We took a August off from publishing, but not from the Internet, so we’ve got quite the stash of links saved up for you this month.
First up, a couple of great new pieces from some familiar voices:
‘They’re Coming for the Ones You Love’: My Weekend of Gun Training in the Desert by Patrick Blanchfield in The Nation.
Carol starts pacing, repeating a sentence like a prayer: “Aim to hit the hostage taker, don’t aim to miss the hostage—otherwise you miss everything.”
I draw and feel myself going somewhere, the mechanical unthinking somewhere I went after Carol yelled behind me earlier. I aim at the hostage taker on the left and squeeze off three rounds. Each lands true, right where the eye socket would be, as far away from the hostage as I can get while still landing in the head box. I turn my attention to the other bad guy and put one in his eye, too.
And then, suddenly, I snap out of it and realize what’s happening. This is a scripted, psychologically engineered “come to Jesus” moment. Between the heat, the exhaustion, and the constant invocation of horrifying scenes, we may as well be at the apogee of a revival or vision quest, the desert one giant sweltering tent or sweat lodge. It’s ingenious, but contrived. My next shot grazes the hostage’s ear, and my last goes totally wide. “It’s OK, she’ll be fine!” one of the trainers says.
The Ministry of Fun: The Feel-Good Gospel of the Pastor Made Famous by Kimye and Bieber by Jeff Sharlet in Esquire.
Every few years, the secular press produces an astonished report of a preacher who embraces pop culture. But this is an old story: Each era of American Christendom gives rise to competitive strains of faith, one that curses the culture, one that coddles it. Sometimes the latter is liberal, but more often it reveals the shallowness of liberalism’s aesthetic trappings, the ease with which secular music and fashion and art can be repurposed to serve a religion of control—over sex, over emotion implicitly political. We live in the age of hipster Christianity, a time of multiplying ministries with one-word names, such as Status, Mosaic, Reality, and, most famously, Hillsong, an Australian Pentecostal megachurch whose New York City branch is led by Rich’s friend and fellow pastor to the stars Carl Lentz. Most leave untouched fundamentalism’s core convictions—opposition to abortion and sex outside of marriage (which is between a man and a woman) and also to false gods (meaning all of them but their own)—but they rebrand the presentation. Rich is only the most mediagenic of whatComplex has described as this “new wave of stylish pastors,” just as a young Billy Graham was before him and Billy Sunday before him, stripping away the Bible’s subtler teachings to draw the masses. Rich is the latest avatar of a tradition common to Christianity and capitalism, the so-called new-and-improved. His new is burnished with vestiges of the artisanal; “vintage,” Rich likes to say, meaning that which is artfully rendered to reference an idea of the old. It’s like he’s sampling from a song he’s never actually heard.
I had a public online journal, like so many teenagers of the early aughts. I wanted to write books, to create something as beautiful as the man who made model horses in his basement. In the meantime, I wrote about my daily life, my friends and my crushes, in shoddily veiled terms. I wrote, too, about my confusion and pain regarding the church, my faith, and my mother’s sexuality. Adults from the church read and commented—sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. Satan is tempting you, they said. He is using your love for your mother to poison your mind. We love you, they said. Be strong.
And then some last words from and about some very old and controversial figures: Tim LaHaye Dies at 90: Fundamentalist Leader’s Grisley Novels Sold Millions by Robert D McFadden.
The series — 16 volumes that appeared between 1995 and 2007, including sequels, prequels, children’s versions and translations into many languages, as well as spinoff movies, DVDs, audio dramatizations, video games and clothing — sold more than 65 million copies and was perhaps the most commercially successful Christian fiction in publishing history.
Phyllis Schlafly, Conservative Leader and Foe of E.R.A., Dies at 92 by Douglas Martin for The New York Times. You can read more about Schafly in Phyllis Schafly’s Urology by Ann Neumann.
Not that either LaHaye or Schafly could claim the kind of years this place can:
Inside the World’s Only Surviving Tattoo Shop for Medieval Pilgrims by Anna Felicity Friedman in Atlas Obscura.
In the 21st century, tattoos have emerged as popular travel souvenirs, but Razzouk Ink offers a truly unique experience—a link to hundreds of years of history through a visceral transaction of bloodletting and pain. While in that fuzzy zone that emerges from endorphins as a tattoo progresses, I channeled the many travelers who have endured a similar fate. And later, post healing, as the ink began to settle into my skin, a glance at the enduring mark conjured a heavy mix of memory and tradition.
And reaching even further back in time, there’s The Obsession With Biblical Literalism by Carmine Grimaldi in The Atlantic.
