‘A Ballerina’s Battle with Bone Cancer:’ Stelth Ng, School of Music alumni, to present documentary on dancer Chiara Valle’s journey after cancer diagnosis

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Chiara Valle and Stelth Ng met at Chautauqua Institution in 2016 — Valle a first-year student at the School of Dance, Ng a third-year at the School of Music. 

“Chiara is the sweetest girl I’ve ever known, she has such joy for the smallest things in life,” Ng said. “The best thing about my experience with Chautauqua has been the relationships I’ve formed with people outside of my arena.”

The pair continued their collaborative work and friendship throughout Chautauqua’s 2017 season, one Valle would leave to perform in The Washington Ballet, where she started as a trainee in 2016, until she started experiencing excruciating pain in her femur. Valle was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. She was 19. 

The typical treatment? Amputation of the leg. But knowing that Valle was a ballet dancer, her doctors decided to give it their best shot, blasting the tumor with 14 rounds of chemotherapy — one so odious it’s nicknamed “The Red Devil” — and 31 treatments of radiation.

In November 2018, Valle was cleared as NED, no evidence of disease. In March 2019, she returned to the barre.

I wanted whoever was watching it to feel like they were Chiara,” Ng said. “I wanted them to feel the burden of $3 million in medical bills. I wanted them to feel like they were the one dancing. I wanted them to feel like they were experiencing these highs and lows.”

And Ng caught the comeback on film. 

Ng’s documentary “A Ballerina’s Battle with Bone Cancer: Chiara Valle’s Fight to Keep Dancing” will premiere at 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 20, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform

In 2019, Ng, founder of Triple Pointe Media — a production company named in honor of his work with ballerinas — traveled to New York City to capture Valle in the hospital, in the studio and cement them with the “raw moments” in between.

From the beginning, Ng said he made it clear to Valle he wanted the film to be about “her story and her story alone.”

“I wanted whoever was watching it to feel like they were Chiara,” Ng said. “I wanted them to feel the burden of $3 million in medical bills. I wanted them to feel like they were the one dancing. I wanted them to feel like they were experiencing these highs and lows.”

It’s an emotional story, Ng said. And every time he watches it, he cries. Although Ng knows he is conspicuously invested as a friend and a fellow artist, he said there is an “underlying message applicable to everyone.” 

“Part of being a dancer is so visual and when you immerse yourself in ballet, everyone is looking at you all the time and expecting to see something very specific and very perfect,” he said. “I think this documentary allows people to see beyond their expectations.” 

To think about Valle losing her leg, forcing her to stop dancing? Ng said it’s equivalent to a musician losing their hearing or a painter losing their eyesight. Or a musician losing their eyesight, as Ng did. 

When Ng was born, he could see “as well as any other kid,” and no one in his family had issues with their vision. But when he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with cataracts in his eyes. Complications from cataract surgery in one eye caused glaucoma, a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve.

The impact for Ng was sudden and profound. There was a period — two years — when he couldn’t see his mother’s face.

“Playing the violin and piano lifted me out of my depression,” Ng said. 

After 16 eye surgeries over the past 15 years, Ng now has a prosthetic in one eye and no night vision or depth perception. So he can empathize with Valle’s experience — the lack of control when health hinders a seemingly boundless career. But he wants something bigger, even broader to come of his documentary. Ng hopes to make it clear that every single young artist who comes through the gates of Chautauqua has “their own story and their own struggles that are not often seen or told.” 

“For me, even if Chiara had not made it to The Washington Ballet, the fact alone that she tackled cancer head on with no regrets makes her a success story,” Ng said. “The most inspiring people, I think, are the ones who have struggled. Our struggles give us perspective, perspective gives us clarity. And clarity? Clarity gives us hope.”

Fr. Richard Rohr says true evil in the flesh is really rooted in the ego, but it can still be killed


People sin at an unconscious level, said Fr. Richard Rohr, similar to Buddhism’s concept of delusion. The way that Christianity has centered sin on the flesh is a distraction from identifying these delusions in the dominant understanding.

Rohr gave his lecture on evil in the flesh at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 19 — the third in Chautauqua’s Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Reframing Our Journey: A Week with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.” First, he said that the writings of Saint Paul have led to immense misunderstandings because of the Greek word “sarx” being mistranslated to “flesh” in Saint Paul’s description of the dichotomy between flesh and spirit.

“We still think of flesh and spirit not just as enemies, but as warring against another,” Rohr said.

Rohr said that “sarx” is better understood as “ego,” a small, self-enclosed, narcissistic, self-protective self that is not maliciously evil, but tricky and untrustworthy.

“If you don’t recognize it, you will be trapped by it,” Rohr said.

As for any organization of people, Rohr said companies are inherently self-protective. They have to protect employees, to a degree, and ensure a future for the company. But they participate and benefit from the systems that people do not often see as inherently malicious, like the military-industrial complex.

Rohr said that religions’ failure now and throughout history is that they have stalled the collective ability to focus on true evil by convincing people that minor sins they commit are the root of all evil. He compared religious institutions to vacuum salesmen who conned people by sprinkling dust on their doors before knocking.

The first thing evil does, Rohr said, is disguise itself as necessary or strategic for the common good of a group.

“The only way we can really attack evil,” Rohr said, “is to see it as it is.”

Jesus also pointed out evil not in individuals, but in entire towns and communities: Jerusalem, Capernaum, the Pharisees.

Jesus called for evil to be named correctly against the wishes of kings and priests misusing power, and Rohr said that currently, journalists have the most freedom in history to broadly cover true evil against the wishes of those in power.

But people panic, Rohr said, when evil is pointed out at an institutional level like the military-industrial complex.

“I’m not talking about an individual soldier, I’m not talking about an individual health care worker, I’m not talking about an individual banker,” Rohr said. “But I am saying the system of health care, the system of banking, the penal system of incarcerating people, is almost always not so good.”

On page 13 of his book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, he said that the spiritual journey should focus on expanding people’s freedom to do good, rather than blaming someone who has committed evil.

“That paralyzes a person even deeper in the flesh,” Rohr said. “It doesn’t liberate them from the flesh.”

While Rohr sees this in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, he doesn’t see it necessarily reflected in Christianity.

“Our notion of religion has been a set of requirements, and clergy were made into  policemen — and they were men in almost all of history. Our job was to enforce the requirements, not to entice into liberation,” Rohr said. “In fact, (liberation) is mistrusted. You’re called dangerous or a heretic if you offer people new levels of freedom, because they might make mistakes.”

But mistakes based in the flesh can also bring people closer to God. Rohr said that he believes religions are stuck in a state of unconsciousness, in the first stage of development as defined by Ken Wilbur. Part of that unconsciousness is denying that a person benefits from systems of evil.

“I have enjoyed the fruits of evil,” Rohr said. “The military-industrial complex has kept me free my whole life.”

The understanding of sin that Rohr found in the Book of Paul is that sin is unconscious. Paul’s intuition in his writings was built on Jesus, Rohr said, even though Paul never knew Jesus, and the four gospels placed in front of his in the Bible had not yet been written. Rohr said this is because Paul was dealing in basic truths that came from what Rohr calls a Universal Christ. Rohr has written about this concept in a separate book called The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe.

“To think that we can totally resist and avoid all evil is only to persist in it in a new form,” Rohr wrote.

Operating unconsciously comes from the lowest part of the brain stem, the section that controls the fight-or-flight-response. In the Old Testament, the Bible’s protagonists react with a fight response, convinced that they can eliminate evil by exposing and killing it. But Rohr sees the flight response engaged in today’s brand of unconsciousness —people deny where true evil exists.

St. Martha

Reflecting on Catholic art in his last trip to Europe, Rohr observed that the archangel Michael is depicted front and center in churches and cathedrals with a sword, slaying the dragon of evil. But a friend brought him to a side altar of a church in Nuremberg, Germany, to show him Saint Martha petting the dragon and smiling.

“Whatever we call evil, it’s something we have to deal with, learn from, integrate … not eliminate,” Rohr said.

Jesus did also teach this feminine side of spirituality, Rohr said, but it is not what Christianity as an institution has historically valued. The way out of true evil is found in this path Jesus took, through nonviolent resistance against a system’s lies. But this isn’t easy, Rohr said, since the majority, the crowd, can never see past the illusion of evil.

The style of vengeful justice as portrayed by the archangel Michael is often misplaced when directed at the flesh, which most world languages don’t connote as the ego, or hidden internal badness, and instead define it too literally as sex.

“Religion after religion has localized the heart of evil in sex,” Rohr said. 

For evil in the flesh specifically, Rohr said that the death of the ego is where the Saint Martha-like treatment of evil happens. Rohr said this can be done over time through prayer and contemplation in order to kill the ego that each human clings to.

“We gave the false impression that Christianity is not about dying, but it is,” Rohr said.

At 2 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, Rohr will explain the devil as a source of evil — evil in its most mysterious form.

This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology & The Strnad Family Fund.

Hopkins scholar Martha Jones discusses history of voter suppression before and after ratification of 19th Amendment

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In the 1880s, suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began writing a history of women’s suffrage — a project that was thousands of pages long. 

“It is indeed a story that is told selectively,” said Martha Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University, “and, in particular, really minimizes, downplays, overlooks — and even erases in some moments — the role that Black American women had played in the road to the 19th Amendment.”

The 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago to the day of Jones’ Chautauqua lecture, and she said many will hear retellings of history that are closer to myths than facts. One of these myths is that the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote.

