Really only because we wanted this amazing GIF front and center, we’re going to start off this month with some stories about Christianity.
One of our most beloved and inspiring heroes, peaceful troublemaker and poet the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. died this weekend at the age of 94. The New York Times published a long and well told story: “Antiwar Priest Preached and Defiance” and WNYC shared this portrait.
The catalyzing episode occurred on May 17, 1968, six weeks after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the outbreak of new riots in dozens of cities. Nine Catholic activists, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered a Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville and went up to the second floor, where
the local draft board had offices. In front of astonished clerks, they seized hundreds of draft records, carried them down to the parking lot and set them on fire with homemade napalm. … In a year sick with images of destruction, from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the murder of Dr. King, a scene was recorded that had been contrived to shock people to attention, and did so. When the police came, the trespassers were praying in the parking lot, led by two middle-aged men in clerical collars: the big, craggy Philip, a decorated hero of World War II, and the ascetic Daniel, waiting peacefully to be led into the van.
“Ammon Bundy’s Right-Wing Crusaders Will Liberate the West or Die Trying” reports James Pogue in Vice.
Two generations of Mormons were raised in the belief that service to the holy mission of the church was synonymous with defiance of federal authority. Statehood finally came, in 1896, but the Mormon duality between mistrust of federal authority and a deep belief in the divine mission of the United States is something church officials have had to deal with ever since. After the fight over polygamy, Mormon leaders reversed their approach, and have since worked determinedly to build an unobjectionable, mainstream church. The Bundy style of spiritual defiance is now a fringe element, but it’s part of a history that no Western Mormons have forgotten, and that a few continued to embrace long after the church moved into the American mainstream. “There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and church,” Dallin Oaks, one of the church’s senior apostles, told a Brigham Young University audience at the start of a wave of anti-federal militia activity in the 1990s. “I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies and making private preparations for armed conflict. Their excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the church.”
Tara Isabella Burton writes about “Spare the rod: Christian Domestic Discipline and the erotics of religious submission raise the possibility of a new concept of God” for Aeon.
Women I interviewed describe a hunger for submission that blends the spiritual with the profane. They are careful to distinguish their lifestyle from BDSM, whose strictly sadomasochistic elements they reject. In her CDD handbook, Kelley admonishes husbands in order to reassure their wives: ‘You will never gain pleasure from causing her pain.’ Yet in the same guidebook, she writes how a typical CDD husband is nonetheless ‘aroused by her submissive and trusting gesture by placing herself into a position to receive discipline’. The rationale here is predictable: ‘It seems natural that we would be aroused by [gender] roles in their most basic form. There are probably few things that punctuate our most basic roles in marriage more than the dominance and submission of a discipline session.’
Catherine Woodiwiss interviews “The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg on Death, Faith, and Why It’s So Easy to Make Fun of Christians” in Sojourners.
Woodiwiss: Why do you think it’s so easy to satirize Christians?
Ortberg: You know, I think it’s easy to satirize any in-group you’ve been a part of. I was obviously raised in a very Christian environment, and my first publication for money was actually at the Wittenberg Door — do you remember that? It was the first Christian satire magazine, that very 70s “we’re Christians but we’re funny,” and I did worship music mad libs. Which is like lowest common denominator parody.
In mainstream Christianity in America today there’s this really funny combination where it’s incredibly dominant, it dominates the culture, and also many people within it feel somehow persecuted. Which is a sort of fascinating paradox to watch people engage in. So that’s something that lends itself to humor.
And Mark Hulsether asks “What Happened to the Jesus People” in Religion & Politics.
Whether or we believe such prognostications about the trajectories of young Protestants—and likewise whether or not sex abuse crises will bring down JPUSA—the case of JPUSA is highly interesting to explore and ponder in relation to common wisdom about where the “one way” path of evangelical hippies led them in the long run. Were they really swallowed by the conservatism of leading evangelicals and a fatal decline of Protestant liberalism? Although one book on an idiosyncratic commune cannot settle this question, it can unsettle these assumptions in a fascinating way. In the process it highlights the ongoing promise of various progressive, emergent, and mainline variations on left-of-center Protestantism.
Omri Elisha reviews Anna Strhan’s new book, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals (Oxford University Press, 2015) in the Marginalia Review of Books: “Onward Christian Strangers.”
The conflicts Strhan unpacks are not the usual mass-mediated controversies like abortion, but everyday ethical and existential conflicts that arise for churchgoers in situations where doing what God wants and doing what seems like the right thing at the time are not necessarily one and the same. This is apparent, for example, in moments when the desire to be a strong Christian “witness” to the world comes up against metropolitan ethics of tolerance, propriety, and non-intervention.
HINDUISM & THE ACADEMY
Elizabeth Redden provides some useful background on”The Religious War Against American Scholars of India” for Inside Higher Ed.
These disputes about the history of Hinduism and India have frequently pitted Hindu believers against non-Hindu scholars — though some Hindu scholars have also been targets of criticism — and outsiders to the academy against insiders. They have tapped into postcolonial anxieties and puritanical attitudes toward sex. Many see the continuing rise of the Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement — a right-wing ideology that views India as a Hindu nation — as providing ideas and fuel for the struggle, but not everyone who shares in the suspicion of academe is an ideologue. …
At the heart of all this is a widely shared sense that Hinduism and the integrity of India are under assault by Western academics. In turn scholars might say they’re the ones under attack. Academics who have written controversial things about Hinduism have reported receiving death threats and hate mail, and the overall level of vitriol in the social media sphere where many of these debates play out is high.
While Wendy Doniger herself one of the subjects in this “war” writes about “The Repression of Religious Studies” for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The argument that only Hindus have the right to write or teach about Hinduism — or, for that matter, that only Muslims should teach about Islam, or Jews about Judaism — threatens to move the academic study of religion backwards. In particular, it blurs the important distinction between interreligious dialogue (in which each faith is represented by the testimony of a member of that faith) and religious studies (in which the faith stance of a scholar of any religion — or no religion at all — is, in principle, irrelevant). Both are valuable; each has its place. But we must take care not to confuse or conflate them.
Lastly, this isn’t necessarily an academic question, but “Is Bushwick’s Holi festival a harmless hippie celebration or cultural appropriation?” asks Sam Corbin at Brokelyn.
Langerman told us that his idea to celebrate Holi in New York was inspired by watching videos of the celebration in India that he’d seen on YouTube. The event’s first incarnation was, in his words, a “ratchet” indoor party thrown together in nine days and with a modest attendance of a few hundred people. In this fifth year, Langerman’s festival drew a crowd of almost 4,000 revelers over the course of its eight hours.
As far as addressing accusations of cultural appropriation, Langerman was sheepish but unapologetic.
“I try to be as understanding and respectful of their views as possible,” he said. “I understand, given the fact that I’m not Hindu, I’m some white kid who grew up in New York. I understand why that’s bothersome. All I can say is, Hindus figured out the best way to celebrate spring. It brings people together in a really magical way. And the underlying values — breaking down social barriers, coming together, burying old hatchets — those are universal values. I love it so much and think it’s so good that I wanna share it. Maybe I’m not the right guy but I’m the guy who’s doing it.”
Kathryn Reklis reviews “The Witch” and writes about “Theological Horror” in The Christian Century.
The theology in a horror movie probably won’t ever be rich enough or nuanced enough to satisfy someone trained in the subject. But horror movies can show us how theological ideas escape the control of churches or theologians and take on a life of their own. The Witch depicts a world teeming with theological imagination. When we experience the power of its folktales, we better understand why they have such a formidable hold on our imagination. We realize that theology is at work in our imaginative cinematic fables.
With caveats for anyone hoping to avoid “The Witch” spoilers, we recommend reading Moze Halperin‘s exploration of “Feminism, Radicalization, and Injustice: The Enduring Power of the Witch Narrative” in Flavorwire.
