Interfaith Lecture Previews

Georgetown professor, scholar Soltes to talk spirituality inherent in Russian culture


During the Cold War, the term “godless Russia” was used by some Americans who perceived the Soviet Union strictly as an atheist nation.

But Ori Z. Soltes, professor and lifelong scholar, would argue that Russian spirituality never died, even under communist rule.

“There’s no national entity more obsessively religious and spiritual than Russia, in spite of what one might suppose,” he said. “For 75 years, officially, there was no religion in Russia, but you can’t crush the spirituality even if you eliminate the official religion.”

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 16, in the Hall of Philosophy, Soltes will present his first of four lectures, “Icons and Identity: The Shaping of Mother Russia.” Soltes is a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and has studied a variety of topics related to history, theology and politics. He has authored over 280 books, articles and essays that serve as testaments to his curiosity.

Soltes dove into Russian culture in the late 1980s when he traveled there as a teacher, during the very end of Soviet control. As the country transitioned from communism to its current state, Soltes became aware of the ongoing religious and artistic developments.

Such changes, he said, are vital to understanding the overall political evolution of Russia.

“When is it exactly that what we think of as Russia really takes shape as Russia?” he said. “Oddly enough, when Russia really crystallizes, it crystallizes by way of an affiliation between what I’d call a national identity and religious identity.”

The country’s two identities quickly fused, meaning that religious affiliation became a necessary part of Russian character.

“It’s almost as if you can’t think of yourself as Russian without also thinking of yourself as not only a Christian Russian, but of a particular sort of denomination,” he said.

Yet Soltes also recognizes the presence of Orthodox tradition, and he will present Russia’s different religious waves to Chautauquans. To assist him with the task of relaying this rich history, he will also discuss the meaning of the art and icons that shaped Russian culture. Artistic expression, he said, helps untangle the country’s complicated past.

“Part of my handling of it will be also to talk about the beginnings of Russian literature and poetry and the beginnings of Russian art,” he said.

Access to Soltes’ selected images will be made available to the audience through smart devices via the website

Soltes said he is eager to spend a week lecturing at the Institution, though he is a seasoned Chautauquan. He first came to the grounds as part of the Smithsonian at Chautauqua program, and found himself routinely returning to deliver lectures. In 2003, he served as one of four theologians-in-residence.

In Interfaith Friday, Hindu scholar Narayanan to talk passion for world religions


When Vasudha Narayanan was 15 years old, she began reading books about Indian history and religion, and she was immediately captivated by the material. What was equally as exciting was that the authors were from Germany and Australia and had come to know Indian culture through their research.

“I was very interested in things to do with world religions from the time I was 10 or 12 and didn’t know that was a branch of study,” she said. “Then I read these books, and I realized there was actually an area I could study. … There was this whole area that fascinated me.”

At 2 p.m. Friday, July 13, in the Hall of Philosophy, Narayanan will have the opportunity to discuss her passion for studying world religions, particularly Hinduism, during the Interfaith Friday Series. Narayanan will represent the Hindu faith while engaging in interfaith dialogue with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

“At any time, it is crucial to understand each other,” she said. “Today, it’s absolutely necessary. I think through the interfaith dialogue we discover ways in which other people live, and when I say other people, these are people next door.”

Narayanan, a distinguished professor at the University of Florida and past president of the American Academy of Religion, believes in breaking down barriers that divide the world’s religions. An ideal vehicle for this change, she said, is educational institutions.

As a student at Harvard, Narayanan said she took the opportunity to study a multitude of religions.

“That was the joy of being at Harvard, because I was in this place called the Center for the Study of World Religions,” she said. “I took courses on the New Testament, formative aspects of the Christian Church, Islamic architecture and Buddhism.”

As a lifelong learner and teacher, Narayanan said she is excited to engage in discussion at Chautauqua. However, she also recognizes that interfaith work can assume many forms.

“Interfaith dialogue can also be a dialogue of action,” she said. “By working with others in volunteer groups and by playing with others, we learn about each other. Interfaith dialogue can happen in many forums: at your workplace, at home or in the neighborhood.”

The goal of interfaith work, she said, is ultimately to celebrate religious differences and draw closer to those of other faith traditions.

“When you meet someone or when you know someone personally of a particular faith, your prejudices dissolve,” she said. “Then they are no longer the other — they are your neighbor.”

During her fifth visit to Chautauqua, Narayanan said she is excited to share her faith and ideas in an open-minded atmosphere.

“To say it’s an intellectual and aesthetic Disney World is to do it an injustice,” she said. “It’s so calm and peaceful, and it leads you so gently into thinking about so many different things which people are presenting from multiple perspectives.”

Scholar Bass to emphasize necessity of gratitude, playfulness in communities for interfaith lecture


In 2016, the Chicago Cubs shocked the nation when they took home a World Series win — the first in over a century. On the surface, this achievement appeared frenzied and boisterous: fans cheering and crying, players morphing into a heap of sweaty celebration and the rest of the nation shocked into a state of disbelief.

But Diana Butler Bass believes there was much more than wild celebration transpiring that November evening.

“What was obvious when you go back and you read the interviews with the fans, players and the manager, is that a huge amount of that explosion of emotion was about gratitude,” she said. “Sports sometimes wind up being this arena of gratitude where we are communally expressing our sense of surprise, or wonder or awe about a gift that we’ve been given.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 12, in the Hall of Philosophy, Bass will explore the relationship between play and gratitude during her lecture “In the Ballpark: The Arenas of Gratitude.” Bass, an author and independent scholar, recently published a book on gratitude called Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. As a widely acclaimed writer with bylines in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Bass will share some insight from her recent book with Chautauquans.

