Photo of John D. Cressler
Dec 302013
 

To those that were either present at graduation or listened after the fact to my December 2013 Georgia Tech Commencement Speech, one thing is clear: the subject was definitely off the beaten track, as least as far as commencement speeches go! That subject? Love. L-O-V-E. I am pleased to say that my speech has received universally positive reviews, by more than just a few folks. If you weighed in, thank you!

Why love? Well, I hate being boring in anything I do, and I certainly relish doing things that others have not tried. And, heck, love is a topic catchy enough and simple enough to easily recall after the fact. It also afforded me the rare opportunity to share things that are very close to my heart. I figured that folks might not remember who I am the next day, but they might recall what I spoke about. The cruel truth (known to all professors who endure many, many graduations year in and year out as they hood their students) is that 99% of commencement speeches fade into oblivion within an hour, maybe two. Tops. Truth be told, I wanted to buck that trend. Being named the 2013 winner of the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award (the highest honor Georgia Tech bestows on its faculty) afforded me the opportunity to do the speech (a fine tradition).

I thought it might be fun to share a little of the back matter of that speech, including the original sources I used and some associated trivia. Here goes:

  1. How did Cressler know that his speech was # 449,503? Well, as I stated, it was a crude estimate. At present there are 4,495 colleges and universities in the US. I assumed an average age of 50 years, and 2 graduations per year. Even though it is a monstrous number, this is a clearly conservative, since most universities are much older than 50 years, and many have 3 graduations per year (spring, summer, fall).
  2. Is Cressler’s speech the only one that deals with love as a theme? Hard to say definitively, but I did do extensive google searching and found nothing remotely similar. I’ll stick by unique.
  3. Was Father Ed Wroblewski really a professor of homiletics at Maryknoll Seminary? Indeed he was. Father Ed is still alive and well at 88 years young and continues to wield a mind like a steel trap. Maryknoll is about one hour’s drive north of New York City. We go way back. By the way, yes, he thought my speech was “interesting.”
  4. Who was Joseph Campbell? A famous professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He is well known for the seminal book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, and you may recall Bill Moyers’s PBS series on Campbell and the companion book, The Power of Myth. Riveting stuff. The notions of “bliss” and “following your bliss” are his. Bliss as a fifth form of love, and the connection of bliss to living out your “Original Purpose” are mine.
  5. Who was Ignatius of Loyola? Ignatius lived in the early 16th century in Spain, and was the founder of the Jesuit Order in the Catholic Church (our present Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be pope). The Jesuits are famous for several things – their teaching vocation and schools/universities (e.g., Georgetown is Jesuit), their service to the poor, and Ignatian Silent Retreats (my wife Maria is the Executive Director of Ignatius House Retreat Center north of Atlanta – visit: http://www.ignatiushouse.org/ and I have made silent retreats twice yearly for over 15 years now). Ignatius’ notion of discovering our Original Purpose (OP), and honoring God by living that OP out to its fullest, is his. The very heart of Ignatian Spiritualty.
  6. Is Cressler really a novelist? Indeed I am. I have published five non-fiction books to date (two for general audiences), and my debut historical novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra, an interfaith love story set in 14th century Muslim Spain, was released in June of 2013. It is the first book in a series titled Anthems of al-Andalus. Book 2, Shadows in the Shining City, will be released in the spring of 2014 (Sunbury Press). Visit: http://johndcressler.com/emeralds-of-the-alhambra.
  7. Where does Cressler do his homeless ministry in Atlanta? I work with JustFaith Ministries along Hollowell Parkway (a.k.a. Bankhead Highway), each Saturday morning. A truly wonderful experience.

My Commencement Speech can be viewed at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt8RP6Lnc-0&feature=youtu.be

Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Convivencia (Coexistence) – Did You Miss the Boat?
Oct 182013
 

History is my second love, right after my wife. So how is it, then, that my history teachers managed to omit a fact so breathtaking and so relevant to this broken world of ours rife with multicultural religious conflict? How did I get short-changed in the historical knowledge department?

I’m not alone. Chances are you missed the boat, too!

The Q:

It all began with my simple question: Is it possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace? You know, get along? Hang out? Play together? Party together? Fall in love? Marry one another? Share languages and customs, that sort of thing?

Well, 90% of the responses come in the form of a knee-jerk retort of, “Are you CRAZY?! Look around, open your eyes!” This is often chased by a derisive laugh, maybe even a kick in the rear.

The A:

Let me break it to you gently. Here’s what my teachers didn’t tell me. Not only did Muslims, Jews, and Christians find a way to live together in peace (shocker #1), but they lived together in peace for a couple of hundred years (shocker #2). Who knew? I didn’t. Bet you didn’t either!

