In the News: Candles, Kombucha, Crocodiles, and more!


Samira K. Mehta interviewed Professor Adam H. Becker about his new book, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Awakenings in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism on the Religion in American History Blog. You can read an excerpt from Becker’s book here.

One of the most exciting things for me in this project is that when you work on antiquity and you have a good sense of the kind of cultural theoretical thinking we do, for example, in religious studies, you find yourself often simply pointing out how different the past was. So much of our theoretical apparatus has developed explicitly and implicitly answering the question about modernity, what it is, how it happened, did it happen, is it pluriform, etc. In this project I was able to follow that story—of course, a particular rendering of it with certain nuances–through my own sources and observe the Syriac tradition as it was transformed within the missionary encounter. There are certain interventions I wanted to make in that theoretical conversation. One is the relationship between religion and nationalism, which I think remains stuck in a certain secularization narrative, one we see built into Anderson’s work and repeated by many. Another is the fundamentally social basis of even the most interiorized forms of piety.


There is a lot that has been said and that needs to be said about secularism and atheism around the world and we do our best to cover all of these angles. That said, the conversation was really all over the map this week.


First, in very serious news,  two secularist/atheist bloggers in Bangladesh have been killed recently, Washiqur Rahman and Avijiit Roy. Reuters interviewed Roy’s widow, “Widow of slain activist bloggers lashes out at Bangladesh.”


The murder of Roy, an atheist who published a popular and provocative blog, marks an escalation by Islamist militants for control of Bangladesh. Religious fundamentalists are competing daily with secular government officials for power in the majority-Muslim country, one of the world’s largest and poorest democracies.

It should go without saying that no one deserves to die this way or for these reasons. But, what do you do when the ideology of Western “New Atheists” is, itself, violent? We still think that Luke Savage‘s “New Atheism, Old Empire” for Jacobin last winter is the best commentary we’ve read on the foibles and failings of New Atheism. But these debates are far from over.

Sam Harris just published his exchange with Noam Chomsky on his blog with the title “The Limits of Discourse.Andrew Aghapour replied in Religion Dispatches with “Fighting Fire with Ire: 3 Lessons from Noam Chomsky’s Takedown of Sam Harris.”

This reminds me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent argument that pleas for nonviolence in Baltimore are ultimately demands to back down and comply. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out,” Coates states, “it exposes itself as a ruse.” Similarly, for Chomsky to politely return to the philosophical premise of Harris’s choosing would be to ignore the larger context that makes his arguments flawed in the first place.

And Khaled Diab‘s put in his two cents for Haaretz, “When it comes to Islam, New Atheists sound a lot like Christian Fundamentalists.”

After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless – and in doing so, sounds quite a lot like the religious fundamentalists he so disdains.

All of it just makes us want to go back to a time when Noam Chomsky had much more worthy adversaries.

Meanwhile, in the Chronicle of Higher EducationTimothy Beale reviewed Jerry A. Coyne‘s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. In “Fundamentally Atheist” Beale documents Coyne’s “scorn” for any scientist who accepts funding from the John Templeton Foundation and argues that, once again, the critique risks collapsing into a mirror of the very ideology it disdains:
Ironically, Coyne’s distaste for such progressive theological discourses is something he has in common with his real opponents, Christian fundamentalists, who share his operative theory of faith as dogmatic certitude and his understanding of the Bible as the source document for empirical knowledge of the universe. At several points in his lambasting generalizations about “vociferous and liberal theologies” that don’t fit his understanding of religion as dogmatic faith, I could as easily have been reading a Christian fundamentalist apologist like Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict) or Norman Geisler (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, written with Frank Turek). For them as for Coyne, any theology that doesn’t perceive science generally and evolutionary biology specifically as its enemy doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as theology.
Jerry A. Coyne is not the the only one with some John Templeton Foundation beef. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has just announced that he pulled out of the World Science Festival on account of a “personal embargo” against Templeton money. Kimberly Winston reports for The Religion News Service and quotes Dennett as saying:

“I would be very happy to have the Templeton Foundation sponsor research on religion and science,” he said in a phone interview from Spain, where he is lecturing. “But what they are doing now is sponsoring some very fine science with no strings attached and then using their sponsorship of that to try and win prestige for other projects that are not in the same league.”

