightness is not uncommon.

Having journeyed along cancer's path for more than ten years, I can say that 50/50 hits the right notes about emotionless doctor talk and the impersonal institutionalization of health care. It also shows how the cancer experience can sometimes be funny, sometimes sad; sometimes filled with gut-wrenching disappointment and sometimes filled with heartwarming surprise. The message of 50/50 is important for any person. Sudden change and personal struggle, the fifty-fifty odds in the game of life, compel you to appreciate what matters: the bonds we create with family and friends, and the importance of leaving behind traces of our being for future generations.

The experience of a serious illness has much to teach us about quality of life. It underscores life's fragility, but also the resilience people can exhibit: most cancer patients confront the pain and suffering of their illness with remarkable dignity and resolve. Here, I hope to describe what the experience of cancer can teach us about the nature of ritual processes, the texture of communal spirituality, and the depth of human resilience.

Anthropologists and religious studies scholars have long grappled with the whys and wherefores of ritual, that centerpiece of religious practice. Many scholars have approached ritual as a gateway that leads to refinements of social theory—a way to shed light on concepts that deepen our knowledge of the human condition. Using ethnographic data compiled by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen in their classic ethnography, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), Émile Durkheim famously suggested that ritual, which he considered a central component of religion, marked the origin of social consciousness. In his monumental Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim argued that religions, by way of ritual, take us beyond our routine encounters and thoughts and propel us toward an awareness of a greater social whole. Durkheim's work is a classic case of using the analysis of ritual to explore broader social themes.

The study of ritual has also illuminated important anthropological themes. In the anthropology of religion, many scholars have focused on ritual symbolism, the study of which attempts to uncover the key cultural themes of a group's worldview. The most notable body of anthropological work on ritual symbolism is that of the late Victor Turner, who demonstrated how ritual practices and ritual symbols communicate themes that shape group identity—for example, his famous analysis of the milk tree as a representation of matrilineal kinship among the Ndembu people of Zambia. Turner also introduced typologies of ritual and wrote about how symbols and symbolic action create structure and anti-structure in ritual events. One of Turner's most important ideas about ritual is the notion of liminality, which he borrowed, in part, from Arnold van Gennep's classic 1909 Rites of Passage.

When someone goes through a rite of passage, which usually marks a key point in the life cycle—birth, initiation, marriage, and death—that person begins the journey with one socially recognized identity (child, unmarried adult, or apprentice). After participating in a ritual process of some sort, the person reemerges with a new socially recognized identity (adult, husband or wife, or master). Turner paid special attention to what he called the liminal phase of rites of passage. "Liminal entities," he wrote, "are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by custom, convention, and ceremonial."[1]

For Turner, the liminal is more than a way station between beginning and end; it is a space in which people tend to be humble. It is also a space in which people do what they are told to do—usually without complaint. According to Turner, people in liminal spaces often accept routines of pain. Moreover, people go through this experience together with others, which means that liminality creates a profound, if fleeting, camaraderie, a feeling that erases past distinctions among age, social class, and ethnicity. Turner called this kind of situational camaraderie "communitas."

Like many anthropologists, I accepted Turner's rather structured notion of the ritual process. Rites of passage, after all, work like a good narrative; every rite has a beginning, a liminal middle, and an end, marked by a reintegration into society. Indeed, much of my ethnographic experience among the Songhay people of the Republic of Niger has conformed to Turner's set of ritual categories. As part of my apprenticeship to Songhay healers, I submitted to rites of passage that marked my transition—albeit, a partial one—from an American anthropologist to a Songhay apprentice. In one such rite, my first initiator, Mounmouni Kada, prepared for me a batch of kusu, or magic paste, a mixture of millet and various pulverized tree barks and plant leaves. When the kusu was ready, he recited three incantations over the pot and spat lightly into the mixture, transforming it into a substance that would connect my being to the spirit world. True to form, this rite of passage seemed to alter my social identity among my Songhay friends. After the ritual, many of them began to call me sork'izo, or child of the Sorko.[2]

For me, the experience of cancer has unfolded much like a rite of passage. As is portrayed in the film 50/50, cancer forces you, like any neophyte, into a liminal state. The side effects of cancer treatments result in noticeable physical changes—a pale pallor, a slow unsteady gait, hair loss, and a frail body—that set the patient apart from "normal" people. The physical manifestations of cancer and its treatment regimes are markers of impeding death, which, given the intense fear we have of death in Euro-American societies, makes most of us uncomfortable. What do you say to someone who has cancer?

In my case, the visibility of my liminal status made a few colleagues, friends, and family members uncomfortable, which meant that they tried to avoid me. They canceled social commitments. They crossed the street if they saw me shuffling along the sidewalk. They turned around if they noticed me lumbering up a stairwell. For me, cancer resulted in an unanticipated degree of social isolation.

Consistent with Turner's criteria for liminality, cancer patients accept both isolation and a regimen of pain. Courses of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation are given in infusion rooms, which are isolated spaces usually arranged to promote casual conversation and some degree of camaraderie—Turner's notion of communitas. If communitas does not develop in the treatment room, those who "survive" treatment are encouraged to participate in support groups, where strangers linked through the common experience of illness are given license to articulate their most profound fears about pain, suffering, and death. In my experience, support groups provide extended liminal spaces that make it a bit easier to confront the difficulties of treatment and the uncertainties of remission.

My own ethnographic experience as a cancer patient who willingly engaged in cancer rites suggests an elaboration on Turner's take on liminality. In Turner's view, liminality is finite. When the rite of passage is complete, you are reintegrated into society and the liminal phase comes to an end. For cancer patients, myself included, there is no end to liminality. You exist in what I like to call "continuous liminality." At the end of your regimen of treatment, you are not reintegrated into a normal social routine. Instead, you are in remission, which is neither here nor there. In remission, you are continuously betwixt and between. To borrow from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, you are in a space that is "everywhere and nowhere." Once cancer has touched your being, there is no going back to a life in "the village of the healthy," in which health is taken for granted.[3] Instead, individuals with conditions that can be managed, but not cured, become members of "the remission society."

Arthur Frank wrote that members of the remission society are people who

were effectively well, but could never be considered cured. ... Members of the remission society include those who have had almost any cancer, those living in cardiac recovery programs, diabetics, those whose allergies and environmental sensitivities require dietary and other self-monitoring, those with prostheses and mechanical body regulators, the chronically ill, the disabled, those "recovering" from abuses and addictions, and for all these people, the families that share the worries and daily triumph of staying well.[4]

Indeed, remission affects a large population of people. These are people who are directly or indirectly in a state of continuous liminality. Continuous liminality, of course, is not limited to people who are sick. Immigrants are in continuous liminality. They continuously inhabit spaces somewhere between a home and a host country. Among the Songhay people of Niger, sorcerers also live in a space of continuous liminality. They are always already between the social and spirit worlds, bridging the gap between life and death.

My teacher Adamu Jenitongo was "of" and "not of" this world. As his apprentice, I'd sleep in the spirit hut of his compound. Late at night, I'd sometimes wake from sleep to find him conversing with his ancestors. He would ask them for guidance and listen to their advice. Before he died in 1988, he told me that Songhay sorcerers—sohanci in the Songhay language—defy death. He said that if I wore the rings he had given me, we would forever be connected—between wakefulness and sleep, between the social and spirit worlds, between life and death. He said that his defiance of death would bring comfort to those he had touched during his life. "You will never be alone," he told me during our last meeting. "Never."[5]

Most cancer patients may be psychologically isolated, but they are not completely alone. They have the support of family, friends, or, perhaps, a congregation of believers. And yet, in American society, our approach to serious illness mercilessly centers on the individual. The patient is urged to engage a serious illness like a warrior and beat "it" into submission. If you are able to win the battle (if not the war) on cancer, you become a "survivor."

Survivorship has become a fundamental component of Euro-American cancer rites. The Lance Armstrong Foundation, one of the largest and most influential cancer organizations, is dedicated to survivorship, and its slogan, "Live Strong," evokes a warrior ethos. Even after "successful" cancer treatment, the "battle" continues during remission. You have to be constantly vigilant and strong—an effort to win the "war."

Many of the cancer patients I've talked to do not like the "cancer as war" metaphor. They think such militaristic metaphors place the heavy weight of individual expectation and performance on their shoulders. Soon after the end of my own regimen of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, a number of well-meaning friends slapped me on the back and proclaimed, "Looks like you beat it. You're a survivor."

I didn't feel like a survivor and would never use such a term to describe the state of my being. Following the wisdom of my Songhay friends, I consider illness an ongoing presence in the body; it is not something that can be beaten or destroyed. Most Songhay people develop a "healthy" respect for the force of illness. As I wrote in my book, Stranger in the Village of the Sick:

If a Songhay develops a serious illness like cancer, he or she is likely to build respect for it. Respect for cancer—or any illness—does not mean that you meekly submit to the ravages of disease. Following the ideas of sages like Adamu Jenitongo, illness is accepted as an ongoing part of life. When illness appears, it presents one with limitations, but if it is possible to accept the limitations and work within their parameters, one can, like Adamu Jenitongo, create a degree of comfort in uncomfortable circumstances. (191)

Our discourses of medicine and health, however, are infused with the metaphors of war. There is war on cancer. Patients fight diseases, which, through aggressive treatment, they hope to annihilate. When a life ends, we say that the person fought a brave battle against the disease. In immunological discourse, the self is considered a defense system against alien invaders—bacteria and viruses—that need to be destroyed if the self is to regain its healthy equilibrium.[6]

But there is another way to approach serious illness. You can confront illness through the processes of incorporation, which, following David Napier's groundbreaking work in The Age of Immunology, include the embryological notion of inclusive "we-ness." The incorporation of "nonself," Napier argues, makes us resilient and robust. The embryo is the classic example of this set of processes. It is a nonself entity whose growth in the womb ensures the viability of our species. Through processes of incorporation, rather than those of annihilation, the species is sustained and becomes more resilient.

And yet, in the discourse of immunology and health, the soft expansive inclusiveness of embryology, which is so vital to human well-being, is overwhelmed by the hard, restrictive exclusiveness of "disease as war" metaphors. The same can be said about discourses articulated in cancer rites. Although cancer rites create liminal spaces in which participants experience the fleeting connectedness of communitas, those experiences are also overtaken by the powerful metaphors of survivorship in which warrior patients battle their enemy diseases to the very end.

For me, however, communitas is the most powerful force that emerges from a cancer rite. In her provocative new book, Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy,[7] the inimitable Edith Turner writes eloquently about a human phenomenon that seems to defy denotation:

The characteristics of communitas show it to be almost beyond strict definition, with almost endless variations. Communitas often appears unexpectedly. It has to do with the sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning. It could be called a collective satori or unio mystica, but the phenomenon is far more common than the mystical states. (1)

She goes on to discuss the group dynamics of communitas, which occur

... through the readiness of the people ... to rid themselves of their concern for status and dependence on structures, and see their fellows as they are. Why it comes is unanswerable, except through the mercies of the energy of nature and through spirits. One can answer with a functionalist explanation, but the randomness of the events renders this ineffective. Besides, experiencers of communitas will say: "There is more to it than that." (1–2)

Edith Turner also discusses the social and psychological impact of communitas:

In communitas there is a loss of ego. One's pride in oneself becomes irrelevant. In the group, all are in unity, seamless unity, so that even joshing is cause for delight and there is a lot of laughter. The benefits of communitas are quick understanding, easy mutual help, and long-term ties with others. (3)

Put in a slightly different way, communitas reaffirms the social foundation of the human condition. It reintroduces us to a spiritual dimension of life that lies beyond the domains of organized religion. That's why moments of communitas are so special for anyone, including those of us who have participated in cancer rites. Whenever I have casual encounters with cancer patients, I feel a sense of communitas. We have an immediate, implicit, and unarticulated sense of what Martin Buber called the I–Thou relationship, the often-silent dialogue of profound mutual connection and comprehension.[8]

When i went to the theater to see 50/50, I sensed a profound discomfort in the room. People squirmed in their seats and didn't know if it was OK to laugh at cancer patients getting high during chemotherapy.

"I don't think it's funny," a person sitting behind me muttered. "Cancer is not a laughing matter."

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of situational levity and ongoing stress that contributed to that person's discomfort. I found the scene hilarious and laughed quite loudly—one of only a few people to do so in the theater. I liked the film because it was a sometimes painful, sometimes funny portrayal of the cancer experience from the cancer patient's perspective. In my view, the film showcased the positive social power of communitas among cancer patients. At the same time, the film confirmed how foundational metaphors (cancer as war, immunology as a search-and-destroy mission, survivorship as the warrior's way) tend to block paths to profound social connection, which can, in time, lead to a deep awareness of our spirituality.

My experience along the path of cancer as, a patient and an ethnographer, has also reaffirmed for me the power of ethnography not only to describe the complexities of social life, but to probe deeply into the recesses of human resilience and spirituality. My participation in cancer rites has compelled me to refine my anthropological thinking—about ritual, liminality, and communitas—and to refocus my narrative expression, all in the attempt to create works that provoke a spirit of communitas between writer and reader, between filmmaker and audience. In this way, we can create bonds with others so that they might think a new thought or feel a new feeling. In this way, we can create works that remain open to the world.



  1. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Cornell University Press, 1969), 95.
  2. Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  3. See my Stranger in the Village of the Sick: A Memoir of Cancer, Sorcery, and Healing (Beacon Press, 2004).
  4. Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 8.
  5. See also Jean Rouch, La religion et la magie Songhay (Presses Universitaires de France, 1960).
  6. See A. David Napier, The Age of Immunology: Conceiving a Future in an Alienating World (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  7. Edith Turner, Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  8. See Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923; Scribner, 2000).

Paul Stoller, Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, has written ethnographies, biographies, memoirs, and two novels. His research is in the areas of the anthropology of religion, visual anthropology, the anthropology of senses, and economic anthropology.

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Defining Our Humanity

Kathryn Dodgson

One of the more disconcerting headlines to appear after the December 14 shooting of twenty small children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, is the title of Canadian writer Stephen Marche's column: "The Newtown Massacre Is Not a Tragedy." Marche seemed not inclined to mince words, and his harsh bluntness certainly got my attention.

He writes (after chastising President Obama for the tears he wiped away during his press conference): "The children of Newtown are not our children, not yours or mine or President Obama's. My children and your children and Obama's children are alive right now. The children who are dead were the children of real parents, and their suffering is not ours. It belongs entirely to them and it is unimaginable."

I'm discomfited by Marche's words—because they touched a nerve, because I wept at the news, at seeing photographs posted all over the media of those children, then full of new life, now dead. How can we not weep for their loss? Yet I understand what he is driving at. It is not ours, not our right, to shed the countless tears that will never, ever fill that awful empty silent void left by their death; that is for the parents and families of that community, not for us. If we are honest about our own emotions, we are likely weeping the tears of Aristotle's catharsis, which, while helping to cleanse our own tattered souls through the compassion and fear that tragedy stirs up, are worth next to nothing if, through their shedding, they—and we—effect no change.

Marche says: "Calling the massacre a tragedy makes everybody feel better. It purges the emotions. It lets out the rage that this horror causes deep in our souls. But it solves nothing." Newtown wasn't a tragedy, he says, it was a "policy decision."

Just one week and a day before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I was in the audience listening intently to Toni Morrison speaking slowly, softly of yet another school shooting—the 2006 killing of five young Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania—as she described the way in which that community went about its very private and personal bereavement, not speaking out in anger or hatred toward the killer, indeed not speaking out at all, and even going so far as to enfold the shooter's widow and family within its communal grieving and caring.

Morrison opened her Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination," with a recounting of that Amish community's unexpected response to the shooting, which, she said, "seemed characteristic of genuine goodness."

How do we make sense of the senseless? How do we effect the change that is needed if we as a culture are to be cured of a lunatic love affair with semi-automatic weapons, and more importantly, how do we do so without reducing the deaths of children to that of a sacrifice? What are we saying about the very real suffering of those children and their families, if we say, as many of us are, "Finally, perhaps this one will be the catalyst, the tipping point, to get us and our policy makers to face up to the need for real gun control"? How do we "tell an unspeakable story"?

Both Marche and Morrison raise questions that contributors to this issue of the Bulletin also consider: How do we tell or illustrate narratives of disaster or tragedy, and what do our ways of depicting tragedies and suffering do to those who are at the heart of the catastrophe? And, how do we, in community and as a community, approach disasters and suffering?

Julia Watts Belser turns to a Talmudic tale of disaster to illustrate the ethical dilemmas we face in our telling of stories of human tragedy. Too often, she says, our "stories of disaster can do collateral damage." She writes: "Tragic tales of suffering often intensify the vulnerability of people who are already on the margins, showcasing their pain in a way that generates pity, stripping their agency and playing into negative stereotypes of difference." Those most aware, and sensitive to, the "ethics of representing disaster," Belser writes, are journalists and aid workers, who are burdened with "striving to raise funds for people affected by disaster while still preserving their dignity, hoping to balance a desire for drama or the appeal of a pithy sound bite with the need to tell a complex story that underscores the broader social and political causes of catastrophe."

Both Chris Herlinger and Susie Linfield, the author of the book he reviews, grapple with the conundrum of how to photograph suffering in order to help, and not harm—especially when vulnerable children are the subject: "precisely by appealing to our noblest—our most altruistic and protective—selves, such images are perfect conduits for manipulation, vulgar simplification, and propaganda." Will Joyner, in his review of Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror, a memoir of surviving, and treating survivors of, the trauma endured in Croatian concentration camps in the early 1990s, notes that the authors "have found graceful ways to allow a reader to contemplate the very private emotional effects of brutal events without becoming an uneasy voyeur."

While these writers struggle with how to avoid turning victims into symbols of sacrifice or "overburdening" them by turning them into metaphors for larger, systemic social ills, other writers consider the ways shared suffering, shared violence, shared rituals of experience contribute to forming community—communities that can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. Kate DeConinck, Paul Stoller, Michael Lambek, and Sébastien Tutenges[1] look at the "betwixt and between" liminal realms, where facing life, and death, in the extreme create strong communal bonds that can only come from encountering the "depth of human resilience" (Stoller). Finally, David Hempton reminds us: "How one works to maintain human values in the midst of inhumane acts is a constant struggle to define one's humanity. Part of that involves serious evaluation and criticism of one's own community and traditions, perhaps even of one's own family's traditions."



  1. These four articles also have a distinctly anthropological bent, thanks to the Bulletin's faculty adviser, anthropologist Michael D. Jackson, who solicited them from his colleagues. We, the editors, wish to express our gratitude to Jackson for his help in shaping this issue.

Kathryn Dodgson is director of communications at Harvard Divinity School.

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See also: Editor's Note

Doubting Thomas, Restaged

Between Athens and Berlin.

Charles M. Stang

I begin in Jerusalem, with a famous episode from chapter 20 of the Gospel of John.[1] Some context is in order: Jesus is crucified in chapter 19 of the Gospel of John; in chapter 20 he makes three appearances to his disciples as their risen Lord. In the first, he appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside his empty tomb, but she does not recognize him until he calls her by her name; he then expressly prohibits her from touching him—famously, noli me tangere in Latin—explaining to her that "I have not yet ascended to the Father." A week later, and again a week later, Jesus makes a second and a third appearance, not out in the open as he did with Mary, but behind closed doors, where his apostles are gathered in fear.

[19] On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." [20] When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. [21] Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." [22] And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. [23] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

[24] Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. [25] So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."

[26] Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." [27] Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." [28] Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" [29] Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." John 20:19–28 (Revised Standard Version)

After the second appearance, during which he is conspicuously and inexplicably absent, Thomas vows to his comrades that his belief will hinge not just on seeing, but on touching his Lord's wounds. This touch connotes something quite violent: the Greek ballô could be translated "strike" or "punch." It is perhaps hard not to imagine Caravaggio's famous early-seventeenth-century rendition of this episode. Caravaggio has captured the probing, penetrating character of this verb ballô. Thomas's first knuckle disappears into the open wound, guided firmly by his Lord's steady hand. Caravaggio innovates on a long history of visual representation of this episode—but in one crucial aspect he is deeply traditional. From as early as the turn of the fifth century until, and including, Caravaggio and for centuries after him, visual media consistently depict Thomas touching, or at least reaching to touch, the open wound of Christ.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that a close reading of the Gospel of John reveals that this never happened, that this is an action imagined and inserted into the narrative. Nowhere does that Gospel say that Thomas touched Jesus's wounds. I made this discovery the night before I was to preach on this passage, as I was reading it in Greek. (If nothing else, reading scripture in its original language slows you down so that you are more likely to notice narrative gaps and check your impulse to fill in those gaps.) And so I preached on what I had discovered the night before. Later, I returned to the passage and looked for corroboration for my discovery—which I expected was not new. But I was confirmed and denied in that expectation: confirmed in that Glenn Most, in his excellent book Doubting Thomas, offers a similar reading; denied in that he and I seem to be among the very, very few who have read the Gospel of John in this way.

I will return to the question of how this Gospel episode has been read, or misread, below. But let me return to my own reading: nowhere in John does it say that Thomas touched Jesus's wounds—only that Thomas issued a defiant conditional to that effect and that Jesus then offered him precisely what he had earlier demanded. Fair enough, some might say, but the text doesn't say that Thomas didn't touch Jesus, so perhaps he did after all. Perhaps an astute reader is meant to infer that between verses 27 and 28 Thomas did in fact touch Jesus, and issued his acclamation upon doing exactly what he said he would do. Sadly, that can't be the case, first on philological grounds; verse 28 begins with a verb that is unambiguous: apekrithê, "he answered." As Most observes, the verb apokrinesthai, "to answer," appears more than two hundred times in the New Testament, and it always introduces speech that follows directly and immediately upon other speech.[2] In other words, if you're writing in Greek and you want to suggest, or at least leave open, the possibility of a gap or a delay between someone's speech and someone's response, you don't use apokrinesthai.

But the evidence need not be strictly philological. It seems, upon further examination, that the very point the author means to make in telling this episode is incompatible with Thomas touching Jesus. When Jesus appears to Thomas the week after he appeared to the others, he preemptively and freely offers Thomas precisely what Thomas had earlier insisted he would demand of his Lord. But the point is that it is precisely the invitation to touch him—not the act of touching him—that elicits Thomas's faithful acclamation, "My Lord and my God!" Or, to be even more precise, it is the fact that his Lord's invitation includes the demand Thomas uttered privately, if defiantly, to his fellows behind closed doors a week before. Thus, the Gospel of John turns on its head Thomas's insistence that certain conditions be met before he recognizes Jesus: for it is Jesus who first recognizes Thomas and, moreover, recognizes him by knowing and naming his most ardent desire.Only by realizing that this episode is about Jesus's prior recognition of Thomas can we appreciate how it forms a diptych with Jesus's appearance to Mary in the garden. In both episodes, a human can only recognize a God if that God first recognizes him or her.[3] If, indeed, this is the point of John's narrative, as I believe it is, then Thomas cannot have touched his risen Lord. When Jesus recognizes Thomas's ardent desire and defiant condition, when he names them in the free offer of his open body, the recognition and offer together fulfill a different desire Thomas had not known he had—namely, a desire to be known—and annul his defiant condition by rendering its satisfaction irrelevant.

I fully expected to find my reading—namely, that Thomas might not have touched Jesus—corroborated in the visual and textual exegetical traditions. According to Most, however, the visual representations of this episode are unanimous in their interpretation, and the exegetical tradition is nearly so. He remarks, almost in awe:

In over a thousand years of detailed, intense, devout exegesis of John 20, only two interpreters seem to have recognized on their own, and each one for only a moment, that Thomas might not have actually touched Jesus: one Latin scholar, Augustine (and a couple of authors who derive from him); and one Greek one, Zigabenus (and no author seems to derive from him).

Tradition is powerful.[4]

Even more astonishing is that in neither case—Augustine or Zigabenus—does the exegete derive any significance from the fact that Thomas might not have touched Jesus. Only with the Reformers does this exegetical tradition shift significantly. Luther's suspicion of works-righteousness leads him to reject the tradition that Thomas touched Jesus. For, if Thomas had touched Jesus, he would then have achieved faith by works. Luther remarks that the text says only that Jesus offered his wounds, but the display of his wounds to the disciples and especially to Thomas is meant to show them (and us) that salvation comes through his works alone, not theirs or ours. But not even Luther could turn the tide of tradition: visual representations of this episode continue along their same trajectory, with Thomas touching or reaching to touch the open wound.

Now return to the episode from the Gospel of John, trying to keep the Caravaggio and the weight of the visual and textual exegetical tradition at bay. Notice that the staging of the final scene is quite different: Thomas is not crouched down, prodding the open wound of Christ. Rather, the two of them stand opposite each other, face-to-face, the one displaying and offering his wounded body to the other, knowing the other's private desire to be known and thereby annulling his earlier and defiant epistemic demand; the other, upon being known, in turn instantly acclaims the one who has already known him, "My Lord and my God." But having restaged this final scene between Jesus and Thomas, I will now inquire into a strange detail of their relationship, namely, that Thomas, so it is said, was called "the twin."

But in order to move forward, I must take a few steps back, return to the four canonical Gospels, and inquire into who this apostle is. To be clear: I'm not interested in the "historical" Thomas any more than I am interested in the "historical" Jesus. Instead, I'm after the Thomas of the text: who is this character, and what can we know of him from this text, or from others? The so-called synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all mention a disciple among the twelve who is known as "Thomas," but they tell us nothing more about him. Only in the Fourth Gospel, John's, does this Thomas emerge from obscurity as a central, if enigmatic character. When he is first introduced in 11:16, we are told that he is called "the twin," or didymus in Greek. We are told the same in chapters 20 and 21, but in none of these three instances does the Gospel explain what this title "twin" means. For an ancient reader, it might have been slightly clearer: after all, the Aramaic name Thomas (tôma) means "twin," and didymus is its best translation in Greek. But be that as it may, why would the Gospel pause to offer up a lesson in the etymology of an apostle's name, and why only for this apostle? It doesn't make sense. One possibility is that "Thomas" and "Didymus" are both titles—one in Aramaic, the other in Greek—in which case the Gospel of John does not record the proper name of this apostle, but simply refers to him by his Aramaic title, tôma, and then provides the Greek version, didymus. If this is right, the unnamed apostle was known simply as "the twin."