“It’s fair to say that no one gives American women the vote in 1920. As some commentators have put it, American women take the vote,” Jones said. “The Constitutional amendment is a decades-long battle waged by American women in the face of fears and recalcitrant opposition.”

In addition to her work at Johns Hopkins, Jones is the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, she gave a lecture titled “The Rare Few Times the Constitution Has Been Amended,” as part of Week Eight of the Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “Reframing the Constitution.” Jones discussed the history of voter suppression before and after the ratification of the 19th Amendment and current laws that keep American, particularly Black Americans, from the polls.

Jones said that the 19th Amendment states that a person’s sex is no longer a legitimate criteria for voting, and the word “male” was removed from U.S. voting laws. 

“Of course, there’s no guarantee in that provision. There’s no promise. There’s no requirement,” Jones said. “American women will still be kept from the polls after August of 1920 by age requirements, by residency requirements, by mental competency requirements; all of these things will continue to mediate women’s voting rights, even as sex is no longer permissible by law.”

She said that while the 15th Amendment states that race cannot be used as a criteria for voting, Southern and some western states made laws that successfully kept Black Americans from the polls. These laws included poll taxes, which was an annual fee for voters, and literacy texts, which required voters to read and provide an interpretation from the Constitution — either the federal one or an individual state’s Constitution.

“If any of you have lately looked at your Constitution and contemplated the complexity of something like the Electoral College,” Jones said, “you’ll know that many of us could not explain that provision of the Constitution, even if we could recite the words.”

Another was the Grandfather Clause, a law, Jones said, that permitted only people whose grandfather had voted before the end of the Civil War to vote. Jones said this ensured that the descendants of slaves could not vote, as the 15th Amendment was passed after the Civil War. She also said that unchecked intimidation and lynching forced many Black men away from the polls. 

“When we ask, ‘Did all American women win the vote in 1920?’ The answer is assuredly, ‘No,’” Jones said. “African-American women in too many states become equals to their fathers and their husbands, their sons, their brothers, but at the same time, they are equal only in the sense that they are equally disenfranchised, equally going to be kept from the polls.”

One example Jones gave was that, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, officials in Kent County, Delaware, refused Black women who failed the literacy tests. And in Savannah, Georgia, election judges ruled that women were not allowed to vote because of a state law that stated voters had to be residents of a state for six months before the election, and the 19th Amendment had not been in place for six months at that time. 

Jones said Southern and western lawmakers devised laws that targeted Black women because they feared they would vote in high numbers. She said during this time, white women did not register and vote at a high rate, but Black women did, even before 1920 in states — including California and New York — where women could vote.

“African-American women had been coming to the polls for years,” Jones said. “They had proven themselves to be committed voters, proven themselves to be organized and savvy enough to overcome registration hurdles.”

In Florida, Black women created clubs that prepared one another to register and vote on Election Day. Throughout Florida, Jones said that the Klu Klux Klan organized violence against Black voters to keep them from the polls. In the city of Daytona, Jones said the terrorist organization staged an open rally, which the local paper publicized, and went from the center of the city to Bethune Cookman University in the heart of the African-American community. At Bethune, Jones said the Klan tried to intimidate the many Black college students, and community members, to prevent them from going to the polls. 

Jones said voter suppression laws currently exist, with voter ID requirements and the closing of polling stations. While these laws are “neutral on their face,” as Jones said, so were the laws that suppressed Black voters in the 1920s — and they are having a disproportionate effect on Black voters.

“I’m not a historian who thinks nothing has changed,” Jones said. “There’s too much in the story between 1920 and 2020 for us to blindly suggest that nothing has changed, even as we continue to face struggles over voting rights in our own time.”

The lecture then transitioned to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Chief of Staff and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Shannon D. Rozner. Rozner asked Jones to comment on Sen. Kamala Harris being chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate in the presidential election. 

Jones said a lot of people commented on Harris being the first Black American woman and the first Indian-American woman to be a presidential running mate for a major party. 

“I’m someone who really thinks it’s time to retire the distinction of ‘the first,’” Jones said. “I think where we are, is in a new historical moment, one in which African-American women are emerging really as a force, rather than as first.”

Harris was among six other vice presidential hopefuls who were Black women, and Jones said around 120 Black women will run for Congress this year, which is up from 40 in 2018. 

“That tells us that African-American women are no longer tokens, are no longer ‘first.’ They have broken, if you will, the glass ceilings, and are now coming into American politics to lead,” Jones said. “I think what Sen. Harris exemplifies and gives us an opportunity to learn more about is, what does it mean when African-American women lead in American politics?”

Rozner asked Jones to react to the breaking news that President Donald Trump would pardon suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested for voting in 1872. 

“What a cynical move that is on the part of the president, when we are in the midst of wholly fumbly access to the polls for so many Americans, including American women, in November,” Jones said.

Jones said there are people in better positions to speak on Anthony’s behalf, but she thinks that Anthony would be “decrying this administration for its unwillingness to guarantee our access to the polls in November.”

“Her arrest was a badge of honor. In many ways it was a merit badge for an activist of her generation; perhaps it’s still a merit badge today for activists,” Jones said. “I’m not convinced that Susan Anthony would welcome the pardon from Donald Trump in 2020.”

Fr. Richard Rohr describes how the world’s systems and communities put evil on autopilot


The world puts evil on autopilot.

“Evil is an unconscious set of social agreements,” said Fr. Richard Rohr.

In his second lecture of the Interfaith Lecture Series’ Week Eight theme of “Reframing Our Journey: A Week with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Aug. 18, Rohr described how the world enables evil.

The day before, Rohr gave his keynote lecture which framed the facets of evil he describes in his book, What Do We Do With Evil?: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The book serves as an accompanying work that explains the social character of evil that he mentioned in his previous book, Falling Upwards.

Rohr said that religions have localized sin on the flesh of the individual. Though there is agency within the conscious individual who refuses to cooperate with evil when they recognize it, the world perpetuates evil by determining it as acceptable. And the environment someone is born into, based on factors including their gender, race, culture and the people who raise them, shapes how they move in the world.

“We are all good based on one another’s goodness,” Rohr said.

This also means the inverse: We are all bad by one another’s badness.

When Rohr served as a chaplain in an Albuquerque jail for 14 years, he would enter the jail knowing he was about to meet a criminal. Some were guilty of murder. Others were guilty of rape.

“I would go in expecting to meet this person I read about in the paper, fully expecting to hate them because of the murder or the rape or the dastardly thing that they’d done — even wanted to hate them,” Rohr said. “And then I’d spend an hour sitting in the cell hearing their story.”

Often, Rohr would be shocked they were living at all.

“They are surviving on this level of what little has been given to them,” Rohr said. “What little self-confidence, what little self-worth, what little education, what little self-esteem.”

While communities or religious groups commonly indict individuals as sinners, Rohr said most of the Bible indicts entire communities or cities at once.

In the Old Testament, Edith, Judea and Israel fall in sin, and the entire kingdom of Moab was punished by God. In the New Testament, Jerusalem falls. And Jesus referred to the city of Capernaum in Matthew 11:23, “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths.”

“That’s the collective that made you the way you are,” Rohr said.

The New Testament refers to this collective as the world. It is the system or the game that everyone is in, but different rules apply to different people.

“You gotta know what a culture excludes to know what it worships,” Rohr said.

Rohr said that in the United States, Americans hate the poor and people of color and worship riches, white privilege and individualism — on both sides of the political spectrum.

“Until you get rid of this illusion of you being a separate self, I don’t think you’ll get very far in understanding the message of the gospel or in dealing with the sinful nature of society that is killing all of us,” Rohr said.

This illusion also allows systemic evil like racism and sexism to flourish. Rohr said leaders in politics who blame a few corrupt individuals, and police leaders who blame police brutality on a few bad apples, is a tactic that distracts people from the systemic issue. However, the last three popes have used vocabulary defining the phenomenon of collective evil with the terms “structural sin” and “institutional evil.”

“Evil is a set of agreements that only make us happy and aren’t true,” Rohr said.

In order to escape from the burden of evil, Rohr said to find ways to not cooperate with it: by removing oneself from its mechanics.

“The point of Gospel is to keep people from buying into the sin system,” Rohr said.

To prepare for his next lecture, “Reframing Our Journey: The Flesh,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 19, Rohr recommended his audience read Romans and Galatians to see if it reads differently with this new lens of evil.

“Sin is hidden in good places,” Rohr said.

This program is made possible by the Eileen and Warren Martin Lectureship for Emerging Studies in Bible and Theology & The Strnad Family Fund.

Alumni Association of the CLSC’s Online Auction ‘keeping the Chautauqua spirit alive’


While the 2020 season at Chautauqua may have been drastically different from a normal year, not all of the changes brought on by the pandemic have been negative. Some have been opportunities for Chautauquans to learn, especially about the importance of having an online infrastructure.

“When we have these events — the Great American Picnic and the silent auction — not everyone gets to be here, in Chautauqua,” said Pat McDonald, the vice president of membership for the Alumni Association of the CLSC. “We’re thinking maybe even next year, we’ll do something like an online auction after the real auction, or before, so that people who aren’t able to come that week are still able to participate.”

The Alumni Association of the CLSC’s Online Auction, which began last Wednesday and ends today, Aug. 19, marks the first time in Chautauqua history that the Association’s auction has been conducted entirely virtually. And though the Great American Picnic, the Brick Walk Book Walk and Authors Among Us Book Fair have been canceled, the auction’s annual quest to raise scholarship funds remains.

