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TV 2009: David Bianculli On The Best ... And The Rest.

The economy may have hit the broadcast business hard, but TV critic David Bianculli says the future is looking bright — for cable, anyway. He joins Terry Gross to talk about the best and the worst television of '09 and what we can look forward to in '10.

20:54

Other segments from the episode on December 23, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 23, 2009: Interview with David Bianculli; Interview with Greg Epstein; Review of the best books of 2009.

Transcript

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TV 2009: David Bianculli On The Best ... And The Rest

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our TV critic David Bianculli is with us
with his picks of the best and worst TV shows of the year. We're also going to
look back on some of the biggest developments in cable and broadcast this year.

David was the longtime TV critic for the New York Daily News. He now writes the
online magazine tvworthwatching.com, teaches TV and film at Rowan University,
and is the author of a new book about the Smothers Brothers called "Dangerously
Funny."

Well, hi, David. Happy holidays, and happy new year.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Hi, hi, you, too. Happy to be back.

GROSS: So much has happened on TV and behind the scenes of TV this year. So
when you look at the landscape, what do you think is the biggest TV story of
the year?

BIANCULLI: Well, last year, the biggest story was the strike and the
repercussions. This year, the biggest story is Jay Leno. He transformed late
night, put all these dominos in play and then showed up in primetime and
gobbled up five night of CBS'(ph) TV time, and then didn't do well.

GROSS: Didn't do well in what sense?

BIANCULLI: First of all, he didn't do a good show. It's an almost, to me,
unwatchable show, and it's not as entertaining as even "The Tonight Show" was.
But in what it had to do, which was to make money because it cost so much less
than a drama for NBC to put in the 10 p.m. slot, that it's accomplished only
barely. And in giving any sort of a lead-in to the local affiliates for their
newscasts, which is very important, it's really failing. So I expect an all-out
mutiny next year.

GROSS: What would a mutiny mean?

BIANCULLI: It would mean that local affiliates that are aligned with NBC could
say, you know, I can take a syndicated program or put a local program or move
something else in there in that last hour and garner a bigger audience for my
local news, which is where most of my money comes from. So I'll just delay
showing Jay Leno until 11:30, and then I'll move "The Tonight Show" back to
12:30, and I'll move, you know, Jimmy Fallon back to, you know, "The Farm Film
Report."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So can you compare the ratings of the NBC shows that had been on the 10
o'clock spot with what Leno is getting now?

BIANCULLI: It varies night to night, but it's, you know, a 20 percent drop, 30
percent drop, 50 percent drop. It's substantial, and it's also substantial in
terms of the young demos that they find so attractive. NBC is trying to put a
good face on this, but there's not much of a good face. And now that one of the
big stories to end the year is NBC, you know, being sort of absorbed by Comcast
with new owners in charge, they're probably not going to be so enamored with
the idea of staying with this.

GROSS: So you think they might just pull the show?

BIANCULLI: Well, even Jay Leno has said, you know, I wouldn't mind going back
to my old slot at "Tonight."

GROSS: Whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Yeah, isn't that a big...

GROSS: Tell that to Conan O'Brien.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That is such a big whoa. And, you know, if
you thought that his leaving "The Tonight Show" and then sort of bringing it to
primetime under another name was a little bit disingenuous or not being a team
player, what about that admission?

GROSS: So this year, late night changed a lot. You know, Leno moved from "The
Tonight Show" to the new 10 o'clock show. Run through the musical chairs that
have happened at late night.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's see. Conan moved up to "Tonight." Jimmy Fallon took his
place at "Late Night," and at the other networks, things remained stable. You
had "Nightline" on ABC. You have Letterman on CBS, and then Craig Ferguson on
after him.

But what this new shift meant is that Conan had to sort of temper his act a
little bit in order to appeal to a wider audience, and he got a younger demo.
The age for "The Tonight Show" has dropped by about 10 years, the average age,
but unfortunately, the overall audience has dropped so significantly that
Letterman is now winning over "The Tonight Show," and it didn't used to be.

And in the 12:30 slot, Ferguson is beating Fallon, and that didn't even used to
be a close race. So there's a shift.

GROSS: There were two major things that I think helped give Letterman a big
audience this year. One of them was the feud with Sarah Palin, and the other
was his affair, which he handled in such an interesting way, and he was so
funny about it. No matter what you think of his affair, I think you have to say
he made better jokes about it than anybody else did.

