by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Thanks Be to Long-form Journalism


Don Hewitt, the creator and longtime producer of 60 Minutes, attributed the success of the program to its time slot: airing early on Sunday evening, he explained, it serves as a secular church, an invitation to sustained thoughtfulness in the time between the weekend and the work week.

Long-form journalism works in something like the same way, and it happens that two magazine articles of mine, each long in the making, are up and out in time for the holiday weekend.

"The Pope in the Attic," about Pope Benedict in the time of Pope Francis, is up on the Atlantic's website and in the May issue.  Through reporting in Rome I reached the conclusion (as unwelcome in some quarters as it is obvious) that the differences between Francis and Benedict in temperament, theological emphasis, and pontifical style are so pronounced that there is real tension between one pope's approach and the other's, and to insist otherwise (especially in light of news of conflict in the papal household that broke after the article went to press) is to suggest that the papacy is of little consequence – to say that the consistent positions taken by Benedict over a third of a century and the surprising positions taken by Francis in recent months really don’t matter that much after all.

"A Fundamental Fight," about Salman Rushdie and the controversy over The Satanic Verses a quarter century later, is in the May issue of Vanity Fair — with extraordinary photographs by Annie Liebovitz — and up at the magazine’s site (though full access is reserved for subscribers, or web subscribers).  The way I tell it, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s condemnation of the novel was a relatively early episode in what has become a serial drama involving Islam and the West, terror and free expression —  and a fresh look at the novel and the circumstances of its publication makes clear that Rushdie envisioned the world we now live in earlier and better than anybody else did.

It’s a privilege to share these pieces; it was a privilege to write them.

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 31: J.S. Bach, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”

Johann Sebastian Bach heard his own St. Matthew Passion straight through only a few times – when the liturgical calendar called for it and he could get the right orchestra and double chorus together.

Some of his admirers in the age of recordings have heard it dozens of times, in renditions by as many choirs and orchestras.

I own something like ten different recordings – from the one Serge Koussevitsky made at Harvard in the 1930’s to the one stripped bare (but fruitfully) by Nicholas McCreesh a few years ago – and I find that each year I informally adopt one as a personal standard.

This year it’s the rendition in English by David Willcocks and the Bach Choir – because it is in English.  Why?  My mind is elsewhere.  I am hoping the English will call me back.    

The English is clear, all right — but for a native English speaker it’s like a stained-glass window without the stain.  

Love + Violence = Passion

The run of readings from Matthew’s Gospel – and an English-language rendition of the St. Matthew Passion on the stereo – put Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew in mind; and an invitation to write a guest post for the new Cornerstone blog of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown led me to think about Caravaggio, and religious freedom, and the Passion narrative, in ways that seem to me to suit the day and the hour.

In an essay about Caravaggio published a year ago I focused on the stress he gave to the antipodes of love and violence rather than orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  It is this emphasis that makes Caravaggio an anti-iconographic painter, one who paints scenes that are happening once and for all, as if for the first time.

For his use of living models, his attention to light and its effects, his scrutiny of the body, he is called a naturalist.  For his attention to ordinary people — poor, humble, everyday people — he is called a “pauveriste,” an artist working in a tradition that developed in the spirit of St. Philip Neri.  But his approach is more complicated than those terms suggest.  His subjects are crucial episodes in the Christian adventure.  He paints them in a way faithful to scripture, to human action, to the claims and burdens of the flesh. His attention to biblical scenes and episodes from the early church makes them feel early, as if they precede the tradition of Christian iconography that developed in the Middle Ages.  Somehow he got back behind the long, grand tradition of Christian art and made it new. 

That is what you feel when you look at the paintings.  Never before have you seen a biblical scene shown this way.  No one before Caravaggio saw it this way.  The paintings, breakthroughs four hundred years ago, look like breakthroughs today.  The ancient faith is made new and arresting again; the whole epistemologically strained religion is grasped as if for the first time.