“All of the money from the auction goes to scholarships for local teachers, students and librarians to take classes in the literary arts here at Chautauqua,” McDonald said. “This year, we didn’t have as many scholarship people come, of course, but our adult scholarship winners all have taken a virtual class.”

Among the many items available for bidding is an antique marble washstand from 1915, a loom and a book of Grecian History by James Richard Joy that was used in a Chautauqua course in the late 19th century. 

“We also have these really interesting oil paintings,” McDonald said. “They came out of one person’s condo — these oil paintings were in there. They’re very nice and beautifully framed. Nobody knows who did them, all we know about them is that they’re supposed to be scenes from Austria.”

For McDonald, helping to run the Online Auction — along with the auction committee — made her feel like she was contributing to “keeping the Chautauqua spirit alive.”

“She is the catalyst for the group and has pulled this all together, and she’s had the vision for the scholarships that was necessary to do all of this,” said Caroline Young, a member of the auction committee. 

McDonald said that at the very least, the Online Auction is “giving people something to think about, and clueing them in to things they might want.”

“We saw the Women’s Club doing a great job still collecting for the flea market and storing things, and we thought, ‘Gosh, they’re doing it, so maybe we can do something, too,’” she said.

National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen opens week on ‘Reframing the Constitution’ by tracing founders’ ideals to present day

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Founding Father James Madison wanted to create a Constitutional system that ensured that reason prevailed over passion and prevented large assemblies from making hasty decisions. 

“That is why it is so difficult in the U.S. to pass a law or to amend the Constitution; you have to jump through lots of hoops to pass a law,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center. 

An amendment to the Constitution has to be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or two-thirds of the states have to call a special convention, then it has to be ratified by three-quarters of the states and signed by the president. Rosen said that the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid the creation of factions, which Madison defined as a group, either a majority or minority, that is dedicated to passion and self interest, rather than reason and public good. 

Madison thought that the size of the U.S. was an advantage, in that it made it hard for factions to organize themselves. Rosen said the original drafters of the Constitution, also called the framers, thought that elected representatives would ensure that the wisest people would pick the best policies.

“(The framers thought) it’ll be hard for passionate factions to mobilize, but it will allow cool representatives to deliberate in the public (eye),” Rosen said. “Sound like politics today? Well, of course, it doesn’t sound like politics today.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Rosen discussed how some of the Founding Fathers’ ideals are not followed in present-day politics, as well as how the the U.S. government has changed since its founding, to open the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Eight theme of “Reframing the Constitution.”

Madison’s idea that the size of the U.S. would make factions harder to form no longer applies, Rosen said, because technology makes it easy to find and organize with like-minded people. And on Facebook, fake news often reaches more people than real news. 

“People are more likely to share a post with inaccurate information and a really inflammatory headline without reading it, just because it seems so outrageous,” Rosen said. 

Rosen said that historians have found that the U.S. is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. 

“In 1960 in Congress, there was a 50% overlap between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrats,” Rosen said. “Today, there is zero overlap. It means that both parties are much more extreme than they were before, and are much less likely to find common ground.”

Since the Constitution was drafted, Rosen said that political parties have risen, which Madison did not anticipate. Because everyone recognized George Washington as “someone who is above party,” Rosen said, the framers — including Madison and Alexander Hamilton — assumed that legislators would do their work without the influence of political parties. 

“Almost as soon as the system got started, it began to operate in a way that was different than the framers expected — and that was because of the rise of parties,” Rosen said.

Rosen said that discussing and listening in person is no longer how Congress makes decisions. 

“The parties are so polarized, they’re refusing to deliberate. They’re putting through major legislation on party-line votes,” Rosen said. “Both the major achievements of President Obama and President Trump, the Affordable Care Act and the tax cut, passed with zero votes from the other side.”

But this was not the case as recently as 2006, he said, when the expansion of the Voting Rights Act passed with large bipartisan support under President George W. Bush, but then “the Supreme Court struck that down in the Shelby County case.”

“Whether you agree with the majority or the dissent in the Shelby County case, it’s pretty striking, isn’t it, that as recently as 2006 we could have major bipartisan legislation?” Rosen said.

Further, the powers of the president are different than what Madison originally believed they should be. The Constitution itself gives the president very few powers, but Article Two gives the president the power to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to ensure laws are faithfully executed and to nominate ambassadors, judges and other officials with the consent of the Senate. 

Rosen said that from President Ronald Reagan to President Donald Trump, the number of executive orders issued by presidents has risen. He said that the Supreme Court has challenged executive orders, such as Obama’s executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and Trump’s executive order to phase out the program.

The framers, including Hamilton, who Rosen called “the rap star of the moment” due to the musical Hamilton, supported judicial review of laws. In the musical, and real life, Hamilton believed that judges should choose the will of the Constitution, which he said represented the will of the people, over ordinary laws, which represented the will of legislators. 

But people disagree if the original Constitution truly represents the will of everyone. 

“Not everyone agrees that the original Constitution, passed by a bunch of white men, many of whom were slaveholders in Philadelphia, from which African Americans and women and other groups were excluded, … does represent the will of the people,” Rosen said. 

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill. As the National Constitution Center recently partnered with The Atlantic for a project called “The Battle for the Constitution,” which argues that the nation is in a fourth battle over the document, Hill asked Rosen about the first three battles, and why he believes a new battle is occuring. 

Rosen said the first three battles were the American Revolution, the Civil War and the New Deal, and each represented a moment of rethinking principles. The Revolutionary War led to the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, then the Constitution — because the framers wanted a central government strong enough to control the country’s defense and economy, while being constrained enough to protect individual rights.

The Civil War, which Rosen called the second battle of the Constitution, led to the end of slavery and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The third battle, the New Deal, centered around the Supreme Court giving President Franklin Roosevelt broader federal powers in order to give economic aid.

Rosen said the fourth and current battle revolves around whether certain agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Protection Bureau and the United States Postal Service, should have broad scope in which to operate. He said the outcome of the presidential election will decide if this battle continues or is resolved.

Hill then asked what Rosen’s prognosis was on the divisiveness of the present moment, and what the average person should be looking at more closely.

“(We need to) move past an age of Twitter, and the cable news and making quick decisions by a soundbite, and just take the time to sit down together and look each other in the eye,” Rosen said. “Your wonderful questions and your willingness to listen to my attempts at answers are what give me hope.”

Berofsky family to introduce ‘innovation and originality’ through classical piano quartets


During the COVID-19 pandemic, some musicians were forced to explore solos during quarantine, but for Aaron Berofsky, his partners were in the next room over.


“My wife and I never intended to push our boys to be musicians, but we always realized if they did decide to pursue it, we could make really good music together as a family,” Berofsky said. “We wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Chautauqua School of Music faculty members Aaron Berofsky, violin faculty and chair of strings, and his wife, Kathryn Votapek, viola instructor and chamber music coach, are joined by their award-winning sons, pianist and composer Charles, and cellist Sebastian, to create the Berofsky Piano Quartet. 

The creation of the quartet is relatively new, as Berofsky said they didn’t have the “time to take it on” pre-pandemic. 

“Everyone is always running around to their own rehearsals, performances and competitions,” he said. “In a way, that’s the silver lining of this whole thing — suddenly, we have the time to do things we couldn’t even attempt before.”

The Berofsky Piano Quartet will perform a program “full of fun and surprises” at 4 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 17, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. The program features Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, Charles Berofsky’s “Uneasy Dreams” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Allegro con Fuoco” from Piano Quartet in E-flat major, B. 162, Op. 87.

The concert begins with “marvelous Mozart,” who wrote his Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 in 1785, when publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister commissioned three quartets. Clocking in at 22 minutes, the piece features an addition of a viola — an instrument Mozart loved to play when he himself performed chamber music — to the traditional piano trio. 

“We have worked on this Mozart in the past, partly because Mozart is the most glorious music, but also because it is not as difficult as Brahms and Dvořák,” Berofsky said. “It gives a certain sense of ease to the start of the program, for both the audience and us as the musicians.” 

Following Mozart is Charles Berofsky’s 2017 “Uneasy Dreams.” The piano quartet is written for the standard instrumentation of violin, viola, cello and piano; the strings and piano are often juxtaposed as two separate choirs, although there are times when all instruments are combined either homophonically or “contrapuntally in bouts of energetic fury.” 

Thematically, the piece was composed in three connected sections, depicting a series of moods and images that flow from one to the other without apparent reason. 

“Through this music, Charles is explaining the experience of feeling like you are in a dream state, meaning you are not fully in control of what’s going on around you or within you,” Berofsky said. “It’s a really fun rollercoaster of emotions to play through.” 

The “grand” finale: the first movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, B. 162, Op. 87. 

“It is a big, grand, larger-than-life kind of piece,” Berofsky said. “Yes, we are only playing the first movement, but it’s as grand as the last movement. He kept up with the piece’s personality throughout its entirety.” 

The Piano Quartet in E flat major is Dvořák’s second and last work for the instrumental ensemble. Fourteen years separate this work from his previous Piano Quartet in D major, and Berofsky said it is far more “romantic and substantial” than the Mozart piece. 

“We rehearsed this piece a lot because the music is uniquely complex,” he said. “That is part of the luxury of the time we are in — we can finally work in detail with one another.” 

Berofsky said the family decided it would be a “great ender” because it serves as a prime example of the composer’s ability to introduce innovation and originality into the classical form. 

