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Students Search for God in Avatar

Three hours and $15 later, did James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar lead Fordham theology students to a deeper communion with God?

During a March 4 event on the Lincoln Center campus, students and theology faculty weighed in on how well symbolism and narrative in the film, which has grossed $2 billion, imparted the presence of God in the make-believe world of Pandora.

Karina Hogan, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, noted that the word Avatar came from Sanskrit. The concept of an Avatar is rooted in the Hindu religion, where it is realized through the God Vishnu, and “represents the coming into being,” Hogan said.

According to John Seitz, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, the film’s longing for “presence” is rooted in the pre-Enlightenment era’s desire to find an experience and closeness with God or the spirit.

What is clever in the narrative, said Seitz, is the fact that the technology, which traditionally leads to “absence, distance and gaps between people,” in Avatar leads its main character to find a spiritual connection with the natural world.

“The film really recapitulates the romantic longing for presence amid absence,” said Seitz. “The film itself, in its 3-D manifestation, allows us as consumers to bridge distance, to be present with these characters—and pay extra money doing it.”

While Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., had a positive reaction to the film’s premise of a world in which everybody is spiritually connected, she objected that the movie disintegrated into the “white privilege” message that “conflict is the way that differences get resolved.” She also questioned the premise that the Avatar was tall, slender and muscular and that the disabled human body was rejected in favor of it.

“What message is that sending?” she asked.

While some students questioned whether the movie offered any redeeming sense of faith at all among its characters, FCLS freshman Dylan Hamilton Freedman said the movie should be interpreted more as “an example of what we can become.”

“It can teach you broader lessons if you look at it that way,” he said.

—Janet Sassi

When Dressing the Church Meant War

David Cressy, Ph.D., discusses ceremonial style and parish conflict in the court of Charles I.

Photo by Gina Vergel

The decoration of a church may not stir much passion today, but during the Protestant Reformation, details such as where the altar sat and the type of furnishings used in God’s house were enough to start a civil war, a scholar said on March 4 at Fordham.

“This is where God lives and you’ve got a division within Christian culture, certainly in early modern England, where some are saying all places are holy, no place is more holy than any other place, because God lives everywhere,” said David Cressy, Ph.D., Humanities Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio State University.

“Others were saying that the church is more holy than the street, the church building is more holy than the church yard and the altar is the holiest of them all because that’s where God resides. I’m not sure whether it’s theologically sound, but it was a claim that was made.”

Cressy discussed church interiors, and how they were sensitive settings of strife and discord in the opening phase of the Protestant Reformation and in subsequentgenerations in “The Redecking of the Altars: Ceremonialist Style and Parish Conflict in the Court of Charles I,” the St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture held at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.

Only in a fractured religious culture, with competing claims for salvation and competing devotional aesthetics, would the material environment for worship cause such controversy that it would agitate a civil war, Cressy said.

“Such divisions were especially sharp in the reign of Charles I, when the redecking of the altars looked to some like an apostasy, a betrayal of God’s work in the Protestant Reformation,” he added.

Furnishings and decorations could be culturally and politically divisive, and they fueled the tensions that took England into civil war. The reign of Charles I was especially fraught, Cressy explained.

“High ceremonial churchmen of the 1620s and 1630s took to calling the 16th century changes a deformation—not reformation—and undertook an elaborate re-beautification. In their eyes, they were honoring God by furnishing his house, so that every curtain and cushion, every embroidery and carving, had the quality of a prayer,” he said.

“To embattled Protestants, the kind we call Puritan, such deckings and dressings were signs of backsliding, a retreat toward Rome, and deliberate reversal of the Reformation. They were allurements to luxury, lapses of faith, inducements to sin.”

Criticism of the redecking of the altars burst forth with a flood of objections as Charles I’s regime unraveled in 1641, Cressy said.

“Whereas ceremonialists imagined the church as a bride, their enemies saw her tricked out as a harlot,” he said. “A cultural war raged between enthusiasts for the beauty of holiness and adherents of puritan godliness, between those swept up by the mystery of the sacraments and others who dwelt on the preaching of the word. The way the church was dressed and configured showed which side was ascendant.”

