by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

As With the Essay, So With the Story?


America's website features an interview about the American Pilgrimage Project, our Georgetown partnership with StoryCorps. What are we trying to do with it? Here’s what:

In American society today, we hear a great deal about the religious habits of Americans from statisticians and demographers. You know how it goes: a study comes out reporting that 90 percent of people believe in this or that, or that the number of Americans with no religion has tripled, or whatever. We also hear American leaders making broad assertions about religious doctrines and their bearing on public life. But the actual experience of ordinary people is scanted or overlooked.   I hope the American Pilgrimage Project will help in some small way to correct that.   What do people actually believe? How do their beliefs bear on their daily lives?  Those are perennial questions, needless to say.  Typically to answer them we look to literature, we look to history, we look to journalism, and the mass media.  Now the hope is that we’ll be able to turn to the American Pilgrimage Project archive as well.  It will help to broaden and complicate the narrative.

StoryCorps is known for its radio broadcasts, but founder Dave Isay’s four StoryCorps books are bestsellers.  My hope is that the American Pilgrimage Project will follow naturally on the approach I’ve taken in my own books and articles, which I think of as “narrative portraiture.” To draw out the connection, America’s Sean Salai SJ let me smuggle in a brief exegesis of my most recent Atlantic article:

We’re so used to news reports that depict Catholic leaders as managers, or strategists, or people with the “leadership gene.”  Well, I try to depict them as Catholics, as religious believers first of all.   In my Atlantic portrait of Benedict in the time of Francis, for example, I took up the theme of renunciation and wound it deep into the structure of the piece, with the aim of showing how Benedict’s renunciation of the papacy has led him to the more complex act of renunciation involved in largely keeping his silence as Francis has led the church in a different direction and with a notably different style.  Instead of just drawing a contrast between Francis and Benedict or making a big deal of the phenomenon of a living ex-pope, I drew on the three books of interviews Benedict gave when he was Cardinal Ratzinger in order to dramatize the life he is living now, which is principally the interior life.    

A few days ago Salai interviewed just-retired Georgetown political philosophy professor James V. Schall SJ, who is a devoted reader and writer of essays.  Fr. Schall – in the essayist’s way – quoted another essayist:

Josef Pieper, that most insightful man, in commenting on Aquinas, once compared the essay form to the “article” form of St. Thomas. He pointed out that a good short essay and an article in the Summa were about the same length, three or four pages. The article set about to answer a question and give reasons for it, and to come to a conclusion. The essay, the “effort” in French, was looser. It could range widely over its subject matter. It did not have to be tightly argued. Yet, without the article, the essay is in danger of being fuzzy and frivolous, whereas, at its best, the essay contains genuine truths and deep feelings about human things, yes, even divine things.

Range in pursuit of truth: that, Father Schall suggests, is “the genius of the essay.”  Now to figure out “the genius of the story.”  

The image is the title page of Einstein’s 1930 essay “Religion and Science.”

Hudson River Cleanup, David Carr Style

There’s so much that’s striking in David Carr’s current Media Equation column that I don’t know where to begin.  It’s striking that Carr sees the acquisition of one legacy media company by another — one run by an octoganerian billionaire — as the future of media rather than the pickling of media’s past.  It’s striking that he depicts the present of media as epitomized by the scene he witnessed at CNN (he was scheduled to be a guest) the moment that news of the downing of the Malaysia airliner came in.  “You could see the entire apparatus come roaring to life, getting everything in place to cover the kind of story — big stakes, scary pictures and international consequences — that a 24-hour news channel was made for” – yes, territory that CNN was made for thirty years ago and (as Carr has pointed out in the past) has struggled for the last dozen years to reclaim.  It’s striking to see that Carr has found the existentialist point columnists aspire to – where he at once reports the story, comments on it, and personifies it through his own behavior and outlook.

It’s this last – the columnist as personification of the zeitgeist – that is especially striking.  To wrap up the column, Carr describes his attempt to turn a train ride from New York to Albany or thereabouts into a sabbatical from the Internet, a veritable feast of print:

I read New York magazine’s delicious profile of the journalist Kara Swisher of Recode, took in a long interview that the Virginia Quarterly Review conducted with one of the world’s leading origami makers and stared at an exquisite photo essay in The Pitchfork Review. I grazed the sassy delights of The Hollywood Reporter, and in Fast Company, I learned how Mark Zuckerberg wants to own our (increasingly) mobile lives.

