Tuesday, October 05, 2010

On Specialization

I ended up reading a small portion of a tentative English translation of a Coptic document by Hibat Ibn al-‘Assal, the translator of the Bible from Coptic into Arabic, and I got to a place where Hibat was describing the books of the Bible he affirmed as canon.
The author translated most of the books correctly, but when it came to the books of Wisdom there was one book that the translator did not know how to translate “’Quhalet.”
This is of course a hare’s breath away from the Hebrew title for the book we call Ecclesiastes. Now, I would have assumed the author knew this and was simply leaving things in a purer form of translation—transliteration, except that “’Quhalet” was accompanied by one little added mark, a question mark. I genuinely believe the translator of this document did not know that Ecclesiastes is a Latin rendering of the Hebrew title Qohheleth.
And this was one of the reasons I didn’t stay in England to do the Ph.D. at Cambridge but instead came back to the United States to do an M.Div. at Philly. I kind of like being a generalist, poking my nose in multiple steaming and smelly mounds of knowledge. I am not ready to become so specialized that I can’t see the forest because I’m caressing one specific portion of a specific leaf on one specific type of tree.
That said, before I kick Specialization to the curb, I do have to affirm that the skills fostered by a Ph.D. are formidable and transferable to other subjects. Additionally, in digging down through the layers of time and interpretation to get to your specific subject you end up bumping into a lot of interesting things—so in a sense you become a generalist by osmosis instead of by intent.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Pop utilization of religious themes: A reflection for Francis of Assisi

(I apologize for being unable to post this ad, it was taken down from Youtube)
In commercials for the movie John Rambo Francis of Asisi’s prayer for peace:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
was voiced over images of Rambo brutally killing a bunch of Burmese soldiers.
What are we to make of this kind of use/abuse of religious heritage? Does the juxtaposition of image and idea strengthen or weaken Christian dedication to peace? Do they make a mockery out of this aspect of Christianity? Was the filmmaker’s intent to glorify the violence, or even hallow it?
My experience of this mash up of peaceful prayer and violent act was that it was done in order to titillate. Initially, this juxtaposition was both fascinating and jarring. It felt like I’d participated in some sort of blasphemy. I felt like I was caught with my hand in the cookie jar, or like my mother found hardcore pornographic videos stacked amongst my hymnals.
Then, because this video was out there in the mainstream, the commercial world has said this is acceptable discourse in North American culture, my pack-mind took another look—it thought of righteous killing, of sacred violence. Perhaps, I thought, in some strange way, violence was fulfilling this prayer. Perhaps there was some sort of sacred inversion, like a theology of the cross. By diving into the depths of violence you can find a deeper peace. Maybe, for the deeply disturbed character Rambo, overlaying prayer atop violence was a righteous thing. Perhaps, it was, “a Zen thing.”
After having had such a thought I rejected it. Yet, having watched this commercial several times has left me unable to hear St. Francis’ beautiful prayer without re-living the violence of this clip. In a sense, commercial violence has been fused to sacred peace. Pop and Prayer have been intertwined in my mind.