Friday, October 4, 2019

Patricia Applebaum's "St. Francis of America": Book Review

  St. Francis of America – How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America's Most Popular Saint | North Carolina Scholarship Online

St. Francis of America

How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America's Most Popular Saint

Patricia Appelbaum
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press. October 2015.
     288 pages $20.00.
     Hardcover. ISBN 9781469623740.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review (for Reading Religion/American Academy of Religion)

Before the birdbaths, before the pet medals and the spurious sayings, Francis of Assisi stood for whatever first preoccupied Americans more than a century and a half ago. Devotees of the fine arts admired the challenges to convention by the little poor man. Rather than a refined scion, Francesco Bernardone represented a raw rebel. Today’s consumers at any gardening outlet may check him out, if reduced to a cast mold with a bar code. Both reactions to Francis remind patrons or shoppers of “what one lacks and perhaps longs for—a life free of possessions; a life that is not dominated by money or property or, in fact, consumerism (4). Religious historian Patricia Appelbaum thus introduces this well-researched and engagingly written survey of Francis’s crossover reception within a predominantly Protestant polity and now a secular, acquisitive culture. Appelbaum explains the Poverello’s enduring appeal.

Appelbaum encourages readers to widen their perceptions of her subject. She investigates how sainthood takes on or shunts aside meaning for those who do not include such a formal category in their faith or worldview. Assisi itself is elevated into a tourist site energized with an aura. The fact that Francis lived there allows seekers of any allegiance to identify with a defiant dropout who begged on medieval streets.

In nine chapters, Appelbaum surveys how Francis has been socially constructed. After placing his initial attraction within a revival of interest in Catholic aesthetics and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel movement, she examines the impact of Paul Sabatier’s 1894 biography of Francis. The first account of Francis to reject hagiography, Sabatier’s archival effort resembled Ernest Ronan’s 1863 critical scrutiny of Christ. Appelbaum then situates this reforming impulse within the careers of Quaker Rufus Jones and socialist Vida Scudder. Their advocacy of Francis as a pacifist pioneer eased his acceptance by Progressive Era non-Catholics. These impacts sparked Catholic ripostes affirming the saint’s fidelity to the papacy and to Roman rulings.

The next section examines the era between world wars. The social activist side of Francis appealed to many, even as his advocacy of voluntary poverty hit close to home for most Americans during the Depression. The 1940s popularized the “peace prayer” erroneously credited to the saint. Meanwhile his statues spread throughout gardens across the country. Appelbaum grounds the birdbaths within a love of place. “Like the prayer, they could be private; like the hymn [‘All Creatures Great and Small’], they could be used in a small community.” This admiration set the sylvan scene for Earth Day in 1970 and the promotion of “the patron saint of ecology” (88). Postwar prosperity generated many versions of the odd man out from Assisi. Robert Lawson’s children’s tale Rabbit Hill and Bernard Malamud’s urban Jewish parable The Assistant gain in-depth analyses as they reveal narrative responses to the saint’s firm rejection of attachment to the things of this world. That such a reaction co-exists with Francis’s celebrated love of nature complicates his contemporary depictions.

Unfortunately, the hot pink and mustard yellow vibrancy of a San Francisco Summer of Love poster with an offbeat, mixed message from its municipal namesake to its hippie versus straight heirs is reproduced only in monochrome. But as with visuals throughout this study, it reveals Appelbaum’s range of references. About eighty pages document her fieldwork, list sources consulted, and include endnotes. These appendages combined with two indices enhance this book’s value. Any scholar of material Christianity or popular culture will find St. Francis of America a welcome resource.

The rise of the Jesus People and evangelicals who recast Francis as a hippie; the embrace of his spirit by environmentalists; the attempt to capture his charisma on film; and his conversion into “creation-centered spirituality” by post-Christian skeptics and New Age adherents typify recent trends. Shifts in American attitudes to Francis anticipate Appelbaum’s thoughtful inquiry into the “blessing of the animals” ritual across ecumenical or sectarian lines. Appelbaum edits replies to her 2013 questionnaire. She sifts testimony from over forty “living voices” about what Francis means personally and spiritually. These sensibilities expand into diverse contexts: Islam, postmodernism, and folklore. “Artist, poet, clown; traveler, camper, farmer; leper, street person, prisoner: the list goes on and on” (181). Sly guises illustrate disparate roles played in nine centuries of the odyssey of Francis from Assisi.