At the same time, the paintings exhaust the incidents they depict.  His biblical scenes are all but over as he paints them.  Lazarus is being raised.  Christ is being taken.  Catherine sits calm and sexy before the wheel of her impaling.  Matthew, Peter, and Paul are being killed in action.  Lucy, dead already, is being laid in earth.  An epochal action is ending.  The hour is getting late.  

The Calling of St. Matthew at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome is a work of love.  Strictly speaking, it is about obedience: the teacher points a finger in the darkness and we are to understand that the tax collector will obey.   But what passes between Jesus and Matthew is love.  Jesus makes his appeal from the shadows — the margins — rather than from the center of the painting.    His hand is extended but relaxed, not in anger or accusation.   The clear-eyed regard shown to Jesus by the boy to Matthew’s left — who is so handsome, so stylishly dressed and plumed, and so brilliantly lit as to be the center of the painting — shows that there is nothing to fear here.   The light of the whole, the diagonal sweep from the right-hand corner across the window in the center, suggests the steadiness of the love in Jesus’s request and command.  The accepting gaze of the eventual evangelist, the eternal “Who, me?” — eyebrows raised, eyes soft and wet as if tears are forming — makes clear that he knows his life is changing.  So do we: but we feel his old life ending more than his new life beginning.  

The painting is as sufficient unto itself as any painting ever was. But in Caravaggio’s body of work it is completed by the painting hung opposite: the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, a painting of violence.

Love and violence: these antipodes of Caravaggio’s work are those of the Passion narratives, too.  Christ’s love is met with violence; the violence of his captors and tormenters is met with love.  But let’s not forget: it didn’t have to go that way. The love that runs through the story – from the calling of St. Matthew to the crucifixion of the figure who called him – was freely given and freely accepted in response.  It happened once and for all, and it keeps happening that way.  There is nothing guaranteed or inevitable about it.

This freedom Caravaggio understood as well as any artist ever has, and it is the root of the extraordinary freedom of his paintings.  

Selfie Lit: “The Tin Drum”


Now that selfie is in the dictionary, and has its own brief history (courtesy of New York magazine art writer Jerry Saltz), it’s high time we started following the string of selfies in literature.  Suggestions welcome at  

This is from The Tin Drum (a first edition I found for cheap the other day).  Oskar is speaking:

… after nearly every show we went to a photo studio not far from the Graf-Adolf-Platz and had passport pictures taken. We were well known and our entrance was greeted with a smile; however, we were paying customers and were treated politely as such. As soon as the booth was free, we were pushed into it by a young lady – all I remember about her is that she was nice. She deftly set our heads at the right angle, first mine, then Klepp’s, and told us to fix our eyes on a certain point, and a moment later a flash of light and a bell synchronized with it announced that six successive likenesses had been transferred to the plate.

Still stiff around the corners of the mouth, we were pressed into comfortable wicker chairs by the young lady, who nicely, but no more than nicely, and nicely dressed too, asked us to be patient for five minutes. We were glad to wait. For now we had something to wait for – our passport pictures – and we were curious to see how they would turn out. In exactly seven minutes the still nice but otherwise nondescript young lady handed us two little paper envelopes and we paid.

The triumph in Klepp’s slightly protuberant eyes! As soon as we had our envelopes, we had ipso facto an excuse for repairing to the nearest beer saloon, for no one likes to look at his own passport pictures on the open, dusty street, standing amid all the noise and bustle and blocking the traffic …

No one likes to look at pictures of themselves while standing on the street? In this respect, clearly, the desires of youth have changed.

Is it a proto-selfie when a nice young lady is paid to operate the camera?  I’d say yes, in this instance – because Oskar and Klepp have their pictures taken for no reason other than to look at themselves right away.

The photograph was taken in a retro photo booth in Minneapolis.

Handel’s “Messiah”: Anti-Jewish?