“When Chautauqua approached me about lecturing during the week on play, I got very excited,” said Bass, who previously delivered an interfaith lecture in 2016. “Some people don’t understand that gratitude and playfulness are actually categories that are very closely related in certain ways.”

As someone who studies the relationship between religion and culture, Bass recognizes the ability of generational change to divide society and diminish play. In the current social climate, she said this divide exists, resulting in an abandonment of community.

“One of the places in our society where we are really falling down, is that we have lost our capacity for communal thanksgiving. That might be one of the most dangerous things that’s going on in our society right now,” she said. “If you lose the capacity to play with other people, … and you turn everything into a politicized ‘we win, you lose’ kind of game, then you actually lose a really important dimension of social capital.”

Instead of pitting people against one another through bipartisan politics and cultural differences, Bass advocates for “big picture” thought. Gratitude, she said, is not a zero- sum game.

“If you begin to conceptualize play as an arena of gratitude where people are using their skills and gifts to their fullest extent, you pay attention to the stories that are related to the games we play,” she said. “That’s what gratitude always does: it always asks us to pay attention to the longer story, then you can sit with somebody who’s rather different from yourself and cheer on the same team.”

Bass has spent the last three months of her career advocating for one team — one nationwide community capable of celebrating diversity. In her book, she discusses this unity as the key to future progress.

“I am convinced that there is a pathway here about setting a new table of thanksgiving in the United States,” she said. “Setting that new table of American thanks is going to be what gets us to the next place. It’s not theoretical, it’s not just a sweet idea, it’s transformative.”

Rabbis Vilenkin, Stahl to discuss importance of Sabbath day

Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl

In an age of instant communication and news updates, it can feel impossible to disconnect for five minutes — let alone an entire day. But in the Jewish faith, observing the Sabbath day of rest is a sacred tradition meant to strengthen one’s connection with God.

At 2 p.m. on Monday, July 9 in the Hall of Philosophy, Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl and Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin will deliver a joint lecture on the importance of the Sabbath as part of the Week Three interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Play.” Stahl’s portion of the lecture is titled “Sabbath: A Foretaste of Utopia” and Vilenkin’s is titled “Sabbath: A Gift of Rest.”

The Sabbath, also called Shabbat, is a full 24 hours of rest where acts of labor are forbidden. Vilenkin said labor is defined as a creative process that has a “transformative action,” like lighting a match to ignite a fire.

“Restrictions are really to create a space in which you can experience the holiness of Shabbat, so there’s no distractions,” Vilenkin said.

Rabbi Zalman Vilenkin

Some Jewish denominations strictly forbid all labor, like Orthodox Judaism, which Vilenkin practices. Reform Judaism, which Stahl practices, is less precise in its observance.

“What I like about this format is that we are going to model, hopefully, how rabbis of different orientations to Jewish practice and belief can get together and talk,” he said.

Stahl first came to Chautauqua in 1998. He served as theologian-in-residence in 2003 and now spends his summers at the Institution. As Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth‑El in San Antonio, Texas, he now spends the winter months advocating for interfaith work.

His lecture will focus on recognizing the Sabbath as an example of pure serenity.

“The Sabbath is considered to be a foretaste, an introduction to the perfect age of the future when there will be peace, love and harmony among all peoples,” he said. “Wars will be over, and there will be no more bloodshed, no more strife. That’s what we call the Messianic Age.”

As a follower of Reform Judaism, Stahl said the Sabbath is a reflective time to focus on maintaining peace. In the modern world, this can be translated into social justice work.

“We place our big emphasis on social justice,” he said. “That’s the real important part of Reform Judaism. We emphasize that a great deal, and that’s why we say the Sabbath, in its essence, is to remind us of the future goal of the Messianic Age, when everything will be a time of social justice.”

Like Stahl, Vilenkin is a longtime Chautauquan. He serves as executive director and spiritual leader of Chabad Lubavitch of Chautauqua and in the off-season teaches Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah at the United Talmudical Seminary in Brooklyn.

Vilenkin will discuss finding meaning through both work and play by appreciating the spiritual nature of the Sabbath. During the work week, Vilenkin said, God conceals himself and gives believers the free will to make choices.

“The privilege of free will carries the responsibility of free will, which is to make the right choices,” he said. “And ultimately the right choice is to discover God within reality and the only way to do that is to work, to engage with the world and to bring that holiness and divinity into the world.”

By providing a full day of rest, God gifts the world with an opportunity to experience a divine connection.

“Shabbat is an elevated creation because God creates the world by revealing himself,” he said. “That’s why we don’t do any work on Shabbat, because there’s no need for it. The whole purpose of work is to discover God, but on Shabbat, God is already discovered.”

The rabbis hope the combination of lectures will enlighten Chautauquans about the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath for different denominations, as well as its overall purpose in uniting believers with God.

Chalom to represent Humanistic Judaism for Interfaith Friday


Rabbi Adam Chalom recalls a cartoon he once saw where an atheist missionary travels door to door passing out a blank piece of paper. The cartoon, Chalom said, makes the assumption that secularism essentially equates to nothing — no God, no Bible, no hymn music. Just a blank page.

But the lifelong adherent of Humanistic Judaism challenges that assumption.