Of all the biblical episodes, Voltaire thought none required more faith than the story of Noah’s Ark: “The history of the deluge being that of the most miraculous event of which the world ever heard, it must be the height of folly and madness to attempt an explanation of it.” If only he had visited Ark Encounter—a Christian theme park that opened this summer in Kentucky and boasts a “life-sized” reconstruction of Noah’s Ark. Seemingly impossible details have been fanatically researched and naturalistically explained by Answers in Genesis (AiG), a literalist Christian organization that’s also responsible for the nearby Creation Museum. With roughly 40 percent of Americans believing in creationism, the park shouldn’t be dismissed as mere Christian kitsch. Rather, it represents a recent and powerful trend in evangelical thought, a kind of fundamentalist realism. To visit the park is to see how conservative Christianity of the 21st century finds strength not simply in miracles, scripture and sermon, but in timber, mannequins, blueprints, and feasibility studies.
Back in the pretty much present, but always already nostalgic, moment: Changing of the Guard on the Front Lawn by Francis X. Clines in The New York Times.
From their special perch, the Campanellas are a welcome antidote to the anti-immigration rhetoric that spews from Donald Trump. They can speak firsthand about what is happening on the ground among new Americans choosing imaginative ways of marking their place. “The new immigrant,” said the older Mr. Campanella, celebrating his latest customers, is “the Chinese, the Arab, the Mexican. We’re seeing a recycling of what was. The Italians and Jews who built this neighborhood have moved on.”
Far from fearing change, he revels in the newcomers and their elephants, foo dogs and Buddhas.
Meanwhile, with a view towards archiving these migrations and shifts, A Former Janitor Collects and Photographs the Items Seized from Immigrants and Thrown Away by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol by Ellyn Kail in Feature Shoot.
It started with toothbrushes. Arizona-based photographer Thomas Kiefer had been working part-time as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Ajo, some 40 miles from the Mexican border, for several years when he acted on his impulse to salvage— and to catalog—some of the hundreds of personal items thrown away in the facility. As hopeful American immigrants, many of them illegal, were apprehended and brought to the station, personal objects deemed “non-essential” were seized and disposed of during processing. With El Sueno Americano, or The American Dream, Kiefer tells the story of those who risked their freedom and their lives to cross the border through the many possessions they had to leave behind.
Similarly archive-minded, meet The Stewards of a Disappearing Faith – And 10,000 Songs by Susan Sharon on NPR.
In the mid-19th century, Shakers practiced their faith in farming communities from Maine to Kentucky. Numbering 6,000 at their peak, they gave up worldly possessions, marriage and sex, instead devoting themselves to prayer and work. They also wrote songs, thousands of them — including “Simple Gifts,” which endures in popular culture despite dating back to the 1840s.
The religion, however, has not been sustainable. There are just three followers left: two elderly women and one middle-aged man, who live at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Me. Stored away in their village library is a collection of 10,000 Shaker songs.
Or maybe you’re more into reenacting history than preserving it? Hill Cumorah: Scenes from the annual pageant of Mormon origins by Sam Kestenbaum in Killing the Buddha.
“When the sun sets,” a loudspeaker calls, “the Pageant will begin. Welcome to America’s Witness for Christ.”
I’ve come to upstate New York, south of Lake Ontario, to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an annual reenactment of the Mormons’ origin story that has been held here since the 1930s.
And then in just straight up heartfelt memorializing, Nathan Gelgud has made another great installment in his “Unconventional” series in The Paris Review, this one about Father Daniel Berrigan: Poet, Priest, Prophet.
Shifting gears a bit, a few new pieces on Islam in religious studies and in the world.
Two excellent academic forums, one, in Syndicate Theology, on Saba Mahmood‘s new book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age, with contributions from the likes of Elizabeth Castelli and John Modern and moderated by Michael Allen.
Part of what makes Mahmood’s book so compelling is the vantage it lends to considerations of secularism not solely as an abstracted concept, but a set of practices that come to articulate ways of living. The various chapters—which deal with gender, family law, Ottoman history, Egyptian government, and the nexus of literature and history—bespeak a scope and ambition to track secularism and secularity outside the confines of a single discipline. As Mahmood notes, “Secularism as a statist project exerts inordinate power on our political imagination, most evident in our inability to envision religious inequality without the agency of the state” (212). Mahmood’s book is an eye-opening inquiry to the limits of a political imagination framed as a matter of statecraft and governance. Her work provides a vision of what critical anthropology can bring to those of us working in the humanities, social sciences and religion—that is, ways of seeing the world anew.