In the two months following its wide release in American theaters, many people have interpreted Eggers’ The Witch (set 60 years before the trials) as an unquestionably feminist narrative — both because of the gender of The Witch’s oppressed protagonist and the historically gendered implications of witchcraft (and the witch’s reappropriation as a feminist symbol), and because the narrative involves 80 minutes of patriarchal dysfunction followed by an ecstatic post-patriarchal conclusion. However, in a recent interview with Flavorwire, Eggers emphasized that he looked first and foremost to actual period lore as his source — it’s just that past narratives about female shame and culpability now read, at least among non-misogynist pricks, as exactly the opposite. “I wouldn’t choose to be a hardcore Calvinist,” Eggers said, “but I can see how somehow that was a hopeful way of living for those people. But regardless of me trying to come into this without any intentions or messages, feminism is bursting out of all the primary source material, it burst out of the script and it bursts off the screen.”
Shifting gears, Sacred Matters has “Seven Questions for Lerone A. Martin” about his new book, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion, in response to which he explains that:
Preaching on Wax grew out of my own experience with mass media religion and my dissertation research. I was raised in a home where mass media religion and the accompanying spiritual commodities were a constant. African American and white televangelists occupied spaces of unquestioned authority in our household. I attended Oral Roberts University for my first year of college where this worldview was further affirmed. I grew up thinking mass media religion was the lifeline of authentic Christianity.
However, I discovered that my religious experience was very peculiar when I transferred to Anderson University and matriculated to Princeton Theological Seminary. Many of my peers were unfamiliar or worse disgusted with the spiritual commodities I cherished as essential and the religious broadcasters—icons I had always believed represented the pinnacle of Christian ministry—I viewed as religious authorities. As I entered graduate school, I was drawn away from said faith commitments, even as I remained very interested in learning more about the history of religious broadcasting in America. In particular, I was curious as to how religious broadcasting and commodification became so prominent and revered in some faith traditions and almost invisible and reviled in others. This, I decided, would be my dissertation project.
And Joseph Winters reviews Martin’s book Preaching on Wax in “For the Record” over at the Marginalia Review of Books.
Preaching on Wax seeks to understand “why a critical mass of African-American ministers, like Reverend [James] Gates teamed up with phonograph labels to record and sell their sermons and why black consumers eagerly purchased them.” By examining this partnership, Martin hopes to show how ‘phonograph religion’ re-shaped African-American Christian practice. While students and scholars of black religion have examined the importance of print, radio, and the Internet, there has been a paucity of scholarly engagements with the phonograph as a significant medium of black religious practice and identity.
Speaking of which, Anthea Butler tells the story of “”How Prince Set Fire to My Catholic Girlhood” in Religion Dispatches.
Prince is dead. Long live Prince.
The morning after Prince’s death was announced, I woke up, remembered he was dead, and buried myself under my duvet. I’m still in shock. How could that beautiful, complicated body be gone?
Prince, the demi-god of sexuality, lust, and yearning, seemed immortal. Watching him perform was like seeing a fusion of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and a black preacher with an anointing. Prince’s body was fused to his guitar, and his dancing was the uninhibited dance of possession—not by an evil spirit, but the spark of divinity. His moans, arcs, and cries in songs like “Darling Nikki” and “When Doves Cry” cut deep. His lyrics, even the most libidinous ones, pointed to a union of desire and the divine. No other artist tapped into spiritual truth and multiple orgasms at the same time the way Prince did. He didn’t even have to say the words—his moans said everything.
Listening to Prince made you all hot, bothered, and anxious. Especially anxious.
For a different gospel canon, check out “‘This Barren Land’: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Variations” by Max Nelson in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Starting with Time Out of Mind, you could argue, Dylan made a sustained effort to capture the peculiar morbid tone of the old spirituals: their obsession with fretting over, guessing, or confidently asserting what comes after death. At the start of what would become one of his most celebrated songs, Washington Phillips asked himself what “they” were “doing in Heaven today.” He gave himself a quick answer: “I don’t know, boys, but it’s my business to stay here and sing about it.”
