First up, we’re inclined to agree with Secretary of State John Kerry in his editorial for America Magazine, “Religion and Diplomacy,” everyone should study religion. Or, you know, at least read about it every few weeks in The Revealer.
I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science. That is because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world and on nearly every issue central to U.S. foreign policy.
Which isn’t to say religion itself is always the answer. (You’ll note we’re going to skip right over the whole Kim Davis situation and go straight for the commentary. If you want to get “Eye of the Tiger” stuck on angry repeat in your head be our guest, but we’re not going to inflict that on you directly).
In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.
Of course, singling out a single woman and blaming all of our problems on her has some pretty scary precedents. If you need a refresher (and want to take a moment to remember how amazing Puritan names are) we highly recommend Stacy Schiff‘s “The Witches of Salem” also in The New Yorker
What exactly was a witch? Any seventeenth-century New Englander could have told you. As workers of magic, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history. The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century, when sorcery and heresy moved closer together. She came into her own with the Inquisition, as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. The western Alps introduced her to lurid orgies. Germany launched her into the air. As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures. An influential fifteenth-century text compressed a shelf of classical sources to make its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Though weak willed, women could emerge as dangerously, insatiably commanding.
Which leads us, ever again, into thinking about relationships between religion and violence. In beautiful prose the two authors below each reflect on the ways that faith and arms affect our culture.
In “Fear” Marilynne Robinson considers the entanglement of weapons, law, and religion in America for The New York Review of Books.
I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus’s teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word.
Indeed if America is the nation which may have provided the first actual means for a man-created apocalypse then Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” is an appropriate baptismal name for that moment zero in human history. As mentioned earlier, both Donne and Oppenheimer were fascinated with the transformation of space. The tiny and the large, the atomic and the cosmic, exist in a more malleable relationship than common sense would assume.
While, in much crasser news, David A. Graham has the story of “The First Christian Assault Rifle” for The Atlantic.
As WTSP notes, a Florida man—of course it’s a Florida man—is marketing a Christian assault rifle. The gun, which of course is known as the “Crusader,” is your basic AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, but with a verse from Psalm 144 etched into the magazine:
“Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”
The gun is also adorned with a cross and “Peace,” “War,” and “God Wills It” in both English and Latin. A spokesman for Spike’s Tactical, which is manufacturing the weapon, explained: “We wanted to make sure we built a weapon that would never be able to be used by Muslim terrorists to kill innocent people or advance their radical agenda.” The gun has a lifetime warranty, but there’s no indication whether you can take into the eternal afterlife, or whether the warranty would apply.
All pretty dark stuff. And yet, our current entertainment, too, can be a bit grim, itself. Kelly J. Baker has some thoughts on our popular apocalypticism in “There Be Monsters: A Warning” for Sacred Matters.
Zombies begged for cultural analysis. The fun they offered was not neutral, and I found that I had things to say as a scholar of apocalypticism, American culture, and religious studies. These monsters seemed to be the perfect case study to think through fictional ends in popular culture and their messages about particular moments in American history. If I turned away from doomsday prophets and end-times theologies and tuned into pop culture apocalypses, what might I uncover? What might be at stake in the celluloid, literary, and genre destructions of the nation and the world? Why was I unsettled when others were not? Fun appeared elusive while discomfort lingered.
How about a few items of more uplifting entertainment news, yeah?
First, “From Gandhi to a Sikh Cabbie: Ben Kingsley’s Groundbreaking Turn in ‘Learning to Drive’” by Pilar Belendez-DeSha for Vice.
The new movie Learning to Drive serves, in part, to educate viewers about what it means to be a Sikh while telling the story of Patricia Clarkson’s Wendy, a book critic whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. As part of her recovery, she initiates driving lessons from Darwan Singh, a taxi driver played by the legendary English actor Sir Ben Kingsley—representing the first time in history a Sikh character has been placed in a leading Hollywood role. The community’s response has been ecstatic.