He pointed specifically to the Darwin Festival held in Cambridge, England, in 2009, which was also funded in part by Templeton. He wrote that some of the presentations there were “full of earnest gobbledegook.”

While we’re on the subject of belief, non-belief, and earnest gobbledegook, you’ve probably already seen the headlines about the mass exodus of Americans fleeing their churches prompted by the latest Pew Foundation Religious Landscape Study.”


We appreciated Sarah Posner‘s take on it all, “5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Overthink the New Pew Data’s Impact on Politics” in Religion Dispatches, but preferred mostly to retreat into the work of renowned religionist, Professor Stipe.


Dina Temple-Raston reports for The New Yorker on “How to Take the Internet Back from ISIS.”

Last week, in the ballroom of the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, Chris Blauvelt climbed onstage with three other Americans to accept first prize in the world’s inaugural Haqqathon. The tech-centered event, whose name is a play on “haqq,” the Arabic word for “truth,” took place on the fringes of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, a conference of scholars from around the globe. For the past several years, the group has focussed primarily on quelling violent extremism, with limited success. Last year, it issued a fatwa against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which did very little to stop young Muslim men from taking up arms in Syria. The decision to include two dozen hackers in the 2015 conference was, in part, an acknowledgment of that failure. “We need to relate more to people on the ground,” Zeshan Zafar, the forum’s young executive director, told me. “The scholars aren’t resonating. We need to meet the youth where they are—online, in social media.”

We love Bookforum‘s “Omnivore” posts. Monday’s edition, “How freaked out should you be about the Islamic State in America” was especially excellent. Think of it as your sub-sub-round-up-round-up.


Marginalia is also always reliable for smart reading. This week’s “ISIS and the US Government: The Propaganda War” by Thomas J. Whitley is no exception.
Yet it still seems destined to fail. ISIS (and their potential recruits) will dismiss this as “propaganda” just as quickly as the U.S. dismisses ISIS’ “propaganda.” This strategy has been in place for more than a decade and we have yet to reach the desired result. The lack of effectiveness, though, is easily overlooked because this is what the U.S. has always done. As in marketing, so in government – and even more so when it’s the government doing the marketing – the status quo often wins the day.


One of the books we probably recommend to people most around here is Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad MuslimSo, we were pretty interested when we learned about a new podcast by the same name. Well, the same name plus an octothorpe. NPR interviewed the hosts of #GoodMuslimBadMuslimZahra Noorbakhsh and Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed, in “What is a ‘Good Muslim’ Anyway?

“We’re always thinking about how people are being labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ and we kind of wanted to disrupt that narrative and shake things up,” says Ahmed. “We’re taking the good and we’re re-imagining it for ourselves.”

Rafia Zakaria writes powerfully about “Writing While Muslim: The Freedom to Be Offended” for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Honoring Charlie Hebdo, then, represents a particular coming together of two different but coexisting Western prejudices, both posing as commitments to secular ideas, and neither really having anything to do with freedom.

Sigh. “Officials Threaten to Close Mosque Installation at Venice Biennale” reports Randy Kennedy for The New York Times. 

The project, by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel, serves as Iceland’s national pavilion for the Biennale and is intended in part to highlight the absence of a mosque in the historic heart of Venice, a city whose art and architecture were deeply influenced by Islamic trade and culture. But the idea has upset Venetian city officials and police authorities, who have warned that the mosque poses a security threat because of possible violence either by anti-Islamic extremists or Islamic extremists upset that the mosque has been created inside a disused Catholic church. City officials have also argued that special legal permission is needed within Venice to create a place of worship, and they have rejected claims by Mr. Büchel and Icelandic art officials that the mosque is a simply a work of art functioning as a place of worship.


From Nones to nuns. Al Jazeera reports that “Appeals court overturns sabotage conviction against nun.” We’ve suggested it before and will recommend doing so once again: You can read more about Megan Rice and her comrades in Eric Schlosser‘s “Break-in at Y-12” from The New Yorker a couple of month’s ago.