But this then raises two further questions: First, does this apostle have a proper name? And second, why is this apostle's title or nickname "the twin"? Let me start with the second question. Rather notoriously—and inconveniently for the subsequent doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary—both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark refer to Jesus's brothers and sisters. They do so in a rather untroubled way, as if it were well known and would pose no problem to its readers. Subsequent readers have of course found these verses very vexing indeed, and have had to resort to creative genealogical accounting to insist that these brothers and sisters of Jesus are in fact cousins, or step-siblings. But for early readers of the Gospel of John, untroubled by these interpretive challenges yet on the horizon, one obvious interpretation is that this unnamed "twin" is in fact the twin brother of Jesus.

It is interesting to imagine Thomas and Jesus squaring off as twins, as two brothers (literal or figurative), the one alive, the other dead but now alive again, displaying his open wounds for his brother.

Some Early Christian traditions seemed to have followed this line of thinking. A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus's betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a "Judas, who is not the Iscariot" (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this "Judas" becomes "Judas Thomas." One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called "twin" in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus's own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings "which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down." To this Gospel of Thomas we may add The Book of Thomas the Contender, also from the Nag Hammadi library, and the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, which narrates Thomas's mission to India, for which Jesus himself commissions him.

But here is not the place to follow the twists and turns that the notion "the twin" takes in those early Christian traditions that regard the apostle Judas as Jesus's brother, a brother to whom is given the title "twin" in both Aramaic and Greek. The transformations of this figure—"the twin"—in early Christian literature are enormously hard to make sense of, although I am trying to do precisely that in a forthcoming book, "The Divine Double." For the purposes of restaging the final scene of the episode from John 20, it is interesting to imagine Thomas and Jesus squaring off as twins, as two brothers (literal or figurative), the one alive and disbelieving that his other half has come back from the dead, the other dead but now alive again, displaying his open wounds for his brother.

A grumpy theologian from Carthage by the name of Tertullian once defiantly asked, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Here's one answer: if we restage the final scene in John 20 as a pair of twins facing each other in mutual recognition—and a mutual recognition predicated on the display of wounds—then this scene recalls another from antiquity. And so, defying Tertullian, from Jerusalem I now travel back several centuries to classical Athens. Plato's famous dialogue, the Symposium, records the events of a single raucous evening: in the drunken revelry celebrating Agathon's victory in the Dionysia festival, friends of his gather at his home to drink and give speeches in praise of love, erôs. Several of these speeches are famous, including Socrates's own ventriloquism of a female seer by the name of Diotima of Mantinea. But before Socrates comes Aristophanes, the celebrated comedian, who tells us that humans used to be very different. There used to be three genders among us: male, female, and androgyne. We used to have two faces on one head, eight limbs on a much larger and circular body; and we used to get about by wheeling ourselves around in a series of gangly cartwheels. The gods grew wary of us since we were apparently keen to storm heaven like some freakish tumbling troupe. But Zeus decided to use his thunderbolts, not to smite but to split us, quite literally down the middle. He then had Apollo play the plastic surgeon and stitch up the gory remains of these half humans into what we are today. The final suture is our navel, which Apollo put in plain view of our eyes so that we might recall our former hubris and its consequences.

Each half-human, Aristophanes insists, seeks out its counterpart. Men who seek out other men are of the male gender, sons of the sun; women who seek out other women are of the female gender, daughters of the earth; and men and women who seek out the opposite are of the androgyne gender, sons and daughters of the moon. Aristophanes says that "Each of us, then, is a 'matching half' [symbolon] of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him" (191d).[5] In this case, a symbolon is a token to ensure recognition of contracting parties. A knucklebone or die is broken in two, and each contracting party is given one half. The bone breaks irregularly, uniquely, and so this symbolon then serves as proof of the identities of both parties to the contract. We are like that, Aristophanes says, broken irregularly and uniquely, "and each is ever searching for the half that will fit him."

After the cruel cleaving, halves would sometimes eventually find each other, and embrace with such desperate hunger for the other that both would fail to eat and eventually die. And if one were left behind alive, he or she would seek out a substitute half, endlessly—that is to say, both interminably and pointlessly. But Zeus mercifully moved our genitals to our fronts so that when two halves embraced, in pleasure and procreation we could enjoy some semblance of union, this semblance sufficing to permit our two halves to carry on living as a couple, two and yet one.

Even with our genitals aimed artfully at our counterparts, we cloven couples wish for more, but our words falter and fail us: "No one would think it is the intimacy of sex—that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other. It's obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle" (192c–d). Into this impasse of desire and speech a god intrudes. Hephaestus appears at the bedside of this couple, who are aching inarticulately for something more, and asks them what they would have. But because they cannot answer, he names their desire in the form of a question:

Is this your heart's desire, then—for the two of you to become parts of the same whole, as near as can be, and never to separate, day or night? Because if that's your desire, I'd like to weld you together and join you into something that is naturally whole, so that the two of you are made into one. Then the two of you would share one life, as long as you lived, because you would be one being, and by the same token, when you died, you would be one and not two in Hades, having died a single death. Look at your love, and see if this is what you desire: wouldn't this be all the good fortune you could want? (192d–e)

The lovers are not allowed to answer Hephaestus, to speak their own hearts' desire. Instead, Aristophanes breaks back into the scene he has just painted in his listeners' minds with this confident conclusion on their behalf:

Surely you can see that no one who received such an offer would turn it down; no one would find anything else that he wanted. Instead, everyone would think he'd found out at last what he had always wanted: to come together and melt together with the one he loves, so that one person emerged from two. (192e)

But the god's offer amounts only to that—an offer. He gives voice to their ineffable desire in his offer, but then fails to deliver on it. In other words, this image of a god set to right the wrong of another god is left open, like a wound, with the suggestion that the two are in fact never made one, that the god offers cruelly what he will not, or even cannot, deliver.

Where does this leave the pair of lovers? Aristophanes leaves his listeners with a picture of human being as unavoidably two-in-one: we are cut asunder, cloven, two halves of a former whole—suffering from a wound inflicted by one god and irreparable by another. But even if we chance upon our other half, our most heartfelt wish—union—remains ineffable and impossible. We continue to stand, or lie, opposite each other, offering each other our bodies for embrace, bodies marked by wounds, marked as a threat by a navel and as a false promise of union by genitals. It is, ultimately, a tragic vision of love, delivered of course by Athens's most celebrated comedian.

How might Aristophanes's portrait influence our reading of the final scene between Jesus and Thomas in the Gospel of John? Specifically, how might his tragic vision of wounded twins who cannot find ultimate reconciliation influence our interpretation of the rather triumphant scene in the Gospel of John, where two twins face off and one displays a wound that prompts the other to recognize and reconcile with his divine double? Thankfully, someone else has posed similar questions, but to follow this line I must leave the drunken post-party in Athens and travel forward in time many centuries to Berlin.

Enter Hedwig, of the 2001 cult classic film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here is the plot in a nutshell: a boy named Hansel is born to a German mother and an American GI in postwar West Berlin; the German mother sends the American father packing upon finding him sleeping tenderly with their young son; the mother defects—contrary to expectation—to East Berlin. Hansel grows up imagining America and listening to the glam rock of the 1960s and '70s. As a teenager, he falls for a much older, African American soldier in the U.S. Army named Luther. Luther wants to take Hansel back with him to West Berlin and then to the United States, but they must be married to do so. Hansel's mother blesses the union, arranges for a fake passport, and finds an East German doctor who will perform a rushed sex change operation. The operation is botched, and Hansel is left with what he will later call "an angry inch." The operation suffices, however, to arrange the marriage, and Hansel takes his mother's name, Hedwig, and accompanies Luther back to a trailer park in the United States. On their first wedding anniversary, Luther leaves Hedwig for a new teenage boy, who now, for Luther, needn't be made a woman. On that same day in 1989, the Berlin Wall falls and Germany is reunited—one year too late for Hedwig. She survives by serving as a babysitter and nanny to servicemen's families near an army base in Kansas. There, she meets a young and awkward teenager, an earnest evangelical Christian named Tommy, and they fall in love, or at least she does. They play music together and Hedwig opens her body and his eyes. As a sort of joke, she gives Tommy a stage name—Tommy Gnosis, Thomas Knowledge. And she writes a song called "The Origin of Love," based on Aristophanes's speech about halves finding their other halves.

Tommy is clearly Hedwig's other half, except that he seems not to want to be found. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Tommy refuses to behold and to hold Hedwig from the front—that is, he refuses to look upon her wounds, which in this context are both her navel and her angry inch. And so Tommy abandons Hedwig and enjoys a wildly successful career as a rock star named Tommy Gnosis, stealing all of her songs. Hedwig forms a band, "The Angry Inch," which trails Tommy's tour, playing small gigs in coffee shops and at senior centers—something of a nuisance or gadfly, and something of a wounded lover, aching for reconciliation.

Tommy the teenager fails, or refuses, to recognize that the wounded Hedwig is playing Jesus opposite his Thomas—not the Jesus, some distant Christ, but a Jesus who is his own tragic twin.

What has any of this to do with Doubting Thomas? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the only representation I have seen that accurately—if also imaginatively—restages the final scene between Thomas and Jesus in a way that departs from centuries of tradition. And it does so by pairing Athens with Jerusalem, by bringing Aristophanes's speech and the Doubting Thomas episode together to speak one tragic truth. One would be hard pressed to miss the fact that the relationship between Hedwig and Tommy is a recapitulation of the Aristophanes tale: besides the song they compose, "On the Origin of Love," the film includes a cartoon version, which, for anyone who has ever read or heard of this tale, is perfectly clear, complete with an angry Zeus slicing humans in half with lightning bolts.

The connection to the Gospel of John is perhaps harder to discern. There is, of course, Tommy's name, and his title, "Gnosis." And then there is the fact that Tommy is clearly Hedwig's other half, counterpart, or twin. However, as if he were an inverted Thomas, Tommy knows of Hedwig's wound and does not want to see it, never mind touch it. For Tommy, the wound does not bring them closer, but drives them apart.

The film introduces others ironies and inversions. For all his glowing evangelical enthusiasm for Jesus, Tommy the teenager fails, or refuses, to recognize that the wounded Hedwig is playing Jesus opposite his Thomas—not the Jesus, some distant Christ, but a Jesus who is his own tragic twin. In addition to stealing his songs, Tommy also steals Hedwig's role as Jesus. But, just as he can't quite get the songs right—and botches certain lyrics, to Hedwig's outrage—Tommy Gnosis can't quite get the role of Jesus right, either. In place of Hedwig's intimate wound, Tommy dons a cross of silver paint on his forehead. The irony and inversion is clear: Tommy cannot accept the wound of Christ he finds on Hedwig's body, so he takes shelter instead in the symbol of the cross—almost as if the symbol of the cross were a means of repressing the trauma of the wound, of the real suffering on offer in the body of his twin.

In the climax of the film, in the midst of an ecstatic but tortured performance, Hedwig strips herself of the glam kitsch in which she has clothed herself as if in armor. And so Hansel reappears in the last scenes, shorn of Hedwig, a thin, lithe, almost naked young man who stumbles from the club onto a dark, ethereal, disembodied stage—very reminiscent of the dark room, behind closed doors, in which Caravaggio imagines the risen Jesus appearing to the apostle Thomas. Hansel, now stripped of Hedwig, assumes the role of Jesus, and his body, I contend, is to be read as the resurrected body, complete with its own grievous wound. On this dark stage, he meets Tommy Gnosis, face-to-face. Tommy is singing one of the songs he stole from Hedwig, "Wicked Little Town."

 The film's restaging of the final scene between Jesus and Thomas is faithful to the Gospel narrative—in a way that the tradition is not—in that the two face off, and one is displaying a wound that, so we are expecting, will elicit an exclamation of recognition from the other. But the restaging also imaginatively inverts the Gospel narrative. Tommy has changed the lyrics of Hedwig's song, and his version serves to replace the simple, faithful acclamation of Thomas in John 20:28: "My Lord and my God." Tommy does recognize Hansel as "so much more / Than any god could ever plan, / More than a woman or a man." And while he does ask for forgiveness from Hansel for all that he took from Hedwig, Tommy denies any "mystical design," any "lover preassigned"—indeed suggesting "maybe there's nothing / up in the sky but air." Instead, he insists that "the stranger's always you," that Hansel will never find his homecoming with him or, by suggestion, with anyone.

In this retelling of the Gospel, Doubting Thomas emerges as a much more serious, even sinister skeptic, who recognizes the divinity of his double only to walk away from that recognition. Hansel, playing Jesus, weeps at the rebuke; Tommy whispers "good-bye" to Hansel and turns his back on him one last time. The scene ends with no embrace, no reconciliation or reunion of these star-crossed twins; it ends with only the tragic recognition that the wounds on Hansel's body are what brought them together and allowed them to see each other as twins, and are also what keep them apart. Tommy abandons Hansel to this "wicked little town"—which, from the perspective of the Gospel of John, is not a bad description of Jerusalem.

The film effectively inverts the triumph of the Gospel narrative and delivers a tragedy. Tommy does not offer a devout acclamation, nor does he refuse to recognize Hedwig. He does much worse: he recognizes the suffering god, the wounded vulnerability standing before him, and then turns his back. In the final scene of the film, we see Hansel from behind, now entirely naked, with his wound on full display to the world, slowly staggering—not as if drunk, but as if learning how to walk for the first time—from a dark alley onto a busy city street, this "wicked little town." Hansel, as Jesus, is left to wander city streets alone, naked, and wounded, which may be the film's way of saying that the wounded body of Jesus, the resurrected body, is in fact wandering city streets waiting to be recognized and embraced.

 There is no neat correlation between these three staged scenes. But an important, if elusive, thread seems to run through them: twins, facing each other, and their wounds, open and fresh or closed and scarred; twins, who recognize their other halves but, at least in Aristophanes and Hedwig, also recognize that reunion is now impossible. I haven't juxtaposed these three scenes in order to suggest that they are the same. They are not. Yet, I would like to suggest that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in many ways a more interesting, imaginative—and yes, more faithful—response to the Gospel narrative than much of the Christian exegetical tradition, visual and textual. I mean faithful in both senses of that term: faithful to the letter and the spirit of the text in a way that the tradition seems to me not, and faithful in that it realizes what is fundamentally and theologically at stake in this episode—gods and humans, twins or doubles, bodies that are wounded and thereby holy, given a new life, and the challenging imperative of mutual recognition, but also its impossibility.



  1. In 2010, I was asked to preach to a small student fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and the lectionary prescribed the day's reading: chapter 20 from the Gospel of John, the famous episode of "Doubting Thomas." That sermon became the seed for the Sternberg Lecture on the Study of Religion, which I delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in November 2011. This essay is a revised version of that lecture.
  2. Glenn W. Most, Doubting Thomas (Harvard University Press, 2005), 57.
  3. Ibid., 54.
  4. Ibid., 141.
  5. English translation by Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff, Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett, 1997), 474. Greek text may be found in Plato III: Lysis, Symposium, Gorgias, trans. W. R. M. Lamb (Harvard University Press, 1925).

Charles M. Stang is Associate Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School. His book, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: 'No Longer I', was published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

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Dying Well

Tamara Mann

For twenty-nine years my grandparents taught me how to live; in my thirtieth year they taught me how to die. My grandfather's death was orchestrated, my Nana's improvised.

We all knew how my grandfather wanted to die: at home surrounded by his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. And so, despite the efforts of lifting his body out of the hospital bed, wheeling him into an ambulance, driving across town, and refashioning his bedroom with a hospital cot and oxygen tanks, my mother and uncles made it happen.

For three more months we lived peacefully in that bedroom. My Nana held his hands, sang Yiddish songs, and repeated the phrase, "I hit the jackpot with him." We would all sit beside him—my cousin, my brother, my uncles, my mother—patting his hand, and he would pat right back, smile, and say, "good good good." His hands were soft. They smelled like the lemon cream my mother would rub nightly on his chapped skin. The night before he died he ate pea soup with butter, even though the doctors told us he would stop eating. My grandfather never stopped eating. He seized every last bit of joy from life—even while horizontal, even while in pain. The next day his breathing changed, his eyes closed, and my mother called us in. We were there when his chest rose and he took his last breath.

In the same way we knew how my grandfather wanted to die, we knew that my grandmother still wanted to live. "Go on your vacation," she begged me. "Go go go and live it up. Live it up for me." And so I went, knowing that she would spend that week moving into her new apartment. Everything that day was perfect. My Nana got her hair done, her nails done, and arrived in her new home feeling, in her words, "like a bride." The apartment was majestic, filled with light pink and the floral motifs that my Nana so loved; each flower elegantly placed to convey a sense of peace and purity. When my Nana saw the room, she cried. "Look what my daughter has done for me." That night when she went to bed she couldn't breathe. An ambulance rushed her to Mount Sinai Hospital. Would it be OK, asked her doctors, if the new residents came in to witness the conversation, it is their first day. "Yes, let them come in," she said as she rose taller in the bed. She was regal, said my uncle, like her name, Malka.

The doctor continued: "You have late stage emphysema. You can continue to live in the hospital intubated or you can choose not to be." In an instant, she chose not to be. "I want to live, I want to live very badly," she said to the young, teary residents. "But I don't want to live like that. I'm ready." Her children were beside her. "Wait," my mother pleaded, "wait for the grandchildren, wait wait wait." She couldn't believe it. No one could believe it. It happened so fast. Before my Nana died she held her children's hands and told them, "Family is a like a rug, quick to unravel. Don't let it unravel." As she drifted quietly from her children, from me, she whispered, "Love much, love much, love much."

My grandparents had the great gift of engaging with death, of choosing their path, and of dying with medical assistance. They had the gifts of Medicare and hospice, of pacemakers, defibrillators, second opinions, and morphine. They knew how to ask and how to say no; how to talk to doctors and family members; how to retain authority in an environment that often tried to strip them of agency. Most Americans are not so lucky.

Death, for many aged Americans, has become a lengthy, undignified, and infantilizing process. While the majority of Americans wish to die peacefully at home, elderly men and women are repeatedly shuttled between nursing homes and hospitals during the last months of life. Emergency room visits, unnecessary procedures, and countless tests continue to mark too many Americans' final days. Medicare alone recently paid more than 50 billion dollars to keep aged Americans alive in the final two months of life. Modern medicine has created the blessing, the illusion, and the burden of choice.

When it comes to death, choice can be a misplaced ideal. The ethicist Daniel Callahan makes a valuable distinction between choosing how we die and choosing to die. As the space of death moved from the home to the hospital, he writes, "illusions of mastery" overshadowed the physical reality of frailty, disease, and death. Doctors, patients, and politicians alike began to describe death itself as a choice. They came to believe that men and women died of medical and technological failure, not of disease. Thus, all forms of intervention became necessities and withdrawing intervention became murder. My grandparents didn't choose between life and death. My grandfather died of heart disease; hospice aids taught us to turn off his defibrillator. My grandmother died of emphysema; she decided against further medical intervention. They didn't choose to die, but they did choose how they wanted to die.

My grandparents each died differently, but our rituals of mourning stayed the same. When my grandfather died, the chevra kadisha came to the house and sat with his body. Women from the synagogue arrived to cover the mirrors and help us prepare for the day ahead. Within twenty-four hours, he was buried. Each one in the entire family—great uncles, aunts, cousins, and small children—had taken a handful or a shovel of dirt to cover his body. We returned home, washed our hands, and began the seven-day process of bringing him, through shared memories, back into our lives.

Three months later, we began again.

The chevra kadisha arrived at the hospital while volunteers prepared our house. In less than twenty-four hours, we buried my Nana next to my grandpa. We arrived back at the house where they both had lived, and where my grandfather had died, covered in dirt. We washed, we sat, and we began the process of remembering again.

For fourteen days that spring and summer, we replayed their lives. And again and again we came back to their deaths. We talked about their bravery and their dignity. The way Nana held Grandpa's hand, the way she spoke to the young residents, and the way he clung to life. This is the gift they gave us. They allowed their family to see their deaths as the final moral act of their lives.

Death is defined as much by the metaphors we use to describe it as by the technologies we use to stave it off. It is not simple and it is not clear. It can feel definitive, the last breath or heartbeat. It can feel long and obscure, as with the slow breakdown of organ function. How can we learn to talk appropriately about something we don't understand? This is the true challenge of end-of-life care. We have to trek through the political, medical, and emotional thicket to fight for dignity, without the advantage of clarity. We have to learn to talk about death without hurtful metaphors, to give up the phrase "death panel," and to abandon the battle cries of war. As a society, we have to find better words and phrases to cope with the unbending reality of death.

To die well, we need to learn to talk well about death. We need to figure out its place in the spaces of technological intervention—the hospital and the nursing home—and in the emotional spaces of our relationships. We need to face the horror, the pain, and the possibility, however rare, that the process of dying can be filled with a kind of beauty. My grandparents taught me the value of facing this final act as we face all others, with bravery, with confidence, with compassion, and with dignity. Not only for ourselves, but for everyone we leave behind.


Tamara Mann, MTS '05, is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University, completing her dissertation on the early history of Medicare, "Honor Thy Father and Mother: Old Age in a New America." Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and My Jewish Learning.

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Exotic Ordinary

On understanding spirit mediums in Madagascar.

Michael Lambek

"Philosophy," writes Stanley Cavell, "does not seek to tell us anything new but rather to understand what human beings cannot on the whole simply not already know."[1] Anthropology, or at least ethnography, throws in our face what we do not or cannot already know. That is its attraction; as Clifford Geertz once said, citing Thoreau, it is not worth going halfway around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.[2] But that in turn merely heightens the philosophical challenge of discovering in this strange material, despite its strangeness, maybe even because of its strangeness, a partial understanding of what we cannot on the whole simply not already know.

Anthropological fieldwork is often described as participant observation. But it might better be described as walking a fine line between making assumptions and questioning them. In coming to an understanding of an observed culture, the challenge is to find a judicious balance between rendering a given world exotic and banal, distinctively different and recognizably human, describing for new readers both what they could not have already known, and what they and I could not have not already known (about our common humanity). In sum, the challenge is to recognize the ordinary.

In northwest Madagascar (not so far from Zanzibar), Sakalava place the posts that ring their sacred enclosures close enough together so that dogs cannot enter—but wide enough apart so that cats can. The enclosures house the ancestors, or their remains, and the ancestors are said to like cats. I cannot explain why the ancestors are hospitable to cats but not dogs; no one has ever explained it to me and I have not discovered any structure of symbolic oppositions that might underlie it. But I like the fact, the human fact, that the ancestors like cats.

Perhaps there is an association, something feline about the ancestors. The ancestors are very independent, coming and going as they please. Occasionally they will approach and acknowledge you or your gifts to them, but often they are disdainful and unpredictable, sidling or stalking off, or simply not coming when called. They are not hungry for affection like dogs, not dependent or mutually affectionate, but they do like to be pleased and flattered. Pleasing the ancestors calls for music and dance and liquor, and then, if they please, the ancestors rise in the bodies of their chosen human hosts, the spirit mediums, and drink, dance, and chatter alongside their living followers. When they have had enough, they slip away to their own destinations.

This comparison is fanciful and entirely mine; perhaps the fence posts are spaced as they are simply so that the cats can keep down the mice and so the dogs will not defecate on sacred ground. More likely, the spacing has to do with the expense of posts or the careful maintaining of a partial visibility. But then again, some ancestors do like cats of specific colors, and their mediums may keep and feed cats of that color. This is a relatively insubstantial detail, not central to the respect addressed to the royal ancestors or to the daily practice of their spirit mediums, something no one would have bothered to mention if I hadn't been sitting around bored one afternoon and inquired idly about a cat. But to keep cats of only a specific color is different from merely liking cats. It is a playful supplement, a minor register on which to produce distinctions among the various ancestors,[3] and identifications between each ancestor and his or her respective mediums. Alongside the ostensible strangeness of long or recently deceased members of the royal clan coming as they please to possess and disrupt the living, there are ordinary things here, about cats for example, that I both cannot know in advance and cannot not already know.


Spirit possession is an endlessly intriguing phenomenon. It exhibits a unique ontology in which alternate beings temporarily take over the minds and bodies of spirit mediums and speak and act in their place. It thereby offers a lively realization of figures who are not merely products of an abstract set of relations that structuralists discern in myth or architecture, but are lived out in the embodied performances of ancestral spirits and the mundane practices of the spirit mediums (feeding cats, for example). A radical, if highly episodic, transformation in consciousness and yet a complex and elaborately coordinated performance and lived practice, spirit possession also necessarily articulates the deep motivations of the individual spirit mediums as well as the collective representations of the world in which they find themselves. In northwest Madagascar, these representations are condensed into the characters and relations among a large number of personages who represent former rulers and their entourages. Successive historical generations meet and converse with one another in the present in a kind of poiesis of history.[4] Moreover, even as the living are interpellated by figures from the past, possession retains a compelling relevance for contemporary issues. In Madagascar it continues to be very popular, and even moves along with the times; for example, the practice travels with spirit mediums who immigrate to Europe.