“It is incredibly meaningful for the Sikh community to be featured prominently and positively on the big screen,” said Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.
Remember that fresco lady? Now she’s: “Something to sing about: ‘worst art restoration ever’ inspires an opera” by Ashifa Kassam for The Guardian.
The botched attempt at restoration catapulted Giménez into the public eye. “There were all these memes that were created – these crazy, crazy memes. The internet is a character in the opera, because it was really the internet that caused the sensation,” said Flack.
…While Giménez’s story is one of a kind, Flack said the story that underpins the opera is a universal one. “That a miracle can come from a disaster: that you can make lemons from lemonade,” he said. “Or that you make a terrible mistake on a fresco and it turns into something beneficial.”
And for something a little newer: “Meet the Guys Trying to Bring a Muslim Show to Netflix” by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh for MuslimGirl.Net.
It’s not Netflix’s role to promote or endorse any faith, but it would mean a lot if a major network would tell a story that includes Muslims without folding to the stereotypes that hate groups perpetuate. I want to make it clear that our show is not strictly about Muslims or for Muslims. It’s a very diverse show with diverse cultures and religions on full display. However, networks should not shy away from a good story because of the presence of a certain faith group. Netflix, and every other network, should approach our story as they would any other. They should ask the same questions they ask about other shows. “Is this a good story and will it resonate with people?” I believe that our show will and it’s finally time that it happens.
More of a book person? Ann Neumann has a fantastic tale to tell: “More Titillated Than Thou: How the Amish conquered the evangelical romance market.”
Whether readers are motivated by a hazy Luddism or a nostalgia for the old male-supremacist order of things, there’s no mistaking the potent commercial lure of the “bonnet books”—so called because of the young Amish women plastered on their covers. In less than a decade, bonnet titles have overtaken bestseller lists, Christian and non-Christian alike. More than eighty such books will be published in 2015, up from twelve titles in 2008. Three novelists, Beverly Lewis (who launched the genre in 1997 with The Shunning), Cindy Woodsmall, and Wanda Brunstetter, are together responsible for the sale of more than twenty-four million books. Today, there are approximately thirty-nine authors of Amish-themed fiction; their collective output works out to one Amish fiction book published every four days. Often wrongly called “bonnet rippers,” these novels seldom offer fare any more lurid than a much-regretted kiss. Sex is always offstage, and mere carnal longing is usually mastered by the more powerful desire to do God’s will.
Last month, Ann Neumann wrote about the invaluable contribution of doctors to our modern literary canon in her column here, “The Patient Body: How Ethics Saved the Life of Medicine.” Of all the writers she features, perhaps most popular and beloved was Oliver Sacks, who died on August 30th. Here is a lovely and topical remembrance from S. Brent Plate for The Huffington Post, “The Religion of Oliver Sacks.”
Along the paths of many religious seekers before him, he journeyed, he experimented, he found new doors of perception in mind-altering substances, and enlightened visions as he spoke with his patients. An independent spirit, Sacks nonetheless entrusted himself to many guides along the way, elders who nudged, instructed, and shared their own stories. He took the insights he learned, and found ever new ways to apply them. From one guide along his path, he learned to always know the place you travel to, know something about its flora and fauna, and its geological history. It’s clear he applied this to his various environments, as well as to his patients: to know them and their history.
And one last somewhat religious reflection from Sacks himself in The New Yorker, “Filter Fish.”
But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jellylike solids—I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish.
Forming a whole new kind of literary canon, there’s Twitter.
“Religious satire on Broadway” by Kathryn Reklis for The Christian Century.
In a first for a Broadway play, An Act of Godstarted as the Twitter account @TweetsofGod. Tweeter David Javerbaum personifies God as a cranky omniscient father frustrated by the irresponsible behavior of his children. The tweets are mostly funny, in a cheeky and politically left way. (“I know I should stop appearing in Republicans’ dreams and saying ‘I command thee to run for President!’ but dammit, it’s so friggin’ fun.”) They are sometimes theologically provocative: “If you think atheism promotes a lack of moral responsibility, you should see what happens when my son takes the blame for all your sins.” Each tweet nails the genre: a momentary insight or a witty joke—and then done.