When and where? In medieval Muslim Spain (a.k.a. al-Andalus), under the enlightened, tolerant rule of the Umayyad Muslim Caliphs in Córdoba, Spain, beginning in the 10th century. This was smack in the middle of The Dark Ages, a time when my teachers told me civilization ground to halt.

Guess what? It didn’t.

A Little Reminder:

Córdoba in the mid-10th century was a truly remarkable place, a place almost impossible to exaggerate. Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, the richest, the cleanest, with the largest library in the world (over 400,000 volumes!), running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, public paths, and public hospitals. One of the largest mosques in the world (the Mesquita – pic below). All this, plus an unprecedented intellectual flowering as the lost books of the ancient Greeks and others in the Near East were rediscovered and translated (into Arabic), setting the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, agriculture, art, architecture and science. As I said, breathtaking! 10th century Córdoba was a city of song and dance, of poetry and book, of recitals and discourse.

This exuberant civilization blossomed in an embracive Umayyad Muslim culture that welcomed Christians and Jews into their ranks and encouraged their churches and synagogues. Here was a society with a progressive social mobility for minorities, and an intentional intermingling of languages, cultures and customs. This remarkable period is known today as convivencia (coexistence), a time still recognized by Jews as their “Golden Age.” Oh, and it occurred within the bounds of a Muslim-ruled society! Imagine.

That is not to say that life between the three Abrahamic faith traditions in al-Andalus was all a bed of roses; it wasn’t. Jews and Christians paid a tax to live there, and Christians were forbidden to ring their church bells or try to convert Muslims, but all in all, these three found a way to make it work over an exceptionally long period, and work well it did.

The Moral to the Story:

Here, then, is a singular existence proof of a lasting peace achieved within the obvious constraints imposed by a diverse multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic society. If it happened once, why not again?

Let me not be too harsh on my teachers. There was no conspiracy. To be sure, the fact of convivencia and the marvels of al-Andalus are out there, but somehow they tend to get glossed over, hidden within dense history texts, neatly squirreled away and tucked out of sight. Why? Perhaps in our post 9/11 world, it is just too easy to embrace the simple-minded view that peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews is a patently absurd idea.

But now you know. Peace did happen. Let’s join together and make this the year we reawaken a lost world that can help reshape our collective memory as a global community. Let’s dream a different ending, a world centered on tolerance and peace between we three. Convivencia.


Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra
May 072013
 

Having just come to the end of the review cycle by the endorsers of Emeralds of the Alhambra, I have discovered something new in the process. Placing your ‘baby’ into the hands of a diverse set of very well-known people can be incredibly anxiety producing! Thankfully, the results have been truly gratifying. I thought Professor Susan Abraham’s review of Emeralds was particularly insightful. She “got” the broad themes of the book that I was striving for when I wrote it, and codified my message beautifully. I am including her review below. Enjoy!

Emeralds of the Alhambra, by John D. Cressler, to be released by Sunbury Press, June 15, 2013.


“John D. Cressler’s debut novel reveals the infinite artistic capacity of a polymath whose diverse interests create a vivid and gorgeous world of romance, intrigue, murder and negotiations between multiple religions in medieval Spain. Emeralds of the Alhambra is a fascinating and historically realistic portrayal of life in Muslim Spain in the 14th century. Cressler has woven an imaginative and intricately persuasive story that successfully does two things. One, the historical details provide for absorbing reading in the depiction of medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures and religious identities living side by side. Here, conflict, war, assassinations and cooperation for religious, cultural and political survival translate into lessons from history for our contemporary time. Second, a model for interreligious life emerges in these pages: one that is nurtured in the context of intimate, covenanted and familial relationality. Interreligious marriages have been in many parts of the world a prime vehicle for interreligious convivial life. The possibility of intimate love sprouting in the context of multiple religious identities is one that reveals the true meaning of “conversion” to the human and Divine Other. Cressler deftly presents his characters as multidimensional; Jews, Muslims and Christians are not Westernized caricatures of good and evil. The novel prods us to note that there never was a monolithic Christianity, Judaism or Islam in human history, a compelling lesson gleaned through Cressler’s artistic vision. The difference between the Muslim Maghreb and Muslim Granada are meticulously sketched in an imaginative frame to reveal its influence still being played out in our time.

