In the News: Elvis, Thoreau, Oprah, and more!

Regular readers have probably figured out by now that we’re pretty into reading about witches, so you can imagine our excitement about the two new texts reviewed Peter Manseau for Bookforum in “Craft Brewing: Two new books examine America’s ongoing romance with witchery.”


“The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse, 1886.

Taking advantage of late October’s spike in eerie interests, Alex Mar’s Witches of America and Stacy Schiff’s The Witches explore the myths and the magic that have secured witchy women (and occasionally men) a permanent place in our collective imagination. While the former provides a view of contemporary witches and the mostly Mugglish lives they lead, and the latter digs deep into the dark arts of our frequently haunted past, together they suggest that the common caricatures of witches are much less interesting than the reality.

And Ruth Franklin takes up the problem of witch hunts in her article for Harpers: “Trial and Error: Three centuries of American Witch Hunts.

Why the events there transpired the way they did is an urgent historical question, for the simple reason that it is not merely a historical question. The most astonishing thing about the episode — and the reason why explanations that depend on its historical moment, like Schiff’s, ultimately feel insufficient — is that it was not an isolated incident. Minor witch panics took place in Philadelphia in 1787 and again in Salem in the late nineteenth century. More alarmingly, the menace, like a virus, has proved capable of evolving to suit its circumstances. In the 1950s, we had McCarthyism; the witch trials served so well as a natural allegory that key details of the events in Salem did not need to be altered in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

We also happen to quite like the work of Henry David Thoreau which is why we’ve following a debate in which Kathryn Schulz threw the first punch with “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia” in The New Yorker.

I am not aware of any theology which holds that the road to Hell is paved with doormats, but Thoreau, in fine Puritan fashion, saw the beginnings of evil everywhere. He contemplated gathering the wild herbs around Walden to sell in Concord but concluded that “I should probably be on my way to the devil.” He permitted himself to plant beans, but cautiously, calling it “a rare amusement, which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing about Thoreau in 1880, pointed out that when a man must “abstain from nearly everything that his neighbours innocently and pleasurably use, and from the rubs and trials of human society itself into the bargain, we recognise that valetudinarian healthfulness which is more delicate than sickness itself.”

Which was answered with a rejoinder from Jedediah Purdy, “In Defense of Thoreau: He may have been a jerk, but he still matters” for The Atlantic.

But, contrary to Schulz’s conclusion, his “signature act” was not “to turn his back on the rest of us.” He did not sit by the pond and try to forget about South Carolina—which would have been easy enough to do; most people did, minus the pond. To imagine him retreating is to forget the most obvious fact, which is why we remember him at all: that he was, consummately, obsessively, a writer. He turned to his fellow citizens again and again, in essays, lectures, and books. He could not forget about them.

Followed by this excellent synthesis from Alda Balthrop-Lewis in Religion Dispatches: “Thoreau’s Ferocious Critique of Philanthropy Does Not Make Him ‘Selfish.‘”


Henry David Thoreau

We’re always grateful for a chance to hear from Talal Asad, so we really appreciated Hasan Azad‘s new interview with him, “Being Human,” in The Islamic Monthly.

The notion of European civilization as the most progressive, the most ingenious, and the most productive civilization the world has ever known, already presumes a certain kind of hierarchy. And, to the extent that many people maintained in the past (and perhaps continue to do so in the present) that much of this is owed to Christianity, we have an imaginary construction and not one that is real. But this is certainly the way people thought of “humanity” in the 19th and 20th centuries, as being represented by its best and most forward looking, the most moral part of that totality. That implies a hierarchical relationship. And there may be some kind of perverted logic to wanting to share with the whole of humanity the disasters that are threatening the world on the grounds that “we are all one.” The threat is indeed to all humans, regardless of their differences. Yet animal life too is threatened with annihilation so “humanity” is not an adequate category here. Nevertheless, the inclusion of non-human animals asobjects of annihilation underlines how absurd it is to make “humanity” the agent of global disaster.

Another favorite writer, Marilynne Robinson recently had a conversation with none other than President Barack Obama in the New York Review of Books.

Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

And we’ve long been interested in the past and future of the Parliament of World Religions (and strongly recommend reading The World’s Parliament of Religions by Richard Seager for background on the phenomenon). As for this year’s parliament, we suggest checking out these appraisals:

Kimberly Winston is happy to see the”Parliament of World Religions convenes in Mormon country at last.”

What a difference 122 years make. On Thursday (Oct. 15), when the Parliament of the World’s Religions — a slight adjustment of the name was made a century after the first meeting — convenes in Salt Lake City, it will not only feature a slate of Mormon voices, it will sit in the proverbial lap of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its global headquarters only a five-minute walk away.

Simran Jeet Singh reported on “What I Learned at the Parliament of the World’s Religions” for Faithstreet. 

Overall, attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions was an incredibly powerful experience. In a world where we spend so much time reflecting on how religion can be a dividing force, I was reminded of why religion is important to me personally and how it can serve as a force to bring people together. It is this message, more than anything else, that I am taking to heart as I walk away from the gathering this weekend.

And Brian Pennington asks”Peace, Love, and World Religions?” for Sacred Matters.

I came to the Parliament expecting some peacenikky sentimentality, the usual uncritical endorsements of neo-liberal tolerance, and a naïve embrace of the World Religions Paradigm that I wrote about in this space a few weeks ago. What I found instead was a carefully organized and well-funded movement with a truly global grassroots reach rapidly gathering steam (at the closing session it was announced that the Parliament will now meet every 2 years rather than every 5-6). I have been in the religion business too long to believe that any discursive formation that looks vaguely religious could be unproblematic or wholly benign, and I fear the internal contradictions and conflict that will boil over as the movement grows. But it’s been an awful year: the savage beatings of Muslims (falsely) accused of eating beef in India, beheadings and mass executions of Christians, Yazidis, and everyone else by ISIS, a vile Islamophobia machine flush with cash in the US, and now, Jerusalem…again. If the history of religion is just an extended story of one group imposing its version of a “true faith” on another, at this particular point in history, I’m pulling for these folks. Especially if there’s free lunch.

World Parliament of Religions 1893 Chicago

Photograph from the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893

And while we’re on the topic of world religions, you can listen to and read an interview with Oprah about her new TV series, “Belief” on NPR.

Winfrey’s network has been going through tough times as it struggles to find a broader audience.

“I assumed that the audience from the Oprah show would just automatically come to OWN, when in fact, most of them didn’t even have the channel, or have the cable package, or understood what that meant,” Winfrey says.

She hopes to change that with the Belief series.

We were pleased to see a couple of new articles out in the religion writing sphere by our writers this week, including “On Dreams and Disconnects: the Ambiguities of a Liberal Sage” by Suzanne Schneider on Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation 

From this fact, it may seem like The Paradox of Liberation is an unabashed liberal defense of the secular nation-state that chooses to double down on its foundational claims rather than re-examine them. In fact, Walzer’s prescriptions for combatting religious militancyare not those typically forwarded by his liberal peers. This brings us to one of the book’s central peculiarities and indeed frustrations: the fact that Walzer both dismisses the post-colonial position and then borrows from it heavily.

And “Let There be Light: Handwritten Draft of King James Bible Reveals Secrets of Its Creation” by Ed Simon for Religion Dispatches

And yet Miller’s discovery has reminded us of something crucial: no matter how immaculate it may be, writing is always a process of revising, cutting, and rewriting. Professor Miller emphasized this when he said that the find “really testifies to the human element of this kind of great undertaking.”

Lastly, just because: Elvis’ Chi and the Metaphysics of Martial Arts by Adam Park for Religion in American History. 

Chi power, however, was only available to the most mentally rigorous of martial arts practitioners. It took time, patience, and right mind. For help, understudies and colleagues looked to Elvis, who led karate seminars in meditations “before and after class.” As one participant claimed, “It was almost like a spiritual event for me. I heard him speak of Bible verses and parts of the Bible that just came to life when I heard him speak them.”


You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here:

Bernie, Bagels, Buddhas, and more! (October 9, 2015)

Heaven, Human Rights, His Holiness, and more! (October 2, 2015)

Poetry, Puritans, Politicians, and more! (September 11, 2015)

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)

#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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