The other, on Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: the Importance of Being Islamic, was edited by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Kristian Petersen for the Marginalia Review of Books.
Ahmed’s What is Islam? attempts to make clear histories of interpretation both within Islamic discourses and the Euro-American academy. He weaves theories within and about the study of religion with incredibly detailed, multilingual Islamic sources from a vast geographic area (what he terms the Balkans-to-Bengal complex) and an equally vast number of years. He attempts, in other words, to span academic discourses, disciplines, fields, and subfields that often do not talk to each other, that maintain their own definitional schemas, that have varying rationales for their own definitional schemas all while maintaining a balance between equally disparate Muslim interpretations that sometimes (though not always) fit into extant Euro-American academic categorizations. Ahmed tried to synthesize, order, and evaluate multiple conversations about, around, and with Islam and Muslims—without then collapsing the discourses into a monolithic, graspable whole. He both called for and maintained coherence and contradiction.
Amos Barshad profiles The Pop Star of Jihad in Fader.
Though he left rap, Cuspert never abandoned music. He began instead singing songs in praise of the international jihad, what jihadists refer to as nasheeds. Traditionally, nasheeds are songs of uplift, mostly a cappella, about Islam, its practices, and its history. But these were songs about fighters-in-arms, about explosions, about mass murder. In one, a German-language adaptation of a jihadist anthem called “Qariban Qariba,” Cuspert declared, Enemies of Allah, we want your blood/ It tastes so wonderful.
Aheda Zanetti explains: I created the burkini to give women freedom, not to take it away in The Guardian.
I would love to be in France to say this: you have misunderstood. And there more problems in the world to worry about, why create more? You’ve taken a product that symbolised happiness and joyfulness and fitness, and turned it into a product of hatred.
Asma T. Uddin shared her own important take on When a Swimsuit Is a Security Threat by in The New York Times.
The same twisted logic is at play in the French ordinances against the burkini. To an American spectator, such bans probably appear a blatant restriction on religious liberty, or liberty generally, but what is striking is that the European jurisprudence upholding them speaks in the language of human rights. By couching prejudice and fear in the language of Article 9 exceptions, the court in effect uses human rights laws to limit human rights.
Meanwhile, using quite different tactics but still making their point: New York City Firefighters Had A Very Effective Response To A Street Preacher’s Hateful Words by Steven Lerner in APlus.
Before she could say anything else, the firefighters inside the station blasted their fire sirens. The loud sound of the alarms successfully drowned out her Islamaphobic message.
Arguing thoughtfully and compellingly, but without any bull-horns or sirens, a few articles on some important Jewish debates:
When I use the term identity in my own writing, I treat it as an indicator, an indicator that I’m not being as clear as I could or should be. In most cases, there is something more specific that undergirds my use of the term. Identity, in my own work, is really gesturing at ideas of classification, groupness, epistemology, subjectivity, ethnicity, empire, governmentality, etc. And so, I ask myself, if I had to rewrite a sentence or paragraph without the word identity, how would I do it? The re-worked sentence is always better for it.
While Yotam Marom works his way Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion: Facing Anti-Semitism and Assimilation in the Movement on Medium.
This piece is a deep reflection on anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation in the movement. It is a glimpse at how those things hurt Jews and the movement as a whole, an invitation to hard but compassionate discussion, and a call to arms for all of us, but above all, to Jews in the movement. I imagine it not as the answer, but as a beginning, alongside many other beginnings that have come before. I invite you, then, into that beginning with me, and to the long road ahead toward collective liberation — toward the world we all deserve.
Oded Na’aman shares his thoughts on Choosing Violence in Boston Review.
Like the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Israeli wars are preceded by a widespread sense of necessity and followed by damning public criticism. What explains this cycling of perspectives, the ritual of affirmation and rejection that endlessly loops? Why are we so bad at learning from our past mistakes precisely when it is most important that we do so?
Daniel May argues that The Problem Isn’t Black Lives Matter. It’s the Occupation. in Tablet.
While American Jewish leaders will use the platform to distance themselves from Black Lives Matter, the movement provides a lesson for how we will eventually reconcile our commitments and rescue our moral integrity. For just as racial justice in this country is unimaginable without a more profound reckoning of the legacy of slavery than we have been able as a nation to summon, the conflict in Israel and Palestine will never advance so long as Jews deny the cost of Zionism. The Jewish nation’s independence was won only through the dispossession of another nation. Recognizing this does not require disavowing Israel any more than recognizing that America was founded upon white supremacy requires disavowing the United States. But it does require facing painful truths. The only choice more painful will be to continue to look away.