Purposefully, but not in a hurry, I caught up on the remarkable television and film writing in The New Yorker and contemplated interesting, different versions of being a male in GQ and Esquire.

I was having a moment, one without informational angst or FOMO (fear of missing out). And when I finished something, I spent time staring out the window at the unspeakably pretty Hudson River. I came to rest.

Truly, this is remarkable.  He takes a hiatus from the electronic media, only to read print articles about the electronic media.  He takes a break from the now, only to read magazines about the now.   He gorges on print — but  seems not even to consider the compact, inexpensive and easy-to-use print format known as a book.   

Columnist, can you spare a few hours?  If so, you might  consider reading a book – say, Norman Rush’s Mating, published twenty-three years ago and still on the cusp of the long now that is literature.

The photograph is on the castle on Bannerman Island, which you can see from the Amtrak train as it runs north along the Hudson.    

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 43: Arthur Blythe Quartet, “Jitterbug Waltz”

The first time I went to the Village Vanguard – in the late summer of 1985 – McCoy Tyner canceled at the last minute and was replaced by a saxophonist and bandleader I didn’t know much about.

It was Arthur Blythe, who came out with his quartet, took up the soprano sax, and played six or eight minutes of the most complex and involving joy I’d ever heard.

I never knew for sure what song it was, but it was so distinctive, and its effect so powerful, that when I heard Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” – fifteen years later – I said to myself, “That’s it!  That’s the song Arthur Blythe opened with at the Vanguard!”

This is it.   A few years ago I found a German-issued CD of Arthur Blythe’s music with “Jitterbug Waltz” on it deep in the racks at J&R Music near City Hall, but I foolishly didn’t buy it.  J&R closed a few months ago, and it’s as if some teeth have been knocked out of downtown.   

But as you can see, one month ago Erlendur Svavarsson uploaded Arthur Blythe’s “Jitterbug Waltz” to YouTube – so I am hearing it just now for the first time since that night at the Vanguard in 1985.

It sounds as boundlessly good as I remember.  This is the sound of complex joy.   

Elaine Stritch: Flannery O’Connor’s Long-Lost Almost Second Cousin

July is the cruellest month: in the past couple weeks, I’ve found myself posting a number of pieces prompted by decease: the deaths of Teeny Hodges, Charlie Haden, and Nadine Gordimer.   And now Elaine Stritch, the actress renowned for her one-woman shows, who “has died” (as the English papers put it) at age 89.

I don’t know Stritch’s work at all.  What I do know is that she was a niece of Samuel Stritch, cardinal archbishop of Chicago in the Fifties, and that this made her practically next of kin to Flannery O’Connor.   Here’s how.  

Beginning in 1955 O’Connor traveled regularly from her home in Georgia to college campuses in the South and Midwest, giving the lectures – “these stinking talks,” she called them – later collected in Mystery and Manners. During a visit to the University of Notre Dame, she met Thomas Stritch, a professor of American studies, ten years older than she was – and a nephew of Cardinal Samuel Stritch.

Over time she developed what she called an “inordinate fondness” for him. Together they were fond of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and motor races such as the Indianapolis 500. He spent most of a week with her at Andalusia in August 1963, and she planned to dedicate a book to him.

Her fondness comes through in her letters to him. While he was traveling in Europe in 1962, she wrote:

I hope you are having a good time and are not becoming converted to culture or anything. Dr. Crane, with whom I am in daily telepathic communication, says to tell you that the American traveler abroad is a salesman of the USA and that in Europe the Sincere Compliment is an important part of our foreign policy. Don’t hesitate, he says, to use the same sincere compliment any number of times as sincerity is always fresh and useful.