Possession depends, in the first instance, on the creative and practical energies of the mediums. The lives of individual spirit mediums have fascinated me since I first discovered in 1975 that the couple in Mayotte who had taken me in during my doctoral fieldwork were themselves mediums. The spirits who possessed them danced at the public events that were simultaneously healing rituals, initiations for new mediums, and parties for the pleasure of the spirits, and they and their spirits each worked as consultants and healers for those who came to them for help. But their respective spirits also rose at night and in private to speak to each other and to say things that would otherwise have remained unspoken, or, if spoken, might possibly cause affront or anguish. Their intimacy was understandable and very moving.[5]

Proceeding after some years from provincial Mayotte across a piece of the Mozambique channel to the center of the old Sakalava kingdom in Majunga (Mahajanga) in northwest Madagascar, I came to understand more clearly the public role of spirits who were ancestors within the royal clan. The ancestors themselves (along with their mediums) were energetic participants in activities designed to preserve and renew their habitat (shrines, cemeteries, houses) and well-being, in a complex social world of relationships among multiple generations, factions, branches, and places of habitation, as well as between living and ancestral members of the royal family, their officials and servants, and their subjects more broadly, the general public who took an interest in them.[6]

The intensity with which people join in collective projects or quarrel with one another, enjoying the means as an end or competing for distinct means and ends, is not easy to convey. But the fact of being a vehicle for diverse, distinct persons, and, indeed, what Marcel Mauss called personages[7]—public characters whose presence is guaranteed by successive or multiple members of a cast—evokes all sorts of questions on the order of what we like to call philosophy: on the relation between minds and bodies, on truth and irony, on meaning what one says and keeping one's word, on the ethical consistency and continuity of individual persons or selves, and on the conduct and reproduction of history, on the very quality of temporality or historicity so constituted and its intrinsic relationship to personhood. Most generally, the figure, life, and practice of the spirit medium incites questions about the relationship of action to passion, agency to patiency, autonomy to subjection, and public vehicles to unconscious motivation and conflict.

It has not been fashionable in anthropology to focus on individuals. Ethnographers write about communities or relationships, social movements or institutions, or maybe assemblages, structure, or events, possibly case studies. Occasionally, one produces a life history, but these tend to be separated from the mainstream and classic works. And yet portraiture can be very effective and sometimes necessary.[8] There is something deeply personal, and indeed ordinary, about the way Malagasy spirit mediums take on the obligations to perform as royal ancestors and to reshape their daily lives around the fact that they carry such ancestors. Here, I provide a highly unfinished portrait of one man, presented for its allusive qualities rather than its definitive conclusions. The subject is not yet a major player among the mediums of Majunga and may never become one of the more charismatic or powerful. Yet his story points to the future in an interesting way: it sets out the possible attractions of possession for an affluent and Western-educated middle class, anticipating both the novel ways that possession can come to be understood by new kinds of subjects and the ways that new subjects become integrated within an ongoing tradition. Like any account of spirit mediumship, it illustrates in a quite specific way how action and passion (call them "religious") cannot be disarticulated from one another.


On July 11, 2009, I talked with a spirit medium as we sat on mats spread on the cement floor of a simple house in the quarter of L'Abattoir in the city of Majunga. L'Abattoir is an old neighborhood, laid out on a grid of some paved but mostly unpaved streets that transect the hilly terrain. Many of Majunga's Muslims live here and also some of its best-known spirit mediums. We were in the house of one of these mediums, a woman called Dady Bery. Dady, or "Grandmother," is a politely familiar epithet for senior women; Bery is not a distinctly Malagasy word but, like many names here, a comfortable abbreviation of a name from the French, in her case, Albertine. Dady Bery is known for her energetic involvement in activities focused on the long dynasty of Sakalava rulers, whose former members, when they rise and speak through the bodies of spirit mediums, are known collectively as tromba. Each tromba has an individual social identity, corresponding to the person they were when they were fully alive, albeit condensed into certain salient features, and each develops particular relationships with one or more spirit mediums.

My companion in Dady Bery's front room was a man I'll call Rakoto.[9] During this season, many people involved with spirit possession come to Majunga and congregate in houses like Bery's. Some years I come too, attracted not only by the activity but also by the fact that the ceremonial season is the driest and relatively coolest time to visit. I take advantage of the presence of visitors to get to know new people, and I was especially interested in having a chance to chat with Rakoto, whom I had met only a few days before. On that occasion, Rakoto had approached me with questions about my book on royal ancestral practices in Majunga. He asked me whether I was an anthropologist or a sociologist and requested publishing details of the book, with the intention of acquiring it. His manner was serious but genial. As we parted, he spoke to me in English, indicating that he would have no difficulty reading the work.

In my experience, Rakoto was unusual, for several reasons. First, he seemed very much at ease, despite the fact that he came from the highlands (in fact, from the capital of Madagascar), and he was of Merina background, an ethnic group not generally associated with the spirit activities in Majunga and not always viewed favorably in a Sakalava milieu. (People at Dady Bery's told me later that his background made no difference to them, affirming that the tromba were available for all Malagasy.) Second, he was much more affluent and had a more formal education than anyone I had yet encountered. He arrived with a cook and a chauffeur and could distinguish between the exotic categories of anthropologist and sociologist. He told me that his profession was that of "business consultant," a phrase I had not heard before in Majunga. Third, he was completely fluent in French and perfectly comfortable speaking in English, the first and only time over visits stretching back to 1992 that I had used my native language in speaking with inhabitants of Majunga. Normally I speak a fractured version of the local dialect, offset occasionally by a few words of French.

Many factors determine which ancestors will possess a given medium, including unconscious motivation and prompting by the healers who initiate the new medium.

We settled down on the mats that replace the furniture in Bery's front room during the ceremonial season, transforming it into a place where spirits can be called up and tired guests can recline. Rakoto explained that his father worked for the World Health Organization and said that his parents currently lived in Switzerland and his sister in France. He himself had lived in France for some eight years and had completed his degree in business administration there. He first heard of the tromba in 1998, when he was around thirty years old. He said his sister didn't know anything about them; they had been raised "in traditions of liberalism and freedom." But he was encouraged to find his own way and his parents had supported his decision to move into the tromba milieu. He was raised Catholic and remained a Catholic but didn't attend church. He said, "I believe in God, I believe in humanity. ..."

Rakoto was first possessed by a tromba around 2005, when he was in his mid-thirties. Things had not been going well for him; he was facing many problems, both in his work and in his emotional life. He went for divination (sikidy) and was informed he had a tromba who wanted to rise in him. He sought out a medium with a tromba and that tromba treated him. The tromba in the healer was named Ndramamonjy; when Ndramamonjy rose in the healer, it was the first time Rakoto really saw a tromba up close. When Rakoto himself eventually entered trance, it turned out to be the same spirit. Then, without knowing much about them, he received in relatively quick succession three more trombas: Ndramañonjo, Ndramboeniarivo, and Ndransinint.[10]

Ndramamonjy is a member of the branch of the royal Sakalava dynasty that had relocated during the nineteenth century to Imerina, in the highlands. When Ndramamonjy appears, he dresses like someone from Imerina about a century ago and speaks in the highland dialect, which is also Rakoto's. During his life he was a Christian. However, he was buried according to Sakalava ritual in the cemetery of Betsioko, fairly close to Majunga on the east, which is where all the immediate ancestors of the branch of the living members of the royal line currently in power in Majunga are buried and where the living members can expect to go following their own demise. In fact, Ndramamonjy is a direct ancestor (a "grandfather") of the man who had just succeeded to office, Ampanjaka (Prince) Dzaofeno Richard.[11] Of the other three tromba Rakoto mentioned, Ndramboeniarivo is a very senior ancestor, respected and feared in Majunga; he and Ndramañonjo are buried at the oldest and most important cemetery, Bezavodoany, to the southwest, and, indeed, are the two spirits who have the responsibility for maintaining the upkeep of the cemetery and organizing its annual "service" (fanompoa). The last spirit, Ndransinint, is popular in Majunga, rising in many mediums. Although he is from a minor lineage whose members cannot rule, he has responsibility for providing an opening sacrifice on the occasion of the annual service at the main shrine in Majunga. Each of these trombas rises in a number of spirit mediums, and in some mediums they serve as active public figures.

Rakoto could not have known at the time he was first possessed by Ndramamonjy that Richard would become reigning monarch, and hence that this particular ancestor would rise in significance. However, it is striking that Rakoto's spirits are linked to each of the three major loci of ancestral power in Majunga and that, aside from Ndramamonjy, each of them has a significant role to play in the annual production of the public ceremonies. Moreover, Ndramboeniarivo is a particularly powerful and salient ancestor who possesses only a few mediums.

There are many factors that determine which ancestors will possess a given medium, including unconscious motivation and prompting or encouragement by the healers who serve to initiate the new medium. In Rakoto's case, he has been situated to become a significant player eventually, should he wish to do so and if he performs his role patiently and well in the meantime.[12] There are also, no doubt, other factors that motivate his possession by these specific ancestors. For one thing, Ndramamonjy, like Rakoto, is someone identified with the highlands, yet he, too, came down to the coast.

Rakoto continued our conversation to say that although his troubles were cured once he had received and identified the trombas, their presence resulted in heavy consequences. He said, "I have to lead a double life. I have my life with my business associates and friends, and my life with the trombas." To paraphrase Rakoto's further remarks, he said he liked the tromba milieu because everyone was treated as equals; there were no status differences. Tromba also help people. And they provide a good means for exploring the major questions of life. His friends wouldn't understand, but he sees his mission as trying to make a bridge between the two worlds. At the same time, the tromba constrain his life because of all the rules (fomba) and restrictions (fady) they entail. Ndramboeniarivo insists that Rakoto wear only a sarong (lamba) when he is at home (approximating the dress that was current in the precolonial period when Ndramboeniarivo lived). When friends visit, they don't understand, and they ask him why he is dressed like that instead of in trousers; he replies that it is more comfortable. He can't accept many invitations because of all the food taboos imposed by the spirits—especially on chicken and pork. Often these are mixed in dishes, as in charcuterie.

Rakoto invoked the informality and easygoing quality of life in Majunga, especially among the mediums, with their laughter and tolerance and, possibly, even celebration of personal idiosyncrasy. However, he also downplayed the hierarchy that exists among the spirits themselves and the rivalry between some of the mediums. He compared this world to the one of the bourgeois citizens of the capital of Madagascar. Sakalava do not eat pork and most would not know the concept of charcuterie. Middle-class Merina and Europeans do not relax at home in a sarong or recline in close proximity together on mats. Rakoto also described social circumstances very different from those of the majority of spirit mediums in Majunga, whose activities would by and large not cut them off from family, friends, or business relations. Spirit mediums in Majunga live as multiple persons, but they do not lead double lives. However, although most Sakalava men change from street clothes to sarongs at home, the requirement to do so is a stiffer one than most mediums face—an index, in part, of the singular power and demanding nature of Ndramboeniarivo and one of the reasons he possesses few mediums, but perhaps this also says something about Rakoto's deeper psychological needs or identifications.

Rakoto was very open and friendly. To me, his manner was that of a European. His French was completely fluent and his English quite good; he said he would love to find a conversation partner in order to improve it. We discovered some intellectuals in the capital we knew in common. Most of these people didn't know he had a tromba, he said. In his trips to Majunga, he combined his business with tromba activity, sometimes missing one for the demands of the other. On the day we spoke he had asked for the afternoon off, but would work at night to make up for it. He lived mostly in Tana (Antananarivo, the capital) but spent a good deal of time in Majunga, maintaining a residence and vehicle in each city. He traveled between the cities by taxi-brousse with his cook and driver. The cook was from Majunga and was also a spirit medium. She assisted him in his tromba activities and could tell him later what the tromba had said while he was in trance. She maintained his suitcase with the clothing and implements he needed when he became actively possessed. He trusted her, but she was his servant; during our conversation Rakoto sent her out to buy him some soap.

Rakoto was unmarried and had no children. He said he was still young and also that it was difficult to find the right woman; she would have to be someone who would accept tromba. Evidently, this was difficult in the cultural milieu in the capital in which he lived.

I asked Rakoto why he thought he was selected by Ndramboeniarivo (the principle being that it is the trombas who choose their mediums, not the reverse). He replied, "Maybe because we share things in common, have similar characters." He had just finished telling me how severe (mashiaka; he used the French word sévère) Ndramboeniarivo was—and I said that didn't sound like Rakoto. "I've never seen Ndramboeniarivo smile," I added. Rakoto himself smiled at this and agreed. I continued, "Ndramboeniarivo loved his mother. ..." (This is a central feature of his portrayal; the story of Ndramboeniarivo's life contains certain features that compare with Oedipus.)[13] "Yes," he interjected, "We have this in common; I too am very close to my mother. I am her only son." I added that Ndramboeniarivo was also violent. Rakoto said, "That was because he was king; back then kings had the power of life and death over their subjects. We shouldn't judge them by current standards."

Rakoto observed that practices surrounding the tromba were changing and would continue to do so, but that it was important to keep the tradition going. Many spirit mediums are reflective about their practices, but Rakoto begins his reflection from a somewhat different context than most of the others, one that could be characterized as "modern" or "secular." For Rakoto, tromba activities signal a break in his habitus rather than an intensification in a certain direction. Moreover, he verges on a psychological explanation for the phenomenon and its attraction. And yet, aware of the possibility for cultural objectification, that is not the position he adopts. He speaks from inside the community of practice.

I asked Rakoto if he enjoyed being in trance. "Not really. It is a lot of effort and you exit very tired. Ndramboeniarivo is the most tiring; he doesn't stay long, but a few minutes being in active possession by him is like several hours with one of the others." This confirms what other mediums have told me. Did he have a favorite ancestor? "No," he replied, but did I?


The reason Rakoto had leisure to chat was that he was waiting to attend a ceremony for a client who was ill and needed to have his tromba rise. Dady Bery had invited him to enable the presence of Ndramamonjy. As Rakoto and I talked, Dady Bery reclined on a mat in the next room, eating popcorn and then taking a nap. Eventually she made a couple of phone calls and located the client who finally arrived, some two hours late.

The client was a Creole speaker from the French island of La Réunion, accompanied by a woman and another man. They brought in a crate each of soft drinks and beer, a bottle of hard liquor, cigarettes, sticky pastries, and two large boxes of perfume, marked Kenzo and Givenchy, as well as some cash that they placed on the altar. Dady Bery took the client to bathe in medicated water and an accordionist began to play. Some twenty people, singing and clapping, encouraged the man's spirit to rise, and eventually they began to drink the liquor. Despite much effort on the part of the company, and the client himself, who was crouched in supplication with sweat running down his forehead, the three spirits wanting to possess him never fully rose. (Like cats, they chose to disregard the entreaties.)

The event lasted three hours. During this time Dady Bery was possessed by a senior ancestor from precolonial times, who sat dressed in a long red cloth on a low bench—clothing and furniture characteristic of his status and historical period. As Ndramamonjy, Rakoto changed into a waist wrap and a long white shirt pulled over his head and decorated with a white pompom. He draped a white cloth patterned with large red tear drops over his shoulders in highland style, placed a jaunty straw hat with a black band around it on his head, and held a beautiful stick of blonde wood indicative of his royal authority. Seated above the client on a chair, he lightly touched the client's back from one side, as did the ancestor in Dady Bery, from the other side.

What is striking to me in these spirit mediums is the care—care in the senses of caring about and caring for, giving attention to detail at multiple levels and in many directions, throwing their energy into it, and alternating between being their active selves and passionate vehicles for spirits. They point to a strong ethic, an ethic at once of action and subjection, compassion and rigor, tolerance and discernment. Their practice is at the same time marked, distinctive, and admirable, and perfectly ordinary. I left before the ceremony ended and have not had the chance to speak with Rakoto since. I never asked him whether he had a cat, but the spirit medium of Ndramboeniarivo whom I know best has a cat with patches of red, white, and black fur (telovolon, literally "three-haired"), the color combination, so the medium says, favored by the severe, demanding ancestor.[14]



  1. Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know (Stanford University Press, 2010), 204. The title of this great memoir appears to approach knowing from a somewhat different angle.
  2. Clifford Geertz, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973), 16.
  3. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966).
  4. I have explored these ideas in my article "The Sakalava Poiesis of History," American Ethnologist 25, no. 2 (1998): 106–127, and my book The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002).
  5. See my Human Spirits (Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte (University of Toronto Press, 1993).
  6. As I note in Weight of the Past, not everyone in this ethnically and religiously heterogeneous city of perhaps 300,000 inhabitants was equally interested in the subject; some were indifferent or attempted to ignore it entirely.
  7. Marcel Mauss, ''A Category of the Human Mind: The Notion of Person; The Notion of Self,'' in The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, ed. Michael Carrithers, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1–25.
  8. For some notable examples, see Gananath Obeyesekere, Medusa's Hair (University of Chicago Press, 1981); Vincent Crapanzano, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  9. The letter "o" in Malagasy is pronounced like "u" in English. Thus tromba rhymes with "rumba" and Rakoto rhymes approximately with "you too," though the vowels are shorter. Dady Bery is a background figure in this essay; she will be the subject of subsequent work.
  10. "Ndra-" at the beginning of the names is an honorific; Ndramamonjy translates as "Lord Who Saves."
  11. Ndramamonjy's brother was the direct ancestor of Richard's main rival for the position.
  12. He might, for example, become the leading active medium of one or more of these figures in the capital. One prerequisite for leadership is financial means, which Rakoto certainly has.
  13. See my articles "Sacrifice and the Problem of Beginning," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 1 (2007): 19–38; and "How Do Women Give Birth?" in Questions of Anthropology, ed. Rita Astuti, Jonathan Parry, and Charles Stafford (Berg, 2007), 197–225.
  14. My research is supported by a Canada Research Chair and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Michael Lambek holds the Canada Research Chair in the Anthropology of Ethical Life at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His books have been short-listed for the Innis Book Prize, the Herskovits Award, and the Victor Turner Prize.

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Exposing the Fine Lines

Chris Herlinger

In Review | Books The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, by Susie Linfield. University of Chicago Press, 344 pages, $32 (cloth); $20 (paper).

Image 1: Well before the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I am in the Dominican Republic, on an assignment for a U.S.-based humanitarian agency. I am interviewing Haitians who live along the Haitian-Dominican border about flooding that has uprooted them. I am also there to photograph a small distribution of food for their community, coordinated by a North American colleague.

The photo assignment is easy—perhaps too much so. But then a small challenge arises. One of the women being handed food knows she is being used as a kind of humanitarian prop for my picture taking. She knows her role—grateful recipient of aid—and does not require any prompting from me. But her tired, weary glares are proof that she is not happy with me, her assigned role, or her life's situation. I don't blame her, and I take note of my own reaction as I snap away: I am simultaneously taking photographs and, in my head, critiquing what I am doing. This is theater, and everyone knows it, I think to myself.

Image 2: I am in Indonesia nearly a year after the 2004 tsunami, gathering material for first-year retrospective photos, stories, and video material for the same humanitarian agency. The assignment is not that much different from the one in the Dominican Republic, except in the specifics. Today, I am assisting another colleague who is trying to maneuver an Indonesian man into place so he can be handed a blanket—again, a recipient of American largesse—and have the moment captured by an Indonesian video crew.

The man is a proud, quiet, shy Indonesian who we have talked to during several days of work. He grasps the dynamics and looks awfully hurt. My colleague instantly understands this and becomes embarrassed. I am embarrassed, too. But I also know that part of my colleague is not ashamed—we have a job to do, after all—and that she is probably thinking what I am thinking: Get the shot. Get the shot.

Image 3: At a meeting of Church World Service colleagues who do not deal regularly with the ways a church-based humanitarian agency tries to communicate its work through photography and images, I show a startling, sharp-edged, brutal photograph of a severely malnourished child at a feeding center in eastern Kenya. It is an image that is going to be used for an advertisement—something of a risky venture for a humanitarian agency that is nothing if not careful.

For years, Church World Service has steadfastly refused to use such photos, adhering to a policy that "while we do want to convey the need of hungry and hurting people around the world, we do not want to reinforce popular stereotypes of poor people and people of color—that they are somehow lacking in capacity," as one veteran colleague told me. "We want to avoid compounding the dehumanizing aspects of poverty with dehumanizing images of those suffering. In general, then, we've tried to match images of need with images that suggest strength, creativity, agency."

I agree with that outlook, and I know the arguments against tougher photographs—what some call "humanitarian pornography," depictions of people in the most extreme of circumstances, like starvation. But I argue that there are times when a dire situation, like the 2011 East African drought, justifies the use of riskier images—to tell a more complete story, to witness in a more truthful way, and, if we can do it, to prompt action. (In contrast to how easy it was to raise money for the Asian tsunamis of 2005 and 2011, fundraising for this long-term African emergency proved far, far more difficult.)

I realize this discussion is full of ambiguities. Paul Jeffrey, the photographer who took the photo, and himself a strong advocate of photography that affirms "strength, creativity and agency," wrote of his experience in Kenya: "[W]hile it's easy to cynically chastise the media for chasing the most visually dramatic story, in my experience most journalists do so because they believe that's what will most readily move hearts and liberate credit cards back home. Unfortunately, this reinforces the well-founded belief that misery sells."[1]

Misery may indeed sell, but I point out that the photo shows the actual work of humanitarian response—the child is being fed. It is not an isolated, "decontextualized" photo. Indeed, this is the reason the photo is ultimately used. As another person in on the decision recalled: "The reason we felt like we could use that specific image was the feeding tube, that there was a humanitarian intervention being applied. If the tube hadn't been there, I don't think I would have pushed it."

However, another colleague, shaken by the image, disagreed passionately over its use. She later recalls the discussion and says this: "It has always been hard for me to see photographs of children in crisis—another life hanging in the balance due to circumstances that are completely preventable," she said. "Just looking at the photograph commits violence on the observer."

From my own experiences in places like Haiti, Sudan, and Pakistan, I argue that photographs that try only to convey a sense of hope can themselves be distortions. To take an example from a displacement or refugee camp in Africa: It is not that there aren't smiling children in such a place. But there is a legitimate question to be asked about the dissemination of such an image: Does a photograph of a smiling child convey the reality—the terror and horror—of, say, a Darfur? Is it, in effect, truthful?

The question stems from age-old queries of what constitutes truth—I have always been stopped short when reading that declarative question posed by Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John—and also from the valuable and legitimate urge for analysis, drilled into anyone who has studied any branch of the humanities at an American college or graduate school during the last thirty years: Whose truth? To what ends? And for whose purposes?

i doubt any of these "image scenarios" I have painted would much surprise Susie Linfield, who has written a small masterpiece of a book about the strange, elusive nature and contradictions of photography and images in our broken world. In fact, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010) contains an "image scenario" far more dramatic than anything in my experience.

Linfield recounts the experience of South African photographer Greg Marinovich, who, during a cycle of hideous violence in the last years of the apartheid era, found himself witnessing the lynching of an African National Congress activist by supporters of the Zulu party Inkatha. Shockingly, even with a photographer present, the "murder proceeds," and Marinovich, out of survival and, no doubt, experiencing the rush of adrenaline, continues his work.

Linfield quotes the photographer: "I was one of the circle of killers, shooting with a wide-angle lens just an arm's length away, much too close. I was horrified, screaming inside my head that this could not be happening. But I steadily checked light readings ... I was as aware of what I was doing as a photographer as I was of the rich scent of fresh blood" (221–222).

Marinovich later discovers an infant mutilated by a "gash in his head where a blade had been driven deep into his soft little skull." He writes: "I knew that of all the gory and heart-wrenching scenes I had already photographed that morning, this dead baby was the image that would show the insane cruelty of the attack ... But the light sucked" (222).

It is a credit to Linfield that she understands Marinovich and the cultural milieu of photographers. (Who among them would not instantly recognize the frustrating reality that "the light sucked"?) At the same time, Linfield is fully conversant with those who write about photography—critique it—and would be repelled by what Marinovich did.

That Linfield can "read" both worldviews, that of the photographer and that of the critic, is hardly a surprise, as she is a writer who straddles the worlds of journalism and academia. Linfield heads the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she teaches journalism. She also has worked as an editor at American Film, the Village Voice, and The Washington Post.

If read slowly, deeply, and deliberately, The Cruel Radiance can be a moving experience that pierces a person's view of images. But then, I find Linfield's argument absolutely winning: that an oversaturation of critique has clouded contemporary perceptions of photography and has prevented us from embracing a more empathetic and humanely worldly approach toward photojournalism, particularly when it is grounded in tough, difficult, and violent situations.

In strong, clear and sometimes poetic prose, Linfield makes clear her intent, saying she has written "a book of criticism, not theory" that seeks "to claim for photography criticism the same freedom of response championed by film critics like James Agee and Pauline Kael, dance critics like Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce, theater critics like Kenneth Tynan, and music critics like Greil Marcus." She also is writing to counter some of the photography criticism by Susan Sontag—a writer both Linfield and I admire. In On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag was among our most trenchant critics of photography, noting the often irremediable gap between the reality of war and photographic images of violence. As Linfield notes, it was not that "Sontag was wrong about most things; on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true." Yet, as Linfield argues, it was "Sontag, more than anyone else, who was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them." She further explains:

I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag's postmodern and poststructuralist heirs and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice, and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike those critics, I believe that we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike those critics, I believe that we need to look at, and look into, what James Agee called "the cruel radiance of what is." Photographs help us do that; so would the kind of criticism that believed in their worth. (xiv–xv)

A humanistic reclaiming of the value and worth of documentary photography is exciting enough: Linfield loves photography as much as Pauline Kael loved movies. So let me dispense, quickly, with a few minor criticisms of Linfield's book. For a study that offers some fine textual analysis—"close readings"—of photographs, there are, to my mind, not nearly enough photographs to accompany some of the excellent descriptions of images. I suspect, though, that this probably had to do with issues of cost and copyright. And indeed, in the case of at least one well-known photojournalist cited in the book, the photographer's studio denied Linfield's publisher the rights to reproduce some of his images.

I also wished the book had ended better: it ends far too abruptly. To my mind, an epilogue or conclusion would have felt most appropriate, though, to be fair, Linfield's ending—an examination of photojournalist Gilles Peress—restates some of Linfield's key themes, and I found they lingered in my mind.

