In the News: Conversations, Congratulations, and Collaborations

Hi Everyone! Happy 2016. As you may have noticed, we’ve been on a bit of a links hiatus for the last couple of months. There’s been a lot going on! We’ve left a lot of tabs open and are hoping to get around to reading everything someday soon, but in the meantime, thought you might like an update on what we’re doing and consuming around here.

The biggest news around here has been that The Center for Religion and Media at NYU, our home and publisher, received funding from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs for a new project on  Religious Stakes in Digital Times: Scholars and Journalists in Conversation. We plan to invite one post-doctoral fellow each academic year for three years, beginning in September 2016. Our call for applications is here.

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Another huge piece of news is that the brilliant Ann Neumann, former editor of The Revealer and current contributing editor and author of our monthly column, “The Patient Body” has a new book coming out next week! The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America is really amazing, and we hope that you’ll all order yourselves copies, or even better yet, come get a copy in person on its release date, Tuesday, February 16, when Neumann will be joined by founding editor of The Revealer Jeff Sharlet and current editor Kali Handelman for an event at the NYU Bookstore in New York City. If you can’t make it on the 16th, don’t fret, Neumann will be on book tour and may very well be coming to your town.

We’re also really excited about our upcoming spring event, the third in our ongoing series about religion and violence. On March 4th Patrick Blanchfield, author of our two-part series on religion and guns culture in America, will convene and moderate a panel discussion bringing together religious, academic, media, and activist perspectives on violence, community, and awareness. With Rev. Jeffrey Brown, Jennifer Carlson (University of Toronto), and Jennifer Mascia (The Trace). You can find out more about the event here and the participants here.

In related news, one of our cosponsors for the God & Guns event will be the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research where one of our authors and a visiting scholar here at the Center for Religion and Media, Suzanne Schneider is about to start teaching a course called “On Religious Violence.” A darned exciting and elegant example of NYC public academy synergy, if you ask us.


So, that’s what we’ve been planning around here. Now, for what we’ve been reading!

Some Friends!

Jeff Sharlet has some advice on how to respondWhen a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece” in Literary Hub. 

Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.

Any friend of Sharlet’s is a friend of ours, including two of the comrades he lists in that gorgeous rebuke to wanna-be-writer trolls, Ann Neumann and Scott Korb

Neumann writes for The Guardian about how “David Bowie planned his end as he lived – on his own terms, blazing a trail.”

Like everything else Bowie made acceptable for his fans – fluid genders, flamboyant, outrageous clothes, dreams of equality and other worlds – this grand and surprising final exit may signal to the 76 million Baby Boomers now facing their own twilight that there’s no harm in going out your own way.

And Korb asks and finds beautiful answers to the question “What Makes a Happy Family?” in his essay “Good for You” in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Looking back, I realize I’d confused food not with the mind so much as with the soul. I hadn’t reasoned my way into goodness; I’d groped my way there, religiously. Nowadays, though, in a time when I no longer pray, the mind and the soul, both useful terms, are essentially the same thing, bound up as consciousness, or subjectivity, what Marilynne Robinson calls “the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts.” 

Recently, another good friend (and co-author) of Sharlet‘s, Peter Manseau wrote about “The Great Christmas Strike of 1906” in The New York Times. 

Obviously, the 1906 boycott did not achieve its goal “to stop forever the practice of holding Christmas exercises in the public schools,” but contrary to The Jewish Daily News’s prediction, today there is nothing controversial about including Hanukkah songs along with Christmas carols in school holiday concerts.

In the long run, the distressed Christian parents in Augusta County will not put an end to schools’ teaching their children about Islam, as state educational standards require. These conflicts will probably come to be remembered, like the anti-Christmas strike, as signposts marking slow progress toward a greater inclusion to come.

This year, New York became the first major American city to close its public schools in recognition of a Muslim holiday. If and when others follow suit, it will rightly be a local decision, yet the negotiation of religious differences this decision represents is part of both the nation’s past and its future.

Meanwhile, also in The New York Times, Roy Scranton asks “We’re Doomed. Now What?

Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world. Peril lurks on every side, from the delusions of hope to the fury of reaction, from the despondency of hopelessness to the promise of destruction.