She had gotten an honorary degree at Notre Dame, and so went on:

My degree hasn’t done a thing for me so far, hasn’t increased my self-confidence or improved my personality or anything I expected it to do. The local wags have already got tired of calling me `Doctor.’ Regina wrapped the hood up in newspaper and put it away and unless I wear it Halloween, I guess it’ll stay there …

Two years later – greatly diminished by lupus – she wrote to him with undiminished humor:

Here I am yours truly on the electric typewriter and I feel more or less like folks … I do what amounts to two hours of work a day and that is about as good as I ever did anyway. I asked the doctor if I could sit up at the electric typewriter and work. You can work, says he, but you can’t exert yourself. I haven’t quite figured this out yet; anyway I am confined to these two rooms and the porch so far and ain’t allowed to wash the dishes. I guess that is exerting yourself where writing officially is not.

It’s a shame nobody ever thought to get Elaine Stritch to star in a one-woman show devoted to Flannery O’Connor.

Thomas Stritch spent his whole career at Notre Dame, where he “lived on campus in Lyons Hall as one of the University’s `bachelor dons,’ a unique group of faculty members he himself once described as `youth-devoted teachers who never married, or postponed marriage till late in life.” He died in 2004.

Ramadan Rookies — and Veterans

Just past the halfway point of Ramadan,  and the Times has a gallery of photographs of Muslims in New York observing the fast, taken by 26-year-old Philip Montgomery — photographs of “Ghanaians, Yemenis, people from Mali, Palestinians, and Americans … It was really a New York cross-pollination.”

In this photograph a man prays in a disused Burger King. 

My friend Rollo Romig — a convert from Catholicism to Islam — wrote a powerful essay about observing Ramadan in New York in high summer.   It starts with a strong headline — “Confessions of a Ramadan Rookie” —and gets stronger from there: 

By Day Ten, the month was, incredibly, passing too quickly. The fast had become much easier; it’s remarkable how the body can adjust to a new pattern. Some days I felt almost disappointingly normal. Fasting is an essentially solitary act; it’s said that it’s the only Islamic practice that’s invisible to an observer. Only God knows if you’re actually sticking with it. But Ramadan is also supposed to be a highly social time: breaking fast with friends and neighbors, and communal prayers, for those who can manage it, deep into the night. With a toddler whose bedtime coincides uncannily with the fast-breaking hour, it was tough for us to join that party more than a handful of times. But we had plenty of communal feeling right at home. Most mornings, fortified by hearty food and the only coffee of the day, my wife and I fell into electric sunrise conversations, talking about the experience of the fast and anything else that came to mind as the light grew outside the window next to the breakfast table, while the infidels slept. (Just teasing, infidels.)

The season runs through July 28.   

Scott Cheshire and the American Apocalyptic Tradition

An exchange with a group of scholars who formed a panel at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference about my Times essay of eighteen months ago sent me back to the essay – and sent me to Scott Cheshire’s just-published novel High as the Horses’ Bridles.

The scholars responded not so much to the essay itself as to the headline – “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” – and indicted me twice over, insisting I was wrong to wish for fiction dealing directly with matters of Christian belief and insisting I was wrong to say that such fiction is notable in its absence.

But I had set out from a more complex premise – arguing that one reason the absence of such fiction is notable is that Christianity is so visible in our society, with people of all walks of life reckoning with religious inheritance in dramatic ways.

The run-up to publication of High as the Horses’ Bridles makes the case emphatically.  First, several months ago, I got a note from Cheshire, the author: “Having been raised in the American apocalyptic tradition, I hope to bring something new to the conversation with my work,” he told me.

Then came a note from the book’s editor at Henry Holt, Sarah Bowlin, who introduced herself as “a woman who grew up in a very fundamentalist Baptist house” and one “whose life is now influenced, although not necessarily guided, by that upbringing.”

Then – a few days ago – came a review of the book in the Washington Post by Ron Charles, who began this way:

If you were raised, as I was, in a small church with intense ideals at odds with mainstream culture, you can remember that awkward pressure to stand apart from the world and, as the Bible commands, be “separate.” There’s a price to be paid for that separateness … but for me — and for many people I know — faith has been a fierce struggle with the most profound questions of human life.