From the witness stand, Sister Megan described her mystical, nature-loving form of Catholicism. All living things were miraculous, she believed. “I was aware of every moment being an imminent threat to the life and harmony of the planet,” Sister Megan said under cross-examination. “Every moment, as we sit here now, is an imminent threat to the life of the planet, which is sacred.”

Anti-nuclear weapons activist Sister Megan Rice attends a rally by supporters before her trial for breaking into a nuclear facility with two fellow activists in 2012. Photograph: Michael Patrick/AP

And now, thanks to Boing Boing and Tom Fassbender, we know “How to buy secret cookies baked by cloistered nuns.”

We followed the arrow and passed through a small courtyard before reaching the end of the hallway where we found a window with a three-chambered lazy susan. This was the torno indicated by the sign we’d seen, and it looked like a small revolving door, but with brown-painted wood instead of glass. Taped to the wall on the right side of thetorno was a price list. We’d made it … now all we had to do was figure out how to order our cookies.

Grumblegrumblegrumble. “Nightly News Turns to Bishops about Contraception More Often than Docs,” shares Patricia Miller in Religion Dispatches. 

And the fact that OB/GYNs were so rarely used as sources of information is troubling given how often the Catholic bishops made false medical claims that emergency contraceptives, which were a key point of contention in the mandate, were actually “abortion-inducing drugs.” In fact, the study found that the most common method of contraception discussed in the news segments was emergency contraception, which was mentioned one-fifth of the time in the approximately one-half of segments that talked about a specific kind of contraception.


The New Inquiry continues to publish beautiful work about cities and religion. The latest, from their new “Trash” issue, is “City of Praise” by Sarah Bivigou.
As a worshipper in a trash space, you encourage yourself to block out the city, to take pause and find catharsis, comfort in what you lack. You are not rich but sanctified, it’s a blessing to want and to have a God to trust to deliver. This is how we African Christians became such faithful adherents of the prosperity gospel, in the same breath that we thank god for our poor holiness, we ask him to make us rich, worldly, worthy. We triple highlight Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you…”

Jodi Rudoren and Diaa Hadid report for the New York Times, “Vatican to Recognize Palestinian State in New Treaty.”

Palestinian leaders celebrated the Holy See’s endorsement as particularly important, given the international stature of Pope Francis. For Israelis, it was an emotional blow, since Francis has deep relationships with Jews dating back decades, and Christians are critical backers of their enterprise.
The Pope really is on a role (Raul?). “Raul Castro meets Pope Francis, says he may return to Catholicism.”
Cuban President Raul Castro paid a call on Pope Francis at the Vatican on Sunday to thank him forworking toward Cuban-U.S. detente — and Castro later said he was so impressed by the pontiff that he is considering a return to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
In Canada, aboriginal pastors mix Christianity with Native Spirituality” reports Gian-Paolo Mendoza for Al Jazeera America. 
According to the 2001 census, 50 percent of aboriginal respondents in Canada highly value both traditional Native spirituality and Christianity. Barnetson is one of them. She practices a style of Christianity known as contextualization, which attaches biblical meaning to traditional ceremonies and practices. Her hand drum, for example, is used in Nadleh Whu-ten culture for clan songs and community ceremonies, but she plays it to share the story of Christ. She also integrates Christianity and Native spirituality on a larger level. Under her leadership, the Foursquare Church of Canada, a Pentecostal denomination, developed a ministry to target aboriginal worshippers. Street Church is part of that.
Also in the news up North, “The Patron Saint of Mexico’s Drug War is Making Inroads in Canada” reports Vice‘s Maria Vanta.
Cindy considers herself part of a nascent community of non-Latino devotees in Canada who are drawn to Santa Muerte, otherwise known as Saint Death or Our Lady of the Holy Death. She’s heard of public shrines in Montreal, although her own worshipping has been in the privacy of her own home, before votive candles purchased in Toronto’s Kensington Market.
Oh! And speaking of candles, Sainted Writers, Etsy’s latest gift to the Internet.
We loved reading Elizabeth Harper hunt for “Crocodile Prayers” in “a reptilian pilgrimage to Spain” for Killing the Buddha.
I visited the church of San Ginés on safari like a fool. No one safaris in Madrid, and it’s frowned upon to safari inside a Catholic church. I went there to hunt a crocodile. Specifically, a taxidermied one rumored to be on display.


