In the News: Westboro, Paris, Haiti, and Beyond!

Hello! Good to see you again.

Here are some of the best religion and media stories we’ve read in the last few weeks.

First up, Adrian Chen‘s story for The New Yorker, “Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs,” is all kinds of fascinating:

In August, 2009, Phelps-Roper, under the handle @meganphelps, posted a celebratory tweet when Ted Kennedy died (“He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Ted’s in hell!”) and a description of a picket that the church held at an American Idol concert in Kansas City (“TotallyAWESOME! Tons going in & taking pics—even tho others tried to block our signs”). On September 1st, her sister Bekah e-mailed church members to explain the utility of Twitter: “Now Megan has 87 followers and more are trickling in all the time. So every time we find something else to picket, or have some new video or picture we want to post (or just something that we see on the news and want to comment about)—87 people get first-hand, gospel commentary from Megan Marie.”

Westboro Baptist Church Members (via CBS)

We also quite enjoyed our friend S. Brent Plate‘s reflections in “Gods With Wet Noses” for Killing the Buddha:

Forget Kant. Forget his god. Forget the universalized maxims. Transcendence, if it comes at all, comes through the nostrils. The recognition of the dog who senses that it is good. The sensual knowledge that surpasses rational understanding. Bodies sensing other bodies. There then, that is the heart of it all.

I live in some dyslexic world, where my dog is a god, where salvation is little different than salivation.

And appreciated these two items of commentary on the recent attacks by ISIS:

#ISIS: Clickbait Ideology and Viral Violence by Judah Grunstein for The Los Angeles Review of Books:

That so many people who find its message, methods, and objectives aberrant and abhorrent have nonetheless watched its snuff and propaganda videos speaks to the level of mastery the group has achieved in manipulating the new online media economy. 

Still, ISIS has done more than simply master the rules of that clickbait economy. It has also mastered the techniques necessary to convert some of the viewers it attracts to its ideology. And by successfully infiltrating the minds of even an infinitesimal number of European countries’ citizens, it no longer needs to infiltrate their territories. The threat, in other words, is not carried by a person or group across a border, as in the case of the 9/11 attackers who needed to enter the US to attack it, but already within.

Giles Fraser‘s intervention: “It’s not the religion that creates terrorists, it’s the politics” by Giles Fraser for The Guardian:

“How do we stop young Muslims becoming radicalised?” is the question we now continually ask. But it’s a deeply misleading question because it points us in the wrong direction. Why? Because it contains a hidden assumption that it is radical ideas, specifically Islamic theological ideas, that are the root cause of turning a young lad from West Yorkshire into an Isis suicide bomber in Iraq. According to the radicalisation hypothesis, it’s conservative Islam and the dangerous ideas contained in the Qur’an that motivate murderous behaviour.

Judith Butler‘s wise observations in: “Mourning Becomes the Law” for Verso Books:

My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police. The political question seems to be, what version of the right-wing will prevail in the coming elections?  And what now becomes a permissable right-wing once le Pen becomes the “center”. Horrific, sad, and foreboding times, but hopefully we can still think and speak and act in the midst of it.

And Jill Filipovic’s rebuke to trite critiques of the media in “Why the Disproportionate Focus on Paris Over Beirut? Don’t Blame Just ‘The Media” in Cosmopolitan:

The nauseating reality is that we live in a world where many lives, especially if they are black or brown or don’t hold a U.S. or an E.U. passport, are considered largely disposable. But when it comes to coverage of these events, it’s not just that. And to reduce today’s complex media reality to, basically, “All Lives Matter,” is to flatten it beyond recognition and make it more difficult to fundamentally change. It also conveniently shields media consumers from any liability.”

And before we move off of current events, it’s worth considering this lesson from Ishaan Tharoor on “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II” at The Washington Post:

Of course, there are huge historical and contextual differences between then and now. But, as Post columnist Dana Milbank notes, it is hard to ignore the echoes of the past when faced with the “xenophobic bidding war” of the present:

“This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” Milbank writes. “It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in a primary fight that has been sullied by bigotry from the start. It’s no exaggeration to call this un-American.”