Matt Sheedy asks Donovan Schaefer about his book Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

The study of religion has always been fixated on the nonlinguistic aspect of religion. We’ve been trying to find ways to explain what moves us outside of language since the field began—whether you want to locate that moment with Müller, Schleiermacher, James, or Durkheim. But as Smith rightly points out, much of that early scholarship (other than Durkheim) conveyed us to the private affair tradition, which defined religion as a resolutely individualistic phenomenon that was unhooked from history and from power. For affect theorists, this makes no sense. Embodied affects, though they might seem to be private, are composed by histories: they come from a public somewhere and they do public things. Far from being irretrievably private, affect is part of the complex, uneven continuum of public and private forces—power.

And Sacred Matters has “Seven Questions for Anthony Petro.”

In writing this history, I also wanted to show one form that “religious power” takes in the modern United States, to borrow a term from Talal Asad: the power of the moral form. I found it helpful to think about religious power and morality through what Michel Foucault calls biopower, which included new ways that people were called to relate to norms in the modern period, including norms of sexuality and health. I show how biopower could not, in the case of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., be disentangled from older Christian rhetorics of sodomy, homosexuality, and national security. In other words, there is no easy divide here between the secular and the religious. Rather, I argue that morality—the languages of morality—became an empty form through which Christian rhetoric could be translated into the languages of nationality, citizenship, and public health. This is the most important form that Christian power often takes today.

While Samira K. Mehta  interviews S. Brent Plate about his new edited volume Key Terms in Material Religion over at the Religion in American History Blog.

In an age of massive human migration, the ebb and flow of cultures, ethnicities, and languages should challenge all of us to rethink our comfort zones. I think part of what “material religion” as a field of study can do is resituate our questions, to make us query the objects, spaces, and role of the body in comparative studies. We have to be attentive to the look and feel of others, to family rituals (right, Samira?!) not just some abstracted doctrinal ideas.

Some more Interviews!

Rukmini Callimachi joined the folks over at the Reply All podcast to talk about “communicating online with Islamic extremists in her role as a New York Times Reporter” in “#33 @ISIS.”

Kurt Anderson interviews Samantha Hunt  for “Studio 360: Samantha Hunt Wants You to Believe.”

You set yourself a lot of challenges for this book, like the religious sect you invent called the Etherists, where you not only invented their religion, but wrote their holy text.

I had recently moved to upstate New York and I started researching all the different religions that had started there — Mormonism, Spiritualism, the Shaker community, the Millerites — there’s so many religious communities in upstate New York. I thought, why not take everything that I love? I’ll take my fascination with Mormons, I’ll take my love of vinyl records, I’ll take Carl Sagan, and see if I can build a religion around these things that I value.

Jadaliyya interviews Ella Shohat about “The Question of Judeo-Arabic.”

While writing this essay, I found it harder and harder to speak of an “it” called “Judeo-Arabic,” wondering in effect: Is Judeo-Arabic really a language or just a conceptual chimera? As we know, relationships between dialects and language are embedded in power. But the suggestion of Judeo-Arabic as part of the family of “Jewish languages,” standing always-already apart from their (non-Jewish) Arab neighbors, was significant enough to prompt my questioning of this notion of a linguistic family as a kind of a Jewish national allegory.

George Yancy and bell hooks talk about “Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness” in The New York Times’ Stone. 

b.h.: Well, I would have to say my Buddhist Christian practice challenges me, as does feminism. Buddhism continues to inspire me because there is such an emphasis on practice. What are you doing? Right livelihood, right action. We are back to that self-interrogation that is so crucial. It’s funny that you would link Buddhism and feminism, because I think one of the things that I’m grappling with at this stage of my life is how much of the core grounding in ethical-spiritual values has been the solid ground on which I stood. That ground is from both Buddhism and Christianity, and then feminism that helped me as a young woman to find and appreciate that ground. The spirituality piece came up for me in my love of Beat poetry. I came to Buddhism through the Beats, through Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac — they all sort of gave me this other space of groundedness.

And religious studies superstars Kathryn Lofton and Tomoko Masuzawa sit down to discuss “Orientation, Comparison, History” for Sacred Matters.

And lastly, a smattering of writing we just plain hope you’ll enjoy reading as much as we did.

It may be obvious from our twitter feed‘s latest “What we’re reading” entries, but we’ve been on a bit of a New Yorker kick lately.