Linfield finds in Peress a soul mate of sorts. Peress, who has photographed from Northern Ireland during "the Troubles," revolutionary Iran, war-torn Bosnia, and New York City following the September 11 attacks, makes a simple argument: that the photograph is "still a space to reorganize our thoughts about reality and our place in the world. How do you disentangle the surface of reality?"

One way you do not disentangle "the surface of reality" is by pretending you fully can, and both Peress and Linfield know that the critique of photography is messy, contested terrain. Peress, Linfield writes, "has assailed photography's inward turn, which he calls 'the postmodernist incapacity for dealing with the world, which is [based on the belief] that there is no accurate description of the world, so there is no point in going out to look at the world. And if you're not going to look at the world then certainly you're not going to change it' " (236).

Here, Linfield (through Peress) intuitively grasps photography's power—and the fact that photography in some ways remains a modernist project and cannot be straightjacketed into categories favored by postmodernists.

It is true, of course, that some earlier "modernist" figures were naïve in what they took to be "photography's objectivity." Linfield cites James Agee, for instance, as someone who once described the camera itself as wholly "incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth." On the other extreme, critics from Walter Benjamin down to Sontag have, Linfield notes, "not only assailed photography's ability to truthfully depict reality; some denied that there was any reality to depict" (237). One such critic and theorist, Jean Baudrillard, opined that "truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist." From another perspective, Allan Sekula criticized photography as "primitive, infantile, aggressive" (7).

For many of the postmodern critics "a relentless hostility to modernist photography ... was an ethical stance," Linfield writes (7). Yet an "exaggerated view of photography's subjectivity" has done real harm, Linfield argues, because the critics could not grasp an essential point: "that a photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing. They could not see that although a photograph—like a novel, a poem, a work of journalism, or a painting—is often created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world" (237).

Linfield holds up Peress as an example of a photographer whose work could foster such connections but also do what the postmodern critics could not: "incorporate a critique of photography's objectivity into that obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore formerly known as truth. He embraces postmodern skepticism, but uses it to enlarge photographic possibilities" (237–238).

Peress does this partly because, as Linfield notes, he understands something the critics do not: "Every image, Peress has said, has four authors: the photographer, the camera, the viewer, and reality. But it is reality, he insists, that 'has a way of speaking the loudest': that speaks, in fact, 'with a vengeance' " (238).

Ah, reality! The stuff of family "pictures," of newspaper accounts of murders and city council meetings. Of funerals and weddings. The lived graininess of life. And perhaps one reason why journalists make such lousy postmodernists. Imagine telling George Orwell or Martha Gellhorn (or Dorothy Day during her youthful days as an apprentice reporter) that their reporting was "open to different interpretations." These distinctly modernist figures—who subscribed to the modernist idea of a unified narrative of life—had things to say and said them sharply, without ambiguity. (Who could have told Gellhorn or Day, two women who did not suffer fools gladly, that "truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist"?)

I have experienced some of these frustrations and tensions myself. Postmodern theory was just beginning to show its influence during my years as an undergraduate in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I recall how Ronald Ross, a dear and late mentor from Macalester College who had covered the Vietnam War for the Minneapolis Tribune, spoke knowingly about how, in reference to that war, the historian's critique and the wire service reporter's work covering a firefight may be wholly different. Still, each serves an equally valid purpose. Both use different lenses, but both are, in a sense, true.

In that spirit, when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1990s, and just getting my bearings in the Bible, I examined sacred texts and interpretative works from a multitude of prisms (feminist, African American, Latina, queer), and I found this work moving and exciting. And in the intervening years, as a journalist who writes about religion, such experience has also proven valuable because it fit nicely into the journalist's paradigm of examining evidence from all sides. (My experience as a humanitarian worker and journalist working on assignments in Africa, as only one example, has only further reinforced my opinion that more "readings of the world" rooted in the experiences of those who are not men and who are not white are sorely needed.)

Still, it was my experience as a journalist, not as a seminary student, that taught me "the hermeneutic of suspicion," a much cherished (and much overused) phrase from my days at Union, which simply meant to be on the lookout for cant and falsity. But a worldview that prized critique above all would, whatever its merits, be an uncomfortable, even immobilizing, straightjacket to any working journalist. Why? Because in the end, while often "a person of relative privilege," a journalist (writer or photographer) committed to "human connection and a vision of a less unjust world" still has to write the copy and take the photographs. To do that involves taking risks: to find what you find unencumbered and to represent what you find in a way that might give others pleasure or, perhaps, cause them pain.

Linfield understands that basic tenet of what I would call "narrative capture," and it runs up against what she faults the postmoderns for most grievously: a "rigid negativity" that denies freedom. "They insisted that even a scintilla of autonomy, for either photographer or viewer, was impossible," Linfield argues. "Insisted, that is, that the photographer could never offer, and the viewer could never find, a moment of surprise, originality, or insight when looking at a photograph" (11).

Why is this so? Linfield believes that the postmodern critics "fear not just the obedient, automatic reactions of the viewer but her disobedient, politically incorrect ones. They worry that our unfiltered gaze—our intuitive reactions—will reveal things about us that may not be good, and that our pesky, potentially uncontrollable emotions will burst out of the armor of ideology they have tried to construct around us" (25).

This armored, closed, hermetic culture of critique would surprise someone like Robert Capa, that well-known photographer whose hearty and open (some would say dated or quaint) humanism Linfield finds attractive, because Capa understood, and practiced so magnificently, this act of freedom-in-creation. And he did so in ways that might strike some of us today as dangerously, if charmingly, naïve (pace James Agee): "The pictures are there, and you just take them," Capa said, denying any "style" in his photographs from the Spanish Civil War.

There is great wisdom in that statement, and Capa's observation buttresses Linfield's argument about what photographs do not, or cannot, do: they do not "explain the way the world works; they don't offer reasons or causes; they don't tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end." Put another way: "Photographs can't burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events" (21).

But they are immediately arresting in a way text is not. As someone who has written two books in collaboration with photographer Paul Jeffrey, I have seen people thumbing through our books, admiring the photographs and giving scant attention to the text. I know that, in the battle between images and text, the text will have a hard go of it. Why? Because photographs are harder to tame. We experience them far more emotionally than we do text. Photographs, Linfield argues, offer "an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world":

People don't look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions. (22)

Even so, another thread of Linfield's book has to do with how the world has become smart to photographs. Everyone knows, of course, the ways images can be, with the click of a computer mouse, baldly manipulated ("every teenager knows how to manipulate them, tear them apart, dismiss them as lies"). So, while we continue to respond to photographs emotionally, in this digital age we are also simultaneously experts at distancing ourselves from our emotions as we observe images. "What we have lost is the capacity to respond to photographs, especially those of political violence, as citizens who seek to learn something useful from them and connect to others through them," Linfield argues (24).

Even before the ubiquity of smart phones and the like, Sontag, among others, held that the "cumulative effect" of photographs depicting crises was creating a "society of moral dullards," in which it is no longer shocking to see photographic images of atrocities. She further argued: "In these last decades, 'concerned' photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it" (7).

Yet the reaction of my Church World Service colleague to that photograph of the child in the feeding center is proof that emotions are never really far from our reaction to particularly extreme images; not everyone is a "moral dullard." Moreover, we still, and should, bring our humanity to the images we see, particularly those that come from a place of violence and seeming hopelessness. My colleague might add: viewers of images, like readers, have choices, and we can simply choose to say "enough" to a horrific image of a starving child. To that, I would say, "of course." And, in return, you would be within your right to argue that the image of a child used for humanitarian purposes—and, let's be honest, fundraising—is an example of a particular and even odious kind of danger.

"The depiction of powerless, vulnerable people is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension" (10), Linfield writes, and that is particularly the case in photographing children, which can too "easily weaken the viewer's capacity to form considered judgments." The result? Images becoming "the perfect vehicle for nurturing simple-minded solutions and thoughtless vengeance rather than political wisdom." The paradox of photos of vulnerable children is that "precisely by appealing to our noblest—our most altruistic and protective—selves, such images are perfect conduits for manipulation, vulgar simplification, and propaganda," Linfield argues (131). She quotes author David Rieff, who once declared that "the one thing tyrants and aid workers have in common is their liking for being posed next to children."

This may sound harsh to those who work in the humanitarian world. "But we do good," some will say, sputtering. But others among my colleagues know that in a world where the line between doing good and causing harm is thin indeed, such critique is good for us; it keeps us honest and humbled.

Being humbled does not change my belief that photos of children in tough, horrific situations that need to be exposed and stopped are legitimate and a form of humanitarian and humanistic practice, because they ultimately can do good in prompting action that saves lives. But I do know, as well, that my opinion—and here, speaking, about that particular photograph taken in the Kenyan feeding center—rests in a tradition that well deserves critical scrutiny. In a fine piece in the Boston Review (August 2012), journalist Jina Moore notes that the journalist-cum-humanitarian narrative is based on "a storytelling tradition that hasn't fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with 'the heart of darkness' label. Even stories that gesture toward something 'positive' can't escape the dominant narrative: 'Africa isn't a lost cause,' pleads one recent headline." Moore writes:

The argument about journalism from Africa is often whittled into two camps, Afro-pessimists vs. Afro-optimists. But these binary camps, too, miss that Africa is many complex things, simultaneously. In our news broadcasts and our headlines, though, it's usually framed by just one static thing: suffering.[2]

Calling attention to suffering "certainly is crucial work," she writes. But Moore wisely suggests that such attention "is more about our preoccupation with stories of suffering than it is about Africa." Novelist Teju Cole has a name for it: the "white savior industrial complex."

If it is time to be honest about those dynamics, it is also time to be frank about what Linfield calls the "making, and looking at, pictures that portray suffering." The fact is that it has always been, and always will be, "a highly imperfect and highly impure activity" (44). Those who feel obliged to critique images of difficult circumstances "want the worst things on earth—the most agonizing, unjust things on earth—to be represented in ways that are not incomplete, imperfect, or discomfiting."

Is there an unproblematic way to show the degradation of a person? Is there an untroubling way to portray the death of a nation? Is there an inoffensive way to document unforgivable violence? Is there a right way to look at any of this? Ultimately, pious denouncements of the "pornographic" photograph reveal something that is, I think, fairly simple: a desire to not look at the world's cruelest moments and to remain, therefore, unsullied. (45)

None of us are, or can be, unsullied, and Linfield's fine book is not only a way to reflect on that reality, but is also a reminder that photographs—even the most difficult and wrenching, like those of famed war photographer James Nachtwey, a controversial figure whose work takes up a chapter in Linfield's book—can in some way help us become more empathetic human beings.

The absence of empathy is perilous; it causes "the politics of human rights [to] devolve into abstraction, romantic foolishness, and cruelty," Linfield warns, and that reminder is a warm, sturdy, humane undercurrent in The Cruel Radiance. And it is photographs, Linfield argues, "that bring us close to those experiences of suffering in ways that no other form of art or journalism can" (xv). Sadly, and paradoxically, "photographs also illuminate the unbridgeable chasm that separates ordinary life from extraordinary experiences of political trauma," she writes. "In this sense, photographs teach us about our failure—our necessary failure—to comprehend the human" (xv–xvi).

The writers and artists I admire—the authors of the Gospels, Francisco Goya, Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, Robert Capa—grasped this essential truth about the "necessary failure" that Linfield articulates so movingly. She calls it "a paradox that haunts" her study. But it is also a tragic penumbra of life itself—a paradox that underlines the way "the cruel radiance of what is" ultimately undergirds what it means to be human, whatever view of life we embrace.



  1. Paul Jeffrey blog post, "Horn of Africa: Deadly Drought"
  2. Jina Moore, "The White Correspondent's Burden: We Need to Tell the Africa Story Differently," Boston Review, August 2, 2012

Chris Herlinger, a freelance journalist and writer with the humanitarian agency Church World Service, was a Resident Fellow at Harvard Divinity School in 2005. His last piece for the Bulletin, "Imagining Greene in Islamabad," was awarded the Associated Church Press 2011 Award of Excellence in the category of critical reviews. He is the co-author, most recently, of Rubble Nation: Haiti's Pain, Haiti's Promise (Seabury Books, 2011).

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Jews, Evangelicals: Analyzing the Vote

Mark I. Pinsky

In the 1868 presidential election, the estimated 75,000 Jewish voters in the United States were divided over whether to support the Republican nominee, Ulysses S. Grant. The popular Civil War general was thought to be an anti-Semite because of an order he issued during that conflict expelling Jews "as a class" from the areas he controlled in Tennessee, based on allegations that they were smugglers and trading with Confederates. When he heard of the edict, President Lincoln withdrew it, but among Jews the taint on Grant lingered. The alternative for those trying to decide who to support in the 1868 election was a Democratic Party associated with pro-slavery, antiblack sentiments abhorrent to most Jews, at least in the North.

"For the first time in American history," wrote Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna in the spring 2012 issue of Reform Judaism, "a Jewish issue was playing a prominent role in a presidential campaign—the issue of multiple loyalties. The election prefigured a central conundrum of Jewish politics that remains relevant today: In selecting a presidential candidate, were Jews to cast aside all special interests and consider only the national interest?"

In 2012, the Jewish vote was again thought to be in play in the presidential election—especially in crucial swing states like Florida, where Jews are 3.4 percent of registered voters but make up 8 percent of the turnout, according to the University of Miami. Jewish voters were also considered important in Ohio, another battleground state, in the Cleveland and Cincinnati suburbs. A study released February 2, 2012, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found an initial, dramatic shift among Jews to the Republican Party from 2008 to 2011, from 20 percent to 29 percent. A subsequent poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and released April 3, 2012, confirmed a margin of 30 percent Jewish support for the GOP. But a September 2012 daily tracking poll by Gallup put the Obama-Romney margin at 70–25—still a drop of four percentage points from Obama's 2008 margin over John McCain.[1]

Perhaps more important was financial support to Republicans from prominent billionaires like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a major philanthropist to Jewish causes, who gave Newt Gingrich $20 million during the primary—and pledged $100 million more to back Mitt Romney. According to The New York Times, Adelson showed up, uninvited, at the office of former New York City mayor Ed Koch and said, "People have told me you're the only person in the world that can elect Romney in Florida." Koch, an Obama supporter, declined to help. Irving Moskowitz, a supporter of the pro-settlement movement in Israel, donated $1 million to American Crossroads, Karl Rove's powerful conservative super PAC. Pro-Israel political action groups have contributed an estimated $47 million to federal candidates since 2000. Feebly outmatched, the Obama campaign mobilized a Tampa rabbi in the closing days of the campaign for robocalls to Florida Jewish voters.

For Republicans, a key issue was whether enough co-religionists unhappy with President Obama's Middle East policy would join with Christian evangelicals in support of Romney. As the 2012 campaign heated up, an interfaith group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, led by evangelical Christian activist Gary Bauer and conservative editor William Kristol, who is Jewish, produced a thirty-minute video attacking what they claimed was President Obama's lack of support for Israel.

Respective support for Israel and that government's bellicose statements about Iran's nuclear policy came up several times in the presidential debates. Apart from policy disputes, Romney alluded to Obama's strained relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and chided the president for skipping Israel in his first foreign trip to the Middle East. Obama shot back that when he traveled to the Jewish state as a candidate in 2008, he visited the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem and, unlike Romney's campaign visit, he did not travel with a planeload of political donors.

Any hoped-for Jewish–evangelical alliance in 2012 was to some degree complicated by Romney's Mormon faith; arguably, the former Massachusetts governor was the evangelicals' fourth choice to be the GOP nominee.[2] Once Romney's nomination was secured, his campaign relied on former Christian Coalition wunderkind Ralph Reed to rally dubious evangelicals. Reed, who was tarnished in the lobbying scandal that centered around Jack Abramoff (whose hallmark was his Orthodox Jewish piety and philanthropy), returned to the field with a new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a $10- to $12-million war chest, and a highly sophisticated approach. He pledged to rally evangelical Protestants (and Mass-going Catholics) to the GOP nominee, utilizing a 17-million-name database, and 5,000 volunteers in 117,000 churches. Among the issues highlighted, a Reed aide told The New York Times, was "Obama's testy relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, an important issue for many evangelicals."

As the campaign drew to a close in late October, and Romney appeared to falter in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, print and broadcast ads featuring Southern Baptist pastors Billy Graham and Mike Huckabee offered Romney endorsements based on abortion and gay marriage, but making no mention of Israel. Days before the election, Reed arranged a conference call to tens of thousands of his Faith and Freedom Coalition, in which Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, told evangelicals that Obama's plans threaten "Judeo-Christian values."

On Election Day, Jews supported Obama by a 69–30 margin nationally, a drop of nine points from 2008, according to the Pew Center. In Florida, where the GOP effort was most intense, the margin was 66–34. However, in the end, Jewish votes in Florida and Ohio proved unnecessary to President Obama's victory.[3] White evangelicals apparently overcame any unease with Romney's Mormonism and gave him 78 percent support nationally—equal to their backing of George W. Bush in 2004—but in Ohio, where it counted most, only 70 percent of white evangelicals supported Romney.

While interfaith amity is a laudable goal (Jewish voters told pollsters they had no problems with a Mormon candidate), those with long memories have found the modern evangelical embrace of American Jews and Israel suffused with irony, since many Christians now claiming to be political allies have historic roots in virulent anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism like that embodied in Grant's infamous General Orders No. 11 is deeply ingrained in this nation's fundamentalist Protestant tradition, particularly in the South and the Midwest, where there is a history of hostility and disdain for Jews. In the early twentieth century, Jewish saloon keepers in the urban South, often Eastern European immigrants, were the targets of Christian temperance advocates during the drive to Prohibition. It is altogether likely that the antecedents of some of today's fervid evangelical supporters of the Jewish state were in the mob of "good Christians" that lynched the prominent Atlanta Jewish community member Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915.[4]

Within Southern fundamentalism there "lurked a foreboding distrust of the foreigner, anyone who was not a Southerner and not Christian and therefore alien to the sameness all around," wrote Eli N. Evans in his classic memoir, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. Southern Jews like Evans were special targets of evangelism. Well into the twentieth century, in rural areas and small towns, Jews were thought to have horns, as veterans of World War II stationed at bases around the country recalled to their children and grandchildren.

Today's evangelicals have largely rejected, and even reversed, their anti-Semitic past, so much so that in the presidential campaign of 1976, prominent Southern Jews like Morris Abram were at the forefront of efforts to convince their northern co-religionists that they had nothing to fear from that year's evangelical Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. By the 1980s, growing numbers of self-described "Christian Zionists" were honoring their theological debt to biblical Judaism and had become staunch supporters of the State of Israel, many allying themselves with right-wing Israelis and American Zionists.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, many evangelicals did join right-wing, single-issue American Jews in citing the increasingly public friction between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran's nuclear policy for their support of Romney. In late September, another group, called Secure America Now, began running ads in heavily Jewish areas of Florida that, without explicitly endorsing Romney, made this point with visuals of Netanyahu issuing warnings about Iran, and ending with a voice-over making an obvious reference to the GOP nominee's rap on Obama: "The world needs American strength, not apologies."

Cementing his support among both evangelicals and conservative Jewish voters, Romney made disparaging remarks about the Palestinians while on his visit to Israel. Later, he rejected the likelihood of a two-state solution—the official position of both the Bush and the Obama administrations—at a Boca Raton fundraising event that was secretly taped and then leaked by Mother Jones magazine.

However, this issue of U.S.-Israeli relations predates and extends beyond the most recent presidential campaign. Evangelicals form one of the largest contingents of tourists visiting Israel—faithful and fearless, regardless of the political or security atmosphere. At times, leaders like John Hagee seem far to Netanyahu's right in their implacable opposition to a two-state solution—more Catholic than the pope, some might say—declaring "not one square inch" of territory should be given up to the Palestinians in a peace settlement.[5]

There are other evangelicals at the theological extremes who will frankly admit that their support of Israel is based on their belief that the "ingathering of Jews" in their biblical home is a prerequisite for the Rapture, the second coming of Jesus and the time when Jews will have the choice of accepting Christ or being thrown into the postmillennial fiery lake.

Even more problematic for Jewish congregational leaders are the steadfast ties between evangelical supporters of Israel and so-called Messianic Jews, converts to Christianity, considered annoying apostates—if not worse—by all branches of American Judaism. Evangelicals still see their Jewish friends and allies as legitimate targets for proselytizing, here and in Israel—and see no contradiction in that goal. Usually, single-issue Jewish supporters of Israel ignore both the conversion issue and the extremist theology, but for other American Jewish leaders, particularly rabbis, these are problematic issues.

The same April 3, 2012, Public Religion Research Institute poll found that, despite vociferous support for Israel, only 20.9 percent of American Jews had a favorable view of the Christian right, compared to favorability ratings of 47 percent toward Mormons and 41.4 percent toward Muslims.

For Jewish voters in 2012, the larger question remained whether the strategic support of U.S. evangelicals for the more extreme politics of Israel's governing Likud coalition—like unlimited settlement construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or bombing Iranian nuclear facilities—was worth the cost of joining their domestic opposition to Obama. In one poll, only 7 percent of Jewish voters said Israel is their top priority, according to the Pew Center. Last summer, the left-wing Jewish lobbying group J Street released a statement opposing "an unholy alliance between right-wing Christian Zionist Evangelicals and pro-Israel organizations."

"The Christian right has a clear agenda for America that it is trying to advance in all levels of American politics, and this has to do with fundamental questions of our existence, such as church and state separation," Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, told the Jewish Daily Forward. The Christian right's agenda, he said, "makes it very difficult to change the filters through which the Jewish community looks at them."

The Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, who conducted a Jewish vote survey for J Street on Election Day, told the Forward that 53 percent of Jewish voters in November said they were primarily concerned with the economy, and only 10 percent said that Israel was a determining issue, despite the Jewish GOP campaign. Gerstein said that "all this money spent trying to move the Jewish vote on Israel didn't matter."

Progressive Jews may still join forces with evangelicals in general support for Israel and can continue to make common cause with like-minded Christians on policy issues regarding genocide, human trafficking, religious persecution, immigration reform, hunger, and global climate change. But Judaism's prophetic tradition demands that it is the overarching cause of justice—economic and social justice, including reproductive and gay rights and health care reform—that most of us believe must be pursued and defended. To Israel's governing Likud regime, these concerns are secondary; they don't live in America. This means that American Jews don't have to pressure the Obama administration only in the service of narrow tribal interests.

This, too, has historical precedent. In 1868, according to Sarna, a prominent Chicago rabbi named Liebman Adler wrote that, despite his pride in being a Jew, "It is different when I take a ballot in order to exercise my rights as a citizen. Then I am not a Jew, but I feel and act as citizen of the republic." A strong supporter of racial equality, Adler said, "On Election Day, I do not ask what pleases the Israelites. I consult the welfare of the country."



  1. This would not approach the split in the 1980 presidential election, when incumbent Jimmy Carter, an evangelical perceived to be weak on Israel, received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote—a modern low point for a Democrat.
  2. Evangelicals initially backed representative from Minnesota Michelle Bachman, governor of Texas Rick Perry (an evangelical Protestant), and then supported former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (a Roman Catholic).
  3. This decrease in support among Jews was offset by an increase in Democratic support among Latinos. In Ohio, 82 percent of Latino voters backed Obama. And Obama pulled 60 percent of Florida's Latino vote, up from the 57 percent he won in 2008, which included a thirteen-point gain among Cuban Americans.
  4. The urban North has its own history of anti-Semitism, voiced most infamously in the 1930s in Father Coughlin's venomous radio broadcasts from the Shrine of the Little Flower outside Detroit.
  5. Some more moderate evangelicals and mainline Protestants demur, including a new group of Arab, European, and American Christians in Israel called "Christ at the Checkpoint." The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has also come under withering attacks for its advocacy of an economic boycott of Israel.

Mark I. Pinsky is author of A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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Nurturing Jewish Philanthropy

Robert Israel

Bernard L. Madoff sits behind bars for the rest of his life, guilty of swindling millions of dollars from unsuspecting investors in a Ponzi scheme he masterminded. In the fall of 2011, his wife appeared on the nationally televised program 60 Minutes and announced she was suing him for divorce. On that same program, his surviving son denounced him. (Madoff's other son committed suicide in the aftermath of his schemes.) The ensuing detritus from the Madoff affair is nothing less than tragic, for all the victims, including those in Madoff's own family.

A period of soul-searching followed, particularly among his Jewish victims, who asked themselves how they could have been conned by a fellow Jew who smiled in their faces and promised them the moon, even as he was liquidating their bank accounts.

Yeshiva University in New York City is a case in point. Once so enamored of Madoff that it lauded him with an honorary degree, the school lost more than $110 million in investments because of Madoff's misdeeds. When news broke that the university had been cheated, Rabbi Richard M. Joel, president of Yeshiva, wrote, in a letter to students: "We all should use these times to reflect on our blessings but also to reflect on our responsibilities. ... The times are appropriate for us to focus on our core values, to practice and refine them and to share them with the world."

What exactly are those core values?

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a longtime Talmud professor at Yeshiva, offered some insight into how this reclamation might proceed when he urged his fellow Jews to turn to the tenets of Judaism for answers.

"In elevating to a level of demi-worship people with big bucks," Rabbi Blech said, referring to Madoff, "we have been destroying the values of our future generation. We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring."

When Jews gather each Passover, they recount the story of their years of imprisonment as slaves in Egypt and are reminded how they once succumbed to idol worship before Moses admonished them in Sinai. The "core values" Rabbi Joel alluded to are those hard-learned lessons that predate and include those years of slavery, exodus, and ultimate liberation, and the devotion of adhering to laws that have guided Jews morally ever since.

Rabbis Joel and Blech both referred to a path that leads to righteousness, explicitly spelled out in the Jewish commandment of tzedakah, derived from the Hebrew word tzedek, or justice. Tzedakah involves the doing of just deeds for the sake of community.

One way of instilling "core values" in the wake of the Madoff affair is to encourage a practice of tzedakah that must once again become a mainstay of Jewish life, namely, the act of purposefully setting aside funds to be donated to worthy causes.