BIANCULLI: Well, he not only made better jokes – and you're absolutely, right.
But he not only made better jokes about it, but he confronted it head-on. And
you can not like what he did and still like the way that he handled it. It's
sort of like Richard Nixon, this is the way you should have handled Watergate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Tiger Woods, you know, take note. You know, the – it was just a
straight-on, look, I don't want to tell you this, but here's exactly what's
going on. And it was out there. There wasn't a second-day story because he'd
told it all the first day.

GROSS: We're talking about the year in television with FRESH AIR's TV critic,
David Bianculli. David, when we do these year-end wrap-ups, we don't usually
talk about soap operas, but we're going to talk about them now because there's
a significant change in the world of soap operas. What's left?

BIANCULLI: Very little. And the really, really tenured ones, you know, are
going away. "Guiding Light" left, and next year, we're going to get "As The
World Turns." I mean, and these are...

GROSS: "As the World Turns" is ending next year?

BIANCULLI: Yes, and these are CBS soaps that were around as long as television
was around, and before that on the radio. And it's actually something that's
generational. There aren't that many shows left from the salad days of
television. There's "Meet the Press," and there really isn’t much else except
for soaps.

Now, you can look at it and say in the last 10, 20 years, primetime has
absorbed the idea of the soap. So you get plenty of soap opera stuff if you're
watching "Brothers and Sisters" or even a serialized, you know, story, genre
thing like "Lost." But the idea of having something to watch every afternoon
and/or every morning and just do it the way it was done for generations, TV is
saying well, that's not important, either, right now.

GROSS: So what is on during the day?

BIANCULLI: Oh, who knows?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You know, I'm sure - I'm working. I have the sound off. There's
people still angry about stuff. There's game shows, and there's lots of talk,
and it astounds me. Jerry Springer is still on.

GROSS: And Oprah's leaving broadcast. That's a big story.

BIANCULLI: Yes, that is a big story.

GROSS: Speaking of the afternoons.

BIANCULLI: That's like, is God dead? No, but Oprah's leaving TV. You know, it's
a close second. You know, how are we going to find out what books to read? But
I think we'll survive, but, you know - and I think that Oprah will not go far.
Oprah will not pull a Johnny Carson and leave after 30 years and...

GROSS: Well, she's starting her own cable network.

BIANCULLI: Yes, yes. You know, and if her magazine doesn't work, she'll just
start her own – well, she can't start her own newspaper. She's not that stupid.
There's no newspapers, you know, but there's something out there that she'll
do.

GROSS: The big business story of the year is probably NBC merging with Comcast,
which is happening this month. Comcast bought a 51 percent share of NBC. What
impact do you think that will have on the network and on us, the viewers of the
network?

BIANCULLI: I honestly don't know. There's two ways to look at it. You could
think of it as a good thing because the cable arm of NBC Universal is doing
better programming than the network broadcast arm.

GROSS: You're talking about MSNBC?

BIANCULLI: No, I'm – no - I'm - oh no, no, no, no. I'm talking about like
Universal, like USA Network, some of those programs, some of the things that
have come to us on the SyFy Channel and other things that are part of the whole
network synergy umbrella, that if they bring some of those programs to network
TV, network TV would be better served.

But on the other hand, they don’t necessarily - I don't trust executives to do
the right thing. The right thing would be to do the cable model and do, instead
of 22 episodes a year, maybe do 10 or 12 like cable does - do better shows and
cycle them off. But I think we may just get more and more reality shows and
trim the profits and, you know, sell their own fare from NBC to their own
sister things to keep it in the family. It's – you know, the money for making
these shows is getting harder and harder to find.

GROSS: My guest is our TV critic David Bianculli. We'll talk about the best and
worst TV shows of the year after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're looking back on the year in television with our TV critic, David
Bianculli.

Last year, one of the big TV stories was the political coverage of the election
and the really divisive campaign.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So this is the first year of President Obama's presidency. How do you
think political coverage on television changed this year?

BIANCULLI: It became less dynamic. I think that one of the things that you
could see is that almost all of the networks, rather than favor Obama, went to
look at him critically fairly early. I don't mean critical in a bad sense, but
there wasn't a honeymoon period that lasted too long. Maybe that was just
because of current events and everything that was happening so quickly.

When I compare, like, Fox News, for example, and MSNBC, I find them, you know,
equally shrill when they engage one another. It's still like children in a
sandbox on both sides. But I do think that there's a difference in content.

GROSS: OK, let's look at the best and worst of the year, starting with the
worst. What do you think were the worst TV shows of the year?

BIANCULLI: The worst in terms of most important worst?

GROSS: Yes.

BIANCULLI: I would say Jay Leno because the failure of that show both in terms
of the ratings and creatively are going to have a major impact on TV for the
next couple of years.

But I will say I think it would have been worse if it had been a better show,
worse for television if it had succeeded.

GROSS: Because?

BIANCULLI: Because then we'd have 10 shows just like that gobbling up all the
hours of primetime.

GROSS: OK, what about the best TV shows of 2009?

BIANCULLI: All right. I like the fact that it's really hard to come up with a
top 10, not because there aren't 10 but because there are more. So here, first
off, are ones that just missed my Top 10: "Rescue Me" on FX, "In Treatment" on
HBO, "Glee" on Fox, "House" on Fox, "Modern Family" on ABC, "Battlestar
Galactica" on SyFy and "Fringe" on Fox. Those are all wonderful shows.

But now I'm going to tell you more wonderful. My number one show for this year
was "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. I thought the whole "Seinfeld" story was
brilliant and brilliantly resolved.

"Mad Men" on AMC, I love that when I watch that show, it seems to be of a
different pace than anything on television and operating at a more interesting
frequency, and like what I like about Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm,"
even when you know what's coming, it surprises you, and I love that.

BIANCULLI: "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, I think even in a nonpolitical
year, managed to be both very important and very funny. I'm amazed at how much
energy those guys have. And really, he's the best TV critic working in the
United States right now. I know he doesn't want that title and probably
wouldn't accept it, but he's doing more about deconstructing the media than
anybody else.

GROSS: Is Colbert on your list?

BIANCULLI: Colbert is - would be actually one more rung down. I should have
mentioned Colbert, but he'd not on my Top 10, but it's only because Colbert,
whom I also love, I think is more of an act. And Jon Stewart, who says he's an
act, to me is more serious. I think he's playing with higher stakes. I do like
them both.

"Lost" on ABC is going to be ending next year, and it hasn't been around for a
while, so you have to have a good memory to put it on a Top 10 list. But I like
the idea of looking forward to a TV show and trying to figure it out, but not
so hard that it becomes obsessive. I really have liked the whole journey of
"Lost." So I still like that.

So now – and then "Friday Night Lights," which used to be on NBC, and it still
is, but NBC has sort of shared costs by lending it out. So Direct TV Network,
you know, a cable - I mean, a satellite firm, gets to show it first. So I'm
watching it on satellite each Wednesday now and loving it, and it'll show up on
NBC next year. It's NBC's best show, and NBC doesn't even care enough about it
to pay whatever it would take to show it first. That, to me, says where NBC is.
"30 Rock," at least NBC shows. I love the humor on that.

Showtime's "Dexter" was so twisted this year, John Lithgow as a villain every
bit as watchable as Michael C. Hall as the twisted serial killer-hero. Great
show.

"Breaking Bad" is another twisted show. That was on AMC, and it got a lot of
attention for its acting, but not necessarily for its writing. But I think the
writing on that is brilliant.

And then we've got three more. "True Blood" on HBO, which is my idea of just a
bloody summer book. You know, I can't - it's just so much fun.

"Damages" on FX I think is one of the best legal procedurals on TV ever.

And finally - this one will surprise you, I think - "60 Minutes" on CBS. I
think it's had another superb year. And you talk about shows that have been
around for a long time, "60 Minutes" started in '68. So 41 years later, it's
still in the Top 10, still doing better TV journalism than just about – than
anything else, I won't qualify it, on broadcast TV.

GROSS: OK. Anything else you want to say about the year in television?

BIANCULLI: It...

GROSS: It sounds like you're pretty enthusiastic about shows in spite of all
the problems that television is having.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, but the trend that I see, and this I'm sad about, is that more
of the good shows, more of the really good things are being done on cable
rather than on broadcast. And I think it's just one more thing that broadcast
TV is abdicating.

They gave up the TV movie. They gave up the miniseries. And now if they're
giving up comedies and dramas - you know, if the best ones are on cable rather
than on broadcast, then what are you in the business for? It baffles me and
saddens me a little bit.

And the other thing is that as broadcast TV, the overall audience dwindles,
nothing's going to replace that. We're not going to have another shared,
national experience once we lose TV.

GROSS: Yeah, well, I think it's impossible now anyways, because there's so many
channels, and you have the Internet. And you have all these other portable
devices, from smartphones, iPods. We're done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Well, thanks. It was nice being here.

GROSS: In terms of being united by pop culture.

BIANCULLI: Oh, yes.

GROSS: I think things are just so fragmented now, for better and for worse.

BIANCULLI: I know. Thank goodness for "American Idol."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Which we didn't mention.

BIANCULLI: I know, and it's OK. I mean, it is the last thing that sort of pulls
people into the living room as a family the way television used to, and it is
the most popular show on TV. The fact that we didn't mention it means – it's
hugely popular. It's not hard to defend as a viewing experience, but it's not,
to me, meaningful. Meaningful to me is a TV series I want to own on DVD and
watch again. It doesn't matter how many people saw it the first time. You know,
if I want to go back to "The Wire" - you know, "The Wire" is gone. "Deadwood"
is gone. I love watching those shows. I'm never, ever, ever going back to an
"American Idol," you know, to see Sanjaya's hair one more time. It's just not
going to happen.

GROSS: Well, David, thanks for managing to sneak "The Wire" into our
discussion, even though it wasn't even on the air this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: No. That's right. But still, you know, you talk about best show of
the decade, that's probably it.

GROSS: Yeah. So do you think, in some ways, instead of, like, the big, mass,
shared experience of television, what we're having now is sharing experiences?
We send clips to friends that we've found on YouTube. We get clips from
friends. And so we see these, like, high points of various things that happen
in TV and on the world?

BIANCULLI: That's the best way I've ever heard it described: sharing experience
instead of shared. I'm very excited. The...

GROSS: Let's credit our producer, Phyllis Myers, who came up with that during
our interview and talked to us on the headphones.

BIANCULLI: But it's really what has happened, and it's hard for me to accept
it. Let's say, for example, something big happens, but nobody watches it on TV,
but it starts getting viral on the Internet. And where maybe it only originally
had an audience of one or two million - whether it's something that Jon Stewart
did, or it's a musical performance by Susan Boyle or anybody else. And then all
of a sudden, it gets 10, 15 million hits over the Internet. But still, what
happens right now is it gets then vindicated when one of the morning shows or
one of the evening shows comes back and says, oh, look at this popular thing on
the Internet, and sort of crowns it.

So right now, it does go back to TV, but I don't know how much longer it's
going to. But I don't know if taking two minutes out of a monologue and having
that shared because everybody wants to see it is the same thing as watching the
entire hour of, like, the Johnny Carson show 10 years ago. I think it's
different, somehow.

GROSS: David, it was great to talk with you. Thank you for putting together
your list for us. And those lists will be on our Web site, so you can find them
there, at freshair.npr.org. David, happy new year, happy holidays. Thank you
for being here.

BIANCULLI: Well, thank you.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. He also writes the Web
magazine tvworthwatching.com. He teaches TV and film at Rowan University and is
the author of a new book about the Smothers Brothers called "Dangerously
Funny." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Defending The Faith, And Morality, Of Non-Believers

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

In the new book “Good Without God,” my guest Greg Epstein writes that the
fastest growing religious preference in America is non-religious. In his job as
Harvard University’s Humanist chaplain, Epstein works with non-religious
students. He describes the Humanist community as a place for family, memory,
ethical values and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with
intellectual honesty and without a god. Today is a Humanist holiday called
Human Light, a secular alternative to the religious holidays of the season.

It was created in 2001. Greg Epstein is a Humanist rabbi. He has his M.A. in
theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School. He wrote his new book in
response to people who ask, how can you be good without God?

Greg Epstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. So today is a Humanist holiday, December
23rd, called Human Light. Are you celebrating that? Do you recognized that
holiday?

Mr. GREG EPSTEIN (Chaplain): Yes, I recognize human light as one of the
holidays that Humanists celebrate at this time of year. I’ve written about it
in the book. But I also think that there are many ways to celebrate this time
of year, including celebrating the traditionally religious holidays from a
cultural point of view. So in other words, I think most Humanists and atheists
that are of a Christian cultural background like to celebrate Christmas from a
Christian cultural point of view. Most Humanists and atheists of a Jewish
cultural background enjoy something about Hanukkah and about that tradition,
but from a cultural point of view instead viewing it as something about God and
religion.

GROSS: And can we mention that probably a lot of Jews give Christmas gifts too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah, because I think that, you know, the - America is a
profoundly culturally Christian country in a way that it is not religiously
Christian. And so it's not such a terrible thing or something that we need to
run away from that our calendar and a lot of our national consciousness follows
the rhythm of the traditionally Christian calendar.

The positive part of that for me is that a lot of customs that have come from
one or another aspect of Christianity have really been made very cultural and
very secular, and even very Humanist in recent generations.

And so to me, you know, the idea of Christmas, of giving gifts, really has
very, very, very little to do, other than that little story about Jesus and him
and receiving gifts, it really has very little to do with the theology of Jesus
Christ or even a theology about a God. What it has to with to me is this idea
that this is the time of year when it's darkest, this is the time of year for
us here in North America when it’s coldest, and seasonal affective disorder,
SAD, is real. And we do, we get a little sadder, we get a little more depressed
at this time of year if we're not careful and so we give gifts to one another
to warm each other up, and I think that that's a wonderful thing to do and a
very secular thing to do.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what you mean when you describe yourself
as a Humanist. In your book you say Humanism is a bold, resolute response to
the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening. And Humanism means
taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a
better place, though we know we can not ever finish the task.

Can you talk a little bit more about what Humanism means to you?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, Humanism to me, I mean it’s been formally defined by the
American Humanist Association, and the short definition that I think is
helpful: a progressive life stance or a progressive philosophy of life that
without supernaturalism, without anything magical or supernatural affirms our
ability and our responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment,
aspiring to the greater good of humanity.

But in short, I would say that Humanism is good without God. It is that
struggle, that process of trying to live the best life that we possibly can for
ourselves and for all of human being and for the sake of the natural world that
surrounds us and that sustains us and that we've put in danger - that’s good
without God. That's Humanism. But I guess I would also add to that that the
emphasis for me of Humanism is not on the without God. It's not on what we
disbelieve in. Everybody has something that they disbelieve in.

You know, Christians disbelieve in Islam. Muslims disbelieve in Christianity.
But to me the emphasis of Humanism is really on what we do believe. It's on the
good and our pursuit of the good and our determination to be good with others
and for others.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you became a Humanist, because you were really on
your way to becoming more of a religion scholar, I think it's fair to say, but
I'll ask you specifically about that a little later. But let's start with the
fact that you grew up in New York, in Flushing, Queens. You describe you
parents as secular disinterested Jews.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did they observe the High Holy Days? Because there's a lot of like
secular Jews who on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah will observe.

Mr. EPSTEIN: We did. We went to out local synagogue for those particular days
because I think that like other families we were looking for some way to
connect with what was clearly our heritage, what was clearly our culture, and
it seemed that these, perhaps, these were the days that were well known to be
the most important days on the calendar, and so it was the sense that, well, at
least we should go these days, everybody's going these days. And nobody, quite
frankly, or at least very few people, would go any other days besides those. So
we would show up in synagogue on those particular days and not really knowing
what to do. And when I would get there, I would observe the people around me
and they'd be cracking open these sort of musty older prayer books and they
would be reciting at the very best words that just seemed to be recited by
rote. You know - (Hebrew spoken) - you know, blessed are you, oh Lord our God,
but it didn’t really seem to me to be a group of people truly interested in
blessing the Lord their God. It seemed to me that if that was what these people
really believed, their behavior would be different.

GROSS: So when you discovered Humanistic Judaism, did you - is that when you
went back and got your Masters in Judaic Studies?

Mr. EPSTEIN: So I did. I enrolled in the rabbinic program. Sherman Wine was
somebody who came from being a reformed rabbi in the 1960s. He was a brilliant
young reform rabbi who was leading a congregation, and like many rabbis he'd
gone to rabbinical school with the open understanding between him and his
faculty that he was a Humanist. He said I'm not religious, but I like working
with communities, I like my culture, I like my heritage so I want to work at
doing this job. And they said, sure, fine, no problem, half of our students
are. And this is Hebrew Union College, the - still the largest rabbinical
seminary in the country.

But after several years of doing this, he decided that he just didn’t want any
more to say prayers that he didn’t believe. He didn’t want to get up in front
of his congregation and have it be about a performance. He really wanted to
speak more honestly to them. And so he created a movement where one could
celebrate one's cultural background, in his case Judaism, while combining that
with a totally honest, raw, brave form of Humanism that was uncompromising
intellectually.

GROSS: The word dignity is very important to your mentor Sherwin Wine. What did
dignity mean to him?

Mr. EPSTEIN: I think that Sherwin was interested in pursuing, and I in turn am
really passionate about pursuing, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning in
life that is not bound by or determined by a belief in a higher power that
assigns us. We acknowledge as Humanists that there is no one single overarching
purpose or meaning to our lives that's given to us, that's handed to us by the
universe.

But Sherwin was very much aware, in the tradition of Camus and many others,
that we therefore have not just the freedom but also the responsibility to
choose a meaning for our own lives and to struggle to pursue it. And you know,
he certainly asked these questions - well, what is the meaning of our life?
What is the purpose of our life if not, you know, avoiding divine punishment or
achieving divine reward? And he called it dignity.

It's this idea that we're never going to be happy all the time. I mean the
writer Tony Kushner once said that he's never met anyone who's perfectly happy
all the time. The best you can do is happy-ish. But Sherwin and I would
probably argue as well that happy-ish can be pretty good if combined with a
sense of dignity, a sense that one is - and in this I would use again a saying
that comes from religion but that has nothing to do with God, that one is for
one's self because if we're not for ourselves, who will be for us?

But we are also for others because if we're only for ourselves, what are we?
And if not now, when? That's dignity to me, that sense that we build our lives
and the meaning of our lives based on the relationships, the connections that
we have with other people in the here and now.

GROSS: So getting back to the idea of Humanistic Judaism, you say you’ve
preserved some of the aspects of Judaism.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So do you do anything on Yom Kippur, which is one of the High Holy Days?
It's a day of like atonement and fasting.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure. Yes. For me personally, I did fast for 24 hours, 25, 26
hours this past Yom Kippur as a way of reflecting on the meaning of my own life
and on what kind of person I'd been in the year that had passed. I think that
to me, again, it's this idea that religion had its good ideas and its bad
ideas. And they’ve all evolved naturally. And one of the ideas that I think is
helpful is to take some time throughout the year, throughout our lives, on a
regular basis to check in with ourselves and say - how are we doing, how am I
doing, how am I living, how am I handling my relationships with the people that
I care most about, how am I handling my relationship with this Earth that I
live on that I can't do without?

And you know, these are ideas that don’t come from religion. You don’t need
religion to have them, but religion is the thing in today's society that seems
to embody or provide a structure for some of these things, because that's just
– that's the way that they evolved. They came to us through religious
traditions because everything about human society used to be religious when we
didn’t have better answers for some of religion's questions.

GROSS: My guest is Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist chaplain. His
new book is called "Good Without God."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Greg Epstein, Harvard University's Humanist Chaplain. He's
also a Humanist rabbi. He's the author of the new book "Good Without God."

Your Humanist mentor, Sherwin Wine, said that the mistake of the Jewish reform
movement was to translate the prayers - the Hebrew prayers - from Hebrew to
English. And he said once modern people could actually understand what they
were supposed to be saying, big mistake. And so I want to talk with you a
little bit about the mourner's prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. It's called
Kaddish.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure.

GROSS: I think it’s - I don’t speak Hebrew, so I can't translate it word for
word, but just listening to the sounds of the words in Hebrew...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and the way that those sounds are chanted, I think it's one of the
most beautiful prayers I've ever heard, and it is one of the most rhythmic
prayers...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: ... that I know. And (unintelligible) really contemporary in its rhythm
too and the musicality of that rhythm.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Timeless, in fact.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And I always wonder, well - what is it saying? What does
it mean?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Because you kind of give it your own meaning when you don’t really know
the literal translation.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure.

GROSS: So I thought I'd read a translation. Unless you can translate it? Could
you just translate...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, I would say that Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba - may it
be magnified and sanctified his great name - God's great name. And that's
exactly what the mourner's Kaddish is about. It's such a beautiful composition,
and based on my study of the Hebrew liturgy, and I had a chance in my studies
to study many different forms of religious liturgy, that this prayer became so
central not because of anything that it has to do with. The subject matter is
simply that God is great. But it's so beautifully written from a poetic
perspective that it became very meaningful in rituals.

And that's what I'm arguing, is that, you know, there is a beauty, an atheistic
beauty, there's a sense of identity that people get from religion, and then
there's its literal message. And the literal message for those of us who are
interested in such things can often disappoint.

GROSS: Now, one thing I’ll say about the Kaddish that even, you know, if you’re
secular, if you see prayer as a chant as opposed to a literal message...

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that even though the chant of the mourner's prayer – Kaddish - is
just praising God.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The chant aspect of it is so really profound and beautiful.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: So maybe it was always meant to be that way. Maybe it was never meant to
be, you know, okay, this is the literal message you’re taking away. Maybe it
was more of a chant in the way that chants and meditations can have meaning
that is above and beyond the actual meaning of the words.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Well, I definitely agree that chanting and doing a number of
different kinds of things like mediation can be wonderfully powerful and
important for people in sort of getting outside of themselves, getting outside
of their normal routine and really experiencing their emotions, experiencing
some - in the case of mourning, their grief, and experiencing life more fully.
And so in the book, I talk about a number of ways in which, again, secularists,
Humanists, the non-religious can use some of these same techniques that emerged
to be associated with religion, but really speak more to just broader human
experience because I agree, you know, to have that experience can be incredibly
powerful. But I would just – I would suggest that we can do better than simply
rely only on the traditional sources that have this message that we no longer
believe in.

GROSS: One of the kind of standard questions that people turn to religion for
is why do we die? Why did my loved one die?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Hmm.

GROSS: Why are there massacres and genocides and the Holocaust, like what – why
is that?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, different religions and different people within religions
have come up with their answers, I mean, one of the answers is God works in
mysterious ways and…

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: …we will never understand that.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: And, you know, and everybody has heard many answers from, you know,
religious authorities about ways of addressing those questions. Obviously, the
answers you heard…

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

GROSS: …from rabbis or maybe from priests as well and…

Mr. EPSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: …Buddhist monks as well didn't satisfy you. So, I'd like you to explain
a little bit why you felt unsatisfied by the answers you were getting to the
really be questions from the worlds of religion.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Sure, and I talk in the book about a number of liberal religious
thinkers who have a lot of intelligent things to say about so many important
contemporary issues. And some of them will say things like, God is love, or God
is the universe, or God is mystery. And if you think God is love, or God is the
universe, then most likely you and I are going to agree on a lot of political
issues and we're going to be able to work together. But why do we need to use
the word God when we have the perfectly good word love or the universe, you
know? I simply want to try to be as honest as I can be about what I'm talking
about.

And if you think God is mystery, well mystery is not a great source of comfort
in the face of death. You know, at least I didn't find the mystery to be all
that comforting when my father died or when I lost other loved one and what I
was really wanting was not, you know, the presence of a mystery but the
presence of people to love me and care for me. And that's what I try to offer
in the face of death to the members of my own community, is the sense that,
look, there is no justification for the tragedies that happen. There is no good
reason that we could ever come up with for why the Holocaust happened, for why
innocent children are ripped away from us every single day, every minute.

There's nothing that one could say that would say, oh, this makes it better. Or
there – you'll be rewarded in haven. No, it's not sufficient. And what, to me,
the only thing that we can say is that we care, we love, we acknowledge. Death
is real. It's final. It takes tremendous, tremendous courage to cope with. And
we have to love one another because that's what we get. We get this world, this
one shot.

GROSS: So, maybe this is the wrong question to end an interview with a Humanist
chaplain and rabbi, but what are you doing on Christmas Day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EPSTEIN: I'll be getting together with my family. I've always enjoyed that
day. You know, when I grew up with this idea of Santa Claus. And I think that
Santa Claus by the way is a great exercise for Humanists to take their kids
through because it presents us with this idea of a mythological being who has
very important powers and cares if you're naughty or you're nice. And, you
know, and you have to be – you have to engage with that idea as a child. And
then children are encouraged to question that idea over time and ask, is there
really a Santa Claus? Does that – is that really true? And, you know, that time
of year really spoke to me as a child and that's why I still feel a connection
to it as a culturally Christian, culturally American holiday.

I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating the fact that we have
this culture and this history in common as Americans and as people of the
world. The question is what do we believe about it and how do we believe, you
know, we should go about trying to be good people. And that's the discretion
that we have to have, but I think we can celebrate in many ways together.

