The Play of Daniel

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James Ruff as Daniel in the Trinity Production (NYT)

Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the Gotham Early Music Scene’s production of The Play of Daniel, a medieval Christmas pageant, performed as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival at New York’s Trinity Church. The festival, which the church started several years ago, revives the idea of Christmas as a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25 and running until Epiphany, January 6. It includes concerts and plays at Trinity and nearby St. Paul’s. I hope the organizers include this production of Daniel every year.

Students at Beauvais Cathedral in the north of France wrote Daniel, a drama based on episodes in the Old Testament book, around the year 1200. The text is a mix of Latin and Old French. The music, without rhythmical notation, survives in a manuscript at the British Library; the Trinity production rendered many of the numbers as dances. Interpolated within the biblical story are non-biblical texts, including songs that foretell the coming of Christ and even a Christmas carol of sorts, Congaudemus celebremus natalis sollempnia—“Let us together joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.” The presence of these songs, as well as some other internal evidence, suggests Daniel is meant to be performed at Christmastime.

The Trinity production was a lot of fun—the music; the costumes, inspired by pictures at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan; the acting, everything. Trinity’s Gothic Revival setting worked perfectly. Early music isn’t everyone’s thing, I know, but I think everyone would enjoy this production, including kids. There are even some laughs.

For people interested in church and state, the play has additional meaning. In the Old Testament book, King Darius’s courtiers urge him to issue an order providing that “whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Darius issues the order, but Daniel refuses to comply. “He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” The courtiers find out and haul Daniel before Darius, who cannot take back his order, as the laws of the Medes and Persians, once proclaimed, are irrevocable. Daniel goes off to the lions, but God sends an angel to protect him. Moved, Darius frees Daniel and orders the courtiers thrown to the lions instead. They don’t fare as well.

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is pretty well known, even in our age of biblical illiteracy. But there is another church and state allusion in Daniel, more obscure today, but which contemporary audiences would surely have recognized. Daniel was written at the height of the investiture crisis, a centuries-long struggle for control of the Catholic Church that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and other sovereigns against the papacy. Harold Berman famously dated the origins of the Western legal system, particularly legal pluralism, to the investiture crisis and what he called “the papal revolution” of the late Middle Ages. When Daniel was written, Becket’s murder was still in living memory, and the outcome of the investiture crisis was far from certain. Surely those students of Beauvais had current events in mind when they staged a drama showing what happens to courtiers who try to impose the power of the state against believers.

If you can, go and see Daniel next Christmas. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video of this year’s performance from Trinity’s website.

“Race and Secularism in America” (eds. Kahn and Lloyd)

In March, the Columbia University Press will release “Race and Secularism in America,” edited by Jonathon S. Kahn (Vassar College) and Vincent W. Lloyd (Syracuse University).  The publisher’s description follows:

This anthology draws bold comparisons between secularist strategies 9780231174916to contain, privatize, and discipline religion and the treatment of racialized subjects by the American state. Specializing in history, literature, anthropology, theology, religious studies, and political theory, contributors expose secularism’s prohibitive practices in all facets of American society and suggest opportunities for change.

Salehin, “Islamic NGOs in Bangladesh”

In January, Routledge Press will release “Islamic NGOs in Bangladesh: Development, Piety and Neoliberal Governmentality,” by Mohammad Musfequs Salehin (University of Bergen).  The publisher’s description follows:

NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) have emerged in both a development and aid capacity in Bangladesh, 9781138844452providing wide-reaching public services to the country’s population living in extreme poverty. However, resistance to and limitations of NGO-led development – which in conjunction with Bangladesh’s social transformation – led to a new religious-based NGO development practice.

Looking at the role of Islamic NGOs in Bangladesh, the book investigates new forms of neoliberal governmentality supported by international donors. It discusses how this form of social regulation produces and reproduces subjectivities, particularly Muslim women subjectivity, and has combined religious and economic rationality, further complicating the boundaries and the relationship between Islam, modernity, and development. The book argues that both secular and Islamic NGOs target women in the name of empowerment but more importantly as the most reliable partners to meet their debt obligations of micro-financing schemes, including shari’a-based financing. The targeted women, in turn, experience Islamic NGOs as less coercive and more sensitive to their religious environment in the rural village community than are secular NGOs.

Providing a comparative study of the role of religious and secular NGOs in the implementation of neoliberal policies and development strategies, this book will be a significant addition to research on South Asian Politics, Development Studies, Gender Studies, and Religion.

Kaveny, “A Culture of Engagement”

In March, the Georgetown University Press will release “A Culture of Engagement: Law, Religion, and Morality,” by Cathleen Kaveny (Boston College).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious traditions in the United States are characterized by ongoing tension between assimilation to the broader culture, as typified by 51rjwd8azvl
mainline Protestant churches, and defiant rejection of cultural incursions, as witnessed by more sectarian movements such as Mormonism and Hassidism. However, legal theorist and Catholic theologian Cathleen Kaveny contends there is a third possibility—a culture of engagement—that accommodates and respects tradition. It also recognizes the need to interact with culture to remain relevant and to offer critiques of social, political, legal, and economic practices.

Kaveny suggests that rather than avoid the crisscross of the religious and secular spheres of life, we should use this conflict as an opportunity to come together and to encounter, challenge, contribute to, and correct one another. Focusing on five broad areas of interest—Law as a Teacher, Religious Liberty and Its Limits, Conversations about Culture, Conversations about Belief, and Cases and Controversies—Kaveny demonstrates how thoughtful and purposeful engagement can contribute to rich, constructive, and difficult discussions between moral and cultural traditions.

This provocative collection of Kaveny’s articles from Commonweal magazine, substantially revised and updated from their initial publication, provides astonishing insight into a range of hot-button issues like abortion, assisted suicide, government-sponsored torture, contraception, the Ashley Treatment, capital punishment, and the role of religious faith in a pluralistic society. At turns masterful, insightful, and inspirational, A Culture of Engagement is a welcome reminder of what can be gained when a diversity of experiences and beliefs is brought to bear on American public life.