It’s not every day that a fashion blogger decides to address prejudice and bigotry, so we were pleased to see this feature from Leandra Medine on her popular blog, Man Repeller. “Real Talk: 7 Muslim Americans Open Up About Islamophobia.”
“I think that realistically if something’s going to change, it needs to come from the media. The media does what it needs to do to sell and they know that fear sells. And this is such an overarching statement but to make change, we can’t look for reasons to be afraid. If people were more willing to see the good – yes, there are bad Muslims but there are also good Muslims – and to focus on that, that would make our society stronger.”
We were proud to see our friend Simran Jeet Singh interviewed along with a number of other Sikh community leaders interviewed in this segment for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: “Confused Islamophobes Target American Sikhs.”
Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books“How did we end up here?” in response to Charlie Hebdo’s malicious and malignant editorial by the same name.
It isn’t clear whether France’s values are being upheld or perverted by such a far-reaching defence. As Arun Kapil put it to me, ‘the laïcards are the new fundamentalists.’ The 1905 law on the separation of churches and the state, which established laïcité, was based on the neutrality of the state towards religious institutions; it not only stripped the Catholic Church of its powers, it also freed Jews and Protestants to practise their faith more freely. Today’s defenders of laïcité, on both the right and the centre left, have abandoned any pretence of neutrality. It’s no wonder that, for many Muslims in France, including the silent majority who seldom if ever set foot in a mosque – Charlie’s ‘very large iceberg’ – it seems like a code word for keeping them in their place.
Maurice Chammah writes beautifully about “My Father’s Aleppo: A Syrian Jew’s exodus and return” in Guernica.
Over the last few years, I have been constantly asked by other people how I feel about “what’s going on in Syria” (they always use that phrase), because of my heritage—because of my father. I never know how to answer. It doesn’t feel right to claim a particular sadness over what I know is saddening everyone, and the question forces me to confront the fact that I speak with the power bestowed by my father even as I wonder what he might have said.
At these moments, I wish I could see my father’s reaction. I want to know what he’d make of the footage of Aleppo crumbling, of the Great Mosque he once photographed now reduced to a heap of rubble; would he say, “Look what we have done?”—would he consider himself a Syrian, still? Or would he say, “Look what they have done?”
And we enjoyed “Sigal Samuel: The Mystics of Mile End” an interview with Claire Schwartz in Guernica, also.
Last week, a good friend said to me, “You don’t have any spiritual practice nowadays, right?” I just looked at him, “What do you mean? Of course I have a spiritual practice. It’s called reading and writing fiction.” I think the fiction of it is what I loved about spiritual texts all along, growing up in the orthodox Jewish world—although I didn’t realize it until much later. When I was little, I was taught that every word of these texts comes directly from the mouth of God. Even with medieval rabbinic commentators, like Maimonides—every word that he said was basically from the mouth of God.
Just as we liked following as Dan Barber asked “Why Is This Matzo Different From All Other Matzos” for the New York Times.
Convinced that the matzo I’d tasted must be proof not just of a higher understanding of agriculture but also of a higher understanding of deliciousness, I asked the rabbi if he believed that any of the kosher laws ended up producing better-tasting food.
“No. Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s just kosher law.”
How do you argue with a rabbi? Consult another rabbi. I called Rabbi David Woznica, who had shepherded me through years of high-holiday observance, and asked the same question.
“No,” he told me. “I doubt it’s the primary thinking behind it. We don’t know the primary thinking behind it. And, truth be told, that is less important to me. I think the ultimate reason to observe kosher law is because God said so. When we say that the purpose of the law is to do X, Y and Z, then we’ve removed the holiness of God in that law.”
Was I getting caught up in my own mishegas? I sought out other rabbis and scholars on kosher law. No one, not even a Jewish grandmother, would connect kosher to flavor. (One person pointed out the opposite: Passover is about remembering suffering; the matzo is supposed to be flavorless.)