And on the subject of religious nationalism, Garga Chatterjee asks, “In Bengal, why is Kali Pujo being wrapped under the banner of Diwali?” at

Economic elites influence the aspirational tastes of those lower down the rung. Pan-India corporations, which would hate things like tariff barriers between states, inundate us with “Diwali” and not Kali Pujo around this time of the year. Kali Pujo is something that commercial entities that cater largely to the aspirational urban classes cannot easily negotiate.  It’s too democratic and suffused with actual religiousity and culture – unlike the range of “pan-Indian” religious festivals, which can be sold commercially to the aspirational rootless urban class of India.


Speaking of India, Michael J. Altman and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst are reviewing the new PBS Masterpiece series, Indian Summers, for Sacred Matters. You can read their first installment here: “Indian Summers: Inqilab Zindibad Edition:

The intersections of race, class, caste, and religion are done well here, even in just a few episodes. Leena and Dougie rescue a boy that she describes as “cursed” because of his “mixed blood,” and later, Dougie asks, in an intense moment, if that’s what happened to her as a girl. Aafrin and Sita’s clandestine meetings between saris in the bazaar and in a graveyard hit on issues of religious and caste intermarriage. In one of the first scenes of the series, we see an Indian washer cleaning a sign on the British (Only) Club which reads: “NO DOGS OR INDIANS.” Aafrin has a “good” civil service job, but his family complains about the filthy, small quarters they’re forced to share. Ralph eats comfort food after nearly being shot, but it’s a thali, cross-legged on the floor, using his right hand, as an Indian might (after all, we’re expected to remember, he’s never lived anywhere else–does that make him Indian?). Any student of mine (or Mike’s) knows that it is nearly impossible (and usually not advisable) to divide race, class, caste, and religion into neat and tangible boxes, and that all of these identifiers and identifications are operative, usually all at once. Indian Summers, so far, balances this well.


France Francois argues powerfully that “Haiti Doesn’t Have a Vodou Problem, It Has a Christianity Problem” in Ebony:

Contrary to the Cardinal’s statement, Vodou is not Haiti’s problem; Christianity is. No push to spread Vodou ever wiped out entire “savage” indigenous peoples. Vodou has caused no wars due to a desire to convert as many people as possible. Vodou doesn’t tell “saved souls” that they must be complacent, accepting their lot on Earth for the potential of future salvation in heaven. Vodou never told Black people they were a curse or 3/5ths of a person.

Vodou is of the belief system that sustained our ancestors across the Middle Passage, during the brutality of the plantation, and through the victories of slave rebellions. Haiti should never apologize for it

Hannah Pressman considers “The Rise of Cheeky Yiddish Leisurewear” for The Forward:

These very Jewish words, which come embedded with various histories both negative and positive, now appear on leisure wear and luggage, trucker hats and ipod cases, magnetic poetry and commuter mugs. Yet their original contexts – the cultural narratives, personal memories, social taboos, and external prejudices they may connote to different audiences of different ages — sometimes get lost in the process. Should the commodification of Jewish words be celebrated or denigrated? Should we care if “shayna maidel” gets silk-screened onto a t-shirt, complete with English letters engineered to look like Torah scroll font? Do we care differently if that phrase is an ethnic slur?

And Alex Mar explores “Satan in Poughkeepsie” for The Believer:

Fairy tales had me believe that some dark overlord sent demons to wait in my closet; my mother’s Catholicism taught me that the darkness had a name (Satan, or Lucifer) and that it could tempt you, take the form of a serpent, and hypnotize you into doing what you shouldn’t—things unimaginable to someone as young as I was. And friends with older siblings (or one particular metal-head kid) conjured up “Satanists” and spun them into reality through late-night sleepover talk.

Many years later, I realized that I had yet to come to my own conclusions about this hidden cabal. And so I did what, as an adult, I was now permitted to do: I reached out to the Church of Satan.

Speaking of witches, we enjoyed watching: “Under Coven: The Witches of Bushwick” by the Broadly Staff for Broadly:

You know what? Let’s just watch a whole bunch of videos, shall we?

Nathan Tempey  has “Video: In the Mosh Pit with Thousands of Hasidic Rabbis” to offer on Gothamist.


And you can “Watch: Gospel Choir Remixes Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’” brouth to you by Yesha Callahan at The Root

And lastly, Happy Channukah from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings!

See you again soon!


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

Elvis, Thoreau, Oprah, and More! (October 23, 2015)

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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