“People have tremendous misconceptions about humanism or people who have a secular approach to life,” Chalom said. “They assume you can’t be a good person if you don’t believe in a god, or that you can’t have a sense of community unless you have a church. That’s just not true.”

At 2 p.m. on Friday, July 6 in the Hall of Philosophy, Chalom will represent the humanist philosophy during the Institution’s second Interfaith Friday. Chalom, the dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, will engage in interfaith dialogue with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

Chalom, a rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago, describes Humanistic Judaism as a secular alternative to other branches of Judaism. He adopts the cultural and historical experiences of the Jewish people while embracing a human-centered philosophy focused on the “here and now.”

“Rather than get caught up in the theological debate of is there or isn’t there, a positive humanism focuses more on … what we can impact in the world based on what we do know as opposed to what we don’t know,” he said.

Though he has spent his life following and studying the humanist philosophy, Chalom advocates for interfaith dialogue, specifically a dialogue that includes secular approaches to life.

“In some ways it’s unconventional to have us included in an interfaith dialogue because we don’t fit into the traditional category of faith,” he said. “But part of what I’m going to talk about on Friday is the fact that we are actually part of the spectrum of approaching big questions. What happens after I die? How do I make meaning in this life? Those are questions that humanism answers, they just have different answers from conventional religious answers.”

As Chalom and Robinson converse, the rabbi is hopeful that he will challenge audience members to disagree with his philosophy.

“Real interfaith dialogue is not when we all agree on everything,” he said. “Dialogue is when you disagree and you have to find what can you agree on, where are there points that are worth debating and maybe even changing your perspective if you find something meaningful from the other side.”

Even after the conversation ends, Chalom said he hopes interfaith work continues to include secularism. He said there is a definite disconnect between the religious and secular that stems from uninformed presumptions.

“I would definitely like more religious people to have a more thorough and nuanced understanding of secular approaches to life,” Chalom said. “At the same time, I find that humanists could have a more subtle approach to religion. Often they paint religion in a fundamentalist perspective, when obviously there are shades of grey and varieties of religious approaches.”

Chalom previously visited Chautauqua in 2010 to offer a prayer at the Everett Jewish Life Center, and he said he is excited to return to the grounds to represent Humanistic Judaism.

“I was very pleased to get Gene Robinson’s call to be invited to be part of this series, because I’ve felt for a long time that humanism belongs on the panel of approaches to big questions,” he said.

Halpin to examine implications behind the Progressive Era


From 1890 through 1920, America experienced an influx of progressive ideas that advocated for a people’s government, detached from corporate control. This period, known as the Progressive Era, established systems of social welfare and political representation that remain part of the current system.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 5 in the Hall of Philosophy, researcher John Halpin will discuss this movement and its lasting impacts on American history in his lecture “Faith and Politics in the Progressive Era.”

“What I think is a liberating belief … is that our collective action, people participating in self-governance, can achieve greater national prosperity,” Halpin said in a podcast produced for Progressive Way. “I think that’s a great accomplishment of progressivism. I think it helped pave the way for a dramatic rise in America’s overall aggregate wealth and a better distribution, and more social protections for when things go the wrong way.”

Halpin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and is the creator and co-director of the Progressive Studies Program, a research project that studies the history and impact of progressivism. During his lecture, he will share years of analysis of the Progressive Era by providing political and religious context.

Progressivism, he said, emerged as a response to the country’s failure to support its people.

“The architecture for federal government really wasn’t put in place until we fought a big war in World War I and then later when we tried to address a depression,” he said in the Progressive Way podcast. “We didn’t have any mechanisms for dealing with problems that arose. What was happening in the late 19th century were huge amounts of problems associated with the transition from primarily a rural agrarian economy to industrialism.”

Politically and economically, Halpin said the nation was riddled with corruption. The shift to industrialism concentrated the wealth within large corporate conglomerates, giving rise to mass poverty.

“A lot of people were moving into wage work and there was a lot of immigration in the country, so you ended up with large levels of poverty, … and these corporate forces would just outright buy state legislators and senators,” he said in the podcast. “The U.S. Senate was basically just a vehicle just for corporate interests, so you had massive levels of economic hardship and outright poverty.”

To combat the inequity, progressives realized they needed a voice for their frustrations. They pushed for reforms like the direct election of senators and the appointment of municipal boards, both of which exist today.

“Much of what the original progressives did was to identify the social and economic problems that needed to be addressed and attack the prevailing theories that were keeping the system as it was and protecting the status quo,” Halpin said in the podcast. “Then they embarked on a series of direct political campaigns to try and reform these things at the municipal, state and federal level.”

But beyond political reform, Halpin believes it is just as important to acknowledge the spirit of the Progressive Era. Progressives fought fiercely against a government that had seemingly forgotten its people and submitted to a consolidation of power and wealth.

Without finding the same passion that fueled this 30-year period, Halpin doubts modern reform efforts will succeed.

“I think you need to draw from the spirit of reform and the notion of the government working in the interest of average people on behalf of national goals,” Halpin said in the podcast. “That’s an animating impulse that I think has been lost. Some of the major concerns of the early progressives, particularly on social egalitarian measures, are something we should be considering today.”

Halpin’s lecture, a combination of political and spiritual discussion, concludes the Week Two Interfaith theme “Religion and American Identity.”