Date of Review: August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 
Patricia Appelbaum is a historian and independent scholar of American religion.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Virgin Time

File:John Everett Millais - Mariana - Google Art Project.jpg
The smoke alarm, set off by my wife's cooking something eggy in the oven as I slept, woke me. The aerator that opened last night's wine at the hands of son #2 for Shabbat dinner lay in shards, thanks to The Worst Cat in the World (TM). The birds outside clattered. So I lay in bed again, fifteen minutes, thinking about what half-an-hour later I'd type, why and how.

I'm no morning person. But I must rise early lately, due to teaching at nine one day a week. Given traffic to Irvine, over forty miles away, it takes me nearly 90 minutes, no matter when I leave near 6. If I leave later, count on two hours. As I must start at 9:30, and as I want to get some work done beforehand, lacking any space there but wherever I lay my bag down at a classroom PC before the fact, I attest to the life of a "freeway flyer" that nearly twenty-five years ago I thought I'd left behind when I landed a full-time (albeit "at will," no tenure-track being offered us faculty) gig. Now, due to precarity (all these new jobs, all of us working more than one of them to swell the boasts of whomever governs us), and unexpected worst-case scenarios due to duplicitous deceit of one among "protected" classes which earnest "progressives" romanticize and unscrupulous lawyers monetize in our blue-city-state oligarchy polis, our cash flow dwindles. We're back to both at two jobs now, and feeling it.

Pretty much where we started, thirty-0ne years ago, when we met, way before progeny. Which was about where we started, having met around this very week, or was it -end?

(I know. Looking over the last entry after I typed this one, I need to ease up kvetching. Be happy for what I have got, and kept, and found, or even lost and found. Seriously. No emoji.)

As I've intimated on this blog, the past few years I've had to cut back my true confessions. Due to a mash-up of reticence in an increasingly "outraged" sensibility bent on exposing any who dare to question the MSM and the thought police, and a pressing need to, well, grade papers, commute, and do all that teaching more students for the same pay (the post-recession's efficient production thanks to technological innovation, lowering "labor costs" and maximizing profit), something fun's got to give. I love reviewing books and music, but the lack of time and the brainpower needed to keep this endeavor going every other day put (un-) paid to my leisure-time hobby. I keep reading, but I tend to keep track on my Kindle of whatever I've checked out from the library or my own acquisitions, largely gleaned from what I can find and not buy, due to the lack of shelf space, the lack of discretionary income, and the lack of downtime to compile my wisdom for the ages. Whereas in the past, I used this blog and Amazon to keep track of my reading and notes, I now use highlights or files. Goodreads or library records can remind me of my bookish roaming, as A. does not promote any remarks I give them anymore unless it's under a "verified purchase," and those tally few.

So that means a lot of my intellectual and critical effort is off your screen. I've had to triage. Thus, the titular phrase of today, gleaned from three decades ago when a friend of a friend, a prof at USC, used it for his own time for writing before his real workday began. As a hyper-caffeinated New Yorker, of course, he was used to the grind, no matter where his career took him, L.A. or Copenhagen. I figure now that I have weaned myself, never that dependent anyhow, off tea for a boost in the morning (practically, as I may not have space enough to brew and sip before I dash), I rely on my own steam. However, my engine does not usually get in gear until nearer mid-day, if I am left to my night-owl aftermath. Yet I realize how, "burning daylight" as a Chicago exec turned Dakotan rancher chided us as we turned up near lunch, weary after traveling, to ask at his rental cabin where to drive in the Black Hills, I've been wasting away a lot of potential hours in the land of Nod. Ah, Irish Catholic guilt.

Therefore, keep looking back this way more. After all, I work every day now, hours on end. Students do not wait and administrators clock turnaround of grades, and how much I enrich  the "learning management systems" dominating my career. The days of autonomy behind closed doors on campus ended; a webcam records me. I cannot promise that the days I have to saddle up before dawn that I will be clattering away at my keyboard, but since dear friends (some of whom I have made by blogging and finding simpatico fellow-souls out in cyberia of similarly sensitive and intuitive compatibility), asked me if and when I'd begin churning out my fevered thoughts again, well, as at least some days I am blessedly at home, you may catch me here. Can't promise that I tell all, but keep an ear perked for craic go leor.

Photo: if you type in "virgin" + "time" at the Tate keyword search, this is all you get. John Everett Millais, "Mariana" (1851). If you turn off safe mode on a browser, you'll find more.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Peeping above the trench

How I Won the War Movie Review (1968) | Roger Ebert

I figure a year on, I'll keep my blog card raised tentatively. I've chosen for reasons of reticence and privacy to retreat from publicly proclaiming my every thought and opinion. Risks of generating "outrage" now imply this caution from many of us in less than secure employment (all those jobs created--nobody ever asks how many are side gigs, hustles or part-time work cobbled together or to supplement a precarious full-time position). Even if I had tenure somewhere, that does not guarantee safe passage across troubled SJW waters.