Meanwhile, while Charles I’s government wanted order and conformity, it instead generated dissension with controversial policies such as the licensing of sports on Sunday and the suppression of Calvinist preaching.

In the end, the ceremonialists won.

“Visit an English parish church today and you will likely find an east-positioned communion table behind steps and rails, with multicolored altar cloths, embroideries and frontals,” Cressy said. “The same can be seen in New York and Connecticut. Ours is a golden age of church decoration, in which roof lofts, ornaments and images have luxuriantly reappeared. Earlier English Protestants would be shocked and saddened at the sight.”

—Gina Vergel

This Month in Jesuit History…
Jesuits Face Worldwide Suppression

Pope Pius VII reinstated the Jesuits in 1814

April 1762 was a difficult month in a difficult time for the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuits faced rising hostility for various reasons, including the anti-religion ideas of the Enlightenment, their accommodation of the cultures in China and India in their ministry, and the perception that they fomented revolt among the South American tribes ruled by Spain and Portugal.

The king of Portugal had begun the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759. In France, three years later, the Parlement of Paris closed all Jesuit schools in its jurisdiction on April 1. Four months later, the Parlement effectively banned the Society from France and confiscated its buildings and estates.

The Society was then suppressed in Spain and parts of Italy before the worldwide papal suppression in 1773. (Catherine the Great of Russia disregarded the supression so she could keep the Jesuit schools in her domain.)

The suppression was ended in 1814 by Pope Pius VII, who sought to restore religion in Europe after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire.

—Chris Gosier

Fordham Makes Presidential Honor Roll with Distinction for Community Service

Fordham University has been named to President Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, a national recognition  program that promotes public service for American colleges and universities.

Fordham’s first-time award came “With Distinction” and placed the University among 114 other colleges nationwide to receive the recognition. The White House made the announcement on Feb. 26.

“Fordham has been doing really good work in the community, and we don’t often toot our own horn,” said Sandra Lobo-Jost (FCRH ’97, GSS ’04), director of Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, the liaison organization between the University and its surrounding communities in the Bronx and Manhattan. “Social justice is at the heart of Fordham’s culture and we’re excited to receive an award that reflects the work we do as a whole.”

In New York state, Fordham was one of 12 colleges to receive the award, joined by SUNY-Binghamton, Brooklyn College, Elmira College, New York University, Syracuse University and others.

During the 2008-2009 academic year, 4,220 Fordham students engaged in general community service for a total of 954,100 service hours. Community service is defined as any activity designed to improve the quality of life of off-campus community residents, particularly low-income residents. The award reflected programs across all Fordham campuses and all Fordham schools, including the professional schools of Fordham Law, the Graduate School of Education and the Graduate School of Social Service.

Among the public service projects that Fordham students volunteered in were New York City’s HOPE Count to estimate the number of homeless New Yorkers and Urban Plunge, a program in which student volunteers work with 17 community organizations. Urban Plunge volunteers worked to combat hunger, promote affordable housing, educate youth and foster community development in various communities across New York City.

The Dorothy Day Center also connected Fordham’s student groups with at-risk youth in local middle and high schools to provide mentorship, arts and academic workshops, and to offer guidance to high school student clubs.

The award also recognized a second service component—service learning—by which Fordham faculty have utilized service to the community as a learning resource for their students in two dozen “service integrated” courses across all disciplines.

Each course has a mandatory service component and, with titles such as “Spanish and New York City,” “New York City Politics,” “Religion in Public Life” and “Global Economy,” are very popular with students, Lobo-Jost said. Students’ service placements include working with immigrants seeking asylum, in a local soup kitchen or helping to organize for a living wage, depending on the focus of the course, she said.

The presidential recognition is part of the White House’s United We Serve initiative to encourage Americans to make service a daily part of their lives.

“This award reflects the work of the entire University and its schools, and all of their service work, whether it be law clinics, grassroots volunteers, school programs, social services or anything else,” Lobo-Jost said. “Fordham continues to build many bridges to the community.”

—Janet Sassi


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