Historian, author McBride to share Second Great Awakening’s role in shaping American identity crisis


Discussing the intersection of religion and politics is hardly a lighthearted conversation, historian Spencer McBride admits. But analyzing this connection is vital to understanding American identity.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 4 in the Hall of Philosophy, McBride will confront this topic head-on in his lecture “Religious Awakenings and America’s National Identity Crisis” as part of Week Two’s interfaith theme, “Religion and American Identity.”

“People want very clear answers, they want the role of religion in America’s past to be very neat and clean and to sit in a box,” McBride said. “The reality is that it was just as complicated back then as it is now. It’s really enlightening in some ways just because it shows that this has been a messy, contentious issue from our country’s beginning.”

McBride, a documentary editor at The Joseph Smith Papers, believes America’s “identity crisis” is a constant within the culture that cannot be understood without considering the role of religion. During his lecture, he will take Chautauquans through the sweeping history of the Second Great Awakening, a revival that led to a rapid rise in religious participation by Americans.

“I’m going to show how these religious awakenings affected the American identity. … I’m going to show that sometimes we think of religion in a very general sense,” he said. “We think of religion’s role in America’s national identity in today’s terms of the secular versus the religious. But even within American religious communities, there’s different approaches.”

As a historian specializing in the American Revolution and the early American republic, McBride attests to religion’s prominent role in shaping the country’s identity. Religious beliefs, he said, have often vindicated social change.

“These religious revivals really drummed up a lot of support for the abolition of slavery. … Yet there’s people using the same Bible, the same religious views to argue that slavery is justified and approved by God,” he said. “So when I talk about a national identity crisis, it’s in a sense that there’s never been a steam-rolled, uncontested national identity. It’s always evolving, it’s always up for debate.”

Amid studying 19th-century movements like the Second Great Awakening and the abolition of slavery, McBride has experienced his own “awakening” as his research has uncovered patterns of religion colliding with politics.

“The first two decades in the 2000s have been very divided, polarized times in our political culture,” he said. “You hear religion invoked again and again by politicians on either side of the aisle, … and people debated the proper role of religion and religious leaders then just as they do now.”

On his very first visit to Chautauqua, the historian and author of Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America,” said he is enthused about sharing his research with the community.

“I’ve known about Chautauqua for a long time, but it’s great to be a part of it,” he said.

Woodard to address struggle in striking balance between individual, communities


Since declaring independence, America has prided itself on being the “land of the free.” After a fight for liberty, the Founding Fathers had clear intentions to establish a democratic nation of diverse people, far removed from British control.

This freedom, however, has borne its own set of challenges.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3 in the Hall of Philosophy, award-winning author and journalist Colin Woodard will address the struggle of defining freedom in modern America during his lecture “American Character: The Struggle between Individual Liberty and the Common Good and the Survival of the Republic.” Woodard’s lecture, moderated by Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, marks his first visit to the Institution.

“Are we building a free community or are we trying to maximize individual freedom?” Woodard said. “The raucous nature of many of our conflicts and our internal crises boil down to the clash of those two things.”

Woodard’s lecture will draw from his most recent book, American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, a 2017 Chautauqua Prize finalist and winner of the 2017 Maine Literary Award for nonfiction. In his book, Woodard defines American freedom as a regional struggle. Given the distinct cultural, social and religious differences that exist within one nation, the attempt to define freedom is often overshadowed by disagreement.

“Where’s the equilibrium point for our particular federation, given our different regional cultures, and how could you build a super majority that would have enough public support through various regions that could carry it forward?” Woodard said. “We’ve done that for decades in the past, precisely because regional coalitions were formed that gave you a super majority. It’s the fact that in recent decades, we haven’t had that.”

In order to reach the “equilibrium point,” Woodard said liberal democracy needs to be redefined and expanded. In a country that once described itself as a melting pot, a two-party system is a feeble attempt at inclusiveness.

“How can you have the Christian right and Ayn Rand libertarians in the same party? Philosophically speaking, they don’t share a lot of fundamental things in common,” he said. “Both parties are coalitions of things that don’t really go together. Realizing that and understanding the actual spectrum of options is a clarifying thing.”

But before citizens can begin rethinking the bipartisan system, Woodard believes the nation’s lens needs refocused. Currently, political conversation is dominated by a desire for power and control.

“American conversation has circled around freedom and a competition with how you secure that,” he said. “The conversation in the past year and a half has been about fear and resentment, which I think everyone should find worrying.”

As an international correspondent in the 1990s, Woodard brings years of reporting, research and reflection to Chautauqua. While working as a journalist in eastern Europe, he covered the aftermath of the Cold War and the region’s struggle to rebuild after the fall of communism.

These experiences, he said, have been used to inform his research on American democracy.

“How do you build a liberal democracy and then how do you sustain one has become one of the things I’ve dealt with throughout my career,” he said. “The past informs the present and only by understanding where we come from can we understand where we’re at.”

Using visuals in the Hall of Philosophy is uncommon; however, visuals are important to Woodard’s lecture.

“We are going to initiate a grand experiment by asking attendees to bring their smart devices with them to the lecture,” said Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno.

PRRI’s Jones to examine major shifts and challenges of pluralism in United States


Robert P. Jones believes America is evolving — but not in a gradual sense. Less than 50 years ago, issues of homosexuality and racism were glossed over and tucked away, and American culture was dominated by what Jones calls “White Christian America.”

Now, these social debates are at the forefront of politics, and the cries of a group that once held the majority are becoming meaningless background noise.

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 2 in the Hall of Philosophy, Jones will discuss what this major shift means during his lecture “The New Challenge of Pluralism after the End of White Christian America.” Jones’ lecture is part of Week Two’s Interfaith theme “Religion and American Identity.”