After all of the years he has played this piece in professional settings, Berofsky said he is still amazed at how “Dvořák pulled it all together.”

“The same goes for the Mozart selection,” Berofsky said. “They are not only great pieces, they are incredibly surprising in terms of harmony, voicing, or in a way that the music takes a turn you don’t expect. When you’ve played it for years and still feel like you’re learning or noticing something new each time, that’s when you know it’s good music.”

This series is made possible by Bruce W. and Sarah Hagen McWilliams.

In Sufism, humans bring the divine to Earth, said Kainat Felicia Norton and Muinuddin Charles Smith

Kainat Felicia Norton Muinuddin Charles Smith IF
Norton & Smith

In Sufism, life began when Allah gave a deep sigh of compassion and poured heavenly qualities into Earth.

“It’s said that the divine was pregnant with this longing to know itself and to give forth something,” said Kainat Felicia Norton.

Norton and Muinuddin Charles Smith described the creation story of Sufism on Week Seven’s Interfaith Friday. Pre-recorded in their New York apartment, the lecture was released at 2 p.m. EDT Aug. 14, on the CHQ Video Assembly Platform.

Norton and Smith lead the Inayati Sufi Order as senior Sufi teachers, retreat guides and interfaith ministers. They founded the Light of Guidance Center for Sufi Studies in New York City.

Smith said creation was instantaneous when God said the words, “Be and so become.” God’s angels, which existed previously (though not in cherub form), did not understand God’s creation — especially humans, who were tasked as “vice regents” of God. 

The angels were most concerned with humans’ potential for mischief. The first Qur’an stories detail how humans go astray, which include the story of stringing up a she-camel.

“There is so much of the Qur’an warning people that we have a tendency to get out of harmony,” Smith said. “The warnings can sound pretty severe. … But there’s also a part of the Qur’an where Allah says, ‘My mercy precedeth my wrath.’ The wrath is if we don’t live in harmony with life and we’re gonna make a mess.”

But humans also have an ability to act upright and grow into their responsibility to help God deliver the divine on earth. Humans are described as fragments of light or of the divine being, with a body of clay and a crown of stars.

“It’s not possible for the creator to be separate from creation,” Smith said. “It’s like the carpenter has become the wood. … There’s an understanding that divine self-knowledge is a revelation of the spark that’s in each of us. It doesn’t have to take a spiritual or religious form, but it’s something about being enthusiastic, having ‘theos’ within us.”

Sufis either choose new first names — or in Norton and Smith’s cases, Sufi teachers give them new first names — to serve as a reminder of a goal or value to strive for. It’s related to aspiring to that responsibility to bring the divine onto Earth.

“Usually, you’re given a name because you’re meant to unfold that or grow into it, or it’s like an affirmation,” Norton said.

Smith’s, Muinuddin, was given to him two years after he joined a Sufi community. When asked to find a quote by a Sufi prophet or leader, he was struggling to find one that resonated with him. He was sitting in front of a fireplace when a piece of paper fell out of the fireplace into his hand.

“It was the last words of an ancient Sufi,” Smith said. “Long quote, but it said, ‘Love all, hate none. Mere talk of God will not get you far. Mere talk of religion will not get you far. Bring out all the potential of your being and serve the people, and serve the poor and the widow.’”

The next day, Smith’s guide called him and said he had picked out a name for him: Muinuddin. It was the name of the same saint, Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, from the fireplace quote.

Norton had the first name Sharifa for years. In 2015, while teaching in a program, another teacher said, “I have a new name for you.” It was Kainat, a Persian name which means “the universe.”

With every breath of God, there is a new possibility,” Norton said.

There is a repeated theme in Sufism of bringing the divine on Earth, rather than accessing the divine through a transcendent experience. Norton said for a full life, the flame in the heart of a human must align with the light from above. 

“It’s said that the human is higher than the angel, because it’s more difficult here,” Norton said. “It’s a little harder here than to be up there as an angel. And yet, it has more value because the human has a full experience. Through manifestation, a lot more has happened than just staying in the angelic light.”

Another practice in Sufism and Islam, though Smith said this is also found in Judaism, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, is to repeat the name of Allah, or another name for the divine, through chanting and praying for Allah to remember a person. It invokes, “Remember Allah, and Allah will remember you,” from the Qur’an.

“We generate the light of the soul through the word we repeat,” Smith said. “That’s a very important practice for seeing clearly what this world is about, and living in a way that is in harmony with light, with nature, with all of life.”

Norton also said that creation isn’t done unfolding.

“With every breath of God, there is a new possibility,” Norton said.

God calls us to stretch our hearts to include all those God loves, says McLaren

worship screenshot

In this election season, what if a presidential candidate proclaimed that Black Lives Matter and exploded the myth of American exceptionalism and talked about American history in full, the bad and ugly as well as the good and noble?

The Rev. Brian D. McLaren posed that question in his 10:45 a.m. EDT sermon for the Sunday, Aug. 16, service of worship and sermon on the CHQ Video Assembly Platform. His sermon title was “Dismantling Supremacy,” and the scripture text was Luke 4:22-30 (NRSV) —

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.”’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

McLaren called this scripture “a dramatic moment that few notice.” It is preceded by two stories. The first is about Jesus’ time in the wilderness fighting power, pride, pleasure and prestige. The second is the shortest sermon of all time, reading from the prophet Isaiah and telling the crowd that this prophecy was fulfilled.

“Instead of seeing today’s text as a postscript, what if we read the other two stories as warm-up acts for this climactic story?” McLaren asked the congregation.

This is a “local boy makes good” story. But Jesus, in telling about the work of Elijah and Elisha, is saying that Sidonian and Syrian lives matter. “God’s aperture is wider, God’s embrace more expansive than others,” McLaren said.

For his book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, about Christian identity in a multi-faith world, McLaren researched terrorism. He came across a story by a journalist embedded with a group of suicide bombers.

“The research made me shiver, because these people were not filled with hate for the other, but with love for their own people who were wronged and suffering. The act was not out of fury for the other, but protection for their own,” McLaren said.

He continued, “Love can be dangerous if its span is too narrow, if it is too restricted. Jesus dealt with this problem at the very beginning of his ministry. He was not here for the good of his own religion or economy. He brought God’s good news for all people.”

McLaren asked his daughter, a yoga instructor, to build a class for him that would deal with his bodily limitations.

“It hurt, but yoga is about stretching. What we don’t stretch, constricts. It happens with our hearts. If we don’t widen our embrace, our hand too easily becomes a fist,” he said.

He told the congregation that “we have to have the courage to do what Jesus did and to speak up for those being left out and adding our voice to their voices. In fact, we add our voices to God’s voice to say ‘these lives matter.’”

Don’t think you will get a “thank you” or a Nobel Prize, McLaren continued. “People will see blood and believe that you have betrayed an unwritten covenant.”

That covenant is “love us and remember who your enemies are. We are not like them and if you love them like equals, you are more dangerous than our enemies,” he said.

Every election season, there are politicians and their chaplains who hold up ideals to provide easy patriotism, cheap popularity and tell voters who to hate and who to exclude.

“We need to take from Jesus God’s love that goes beyond us and them, that is not constrained, that is not discriminatory, that is not based on worthiness, but on the well of who God is,” McLaren said.

Jesus’ revolutionary blood includes those from Sidon, Israel and Syria. “Jesus eats with those who don’t matter, heals those who don’t matter, listens to those who don’t matter and lets them touch him. They really do matter,” he said.

McLaren asked the congregation, “When your love gets shrunk, can you stretch beyond those who are like you, who think like you? Can you stretch beyond to the animal world, to the world of lakes and soil and climate?”

“Love-driven politics is disruptive and dangerous. You could get thrown off a cliff. Now go and do likewise,” he concluded.  

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Michael Miller, a Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “Inning” from Six Studies for Pedal Piano by Robert Schumann. Miller sang the gathering hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The anthem was “For the Mountains Shall Depart,” fromElijah,” by Felix Mendelssohn, sung by Miller. The offertory hymn was “Tell Out, My Soul,” by Walter Greatorex, words by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and sung by Miller. “A Song of Freedom,” by Charles Villiers Stanford, was the offertory anthem with Miller as the soloist. Miller sang the choral response. “Lead me, Lord,” by S.S. Wesley. Stafford played “Toccata in D Minor,” by Charles Villiers Stanford, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Edmond E. Robb – Walter C. Shaw Fund and the Randall-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.

Today’s offertory anthem, “A Song of Freedom,” comes from the “Six Bible Songs and Hymns” of Charles Villiers Stanford. These pieces expand on the idea of Dvorák’s “Biblical Songs,” from which we heard a setting of Psalms 61 and 63 two weeks ago. With Stanford’s more elaborate scale, gesture and colorful organ accompaniments, these pieces suggest more of a miniature cantata than a simple Bible song. This setting of Psalm 126 tells of the Israelites’ return out of captivity, praying for and prophesying future prosperity. This morning, Stafford also played Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful setting of “For the mountains shall depart” from the oratorio “Elijah,” to which Stanford had a peculiar connection: His father sang the role of Elijah at it’s Irish premiere in 1847.

Author, international human rights attorney Flynn Coleman discusses making AI more empathetic, the importance of non-human intelligence


Billye is a Giant Pacific Octopus who lives in the Seattle Aquarium. Billye and other octopodes have learned to open jars — they can even open medicine bottles with childproof lids. 