Spy Wednesday, and ace Baroque music scholar Michael Marissen has a problem with Handel’s Messiah:

Here’s the agonizing problem as I see and hear it: the magnificent joy of Handel’s music is not merely at odds with a dreadful anti-Judaic message in Messiah; it is at the very same time a scandalous affirmation of that message. The ecstatic grace, the life-affirming levitation of the listening heart and mind, are all working in concert with a triumphal squashing of Jews.

Marissen (whose searching encounter with anti-Semitism in Bach’s St. John Passion is recounted in my book Reinventing Bach) made the case against the Messiah provisionally in the Times a few years back and was tagged a “Handel-hater.” Now he has set it out with great care and sensitivity in a short book (complete with annotated libretto) and a long column on HuffPost.

We can’t dismiss the libretto as incidental (not music; not Handel) because

Messiah has assumed a central place in the choral repertory largely, in fact, because of the words.

And we can’t dismiss the Hallelujah chorus as Christmastime glitter and tinsel because

the work was meant not for the Christmas season but for Lent … designed in a way that apparently rejoices, in significant part, over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, a horrific event that until recently most Christians construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised messiah.

Not clear enough?  Marissen goes on:

That is to say, the Hallelujah chorus apparently exults, in significant part, over what would be taken as the essential deathblow to Judaism, with Christianity understood as the sole legitimate heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel.

His aim isn’t to chase the work out of the canon; it’s to invite us to consider just what those of us who will be in a church for Easter are doing there, the way we ought to

ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with centuries-long tradition (whatever the cause or origin of this tradition), they stand during concert performances of the Hallelujah chorus.

The photograph shows Julius Bloom, Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern singing the Hallelujah chorus at a concert for the 85th anniversary of Carnegie Hall in New York, May 18, 1976. 

Il Poverello da Coachella


The saintly and sainted Cesar Chavez was no saint.  That’s the obvious conclusion of a new biography and a review-essay in the New Yorker, which reach the same point in different ways.

The magazine showed up in the mailbox the same day the book showed up on the recent acquisitions shelf at Lauinger Library, which meant I could go through them together – and could reach my own provisional conclusion, which is this.  Saint or no saint, Chavez was above all a poverello, or poor man in the Catholic manner: that is, he considered poverty at once a virtue to be sought after and a social condition to be eased or done away with – a state of being to be met with love and justice alike.

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez is vivid, artfully proportioned, and full of surprises for the reader (I am one) who knows Chavez’s story mainly in outline and as iconography.  Chavez did important work in Coachella, known then as the southernmost growing part of California.  He was scheduled to stand behind Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, but he never reached the stage.  He didn’t come out against the Vietnam War until the fall of 1968.  He relied on Roger Mahony (now emeritus archbishop of Los Angeles) as a liaison with the Catholic hierarchy in California. He was profiled in the New Yorker by Peter Matthiessen (a two-parter called “Organizer”).

Most surprising is the main point of the book’s thickly detailed middle: that more than anything else, Chavez – poor man, Catholic, Hispanic, Californian, radical – was one more countercultural figure of the sixties, who at once defined the decade and was defined by it:

Berkeley radicals, Protestant ministers, college dropouts, earnest do-gooders, and monolingual farmworkers began to coalesce into the quasi-union, quasi-movement Chavez envisioned. By the time the harvest season wound down in late fall, a community had formed in Delano. Irate farmworkers’ wives blamed coeds for corrupting their husbands. Disheveled hippies played into the stereotype that growers used to stir up antiunion feeling. Illegal drugs, officially banned in the union, were readily available.

But for the most part, the melding of cultures and values in the tiny farming town was a heady mixed that raised spirits and propelled la causa forward.

In the New Yorker, staff writer Nathan Heller takes the imminent release of a new movie about Chavez to conclude that the organizer was an American hero, as prone to abuse as the tag may be. He does so by setting Chavez’s early heroism against his later suspiciousness, even paranoia – and by leaving Chavez’s foundational Catholicism out of the argument till the end.