“Despite the outcome of the 2016 elections, the key long-term trends indicate White Christian America’s decline is continuing unabated,” Jones wrote in an article for The Atlantic. “Over the last eight years, the percentage of Americans who identify as white and Christian fell 11 percentage points, and support for same-sex marriage jumped 18 percentage points.”

Jones’ lecture, moderated by Interfaith Youth Core Founder Eboo Patel, will focus on how pluralism is defined in the modern social landscape. As new groups and cultures are recognized by American society, they face challenges in finding a peaceful coexistence.

Patel, who is moderating all of the Week Two interfaith lectures, is a fierce advocate for religious tolerance. He wrote a set of essays on religious pluralism that will be published in the fall by Princeton University Press. Much of Jones’ lecture will serve as a response to these writings.

“I’ll be talking about the new challenges that the project of pluralism faces, not only in our current political climate, but because demographic changes in the country have made previous generations’ stopgap solutions to pluralism untenable for us today,” Jones said.

As founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, Jones has spent years researching the intersection of religion, culture and politics. In his 2016 book The End of White Christian America, he explores this connection as a way to understanding the rapid decline of the white, conservative group that once dominated America.

Due to this decline, Jones believes it is imperative to quickly adjust to the changing social landscape, which he will discuss at Chautauqua.

“I’ll offer some suggested resources for a new way of thinking about pluralism that is consistent with America’s democratic promise and that doesn’t rely so heavily on a white Protestant cultural center,” he said.

Jones, who first visited Chautauqua in 2017, does not subscribe to the belief that the election of President Donald Trump represents a conservative revival. He said the current administration is a result of the “gravitational pull of nostalgia among white evangelicals,” a force he believes is rapidly fleeting.

“At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and their descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

Muffitt to speak on students as 21st-century musicians

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Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Students in Chautauqua’s School of Music have more to learn than technique, intonation and timing. They also have to grasp time travel.

“The difference is that, whereas the Beethoven symphony hasn’t changed since it was written in the early 19th century, the context in which it’s being performed and heard is dramatically different,” said Timothy Muffitt, music director of the Music School Festival Orchestra. “So we, as musicians, have to have an awareness of that.”

Muffitt said the school trains students to be 21st-century musicians. This type of musician faces a new set of responsibilities, challenges and opportunities, but all are actively engaged in it every day.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Muffitt will explain these differences, how the arts have engaged with society historically and how that engagement continues to evolve. His lecture will be called “Chautauqua and the 21st Century Musician: Preparing Emerging Talent for the Challenges and Opportunities of Today’s Artistic Climate.”

Muffitt himself is a 21st-century musician and conducts the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra during the off-season. In these roles, Muffitt learns the same skills he teaches to Chautauqua’s young musicians.

The way students perform the music does not change, but the approach to marketing, education or program planning has to cater to a different era and audience.

“I think all of us are trying to realize the composer’s intentions when we approach a piece of music,” Muffitt said. “And now as we look back over those hundreds of years between choose-your-favorite-composer and now, what has happened is what we, as musicians, can offer that will shed light on understanding and creating … a deeper and more powerful experience for the listener.”

Chautauqua is one of the best places for this kind of music education. The Institution is uniquely conducive to developing the 21st-century musician because of its global perspective, Muffitt said.

Chautauqua also can be a place for spiritual growth, which is made clear by the Department of Religion’s outreach to the art departments. Part of the benefit of studying at Chautauqua is the interdisciplinary perspective students can learn from lectures like the “Art and Soul” Interfaith Series this week.

“The two go hand in hand,” Muffitt said. “Art is not without soul.”

Opera’s Lesenger sees his art as expression of spirituality



Jay Lesenger

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Opera is part of Jay Lesenger’s soul, but his soul has been burdened lately.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Lesenger, the general and artistic director of the Chautauqua Opera, will explain the challenge the arts are facing right now. His lecture is titled “Opera as a Spiritual Journey: My Confession.”

“I also will talk about the time that we’re in right now, which is a very difficult time,” Lesenger said. “Our souls are burdened now because of the economy and because of the lack of exposure to the arts in schools. So the focus will be on how we got there and the impact of what’s going on today.”

Although Lesenger said he does not consider himself an especially religious person, he is spiritual, and that spirituality is reflected in the opera.

When it comes to spirituality, Lesenger puts religion and opera on the same level. Everybody has some amount of spirituality in them, and religion can be an expression of that spirituality. Opera, he said, can be another.

“I think (religion and spirituality) are the same; I just think some people are religious because they follow the road of organized religion. … Religion is part of spirituality,” Lesenger said.

For many performers and audience members, the opera also can reflect the soul and spirituality, Lesenger said.

“For many people who are not performers, just the act of going and hearing and listening and being moved by it is a form of spirituality,” he said.

Historically, there are interesting tie-ins between opera, theater and religion. In a nutshell, theater evolved out of religion, and opera was originally an attempt to re-create theater.

For a period of time during the Middle Ages, secular theater was banned, so a form of theater appeared in churches that sparked opera. In the 1500s and early 1600s, operas could not include any reference to Christianity. So any religious content in operas at this time was mythological, Lesenger said.