Of the more evocative perceptions the reader is left with at the end of the novel is Cressler’s loving attention to the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the manner that Muslim architecture presents the occasion for glorifying the divine in its sumptuous materiality. Cressler’s engineering reflexes, inflected with a deep love of beauty, are in full view in the various descriptions of the palaces and mosques of the Alhambra. In one exquisite passage describing the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions, he writes: ‘The mocárabes coalesce into an elaborate eight-pointed star, the heavens, resting upon the cubic hall below, the earth, inviting the visitor’s gaze upwards to the divine….The calculus of the ceiling produces a meditative sculpture on the nature of time, the separation of heaven and earth, Allah and man.’

Emeralds of the Alhambra is a coruscant story of love between human beings, for God, and for the creation so graciously bestowed on us. A thoroughly gripping and engaging first novel.”

─Professor Susan Abraham, Harvard Divinity School

Mar 232013
 

Emeralds of the Alhambra takes place in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1366-1369). The Alhambra is the best-preserved medieval Islamic palace in Europe, if not the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada (maps can be found on my website: http://johndcressler.com). The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (al-hamra is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada, located in extreme southeastern Spain. The Alhambra Palace complex contained the royal palace of the Nasrid Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the kingdom, and a separately castled garrison.

Like all Islamic palaces, the Alhambra has a remarkably plain exterior, with no hint of the marvels lurking with, and is divided into several distinct palace complexes. Below are pictures I made while visiting the Alhambra in the fall of 2010 while I was doing research for Emeralds.


The Courtyard of the Myrtles in the Comares Palace, with the Hall of the Ambassadors rising behind it. In medieval times the myrtle hedges would have been inset into the ground to avoid obstructing the view of the pool.


An interior view of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the throne room of the Sultan. Note the elaborate stucco carvings on the walls. The Sultan’s throne would have been at the extreme left.


The ubiquitous motto of the Kingdom of Granada, inscribed everywhere within the palace complex. Read right to left, it translates, “There is no victor but Allah.”


The famous courtyard of the Palace of the Lions, containing 124 columns, and the marvelous lion fountain at its center. All of the fountains within the Alhambra (dozens) were gravity powered.


The remarkable prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Two Sisters within the Palace of the Lions.


The prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions.


Interview with John D. Cressler

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Interview with John D. Cressler
Jan 202013
 

One doesn’t normally put ‘engineering professor’ and ‘historical fiction author’ in the same sentence. How did Emeralds of the Alhambra come about?

No argument there! I have always enjoyed writing, and while it has actually been a lifelong dream of mine to write a novel, somehow I never quite felt ready. Novel writing is an intimidating business! I have always been an avid reader, and after a high school/college infatuation with science fiction and fantasy, I moved into more mainstream novels and to this day that is all I read. With each new novel I would find myself wondering what it would be like to try my hand at fiction. Interestingly, however, the opportunities for writing non-fiction books seemed to materialize naturally as a part of my career as a professor. And it is MUCH easier to get non-fiction published! When I finished my first book, a graduate-level textbook in my research field, I found the process deeply satisfying, and wanted more. My 4th non-fiction book, Silicon Earth, was a little different in genre, in that it was for a general, non-specialist audience, and I got permission to use a non-traditional, breezy and fun narrative style. That worked so well that when I finished it I decided it was finally time to explore whether I had a novel in me. The whole prospect was a little scary because the canvas is so large. What type of fiction? I have a deep love of history and really enjoy well-executed historical fiction, so I took the plunge and started there. It was love at first sight!

How does writing non-fiction compare with writing fiction?

Good question. They are very different in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with your material, an obsession of sorts. I think what I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character. The creative energy this produces is profound! Let me give you a feel for this. In writing Emeralds, I first mapped out the synopsis in a few pages, to bind the themes and characters and historical events that I wanted to address. Then I expanded that synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter draft, each of which was maybe a quarter page of what factually happens in that chapter. This allows me to make sure all the plot twists and timing angles gel properly with the overall story trajectory. I did this for the whole book before beginning my writing. Then, when it was time to compose, I took the first chapter summary and expanded it into the various chapter scenes, fleshing the chapter out to about a page, no more, so that I had a good sense of the story that would transpire. Then I set this aside and began composing. The magical part of the process is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from the plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! Almost on a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters, it would jump into my head, “well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “obviously this needs to happen!” Things I had never anticipated before actually doing the writing. That creative element is unique to fiction and I find it deeply satisfying.

How did you end up with medieval Muslim Spain as a setting for your novel?