As a youngster growing up in an Orthodox Jewish, mostly immigrant community in South Providence, Rhode Island, I learned by example how tzedakah was practiced on a daily basis. My parents insisted that we deposit coins in a canister, or pushke, which, like the mezuzah, contains the printed verses from Deuteronomy. The mezuzah is affixed to the right of the front door of Jewish homes to consecrate them. The pushke canister sits in a prominent place in the living room. Both these items remind Jews of their religious identity and their core values of piety, discipline, and responsibility for community welfare.

The pushke took on greater meaning in my family when we learned that several youngsters living nearby were afflicted with polio. When we children were financially rewarded for running errands or finishing household chores, we were asked to contribute a portion of our earnings to the pushke. These funds were later given to the March of Dimes, to support research in infantile paralysis. Not only did my family contribute to Jewish causes, but we felt compelled to give to those organizations whose missions were identified as crucial.

Some years later, while attending the Precious Legacy exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution, I came upon a display of pushkes at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. These and other household items, like Kiddush cups and Sabbath candelabra, once belonged to European Jewish families. The Nazis looted their homes and stored these confiscated items in vast warehouses in Prague, where they were meticulously indexed by Jewish slave archivists, intended for exhibition in Nazi museums after the war as relics of a vanished race. Only in the aftermath of World War II were the Nazis' criminal acts of plundering and later storing these possessions in massive warehouses revealed to the public.

One particular silver and brass alms box on display at the Precious Legacy exhibition that has haunted me ever since was fashioned in the form of an outstretched hand. I remember standing before it at the Wadsworth, transfixed. I had to suppress the urge to reach out to grasp it, to interlock my fingers in its fingers, as if it were the outstretched hand of a friend. I noticed a small slit in the palm for depositing coins. Written below the palm was a Hebrew inscription, from Proverbs 21:14: "A gift in secret pacifies anger."

The pushke remains to this day a symbolic reminder of the commandment to be philanthropic. But therein lies the problem. If one visits Jewish homes in the United States today, in the twenty-first century, one will likely discover that very few have pushke canisters in their living rooms or, for that matter, mezuzahs affixed to the doorposts. Just as it is now possible for Jews to live in America without adhering to many other traditional Jewish practices and rituals, the basic lesson of charitable giving, reinforced throughout the generations, in many cases has been lost.

Research published by the late Gary A. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco affirms that this loss of identity has directly manifested itself in decreased giving to Jewish philanthropy. Tobin and his colleagues discovered that the vast majority of Jews give only 2 percent or less of their annual income to Jewish philanthropy, with a sizable proportion giving less than 1 percent. And volunteerism does not necessarily guarantee donation of money for Jewish causes.

Tobin's research also revealed that Jews who are active in Jewish organizations that strengthen their sense of identity are more likely to contribute philanthropically. He emphasized the importance of training young professionals who are pursuing careers in organizations dependent on philanthropy to become more adept at nurturing in others those practices that had once been an organic response to more traditional religious and cultural customs and rituals, like the pushke. Tobin stressed that today's Jewish fundraisers must strengthen their own Jewish knowledge and commitment before attempting to foster it in others, especially with regard to the commandment of tzedakah.

Sometimes it takes a crisis like the Madoff affair to revive those instincts. Take the story of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, and Boston University religion professor, who best exemplifies Rabbi Blech's definition of a hero for our times. Wiesel's charity, Foundation for Humanity, suffered what Wiesel termed "a personal tragedy" when the funds he invested—including his personal finances—were wiped out by Madoff's criminal schemes.

Wiesel told The New York Times that after news of his losses spread, "unsolicited, hundreds of people, literally, hundreds of people we have never known sent us money through the internet, $5, $18, $100, one even $1,000."

While this heartwarming outpouring of support doesn't eradicate the wrongdoing Madoff perpetrated—"I would simply call him thief, scoundrel, criminal," Wiesel said, telling the Times he will never forgive Madoff for his transgressions—it does speak of the special spark that is ignited in individuals to rally in support of those in need. It serves as an antidote to the evil unleashed by Madoff's selfish criminal acts.

There is still a long way to go before the Jewish community achieves a widespread return to a time-honored commitment to philanthropy, which, as Gary Tobin once wrote, "is a commandment, a must, not a should," that begins at home and is purposefully passed on through the ages. That effort will take careful nurturance to succeed in perpetuity. If the Madoff scandal can be looked upon as a wake-up call that spurs not only soul-searching but an urgency to return to that philanthropic commitment, then one day we may indeed see it take root and spread, not only among Jews, but throughout the community at large.

The lesson to be learned from all this pain and loss is that the path to righteousness which ancient Hebrew scribes envisioned is achieved when we collectively recognize our daily responsibility to perform unheralded acts of generosity that demonstrate a commitment to true caring for each other's well-being.


Robert Israel is a contributing writer to and several other print and online publications. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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See also: Judaism, Opinion

Right-Brain Religion, Left-Brain Science

Daniel Goodman

In Review | Books The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Schocken Books, 370 pages, $28.95.

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly," Herbert Spencer once wrote, "is to fill the world with fools." Throughout his career, Lord Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has consistently been willing to challenge orthodox shibboleths so that Orthodox Judaism may be construed as an intellectually respectable religion that does not foolishly shield its adherents from the revelations of modernity. Taken as a whole, his literary repertoire, with its felicitous blending of scholarly erudition, verbal eloquence, and an overarching modern perspective, has had major significance for observant Jewish amour propre. In the Dignity of Difference, he articulated a courageous approach toward interfaith tolerance, arguing that no religion has a monopoly upon truth. In Traditional Alternatives, he offered an innovative approach toward intrafaith dialogue. And in The Great Partnership, he presents an approach toward science and religion that could result in a wholesale reorientation toward much of the Western world's understanding of religion.

The approach toward science and religion that is fashionable in contemporary mainstream Orthodoxy presupposes an omniscient, all-knowing God who authored both the Bible and science. However, this approach can easily run into problems of circular logic in which the Bible itself is taken as the source of scientific knowledge, as occurs in Nosson Slifkin, The Science of Torah: "the Torah is a perfect description of all existence, because it is the root of existence. ... Everything, from the orbits of planets to the shape of a fig leaf, from the dynamics of tornadoes to the markings of a leopard, has its source in the Torah." A book such as this, ostensibly representative of current mainstream Orthodox thought on science and religion, is suffused with disquieting fundamentalist intonations. It goes so far as to proclaim audaciously that "[t]he reason why scientific laws exist is that the universe was formed by the Torah."[1]

Although Lord Sacks is also an Orthodox Jew, his approach to science and religion could not be more different than Slifkin's fundamentalist Orthodox view. In lieu of seeking to reconcile science and religion, The Great Partnership obviates the entire issue by declaring that it was never necessary to reconcile science and religion in the first place. Because science and religion are completely different praxes, it is as foolish to expect to glean an understanding of science from the Bible as it is counterproductive to look to science for wisdom regarding the meaning of life. As others have observed, this is because science operates in the realm of facts, and religion operates in the realm of values; in Sacks's characteristically pithy, aphoristic phrasing: "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean" (55). Science and religion have different roles, which only each can fill, and must remain distinct. At the same time, though, science and religion must cooperate precisely because each offers a way of understanding the world that the other cannot.

Writing for an ecumenical audience, but simultaneously writing as an Orthodox rabbi, Sacks's approach to science and religion is a needed antidote to the incipient strain of fundamentalism that has been seeping into Orthodox Judaism. Opposing the Thomist convergence approach that has characterized modern Orthodox thought, Sacks's Ockhamist approach is as refreshing as it is intellectually palatable. For Sacks, the fundamentalist approach to science and religion is anathema, because religion makes no scientific claims about the natural world. The Bible teaches religion, not science, and to think that the Torah "provides an understanding of the universe in which we live" (as Slifkin writes) to such an extent that one could learn about "the orbits of the planets" from the Bible would be as ludicrous as proposing that one could gain an understanding of synagogue High Holiday services in a chemistry laboratory.

That the brain's dual hemispheres have different functions is the premise upon which Sacks's approach to science and religion rests. As Sacks discusses in some detail, contemporary neuroscience has demonstrated that the left hemisphere is analytical, linear, and atomistic, while the right hemisphere is creative, integrative, and holistic. His major aperçu is that the attempt to reconcile science and religion has been as misguided as Thomist attempts to reconcile philosophy with religion, because religion is an associative, holistic, right-brain activity, while science and philosophy are linear, analytical, left-brain disciplines. In one fell swoop, the entire enterprise of reconciling science and religion (and, ergo, apprehending religion through philosophy) is torn asunder: "Greek science and philosophy and the Judaic experience of God are two different languages, that—like the left- and right-brain modes of thinking— ... only imperfectly translate into one another" (62). This distinction allows religion to be recognized for what it truly is—a meaning-making enterprise that was never meant to offer scientific facts about the natural world or to be analyzed through the prism of logic.

Positing that religion sheds light upon "moral truth" (200), not factual truth, The Great Partnership may presage a paradigm shift in Orthodox Judaism's approach to religion. For centuries, traditional Jewish thinkers treated religion as a science, not an art; traditional Jewish life was constructed upon the linear, analytical, left-brain enterprise of Halakhah (Jewish law), a system with a self-contained inner logic. Because legal systems function according to logical principles, law bears more resemblance to the left-brain disciplines of philosophy and science than it does to the creative endeavors of literary fiction and the arts. Conceptualizing religion as right-brained means it occupies the same sphere as the arts, not the sciences.

Sacks's insinuation in The Great Partnership that religion is an art, not a science, is based upon "biology, in the asymmetrical functioning of the right and left cerebral hemispheres, and mediated through culture—through philosophy and the sciences on the one hand, through narrative, the arts and religion on the other" (54, emphasis added). If Sacks's understanding of religion gains sway in Orthodox Judaism, the implications of viewing religion as an art, not a science, may have unforeseen effects upon attitudes toward Halakhic Judaism: is the left-brain, logical enterprise of Halakhah as foreign to the true essence of right-brain religion as other left-brain disciplines like philosophy and science?

Constitutional law scholars have identified "time bombs" in judicial opinions: obscure dicta often hidden in footnotes that are later unearthed to overturn long-standing precedents. Like a footnote seemingly buried in a Supreme Court opinion that is uncovered years later on behalf of a precedent-shifting court opinion, this is a rather controversial view expressed by the current paladin of modern Orthodoxy that may be uncovered years later in order to challenge certain aspects of Halakhic Judaism. The categorization of religion as right-brained—and therefore more akin to art than science—is a view that could have significant future ramifications, while being sufficiently subtle to make current Orthodox leaders feel obliged to keep their objections sotto voce.The sages to whom Sacks pays homage were predominantly Thomist in their orientation toward religion and reason. Like Aquinas, they each attempted to reconcile revelation (religion) with reason (science and philosophy), an enterprise Sacks believes is doomed from its inception. Sacks's multiple references to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik would seem to indicate that they are on the same page when it comes to reason and revelation, when in fact Soloveitchik believed that religion (at least religion in the form of Halakhic Judaism) and philosophy were congruent. For Soloveitchik, who believed that "[a] schism of enormous magnitude has developed between the scientist and the philosopher," it is not so much religion and science that conflict, but philosophy and science.[2] For Sacks, science and philosophy are left-brain disciplines and are naturally harmonious; it is the right-brain practice of religion that needs to be recognized as a way of thinking that is distinct from science and philosophy.

While Orthodox thinkers engaged in such fundamentally flawed efforts to integrate reason with revelation, non-Orthodox thinkers have long recognized that religion and reason occupy separate realms of thought. And while Rabbi Sacks may be the first major Orthodox figure to challenge the Western tradition of linking philosophy and religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel may have been the first major modern Jewish scholar to attempt to dispel the notion that philosophy, science, and religion were natural handmaidens. Heschel did not have access to sophisticated neuroscience, yet he intuitively seemed to grasp that philosophy and religion use radically different mental capacities:

Hebrew thinking operates within categories different from those of Plato or Aristotle. ... Geographically and historically, Jerusalem and Athens ... are not too far removed from each other. Spiritually, they are worlds apart. ... The concern of philosophy is to analyze or to explain, the concern of religion is to purify and to sanctify."[3]

Sacks's articulation of the differences between religion and philosophy are strikingly similar to Heschel's: "the Bible does not operate on the principles of Aristotelian logic" (10), and "first-century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages. They represented antithetical civilizations" (63).

Constitutive of the distinction between science and religion is Heschel's proposition that "[t]he end of science is to explore the facts and processes of nature; the end of religion is to understand nature in relation to the will of God. ... Science seeks the truth about the universe; the spirit seeks the truth that is greater than the universe."[4] Sacks's explanation of the difference between science and religion is remarkably redolent of Heschel's view: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. ... Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons"(6). Sacks also mirrors Heschel in arguing for some form of partnership between science and religion:

[R]eligion needs science because we cannot apply God's will to the world if we do not understand the world. ... By the same token, science needs religion, or at the very least some philosophical understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe (200, emphasis in original).

Similarly, Heschel believed that "science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science."[5] Yet, despite the multitudinous references to a plethora of books and authors on science and religion, Heschel is conspicuously absent from Sacks's extensive bibliography, footnotes, and recommendations for further reading.

Rabbi Sacks's conceptualization of religion may be radical within today's Orthodox Jewish world, but it is surprisingly similar to the understanding of religion found in the writings of humanistic Jewish intellectuals. More than half a century ago, Erich Fromm recognized that adherents of Eastern religions never conceived of religion as a rationalistic enterprise that contains accurate descriptions of nature, and therefore never felt compelled to reconcile science with religion: "Questions which have given rise to violent arguments and persecutions in the West, such as whether the world is finite or not, whether or not the universe is eternal, ... have been treated by Hinduism and Buddhism with fine humor and irony."[6] And, more recently, Neil Gillman has explained how medieval Judaism's encounter with the ideas of rationalistic philosophy, and Maimonides's subsequent attempts to render Judaism in the light of this foreign idiom, resulted in "nothing less than a total transformation of the basic assumptions of Jewish religion as it had been articulated in the Bible and in rabbinic literature."[7] Evidently, the enterprise of reconciling reason with revelation has been under assault for quite some time, and only now has an Orthodox figure joined the battle.

Notwithstanding Sacks's critique of Maimonidean inclinations to synthesize religion and reason, The Great Partnership is nevertheless part of the rationalist tradition of Jewish philosophy that began with Philo, reached its apotheosis with Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed, and was extended by Soloveitchik's Emergence of Ethical Man. Saadia Gaon (892–942) was the first Jewish scholar to address the challenges that secular philosophy posed for Judaism. In his Book of Doctrines and Beliefs, Saadia also pioneered the trend of penning Jewish scholarly works in the lingua franca of his age. Saadia and Maimonides both wrote in Arabic, which was then the language of philosophy; Sacks also writes in today's philosophic vernacular, English, and continues the rationalist project of rendering Judaism in the idiom of contemporary consciousness.

Because Rabbi Sacks not only can claim to be perpetuating Maimonides's legacy but can cite support from classical rabbinic literature for his position as well, The Great Partnership is in fact a more authentic Jewish approach to science and religion than the fundamentalist-tinged Orthodox approaches of late. And it is based upon one of the most fascinating theories of religion to have emerged from Orthodox Jewish thought in modern times. The idea that religion occupies the same realm as the arts because it is about meaning, not facts, is revolutionary among current Orthodox bien pensants. But it is also an idea that concomitantly restores religion to first principles by prying it away from the foreign influences that have been mistakenly grafted upon it. The story that Sacks recounts about science and religion, therefore, may one day be regarded as a landmark of modern Jewish thought.



  1. Nosson Slifkin, The Science of Torah: The Reflection of Torah in the Laws of Science, the Creation of the Universe, and the Development of Life (Targum Press, 2001), 73, 214.
  2. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind (The Free Press, 1986), 3.
  3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 15, 16.
  4. Ibid., 16, 19.
  5. Ibid, 19.
  6. Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Yale University Press, 1950), 105.
  7. Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 156.

Daniel Goodman is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He is also an attorney and a cum laude graduate of Yeshiva University, where he was named valedictorian of its Beit Medrash Program of Judaic Studies.

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Risky Invocations?

Anthony J. Minna

Debate is legitimate between those who hold a rigid view of the need to keep religion out of the public sphere in the United States and those who favor the acceptance of certain patriotic invocations of God and other historical religious practices. But national and state governments in the last seventy-five or so years have created a number of new religious expressions and practices, often enacting legislation to make them a part of the public life of the country, thus mixing government and religion in ways that are fostering tension, discord, and conflict. Some of these developments have historical antecedents, but others are novel or broader in scope, and they are happening at a time when a growing number of Americans are unable or unwilling to accept them.

Beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 inauguration, presidential inaugural ceremonies have included invocations, benedictions, and other prayers as part of their programs. In 1952, a federal law was enacted requiring the president of the United States to proclaim a National Day of Prayer each year. The current, amended version of the federal law, which was ruled unconstitutional at the district court level in April 2010, declares: "The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals." The Department of Justice appealed the district court ruling of unconstitutionality, and in April 2011 a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the government, holding that the private citizen plaintiffs in the action lacked the necessary standing to challenge the law.[1]

In 1954 the words "under God" were added by Congress to the Pledge of Allegiance so that schoolchildren and others who render the pledge now swear allegiance to "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." A similar revision was made to the pledge of allegiance to the Texas state flag in 2007. In 1956 Congress declared "In God We Trust" to be the national motto of the United States. The phrase had appeared on some coins as early as the 1860s and on all coins from 1938 onward. In conformity with a 1955 law, paper currency began bearing the motto in 1957. The phrase has appeared on the state flag of Florida since 1868 and the state flag of Georgia since 2003, and it is an optional license plate slogan in several states. Florida officially made the phrase its state motto in 2006.

Practices such as displaying religious symbols in public, teaching creationism, and sponsoring religious observances in public schools have longer historical roots and large numbers of supporters who continue to promote them energetically. But these practices have equally determined opponents and, like the national motto, the National Day of Prayer, and the revision to the Pledge of Allegiance, they have been the subject of constitutional challenges in the nation's courts. The number of these challenges has increased dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century. The United States Supreme Court alone has heard approximately twenty times as many First Amendment religious cases since 1940 as during the one hundred and fifty years between 1789 and 1939.

Each of these expressions and practices intermingles government and religion, some of them in mild ways that merely reflect the religious heritage of the majority of Americans, but some in pervasive ways that may not only violate freedom of conscience or the constitutional proscription against the establishment of religion, but could also have a detrimental effect on the unity and loyalty of the American people.

In the eyes of their supporters, state-sponsored references to the divine are an integral part of American history and culture that do not establish a state church, prefer one religion to another, or otherwise violate anyone's rights. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, Justice William Brennan suggested that the phrase "In God We Trust" and the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance are best understood as examples of "ceremonial deism" that are "protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." However, critics of these expressions claim that a specific religious belief now has the sanction of the federal government and several state governments, a legitimacy that is denied to systems of belief and ways of thinking that do not affirm the existence of God. They argue that the U.S. government has in effect stated that theistic religions are correct, at least insofar as their belief in God is concerned, and that therefore all contrary beliefs are wrong. This sanction constitutes an establishment of religion.

The arguments in support of ceremonial deism are more persuasive when applied to the national motto than when applied to the National Day of Prayer. The adoption of the words "In God We Trust" as the national motto and their inscription on the currency can be seen as solemn, nonsectarian acknowledgments of a divine authority that most Americans have historically accepted and continue to accept today. This argument does not satisfy everyone, and some opponents of the motto have taken to crossing it out on paper currency, but the establishment they perceive is a relatively mild one. The courts, for their part, have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the national motto.

The annual National Day of Prayer is more problematic, because praying to God cannot be understood as secularized or merely ceremonial or devoid of religious content. The federal law creating this day of observance requires the president to issue a proclamation designating a defined day each year when the American people can turn to God in prayer. This goes beyond the acknowledgment of a historical and ceremonial religious expression, which by its very nature is passive in character and requires no further positive act on the part of either government or citizen. Here, the federal executive is required by legislation to endorse a particular religious activity. The activity endorsed is not specified as Christian prayer, but churches are the only places of worship referred to in the law. Moreover, observance of the National Day of Prayer is not limited to traditional places of worship and private homes: prayer events are held at state capitols and in city halls and other government buildings.

The National Day of Prayer goes further toward establishment of religion than its historical antecedents. President John Adams, during the Quasi-War with France, proclaimed days of "solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer" in both 1798 and 1799, and President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, proclaimed a day of "national humiliation, fasting, and prayer" in 1863. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, by contrast, refused to proclaim days of prayer, stating that the Constitution gave them no such authority. President James Madison proclaimed a day of public humiliation and prayer in the summer of 1812 following the commencement of war with Great Britain, but after leaving office he wrote that presidential proclamations of thanksgiving and fasts "imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers," and that such proclamations "seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious [sic] idea of a national religion." The proclamations made by Presidents Adams, Madison, and Lincoln most certainly encouraged prayer, among other observances such as fasting and abstention from worldly pursuits, but they were one-time days of supplication to God in times of national emergency. The National Day of Prayer, on the other hand, is a permanent day of observance with no named or evident secular purpose.

Prayer might well be a wholesome form of private religious worship, but the promotion of overt religious practices is not a power allowed to public officials under the Constitution, nor, as a matter of prudent governance, is it one they should want to exercise. Both state and citizen are better served when assessments concerning the value of particular religious beliefs, practices, and forms of worship are left to private individuals, not to their governors. The promotion of certain religious activities, and the proscription of others, is what European governments did as a matter of course centuries ago, with conflict as the frequent result. But the 1952 law creating the National Day of Prayer is the only instance in American history where the federal government has enacted legislation endorsing a specified religious practice. That endorsement appears even stronger when prayer events are held at state capitols and other government buildings. Public officials, as individuals, have not always been, and are not mandated to be, neutral toward religion, but the religious neutrality of government itself is now in question. Holding White House prayer services on the National Day of Prayer and inviting members of religious organizations to speak at these services, as President George W. Bush did every year from 2001 to 2008, makes the government appear even less neutral. A presidential endorsement of the views held by the speakers and organizations will be implied by the invitation.

The developments since the mid-twentieth century were not motivated by a desire to exclude certain Americans from the enjoyment of their rights on religious grounds, and, for the most part, that has not been their effect; nor were they meant to establish the dominance of any single denomination. Indeed, the choice of religious speakers at presidential inaugurations has shown broad-mindedness on many occasions.[2] Such an embrace of different faiths is by no means out of place in contemporary America, which, relative to the past, is quite tolerant. Moreover, no law or practice relating to religion today is as offensive to the ideals embodied in the Constitution as have been certain discriminatory laws and other government actions blighting the American political landscape at various times in history.[3]

The motivation behind the National Day of Prayer, the revision of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the adoption of the official motto was, at least in part, to establish a moral contrast during the Cold War between the officially godless Soviet Union and the God-worshiping United States. And the promotion of faith-based initiatives, school prayer, and the teaching of creationism do not only reflect the belief of their promoters that religion should have a prominent place in American society and in the daily lives of the American people; they often have a patriotic component. In calling for a National Day of Prayer in 1952, the Christian evangelist Billy Graham stated that if the country sailed on without Jesus, "the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin." But even if the motivations were arguably benign, the potential consequences in modern America need to be fully understood.

Religious life in the United States is incredibly dynamic. The 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.," estimates that between 47 and 59 percent of American adults have switched their religious affiliation at least once. Many have switched it multiple times. The number of Americans identifying themselves as Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus, while still relatively small, nearly tripled in the same period. The number of Wiccans is also small but has multiplied at least as dramatically in recent years. At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics were a small minority, at most 1.8 percent of the overall population. Today, Catholicism is the single largest Christian denomination in the country as a whole, as well as in thirty-three of the fifty states. Moreover, according to data released by the Pew Forum in October 2012, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion (the "nones") continues to grow at a rapid pace, increasing from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent in the last five years alone; one-fifth of the U.S. public (and a third of adults under thirty) are religiously unaffiliated today.[4] Immigration, conversion to a different faith, the appearance and growth of new faiths, and the abandonment of previous affiliations continually change the religious map of the United States. No one knows what the religious composition of the American populace will be one hundred years from now, but it is certain that there will be many numerically significant minorities.

This changing religious landscape will bring conflict with it if the state sanctioning of religious beliefs and activities is a favor the government is willing to grant. European and American history teaches us as much. Where the prerogatives of the state have included the ability to bestow privileges on one or more religions, adherents of different faiths have fought for control, and for the means of advancing their beliefs. For example, the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844 showed how a state-sponsored religious practice that appeared innocuous and enjoyed widespread support could quickly became a source of bitter animosity in a country as religiously diverse and dynamic as the United States.[5] The riots polarized public opinion nationwide and were an issue in the presidential election of 1844. For a generation, relations between Protestants and Catholics remained strained in Philadelphia, the "City of Brotherly Love," which a century earlier had been one of the most religiously tolerant places in the Western world. With this history in mind, proponents of such state-sponsored practices as religious instruction and prayer in public schools might want to consider the potential for conflict around what kind of religious instruction and what kind of prayer is to be offered, given our twenty-first-century classrooms, where children identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and in a myriad of other ways.

Discord among Americans, by no means lacking today, will become much worse if confessional differences divide Americans in new (or renewed) and harmful ways. In ruling that the statute creating the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, United States District Judge Barbara Crabb, in her sixty-six-page opinion, listed no fewer than fifteen examples of conflicts and controversies among different religious groups that occurred between 2003 and 2008 in connection with participation at National Day of Prayer events. Several of the examples cited involved fights over the exclusion of certain religious groups from events at state capitols and municipal buildings. Another example involved "dueling prayer services" at the city council building in Plano, Texas, in 2008.