“I think there is a lot of religion in opera, clearly. … I just think that opera is spiritual because of the way it moves you, the way it infects, the way it gets inside of you, the way any good theater or music does,” Lesenger said. “I think it’s so important because if we don’t have that expression in our culture, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Several years ago, Lesenger put together a season of religious operas called “Opera and the Almighty,” for which the Department of Religion planned a week of lectures to complement the opera’s theme. This week is the first time since then the two departments have worked together so directly.

“I think that’s part of what Chautauqua really does,” Lesenger said. “There’s an opportunity here to mix different disciplines … and I think Chautauquans love it when they see the different disciplines find ways to interact in ways that they wouldn’t expect.”

Although even Chautauqua’s soul is burdened with the challenges facing the art world, Chautauqua is still a special place to perform, Lesenger said.

“I don’t think you’ll find a lot of places or go to a lot of cities where the religious leaders call upon the artistic leaders … to be a part of what they’re doing,” he said. “And yet, it should, because there is an interrelationship. The festival of opera also is related to the festival of religion.”

Bonnefoux finds inspiration in spirit

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Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

At age 10, when most kids pretended to fight fires or dreamed of performing surgeries, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux decided he wanted to be a dancer.

Since then, Bonnefoux has accumulated countless awards; performed with the Paris Opera, Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets; and choreographed for the New York City Ballet. He co-founded a dance company that toured the U.S. for four years. He has taught at prestigious dance schools, and he now is the artistic director and president of the North Carolina Dance Theatre.

Since 1983, Bonnefoux has served as the artistic director, resident choreographer and principal teacher for the Chautauqua Dance program.

But none of these accomplishments could have come about without Bonnefoux’s deep connection with one thing: his spirit.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Bonnefoux will add another element of art to the theme “Art and Soul” in his lecture “Inspiration and Passion.” Great dancers should be in constant connection to their soul, he said.

“I think to be able to get to that level of dancing, you need to be inspired, and you need to be more in the spirit than you have to be in your head,” Bonnefoux said. “You have to do the work very well, you have to show up … but you have to go deeper; you have to commit to the spirit.”

Like Bonnefoux, many dancers decide at a very young age that they want to pursue dance. Then, they draw inspiration from the places they dance and the people who have danced before them, he said.

The dancer is inspired, internalizes that inspiration and then draws from it while he or she is dancing. This search within is vital to the creative process of dancing, Bonnefoux said.

“That’s what’s really unique for an artist,” he said. “Creation doesn’t come from the conscious mind. To create is really to go into the subconscious and what you have inside of you, that spirit.”

This explains why often, at the close of a performance, dancers may not remember how they danced or what happened around them. The dance was a deeply personal experience for them.

At its core, dancing is a soul search. Spirituality and religion can play a role for many dancers, but the spirit is the driving force, Bonnefoux said.

“For many people, the soul, or the spirit, is sacred and comes from a deeper place that many people call God,” he said. “My lecture is about creation, but also the spirituality of the body, the spirituality of what we do as an artist.”

When Bonnefoux dances or choreographs, his faith is part of his inspiration. He said he finds God in his spirit, from the same place that he finds inspiration for his dance.

Dance also is directly related to his faith in a physical sense. Though some religions condemn dancing, Bonnefoux said he uses it as an expression of his religion.

“Its such a natural thing to be moving,” he said. “A direct way to express yourself is through dance. It’s strange for me to hear or to know that there are religions that don’t think that you can dance, because I think it’s a celebration of the body, a celebration of the God who made you.”

CTC’s McSweeny, Benesch to reflect on life through theater

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Emma Morehart | Staff Writer


Although Ethan McSweeny and Vivienne Benesch have known each other personally and professionally for 15 years, there’s still more to learn.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, the two will interview each other about “Art and Soul,” the theme of this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series, as it relates to the theater, in “Soul and Story: Choosing a Life in the Theater.”

“When it comes to issues of our journey in art and the spiritual nature of that journey, I think there are always new mysteries to uncover,” said Benesch, who shares with McSweeny the title of artistic director of Chautauqua Theater Company.

The two are not co-directors, though. They posed the double-director idea to the leaders of the Chautauqua Institution in 2005, and the company has since reached new levels of popularity and creativity.


The company’s most recent production, “Three Sisters,” has received mixed reviews. But Benesch said that this is one of the things she loves about the theater.

“I think a lot of (the lecture series’ theme) is what it is about our profession that brings us … back to it,” Benesch said. “Why do we keep coming back to theater as the mode to express what is in our deepest soul? Because (the audience) gets to have an opinion. … People feel — because we are, as artists, reflecting human beings as themselves — that they have authority over that. And they do, to a certain extent.”

Often, the way a play resonates with audience members may reflect their religious or spiritual convictions, Benesch said. The theater does not impose a particular message on people. The theater reflects life, and the way a person reacts to life depends on their perspective.

That is one of the challenges Benesch faced with religion. She said she is Jewish by heritage, Catholic by culture and a mixture by practice. She often went to church and temple with her friends and was drawn to the feeling of community, but said she could never identify with one particular denomination — nor did she want to.

“I was raised with a certain amount of confusion about my own religious background … so for me, it did become then about spirituality,” Benesch said. “The best replica of that (feeling of community) is theater in many ways. … Where words about ethics, mortality, future, all of those themes, are dealt with, there’s a different dialogue all to the same questions.”

For McSweeny, religion is culture. He grew up a “Protestant Catholic,” and those traditions influenced his work as an artist. Art, he said, can transcend religion and meet with a more general spirituality.