And appreciated Sandra Fox explaining “What Jews Kvetch About When They Kvetch About Bernie Sanders” in the Marginalia Review of Books.
Mr. Sanders will not appeal to all Jews, because they are a diverse group with wide-ranging views on both American and foreign policy. If American Jews are going to debate this presidential election in the press and in communal spaces, they would be better served focusing on policy rather than on policing Mr. Sanders’ expressions of Jewishness. But if the debate about Mr. Sanders’ Jewish identity must continue, it should translate into a self-aware process, in which Jews consider Mr. Sanders, and by extension Simone Zimmerman, in the broader scope of their experience in America. The boundaries of what being “Jewish enough” looks like continuously evolve. The historical precedent for these debates should remind Jews that their institutions and dialogues must evolve, too.
Speaking of Sanders, as a Jewish Vermonter herself, our editor was all too willing to click on the link for a story about “How the Back-to-the-Land Movement Paved the Way for Bernie Sanders” by Katie Daloz in Rolling Stone.
Far from being an eccentric anomaly, Bernie is in fact a classic example of a distinct, specific, historical phenomenon: the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. The quirky details of his early bio — buying 80 acres of Vermont forest in 1968 and renovating an old sugarhouse into living quarters — are in fact shared by thousands of ex-urbanites across the country during the same period. My own parents moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a northern Vermont hilltop in 1971 and, following advice from the residents of a local commune, began building the house in which I was raised, a geodesic dome.
Noticing so many of their peers rushing for the boondocks, two Yale Law students decided to explore the potential implications. In a 1970 article, they considered the feasibility of a large number of people migrating to a single state “for the express purpose of effecting the peaceful political take-over of that state through the elective process.”
In a “you can’t make this stuff up” twist of historical coincidence, an early draft of the original article published in the Yale Review of Law and Social Action was reviewed by the journal’s associate editor: Hillary Rodham. She reportedly dismissed the authors’ ideas as “mental masturbation.” If it seemed that way at the time, a little bit of distance lends the proposal a kind of eerie prescience.
For some more background on Daloz’s excellent-looking new books (we just got our copy in the mail) do check out her piece in Literary Hub: “The Other White Flight: When College Kids Went Back to the Land”
The height of the commune boom was brief but it had a tremendous lasting impact—not, as many assume, simply on American spirituality or communal organizations alone (though both of those are true), but more profoundly: on kicking off the biggest, most widespread urban-to-rural shift in American history. “Not since the fall of Babylon have so many city dwellers wanted to ‘return’ to the country without ever having been there in the first place,” wrote one observer in 1972.
This wide embrace can be disorienting. For those on the Left, what is to be done with Thomas More, the knighted communist, the canonized radical? To what More, and to what version of utopia, should we orient ourselves? Has “utopia” become at best an empty signifier, an outmoded concept in a time of legislative horse-trading? Or can it still be a universal homeland to which we set sail?
And his well-timed piece on “Mayday’s Demise and the Rise of Our Gloomy Empire” at Religion Dispatches.
Fairly or not, the Calvinists of Plymouth and Massachusetts have often been conceptualized as the forefathers of our sexual conservatism, our xenophobia, and our break-neck work ethic. In this understanding Morton is seen as both alternative to, and forgotten promise of, what a different American utopia could have been. As literary critic Leslie Fiedler wondered, “what would have happened if it had survived, this beatnik colony in the seventeenth-century New England woods, presided over by university Bohemians?”
OTHERS & ELSEWHERE
The times we live in: “A Satanist Explains Why Ted Cruz Is Not, in Fact, Lucifer.” Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern interviews Satanic Temple spokesman and co-founder Lucien Greaves.
I really think it’s indicative of a destructive, harmful, archaic way of thinking, in which you can demonize somebody for the symbolic religious structure that they maintain and hold dear. We have our own values, which we think are very humanistic and pro-social. Satan speaks clearly to our deeply held beliefs as the opposition, the rebel against tyranny. That, to us, is what Satan represents. So it’s not that we worship evil or cruelty or would look fondly upon a disgusting shithead like Ted Cruz.