This act of omission made me suspicious: Chavez without Catholicism?  But with it the New Yorker (this is what the magazine does best) gets the sense of Chavez in the present more or less right.  Twenty years after his death in 1993, Chavez is recognized more as a great Californian and an Hispanic-Latino-Mexican American than as anything else.  His exploits are little known to the Catholics of the East.  Progressive people today are more focused on how food is processed and prepared than on how it is harvested; chickens are shown greater solicitude than chicken-house workers.  And Chavez’s mystical attention to poverty (through fasts, the shunning of wealth and possessions, etc.) is strange enough even among Catholics that Pope Francis can be countercultural just by calling the poor blessed.

Richard Rodriguez – who praised the new biography in a blurb on the back of the jacket – understands Chavez, and Chavez’s paradoxes, better than anybody else.  His remarkable essay “Saint Cesar of Delano” (in Darling) concludes with his sharp, prismatic piece of commentary:

In 1997 American painter Robert Lentz, a Franciscan brother, painted an icon, Cesar Chavez de California. Chavez is depicted with a golden halo. He holds in his hand a scrolled broadsheet of the U.S. Constitution. He wears a pink sweatshirt bearing the U.F.W. insignia.

That same year executives at the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day came up with a campaign for Apple computers that featured images of some famous dead – John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra – alongside a grammar-crunching motto: Think different.

I remember sitting in bad traffic on the San Diego freeway one day and looking up to see a photograph of Cesar Chavez on a billboard. His eyes were downcast. He balanced a rake and a shovel on his right shoulder. In the upper-left-hand corner of the billboard was the corporate logo of a bitten apple.

"Is Pope Francis going Pentecostal?"

That was my first thought after hearing an anchorwoman on the late news say that the pope had celebrated Palm Sunday by giving a spontaneous two-and-a-half hour homily.  

I knew she had to be wrong, and she was; the whole Mass, procession to recessional, was two and a half hours.  

Even so, what happened yesterday in St. Peter’s Square strikes me as a tipping point.  The crowds, the selfies, the carnival atmosphere suggested in news reports: it all makes me nervous.  

For one thing, it is physically dangerous for the pope, and getting more so.  For another, it has obvious parallels with the entry into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday commemorates.  There’s no doubt that Francis can follow the story from exaltation to dread, betrayal, execution, and lamentation in the next four days — the way he did when he washed the feet of a motley crew in a jail on Holy Thursday last year.  But I wonder if the crowd will go with him.   I hope so.  I don’t see a place for selfies at the foot of the cross.   

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 29: Mahalia Jackson, “Be Still My Soul” 

“The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Those are the wrenching last words of Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” – the first story in her last book and so something like the beginning of the end of the writing she put together for publication before her death in 1964.

The Courtyard of the Gentiles event at Georgetown and environs this past week featured a dramatic performance of the story by the ace New York theatrical troupe La Compagnia de’Colombari. The idea was that a conference devoted to culture should incorporate culture, not just the discussion of culture, and in that respect the performance worked utterly: a troupe of eight rendering the story, set on a freshly integrated Atlanta bus in the early sixties, as a theatre of voices – voices bantering, commenting, contradicting, upbraiding each other, on a city bus as in society at large.

It was something else, then — something added — that the performance should itself conclude with the troupe, dressed in the mufti of the postwar South, suddenly transforming itself into a compact gospel choir and singing this solemnest of spirituals.

We think of spirituals of uplifting – but this one, especially in the classic recording by Mahalia Jackson, is more like downpressing.  The measured vocal and processionally slow accompaniment leave the sense of the gravity of existence as the biblical authors understood it: of the preponderance of guilt and sorrow in even the most admirable lives, and the truth that, in life as in the story, the recognition of this fact is not an ending, but a beginning.

Not Common Ground, but the Common Good

I was reading the newspaper in the back of the taxi when the driver pointed out the cherry blossoms.  “There they are, professor – take a look!  That is what the tourists are here for!”  And there they were – cherry trees blossoming along the Potomac, outside the Jefferson Memorial, outside the buildings of the Smithsonian on the Mall.