“So art has a very useful role to play in a diverse society as a place where we come together to experience something live,” McSweeny said. “And by that I mean (in the theater) that we are sharing it. … There’s the similarity that the audience comes together in a collective community, and that is without direct religion.”

The difference between religion and spirituality is blurry. Often, spirituality is an umbrella term for faith-based beliefs, which include religion. In the theater, religion cannot be placed into a well-defined box. But Benesch said there is a place for it.

“‘Yes’ is the easy answer,” she said. “Of course there is a space. But the reason there’s a space is because it’s all in the beholder’s eye. … And what I take from that, or what any audience member takes from it, may touch them in the deepest part of the dialogue they’re having with themselves as a religious person. I believe the best theater touches people accidentally. … It doesn’t tell you how to listen to it or what to do with the information you’re getting.”

Both Benesch and McSweeny have close ties to Chautauqua through each other and through the theater company. Benesch began studying theater at Chautauqua in 1989 and has returned to direct, act and teach almost every year since. McSweeny, on the other hand, came to Chautauqua once when he was dating Benesch and did not expect to return.

“I didn’t have any imagination that (Chautauqua) would come to me as a dominant force as an artist,” McSweeny said.

At the lecture series today, the Chautauquan pillars of art and religion will cross in a more direct way than the theater company has yet to experience. The Department of Religion has always supported the theater, Benesch said, but this work is consistent with the Chautauqua mission.

“This is a lovely opportunity to share,” Benesch said. “And I’m curious if people who don’t normally come to the theater will come and hear us. I hope if they do, that our passion for what we do and that it is very much a spiritual quest will lead them to the theater.”

‘Art and Soul’ one and the same for VACI’s Kimes

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Don Kimes

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

What do Pompeii, jazz, the Information Age and art have in common?

Interruption. And this interruption inspires the kind of creativity seen in some of the most ambitious and successful pieces of art, said Don Kimes, the artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution.

Kimes will explain how interruption can be a catalyst for creativity in all forms of art in his lecture, “Interruption, Transformation and the Creative Act,” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

“These interruptions can be major and catastrophic, and the way one responds to them determines whether or not one digs a hole and climbs into it or manages to come through with it and maybe even something better happens as a result of that interruption,” Kimes said.

The theme of this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series is “Art and Soul” and analyzes how spirituality and faith influence art. Often, art and soul are inseparable, Kimes said.

“When I touch the walls of Pompeii, or I touch a stone carving that was there when the Venetians lived, it does something in terms of understanding your place in the universe,” Kimes said. “Art is really about a kind of transcendence. What else is it if it’s not about transcending?”

Kimes lives in Washington, D.C., but has spent a large portion of his life studying in Italy and still travels to the Italian city of Umbria. In 2010, he helped an Italian painter named Rossella Vasta write “Interruptio,” a collection of essays that discuss the role of interruption in the creative process.

“It’s only in really being lost do you have a chance to make a discovery,” Kimes said. “Otherwise, you kind of depend on what you already know.

He added that all of his most creative work began as an interruption.

“So it’s a way of looking at things that happen in our lives that we maybe don’t like at the time, but if we can manage to hold ourselves together … it’s possible that we’ll ascend in an even larger way,” he said.

Kimes has been the artistic director of VACI for 26 years and said collaboration with the other departments at Chautauqua has been essential to the smooth success of the Institution. But Kimes said he has never collaborated with the Department of Religion this directly.

The lecture allows Kimes to access an audience that he normally would not have the opportunity to engage with, he said. Even though interruption can be crucial to creative art, it is a topic well suited to a general audience as well.

“You’re looking for the thing that isn’t what you expect because in connecting to that thing … there’s a chance that you’ll find something you don’t already know,” Kimes said. “And to me, that’s the definition of art. That’s what education is, taking a chance on something you don’t already know.”

“Ascendence” and “transcendence,” the words Kimes uses to describe the core components of art, are familiar religious words as well. But art is more about spirituality than religion, he said.

“When I walk into a museum, and I look at the work of (someone else), the work that really calls me is the work that I can’t explain, that somehow talks about the healing spirit on some level, that can’t really be articulated,” Kimes said. “To me, that’s a kind of spirituality.”

He added that this is similar to the common religious concept of “blind faith.”

Although Kimes went to church as a kid, he said his faith does not shape his work as much as his spirituality does. But he said he does believe in God and often jokes that he works with God every day.

“Things happen, and then I respond to them and then the image comes out. I say that it’s just me and God. He does his thing and I do mine,” Kimes said with a laugh. “It’s like the saying, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’”

Performance artist brings Bonhoeffer’s prison letter to life



Al Staggs

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

From makeshift jail cells across the U.S., Al Staggs brings to life the letter that a distraught Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his German prison in the early 1940s.

“We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer,” the letter states.

This line inspired Staggs, a performance artist and former minister, to create a one-person play based on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Staggs will re-create the scene from the cell in his performance, “A View from the Underside: The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

“I combined that pivotal statement with my study of Latin American liberation theology, which contends that God has a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed,” said Staggs, referencing Matthew 25:31-46 and Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. “When one reads Scripture … you come away with the concept that it does appear that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Bonhoeffer often sacrificed his safety for the advocacy of social justice and the equality that his Christian background inspired in him.

“I think that Bonhoeffer reminds us in his advocacy for those who were disenfranchised, Jews and other victims of the Holocaust … of what we are about, and that is people of faith,” Staggs said. “So I brought this into dramatic form in a sense to highlight what Bonhoeffer was about and also how that can be instructed for the church and for people of faith.”

