Thursday, May 28, 2009

Socrates Once Again

Next Monday is the first day of my summer session Introduction to Philosophy course.  One of the texts I used for years for that course is Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s The Republic.  I’m not sure that Waterfield’s translation is the best in every way—its “chapter” divisions that differ from the traditional “book” divisions has been a confusing issues for many of my students, for example—but I’ve generally found it a translation that’s easier for my students to use than others that are available.  (I do give students the options of using a different translation if they prefer, though I tell them the positives of using Waterfield.)  Because of this ongoing use of Waterfield’s translation, when a friend gave us a gift certificate for books, I decided to use my share to get Waterfield’s new book Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths so that I could read it before starting the course.

While I can’t say that there’s anything radically new in Why Socrates Died, Waterfield does gather together much of the material found elsewhere in an organized and interesting way.  A lot of the book spends time putting Socrates’ trial in context of what’s been going on in the last third of the 5th century. (In fact there are whole large sections of this book that don’t focus upon or even mention Socrates.) Waterfield discusses relationships between Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, the ongoing conflicts between oligarchic and democratic rule, the effects—such as plague, war, and poverty—that brought about social crisis, and the major players who were involved in each of these.   After spelling these issues out in detail, Waterfield explains how they were the driving force behind Socrates’ trial years after Socrates and his teachings were in their heyday.  His answer is in many ways fairly similar to that given by I.F. Stone back in the late 1980s but the context makes Waterfield’s theory of why this is the case clearer for those who don’t know Greek history than Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. It’ll be a good secondary source to which to direct students as they prepare arguments and witnesses for their modern trials of Socrates.



Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Angels and Demons

            The Friday it opened I went with some of my friends from Drew to see the film Angels and Demons.  It’s a movie in which I had a lot of interest since I’d used the book as a “text” for several years as part of a unit on science and religion.  I’d had the students sort out truth from fiction in the story and then debunk the parts that weren’t true, discovering what the real truths behind the false facts were.  

            The good news and the bad is that the film has done some real editing and revising of the book.  It escapes what I think is the major flaw of the novel—its going downhill in the last third of the story by getting more and more unbelievable.  In the novel, for example, Brown has Langdon jump out of a helicopter that is very high up in the air without a parachute.  Improbably Langdon manages not just to survive but to land safely and conveniently in a river that allows him to get where he needs to go quickly.  The film eliminates that unbelievable situation with no cost to the basic storyline. Langdon just doesn’t go up in the helicopter at all.  The ending seems a bit more believable because of such editing. (Of course, the whole book is unbelievable because antimatter wouldn’t provide any of the threat that the film suggests it does, but it’s easy to lay that fact aside in order to enjoy the film.) 

Also in the interest of making a better film, a lot of the longer dialogues throughout the book are eliminated.  That includes the dialogues toward the beginning of the book between Vittoria and the priest-scientist  (who is also her father in the novel) who dies early on in the story and some of the dialogues between Vittoria and Langdon. Most of these dialogues are focused on the positive relationships that Vittoria sees existing between science and religion along with explanations of the ways in which the interweaving of the two have deepened and enriched her life.  While the dialogues wouldn’t work well in an action film—they’d cause long “talking heads” scenes—they’re part of what I found that made the book rewarding for my students.  Without them, the only relationship between religion and science that comes through in the film is negative one between Galileo and his colleagues and the Catholic Church.  While my students quickly learned that—as Margaret Wertheim points out so clearly in her book Pythangoras’ Trousers—this understanding of what happened at the Galileo trial is one that was created in the 19th century but didn’t exist at the time of Galileo himself or for several hundred years afterwards.

The end result of all this editing is that the film makes for a better story than the book does.  And for those of us who have been to Rome, it's also fun to revisit the various places as the actors race around Rome going from one Bernini work to another. But the film wouldn’t work as well for an interesting exploration of attitudes to religion and science over the centuries.  For that, we’ll have to stay with the book instead.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Next to Normal

Sunday evening we went with a group of friends from out of town to see the play Next to Normal that’s currently at the Booth Theater and is one of the nominations for Best Musical of 2009. The play is by no means your typical musical but, or perhaps because of that, I think it deserves the award.  The basic story and song lines revolve around Diana, a bipolar mother who lives with the memory of her son who died as an infant, and the cost of her illness and grief in the lives of her husband, her daughter, and herself.    As Diana goes to therapists, flushes the prescribed meds down the toilet, tries to kill herself, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, Alice Ripley manages to take not just her family but also the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. Aaron Tveit as the ghost son brings a huge amount of energy to a role that I would have thought would come across as unbelievable but, with his alternating sweet and evil character, works well.  Some of the lines in the dialogue are too mundane, rattled off like platitudes, and the ending is—at least to me—anything but satisfactory-- but songs like “I Miss the Mountains” and “I Am the One” more than make up for that, capturing the pain being felt, the damage being done, and the issues of freedom and duty the family struggles with.

