Monday, April 9, 2012

NPR's "Fresh Air": Another Flagship of Cultural Colonialism in the Public Sphere?

Listening to Fresh Air on NPR this evening, I heard host Terry Gross interviewing one Tanya Luhrmann,  a professor at Stanford University. Luhrmann has written a highly sympathetic book based on a study she apparently conducted at an Evangelical Christian community in Chicago. The thrust of the book, "When God Talks Back," is to present Evangelicals as having evolved techniques to pursue a mystic, personal relationship with their God. The techniques themselves are presented as the distinctively original intellectual property of Evangelical Christianity.

In fact, the author's observations only highlight the rampant, predatory cultural digestion of Dharmic spiritual ideas by post-Bultmannian "Emergent Christianity" that has been in effect since the 1960s. The interview itself comprises a veritable litany of cultural plagiarism, punctuated by self-satisfied burps from the New-Age alimentary canal.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation is presented, without attribution to the source, as "Christian Centering Prayer";  and this nominal reinvention is given the stamp of Western academic authority by association with Luhrmann's own status as a Stanford professor. A long list of spiritual concepts and techniques, all unmistakably Dharmic in origin, are similarly usurped and repackaged in terms conducive to the Judeo-Christian framework: "imagination-rich prayer", "immediate and present God", "objective cognitive advantages of meditation", and so on and on and on. 

How many of these ideas derive entirely from the unfettered pillaging and re-labeling of India's spiritual wealth by Ken Wilber (Aurobindo Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism and Madhyamika Buddhism as "Integral Theory"),  Fr. Thomas Keating (Transcendental Meditation as the "Cloud of Unknowing"), Alfred North Whitehead (Abhidhama Buddhism as "Process Philosophy"), and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hatha Yoga and Vipassana as "Mindfulness Meditation") among others? All of these cases, and more, have been thoroughly researched and documented by Rajiv Malhotra for his forthcoming book on the "U-Turn Theory" he has originated.

 Luhrmann has clearly joined the ranks of New Christianity's spiritual conquistadors, legitimizing false claims of Christian origin for concepts that could never have evolved in the stultifying, Man/God-separating, history-centric and exclusivist traditions of Semitic religion.

Worse yet: the fawning,  skepticism-suspended approach of Terry Gross to the licentious claims of "Mystical experience" that Luhrmann makes on behalf of Evangelical Christianity transforms the entire interview into little more than a vehicle for Judeo-Christian propaganda. 
One can hardly recognize the bold-as-brass iconoclasm of Terry Gross, on February 7 this year, conducting an interview of William Broad on his book "The Risks and Rewards of Practicing Yoga." 

The contrast between Gross' creeping flattery of the Christian Evangelist claptrap being peddled by Luhrmann, and her approach to William Broad's "scientific" and "rational" critique of Yoga could hardly be more striking. She and Broad laughingly dismiss Yoga as originally an "obscure sex-cult", pre-empting any points of view that may espouse it seriously as a technique of embodied knowing and direct experience of divine consciousness... a purpose it has served in Indian society for thousands of years.

 More insidiously, the denigration and digestion in that interview spring from a National-Enquirer style approach to Yoga (in much the same vein as "Drinking Milk Can Give You Cancer".) Broad, with his Western experience of Yoga and bibliography of allopathic clinical studies, is elevated to the position of "sole reliable commentator." He is asked if practicing yoga might actually be a fad that is harmful (for good White Judeo-Christians with herniated discs, no doubt.)

Gross offers not the slightest hint of recognition to Indian sources on the subject of Yoga's benefits or dangers, even as Broad privileges his personal experience of Yoga and his interaction with Western clinical investigators over and above any "native informant claims" in his own book. 

Thus the "Fresh Air" treatment of Yoga is sanitized of Indian or Dharmic influence by restricting commentary to Broad, from a standpoint firmly grounded in Western universalism. Meanwhile, in her treatment of Christian claims to personal spiritual experience and direct interaction with divine consciousness, Gross displays the hushed, unctuous approach that she typically offers to figures and subjects she truly reveres. 

One must wonder, then, if Terry Gross hasn't become an active participant in the relentless, ongoing colonialism of the West over the cultural and intellectual capital of Indian civilization. If you've ever thought about forking over the hard-earned to keep your local NPR station in business, gentle reader, you might want to reconsider that notion.