The accommodation of religious pluralism in the private sphere has been one of the greatest accomplishments of the United States of America. But, should the public sphere become a place for Americans of different faiths to compete with each other in proclaiming the supremacy of their beliefs, or in seeking official recognition of those beliefs, religious tension will follow. One of the Founding Fathers' greatest gifts to the nascent American republic was their embrace of religious liberty and their insistence on state neutrality in matters of religion. The changing religious landscape in the United States is not and never has been a reason to abandon this approach. On the contrary, the diversity of faiths in America has always been and remains one of the strongest arguments for adhering to the constitutional formula that has served the nation so well.



  1. The plaintiffs have announced they will seek a review by the full panel of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
  2. At Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1957 inauguration, for example, the invocation was given by a Presbyterian minister, the benediction by a Catholic cardinal, and prayers were offered by a Greek Orthodox archbishop and a Jewish rabbi.
  3. To cite just one example, General Ulysses S. Grant signed an order during the Civil War for the expulsion of all Jews from areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The forced evacuation was carried out in three communities before President Lincoln demanded that Grant revoke the order.
  4. According to the study, the ranks of the unaffiliated "now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of U.S. adults), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)." The full report is at The number of unaffiliated had already increased in the previous twenty years: in the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of the population reporting no religious affiliation rose to 15%, up from 8.2% in 1990.
  5. The spark that ignited the conflict was a difference between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Bible schoolchildren were to read from. Both sides were willing to fight for their cause and violence ensued, with more than two dozen people killed and at least a hundred more injured.

Anthony J. Minna holds law degrees from the University of Brussels and the University of Toronto Law School and is a member of the New York State Bar and the Ontario Bar.

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Saying Grace

Liz Waldner

The spoon bends the world. The whole ceiling nestles in the bowl of the spoon. The bowl of the spoon cups the light in the room and serves it up. I offer my hands to receive it, themselves a cup but winged, hinged like the wings of a bird. The light in the spoon, too, flies; it has entered my eyes, but soft with the sound of wind in leaves. The leaves, my shelter. The cup, my shelter. Your hands, my shelter. The light, shelter. Who doesn't have one asks, "Who needs a house?"

A faithful spoon bends the world to offer it up as what the heart likes best to eat. A hungry heart is good at spotting spoons. The hungry spoon? Its hungriness allows it to feed the rest of us. Its emptiness my home.


Liz Waldner grew up in rural Mississippi. Her poetry collections include: Play (Lightful Press, 2009); Trust (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009); Saving the Appearances (Ahsahta Press, 2004); and A Point Is That Which Has No Part (University of Iowa Press, 2000), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize and the Academy of American Poets' Laughlin Prize.

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See also: Poetry

The Ethics of Representing Disaster

Rabbinic and Contemporary Depictions of Women in Narratives of Catastrophe.

Julia Watts Belser

Faced with the brutality of natural disaster or the suffering of war, witnesses agonize over questions of how to tell an unspeakable story. What narrative of catastrophe will capture the realities of lives in extremis? When famine unfolds, what image might stir the hearts of an audience who may never have gone to bed hungry? Representations of disaster often center attention on women and women's bodies, leading us to understand catastrophe through the lens of the tragic feminine. These disaster tales are not ethically neutral. The stories we tell about disaster have a powerful effect on the way we respond to crisis. They shape the political and theological meanings we ascribe to catastrophe, as well as the way we think about the people caught up in difficult circumstances. Tragic tales of suffering often intensify the vulnerability of people who are already on the margins, showcasing their pain in a way that generates pity, stripping their agency and playing into negative stereotypes of difference. Stories of disaster can do collateral damage.

Cognizant of the complex political and social implications of the stories we tell about suffering, journalists and aid agencies are increasingly considering the ethics of representing disaster—striving to raise funds for people affected by disaster while still preserving their dignity, hoping to balance a desire for drama or the appeal of a pithy sound bite with the need to tell a complex story that underscores the broader social and political causes of catastrophe. As an ethicist, my work aims to help untangle the implications of disaster representation through the lens of ancient disaster tales. By stepping back from the immediacy of present crises and considering narratives that recount distant dramas and historical catastrophes, I hope to illuminate the complex interplay of theological, political, and ethical dynamics expressed in stories of human tragedy.

My research draws upon the Babylonian Talmud, a vast and sprawling compilation of Jewish lore that was canonized in the sixth or seventh century CE. The text combines exacting argumentation over Jewish law and the details of Jewish practice with wide-ranging biblical exegesis, folktales, and historical legends. As a central source of Jewish intellectual engagement and legal reasoning, the Babylonian Talmud remains a cornerstone of Jewish thought to this day. Alongside extensive legal materials, the Talmud includes some of the most famous postbiblical stories in Jewish tradition—including an elaborate historical legend about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was overrun by the Romans in the year 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple is perhaps the paradigmatic Jewish disaster. It exiled many Jews from their ancestral homeland, provoked a radical reconfiguration of Jewish life and practice, intensified Roman occupation and military conquest, and led to tremendous suffering in Jerusalem. But while the Talmudic stories of the destruction purport to describe historical events, the Talmud is not interested in narrating history for history's sake. Instead, these legends allow the ancient rabbis to grapple with cultural and theological questions about the nature of God, to derive meaning from the destruction, and to articulate religious ideals and ethical principles. In many cases, these stories also serve as critical reminders that possibility can emerge out of crisis, that destruction can bring about resilience and religious transformation, not apocalypse.

One of the Talmud's stories about the destruction of the Temple offers particularly potent insight into the gender and class politics of disaster representation: the tragic death of Marta bat Boethus, who is described as the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem. The Talmud shapes the story of Marta's final days into a powerful "tragic story," a narrative that crystallizes the misery and suffering of ruined Jerusalem and the Jewish people:

Marta, the daughter of Boethus, was the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem. She sent forth her agent and said to him, "Go and bring me bread of the finest flour from the market." While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her there was no fine bread, but white-flour bread remained. "Go and bring it to me." While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her there was no white-flour bread, but bran-flour bread remained. "Go and bring it to me." While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her that there was no bran-flour bread, but barley flour remained. "Go and bring it to me." While he was going, the barley sold.

She took off her shoes and said, "I will go out and I will see. Perhaps I will find something to eat." She put her foot in excrement and died. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakk'ai applied to her the verse, "And she who is most tender and dainty among you [so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom and her son and her daughter the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want. ..."] (Deuteronomy 28:56–57)

And there are those who say, she ate from the shriveled figs of Rabbi Tsadoq and was overcome [by hunger]. For Rabbi Tsadoq sat and fasted for forty years, so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. When he ate anything, it could be seen from the outside [because he was so thin.] When he was regaining strength, they brought him dried figs and he sucked them and threw them away. While she was dying, she brought out all the gold and silver that she had and threw it in the market. She said, "Aie—what has it brought me?" Thus it is written, "They shall throw their silver into the streets and their gold shall be treated as something unclean. [Their silver and gold shall not avail to save them in the day of the Lord's wrath—to satisfy their hunger or to fill their stomachs. Because (their beautiful adornments) made them stumble into guilt. ...] (Ezekiel 7:19)[1]

This Talmudic story begins in the midst of a three-year assault on Jerusalem, when the Roman general Vespasian laid siege to the city. Amid these dire circumstances, the wealthy Marta sends her servant to fetch bread from the market, instructing him to bring bread made from the finest flour. When Marta's agent reports that no such bread remains in the market, she sends him back, repeatedly, to buy the finest bread that is still available.

When Marta's agent returns empty-handed for the fourth and final time, she resolves to go out herself. The rabbinic narrative again emphasizes her elite "delicate" sensibilities, portraying her as physically unable to endure the harsh reality of besieged Jerusalem. The scene begins with a curious and seemingly incongruous detail: Marta removes her shoes before setting foot out of her house. A modern reader might well find this choice baffling. Who would take off their shoes before going out, especially in such difficult circumstances? But Marta's actions are driven by the rabbis' interest in biblical exegesis, not by the dictates of logical behavior. They aim to reveal the prophetic nature of the biblical text—confirming that events came to pass precisely as scripture predicted. In the rabbinic story, Marta takes off her shoes in order to fulfill the curse in Deuteronomy 28:56, which describes the downfall of a woman so tender and dainty that she would never let her bare feet touch the ground.[2] The verse highlights the ultimate curse of famine: an act of cannibalism, in which a mother eats her own child. So great is her hunger, according to the biblical verse, that she eats her babies in secret, refusing to share the grisly meal with her starving husband or son. The rabbinic story uses this verse to highlight Marta's tender sensibilities and thereby dramatize her downfall. By taking off her shoes, Marta enters into a direct encounter with the misery of Jerusalem.

Narratives and images of women in famine often stress the pathos of the female as victim, giving rise to a discourse of blame that underscores women's responsibility and culpability for suffering.

Within rabbinic culture, Marta's decision to "go out" on her own has strong gender implications. While Jewish women in late antique Palestine bought and sold wares in the market, the rabbis were deeply suspicious of women in the market and regarded commerce in the marketplace as a risky endeavor for women.[3] Describing Marta's resolve to go out on her own, the Talmudic storytellers may intend her decision to echo the biblical episode when Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, "went out" and was seen, desired, and raped by Shechem (Genesis 34:1–2). A number of rabbinic sources use Dinah's story to exemplify the danger of women "going out," using the tale to warn about the dangers of women going to the marketplace and being seen in public.[4] The tragic consequences of Marta's resolve to go out and acquire food for herself underscores the danger of women's agency. At the start of the tale, Marta was a powerful woman with authority over her own household. But by the end of the tale, Marta is revealed as utterly vulnerable. Her dying body reinscribes images of female dependency and pathos: neither wealth, nor power, nor reliance on a serving man could spare her an ignominious, disastrous death.

The rabbinic story provides two different versions of Marta's death, both of which underscore her helplessness. According to one version of the story, Marta dies from the shock of stepping into excrement. Her delicate constitution proved unable to adapt to the gritty realities of Jerusalem under siege. According to the second tradition, Marta dies after trying to scavenge food in the starving city. In this version, Marta comes across the dried-up figs that had been discarded by Rabbi Tsadoq, famous for having engaged in a forty-year fast to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem. In order to sustain himself during this extended fast, Rabbi Tsadoq sucked the juice from a handful of figs. Marta finds these husks, but their nourishment is already spent and she is overcome by hunger. As Marta dies, the Talmud recounts how she throws her riches into the street, acknowledging that all her gold and silver could not save her.

Within the Babylonian Talmud, Marta's story reads as a cautionary tale about the limits of wealth and privilege, dramatizing the moral message that riches will not save a person from disaster. In historical and sociological terms, access to wealth actually provides considerable protection from the ravages of famine, insulating ancients and moderns alike from death in crisis situations. Those living in poverty suffer famine far more acutely and are much more likely to die of starvation. Yet the rhetorical function of the tale highlights the fact that even the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem could be laid low by the vicissitudes of disaster.[5] The rabbinic story emphasizes Marta's elite status in order to accentuate the drama of her ultimate decline and fall. Marta's initial request for "finest flour" marks her as an aristocrat, signaling her prominent place in late ancient Mediterranean class hierarchy. In both Roman and rabbinic sources, certain luxury dishes were associated with elite cuisine, while foods like barley bread were culturally marked as signs of poverty. Barley was an important foodstuff in early Mediterranean society—a hardy crop that was more likely than wheat to survive drought or adverse conditions—but it did not produce light or well-risen loaves of bread.[6] Rabbinic texts regard barley as fodder fit only for animals.[7] By the time Marta sends her servant out for barley bread, we recognize her desperation. But we are no longer expected to empathize with her distress. Because Marta refused to relinquish her class privilege and held out for rich food in the midst of crisis, she forfeited her chance to purchase anything at all.

Analyzing how the architects of tragic stories frame the central cause of disaster is a central strategy for assessing the ethics of disaster representation. Depictions of famine commonly focus the viewer's gaze on a person as the exemplar of crisis. They script the disaster in profoundly experiential terms, focusing on the consequences of extreme hunger, rather than on structural causes of famine. By telescoping the audience's attention toward the drama of the individual in distress, the freighted symbolism of the tragic story focuses attention on crisis as an experience—diverting attention from the social, structural, and political dimensions of disaster. In this depoliticized context, narratives and images of women in famine often stress the pathos of the female as victim. These stories often give rise to a discourse of blame that underscores women's responsibility and culpability for suffering. In Jo Ellen Fair's analysis, American television coverage of famines in Ethiopia and Somalia made extensive use of African women's bodies "to demonstrate the horror of the spectacle of famine"—but in a way that silenced these women and used them to evoke pity, reinforcing inequalities of power. Examining media representations that highlight the vast numbers of suffering African children, Fair suggests that a twin discourse of sympathy and blame stigmatizes women for their inability to care for their starving children, even in extreme conditions. "The child never had a chance," one news report recounts, "because his mother is so malnourished."[8]

The narrative dynamics of Marta's story shift the focus of our attention away from the broader context of Roman domination and portray starvation as the result of poor choices on the part of both Marta and her agent. The rabbinic story is not particularly subtle in this regard: Marta dies through a combination of selfishness, arrogance, and stupidity. While the Talmud never claims that these qualities are unique to women, it makes deliberate use of Marta's gender to level a strong critique against wealthy, frivolous women. Through intensely patterned language that builds narrative tension, the Talmudic story leads the audience to anticipate the result of Marta's fancy tastes and her agent's obsessively punctilious observance of her specific requests. Propelled by the rhythm and repetition of the story, the audience expects that Marta's desires will lead to disaster. The narrative guides us to regard Marta as culpable for her own death—and to regard her downfall as the inevitable, inexorable result of her own foolish pride.

By positioning the archetypical victim of famine as a once-wealthy woman, the rabbinic story levels a strong critique against women's wealth. While the preceding narrative about the destruction of Jerusalem highlights the generosity and public patronage of wealthy men who dedicate their riches toward sustaining the city in times of siege, this story stigmatizes women's wealth as profoundly self-centered.[9] Marta's yearning for luxury bread during a famine signals the frivolity of wealthy women, positioning elite women as the victims of their own foolish desires. While Marta begins the story in a position of considerable power, the Talmudic story diminishes her agency and reduces her to a symbol of pathos. At the start of the story, we see Marta as an elite woman with authority over her household. Her class privilege allows her to employ an agent, whom she directs with clarity and precision. But the tale uses Marta's wealth and status against her, fashioning her precise instructions into the cause of her downfall. She dies because of her power, not in spite of it.

Disaster narratives often augment existing cultural tropes that emphasize women's vulnerability, using the feminine as a metaphor for tragedy and lament. Marta's story stands within a long history of representing crisis through womanhood, a tradition in which visual and textual images of women's bodies become icons of disaster. Disaster stories commonly highlight the spectacle of women in crisis, detailing the way that crisis strips women of agency and augments their vulnerability. While representations of famine and other forms of catastrophe are not exclusively focused on women, stories of women in distress often serve as culturally potent symbols of disaster. Drawing upon long-standing biblical metaphors that imagine Jerusalem as a woman, the Marta story dramatizes the experience of suffering and the vulnerability of Jerusalem by scripting disaster onto a woman's body. Through striking personification and vivid metaphor, the biblical book of Lamentations portrays devastated Jerusalem as a distraught widow and mother, lamenting the atrocities that have befallen her children.

Despite the centrality of the image of the devastated mother and child in the biblical book, the rabbinic tale portrays Marta as a woman alone. The Talmudic tale makes only oblique mention of a child, through the biblical verse that likens Marta's desperation to that of the mother reduced to eating her own babe. But the motif of the cannibalistic mother circulated widely in late antiquity, especially in the context of famine tales. The early Jewish historian Josephus, for example, tells an elaborate and gruesome story about a cannibalistic mother during the siege of Jerusalem. Josephus's story centers around the decline and fall of Mary, daughter of Eleazar, a wealthy woman who lost her fortune and treasures due to plunder. Succumbing to the devastation of terrible famine, Mary eventually kills her infant child and eats its roasted flesh. Mary originally hides the child, but when the rebels smell food and threaten her, she offers them her infant as meat—daring them not to be "weaker than a woman" and to eat of her sacrifice.[10] Through the haunting image of the cannibalistic mother, these famine tales reveal famine's power to pervert social and familial ties. By centering our gaze on the ravenous mother, the stories figure disaster as a powerful force that perverts fundamental human decency. Famine shatters a mother's compassion, overcoming the love between mother and child. It threatens not simply her own survival, but the survival of future generations.

Marta bat Boethus stands as a powerful symbol of cataclysmic loss. For the rabbis, Marta becomes a critical resource for conveying the realities of Jewish vulnerability in the aftermath of the Temple's destruction. They use Marta to embody a powerful story about the nature of Jewish suffering, using the figure of a once-wealthy woman to give voice to their own experience of tragedy and loss. Gender discourse allows the rabbis to give voice to the inexpressible. Yet, while gender provides the rabbis with a rich and vibrant language for conceptualizing and lamenting disaster, the rabbis' use of gender symbolism to tell the story of tragedy comes at a price for women. By using women's bodies to carry the symbolic burden of catastrophe, the Talmudic authors associate womanhood with tragedy. Actual women become effaced by metaphor. Women's ordinary struggles and complex realities are swallowed up by symbolism, overburdened by a discourse that makes instrumental use of women to express something else.

Marta's story illuminates the cultural power of disaster narratives—the way these tales of women in extremis often serve as tools to motivate others to take action. In the Talmudic story, the sight of Marta bat Boethus dying on the streets of Jerusalem serves as a clarion call, motivating one of the rabbis to sneak out of the besieged city and negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. The Talmud uses Marta's death to illustrate the depth of crisis. She is the catalyst that forces the rabbis to confront the extent and depth of the famine. In modern contexts, images of women or children suffering famine are often framed as a critical strategy for provoking political action or humanitarian response. Yet, all too often, images of disaster force disaster's victims to bear the collateral costs of our own awakening.

The tragic stories we tell about women in disaster typically intensify the vulnerability of their showcased subjects, generating audience response by highlighting the helplessness and degradation of a featured victim. Whether through visual or textual images, the tragic story performs its cultural work through evocative exposure. A tragic story works by capturing the imagination of a distant audience, transporting them into the realia of disaster by revealing suffering in scintillating detail. But these dynamics of exposure are at odds with a widespread impulse of people in crisis: the desire to bury their dead, to shield their loved ones from the scrutiny of an observer's eye, to recoil from the pitying gaze, to preserve dignity even in the midst of disaster. The tragic story captivates its audience by recounting in devastating detail the humiliation of disaster's victims, evoking political or humanitarian response by stripping away the humanity of the subject and silencing the political dimensions of her suffering. By collapsing the complex particulars of crisis into a tale of pathos and suffering, the tragic story imbues individual lives with the weight of the symbolic—forcing those in crisis to endure not only the actual realities of disaster, but to bear the burden of cultural lamentation.



  1. Babylonian Talmud bGittin 56a.
  2. Naomi G. Cohen, "The Theological Stratum of the Martha B. Boethus Tradition: An Explication of the Text in Gittin 56a," Harvard Theological Review 69, no. 1/2 (1976): 187–195.
  3. Cynthia Baker, Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford University Press, 2002), 77–112.
  4. See Midrash Tanḥuma 8.19.8 on Genesis 34:1 (Buber edition).
  5. Anthony J. Saldarini, "Good from Evil: The Rabbinic Response," in First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology, ed. Andrea M. Berlin and J. Andrew Overman (Routledge, 2002), 213–236.
  6. Thomas Braun, "Barley Cakes and Emmer Bread," in Food in Antiquity, ed. John Wilkins, David Harvey, and Mike Dobson (University of Exeter Press, 1995), 25–27.
  7. Gildas Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine: First Three Centuries C.E., Near Eastern Studies, vol. 23 (University of California Press, 1990).
  8. Jo Ellen Fair, "The Body Politic, the Bodies of Women, and the Politics of Famine in U.S. Television Coverage of Famine in the Horn of Africa," Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs 158 (August 1996): 25, 17.
  9. For translation and discussion of this section of the Talmud, see Jeffrey Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), chapter 5.
  10. Josephus, Jewish War, 6.3.3 §197–212.

Julia Watts Belser is an assistant professor of Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. She was a Women's Studies in Religion Program Research Associate at Harvard Divinity School in 2011–12.

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The Fog of Religious Conflict

Eleven reflections from a conflict zone

David N. Hempton

Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.
—George Eliot, "Janet's Repentance," Scenes of Clerical Life

Both sides [theists and secularists] need a good dose of humility, that is, realism. If the encounter between faith and humanism is carried through in this spirit, we find that both sides are fragilized; and the issue is rather reshaped in a new form: not who has the final decisive argument in its armory—must Christianity crush human flourishing? must unbelief degrade human life? Rather, it appears as a matter of who can respond most profoundly and convincingly to what are ultimately commonly felt dilemmas.
—Charles Taylor, A Secular Age[1]

I don't know how much attention you pay to the coverage of religion offered by some of our leading newspapers and magazines, or in some of the blockbusting academic books that seek a much wider audience than would be reflected in, say, my own royalty accounts. In a quite probably misguided bout of new decanal enthusiasm, I have been reading more of this stuff than I have been accustomed to. In this admittedly limited sample of last summer's reading, I have found that most of the material can be grouped under three categories.

The first is reporting on the seemingly endless supply of bad-news stories about religious and ethnic conflicts throughout the world. We have had reports on conflicts between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in East Java, between radical and more moderate Muslims in the central Russian republic of Tatarstan, between Islamists and their opponents in Mali, between Christians and Muslims in central Nigeria, between Protestant and Catholic rioters in North Belfast—quite apart from the religious dimensions of the more widely reported conflicts in Syria and Gaza. Did you know that, according to a New York Times feature on the World Health Organization, the disease that robs the most adults of the most years of productive life is not AIDS or heart disease or cancer, but depression, and that depression is particularly rife in the world's ubiquitous conflict zones?

A second category of recent reporting on religion focuses on religious good-news stories, which are mostly a bit quirky, but sometimes also quite endearing. For example, did you know that, again according to The New York Times, there is "a wave of spirituality that is surging through the world of classical music"? Music festivals from the depths of secular Europe to major American cities are this year putting on celebrations of sacred or spiritual music. According to this report, quite hard-nosed festival directors from Salzburg to New York are convinced that people are looking for something beyond mere rationalism, or the bottom line, or more cyberspace toys. They want something with heart, meaning, emotion, and connection. Above all, they want something live and capable of touching our deepest yearnings and emotions. Even the sports pages have gone spiritual. Before the Olympics, The New York Times ran a lengthy feature on Ryan Hall, the American marathon runner, whose training for the Olympics was apparently influenced by his charismatic evangelical Christian faith. From sabbatarian training rhythms to rubbing his legs with anointed oil, and from the trinitarian spacing of his most arduous workouts to searching out obscure biblical verses that give him an endurance edge, Hall is a deadly serious Christian. So serious that when asked on a standard drug-testing form to name his coach, Hall wrote: God. When the doping official told him that he had to name a real person, Hall replied that God is a real person. Alas, this story did not have a happy ending; after eleven miles, Hall dropped out of the Olympic marathon with hamstring problems.

A third category of reporting focuses on the apparently endless feuds between conservatives and liberals in many of the world's great religious traditions. I have read op-ed pieces eviscerating the Catholic hierarchy over its treatment of nuns and cases of sexual abuse; there are endless articles on the alleged stupidity of the Christian right in its approach to science, economics, and culture, and on its penchant for supporting ultraconservative political candidates. Conversely, there are columns by religious conservatives on the inexorable declining popularity of all forms of liberal Christianity, which in their view has become virtually indistinguishable from purely secular liberalism. The main message from the media seems to be that conservative forms of religiosity are vibrant and popular, but narrow and unacceptable, while liberal forms of religion are positive and progressive, but somehow elitist and unpopular. Hardly a great choice!

It is the first of these three categories—religious and ethnic conflicts—that I want to address, but on the way I hope also to say something about the other two. As is the way with professors with a specialism in the evangelical tradition, part of what I have to say is really a word of testimony. I was born into a Protestant working-class family in East Belfast in the 1950s and was the first in my family line to trot off to the local university, Queen's University Belfast, in 1970. I went up to university to study English literature (Seamus Heaney was then a young lecturer in the English department), but soon converted to history. Over the course of my four-year degree, more than a thousand people were killed in what came to be known as "the Troubles," among the worst four years of violence during the entire thirty-year conflict, which ran from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. My almost surreal memories of those years are of city-center bombs, tit-for-tat revenge killings, young men with masks and automatic weapons in their ubiquitous paramilitary organizations, highly emotional university meetings (as in the one on the Monday after Bloody Sunday), armed soldiers and armored cars patrolling the streets, and a seemingly endless succession of funerals through wet and grey urban landscapes or deep-green, melancholic country lanes. The funerals were the worst. The endless cycle of raw grief seemed to symbolize the sheer pointlessness of it all. Seamus Heaney's poem, The Cure at Troy, poignantly captures the reality that human grief is equally painful on one side or the other: "A hunger-striker's father / Stands in the graveyard dumb. / The police widow in veils / Faints at the funeral home."[2]

During my student years, I naïvely thought we were witnessing the last of the world's religious/ethnic conflicts, a kind of final paroxysm of the European wars of religion—the last frontier of the Protestant Reformation—on an offshore island off an offshore island. But of course I was wrong. Far from being the death throes of a dying phenomenon, the conflict in Northern Ireland was part of a wider international trend that also brought destructive violence to the old Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and, as we have seen from recent news reports, to many, many other parts of the world.

Living through the Troubles in Ireland as a young adult was not the happiest experience of my life, and there were many times that I wished I was somewhere else. It was, however, a remarkably formative experience. It was an environment that demanded attention, serious thought, and critical self-reflection. To help communicate some of the fruits of that reflection, I want to borrow from Errol Morris's famous documentary film in which U.S. secretary of defense during the Vietnam era, Robert McNamara, gave his famous eleven reflections, "The Fog of War." Some of these reflections have become classics of foreign policy realism: "Empathize with your enemy"; "Rationality will not save us"; "Belief and seeing are often both wrong"; "Never say never"; and "You can't change human nature."