No word yet on whether Beyoncé and Jay-Z will have crocs or candles in their church. Vanity Fair reports on “The Church of Latter Bey Saints.”
The property has 26’ ceilings, arched windows, a dressing area in what was once the choir loft, a master suite with “a sense of royalty” (according to the Zillow listing), three floors, seven bedrooms, and eight baths. If Bey and Jay did purchase the former church, congratulations on their real-estate acquisition. And if not, mazel to the property’s real owner for the now inflated value of their home thanks to the Beyoncé association.


Benjamin Breen shares the story of the “Wizards of the Coast: John Dee and the occult in California” in The Paris Review‘s blog.


The Fairfax, California, co-op where I worked as a teenager was a haven for this sort of thing, and I have no doubt that my wizardly interlocutor—the DMT guy—was a Dee fan of some kind. But the connection goes deeper than this. Dee was also, in an oblique way, a fan of California.

The New Books Network really is terrific. This week we got to hear about Andrea Jain‘s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture.
Overall, what we find is that while yoga has been mediate through an emerging global consumer market and branded for strategic purposes it can still be seen to serve the function of a body of religious practice for many practitioners. In our conversation we discussed Hindu, Buddhist, Jain variations of yogic practice, Ida Craddock’s Church of Yoga, legal definitions, Iyengar Yoga, Siddha Yoga, and Anusara Yoga, Theosophists and Transcendentalists, Swami Vivikenanda’s Vedanta Society, counterculture yogis, consumer culture and the mass market, Christian Yogaphobia, the Hindu American Foundation, and the politics of yoga.
Speaking of of history, culture, religion, politics, and India, Siddhartha Deb explains “What tales of ancient Vedic aircraft tell us about India’s place in the Modern world” in “Those Mythological Men and Their Sacred Supersonic Flying Temples” for The New Republic. 
For the contemporary Hindu right, however—the BJP and its supporters—ancient India is a far less complex place. It is seen as a time of pure Hinduism, created by Sanskrit-speaking people who had always lived on the Indian subcontinent, with a unified, homogeneous religion and culture free of the foreign presence to come in later centuries, especially with the entry into India of Islam and then the West. In this paradisiacal ancient India, the Hindu right finds evidence of a wide array of modern devices and technologies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, when inaugurating a hospital last October, added genetic engineering and plastic surgery to the list. “We worship Ganeshji,” he said, referring to the elephant-headed god. “Some plastic surgeon must have been around at that time, who by attaching an elephant head to the body of a human started off plastic surgery.”
Want a little more subcontinental religious history? Check out the BBC Radio 4‘s new “Incarnations” series by Professor Sunil Khilani on “the lives and afterlives of 50 incredible Indian people and embarks on whirlwind journey from ancient India to the 21st century.” The first episode is about “The Buddha: Waking Up India.”
He begins with the Buddha, exploring the story of his life and how he has been reinvented in modern India by those who oppose the caste system. “Buddha’s solution to suffering lay in the individual mind. But he was also sketching a new form of society,” says Professor Khilnani. “He was a moral meritocrat, and to an extent a social one too.”
In the May 7 issue of The New York Review of Books historian Anthony Grafton reviews an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in “The Ravishing Painting of Piero di Cosimo.” Reading Grafton is always a delight, but what we most enjoyed from this piece was an online gallery called “Piero le Fou” in which he writes that “Though overlooked by many of the nineteenth century’s great critics, [di Cosimo] produced some of the most handsome and dignified religious paintings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and he also crafted “startlingly vivid portraits of individuals and strangely evocative images of religious objects.” So very worth a read and a look.