Staggs grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church in rural Arkansas and took a more activist look at religion while at Harvard University’s Harvard Divinity School. There, he began to consider economics, politics and the structural aspects of life as they related to his faith and religion in general.

Although his early religious education continues to influence his worldview, Staggs said his studies at Harvard set his faith on a new trajectory that examines how faith impacts structural evil and injustice. In this sense, Bonhoeffer’s work and theology often resonates with him.

“Bonhoeffer was a federal agent and put himself in a very political situation,” Staggs said. “Here he was a pastor and a noted theologian and became an operative in the affairs of state to try to arrest control of its demonic machine.”

Staggs also performs speeches and teachings of other leaders who can be considered “spies for God,” like Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan — and Jesus. In one program, Staggs performs the Sermon on the Mount in a way that “brings Jesus’ words to life in such a way that we hear them afresh,” according to a review by David Hindman, a United Methodist campus minister at the College of William and Mary.

Bonhoeffer’s combination of faith and activism and Staggs’ use of performance and history makes it possible for the audience to relate to the message in a personal way.

“The goal of my performance is to provoke the audience to think about what were Bonhoeffer’s actions and his challenges and how that relates to the challenges we now face with the issues we confront today,” Staggs said. “And there really is no answer, but at least it will hopefully be invocative and stimulating for people to think about what all of this means for us today.”

Chikane to speak on methods to fight injustice

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The Rev. Frank Chikane
The Rev. Frank Chikane

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

The Rev. Frank Chikane has been tortured, detained, put under house arrest, suspended from his ministry, criticized and nearly killed because of his fight for equality in South Africa. But he doesn’t name any of those when speaking about the biggest challenge he has faced so far.

“The challenge was I had to accept that Christians can do horrible things,” Chikane. “That’s why you will hear me talking about it (in the lecture), that I’m scared of religion. I’m scared of it. Because people can kill you in the name of God and believe in it.”

This is the perspective from which Chikane began his activism. And though his political activism put him at risk and his own religion betrayed him, it is his faith that inspired his work.

“So I had to answer to that, and then conclude that evil forces are able to use religion against people, and my response to it from high school … was that the people who oppress, the very people you are preaching to, are Christians,” Chikane said. “So we had to begin to think about rereading the Bible, reinterpreting the scriptures and ended up talking about liberating the Bible from the oppressor … and ultimately it ends up liberating your oppressor.”

Chikane learned this mutual liberation concept from his friend, mentor and fellow activist Beyers Naudé. Chikane met Naudé in college in the early 1970s, after Naudé broke away from the powerful South African brotherhood, Broederbond, and risked his life to advocate against it.

“His main argument was that you can’t save yourself by oppressing others,” Chikane said. “You can’t secure yourself by making other people insecure. You can’t have your future guaranteed as long as others are still oppressed. … That was his message to them. But at that time, he failed. They persecuted him.”

Chikane and Naudé’s first meeting marked the beginning of years of teamwork. When Nelson Mandela clashed with South African State President F. W. de Klerk over the transfer of power to Mandela, Mandela called Chikane and Naudé to intervene and resolve the standstill. When the church got involved in the anti-apartheid efforts, Chikane called Naudé for guidance.

So when Chikane was asked to speak about “spies for God,” Naudé became his lecture topic. Chikane will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy about Naudé’s courage in his lecture “Daring Death to Save a Nation.”

“For us, who were black and victims of this white establishment … the risk was that we would then hate all whites as the oppressors,” Chikane said. “And the heroic stance of Beyers Naudé, in my view, helped to humanize us in the sense that we couldn’t say all whites are like that. You needed a Beyers Naudé to take a stand, and he’s with you in that fight and faces the might of the state with you, and he is ready to die for it.”

Naudé helped many Africans be human, Chikane said, because he helped them recognize the difference between the system and the people.

“He helped us to think about life differently. … He did not win many whites to his side, but he remained a witness to many whites in the community,” Chikane said. “He was like a prophet, rejected amongst his own people.”

The parallels between Naudé’s and Chikane’s lives reflect Chikane’s courage as well. Both were tortured and rejected for their activism, and both fought for justice, even when it meant rejecting the beliefs of their own institutions. Chikane said that he and Naudé were window reflections of each other. Their main difference, though, was their race.

Chikane said he grew up in a very conservative white church and fought racism and division within his own environment. Naudé fought these same struggles, and consequences, from a white perspective.

Although Chikane received criticism for his political involvement, he said it never interfered with his work as a pastor. Before 1994, when apartheid ended in South Africa, Chikane’s faith called him to work for justice and equality. In 1995, Chikane began a 14-year career working for the government under former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe and serving as a member of the African National Congress.

But Chikane never left his church, and he said his congregation welcomed him despite his political work.

“There was not tension in terms of time, because the people I ministered to were victims of the same system,” Chikane said. “So there was, I call it, continuity. It was a holistic faith. So I continued to be a pastor, and the congregation said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go. When you come back, you are our pastor.’”

Now, Chikane dedicates the majority of his work to the church but still advocates for the liberation of society in a permanent way. The consequences of years of racism and injustice cannot simply disappear with the abolishment of laws, he said.

“What scares me most is that our generation is capable of doing exactly the same (as past generations), and we do the same in a different way that is more sophisticated,” Chikane said. “Human beings are children of their time. They repeat what those who came before them have done in a different way. … We commit the same atrocities. Because it’s sophisticated, we can’t see it.”

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