“While (octopodes) have a good-sized central brain, two-thirds of their neurons are in their eight arms controlling hundreds of suckers,” said Flynn Coleman, author and international human rights attorney. “They use distributed intelligence to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and independently: something that the human brain cannot do.”

Much of the conversation around artificial intelligence is how machines can mimic the human brain, which Coleman said is thought to be the “gold standard” for organic intelligence. While the human brains have a lot of promise due to their complexity, they also present problems.

“We do not fully understand our own brains, nor do we even have a universally accepted definition of what human intelligence is,” Coleman said. “We don’t know exactly why we sleep or dream. We don’t know how we process memories. We don’t know whether we have free will, or what consciousness is or who has it.”

Coleman said these unknowns make the task of coding a human brain very difficult, so scientists may have to look toward minds of other species, such as octopodes. She said Billye’s distributed approach to problem solving may be well suited to making robots that explore distant planets.

“The range of skill ingenuity and creativity of our biological brethren on this planet is astounding,” Coleman said. “We have a proclivity to only weigh their intelligence and skill in relation to our own. This human-centric view is limiting at best and dangerous at worst.”

Coleman is the author of A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are and has worked with the United Nations, the United States federal government and organizations around the world. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, she discussed how people can make AI more empathetic, as well as the importance of non-human intelligence, to close the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme of “The Science of Us.”

Coleman said the original computer — the human brain — has 100 billion neurons and 2.5 petabytes of memory, and has served humans for around 100,000 years.

“It is hard to overlook that it needs constant fueling to perform at even minimal levels,” Coleman said. “We all know how notoriously slow it can be to boot up in the morning.”

She said people are becoming more reliant on machines and more immersed in virtual life.

“A new era is upon us, and our lives are so seamlessly merging with the digital world that many of us don’t even notice,” Coleman said. “That is, until a global pandemic thrust us into a primarily digital existence, exposing both the promise and the frailties of the technological systems we have.”

These frailties include many people having no access to a laptop or a smartphone, according to Coleman. She also said that society is more focused on advancing technology and creating AI that is better at predicting outcomes, than how these tools will define the lives of current and future generations. 

To address concerns about technology, Coleman said people need to address their own assumptions about the world, and “paradoxically, we also need to ask what technology can teach us about being human.”

Almost every major human achievement has been the result of our ability to collaborate, not the genius of some individuals, according to Coleman. 

“Experts can often be the worst forecasters because they can be dogmatically siloed in their fields, and invested in being right,” Coleman said. “However, beginners, who have a fresh take without a stake in being the best, can often help us see what specialists cannot.”

Coleman said the technology mirrors its designers, and that a diverse group of participants is necessary in creating a fair and ethical AI. 

“AI and computerization will be the biggest disruptors in the history of labor economies, and the challenges of the fast-spreading novel coronavirus have exposed the inequities in our societies, and how many essential workers are significantly undervalued and excluded,” Coleman said. “We’re going to have to reimagine our relationships with work and tap into our innate sagacity and creativity to navigate this brave new world.”

Along with octopodes, Coleman said other animals have incredible intelligence, from the memories of pigeons, spiders spinning webbed balloons to fly, and bees using dance to communicate complex information to their colonies.  

“This is possibly the last frontier of scientific invention — maybe our chance to embrace our human limitations and to expand our worldview beyond ourselves,” Coleman said. “The science of us must have the broadest possible definition. Being willing to admit other species are brilliant could be the smartest thing we can do.”

Coleman said that part of building better AI is looking at humans’ worst tendencies and improving society. 

“We don’t need to save ourselves from robots, we need to save robots from ourselves today,” Coleman said.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President of Marketing and Communications Emily Morris. Morris asked Coleman how her work as a human rights attorney connects to her work with technology.

Coleman worked with the Genocide Prevention Center in 2001, where they used satellites to look for evidence of war crimes, such as mass burial cites. 

“I kept thinking it’s not enough, because everyone is already dead and gone,” Coleman said. “While it’s so important to have a record of abuse and the things that have happened, the worst things we can do to each other, I thought, ‘How can we do more?’”

Coleman then looked into artificial intelligence and saw the field needed a human right’s perspective, which led her to writing A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are.

Morris asked Coleman how the average person could get involved with making ethical AI.

Coleman said that the fields of programming and other technology are not the only aspects of society that need more inclusion; it’s needed at “every echelon of leadership” from the school boards to local government.

“We can, inch by inch, brick by brick, take tiny actions every single day. Your life is a million tiny moments, mostly unseen,” Coleman said. “How can you serve another today? How can you care for someone else? How can you amplify someone else’s voice? How can you stand up for social justice with whatever skills you have at hand?”

Ingrid Mattson said in Islam, life is a shared journey — so be a good traveler


“Be in this world as if you are a traveler” is a teaching from Islam prophet Muhammad. In her lecture of the same name, Ingrid Mattson explored what it means from an Islamic perspective for people to be spiritually united.

Her lecture was broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 13, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Recorded in Mattson’s home in London, Ontario, her lecture aligned with the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”

Mattson is the president of the Islamic Society of North America. She also serves as the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College, the oldest affiliate college of Western University in Canada.

In July, Mattson said she was struck by an Architectural Digest article that recommended 41 design shows available on streaming services. It demonstrated a new shared interest in not only spending time at home, but investing in the home and family. 

Mattson said that while there was an existing desire for consuming the latest products, this energy has been redirected into the home. Breadmakers. Swing sets. Swimming pools. Gardens.

Meanwhile, there are also those who go without these luxuries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For many, lockdown means no access to green space,” Mattson said. “Lockdown means crowding with no privacy. Lockdown means being trapped in an unsafe place. We are not truly having a common experience.”

And before lockdown, nationalism and ethnic nationalism were already rising and dividing people across many countries, which enforced their constructed borders that housed those identities.

“But in this case of the pandemic, the regulation of human proximity and movement-insured spaces does have a scientific — rather than ideological — basis,” Mattson said. “An American paradox is that many of the people who claim to be worried about foreigners transmitting an ideological and cultural virus — which is not a real thing, by the way — are strangely unconcerned about viral infection, which is a real thing.”

Mattson said that while (most) people are sheltered in place, ideology is spreading out of fear. But the virus moves faster.

“It’s not surprising that in these — still early — days, the most ideological have doubled down in their views,” Mattson said. “But the virus continues its replication and its travels throughout the world, indifferent to our ideologies.”

While the pandemic continues, Mattson said people who were previously defined by their mobility or displacement have faced challenges.

“Until the lockdown, many of us found it unremarkable that we could frequent malls and amusement parks, restaurants and music venues. The privileged were taking the world as their oyster, taking cruises, safaris, study tours, sporting holidays, trips to the beach,” Mattson said. “And before the lockdown, the world’s disadvantaged were struggling to flee their homes, to escape political oppression and violent occupation, to move to higher ground, or to find a source of water as climate change has rendered their homes unlivable.”

For the displaced, Mattson said the pandemic has exacerbated their conditions. And prior to the pandemic, the United States had been gradually closing its borders to others who seek to migrate or flee their home countries while simultaneously strong-arming other countries to allow U.S. intervention. Now, U.S. citizens are seeing their international travel options contract as COVID-19 continues to spread in the United States.

“So many of us in the Western world feel entitled to have both a national home that is ours, from which others are locked out, and the right to exploit the rest of the world,” Mattson said. “We demand that other nations remove their barriers to what we want. We should be able to exploit their markets, their natural resources, and we should be able to carry our ideologies and culture to their people without restriction.”

Mattson said that along with other modes of transportation, the human body is geared for forward movement, with eyes and feet directed ahead — even when losing or missing limbs. And in the Qur’an, God calls for humans to spread across the Earth as well.

In the Qur’an, God speaks in Chapter 17, verse 70: “We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam and transported them over land and sea and provided with them sustenance out of the good things of life and favored them far above much of our creation.”

Mattson said that God directs humans to remove obstacles for others, and to clean up after ourselves. The Qur’an says that wealth and children are joys and temptations for excess at the same time.

“The Qur’an encourages the enjoyment of wholesome and beautiful things, and it prohibits waste and excess,” Mattson said.

In Chapter 6, verse 141, the Qur’an states, “It is God who has brought into being gardens, the cultivated and the wild, and date palms and fields with produce of all kinds; olives and pomegranates, similar in kind and diverse. So eat of their fruit in season, but give their due on harvest day, to the tithe or some to the poor on harvest day. And do not waste, for God does not love the wasteful.”

But the Qur’an also notes that unbridled desire is insatiable. The prophet Muhammad said, “If the child of Adam has a mountain of gold, he would wish for another mountain.”

Mattson said that it was important to prioritize collecting acts of kindness rather than material things, but it’s possible to strike a balance.

“Enjoy the things, and enjoy them with others,” Mattson said. “Elevate ourselves through sharing and caring. For it is in service to others that we find the divine presence, which is our true home.”

Returning to Muhammad’s teaching on moving through the world as a traveler, Mattson said one interpretation of this teaching was to literally travel light. Muhammad also taught that each day, each person should perform an act of charity, even as simple as moving a branch from the road.

“There are so many people who would like to move to safety or like us, who like to explore human culture through education, or the natural world through travel. But their paths are blocked by barriers placed by others,” Mattson said. “To remove a branch, to make the path smoother, to clear it, is an act of charity.”

Mattson said in the 2012 documentary “Never Sorry,” about artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a group of cats lived in Weiwei’s Beijing studio. To go outside, a cat had to jump up and hit a lever to open the door. Only one cat was ever successful in hitting the lever after a few tries. When he did, instead of turning and closing the door, he left it open for all the other cats to follow him out each day.

“Cats, unlike people, never close the door after them,” Weiwei said.

Weiwei has since focused his work on human migration. In 2017, he made the documentary “Human Flow.”

“(Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers) are blocked from the natural flow of human beings that has occurred since humans were first on this earth,” Mattson said. “And we know that for a fact. From archaeology, from looking at where human beings are across the world, we know that human beings have been in movement from the beginning. And now we have this situation where we have hard barriers and people can’t move anymore.”

Mattson said the pandemic has kept everyone stuck in place, but nationalists and white supremacists already sought to keep the “other” out.

“The chant of the ethnic nationalists and the white supremacists is, ‘You will not replace us,’ the idea that there is a human ‘us’ that is so distinct and so different from all other human beings that if others come along — as humans have been doing forever — that somehow it’s like another species,” she said.

Nations have a “mythic, fabricated ‘us,’” which some of its people build a purpose onto identities that can be hateful.

“I say it’s fictional because a quick genetic test would probably prove that a lot of people’s claims are incorrect,” Mattson said.

Culture also constantly changes, yet Mattson said no one can resist attaching meaning to these identities.

Before Islam became popularized in the area, Mattson said that people in the Arabian Peninsula did not believe in an afterlife, but still sought the immortality of their name through conquering and fame.

“If they disappeared in a material sense, as long as their names were spoken, they still existed,” Mattson said. “And they were willing to violate others as long as doing so increased their numbers and their fame.”

With more people in the tribe, it also meant more people could survive and allow the person to live on in their stories.

The Qur’an stands in contrast to the empires of Babylonians, Sasanians, Sumerians, Hittites, ancient civilizations of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, all of which are now gone. The Qur’an states that while everything on Earth will disappear, the divine presence remains.

“Eventually the kings died, the people disappeared, and their grand monuments now have crumbled,” Mattson said. “And they are sites where we go and reflect upon people of the past whose names we don’t even know. We might know the names of a king or a few kings or queens, but all of those people who came before, nothing remains of their memories or their name.”

The children of Adam, humans, can return to the original source of goodness for unity. Mattson said that people connect to others to access this on Earth, whether at a place of worship or a musical experience.

People are born into specific times and specific places, which Mattson said makes people both similar and different at the same time. And the diversity of people is celebrated in the Qur’an. 

“Our very diversity is the starting point for knowledge in ourselves and others,” Mattson said, and uncovering the history of humanity and movement of people leads back to the common origin of the divine.

Though people are varied, according to the Qur’an they all have “fitrah,” which is Arabic for a pure, good foundation. But being born into a specific history can place a person in circumstances that can either nurture or deviate from fitrah. A person might need help to return to their fitrah.

To sustain or return to fitrah and live a spiritual life on earth, Mattson said it’s important to remember that everyone is going to the same place.

“To live a spiritual life is to be like a good traveler,” Mattson said. “ … To be grateful to those who have facilitated our journey, to help others who have been on the road along with us, to respect the customs of the land we are visiting, to accept graciously what is offered, and to share it with others — and to never leave a place unless it is at least in as good a shape as we found it when we first arrived.”

Author Kent Nerburn relays what he has learned and unlearned from telling the stories of Native Americans

kent nerburn

Before Kent Nerburn became an author, he was a wood sculptor. He changed his career after being hired in northern Minnesota to help high school students conduct a two-year oral history project interviewing Red Lake Ojibwe elders in 1988.

“I soon realized that I was in the presence of a way of living and believing that had a depth unlike any I had experienced in my typical American way of growing up,” Nerburn said. “And it was a way that perfectly fit my hunger for a spirituality that honored the mystery and life, but did not demand exclusivity or divide people between insiders and outsiders.”

After being struck by the suppressed history and worldview the Ojibwe elders described, he has written 17 books on the Ojibwe, Lakota and Nez Perce tribes. Nerburn’s lecture, “Quiet Voices, Important Truths: Life Lessons from the Native Way,” was released at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 12, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Nerburn recorded his lecture from his Oregon home, as part of Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Spirituality of Us.” He reflected on his career switch and lessons he has learned from listening to and writing about Native American history, culture and spirituality.

When Nerburn was still a wood sculptor, he felt almost guilty for carving his ideas into trees. To him, it felt like he was imposing ideas onto something with a living soul. And for many Native Americans, there is a life force in trees. Nerburn said the Iroquois have carved masks from live trees so the spirit of the tree is imbued in the mask. Some tribes on the northwest coast of British Columbia carve faces in trees and then let the faces change as the tree grows.

Nerburn’s work collecting and sharing Native stories for the past 30 years isn’t done, which means he’s not done learning, either.

“There are so many stories I could tell, and so many stories I am still learning,” Nerburn said.

He first came across the work of Native philosophers and leaders while working with the Ojibwe students in 1988. He quoted Dakota philosopher Ohiyesa, also known as Charles Eastman:

“We have always preferred to believe that the spirit of God is not breathed into humans alone, but that the whole created universe shares in the immortal perfection of its maker,” Eastman wrote. “We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul of some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. … We see no need for the setting apart of one day and seven as a holy day. For to us, all days belong to God.”

Nerburn found his purpose in listening to and sharing the stories and lessons from Native people, opening a door for the rest of the world to learn with him from Native American perspectives and life lessons he details in his work. In his lecture, he read two sections from his book Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way.

In one section, “Stones for the Sweat: All People Should Be Made to Feel Needed,” he described a Nez Perce man’s account of his ancestor Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph. The man also described responsibilities for children and elders when he was a child. While children were tasked with braiding horse bridles, elders made community decisions based on their breadth of life experiences.

“It granted them an unassailable status and responsibility that belonged to them and no one else,” Nerburn read.

In the second section, “The Old Man in the Café: Spirit is Present in All of Creation,” Nerburn described his chance encounter in a café with a Native man who in his youth had been forcibly sent to the Fort Totten Indian Boarding School, which Nerburn was researching at the time. The U.S. government created schools like Fort Totten to forcibly assimilate Native American children.

“I learned Good English,” the man said to Nerburn. “I learned Good Christian. But I am no longer myself.”

Children who were initially taught to learn from their elders were forced into these schools to learn the ways of the dominant U.S. culture and Christian religion. White teachers told children that their elders would go to hell for their beliefs.

“This man, for all his class and manner and sanguine outlook, was the very embodiment of what we as a nation had done to the Native peoples, who had stood in our path as we pushed our way across the continent,” Nerburn read.

Part of Nerburn’s work requires him to unwind the United States’ systemic damage done to Native Americans and Native values. In his research, Nerburn found out a government leader in charge of Native training and education in the 1870s had said that the Indians need to learn the “exalted egotism of America” — in other words, to think of “I” rather than “we.”

Nerburn said that while Native Americans have worked to uphold this value of “we,” the rest of the United States has yet to learn this, especially in light of some people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Nerburn sees an opportunity during the pandemic for everyone to reconsider societal priorities and values; to look out for group needs rather than individual needs.

“Every child in America right now is being influenced by (the pandemic),” Nerburn said. “When we get through this — if we don’t sacrifice them all on the altar of normality by sending them back to school or putting them in bad situations — every kid in the world that went through this will have something in common with every other kid. And as their time comes, they’ll remember that and look at themselves as part of the human family.”

Nerburn’s work calls people to pay attention and listen to Native stories. After speaking with Native people for 30 years, there is one phrase that he’s heard over and over again: White people need to listen.

“The first thing we need to do is to stop controlling and start to listen,” Nerburn said. “And that takes away the sense of responsibility for mastery. I think that’s really the key to the Native way of understanding — to accept rather than to master.”

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic origins of QAnon and the harms it has caused, her experience talking to theorists and what society and individuals can do to promote a healthier democracy


The internet allows anyone to spread information easily — this includes conspiracy theories. Social media has also changed the nature of conspiracy theories, as Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, said different websites incentivize engagement, keeping people’s attention, as well as quick, emotional responses. This is where QAnon enters.

LaFrance said that the premise of QAnon is that “a secret and powerful cabal of evil, high-profile Democrats is running a global child sex ring, and that Donald Trump is the savior figure that will eventually free them.” QAnon started on the internet in October 2017 with posts on 4Chan — one of the most famous theories was that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be arrested soon. She was not arrested, but these posts generated a lot of attention and a following around Q, a figure who drops clues online that disciples or followers attempt to piece together. Clues are sometimes posted multiple times a day.

“There’s a narrative that is evolving, that really lends an air of legitimacy to the conspiracy theory, that a lot of its followers have seized upon,” LaFrance said. “They see these posts and assume that because it’s happening in real time, it must be true.”

The more she talked to people who believed in QAnon, the more she realized they were “deriving a sense of faith and serenity, and almost religious satisfaction, from the conspiracy theory. It’s a belief system, and it looks a lot like a new religion.”

LaFrance wrote The Atlantic’s June cover story about QAnon, and has reported on misinformation and media for more than 15 years. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, LaFrance gave a lecture titled “The Conspiracy Theorists Are Winning,” as part of Week Seven of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Science of Us.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Chautauqua Women’s Club as part of their Contemporary Issues Forum. LaFrance discussed the origins of the internet conspiracy theory and the harms it has caused, her experience talking to theorists, and what society and individuals can do to promote a healthier democracy.

Over her time reporting on QAnon, LaFrance has learned of beliefs that the moon landing was faked, COVID-19 is a bioweapon unleashed on the world by China and the “deep state,” and one man told her that John F. Kennedy Jr. did not die in a plane crash, but was assassinated by Hillary Clinton.

“I asked this gentleman, ‘What evidence do you possibly have to support that such a thing could have happened?’ He didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘What evidence do you have to say that it didn’t?’” LaFrance said. “We are living through a mass rejection of reasons, a mass rejection of enlightenment values. People are breaking with reality at an alarming scale.”

LaFrance said that conspiracy theories are nothing new; in 1775, Samuel Adams told the Continental Congress that King George III was taxing the colonists to turn them into slaves

“This is to say nothing of actual slavery taking place at the time. There’s no evidence to suggest that this plot was actually a part of King George’s taxation attempts,” LaFrance said.
“(But) it gathered a ton of steam, and people believed it.”

Watergate was also considered a conspiracy theory, until that conspiracy was proven true.

“The difference, of course, is that investigative journalism requires the confirmation of facts before publication,” LaFrance said. “Conspiracy theorizing can be referred to as investigating when it’s merely connecting unrelated events, people and ideas, and saying that they have closer ties than they actually do no evidence required.”

LaFrance cited political scientist Joseph Uscinski, who said a person’s likelihood of believing conspiracy theories can be determined how they agree with four statements: Much of society is controlled by secret plots, a few people will always be in charge in American democracy, the people who the country are not known to the voters, and a small, secret group of people determine events like wars, recessions and elections. The more a person agrees with these statements, and how intensely they agree with them, Uscinski says the more prone they are to believing conspiracies.

“When people talk about why a person might believe in conspiracy theories, they often refer to a feeling of being out of control and wanting to impose order on a chaotic world, or wanting to explain away something awful that’s happened,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance said that President Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist and actively promotes these theories. This can be seen 10 years ago, when he said that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. LaFrance said newsrooms debated for a long time on how to cover conspiracy theories, and she thought that people would naturally see conspiracies as a way of getting attention. She believed that if journalists ignore these theories and covered more important topics, truth would prevail. 

“Fast forward to today,” LaFrance said. “Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and he still actively promotes conspiracy theories.”

One example LaFrance gave was of Trump retweeting an image in March from Dan Scavino, White House deputy chief of staff, that showed Trump playing a violin. LaFrance said many people saw this image as an “echo of Nero, they thought it was an image of a president fiddling while the world burned;” but the phrase at the top of the image, “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming,” is a popular reference in the QAnon community. 

“They saw the president tweeting this and saw it as not just a wink or a nod, but a direct acknowledgement of their conspiracy theory and their worldview,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance said she was wrong to think that conspiracy theories would go away if people ignored them, and “to dismiss them today requires a willful blindness at a time when they’re really dangerous.”

She said individuals can help combat conspiracy theories by sharing facts respectfully, not mocking theorists and earnestly asking them questions, such as, “How many people would have to be in on this in order for it to be true?” On a societal level, LaFrance said it is very helpful to have a healthy democracy, which can be achieved by promoting an independent free press, supporting human rights and ensuring people understand how to guard against biases.

LaFrance also said that a handful of tech companies have a “stunning amount of power over our lives.”

“People often treat the internet as fully baked, like it’s finished, like the internet that we have now is the one that we will forever have,” LaFrance said. “That’s just not the case. We could rebuild this thing entirely. Maybe we should.”

LaFrance said while companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon make people’s lives easier, more convenient and sometimes richer, they have a lot of control over their consumers.

“These companies can control the information you see; they control how that’s different from the information a person sitting right next to you on a different device might see, even if you Google the same thing,” LaFrance said. “They can toy with our emotions, as Facebook’s own research has shown. They can influence the outcomes of elections.”

LaFrance said alongside the large amount of misinformation on the internet, platforms treat facts and fiction neutrally. She said people should acknowledge that the internet and the “democratization of publishing” has allowed for many marginalized voices to be heard.

“I don’t envy these companies. This is a hugely, hugely complicated problem. The scale of this problem, the scale required to fix it, it’s unprecedented in human history,” LaFrance said. “We’re talking about billions of people who use a single publishing platform. It’s like a magazine with 2 billion editors. It’s really a nightmare.”

LaFrance said that the web may change in the 2020s or 2030s through reinvention or regulation, and that the health of institutions that promote democracy may improve.

“Even then, conspiracy theories will be with us and conspiracy theorists will be among us,” LaFrance said. “They will, as they always have, warp and stretch to fit our informational environments or technological realities and our world.”

The lecture then transitioned to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President for Advancement Geof Follansbee. He asked LaFrance about the damage conspiracy theories have caused.

LaFrance talked about Pizzagate, which was a predecessor to QAnon, in which a young man believed a local pizzeria in Washington D.C. was the headquarters of the group of powerful Democrats who were running an underground sex ring. This man did not find what he was looking for and, despite gunshots and an encounter with the police, no one was injured. He was sent to federal jail.

“I think that one gentleman’s case is a really important one, because it shows how well he took a really reckless action,” LaFrance said. “He’s also a victim of conspiracy theorizing himself, and he really believed that this was true, and was surprised to find that it wasn’t.”

LaFrance said that the man regretted endangering people, but still believed in the conspiracy and that the “the intel on that wasn’t 100%.”

Follansbee asked how LaFrance built trust among conspiracy theorists in order to report on them. 

LaFrance said that many QAnon theorists are against the media, so they did not trust her because she was a reporter. She also found that those in a position to profit off the conspiracy, such as YouTubers with large audiences and those selling merchandise, were less likely to talk to her. The ones who were happy to talk to her were the people who earnestly believed in the conspiracy and wanted to spread the message. 

“I interviewed one woman in March, and she suggested … ‘Look at the pandemic. This is proof that the apocalypse has arrived,’” LaFrance said. “The conspiracy theorists will use that to support their worldview, but they will use any data point to support their own view.”

‘We are who we honor’: Petina Gappah awarded Chautauqua Prize for novel ‘Out of Darkness, Shining Light’


History cannot be erased. It cannot be changed. It is immutable.

But when it comes to erecting statues of problematic historical figures, Petina Gappah said, “we are who we honor.”

Gappah, whose book, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, won the 2020 Chautauqua Prize, is an author and international trade lawyer — and an astute observer of the historically marginalized.

Gappah’s book is the story of the people who transported the body of the explorer David Livingstone across the African continent, all so that his body could be returned to England.

Meanwhile, in 2020, statues of historical figures like Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist founder of Rhodesia, and Edward Colston, a slave trader and member of British parliament, are being removed amid great controversy.  

“Having public commemorations is a form of national myth-making,” said Gappah. “What are we telling the children of slaves if our public streets and parks commemorate those who enslaved their ancestors? What are we telling those whose ancestors died in colonial wars of conquest if we honor those who shared that blood?”

At 3:30 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, after remarks by Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and Sony Ton-Aime, Chautauqua’s director of literary arts, as well as Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, Gappah was honored with the ninth Chautauqua Prize for Out of Darkness, Shining Light.

Celebrating a book that creates a richly rewarding reading experience, the $7,500 annual Chautauqua Prize honors an author for a significant contribution to the literary arts.

The T.M. Gappah Foundation will give opportunities to the kind of child that my father was, and will provide scholarships for poor rural children who have what it takes to succeed against the odds, and for whom the only thing standing between them and education and a bright future is a want of money,” she said. “So I’m particularly grateful to receive this Prize, as the Prize money will go towards endowing my father’s memorial foundation.”

This year, roughly 80 volunteer readers collectively read more than 220 nominated books, the most nominees the Prize has ever received, to assemble the longlist for the award. That longlist resulted in seven finalists, announced this past spring. 

“One role of the fiction writer or the creative mind is to inquire and imagine a world of complex individuals, and giving voices to those left in the margins,” said Ton-Aime. “And this is what Petina intended and did in this novel.” 

Ton-Aime said that, in giving voices to those left in the margins, authors like Gappah are completing an important function of studying history: shining light on those corners left in the dark.

“Correcting the actions of the past is also a part of history,” he said. “It is important because those of us who look like her and are descended of her kind, too often are ashamed or enraged when we read about her kind.” 

In the past, Ton-Aime said that readers had two ways of dealing with racist caricatures in literature: Either accept them as truth, or separate themselves from those caricatures. 

“There’s a third way,” he said. “And that is what Ms. Gappah has found. And it requires empathy to see (the characters in Gappah’s novel) as one of us: To see (them) as flawed, yet talented and confident as human beings. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a novel that tries to do things similar to what the Chautauqua Institution’s mission aims to do: Explore the best of human values and enrichment of life, and reach and complete the lives of those who were worthy of their humanity.”

Gappah’s novel seems to act as both a doorway — a significant symbol in the life of one of her main characters, Halima — and a light switch for readers to access a distant, shadowy past, a comparison reflected in this year’s physical representation of the Chautauqua Prize: A door that seems to beckon readers in just as much as it carries them through; once opened, a brilliant golden light emanates from the piece, created by Ryan Laganson.

For Gappah, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year, the pandemic aside — she lost her father in January. 

“(My father) was born in 1940 and he died on Jan. 23, just a month before what would have been his 80th birthday,” she said. “And it gives me some solace that my father read this novel, not once, but twice before he died. And that one of the last long conversations we had was when he subjected me to an intense interrogation as to what was fact and what was fiction in the novel. He was passionate about education, about reading and about books.”