Here you have author, editor, reviewer, and critic – myself – all with stories to tell about religious belief and its implications.  It’s this — sheer numbers, or demographics if you like — that would seem to yield more novels that reckon with religious belief than we have seen lately.  Charles goes on:

Considering the persistent varieties of religious experience in America, we aren’t blessed with nearly enough good novels about the diverse currents of spirituality. And the shelves are particularly quiet — or unhelpfully shrill — on the more radical expressions of religious belief.

Needless to say, I agree with him – which is to say that he agrees with the argument of the Times essay.

Now to High as the Horses’ Bridles, which comes festooned with comments from faculty members at the Hunter MFA program (Colum McCann, Claire Messud), among others.

By “the American apocalyptic tradition” Cheshire means the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  HBO’s The Leftovers deals with the American apocalyptic tradition, too, and the author of Guardian piece about the series begins: “I grew up fundamentalist in the Appalachians. The Rapture – and the fear and anticipation I felt for it – seeped into the bones of my faith …”

This is the root of the American Pilgrimage Project: truly, there are such stories beyond numbering.    

Nadine Gordimer and Oscar Romero: The Essential Gesture

The day Nadine Gordimer and Oscar Romero met: what a day that was.

Gordimer, the novelist and Nobel laureate, who died in Johannesburg last week at the age of ninety, refused on principle to accept honorary degrees from universities in her native South Africa during the apartheid era.  But she accepted them from universities abroad, beginning with one from the Catholic university at Leuven in Belgium in 1980.  She told The Paris Review the story:

It turned out to be quite extraordinary, because the man who got an honorary degree with me, Monsignor Oscar Romero, was assassinated two weeks later in El Salvador. In Belgium he had given the most marvelous address. He was such a striking man. He received a standing ovation for about eight minutes from the students. And two weeks later he was lying on the floor of a church, dead.

In his address (now considered one of his central texts) Romero told the students: 

Our Salvadoran world is not an abstraction. It is not just another example of what developed countries like yours understand by “world.”  It is a world which, in its vast majority, is composed of poor and oppressed men and women.

He went on: 

The terrible words of the prophets of Israel are still applicable in our country. In our midst there still exist those who sell the just person for money, the poor person for a pair of sandals; there are those who lay up violence and plunder in the palaces; there are those who crush the poor; there are those who promote a reign of violence as they lounge on their ivory beds; there are those who amass field after field until they end up owning the whole country.

As it was in El Salvador, so it was in South Africa – and in Nadine Gordimer’s novels.  Her novel The Burger’s Daughter had been banned six months earlier, and then “unbanned” – but two black South African writers’ novels were banned in apparent consequence.  She spelled out the situation in her essay collection entitled The Essential Gesture — an expression that captures Romero’s way of going about things as well as her own.  

As far as I can tell, her Leuven address is also published there.   

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 42: Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, “Wade in the Water”

Charlie Haden died this week at age 76.  He was best known as the bassist on Ornette Coleman’s breakthrough early-’60s Atlantic recordings, but he had an extraordinary career, from his childhood performances as a member of the Haden Family Singers to his politically charged work with the Liberation Music Orchestra to his forward-looking records with the guitarist Pat Metheny.

Two decades ago, Haden recorded a couple of albums’ worth of spirituals with the great pianist Hank Jones, and Haden’s good friend Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown, wrote the liner notes.  The first of them, Steal Away, won a Grammy award, and “Wade in the Water” is on it.  Prof. Jackson explains:

"Many believe that `Wade in the Water’ was written by Harriet Tubman. Most assuredly it was a song she often sang as she led slaves along the `Underground Railroad’ to freedom in the north. The slaves immersed themselves in water as they crossed rivers on their way to freedom, which also symbolically represented earlier African norms of total immersion in the water during religious rites. Used along with other songs such as `Follow the Drinking Gourd,’ i.e., the Big Dipper, slaves used these songs to gather, to plan secret meetings, to unite, to worship and to follow the north star to freedom."

Of this project, he remarks:

“They play in true `call and response’ fashion: at one time Hank’s piano leads and at other times it is Charlie’s bass. With these hymns they present the songs and the sounds of peace, of hope, and of the goodness of the human spirit. They have made the call. People, `now’s the time’ for YOU to respond.”