One of my most thoughtful charges observed the other day how 'we'd never have gotten to talk like this in a CalState class. We get to hear each other out, and while I suspect the prof's leanings, he never tilted us one way or the other. He always came up with a countering idea.'

This was praise indeed. That may be a perk of my predicament. Still, I proceed with caution. What used to be between four walls now has a recording angel or printer's devil, invisibly tuning in. The marvels of efficiency and increased productivity accrue, as do the human efforts assigned. Sure, I can teach from anywhere and so my students log in too in pajamas. But we still have only so many hours, and the days never expand to accommodate this pace.

More than one drudge I know in the muddy mire of academia at its basic level of labor rather than leisure as the primary mover has chosen survival tactics. The costs of censorship of ourselves presage Orwellian immanence when our mind is our only safe space. Not sure how long that long-baffling mystery within our membrane will survive jamming, hacking, and 'targeted' advertisement. As I write, A.I. cameras meant for, natch, warning the rest of us against the bad guys packing are touted, for the same device, to recognize big spenders.

As the faithful devoted to CasaMurphy know, my removal from engagement with the constant TDS-emitting transmissions upstairs from my lair lead to their own tangle of remarks, so this entry will be a politically-neutral or neutered zone, to defuse explosions. I feel the need to retreat, like perhaps John the smart sarcastic Beatle above, from the fray. My psychic wellness needs self-care as I guess a new ager might phrase it. I have enough social contact on my long commutes (and I thought I'd never have to suffer the 5 freeway again or cross the Orange County line) and my necessary attention to hundreds of people.

If you are reading this, thanks. I will likely never return to the frenetic every (or later other) day pace I reached years ago when I had more leisure for reflection, rambling, ranting, and reviewing. Amazon cut back any benefit to appearing in the firmament unless one acquired tons of material from them to be a 'verified' purchaser. Else, one's reviews sink down into the depths of the reviews, never to be seen except to the scuba divers among the few curious.

However, I reckon looking out from my increasingly keyboard tethered perch may not be so bad. I teach incessantly online more than in person, or combinations thereof, so my own life has been overtaken due to necessity with course commitments which demand my prompt, and seven-day attention. If I beg off a day, I have managerial queries emitting virtual steam, student appeals and plangent cries filling my message slot and e-mail inbox from multiple modalities. Education-speak for cameras that enable us to reach more of you than ever before. 'Scaling' comes with a prof as a thumbnail talking head, so hoodie or scantily-clad undergrads for all I know populate my invisible or rarely seen cohorts out there in cyberia.

This access also lowers costs. Not for those enrolled but for those overseeing at the rarified levels of capital human or otherwise who dictate our fates, at least as living paycheck to paycheck. Courses may double or triple in size, without in certain cases any compensation added. The pace of eight-week terms, the rapid turnaround of grades and evaluations of written (not multiple-choice autograded) submissions by those coming to my curricula with little or no preparation for the humanities--understandably as I have no liberal arts majors--has challenged me for a long time, sure, but the former alternation I had between large online enrollments and intimate onsite courses has, thanks to the Webcam and PC recorder, vanished. Now, any class can be, well, as large as 'they' want it to be, and this shows no signs of reversal. Once the tech's in place, the hands assigned adapt to the Fordist assembly line.

I hear all around on the news the desperation of those hiring for hired hands. Not in my line of work. It's always been dismal, since I went 'on the market' but the STEM takeover of the undergraduate direction, the staggering loans, and the denigrated state of the pursuits befitting the 'free men of a privileged class' among the ancients attests to the fall from grace.

As to that elusive gift from above, I have been searching myself for meaning. I keep this to myself, additionally, on a need to know basis, as this inner and outer 'journey' (a word which has been appropriated for Life Itself) takes me in directions dark and unsettling as well as bright. The second half of our expected actuarially determined span turns many of us thus. It's an often caricatured and misunderstood quest. Yet some of you out there know it well. 

Therefore, I seek solace after dinner, when I switch off my connections to the work world, even if I confess my Kindle may turn on for bookish pursuits and my endless amassing of more books to read on my varied public library wishlists. I heard recently a younger professor whom I greatly admire is leaving a post that any humanist would do the proverbial die for. When younger, I'd regard this as nearly unfathomable, but even then I'd recall a fellow grad TA at UCLA recall his watching an older prof, one of those who sauntered postwar into a niche when even ABDs were snapped up by the desperate institutions flush with Cold War and Space Age funds, drink from a mug. My colleague thought it was coffee. Somehow he found out that the prof was sipping from a big lug of Maalox. Tenure track.