Here are my own eleven reflections on religious and ethnic conflict, after which I will add some direct comments on their relevance to us at Harvard and more generally. I offer these in the knowledge that every conflict is distinctive and unique in important ways, but there are also repetitive tropes.

1. Religious and ethnic conflicts are more complicated than you think, and are often more complicated than so-called experts also think. Problems do not become intractable if easy solutions are available. Religious conflicts often arise from a large number of interconnecting causalities: ownership of land and territory; ancient settlement patterns; competing religious and/or ethnic identities; differential access to economic or social power; existence of long-standing grievances reinforced by emotive symbols, rituals, celebrations, and memories; residential and cultural separations; selective access to different information streams; competing nationalisms and political aspirations; differential senses of divine empowerment; highly selective readings of history; and so on. Beware of monocausal explanations or universalizing theoretical or ideological constructions. Beware also of the condescension of outsiders, who only half know what it is like to live in conflict zones.

In Northern Ireland old colonial settlement patterns that separated Protestants and Catholics generated different religious and cultural systems and, ultimately, competing nationalisms by the end of the nineteenth century. Crudely speaking, one side saw themselves as Protestant and British, the other as Catholic and Irish. One side had most of the political and economic power; the other was discriminated against and felt alienated. One community was a minority in Northern Ireland; the other was a minority on the island of Ireland. The insecurities caused by double minorities and double majorities, depending on the geographic selection of each side, helped create the vortex of conflict in Northern Ireland.

2. Religious and ethnic stereotyping are powerful agents in sustaining ethnic and religious conflicts. Demonizing the other is the first important step in rendering them deserving of attack or elimination. Most stereotyping of the other has some basis in observable facts and behaviors, otherwise the stereotypes would not exist in the first place, but they are always horribly distorted to suit the prejudices of one side or the other. This is perhaps the most dangerous human trait in our world and needs to be confronted with relentless vigor. In Northern Ireland, Protestants thought Roman Catholics were enslaved to their church, prone to having large families, feckless when it came to work, and deeply subversive of the state. Roman Catholics saw Protestants as stiff-necked colonists, eager for dominance, discriminatory in their exercise of power, and humorless in their cultural expressions. Both sets of stereotypes had just enough truth in them to make them work, but not enough for either side to understand the complex dynamics that sustained them.

3. Violence radicalizes people. Violence is often triggered by the crossing of symbolic or real boundaries and generates a momentum of its own. One side generally has more access to state instruments of power, the other resorts to "terrorism." Deaths and funerals stoke the emotional intensity and set up demands for revenge. Once conflicts start, no one knows when and how they will develop. Things may seem bad in conflict zones, but you always know they can get a whole lot worse. Think of Srebrenica, Tripoli, Aleppo, Jos, Timbuktu, Belfast, Beirut. Part of the trauma of living in conflict zones is never being quite sure how bad it can get. As a person living in Belfast, I came to believe that violence is a terrible solution to human conflicts, but the historian in me came to see that, sometimes in human affairs, postponing conflict, as in appeasement before World War II, only increases the cost of human misery in the long run.

4. Religious and ethnic conflicts put enormous pressure on the law and legal processes. Religious traditions often have different histories of legal interpretation and enforcement. Under pressure of violence, states often start shifting the balance between state security and individual rights (special courts, internment without trial, use of informants). Much of this ends badly and makes the situation worse. Internment without trial had disastrous consequences in Northern Ireland and has sullied the reputation of the United States on the international stage. Moreover, different traditions have different views of how law should work. In Northern Ireland, for example, most Protestants supported the need for internment without trial and trials without juries; most Catholics opposed them. What we know from legal historians is that the world's religious traditions have contributed massively to the evolution of legal frameworks, and that those legal frameworks, despite appearances to the contrary, are not as normative as we think, but rather, are constructions of particular times and places. In conflict zones, as in the resolution of U.S. elections, law is always contested territory.

5. Many people inside conflict zones see the conflict as a zero-sum game; few outside see it that way. To outsiders, the most perplexing feature of conflict zones is the apparent propensity of participants in conflicts to see their situation as a zero-sum game worth dying for, rather than a problem that needs resolving in the spirit of "half a loaf is better than no bread." Naturally, the zero-sum mentality stokes violence. The stakes could not be higher. I saw a news report from Syria recently where one of the rebel combatants stated quite bluntly that he would fight to the death, because there was nothing else worth living for. People who see no options for themselves are, literally, people without options.

6. It is easy to be wise after the event. Before conflict breaks out things may seem entirely "normal"; after it breaks out, people see more clearly the structural problems that created the conflict in the first place. There is nothing inevitable about conflict, and there is nothing guaranteed about peace and stability. There is often a fragile veneer of civility in societies, which can be stripped with distressing speed and consequences. This can happen in any community, anywhere.

7. Living in conflict zones requires individuals to make moral choices on a regular basis. How one works to maintain humane values in the midst of inhumane acts is a constant struggle to define one's humanity. Part of that involves serious evaluation and criticism of one's own community and traditions, perhaps even of one's own family's traditions. This can be emotionally painful and intellectually challenging. The constant struggle for understanding and empathy for those "on the other side" is both profoundly difficult and deeply rewarding. Finding solid ground upon which to make judgments about what is happening around you is extremely difficult, not least because each side has access to different media and information streams. But peacemaking begins there.

8. Social and economic misery stokes conflict and makes peacemaking much more difficult. The reverse is also the case, especially sufficient economic opportunities for young people (particularly young men). Peacemaking needs to be backed by considerable economic resources. There are few things more dangerous in any society than the existence of large numbers of unemployed, young males angry about their own lives and eager for revenge against the alleged cause of their disaffection. Hence, a serious appreciation of the economic dimensions of conflicts and their resolution is vital. Money and development cannot solve ethnic and religious conflicts, but they sure help.

9. Leadership matters. Religious leaders at all levels have the capacity to make things better, or worse. Mid-level clerics or self-appointed demagogues who lead communities can have devastatingly bad influence on conflict zones. The appeal to sacred texts, historic traditions, and "authenticity" can set up the kind of ideological fervor that leads inexorably to violence. Fortunately, the reverse is also the case. Wise and morally courageous religious leaders can have surprisingly strong influence. Important elements of the Northern Ireland peace process were put in place by the priests of Clonard Monastery in West Belfast and by some Protestant ministers whose commitment to bridge-building sometimes alienated them from their own congregations.

10. Peacemaking is a process, not a result. Settlements can be refined over years, even decades, but beware of ongoing dynamics that are making the problems even worse. In Northern Ireland important contributions to peacemaking were made by women's groups, by those who maintained professional standards in law, education, and medicine, by religious groups who brokered reconciliation, by creative artists who built cultural bridges, and by groups of concerned citizens who came together for shared purposes (for example, disability and housing groups). Everyone can have a stake and a role. Everyone counts, either positively or negatively.

11. History makes you pessimistic; but very occasionally, the human desire for peace and justice surprises you. Heaney writes in The Cure at Troy, "History says, Don't hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme." One of the most perplexing issues I struggled with in Ireland is that a combination of a pessimistic temperament and a deep historical training in the roots of the Irish conflict made me congenitally skeptical, even cynical, about any possible way out of the conflict that did not represent the ultimate victory of one side over the other. In dark moments, I also thought it was a zero-sum game. Things are still far from perfectly settled in Northern Ireland. Residential segregation is unacceptably high; the educational system is still divided; structural discriminations still exist; the peace wall in Belfast is still standing; periodic bouts of rioting still take place; some paramilitary organizations still mount bombings and shootings; and the economy lags in tandem with most of the rest of Europe. But if you had told me in the 1970s that one day a power-sharing administration would emerge in Northern Ireland, with the Protestant fundamentalist preacher, Ian Paisley, as first minister, and the one-time member of the Provisional IRA, Martin McGuinness, as deputy first minister, I would have questioned your sanity. Things are better, but far from perfect.

This past summer I toured many of the working-class districts of Protestant and Catholic Belfast. The old divisive murals, flags, and emblems are still there, provocatively declaring ownership of territory, but there are also some new murals paying homage to concepts of social justice, the dignity of labor, community pride, and human rights. These concepts have not triumphed, but at least they are visibly there.

What use are these eleven reflections from another time and another place to Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University?

1. Be informed. Be religiously literate, not just in a forensic way of knowing more information about religious traditions, but globally engaged and morally committed. A graduate of Harvard College needs to understand: that Muslims are killing Muslims in Syria and how religion divides them; why evangelicals support Roman Catholics on right-to-life issues, but also that they see what is at stake very differently; why white evangelicals in the United States vote disproportionately Republican, while black evangelicals vote disproportionately Democrat; why women in many cultures seem more religious than men and what that may mean for social and economic aid. We at HDS, in partnership with our colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and other schools, can help make our college graduates more religiously literate. But we'll have to work for it, commit to it, and make it a priority of our school. It also requires courage, not just more knowledge.

2. "Only Connect." Some of us have joint or courtesy appointments in other departments at Harvard, but all of us work across disciplines: that is the nature of religious and theological studies. And we all have colleagues, known and unknown, and partners, current or potential, in other schools and departments who can learn from us and from whom we can learn in turn. Some of us have already found partners and joint ventures with colleagues in public health, medicine, law, government, education, history, literature, political science, and so on. Can we do more to make connections with people with expertise in other areas to lay bare the full complexity of religious traditions and their social and political contexts? Harvard, with its wide range of undergraduate disciplines and graduate schools and its unparalleled library resources, is perfectly set up for this. We need to learn how to access these resources and contribute our expertise to them.

3. Don't be condescending to those in difficult situations. We are not as good or as smart as we think we are, even at Harvard. People do not find themselves in conflict zones because they are much more wicked and stupid than we are. That, too, is a stereotype.

4. Religion is not the source of all good or all bad things in culture. Despite what some of our most influential intellectuals think, do not assume that the world would necessarily be a better place without religion altogether. I saw remarkable acts of goodness, decency, and heroism motivated by religious faith in Northern Ireland. The press rarely reports this, and academics hardly know what to do with it. It is often the day-to-day kindnesses and considerations that can help to defuse violence or open up the possibility for more creative dialogue between contending parties. We should not depend on modernity and secularization to solve religious conflicts. The tide of history is not turning in that direction after all. Religion often sanctifies and legitimizes conflict, but it is almost never the sole cause.

5. Finally, be actively engaged peacemakers at every level and in all aspects of your lives, here and in the future. Refuse to stereotype. Think creatively about how religion works in the world, and use all your talents. We are educating teachers and leaders who move on to colleges and service organizations around the country, and increasingly around the world—graduates who, in turn, educate more undergraduates and graduates, future leaders and citizens, and religious practitioners and believers. To go back to George Eliot and Charles Taylor, the world remains to be convinced that religious melodies can be played with harmonious-sounding instruments, or that we can, in Taylor's words, respond "profoundly and convincingly to what are ultimately commonly felt dilemmas."

 I conclude with the words of Seamus Heaney, whose family tradition in Northern Ireland, as it happens, was on the other side of mine:

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.



  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 675.
  2. Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961; reprinted 1991), 77.

David N. Hempton is Dean, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He presented this address at the HDS Convocation on August 30, 2012, shortly after his appointment as Dean.

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The Road of Excess

Young partyers are searching for communion, intensity, and freedom.

Sébastien Tutenges

Far from dying out, religion can be found thriving in contemporary quests for meaning and ritual.
—François Gauthier[1]

My first academic journey down the road of excess took place over a ten-month period beginning in the fall of 2001. I was studying anthropology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and preparing to study Buddhism at a monastery in India as part of my master's thesis project. On the side, I had a job as a student assistant on a research project about young people and their use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs in a provincial town called Ringsted. I spent my weekdays reading books on Buddhism; during the weekends I went to bars and nightclubs to observe young people having fun. But I could find no funding for my fieldwork in India, and besides, as time went by, I grew more and more fascinated with the Ringsted youth. In particular, I was intrigued by the almost ritualistic character of their substance use and their determined efforts to derange their senses and achieve altered states of consciousness.

So I decided instead to write my master's thesis on the Ringsted youth. As an anthropology student, I had always imagined studying exotic cultures far away from Denmark. As it turned out, though, the difference between the monks and the merrymakers was not as enormous as I had imagined. Partying youths, I discovered, are also seeking something which may be considered religious experience.

My master's thesis supervisor, Michael D. Jackson, fully supported my new initiative and gave me some lasting advice. He recommended that I approach the young revelers with an open mind and that I not—as is often the case in studies of licit and illicit drugs—focus narrowly on the adverse effects of drugs or on possible solutions to the "drug problem." He prompted me to concentrate on getting close to the youths in order to shed light on their nightlife experiences, their stories, and their perspectives.

The general desire to meet up, hang out, and be close, for no specific reason, is what really makes things move in nightlife.

The result has been a decade of studying young people from Denmark in a variety of nightlife environments, including bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, music festivals, and seaside resorts in Bulgaria and Spain. In all of these studies, I have tried to be nonjudgmental and open-minded, and I have done my best to find the right words to describe the lived reality of partying. Upon reflection, the most powerful and all-encompassing word that expresses the experiences I have witnessed is "effervescence." After studying intensive forms of partying, I think the concept of effervescence best captures the essence of what young people search for, and sometimes experience, when they venture down the road of excess.

It was Émile Durkheim who introduced the term "collective effervescence" to the social sciences in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), a case study of totemism among Australian aborigines. In a central passage of the book, Durkheim notes that the life of the aborigines alternates between two contrasting phases: Periods when the population is scattered in small groups and life is centered around work activities, such as hunting and fishing; and times when the population is summoned together for religious ceremonies. It is during these ceremonies, when people come closely together in the same place, that states of effervescence can occur. Durkheim explains:

The very fact of assembling is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are assembled, their proximity generates a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation. Every emotion expressed is retained without resistance in all those minds so open to external impressions, each one echoing the others. The initial impulse thus becomes amplified as it reverberates, like an avalanche gathering force as it goes. And as passions so strong and uncontrolled are bound to seek outward expression, there are violent gestures, shouts, even howls, deafening noises of all sorts from all sides that intensify even more the state they express.[2]

Such a fervent description was unusual for Durkheim, who wanted to establish sociology as a respectable science on a par with the natural sciences and thus normally wrote in a measured tone, exuding scientific expertise. Yet The Elementary Forms of Religious Life contains several passages that radiate such vitality that the reader can almost sense the charged atmosphere of the ceremonies. The theme of the book is also unusual for Durkheim. He had made his name writing on concrete matters, such as suicide and the division of labor, but then—at the peak of his career—he devoted nearly fifteen years to the study of so-called primitive people and their beliefs.[3]

Durkheim's book on religion sparked much controversy, but it also inspired generations of scholars around the world. In France, the notion of effervescence came to play a key role among Durkheim's followers. In the 1930s, Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois were among the founders of the Collège de Sociologie and the society Acéphale. These groups were so preoccupied by effervescence that they did more than read and write about it; they also organized and participated in rituals that could unleash effervescent forces and help revitalize themselves and society. Michel Maffesoli and some of his followers at the Sorbonne are currently conducting research along similar lines (although in a more disciplined manner), and Randall Collins from the University of Pennsylvania has also made significant theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of effervescent activities, such as drug use and violence.[4]

Curiously, Durkheim never elaborated a definition of this keyword, "effervescence," though he clearly considered it to be the religious experience par excellence—a kind of raw vitality from which religious ideals and symbols emerge.[5] Thankfully, other scholars have undertaken the job. Collins writes that collective effervescence is "a process of intensification of shared experience," and he also refers to it as "a condition of heightened intersubjectivity."[6] To further unpack the term "effervescence," I think that it can be divided into five components: unity, intensity, transgression, symbolization, and revitalization.[7]

1. Unity. The crux of effervescence is that people are united, that sentiments are felt in common and expressed by common acts.[8] According to Durkheim, there is something inherently meaningful in meeting new people, being physically close to others, moving to the same beat, and sharing a common focus of attention. To feel and act in common involves a mutual awareness that diminishes the distance between self and other. Such communion is rarely a simple matter of "networking" or strategically seeking a partner, long-term friendships, or alliances. Rather, people come together precisely in order to be together.[9]

Many people describe their nightlife experiences in very similar terms. Of course, people sometimes go out with the expressed goal of building networks or other practical purpose, but such goals rarely stand alone. The general desire to meet up, hang out, and be close, for no specific reason, is what really makes things move in nightlife. Consider the following excerpt from an interview with a young Danish tourist:

SIMON: It creates a sense of unity when you are surrounded by a sea of people. When we all yell and scream to a Danish song at a bar here at the resort, it's the same emotion that I get when I'm at a sports stadium. It's about being together and doing things together.

This simple motivation of "being together and doing things together" is a cornerstone in most rituals, whether religious or secular, and it has the effect of allowing people to tune in to one another. Durkheim explains: "By shouting the same cry, pronouncing the same words, making the same gesture to the same object, they become and feel as one. ... Individual minds can meet and commune only on condition that they come out of themselves; but they can do this only through movements. It is the homogeneity of these movements that makes the group aware of itself and so brings it into being."[10] This collective attunement during rituals can give rise to strong feelings of freedom, power, and solidarity. Some people even get the sense, albeit often brief, that they are connected with the wider universe as well as to their fellow humans.[11] This is a deeply meaningful experience, which provides a glimpse into the connectedness and interdependence of all things.

An expression of this in nightlife is the widespread practice of sharing. People buy rounds of drinks for their friends, and sometimes for strangers. They give away cigarettes for free. They pass around cannabis joints rather than smoke them alone. They generously exchange compliments, hugs, and kisses. These practices act both as causes and effects of unity among the revelers. They illustrate that, in nightlife, group needs have precedence over personal needs. The collective "WE" is more important than the individual "I."[12]

2. Intensity. Like other crowd theorists in his day,[13] Durkheim held that something fundamentally destabilizing can happen when large numbers of people come together in the same place. Copresence stimulates intersubjective exchanges, and this can sometimes create a whirlwind of emotions and affects that transport individuals beyond self-centered existence and into states of collective abandon. "Within a crowd moved by a common passion, we become susceptible to feelings and actions of which we are incapable on our own. And when the crowd is dissolved, when we find ourselves alone again and fall back to our usual level, we can then measure how far we were raised above ourselves."[14]

There are varying degrees of intensity in different nightlife environments. Consider the quiet buzz of a small pub, the animated atmosphere of a nightclub, and the explosion of energy when superstars go onstage at a densely packed music festival. These varying intensities are produced by a complex combination of human and nonhuman factors, including smells, temperature, lighting, music, decor, performative practices, patterns of substance use, and, perhaps most significant, crowd dynamics.[15] Here, a teenager emphasized the importance of drugs and crowds in creating the right level of excitement:

RASHID: It's only possible to run amok when you are on drugs. You cannot reach that point in a normal frame of mind. And you have to be together with a lot of other people. The attention of the others is necessary. You have to think: "Hey, I have to make the others feel great." You cannot create that mood on your own.

Many young people have a preference for nightlife venues with a high level of intensity. They shun the empty or half-empty venues because these are "dead" and "bring you down." What they want is to "run amok," "go crazy," and "get smashed." These nightlife aspirations need to be seen in relation to their everyday lives. Many spend their weekdays working for money or studying for an education. They follow strict work and school schedules, and their bodies and minds are regimented to move through a specific, controlled set of tasks. Their immediate desires have to be put on hold. Thus, not unlike the aborigines Durkheim writes about, Danish youths alternate between low-intensity periods focused on accumulation and restraint and high-intensity periods where the focus is on expenditure and abandon. This lifestyle of "work hard, play hard" has become increasingly common among young people of both genders:

KAREN: Young Danes have very scheduled weekdays, but then there are the weekends where you just rave and do exactly what you want to. Alcohol and drugs are part of the weekend, because in the weekend you can let yourself get wasted. You don't have to worry about getting up early next morning.

However, Durkheim observes that too much effervescence, as exhilarating as it can be, takes its toll: "a very intense social life always does some violence to the body and mind of the individual, disturbing their normal functioning; hence it can last for only a very limited time."[16] This point is widely known among bartenders, bouncers, pole dancers, nightlife ethnographers, and all the others who stay in nightlife settings for sustained periods of time. Some of the side effects of long-term nocturnal hedonism are reflected in this email written by a young man who had been partying almost nonstop for two weeks during vacations in Bulgaria:

Well, it's been hard to come home ... my body got used to the wild party life. I've drunken nothing but water since I came home in order to clean out my system. I haven't been hung over, really, but ... I've slept much more than I usually do. It took 14 days after my return before I got back my energy. I know that many of [my travel companions] feel the same way. I had a slight cold when I came home, as well as some coughing fits. Why, I don't know. But my lungs and my heart took quite a while to recover. I've just now begun running again after giving that up because I couldn't get enough air and because of a serious pain in my chest.

3. Transgression. When crowds reach states of effervescence, they tend to engage in acts of transgression, ranging from a playful mockery of convention to severe breaches of the law. In Durkheim's words: "The effervescence often becomes so intense it leads to unpredictable behaviour. The passions unleashed are so impetuous they cannot be contained. The ordinary conditions of life are set aside so definitively and so consciously that people feel the need to put themselves above and beyond customary morality."[17] This is not necessarily bad. From time to time, humans need to get away from the everyday world of rigid rules and predictable behavior. Human life without transgression is simply unthinkable. There would be no creativity, no innovation.[18] Moreover, as Bataille argues, "The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it."[19] That is, crossing boundaries is a vital mechanism in a society, putting established norms and rules up for debate. When boundaries are crossed, vicariously or directly, we become aware of their scope, strength, and significance.

A key attraction of nightlife environments is that they allow, and indeed facilitate, transgressions. Most often, these are minor and do not pose a serious threat to the clients or business. The masses, the music, the dancing, the alcohol, and the drugs create a powerful cocktail that disturbs the ordinary functioning of body and mind, weakening the ingrown habits of self-control while strengthening the capacity for abandonment. Many participants describe the feeling as "free," "open," and "alive." Here is how two teenagers[20] described their favorite bar:

SOFIE: You always feel welcome there. The owner never scolds you.

THOMAS: I have been dancing on the tables with my pants down by the ankles and without a shirt on, and nobody said anything to me. People thought it was fun. It's like a haven for young people, you know.

SOFIE: I really feel that it's my haven where I don't have to be anybody but myself.

THOMAS: Yes, that's it. It's this openness to everything and everybody.

Nightlife venues often give their clients the feeling of being among their peers, such that they can do whatever they want without risking their reputations.[21] This impression may be illusory, but it helps incite people to do things they would not normally do. For example, it is common in nightlife to observe ostensibly heterosexual men swaying their hips, letting their wrists hang limply, fluttering their eyelids, and acting in a flirtatious manner with other men. Likewise, it is not unusual to see women on the dance floor flexing their muscles, throwing hand signs, and looking mean. Such role reversals are perfectly acceptable in nightlife. In fact, it is not only accepted but expected that revelers will transcend the confines of their ordinary selves and try out new roles and behaviors. Consider this excerpt from an interview with a group of tourists:

SÉBASTIEN: Can you give me the three most important reasons for coming here?

NATHALIA: To have fun, party, and be together with friends.

SIGNE: Yeah, being together ...

NATHALIA: We just want to have fun without anyone interfering or criticizing us. What happens here is between us, between close friends. ... And right from the beginning we agreed: What happens in Bulgaria, stays in Bulgaria. It's best if people back home don't know what we have been doing here.

SIGNE: There is another kind of moral down here.

NATHALIA: For sure.

SÉBASTIEN: Can you tell me more about that moral?

LINDA: Here it is less acceptable to abstain from drinking. When I see someone who doesn't want to party, I kind of think that they are boring.

HELENE: People should go out and have fun while they can.

SIGNE: People are generally more tolerant down here, more open.

There is generally a high degree of tolerance in nightlife when it comes to immoderate behavior. There is decidedly less tolerance for anyone practicing moderation. Young revelers can easily get away with heavy drinking, loud singing, dancing on tables, and throwing off their clothes, but they may be subjected to teasing from peers if they try to stay sober, save money, eat healthy food, or go home early. Contrary to our preconceptions, nightclubs and bars are not anarchistic playgrounds where anything goes. Revelers cannot do as they please, but are impelled to act in accordance with formal and informal rules that are backed by sanctioning behavior. Those acting with too much restraint are likely to receive criticism from peers, whereas individuals going too far may get punished by venue staff or other authorities. It is a balancing act: The road of excess is narrow!

The transgressions in nightlife venues tend to be minor ones and are generally undertaken in the spirit of "Why not?" Lines are crossed out of curiosity, for the thrill of it, and for the esteem that comes from peers for having the nerve, strength, and capacity to go against rules upheld by parents and other authorities. No harm is intended. However, nightlife effervescence occasionally goes awry and degenerates into fighting, vandalism, overdosing, and other tragedies. Such outcomes are rarely the result of a singular cause, such as the toxic properties of drugs or alcohol. Instead, each event has to be understood in context.[22] Overcrowding, aggressive alcohol marketing, poor sanitation, unfriendly staff—these are just a few of the many variables that can generate harm in nightlife environments.

Young people place a high value on stories, photos, video clips, autographs, and other symbols that can connect them with past effervescent experiences.

4. Symbolization. Individuals get pumped up with energy when they gather for celebration. Most of this energy is channeled back into the event through intensified interactions and movements, but some of it is saved up for later through "symbolization." This occurs when a symbol (e.g., a totem symbol) becomes the focus of attention and is imbued with collective energies.[23] Randall Collins explains: "What is mutually focused upon becomes a symbol of the group. In actuality, the group is focusing on its own feeling of intersubjectivity, its own shared emotion; but it has no way of representing this fleeting feeling, except by representing it as embodied in an object. It reifies its experience, makes it thing-like, and thus an emblem, treated as having noun-like permanence."[24] The emotionally charged symbol functions somewhat like a battery: After being charged or recharged, it can supply energy for a certain period before going flat. Similarly, after the end of an effervescent event, individuals may remember and reexperience some of the effervescence by turning their attention toward an energized object that reminds them of the event.

