Some of our favorite writers have published new work lately that we’d very much like to recommend.
One of our favorite scholars of religion, Elizabeth Castelli, published two excellent new articles last month.
First, a review of After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion by Anthony Petro in Emisérica from the Hemispheric Institute.
For those who lived the history that Petro narrates with such texture and detail, certain moments are seared into memory: AIDS framed as an apocalyptic scenario of just deserts, foretold by the apostle Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, translated into medieval theology’s theorization of sodomy, and ferried into the contemporary world; people with AIDS stigmatized by their infection and their marginal sexual, social, economic, or racial/ethnic status; the deployment of the language of guilt and innocence to separate the “bad” victims from the “good”; the theologization of governmental responses to the epidemic; the fierce political contests between religious leaders (especially those of the Catholic church) and AIDS activists and their allies (especially women’s health activists).
And second, Castelli writes about Elizabeth Shakman Hurd‘s new book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion in the “Paradoxes of international religious freedom” in The Immanent Frame.
During the same two decades since the passage of the IRFA [International Religious Freedom Act], the academic study of religion has produced a small library of works that document the complex history of “religion” as a category, a history that intertwines with a range of other histories—most importantly, those of European colonialism and the political compromises that produced the modern notion of the “secular.” All of these histories emphasize that “religion” is never a self-evident term, and that its use to demarcate certain elements of human experience and social life does not merely describe an objective reality but instead creates the lenses by which certain people, groups, practices, and institutions become legible for particular purposes. The academic study of religion pursues these histories in order to understand the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings of its own enterprise, but the insights that emerge out of this work also resonate in real-world contexts where what counts as religion determines policy, even as political frameworks and decisions, as Hurd shows, paradoxically determine what counts as religion.
Above all else, Freud had a special contempt for the trite pabulum of American nationalism: our self-righteous commingling of religion with politics, our politics-as-religion, our religion-as-politics. “Pious America laid claim to being ‘God’s own Country’; and, as regards one of the shapes in which men worship the deity, the claim is undoubtedly valid.” Freud saw American Manifest Destiny for what it was: just another family romance told by a precocious child to justify its specialness. Except this precocious child could field an army of two million men on Europe’s shores, and, just over five years after Freud’s death, realized one of his most abiding nightmares: “gain[ing] control over the forces nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.” Today, perhaps even more than after 1945, his premonitions seem justified. Human civilization may well wind up obliterating itself, if not with a bang, thanks to America’s 5000-odd nuclear warheads, then with a cough and gurgle, thanks to its tens of millions of air conditioners and fossil-fuel vehicles.
Death of God theology raises questions that are important to many of us for whom the massive poetic, metaphorical, literary, and cultural edifice which constitutes religion is still a narrative vocabulary for expressing these questions, but for whom modern orthodox faith can seem hollow. It is the “better atheism” we have needed, since the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not as profound as his followers may think. It is a movement that recognizes both the ontological realities of modernity, but also the profound beauty and power of religious mythopoesis, it is a way of pouring new wine into old skins.
We very much enjoyed Donovan Schaefer‘s article about”Smelling the Sacred: Better (Lived) Religion Through Chemistry” for Religion Dispatches.
As this new research suggests, to understand effervescence, we may have to go beyond the familiar markers of excitement (sounds, phrases, etc.) and consider dimensions of experience, such as the chemical, that are usually invisible to social analysis. What if, in a truly Durkheimian move, the smell of the sacred turned out to be the smell of ourselves? Rituals, congregations, and sacred spaces may be much more than just a shared hallucination, as Freud thought: they may be tinged with a chemical force that binds bodies to each other in important ways—or with other vectors of experience that can be hard to see at first glance.
Religion Dispatches is also where you should go to check out Brook Wilensky-Lanford explaining “How to Talk to ‘Nones’ and Influence People: Rob Bell’s Transrational Experience.”
At some point some provocateur did ask Bell “the race question,” that is: “Why is everyone in this room white?” People shifted in their folding chairs. If these ideas about how to create your life and inhabit transrational spaces are so powerful, so world-changing, why are they only being shared with people who by definition already have the (white) privilege to hear them?
Bell took the question seriously. He acknowledged that the disproportionately non-white poor and disenfranchised may not have the luxury to “create their lives,” and that that is not okay. “Politically, people are starting to realize this doesn’t work.” But then he made a sort of trickle-down argument: when traveling to a new city, he doesn’t make efforts to recruit people from populations that wouldn’t ordinarily know or care about Rob Bell. He was fully aware that his audience consisted of people “high up on the pyramid,” and it was exactly by “changing the hearts of the people who run the system” that he hoped his work would begin to effect unspecified larger change.
“But I’m not going to apologize for the people in this room,” he concluded. And the people in the room applauded.
And Harper’s shared an excerpt from Peter Manseau‘s new book Melancholy Accidents.
June 4, 1770, Massachusetts Gazette
Some young men, who had been a-gunning, went to Beaman’s Tavern, where one of their guns accidentally went off and killed the landlord’s daughter on the spot; she was at that time suckling her child, who was providentially preserved.
Speaking of friends, James Carroll wrote about “Daniel Berrigan, My Dangerous Friend” for The New Yorker.