Piero di Cosimo: Liberation of Andromeda, 1510-1513

Piero di Cosimo: Liberation of Andromeda, 1510-1513

You know who else we love to read? Saul Bellow. And you know who else? Gary Shteyngart. It was really our lucky week on the New York Review of Books blog because, lo and behold, there they had Shteyngart writing about “Bellow After Death.”
“As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow also not,” Chick muses. I could well hear these words emerge from my father’s mouth, and from others of his generation, and for a few bunkered-in Jewish stalwarts of my own. But how I disagree, generationally and experientially, with that line of thinking. In post-Seinfeldian, post–Larry-Davidian America, the very opposite could be inferred: “As an American you are also a Jew, but somehow also not.” The fantasies of being pogrommed out of New Hampshire by an anti-Semitic militia nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was like for a generation of Jews who believed the ashes of the crematoria could one day fall upon the Berkshires.
Saul Bellow in Capri, 1954

Saul Bellow in Capri, 1984

The other day, I got carded while buying a bottle of Kombucha. Apparently I am not the only one being persecuted for my love of slightly rank and goopy tea. Mike Pearl of Vice reports that “The Guy from ’10 Things I Hate About You’ Who Started a Religion Had His Temple Raided for Kombucha.”

Jason Dilts, Full Circle’s communications and development director, called the raid “distressing,” and explained to VICE that “part of our spiritual practice is drinking kombucha.”

“It’s a sacred tea to a lot of people who come into our temple. So to have a raid, saying we can’t do the sorts of practices that we do on a daily basis is rather disturbing,” Dilts said. 


You know what else has alcohol in it? Bourbon. You knew that, though. What you maybe didn’t know about is “The Forgotten Jewish Heritage of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey” reported on by Reid Mitenbuler in The Atlantic. 

After Russia grabbed hold of many Eastern European enclaves, the liquor business was often one of the few jobs where Jews weren’t restricted, meaning that Jews have “brewed, distilled, and sold all varieties of intoxicating beverages to both Jews and gentiles since the beginning of the Diaspora,” according to the book Jews and Booze by Georgia State University history professor Marni Davis. By the second half of the 19th century, increasing numbers of that diaspora, including Bernheim, began arriving to the United States.

Speaking of things forgotten and Jewish, “Secret Jewish cemetery survives in Detroit’s GM car factory” reports Jeff Karoub for Haaretz. 

While the arrangement is unconventional, Zuckman described the relationship between the automaker and cemetery officials as “very good.” Some landscaping work and headstone repairs are needed, but the grounds and graves are in generally good shape given their age. Clover Hill Park is responsible and pays for upkeep, though GM has access in case of emergency.

Somewhere in all this talk of Saul Bellow, Kombucha, that GM cemetery, and Jewish Bourbon, there’s Simon Rich. Did you ever read his incredible four part series “Sell Out” in The New Yorker? If not, please, please do.

Soon, though, I have another thought. When I freeze in brine, Sarah was with child. Maybe I still have family in Brooklyn? Maybe our dreams have come true?

The science man turns on computing box and types. I have one great-great-grandson still in Brooklyn, he says. By coincidence, he is twenty-seven years, just like me. His name is Simon Rich. I am so excited I can barely breathe. Maybe he is doctor, or even rabbi? I cannot wait to meet this man—to learn the ending of my family’s story.

“How about Thai fusion?” Simon asks me, as we walk along the street where I once lived. “This place has these amazing gluten-free ginger thingies.”


Past links round-ups can be found here:

Lindsey Graham, Garland, TX, God’s Plaintiff, and more! (May 8, 2015)

Pamela Geller, Prophesy, PEN, and more! (May 1, 2015)

Talal Asad, Taylor Swift, Turbans, and more! (April 2015)

Passover, Prison, Pop Music, and more! (March 2015)

The Crusades, Anti-Vaxxers, Chocolate Gods, and  more! (February 2015)

Paris, Witches, the CNN Apocalypse, and more! (January 2015)

#black lives matter, #Illridewithyou, TL;DR Bible Stories, and more! (December 2014)

Hasidim, Mormons, Borges and more! (November 2014)

Wicca, Climate Change, Gaza, and more! (August 2014)

Prison Churches, Museums, and, of course, Hobby Lobby (July 2014)


-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer

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