The idea that a patient’s last days are imbued with special meaning continues to resonate with many, both inside and outside the church. It’s an idea that has been fostered among end-of-life care workers and society at large, but one that many suffering patients reject as romanticization or sacralization of their pain.
“Moral injury” turns out to be an empty sophism, more useful for David Brooks-style cant than for serious thought about war or morality. With it, you can imply some airy recognition that something went wrong with America’s most recent military adventure but still advertise your support for “the troops,” all while dodging the indelicate question of who exactly might be responsible for injuring whom.
You don’t have to imagine: that’s the very conversation we’ve been having these last fourteen years about war. And as long as we continue having the same conversation, talking as if war were a fact of nature and not a political choice, we’re going to stay locked in the same wartime mentality. As long as our government keeps showing the world that Iraqi lives don’t matter, Afghan lives don’t matter, Muslim lives don’t matter, and Arab lives don’t matter, our police will keep drawing the same conclusion about black lives. Until we reckon with the things we’ve done, we will find no peace, because we will not have owned up to the fact that war is not “nature” but a choice, a choice we keep making again and again.
Ben Joffe takes us “Tripping On Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls” for Savage Minds.
As Tibetans continue to discuss the potential meanings and consequences of these sorts of cultural commodification pizza-effect-meets-cultural-appropriation scenarios, singing bowl enthusiasts continue to strongly resist acknowledging their own ‘off-label’ use of the bowls. As an anthropologist, rather than throw down some gauntlet and declare that singing bowls are or aren’t Tibetan, I would much rather focus on the complicated social and political lives of these deceptively mundane/deceptively sacred objects. If the anthropological literature on religious movements has taught us anything it’s that cognitive dissonance need not spell disillusionment and cosmological collapse. Rather, cognitive dissonance, epistemic ‘murk’, and excess themselves spur reformulation, and promote innovation, religious creativity, and change. Which totally feels like a vibe anthropologists can get into.
And Chris Bodenner brings us this excellent series,”Choosing My Religion: The changing experience of faith among young people in America, from The Atlantic.
Over the next two weeks, we will be sharing stories about young Americans’ religious choices. These will be stories for people interested in politics, dating culture, legal battles, and the many rich textures of ritual observance, among other topics. Because religion stories are not just stories about religion. They are studies in how people understand and navigate their identities, and the conflicts that might ensue. They are ways of understanding communities, dissecting politics, and critiquing systems of power. Likewise, religious choices are not just choices about whether to be religious. They show how people try, or don’t try, to coexist, and how they grapple with the uncertainty of living. The way young Americans wrestle with these choices will not only shape their futures. It will shape the future of the country.
Reuters shares this one: “Robot monk blends science and Buddhism at Chinese Temple.”
Master Xianfan, Xian’er’s creator, said the robot monk was the perfect vessel for spreading the wisdom of Buddhism in China, through the fusion of science and Buddhism.
“Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible,” said Xianfan.
Emily Byrd tells the story of “How the First Church of Cannabis Got Serious” for Narratively.
The inclusive group has been meeting since June 2015, when the doors of The First Church of Cannabis first opened, following the passage of a controversial statewide religious freedom law – though it is safe to say legislators did not intend for the new law to usher in a church like this.
Despite the creation and branding of the “Cannaterian” religion – which embraces the physical and spiritual nourishment gained from the cannabis plant – the people in the pews come from vastly different faith traditions, and TFCC is not simply a dispensary for those looking to get their buzz on, as no smoking is allowed within the church’s walls.TFCC’s main pillars of beliefs include such simple admonitions as “don’t be a troll on the Internet” and “don’t drink soda,” and its official seven pillars could be bootlegged from a generic wellness listicle: “Live-Love-Laugh-Create-Grow-Teach.”
And last of all, we couldn’t not tell you about this one: “Indiana woman claims ultrasound shows Christ on a cross: ‘His legs are crossed and everything’” reported by Tom Boggioni for Raw Story.
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.