And Jen Taylor Friedman created an Intersectional Barbie Dream Minyan on Facebook.
Intersectional Barbie Dream Minyan points to the Jews who are still excluded, not intentionally but effectively, from our communities. Barbies of many different ethnicities, wearing tallit and tefillin, are having a Torah reading.
Alas, as great as a dream minyan is, we really still can’t have nice social media things: After Nice attack, Internet trolls framed this Sikh man as a terrorist – again by Abby Olheiser in The Washington Post.
In November, Jubbal was forced to deny that he was connected to the terror attacks in Paris, after someone circulated a Photoshopped version of one of his recent selfies. The doctored selfie was passed off as that of an “Islamic State attacker” involved in the deadly bombings. In the circulated image, it appeared as if the writer were holding a Koran and wearing a suicide vest. But in the original picture, Jubbal held an iPad and wore a short-sleeved, plaid shirt.
Maybe we should stick to the old fashioned mail service instead? Holy Water for Pilgrims, via the Mail by Kaushik Swaminathan in The New York Times.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of Indians, barefoot and draped in orange clothing, make a 100-mile pilgrimage on foot to fetch water from the sacred Ganges River that they then offer at their local temples to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
This year, they have a less arduous option: The postal service is using its 155,000 offices across India to deliver holy water from the Ganges — for far less than $1 a bottle. As one postal official put it, “If Muhammad cannot go to the mountain, the mountain comes to him.”
Okay fine, we can have social media, but only because we think everyone should see the work being done by Adrita Das who was profiled by Mike Steyels in Checking Patriarchy and Dogma Through the Art of the GIF” for The Creators Project. Her fabulous Hanuman GIF is at the top of this post and “The Last Cupcake” is our featured image this month.
Wait, nope, we take it back. Someone wants to put a mall in the Grand Canyon. We definitely can’t have nice things. For more on this nice thing that we probably can’t have, check out: Are We Losing the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko in National Geographic.
We who study and teach religion in the United States should take responsibility for our own origin story; we need to leave off being Schempp-style creationists and we need to leave off being handmaidens to an imperialist politics and a now bankrupt jurisprudence. Religious studies in the United States is founded in a profoundly Christocentric set of assumptions, to be sure. We cannot and should not attempt to entirely escape entanglement with politics. In my view, the best and most interesting work in religious studies today engages pressing issues about what it means to be human across a very wide range of domains. The best work today challenges and is challenged by difficult epistemological—and perhaps metaphysical—questions, ones we share with other disciplines. The best work sees teaching religion and teaching about religion as deeply entangled. We serve our students best by inviting them into this struggle, not by circling the wagons.
Okay, dear readers, we’re in the links homestretch! Do stick with us, please, we promise there’s some really great stuff coming up.
Like Brook Wilsenky-Lanford reviewing four new books on Religion for The New York Times Book Review.
And Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft‘s Thinking, Public and Private: Intellectuals in the Time of the Public in The Lost Angeles Review of Books.
As professional thinkers come to understand “publicness” more and more as the permanent condition of our work, then, we might also come to better appreciate the specific ways in which politics and scholarship intersect, and the ways they remain fundamentally separate. This would mean recovering the disquiet within the term “public intellectual,” and treating that disquiet as an invitation to rethink the relationship between thought and action. And it would also mean recovering another question, namely the nature of ideas themselves, those entities inevitably pulled between certain impulses of mind we might call transcendental and the worldly swirl of human curiosity and purpose out of which ideas come.
Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozikaug on Oh, TV of Little Faith: Two Critics Find God on the Small Screen. Sometimes in The New York Times.
What does it even mean to incorporate faith into a TV story? I’m not sure it really counts as a treatment of faith simply to know that a character celebrates this holiday or that one. So prayer, at least, is one kind of external marker.
Why does this kind of representation matter? Because religious diversity is not getting any less important in public life. Because good stories are specific, and personal faith (or the conscious lack of it) is as specific as it gets. And because religion tries to answer some of the same questions that art does, about human frailties and emotion and dealing with the knowledge that you will die someday.
Which should definitely be read alongside Kathryn Reklis‘ Saving Annville: Violence and theology on “Preacher” in The Christian Century.
Preacher is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon that has accumulated a cult following by pushing every boundary of sacrilege and violence. In the first two episodes of the television show, for example, bodies explode, people are set on fire, limbs are amputated by a chainsaw, and body parts are strewn across sun-drenched Texan cornfields. There are also angels, demon-angel hybrids, and hints of a dethroned deity wandering the earth.