As Daniel Berrigan, in a simpler time, had embodied my new priestly ideal, braced by the sacredness of expression itself—Man of the Word—now his relentless pacifist expression both in language and in deed pushed further. I was soon to be ordained to the priesthood, and all at once my ambition was redefined once again. The Berrigans demonstrated the acute relevancy of an expressly Catholic sensibility—ritual protest as a kind of sacrament. The brothers’ brave willingness to take great risks for peace seemed to justify, in a way that traditional piety no longer could, a lifelong vow of celibacy and the radical renunciations it entailed. The gospel of peace and justice would define my priesthood, even if, as tradition and family ties required, I still said my first Mass at the chapel at Bolling Air Force Base—a perfect symbol of the ever-divided heart that would keep me one of the more timid members of the Berrigan wing of Catholic resistance.
Meanwhile, we wouldn’t mind being friends with some of these folks:
“In conversation: Kathryn Lofton on the 2016 elections from a humanist’s point of view” in YaleNews by Bess Connolly Martell.
What is so great about any election for a scholar of religion is that elections offer the opportunity to pose the question: What is religion? It is a question that is critically important in a campaign. There is always a moment in the campaign where questions of proper respectability on the part of the candidates is raised strongly and then tied often to a concept of tradition or denomination. So where is the respectability and where is the civil society in this election? I think that is not just a social question; it is also a foundationally religious question about how we think our leaders ought to represent some idea of social community. We see in the two most popular meme-making candidates a real disinterest in maintaining respectability at a time of very high professionalization and bureaucratization. When we look at the steadiness of Barack Obama and the kind of undifferentiated steeliness of Hillary Clinton, I think many people see their boss: They see corporate actors who are assembled and polite and correct in ways overly ceding the economic givens. I think there is something about both Sanders and Trump that allows an inner Id to rise up. It is a sort of ritual articulation of the idea: “Can I just be against everything that organizes my daily repression?”
Hillary Kaell interviews Birgit Meyer about “Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana” for The New Books Network.
Anthropologist Birgit Meyer‘s most recent book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana (University of California Press, 2015), explores the dynamic process of popular video filmmaking in Ghana as a new medium for the imagination that interweaves technological, economic, social, cultural, and religious aspects. Stepping into the void left by the defunct state film industry, video movies negotiate the imaginaries deployed by state cinema on the one hand and Pentecostal Christianity on the other.
More specifically, Sensational Movies shows the affinity between cinematic and Christian modes of looking and showcases the transgressive potential haunting figurations of the occult. In this in depth account, more than two decades in the making, Meyer takes us into the nexus of imagination, imaginaries, and images in contemporary Ghana.
Yolanda Pierce writes about “Black Women and the Sacred: With ‘Lemonade,’ Beyoncé Takes Us to Church” for Religion Dispatches.
Art is always a resource for spiritual reflection, and “Lemonade” is an aural and visual feast for black women who cannot find reflections of themselves in the liturgy, sacred texts, icons, and stained glass of their own traditions. It is a work that is particular and specific: it is a love letter and an ode to black women, deeply rooted in African-American history.
We’re hoping to get a chance to read Onaje X.O. Woodbine‘s new book Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball very soon, in the meantime, we were pleased to get a chance to read this adapted version published in Killing the Buddha, “Asphalt Altar.”
In the ritual space of the asphalt, the experience of being on the court and moving one’s body with others to the rhythms of ball and sound gives black men and their communities access to a communal sense of freedom that counters the effects of this dehumanization. This was one of the contradictions of being a black ballplayer that led me to quit playing, that I longed to understand.
We know you have visual albums to watch and spoiler-sotted newsfeeds to peek at through your fingers, so want to keep you here too much longer. But before we go, here are few more bits of news and analysis here we couldn’t resist sharing and will simply leave here for you to click through at your leisure.
Kevin Randall reports: “Inner Peace? The Dalai Lama Made a Website for That” at the New York Times.
The Dalai Lama, who tirelessly preaches inner peace while chiding people for their selfish, materialistic ways, has commissioned scientists for a lofty mission: to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans.
That is, of course, no easy task. So the Dalai Lama ordered up something with a grand name to go with his grand ambitions: a comprehensive Atlas of Emotions to help the more than seven billion people on the planet navigate the morass of their feelings to attain peace and happiness.
“It is my duty to publish such work,” the Dalai Lama said.
To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the workings of the human psyche.
Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.
Crystal Bell published “The Game of Thrones Guide to Religion: Old Gods, New Gods, and Everything in Between” at MTV News.
The New York Times published a different sort of manual: “A Guide to Muslim Veils” which mostly consists of this stylish Gif.
Quite another thing altogether: “Philly Jesus Arrested at Apple Store” reports Dan McQuade for Philadelphia.
It’s not clear which Philly Judas set the cops on him. But according to a witness who was at the Apple Store this afternoon, Philly Jesus was asked to leave the store — possibly because of his cross. He reportedly refused to leave, which is when a plainclothes police officer handcuffed him.
And lastly, do take some time, if you can, for “Climbing the Eye of God” with Matt Donovan at The New York Review of Books.
Pantheon, we say, hauled in from the Greek and meaning all of the gods. More than anything else, this etymology is how we’ve come to agree that the building once served as a place to worship all Roman deities. Yet neither its name nor function is that simple. “Pantheon” seems to have been a kind of nickname, and no one really knows what it was originally called. Some recent theories have even questioned the building’s assumed religious purpose, suggesting that it could have been used primarily as a giant sundial to commemorate the equinox.
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.