Gappah said that her father “emancipated his mother and his sisters from grinding rural poverty in Rhodesia,” and that her family is planning a memorial foundation in his honor.

“The T.M. Gappah Foundation will give opportunities to the kind of child that my father was, and will provide scholarships for poor rural children who have what it takes to succeed against the odds, and for whom the only thing standing between them and education and a bright future is a want of money,” she said. “So I’m particularly grateful to receive this Prize, as the Prize money will go towards endowing my father’s memorial foundation.”

Though Gappah said she’s mourning the loss of her father, she also said she feels for the thousands of people who have been denied access to their loved ones because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It seemed like such a neat number, 2020, but we’ll always remember just the year in which the world grieved while in a state of suspended animation,” she said. “We’ll remember 2020 as the year of broken hearts. The year of broken dreams. More than 700,000 dead across the world from the COVID-19 virus, many more dying because we’re not able to get treatment for other conditions. Global economies have shuttered to a hold. Companies are closing. Job losses are everywhere. A global recession is looming.”

The supreme irony, Gappah said, is that the very interconnectedness that we celebrate about our age is the “very thing that has endangered the world.”

Gappah said that just over a year ago — “in another life, in another world” — she embarked on a journey on a container ship so as to find time to write in tranquility. 

“As we found ourselves surrounded by an endless field of water, and I became (used) to the repetitive life onboard ship, and as I took daily walks on deck with the Atlantic in every view, I began to reflect on the many Africans who had made this trip to the Caribbean — not from Europe, as I had done, but from Africa and who made this, too, without the tools that I had,” she said.

Above all, Gappah said she had the “freedom and the will to travel,” and that when she arrived in the Caribbean, she had a moment of sudden realization.

“It came to me with a visceral shock that just about everyone I met was here because his or her ancestors were brought here as captives,” she said. “These are people living in what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘unaccustomed earth.’ Their ancestors were transplanted as cargo from Africa. Almost every Black person I saw was the descendant of a slave: entire nations, whole nations descended from slaves. There in the Caribbean, it struck me forcibly that what is considered by some to be the past is very much the present.”

Behind-the-Scenes Series to end with in-depth look at production of three 2019 Chautauqua Opera days


At the end of every major Chautauqua Opera Company rehearsal, the production staff gathers together for a meeting. These meetings are a chance to compare notes between departments and make sure everyone is on the same page throughout the breakneck pace of a Chautauqua summer.

This week, for the last event in the Opera Behind-the-Scenes Series, Chautauquans will get a chance to witness the action firsthand.

Chautauqua Opera Behind-the-Scenes: Collaboration will air at noon EDT Thursday, Aug. 13, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.

With the help of members from each of the Opera’s production teams, 19 people total, General and Artistic Director Steven Osgood will walk Chautauquans through the behind-the-scenes of three different days from last year’s season. An audience Q-and-A will follow.

“These aren’t the three hardest days of the season, they’re just three (days) indicative of how complex the season is,” Osgood said. “We’ll take a look at a day and then we’ll go around, production-meeting style, through the departments and say, ‘OK, what did you see on this day? What did you have to have where and by when for this day to successfully happen?’”

Before the start of this series, Osgood was excited about the opportunity to take some time for in-depth conversations with the Opera’s production staff, conversations that there would never be time for during a typical season.

“I anticipated it would be fun to have some relatively quiet and focused time to talk to all of these colleagues with whom we work so intensely during a normal season,” he said. “There’s never any time to just (step back) and talk about what we do out of the cauldron of doing it.”

Osgood hasn’t been disappointed.

“I (thought) it would be really interesting,” he said. “It’s been five times as interesting as I had anticipated.”

Osgood said that even he has learned new things about his colleagues from this series, although, luckily, there haven’t been any major surprises.

“I truly appreciate (this) 10 times as much as before; how much each of them loves this art form that they’re investing so much energy and time into,” he said. “They love the role that they play in it, and they love the result that goes out to our audiences.”

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said the “spirituality of us” includes all living things, including plants

barbara brown taylor

Whether a person joins a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program or a social movement, whether they start a family or a nonprofit, whether they speak to people or trees, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said that while not everyone believes in a god, it is harder to live without the sacredness found in a group.

Taylor described the spirituality a person can seek in a community in her lecture, “Remember That You Are Stardust, and to Stardust You Shall Return.” The lecture was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10. It was the first in the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”

No Q-and-A followed the lecture due to internet connection issues, since Taylor lives in rural Georgia and could not connect to Skype to speak with Vice President and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson. Robinson ended the session by thanking staff who provide upkeep for the virtual lecture experience.

“It was just a living example of how we’re all in this together,” Robinson said.

This was not Taylor’s first time speaking for the Interfaith Lecture Series. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, religions professor, and New York Times bestselling author who has also served as chaplain of the week five times at Chautauqua, and who in 2014 was a recipient of the President’s Medal. Instead of speaking in the Hall of Philosophy this year, Taylor pre-recorded her lecture in the hall of her ironing room.

Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting gave new meaning to “the story of us” for Taylor, who came to celebrate her student’s first year of sobriety. A woman stood up to talk about navigating Step Two — “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” — as someone who doesn’t believe in a god.

“You are the power greater than myself that can restore me to sanity,” the woman said to the group.

This moment was what first changed Taylor’s view on the spiritual power of a group.

“Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”

While Taylor said “the book” in her religion sometimes comes before the people to a fault, it’s also where she and others like her draw from for strength and lessons. The Bible taught her the idea that everyone is made in the image of God.

But meeting and knowing people expands that image in Taylor’s mind and wrecks her idols.

“Without you, my image of God would be way too small and look too much like me,” Taylor said. “Without you, I might be tempted to believe that a single reading of scripture is adequate, or a single view of history complete. I might go on thinking my view is a normal one, that my skin is a neutral color, that I don’t see race, gender, class, religion.”

In the same sentence that grants humans the image of God, people are also tasked to take care of creation, to “lord” over it.

“Not to do whatever the hell they want with it, but to care for it the way the capital ‘L’ Lord would,” Taylor said, “because that’s the image in which they have been made.”

She said humans have abused what they were supposed to protect. Dominion was about making a home in the garden, naming the animals, eating green things and taking responsibility for living things that also had the living breath of God — which Taylor said means that the spirituality of “us” goes beyond humans to plants.

This became clear to Taylor when she and her husband, Ed, who thrives in a garden, moved from the city to the country 30 years ago. While still living in their city lot, Taylor would find her husband’s pole beans growing up the mailbox, a row of corn growing on the curb, broccoli in the flowerbeds and tomato plants in the window boxes. Once, she yanked trumpet squash vines that had overgrown on the front porch railing without telling him.

“You would have thought I drowned kittens,” Taylor said. “Because all those plants, they were people to Ed. They had a history, destiny, the wish to be fruitful and multiply.”

When they had to build a well before their house was built, she realized that the neighboring trees and other life would have to give up water for their cooking and cleaning. She pledged not to waste it.

“To this day, the water that comes out of my faucet is as sacred as air to me, as sacred as blessed bread and wine,” she said. “It’s my daily communion in a ‘spirituality of us.’”

Now, in the country, Ed has plenty of room. Taylor said people often ask her if she gets lonely in the country. While the question revolves around people rather than other kinds of beings, she’s never felt lonely surrounded by nature — by bird voices, the touch of wet grass on her legs and the crowd of honey bees in petunias, but also by raccoons who have killed 12 of her chickens in one night, the dogs that killed a baby rabbit and the owl that carried away one of her cats.

“I guess you could decide that a spirituality of us ought to rise above that somehow, or try to change it,” Taylor said. “Right now, I’m just trying to see my own predation and keep it in check.”

The Bible also states that God loves the stranger as much as the tribe. Deuteronomy calls for not only the orphan and the widow to be taken in and cared for, but also the  able-bodied stranger.

“It’s because the stranger doesn’t have anyone,” Taylor said. “Like the widow and the orphan, the stranger’s kinship bonds are hanging by a thread. … So the divine arm goes out and draws the stranger in, commanding the tribe to see the likeness, not the difference.”

The Bible also calls for people to devote their life to others. Taylor has understood this as life being a relay instead of a marathon, as she realizes she will not finish everything on her to-do list before she passes.

But calls to take care of others are not just found in Taylor’s religion. She said that a spirituality found in taking care of others can be found in the parent who quits everything to care for a disabled child, the poorly paid health aide who continues working in an infected nursing home while people say goodbye to their families on Zoom, and people who have been protesting for months in the face of tear gas.

The spirituality of “us” transcends religions.

“These high calls came to me through my religion, but they stuck with me because they rang bells that were already in me before I ever joined a church or learned the Lord’s Prayer,” Taylor said. “They ring bells … I hear in other places of worship and study, among other people who are so much like me.”

However, Taylor said that religious exclusivity has instilled a fear in some followers and leaders who have sidelined “others” as less than human.

“That’s why I’ve settled for blood and bones as what makes us, ‘us,’” Taylor said.

But to include plants in “us,” she said she settles on “life” as a good definition. While searching years ago for a new creation story that encompassed all others from a scientific view, she found her answer in bone composition. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that the chemical elements of bones and all life came from literal stardust.

“When I take in this 14-billion-year-old history, which has more good guesses in it than facts, one of the more stunning reveals is that in us, the universe has become conscious of itself,” Taylor said.

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