The main characters besides Jesse are a drug-addled vampire and a foul-mouthed hit woman who builds bazookas out of coffee cans. There’s enough violence to satisfy a small planet of adolescent boys. But there are also church budget meetings, stolen communion wine, and worries about the megachurch that has a Starbucks in its lobby. These last details make Preacher one of the churchiest shows on television.
Speaking of violence, don’t miss this conversation between Philip Metres and Roy Scranton: No Blood for Beauty: Phil Metres and Roy Scranton on Torture, Art, and the Literature of Empire in The Los Angeles Review of Books.
The tragedy is that we have to get our hands dirty in order to make the world a better place. And the belief in that tragedy is a self-serving lie.
Tragedy, tragedos, the goat song, the ritual sacrifice, the scapegoat: tragedy is about defining a collective identity through sacrifice, and in the story of American war as tragedy there’s a complex way (as a I argue in my essay on “The Trauma Hero” and in the book that I’m writing that expands on that argument) in which the traumatized American soldier becomes a sacrificial surrogate, one who takes the place of the real blood sacrifice, the excluded enemy other, in this case the erased Iraqi.
Or this brilliant piece on The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker.
The more you try to put the Underground Railroad in context, in other words, the tinier it seems. Most runaways did not head north, and most slaves who sought their liberty did not run away. And then there is the largest and most important context, the one we least like to acknowledge: from the vast, vicious, legally permitted, fiercely defended enterprise that was American slavery, almost no one ever escaped at all.
It is to our credit if these are the Americans to whom we want to trace our moral genealogy. But we should not confuse the fact that they took extraordinary actions with the notion that they lived in extraordinary times. One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.
Or this gorgeous and crushingly smart one by Ashon Crawley in the Los Angeles Review of Books: Noise. Church. Flesh.: Or, For Coltrain Church, For Pulse
Black flesh is its own kind of noise. Black flesh is a condition, a condition that before abstraction, is the material fact of existence. The flesh is the grounds for existence. What does that mean? It means that before being named by parents, before being gendered by doctors, before birth certificates and social security numbers, before birth rites of Christianity or Islam or other traditions, before being placed, we are flesh. And this is a fact that we should not seek to escape but to love, and love hard. Flesh, like noise, is difficult to capture and individuate, because indeterminacy is written into the way flesh behaves and finds relation in the world. Accepting the flesh, the fact of one’s flesh, is to accept noise as that from which life grows and that to which life returns.
Yet not everyone is pleased with noise, with the noise of flesh. Noise has the capacity to antagonize and exposes us to the vibration, the movement, the sound, that the Western theological and philosophical traditions seek to still. This theological and philosophical tradition has racialized and gendered and sexed and classed ideas about what is, who is and can be, normal. This normality is often produced in courtrooms and legal proceedings — proceedings that determine not only what normal looks like, but also how normal sounds.
I like a good noisy church. And sometimes, that church is a nightclub. A space of gathering, a space of intellectual practice, against the imposition of normative ways to be human. A place of movement and restive refuge, restive refuge against the imposition of a violent world. Some religionists tell us we queer and trans* identified people are sinful, are shameful. (This would be true, this projection of sinfulness: it would be true of even the Swedenborgian church where I discovered the love and necessity of noise.) So we find other places, other sanctuaries. So we gather together in the cause of noise, to find our noise against the religious, cultural demand for its being lost. The noise of held hands freely underground, outta the way, off and to the side. The noise of sweat and flesh gyrating and pulsating to the music. The noise of flirtations and hesitancies and desires held, desires felt, desires consummated.
Which is all a lot to take in. If you need a break, Christina is ready to welcome you into a whole other realm of reading: Hello. I am Witch Christina, welcome to my free Magic Library!
Sharing gives us power over our own lives. No person can control a thing when it is freely available to all. Sharing is a basic human impulse that binds people together. When we share knowledge, skills, experience, and wisdom, it costs us nothing but our time, and often leaves us richer than we were.
I’ve also started my own site darkbooks.org which I decided to share with other people my most favorite books on magic and occultism. My personal collection of books contains several thousands books, 2100+ of them located on this site (I am constantly adding new ones). These are the best books on magic and esotericism, which I have and I read. They are all in pdf format.
But if even that is too much, then we suggest you bear witness to this testament to the glory of Twitter riffing: How God Created Animals.
Thanks for joining us! We’ll be back next month with more links, gifs, and maybe a [God creating] joke or two of our own.
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.