Norman Rush’s `Mating’: Anthropology Isn’t Everything

With a trip to South Africa coming up, I’m reading Norman Rush’s novel Mating all the way through for the first time.  En route to the utopian bush compound-slash-community at the center of the novel, the relentlessly anthropological narrator stays overnight at a mission run by Franciscan sisters.  “The sisters ran a tiny, overwhelmed cliniic and were attempting, without luck so far, to establish a hotel cum primary school for Basarwa children,” she explains, and goes on:

From an anthropological standpoint I was very interested in there being female Franciscans, women motivated by yet another embalmed male dream to live out their lives in wilderness like this. I have nothing against St. Francis of Assisi, I don’t think. I know him by image, exclusively. But it was an anthropologically interesting fact to me that the heavy work of this remote mission was being done exclusively by very nice women. And the same is true for Africa generally, for Lutherans and all the rest of them. Even when a woman gets her own order authorized, like Mother Teresa, it’s women who wind up doing the cooking and cleaning and nursing and little detachments of men who get to do the fun proselytizing. As I said, I was more interested in the sisters than they were in me. It may because people who do good, to a self-sacrificial point and on a continuous basis, seem to exist in a kind of light trance a lot of the time.

There in a few sentences the narrator’s character – candid, intellectually overbred, free-associative, relentless in her scrutiny of herself and others — comes across completely. She shows up in a remote place at a fully functioning operation run exclusively by women and sees signs of lurking patriarchy. She plans to stay with them only overnight, needing only a bed and a meal, and yet she puzzles over the fact that these women don’t take a greater interest in her. The possibility that they simply take no greater interest in her than they take in the dozens of other people they deal with daily, or that they reserve their interest for other people who need it more, or that they feel no special affinity for her because she, like they, is a white Westerner – all this, and the further possibility that their unusual (to her) portioning-out of interest in different people, derived from a Franciscan ideal, is what makes their work possible – lies outside of her anthropology.

Oh, and she always has more to say:

I realized I had been waiting for a thing to happen that I’d gotten used to seeing among missionary women, id est a brief peeping out of the sin of pride. They are consciously determined not to take pride in the afflictions they endure for the love of Christ, but they tend to slip. My guide asked if I had heard the news that a nun had been trampled to death by an elephant in Zambia. I saw the gleam. And I could hear chagrin when honesty compelled her to mention that it was a sister not of their order. I commiserated appropriately, feeling ashamed of the kind of person I am.   

Two Popes and “Le Foot”

“La communion, c’est le foot”: There in a few words an epigrammatical headline artist at Le Monde brings together the religion of football and the football of religion.

The prompt, needless to say, is the current internet meme that the Germany-Argentina match in the World Cup final pits Pope Benedict against Pope Francis – the German pope against the Argentine.

“Of course, both Popes (not to mention God) have more important things on their minds,” Daniel Burke puts it on CNN’s Belief Blog.

Probably they do.  But do the rest of us?  That the World Cup matchup parallels the backgrounds of the two living popes is a sign that the church has caught up with the world – the world where, in soccer at least, South America, along with Germany, has been a world power for most of a century.  And that the American media is taking such notice is a sign the the United States has caught up with the world – the world where soccer has been a religion for most of a century.

It has been a thrill to follow this World Cup with friends from abroad – from Germany and Argentina, among other places – and to join the experience of a billion people worldwide.  But it will be a relief to turn to other things.

One night in Rome a few years ago an Italian friend told me to meet him at the footbridge to the Isola Tiberina at seven-thirty p.m.  “I’ll explain later,” he said.  “This will be something special.”

At seven-thirty we met at the footbridge, and we set out along the river, cutting in near via Monserrato.  Our destination, it turned out, was a restaurant – a bright, modern, un-Roman restaurant called Il Pagliaccio.  “This place is always fully booked – it’s impossible to get a table,” my friend said.  “But not tonight.  Tonight Italy is playing in the European Cup final.  We’ll have the place to ourselves.”

And so we did, with a few dozen others — part of the tiny minority in Italy that night who were not following football’s sacred rites.