The staging of the play is amazing.  The set is the outline of a house with walls that slide and flip and light up to change settings and moods.  And the music –which goes through a range from classical to country western to baby room’s music box—also helps capture the mood swings that the family –and the audience with it—goes through.  Despite the attempt to wrap up the issue at the end in an neater package than the issue allows, the play allows the audience to walk away with many of the confused feelings that everyone coming into contact with Diana experience.


Monday, May 18, 2009

D.Min. Graduation from Drew -May 17, 2009

How the World is Changing

There were a lot of nonmemorable college graduation speeches made this weekend
(including one I had to sit through at Drew University), but this speech by Eric Schmidt
(CEO of Google) is worth listening to. Schmidt does a great job of describing how the 
world has changed from the time when Boomers were in college to the current world of 
graduating Millenials/NetGeners and where it might go in the future. (Skip the first 2:45
minutes when Schmidt just praises Carnegie Mellon.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Vegetable Garden

This year we decided to double our vegetable garden.  In early April we got the beds ready and planted seeds.  Today we finished putting in most of the rest of what we'll be raising.  

We've got tomatoes, peppers, eggplant,

herbs, and 

 The seeds we put in in early April have begun to come up.  They include carrots,
and pole beans.

The strawberries and blueberries in our containers are also in bloom.

Overall it's a great start!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Theology Today?

I’ve just finished the last class in Union Theological Seminary’s Systematic Theology course Christianity and the U.S. Crisis and I’m still pondering what to make of it.  The course had listed its goals as describing the “various edges and contours of the deepening U.S. crisis and to chart various Christian responses to it.”  Among the topics it promised to discuss were what the progressive Christian tradition offered the current crisis; theological thinking about markets, globalization and social justice; core Christian beliefs available to address a crisis with overlapping economic, ecological, social, and moral layers; and the role that new media and new technologies play in our sense of a common good as well as how to understand these technologies theologically. 

I was drawn to the course by many things—a chance to reengage with faculty at Union, especially Cornel West—but the thing that most interested me was the last of these topics.  And, now that the course has ended, it seems to me that it’s the one topic that was barely addressed, except perhaps in the reading of his book Consumed that guest lecturer Benjamin Barber assigned.  Even there, Barber (who is a political theorist by background) doesn’t address the technologies theologically.  In that way, therefore, I was disappointed by the course.

 I was also disappointed by Cornel West.  West is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had a chance to study with.  I’ve loved him in the past for his creativity, his engagement with new ideas and new media, but he’s becoming more and more about catchy phrases and showing off his rhetoric than about presenting the cogent ideas I used to appreciate.  These days, when he decides to use a line that he’s used a lot in the past (which he does often), even he speeds up and says it more quickly, making it very obvious that he’s on a “prerecorded” part of his speech.  In the last several of his presentations, I kept thinking how West has moved in some way from the role of the Socratic prophet to the wordy Sophist.  Even his most recent book, Hope on a Tightrope, seems to have made that switch.  So while I’ll always be grateful for the careful thinking and deep insights that West has had in the past, I grieve the encounters with him in this course.

On the other hand, there were several positives in the course.  First was the chance to do the course in the technological way they’d put it together—to be present in the audience when possible and to participate by video when it wasn’t possible.  Because much of its “live” time offering overlapped with courses I was scheduled to teach, I wouldn’t have been able to do the course if “live” participation had been required.   I’m grateful to Union for making this available in this way and hope they’ll offer similar courses in future semesters. 

Then there was Gary Dorrien.   He arrived at Union after I’d left so I’d never had a chance to hear him before this course. I was interested in how he’d interact with West, though, because of a piece on West that he’d written for a recent issue of Cross Currents. Dorrien’s organized, great at synthesizing material and bringing new insight to it, and strong at going to the heart of issues raised by others.  His presentation style is a bit tame, though next to Cornel’s just about anyone’s would be.  I hadn’t read any of his writing before this course, but plan to make my way through most of it this summer. (His newest book, Social Ethics in the Making, with a list price of $120, isn’t available yet through interlibrary loan and is well above my budget so I’ll have to wait on that.) I’m not sure yet with how much of his thinking I agree, but working through his writing will clearly make me rethink and sharpen all my understanding of liberal theology, neoconservatism, and other modern theologies. 

It was Dorrien who, toward the end of the last class, during a question and answer period, raised a question that, in slightly different words, had been on my mind a lot during the course.  Dorrien pointed out that both his talks and West’s had relied heavily on material other than theology, that while the course had looked at theologians  (Calvin, Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, and liberation theologians)  that had been created in response to earlier crises, there wasn’t much critique theologically of new ways to respond to today’s crisis.  Dorrien asked whether that was because of our living in a pluralistic world, because the crisis is different, or because we don’t believe the theologies around enough to focus out solutions on them. It was a great question, one I found myself wondering about throughout the course, one that I wished the three professors had spent more time engaging with and perhaps even answering.