Rozina Ali gives a well-evidenced and considered explanation of  “How ‘Homeland’ Helps Justify the War on Terror

In the world view of “Homeland,” American characters are fighting people who always want to kill innocents. Muslims are aggressive and destined for death, either at the hands of their own or the U.S. Last season, the only two likeable Muslim characters were killed by other Muslims, which suggests a subtle, depressing commentary: the United States only kills the bad Muslims. But “Homeland” goes a step further, suggesting an underlying fatalism in the war on terror: Muslims will always be a threat to America because Islam itself is a threat.

An argument also well-made by Joseph Massad back in 2012.

Speaking of Orientalism, don’t miss James North piece in Mondoweiss, “Sophisticated Orientalism in The New York Times.”

Let’s try a thought experiment to see the absurdity of Orientalist analysis.  Let’s say Germany and France got into a dispute over the future of Europe.  Would the New York Times run a sidebar informing its readers about Martin Luther and the rise of Protestant Germany in the 16th century, and the religious differences with Catholic France?

Back in The New Yorker, Elif Batuman‘s “Cover Story: The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me” was personal, provocative, and poignant.

“No matter how hard I tried to be tolerant—no matter how sympathetic I felt toward Muslim feminists who didn’t want to be ‘liberated’ from the veil, and who felt just as judged by the secularist establishment as secular women felt by the Muslim patriarchy—I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.”

“I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner to try wearing a head scarf—why nobody ever told me it was something I could do. It wasn’t difficult, or expensive. Why should I not cover my head here, if it made the people who lived here feel so much better? Why should I cause needless discomfort to them and to myself? Out of principle? What principle? The principle that women were equal to men? To whom was I communicating that principle? With what degree of success? What if I thought I was communicating one thing but what people understood was something else—what if what they understood was that I disapproved of them and thought their way of life was backward? Did that still count as ‘communicating’?”

Ariel Levy recently wrote about Jill Soloway and her astoundingly good TV show “Transparent” in “Dolls and Feelings.”

Soloway describes herself as “seditious.” Her production company is called Topple, as in “topple the patriarchy.” Ultimately, this trait has contributed to her success: while “Transparent” is, at its core, a family drama about California Jews who have a standing order at Canter’s Deli and who bicker about which of the siblings should inherit the house where they grew up, it is also a radical exploration of gender and sexuality, unlike anything that preceded it on television.

(And while we’re on the subject of “Transparent” don’t forget to check out Geoffrey Pollick‘s exploration of “Rituals of Transformation in Jill Solloway’s Transparent” from our current issue.)

Speaking of Jews in Hollywood, we couldn’t get enough of Richard Brody‘s review of “The Coen Brothers’ Marvellous ‘Hail, Caesar!’

The American religion of Hollywood is also, in the Coens’ antic view, the essence of American power. A sidebar involving Eddie with a big-time military contractor puts him in the face of a challenge—the confrontation of Hollywood’s “make-believe” with real life, of his “frivolous” work with “serious” businesses, of military might versus what ultimately will become known as soft power.

The core of the Coens’ recent film “A Serious Man” is the recognition that the real Jewish scripture for secular modern American Jews isn’t the Torah or the Talmud but “F Troop” (and other similar popular entertainments made for the mass market by Hollywood’s secular Jews). The story of “Hail, Caesar!” is the story of that same worship of secular images, but now, from one step further back, in mainstream Christian American society, and the Coen brothers offer brilliantly ironic parallels between religious belief—specifically, Christian doctrine—and the realms of Hollywood.

"Angelus Novus" by Paul Klee, 1920

“Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee, 1920

And speaking of yet one more Jew in Los Angeles, we loved stargazing with Ben Wurgaft‘s “Space Jew, or, Walter Benjamin Among the Stars” in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

My fantasy about Walter Benjamin standing at Jantar Mantar involves a speculation about what a dead writer and critic might have thought about a site he never saw: what if astronomy and astrology were still allies, still lovers, my fictional Benjamin asks. What if the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment had not severed causation and meaning, the contingency of the universe and our sense of its purposefulness? My fantasy comes from a small but intriguing corner of the lively culture industry surrounding Benjamin: counterfactual fantasies about Benjamin successfully escaping Europe are a very real micro-genre.

Now we’re going to go get our copy of The Arcades Project off the shelf and head up to the planetarium. (Not really, we’re going to keep editing the next issue of this magazine, but you know, counterfactually…)


-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer


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

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