Well, after I narrowed it down to historical fiction, I spent quite a bit of time on the web just exploring history. I have always loved European history, so one magical day, I stumbled upon medieval Muslim Spain. The more I explored the more amazed I was, particularly since it is a period of history so rich in its message for our modern world and yet so little appreciated by most people. Imagine, a period of over three hundred years with Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in harmony! An existence proof we owe it to the world to recall. I was quickly locked in on medieval Muslim Spain. At that point, I ordered a ton of books on medieval Iberia and began to immerse myself in the period, to learn the history. I was after a short span of years that was of pivotal importance, and yet contained the themes I was after. That led me to Granada, the Alhambra Palace, Sultan Muhammad V and Ibn al-Khatib, and the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369). I was set for historical backdrop. I knew I wanted to wrap the book around a love story between a Muslim and a Christian, and that fell right into place.

Tell me about the Alhambra?

The Alhambra, what a magical place! The Alhambra is the best preserved medieval Islamic palace in the western world, perhaps in the whole world. It is located in Granada, in Andalusia (al-Andalus in Arabic), in extreme southern Spain. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (‘al-hamra’ is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the Nasrid Kingdom, and a separately castled garrison. The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population in 1367 was roughly two thousand, including a garrison of perhaps three hundred elite troops, compared to about sixty-five thousand inhabitants in Granada proper, a very large city by fourteenth century standards.

Tell me about the research you did for the book. Did you visit Spain?

I spent almost nine months on background research before laying pen to paper. The credenza in my office at home where I write is lined with over ten feet of references on all things al-Andalus which I digested. As I describe in my blog entry, in the fall of 2010 I spent two weeks in Spain doing on-site research: Seville, Córdoba, Jaen, and Granada. I had all I needed factually at that point, but I still needed to absorb the scenes, burn them into my minds’ eye. See the sky, the landscape, the architecture, and most importantly close my eyes and bring the palace to life as it would have been six hundred years ago. There is no substitute for this type of on-the-ground research. I virtually lived in the Alhambra for six days, and that proved invaluable when writing. Fortunately, the Royal Palace itself is mostly preserved in the same form it was when my story takes place.

What are your writing habits?

Like most novelists, I find that I need significant “face-time” with my characters and story. I am a morning person, up at 5:15 am during the work week. After prayer time, breakfast and the paper, I retreat to my office by 7:15, and work without interruption until about 9:30-ish. Monday through Friday. I do not write on the weekends, but instead prefer to do some mental mull-over of my characters and story. Each morning when I start writing, I first re-read and tinker with my previous section or two, then I begin new material once I have found my groove. I repeatedly write, re-read and revise as I compose, so I manage only a few pages a day. I aim for a chapter a week. Slowly but surely the novel grows. I wrote Emeralds in about fifteen months. When I close down each morning, I do a quick catch up on email, then off to campus. I still manage to beat all of my graduate students into the office!

Tell me about your prose style.

I utilize a third-person/objective/limited narrative scheme. The narrator sees all but does not know all. It is a very visual style. The reader stands with the narrator and is invited to observe and draw their own conclusions of what they see (the so-called camera-eye perspective). The action unfolds in the present tense, which I find lends dramatic weight to the story. I lean towards impressionistic descriptions of places, sights, sounds, and smells. One of my major jobs in writing historical fiction is to create a well-developed sense of the time and place in the reader’s mind, and I find this impressionistic approach works well. I also adopt a modest amount of magical realism, choosing to bring certain inanimate things to life – in Emeralds, for instance, the constellations are participants in the story. My writing style is perhaps a bit unusual, but I think it works quite well.

Which fiction authors most inspire you?

There are so many wonderful novelists working today, so inspiration is never hard to find. I try to read them all, with a steady diet of all the major fiction award winners. Some contemporary standouts for me include: Michael Ondaatje, Mark Helprin, Hillary Mantel, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Rachman, and Colum McCann. The list could go on and on.

Who are you reading right now?

I just finished Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award winner. Absolutely brilliant! Her prose is remarkable, with a lovely impressionistic style that I much admire, and her characters are just beautifully crafted.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is book one of a series called Anthems of al-Andalus. What comes next? And when will book two be out?

Yes, Emeralds in the first in a series of at least three novels dealing with medieval Muslim Spain. Book two is called Shadows in the Shining City, and is set in late tenth century Córdoba, at the height of the Golden Age of the Umayyad Caliphate. A remarkable period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. This period is also the pinnacle of convivencia (coexistence), the time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. So Anthems of al-Andalus is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, with one book following the next chronologically. Book three will come back to Granada, but in the late fifteenth century at the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom. There will, however, be a linkage between all three books, so don’t despair! I am presently 250 pages into Shadows, with a target delivery date of next August. I expect it is be released around the end of 2013. A fantastic story of epic proportions that I lifted straight out of history. Stay tuned!

Are all of your novels going to be centered on love stories?

Absolutely! The timelessness of love is the most riveting subject I can imagine writing about. Big, epic themes wrapped about love stories. My life’s blood!