The process of symbolization is a largely understudied but important aspect of nightlife. Young people place a high value on retaining stories, photos, video clips, autographs, and other symbols that can connect them with past effervescent experiences. The desire for energized symbols is so strong that many go to great lengths to obtain them. For example, at a seaside resort in Bulgaria, a group of male tourists told me that they always had at least one camera with them on their nights out in order to immortalize all the "crazy stuff" they were doing. Upon arriving home they would make a "scrap wall" with the best photos as a testimony to their excesses. Likewise, a group of women explained that they had brought a diary with them on vacation in which they meticulously wrote down "who got most drunk, who slept with whom," and so on. The diary, or the "trophy" as they called it, would help them "remember how much fun [they] had" and enable them to "make it through an entire school year."

These examples support Durkheim's argument that effervescent moments can have effects that last long after the actual ritual gathering. People are often quite conscious about this—and, by the way, so is the leisure industry. Partyers and nightlife venues spend much effort, time, and money to create and accumulate symbols that can help transport the collective energies into the future. In other words, people indulge in moments of effervescence not only for immediate pleasure, but also to collect energized symbols that they can enjoy later in life. Thus, in studying nightlife and substance use, I think we have to be careful about seeing these activities as manifestations of transient or momentary enjoyment—embodied in terms like "carpe diem," "no future," and "flow." True, many revelers long for states of consciousness in which they are fully immersed in the present, but such states do not come easily and tend to be brief, even for people who are under the influence of drugs, loud music, repetitive dance movements, and stroboscope lighting. Moreover, people partaking in nightlife are frequently aware, mindful, or downright preoccupied with the enduring narrative potentials of their effervescent situations.

5. Revitalization. Durkheim emphasizes that collective effervescence is something universally necessary for humans. Without it, life would become a bore and society would fall apart. We humans have a periodic need to "get in touch with a higher source of energy" and to forget about our "ordinary occupations and preoccupations."[25] This is not merely a matter of blowing off steam or escaping so-called reality; it is also about discovering who we are, where we belong, and what is important to us. On a societal level, episodes of effervescence form an indispensable driving force that accelerates interpersonal exchanges and strengthens social cohesion.

I share Durkheim's conviction that effervescence has some potentially edifying qualities, and I believe it is crucial to cultivate a deeper understanding of these qualities if we are to make better use of them. I am therefore skeptical of the tendency in the research literature to focus narrowly on the adverse effects of substances and to treat youthful excess as a symptom or epiphenomenon of some sort of social problem, injustice, or pathology.[26] For example, difficult economic conditions and bleak job prospects are often cited as reasons that today's youth indulge in nightlife excesses. Other researchers suggest that young people seek refuge in alcohol, drugs, and other forms of excess because they are unable to handle the proliferating choices of postmodern life, the expectations imposed upon them by their parents, the demands of the educational system, and the rapid social and technological changes that have caused traditional values and networks to fall apart. While it is true that some venture down the road of excess in search of ruin, oblivion, or death, I have come to see that the majority of young people are searching for something else. What they want is to live moments of communion, intensity, and freedom, while generating stories, pictures, and other symbols that can help them carry these moments into the future.

The nightlife industry already seems to have a solid grasp of contemporary youths and their periodic desire for abandon. Indeed, most of the nightlife environments I have studied over the years have made it their business to administer to and profit from alcohol-fueled effervescence. In a country like Denmark, an estimated 38 percent of nineteen-year-olds go to a nightclub at least once a week. An additional 29 percent go every two weeks.[27] We may criticize these leisure habits for being hollow and unwholesome. We may try to suppress them with laws and police action.[28] But perhaps it is time to embrace, cultivate, and make better use of this urge for effervescence among young people, and to find creative ways to harness these impulses outside the context of commercialized, alcohol-focused environments.



  1. François Gauthier, "Rapturous Ruptures: The 'Instituant' Religious Experience of Rave," in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. Graham St. John (Routledge, 2004), 80. I am grateful to François Gauthier and Michael D. Jackson for inspiration and help with this essay.
  2. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2001), 162–163.
  3. Michelle H. Richman, Sacred Revolutions: Durkheim and the Collège De Sociologie (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 23–25.
  4. See, for example, the masterful studies by Michel Maffesoli, L'Ombre de Dionysos: Contribution à une sociologie de l'orgie (Le Livre de Poche, 1985), and Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton University Press, 2004).
  5. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 164.
  6. Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 35.
  7. See Tim Olaveson, " 'Connectedness' and the Rave Experience: Rave as New Religious Movement?" in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. St. John.
  8. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 287.
  9. Ibid., 283. See also Michel Maffesoli, "Présentation," in Émile Durkheim, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (CNRS Éditions, 2007), 24.
  10. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 175–176. See also Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 35.
  11. This point is made in Rave Culture and Religion, ed. St. John.
  12. Maffesoli, L'Ombre de Dionysos.
  13. For a discussion of whether Durkheim should be considered a crowd theorist, see Christian Borch's new book, The Politics of Crowds: An Alternative History of Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 70–78.
  14. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 157.
  15. Cameron Duff, "The Pleasure in Context," International Journal of Drug Policy 19, no. 5 (October 2008): 384–392. See also Mark Jayne, Gill Valentine, and Sarah L. Holloway, "Emotional, Embodied and Affective Geographies of Alcohol, Drinking and Drunkenness," Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, no. 4 (October 2010): 540–554; and Tim Edensor, "Illuminated Atmospheres: Anticipating and Reproducing the Flow of Affective Experience in Blackpool," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2012), vol. 30, 1103–1122.
  16. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 172.
  17. Ibid., 163.
  18. Ibid., 284–285. See also Chris Jenks, Transgression (Routledge, 2003).
  19. Georges Bataille, Eroticism (Penguin, 2001), 63.
  20. In Denmark the legal age for consuming alcohol in bars and nightclubs is eighteen years. However, this law is frequently breached. Teenage drinking and drunkenness is very common in Danish nightlife; illegal drug use, on the other hand, is rare.
  21. David Redmon, "Playful Deviance as an Urban Leisure Activity: Secret Selves, Self-Validation, and Entertaining Performances," Deviant Behavior 24, no. 1 (2000): 27–51. Dick Hobbs et al., "Receiving Shadows: Governance and Liminality in the Night-time Economy," British Journal of Sociology 51, no. 4 (2000): 701–717.
  22. See Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press, 2009).
  23. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 176.
  24. Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains, 37.
  25. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 285.
  26. I discussed this in my dissertation, "Louder! Wilder! Danish Youth at an International Nightlife Resort" (Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, 2010).
  27. Signe Ravn, Intoxicated Interactions: Clubbers Talking about Their Drug Use (Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University, 2012), 26.
  28. Graham St. John, Technomad and Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox Publishing, 2009), 51.

Sébastien Tutenges is an assistant professor at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University in Denmark. His research focuses on nightlife, tourism, prostitution, and substance use. This essay is based on a talk that he gave at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School on February 8, 2012.

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Two Poems

Gerard Beirne

Vision of the Fear of Death

Set the hounds at the oxen, let the prey upon them.
Flush the pheasants from the tules, loose the hawks and falcons.
Cast the peacocks from the tower, quaking as they plummet.
Baste the carcass on the slab, made tender in the fear of death.

The Song of the Daysbird

Moulded into being,
I melt beneath the thumb.

A tuft of golden beeswax
rising to touch the sun.


Gerard Beirne, originally from Ireland, is a Canadian citizen. His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press, 1997) and Games of Chance: A Gambler's Manual (Oberon Press, 2011); his novels include The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, 2003) and Turtle (Oberon Press, 2009).

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See also: Poetry

Visiting the Void

Kate Yanina DeConinck

In 2010 alone, more than one million people from around the world visited Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.[1] Included among those who went to stare at the ongoing construction and converse with fellow "pilgrims" were many of the men and women who came to New York between September 2001 and June 2002 to help with recovery and cleanup efforts. Why has Ground Zero become a site of ritual return for these workers?

While their personal reasons for visiting the site are as diverse as the individuals themselves, I want to suggest that many workers periodically return to Ground Zero as a way of preserving the communitas they once experienced there. In the aftermath of the attacks, these citizens employed ritualistic strategies that made the world feel more manageable during a time of crisis and transition, and to reestablish intersubjective bonds. Today, even after having left their cleanup roles, workers continue to project emotions onto Ground Zero, and they return to the site on occasion to reconnect with the values and memories they associate with it. This particular group of people associates Ground Zero not only with destruction and death, but also with the potential for humans to live in harmony.

While watching the Twin Towers burn and collapse on television, many citizens experienced the attacks from a position of helplessness and vulnerability, initially feeling that there was nothing they could do but sit and watch the devastation unfold. As Carl (not his real name), a middle-aged man living in New Jersey, told me during an interview: "The moment that the attacks happened, I wanted to get [to New York to help]." Carl's decision to respond actively was motivated by his desire to help the people of New York in some small, anonymous way. "I didn't want to be patted on the back [for going to help]," said Carl. And, while his initial thought upon seeing the disaster was "this will never get cleaned up," he was able to overcome this sense of paralysis by saying to himself, "You know what, if I can move a piece of steel or a piece of rubble or a piece of wood or something, [I can] help other people."

Thus, Carl was able to scale down a massive, overwhelming tragedy into a series of smaller, manageable tasks that allowed him to work on the site in a productive way. As in religious rituals, in which larger cosmological crises can be addressed synecdochically, Carl focused on the individual bits of wood or debris that he could control as a way of acting upon a massive disaster that left more than sixteen acres of downtown Manhattan covered in ash, rubble, and human remains.[2] Like many other men and women who traveled to New York City in the days after the attacks to offer their services during recovery efforts, Carl was driven there both by an existential need to help himself (changing his experience of the tragedy from passive fear to active engagement) and by a practical desire to assist others (helping New Yorkers put their city back together).

Whether they realized it or not, though, the volunteers who entered the city to help with recovery efforts were stepping into a foreign world, a place outside of ordinary time that was governed by ambiguity and improvisation. In many ways, recovery workers at Ground Zero existed in the sort of liminal space that Victor Turner has described in his studies of rites of transition. Turner argues that rites are characterized by three distinct phases: the detachment of participants from a normative social structure; an ambiguous phase in which they are betwixt and between states; and a final reincorporation of the participants, in which their passage is consummated. Much of Turner's work focuses on the liminal period, wherein participants leave the "secular politico-jural systems [in which] exist intricate and situationally shifting networks of rights and duties proportioned to their rank, status, and corporate affiliation." While everyday life is full of networks of "superordination and subordination," liminality is characterized by a lack of social distinctions and gradations. Thus, "complete equality usually characterizes the relationship of neophyte to neophyte" as they foster a sense of comradeship which Turner describes as "communitas."[3]

In considering the ways that recovery workers have described their time working at Ground Zero, I have noticed that, like initiates, they experienced a strong sense of interpersonal bonding and equality during this period of instability. William Langewiesche, an American author and journalist who was granted full access to Ground Zero during the cleanup as a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, observed:

The urgency of the [recovery and cleanup efforts] swept away ordinary responsibilities and the everyday dullness of family life, and it made nonsense of office paperwork and tedious professional routines. Traditional hierarchies broke down too. The problems that had to be solved were largely unprecedented. Action and invention were required on every level, often with no need or possibility of asking permission. As a result, within the vital new culture that grew up at the Trade Center site even the lowliest laborers and firemen were given power.[4]

During these nine months, Ground Zero was governed largely by improvisation, and the traditional hierarchies of power and social status in "ordinary life" became irrelevant. Speaking to me in April 2010, Carl emphasized similar points about the relationships among workers during the recovery period:

You were almost like in your own community, almost like in your own home; you were almost in utopia. It [didn't] matter what you look like, what you believe in, what you don't believe in; it [didn't] matter your feelings about religion, about war, about anything. ... Without speaking a word, you see someone and you say "I love that person."

Working side by side as they sifted through rubble, hosed down debris, and collected remains, workers came to consider each other generous and loving human beings, and they shared food, water, and hugs on a daily basis.[5] While they probably would not use a theoretical term like communitas to describe this phenomenon, there are striking similarities between their time at the site and the experiences of neophytes during rites of initiation.

But, as Turner and other theorists have pointed out, liminal states cannot last forever and, eventually, citizens must return to states of social structure and hierarchy—a reality for which many workers were not prepared. During the nine months of cleanup at the site, "[some workers] reminded themselves that they had recently led ordinary lives, and that they would return to them. But weeks felt like months, and months felt like years, and as winter came, it was ordinary life, and not the site, that began to seem dreamlike and far away."[6] Having grown accustomed to life at the site, some workers came to feel that they had experienced an inner transformation that outsiders could not recognize or understand. After having to send many workers home during the spring of 2002, Brian Lyons, a site supervisor at Ground Zero, noted:

Now that cleanup's over, a lot of guys have gone off the deep end. ... When you were working down there, you had responsibility and pride. You could do something about the tragedy. But when the job was over, and we laid the guys off, some took it very hard and couldn't stop coming back to the site. Some had to be escorted off the property. They kept showing up like they were lost. Some of them wanted to work for nothing. You had to snap them into reality and say: "The job's over. Go home."[7]

The irony in Lyons's statement is the fact that Ground Zero had become home for these lost men and women. During cleanup and recovery, Ground Zero certainly remained a symbol of destruction and death to them; however, it also came to represent the birthplace of the new identities many workers forged, identities not recognized by anyone off the site. For example, Mike Burton went from being an unknown deputy commissioner in the city's Department of Design and Construction to the "go-to guy" in charge of cleanup—a job that kept him on site nearly all of the time. When Mike faced the prospect of reentering a world where no one knew him or appreciated what he had done to clear the site, "one of his friends [warned] him of the difficulty he now faced: as the publicly anointed Trade Center Czar, he would find it hard when someone said to his face, 'Mike who?'—and that day would come soon."[8] Leaving this liminal phase that had come to feel comfortable and returning to the wider society, recovery workers quickly became aware that, like veterans coming back from war, outsiders did not understand the transformations they had undergone or what the experience meant to them.[9] Even today, Carl believes that recovery workers share a "bond that other people can't understand."

Back in "ordinary time," workers engaged in various strategies and rituals to overcome the sense of loneliness and depression they felt in leaving Ground Zero. Larry Keating, Danny Doyle, Mike Emerson, and Bobby Graves, ironworkers who were at Ground Zero "from the first day to the last day," cutting steel and picking through debris looking for human remains, arranged to work together after cleanup, first doing welding at the Williamsburg Bridge and then building New York University's new law school. While they could not stay in the liminal phase forever, these four were able to maintain emotional and geographical ties with others who had been alongside them in the period of instability.

Not all have been able to interact with former co-workers on a daily basis, however. Many others have returned to Ground Zero periodically to reconnect with old friends with whom they share this special bond. From nearby New Jersey, Carl returns to the Tribute World Trade Center (WTC) Visitor Center once or twice every month to lead tours as part of the museum's walking tour program. Doing so allows him to reconnect with other recovery workers who also volunteer as guides. When asked if the guides feel the same sense of unity when they give tours today as they once felt while working at the site, Carl replied: "I do. When I'm with a person giving a tour, I always feel like I'm back there in that time. And, when I'm with that person, that person understands what I feel."

What is perhaps most remarkable is that even today, back in "normal," hierarchical communities, those who previously shared a sense of communitas perceive each other as equals, despite the fact that they now inhabit very different spheres of life. In sharing their stories about cleanup with the outside world, former recovery workers are able to remember the potential for unity and love in society and to look with hope toward the future. As stated on the Tribute WTC Visitor Center website, the stories of the tour guides continually remind Americans of "the tremendous spirit of support and generosity that arose after the attacks." While the walking tours themselves cannot necessarily recreate the communitas that once existed at Ground Zero, they can strengthen everyday communal bonds among visitors and guides alike.

Many workers at Ground Zero continue to be attracted to the site today because it provides them with a sense of hope and possibility. The world seemed unmanageable and dangerous to Americans after having been attacked on their own soil in broad daylight, but the workers who went to clean up Ground Zero experienced greater agency and interpersonal unity as they made order, both literally and existentially, out of the chaos at the site. Furthermore, now that the ritualized clearing of the site has ended, many workers have created a ritual of return. When their everyday lives seem overwhelming, lonely, or meaningless, this ritual allows them to reconnect with the place where they once felt active, productive, and united.

Unfortunately, though, not all of the workers have found ways to reintegrate into the larger society after recovery and cleanup were over. Around the one-year anniversary of the attacks, John Graham, a skilled carpenter who helped with the cleanup and who suffered a chronic cough and nightmares after leaving, learned that one of his co-workers from Ground Zero had committed suicide after being sent home. Graham remarked: "This was a big, strong guy. You start thinking, 'If he's capable of that, when am I going to start seeing the boogeyman?' "[10] Thinking about workers who could not reintegrate into society raises a number of questions about ritualization, particularly in the wake of a national tragedy. Historian Michael Puett has correctly stated that "when [ritual] works, it can, for periods of time, create pockets of order in which humans can flourish."[11] However, we can also see that the aftermath of liminality—the period when communitas and unity seem but a distant memory—can be devastating. While it is difficult to determine why some people left Ground Zero with a greater sense of optimism and others became depressed or even suicidal, it can be said that entering a liminal space always entails a risk. There is always the possibility for positive reorientation, but there is also the chance that the world will only seem all the more chaotic and dark.[12]



  1. There are no official figures on how many people have visited Ground Zero or nearby related museums, but according to its website, the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site welcomed its one-millionth visitor in August 2010.
  2. See Claude Lévi-Strauss on ritualistic healing through the use of symbols; Structural Anthropology, vol. 1 (Basic Books, 1963), 201.
  3. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Cornell University Press, 1967), 99, 100.
  4. William Langewiesche, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press, 2002), 10–11.
  5. In calling attention to the sense of communitas shared by these workers, I am merely pointing to the positive human interactions that helped them get through each day. I do not mean to imply that their experiences at Ground Zero were entirely enjoyable or positive. As Carl said, they "saw things that you are not supposed to see as a human being."
  6. Langewiesche, American Ground, 13.
  7. Corey Kilgannon, "Ironworkers' Job of Clearing Ground Zero Is Over, but the Trauma Lingers," The New York Times, November 11, 2002.
  8. Langewiesche, American Ground, 201.
  9. While many recovery workers felt a special bond with Ground Zero, not all did. An ironworker named Bobby Graves saw the site as just another workplace: "The way I see it is: it was a job. Now the job's done, and I'm on to another job"; Kilgannon, "Ironworkers' Job of Clearing Ground Zero."
  10. Ibid.
  11. Michael Puett, "Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China," Cardozo Law Review 28, no. 1 (2006): 36.
  12. An earlier draft of this paper was workshopped in Michael D. Jackson's fall 2010 course, "Ritualization, Play, and Transitional Phenomena." I want to thank Professor Jackson and the students for their invaluable feedback on this piece, and their encouragement of my research in general.

Kate Yanina Deconinck is a doctoral candidate in religion and society at Harvard Divinity School and has been conducting ethnographic field research in New York City since early 2010.

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We Lost Our Everything

Andrea Cohen

We lost our everything,
she said, which said everything
about loss. My accumulation
dictates my ruin; it’s different

from your dismantling, which
can happen slowly or all at once.
What’s crucial is a total
inventory, which may reveal

some one element not obliterated.
We lost our everything,
she said—we—she repeated,
meaning the we-ness remained,

which in the end must be the seed
of re-beginning, the seed that
divines the plow, the ounce
of dirt, the memory of digging.



Andrea Cohen's poetry collections include Kentucky Derby (Salmon Poetry, 2011), Long Division (Salmon Poetry, 2009), and The Cartographer’s Vacation (Owl Creek Press, 1999). She directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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What Broken Souls Can Teach

Will Joyner

In Review | Books Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror, by Julia Lieblich and Esad Boškailo. Vanderbilt University Press, 192 pages, $19.95.

Confronted daily with frontline news accounts of war, terror, torture, suffering, and death, I find it increasingly difficult to read, or recommend, even widely acclaimed books about the human cost of international conflict. As much as I feel obligated to stay informed on these all-too-contemporary subjects, I despair that I will ever be truly informed to any effective purpose. One of the large achievements of Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror is that its authors—the human rights journalist Julia Lieblich (MTS '92) and the psychiatrist Esad Boškailo—have found graceful ways to allow a reader to contemplate the very private emotional effects of brutal events without becoming an uneasy voyeur.

This is not to say that the book's content is anything other than harrowing. Wounded I Am More Awake is, first of all, the story of how Boškailo, as a young Bosnian physician in the early 1990s, endured a year in six Croatian concentration camps, subject to extreme random violence and increasingly dehumanizing conditions, often at the hands of former neighbors and even friends. The narrative remains emotionally jarring as it proceeds to relate how Boškailo, post war, managed to move with his wife and children to the United States, to explore the frightening dimensions of his own trauma with a therapist whom he had to struggle to trust, and then to train in psychiatry in order to treat other trauma victims.

His purpose eventually became not so much to help his clients to triumph over their worst experiences—"triumph" is a word that is gruesome in these circumstances—but to cope, to interact, to work, to live on, as he does. In the second half of the book, several of these cases are detailed, and the portraits of slow, imperfect healing—which, more or less, reflect the ups and downs of Boškailo's own recovery and therapeutic education—are deeply moving.

One of the wisest choices Lieblich and Boškailo made in planning the book was to be transparent about their creative relationship. Although each of their names is in the byline, Lieblich is clearly the writer. In fact, she goes so far as to write in the first person—not to emphasize her own place in the process, certainly, but to make clear her ever-present awareness that there are significant difficulties in any other person taking part in the project of telling Boškailo's story, as well as no real chance of fully understanding it. In this way, she is a highly effective counterpart and, for the reader, a guide—someone who, like most of us, is not a victim, but who has become professionally adept at interviewing survivors of horrific acts. (Boškailo approached Lieblich to suggest the book project after hearing her speak at a public panel on the delicacy of such interviews. They fairly quickly agreed to go forward, but the project ended up taking several years, because of geographical hurdles after Boškailo moved to Arizona from Chicago, where Lieblich is now a professor at Loyola University, and, more tellingly, because of issues of trust and rekindled suffering and panic.)

Another wise decision in the construction of the book was to include regular references to the work of noted twentieth-century experts in the field of trauma psychiatry, especially Robert Jay Lifton and the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose great work Man's Search for Meaning echoes in the subtitle of Wounded I Am More Awake and in the therapeutic approach Boškailo ends up adapting to present times. These references link our contemporary world of conflict to that of the mid-twentieth century in an odd but reassuring way; many of us, after all, are more familiar with historical analysis of the Holocaust and Hiroshima than we are with the shattering of Yugoslavia, and this broader context creates a greater resonance as Boškailo and Lieblich explain the timelessness of such therapeutic goals as Frankl's "tragic optimism."

In fact, actually reading Man's Search for Meaning was a crucial step for Boškailo, newly transplanted with his family to Chicago, as he fitfully tried to imagine a future life for himself. At first after being freed, he had carefully avoided literature about the Holocaust. "Now," Lieblich writes, "he wanted to be immersed in the stories of people who had put pen to paper in an effort to understand the unfathomable" (79). He is astounded that Frankl's descriptions of Nazi concentrations are so similar to the pictures still vivid in his own mind, and he seizes on Frankl's insights as genuine, "alive," and therefore personally useful.

"Frankl believed in the possibility of maintaining one's dignity even in the camp," Lieblich writes, "and of choosing one's attitude toward the suffering that few escape in this life. Boškailo had never told anyone, but he was secretly proud of the fact that he had never hit another man. ... He had never taken another man's food and had rarely raised his voice during month after month of frustration. He hoped he had suffered bravely" (80).

Being able to articulate this pride, if only to himself, gave Boškailo the basis for practical hope in a better future; his moods improved, and he began to pay more attention to his new surroundings.

At about the same time, he realized that he had already been engaged in his own therapy: A gifted woman named Mary Fabri, perhaps realizing that Boškailo was not ready to view himself as a "patient," had asked him to work as a translator for her as she worked with other trauma victims from Bosnia. Over the course of several years, working with Fabri as both translator and subject, he regained better mental health and found the will to become a psychiatrist who would specialize in the kind of trauma he himself had undergone.

Wounded I Am More Awake goes on to show Boškailo in more recent times, using his training to help others as a psychiatrist in Phoenix, where he is now a clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. The vignettes of encounters with his patients are rendered beautifully by Lieblich, who is careful to tie the drama of small successes to insights Boškailo, against such high odds, has been able to borrow, modify, and utilize exponentially: the immorality of "professional neutrality," for example, or the inappropriateness of the words "recover" and "acceptance." ("I prefer the word 'integration' because it does not suggest we will ever be free of trauma's grip," Boškailo says, "or that a broken soul will ever really be unbroken" [127])

Perhaps the central insight that is revealed in these pages, however, is one that Boškailo gained during his therapeutic work with Mary Fabri back in Chicago—one that, by extension, allowed him eventually to seek out Lieblich. "Early on," she writes of Boškailo, "he thought he would be a stellar psychiatrist simply because he had survived. But he learned from Fabri that a person does not have to survive extreme trauma to be a good therapist. The patient is the ultimate teacher about trauma, and a good therapist is a good listener" (81).

Another way to conclude that we, as readers, might be able to share in this extraordinary book's lessons, to some worthy effect, is simply to listen to the lines of poetry, by Mak Dizdar, from which its title is taken: They whisper around to me that my life has been in vain / They do not know that so wounded I am more awake.


Will Joyner, a former editor of the Bulletin, writes regularly on religion and arts subjects.

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