This style of humor is not new to American popular culture. The creators of The Book of Mormon made it common fare in South Park. Lewis Black embodies it in every Daily Show appearance. The Simpsons alludes to it in the antagonism between Homer and Ned Flanders.
But the humor is new to Broadway, and that’s worth paying attention to. With tickets averaging $150, producers and theater companies are loath to take a risk on anything that might not sell. But these plays sell: what once was an edgy form of humor celebrated only by rebellious teens is now attracting ticket-buying adults.
And we can thank Chris Cantwell for creating and “Introducing @Preacher_Bot: An Experiment in Evangelical Speechmaking” (for Religion in American History).
I decided to build a twitterbot that would interrogate the contours of American evangelical discourse. I built the bot using data journalistTom Meagher’s code, which generates tweets at random intervals using only the words and phrases of other active twitter users. The bot, in short, follows other people, takes what they tweet, and then remixes it to see what kind of insightful non sequiturs emerge from the mashing. For my source, I chose the top five most influential pastors on twitter as identified by Christianity Today. I wanted to include even more but these guys–and they’re all guys–are such voluminous tweeters that the weight of their discourse initially kept crashing the bot. So I settled on Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, John Piper, Max Lucado, and John Maxwell, plugged in their data, and set the program free.
You know what Twitter loves? Football. You know what else? The Pope. And you know what else? Controversy. Good thing this story’s got all three. Get those Twitter fingers ready: “Let’s Go Fightin’…Popes? Artist Subverts Mascot Issues With Surprising Helmets” by Wilhelm Murg for Indian Country Today.
Matthew Bearden’s mixed media piece, “Cupo di Roma,” a football helmet with a picture of the Pope, has been getting a lot of attention at Oklahoma art shows this year. In fact, he was scheduled to have a booth at Indian Market in Santa Fe (which took place this past weekend), but canceled because his work is so hot right now that he had sold all his inventory. The helmet is part of his ongoing “Sacred Mascot” series, where Bearden, as a Citizen Potawatomi Nation member, turns the side of the football helmet into a medium not only to make a statement about mascots, but goes on to claim the space as a canvas for Native American art and culture.
And lastly, a journalist’s plea from Naomi Zeveloff for The Forward as she continues her “Quixotic Hunt for Bernie Sanders’ Kibbutz.”
If you have any idea which kibbutz Bernie Sanders volunteered at in 1964, or know someone who might, please help a reporter out and get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you again soon!
Past links round-ups can be found here:
Wax, Wits, William James, and more! (August 21, 2015)
Saints, Slavery, Celibacy, and more! (August 14, 2015)
Pundits, Prophets, Politics, and more! (August 7, 2015)
Senselessness, Stereotypes, Slayer, and more! (July 31, 2015)
Apps, Apologies, Apocalypse, and more! (July 15, 2015)
Heathens, Hymns, and Holy Men (July 8, 2015)
#LoveWins, #TakeItDown, #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches (July 2, 2015)
Racism, Ramadan, Romanian Witches, and more! (June 25, 2015)
Emanuel A.M.E., Encyclicals, Etsy, and more! (June 19, 2015)
Satanism, Sacred Music, Shasta Seekers, and more! (June 11, 2015)
Hip Hop, Hijabs, Hasidic Fashion, and more! (June 5, 2015)
TLC, THC, OMG! (May 29, 2015)
Mad Men, Mormons, Monks, and more! (May 22, 2015)
Candles, Kombucha, Crocodiles, and more! (May 15, 2015)
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)
Hasidim, Mormons, Borges and more! (November 2014)
Wicca, Climate Change, Gaza, and more! (August 2014)
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer