Mason Professor Reflects on 9/11 and ‘Beauty for Ashes’

Posted: September 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

By James Greif

John Farina, associate professor of religious studies. Photo by James Greif

After Sept. 11, 2001, John Farina was asked to compile a book that reflected what America and the world were thinking in the days following the attack.

“In the ’80s and ’90s I had worked in book publishing in New York City, specifically focusing on religious publications,” says Farina, now associate professor of religious studies at Mason. “About five days following Sept. 11, the New York-based book publisher Crossroad approached me about putting a book together to immediately capture the mood following the attack. Smoke still hung over the city, yet there was a determination to do something positive, right away, in response to the attacks.”

The result was “Beauty for Ashes: Spiritual Reflections on the Attack on America.” As editor of the book, Farina pulled together original and previously published writings, including an essay from Peter Ferrara, former associate professor of law at Mason, which begins the book. Farina also contributed an essay, “Nailed to the Nexus of the Universe,” and translated another piece from Latin.

Other contributors include author Salman Rushdie, author and columnist Andrew Sullivan, boxer Muhammad Ali, President George W. Bush, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Pope John Paul II and evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

“I also approached people I knew who were writers and thinkers, as well as people I met while walking around Manhattan with the goal of capturing the immediacy of the event.”

The 300-page collection hit shelves in November 2001, just weeks after the worst attack on American soil. All proceeds of the book were donated to the American Red Cross’ Liberty Disaster Fund for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The contributions in the book are organized by Farina as an extended meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, because he believed it resonated with all of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Each of the book’s seven chapters is titled after a line of the prayer, beginning with “Our Father Who Art in Heaven… Solidarity in Times of Suffering,” and ending with “For Thine Is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory… Healing and Hope.”

“We were still dealing with the era of dial-up Internet,” Farina says, “but we were still able to find some great reflections on the event. Nobody charged us for any of the material we used. I don’t know if we would have been able to do a book like this today. Right after the attack, everyone just wanted to cooperate.”

In this spirit, the book includes an editorial that was translated and reprinted from the French newspaper Le Monde with the title “Nous sommes tous Américains” (“We are all Americans”). Farina notes that this universal solidarity would soon fade with time, as opposition to the war in Iraq and other differences in policies and political choices developed.

“Beauty for Ashes” went on to win the Catholic Press Association award for Best Book in Spirituality for 2001.

The need for reflection is an important part of human reaction during a tragedy, according to Farina, and he cites this as a key reason the book was created. “The reality of suffering and tragedy can often lead to an epiphany. Religions of the world recognize this. There is a spiritual element to human reflection, regardless of religious beliefs, and I believe everyone is affected by that.”

Farina believes that there is a much greater awareness of the intersection of religion and politics now than before 9/11. “Prior to this event, many had trouble seeing the connection between religion and politics in the international sphere. The public dimension of religion is much more widely acknowledged,” he says.

While many books were published following 9/11, in “Beauty for Ashes,” Farina attempted to tell both sides of every story in the moments after the event.

“I think I did capture the range of responses immediately after the attack,” he says. “If one were to write a book today, the author would have to have a particular take or angle. This book is a snapshot of the moments following Sept. 11 and reflects the suffering and destruction. This is my photograph.”

At Mason, Farina specializes in the areas of religion and society, law and religion, American religious history and the history of Western spirituality. Prior to joining Mason and during the publication of “Beauty for Ashes,” he was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and directed their Catholicism and Civic Renewal program.

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