It was fitting that I should see them en route to the final events of Faith, Culture, and the Common Good, the event convened by Georgetown with the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Archdiocese of Washington.  Fitting because the cherry trees in the capital are what can he called “common goods” or the “commons” – goods, belonging to no one, pleasing to all, that are there for us to enjoy in the capital.  And fitting because the cherry trees, while nature in the literal sense, suggest the status of culture in a society such as ours – an idea that blossomed in mind as the day went on.

The events were two conversations at the Library of Congress, moderated by E.J. Dionne.  By the time I reached the Library’s Jefferson Building, Reps. Wolf and Moran, both of Virginia, were well into a discussion of the erosion of the idea of public service in Washington and the powerful affirmation of service heard lately from Pope Francis.  Then, in a conversation about religion in the media, Krista Tippett made one incisive point after another, showing why she is so cherished a conversationalist: smart, tough, open-minded, and frankly optimistic.  Just as there has never been a program quite like On Being, there has never been a set of circumstances quite like ours – so there is no point pining for past times.

I especially liked Krista’s distinction between common good and common ground, which goes something like this.  In religious matters, our society is now so diverse that it isn’t sensible to strive for common ground or to expect it as a starting point.  Rather we should strive for the common good from our distinctly different points of departure, relishing our differences.  Hearing this, I thought: this is what the United States has to bring to the “courtyard,” such as it is.  Our long religious diversity, and our long sense of the common good, can be a model for nations only now seeing religious diversity emerge.

Outside, there were the cherry blossoms.  I think they are such an attraction in Washington because they are so striking a contrast to the edifices and monuments.  The old buildings of official Washington are vast, stone, classical, permanent, frank embodiments of certain Greco-Roman ideas about civilization.  The cherry trees are small, light, suggestive of Asia, vulnerable, impermanent, blossoming for a couple of weeks and then subsiding for another year.

Culture is like that: large edifices and institutions doing their thing year-round, year in and year out, so that some beautiful flowers may bloom.

Courtyard of the Common Good


The common good: the expression must have been uttered threescore and ten times in the sessions of the Courtyard of the Gentiles event at Georgetown yesterday: a panel discussion about the common good and politics and one about the common good and the arts, each followed by a pair of informal sessions in tents outside Healy Hall under the clear blue sky.  But the effect was the opposite of repetitive; it led us to think – led me to think, at any rate – of the hidden dimensions of this term that is itself common.

The thrust of the politics session was that the sense of the common good is imperiled in Washington, a state of things that makes it all the more vital for non-state actors to affirm the existence of the common good and to urge, inspire, and organize people to strive for it together.

That’s obvious (or should be obvious).  But what came clear to me for the first time – especially through the remarks of of the Cal-Berkeley sociocultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood – is the relationship between our idea of the common good and the state of the common goods in our society: schools, infrastructure, parks and public spaces, and other goods called “the commons” (nature, air and water, and so on).  The relationship cuts two ways: as our sense of the common good diminishes, our common goods are privatized or allowed to atrophy; and as our involvement with those common goods diminishes in consequence, our sense of the common good is weakened further – because it is through shared experiences in schools, parks, public spaces and the like that the idea of the common good is cultivated.

The arts session was more confident about the common good, I am happy to say.  Robert Pinsky gave a robust account of poetry as a common good still cherished in our society, claims about the end of literacy to the contrary.  Alice McDermott explained that the distinct but uncluttered Catholic language of her work is the way her characters express their sense of the common good – an approach that finds a parallel in the work of Ayana Mathis, whose dozen protagonists in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie are bound together by family ties and common experience in the Pentecostal church.  And Alan Lightman, schooled in hardheaded scientific justification, gave an account of the truths of art as truths that we recognize individually and personally – with the implication that what we call classics are works whose truths register not just individually and personally but in communities or across a society.

The effect of the day was to suggest that open discussion of ideas in forums such as the Courtyard event – which was free and open to the public and was attended by several hundred people – is itself a common good to be cherished rather than taken for granted.