GROSS: Greg Epstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Oh, Terry, it's a pleasure.

GROSS: Greg Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. His new
book is called, "Good Without God."
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Maureen Corrigan's Best Books Of 2009

TERRY GROSS, host:

This week, our critics are looking back on 2009. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
is here to talk about the books on her ten-best list.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN (Book Critic): This was a major year for looking back to
the Great Depression for guidance, as well as for a buck-up dose of that era's
shining-through, Shirley Temple spirit. Out of all of the 30's-themed books I
read this year, my pick for the best nonfiction book is Kirsten Downey's
biography of Frances Perkins, called "The Woman Behind the New Deal." Here's
how Franklin Roosevelt's controversial choice for secretary of Labor recalled
the first meeting of FDR's Cabinet in 1933.

I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the impression
of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn't buzz-buzz all the time. You didn't
butt in with bright ideas. As Downey's compelling biography reveals, Perkins'
strategy of reticence worked. She achieved many of her bright ideas, like the
minimum wage, work-hour limitations and the Social Security Act. Indeed, if
Perkins had completely realized her vision, national health care would have
long been an American reality.

Henry Ford, of course, was a bitter foe of FDR and his worker-friendly
legislation. During the 1930s, Ford poured money and manpower into a
Disneyland-type settlement in the Amazon called Fordlandia. In a lively work of
narrative history of the same title, historian Greg Grandin rediscovers this
forgotten utopian town, the ruins of which still stand deep in the jungles of
Brazil. Grandin mentions that Fordlandia had a dance hall where only polkas and
minuets were allowed, since Ford disapproved of the sex dancing that was
sweeping America in the 1920s and '30s.

In contrast, esteemed literary critic Morris Dickstein's cultural history of
the 1930s called "Dancing in the Dark," is fascinated with Busby Berkeley's
sex-dancing extravaganzas. Dickstein also investigates the deeper meanings of
art deco industrial design, gangster movies, and the novels of Zora Neale
Hurston and John Steinbeck.

Finally, the work of nonfiction I reviewed this year that garnered the most
listener response had nothing to do with the Great Depression. "Happens Every
Day," by novice writer Isabel Gillies is a disarming memoir that focuses on the
collapse of her marriage to a poetry professor at Oberlin — a school, Gillies
tells us, where all the students play an instrument well, and know how to
address transgendered people.

Any year in which I stumble upon a terrific new mystery series is a bull market
year for me. This past summer, a wise independent bookseller recommended that I
read the Moe Prager mysteries set in Brooklyn and starring a Jewish former
police detective. The atmospheric Prager series is written by Reed Farrel
Coleman, who just may be the only mystery writer licensed to drive trucks
filled with hazardous materials like nuclear waste.

Speaking of nuclear Armageddon, my nominee for this year's best work of
literary fiction, Zoe Heller's acerbic novel of ideas "The Believers," merrily
decimates the world its characters once inhabited. "The Believers" explores
what happens when a zealous, William Kunstler-type superstar lawyer dies and
his children drift into various other political and religious orthodoxies.
Heller has no patience with what she calls the phenomenon of relatability in
fiction. Her characters aren't particularly likeable. Instead, they rivet our
attention with their wit, smarts and bad behavior.

Other fiction standouts were the incomparable Lorrie Moore's seductive tale "A
Gate at the Stairs," her first novel in 15 years; "Brooklyn," by Colm Toibin,
about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York in the 1950s and works at
a department store; and "The Man in the Wooden Hat," by British master Jane
Gardam. This nuanced story of a long marriage is a companion piece to her best-
known work, "Old Filth."

Last, but definitely not least, there's Jess Walter's superb farce, "The
Financial Lives of the Poets." His anti-hero is a middle-aged former journalist
whose wife is on the verge of an affair and whose house is a week away from
foreclosure. Unable to sleep one night, this sad sack goes out to a 7-Eleven to
buy milk for his kids' cereal. There, he falls in with a gang of teenaged drug
dealers and hatches a desperate plan for restoring his financial solvency. It's
not exactly a Frank Capra plot, but the screwball sensibility of Walter's novel
is very much an updated take on those dark Depression comedies. Here's to
looking ahead to better times and many more terrific books.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can
read excerpts of all the books on Maureen's list on our Web site fresh.npr.org.
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