Thanks for checking out our latest collection of religion writing from around the web.
First up, a few Easter items we didn’t want to leave in our basket.
Crucified man had prior run-in with authorities by Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post
Born (possibly out of wedlock?) in a stable, this jobless thirty-something of Middle Eastern origin had had previous run-ins with local authorities for disturbing the peace, and had become increasingly associated with the members of a fringe religious group. He spent the majority of his time in the company of sex workers and criminals.
And Ed Simon‘s The Crucified God: A Death in Pictures for Marginalia, a beautiful and thorough reading of crucifixion.
I have, perhaps due to an innate inclination towards the macabre, always appreciated the crucifix more than the cross. The crucifix and the cross are certainly not contradictory, and obviously the later is the ultimate narrative conclusion of the former. But in its sanitized abstraction, the cross seems to me to be eliminating the most crucial part of the story, and in the modern era of the Death of God I don’t think the story Sunday tells is as important as the one that Friday does. While Christians of all denominations wear crosses, for the most part only Catholics embrace the crucifix. Interpreting a crucifix as an important part of religious material culture conceptualizes the object as a symbol of group allegiance, one advertising its wearer not as a member of the United States’ traditional Protestant ruling classes. In popular culture it is the shriveled Irish nun, the Italian boxer, the Hispanic laborer, who wears the crucifix, while the cross is worn by the WASPy suburban couple, the campus Christian, or the cheerful door-to-door missionary. As a matter of semiotics, a crucifix has different connotations than a cross does. But this perspective has more to do with sociology than theology, and for me the fact remains that my attraction to the crucifix has a noumenal element about it as well.
Fascism and Art by S. Brent Plate for Killing the Buddha makes a great segue piece, addressing the relationship between art and authoritarianism:
During this time Picasso’s misogynistically distorted women morph into abstract monuments littering unreal landscapes, like they’ve broken free from their portrait studios and remain at large. Simultaneously, he’s sketching a handful of Crucifixion scenes, some of the only works in his immense career with explicit religious content. Like the deconstructed women, the crucifixions could almost be deemed what we call in English “still life” paintings: fruit, meat, containers, flowers in formal arrangement. Bringing us closer to the truth is the Spanish term for such a genre, naturaleza muerta (“dead nature”).
It is the great artistic lie that captures natural life, pins it down, dissects it, and then shows it to all of us as if it’s still living, walking among us; now a prodigious, perverse husk of a natural thing. The crucifixion is the greatest still life of all.
And speaking of art and authoritarianism: Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia for The New Yorker
“Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,” she said, as we looked through the cuttings. There were stories of abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania, and reports from Canada lamenting its falling birth rate, and articles from the U.S. about Republican attempts to withhold federal funding from clinics that provided abortion services. There were reports about the threat to privacy posed by debit cards, which were a novelty at the time, and accounts of U.S. congressional hearings devoted to the regulation of toxic industrial emissions, in the wake of the deadly gas leak in Bhopal, India. An Associated Press item reported on a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect in which wives were called “handmaidens”—a word that Atwood had underlined. In writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood was scrupulous about including nothing that did not have a historical antecedent or a modern point of comparison.
Two days before Trump’s Inauguration, Atwood had published an essay in The Nation, in which she questioned the generalities sometimes made by left-leaning intellectuals about the role of the artist in public life. “Artists are always being lectured on their moral duty, a fate other professionals—dentists, for example—generally avoid,” she observed. “There’s nothing inherently sacred about films and pictures and writers and books. ‘Mein Kampf’ was a book.” In fact, she said, writers and other artists are particularly prone to capitulating to authoritarian pressure; the isolation inherent in the craft makes them psychologically vulnerable. “The pen is mightier than the sword, but only in retrospect,” she wrote. “At the time of combat, those with the swords generally win.”
And Christopher Dougals has some important insights about Why Hulu’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Maybe the Wrong Adaptation for [the] Trump Era in Religion Dispatches
But it wasn’t only the gendered lines of combat that Atwood recognized in the nascent Christian Right—and this is where Hulu’s adaptation appears to take a self-conscious risk that may ultimately make it the wrong adaptation for the Age of Trump. Margaret Atwood’s novel also carefully noted the racialized history of the Christian Right, which predated its opposition to abortion. In the novel, African Americans are called the “Children of Ham” and are being “resettled” out of Gilead into the less prosperous “National Homeland” formerly known as North Dakota.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the patriarchy: Mary Shows Up: At the heart of The Young Pope is the repression of the feminine divine Jessa Crispin argues very persuasively in The Baffler
Our insistence on seeing Mary, on worshiping Mary, on praying to Mary implies that we need her. It also implies that the followers of patriarchal religions might be carrying around some psychological damage from being asked to see masculinity alone as divine—from being asked to accept a secondary position for feminine divinity, or to deny its existence altogether.
Included in the walking wounded is Pope Pius XIII, the fictional holy father played by Jude Law in Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope. The title is a bit of a tease, the assumption being that since the young are naturally liberal reformers, a young pope will be one who seizes hold of a reluctant Church and yanks it into a brand new age. Yet we forget that the young are also the most fanatical, and indeed this pope, with the wonderfully absurd name of Lenny Belardo, declares in his address to the cardinals, “Fanaticism is love.” He wants to purge the church of homosexuals, make abortion an unforgivable sin, begin excommunication proceedings, and basically drag the church backward in time, to an era in which the church actually had control over its believers.
And playing on another channel nearby: ‘I Thought I Understood America’: Talking with Neil Gaiman about ‘American Gods’ by David M. Perry in Pacific Standard.
Thanks to the rise of President Donald Trump and Trumpism—including intensifying anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric—the “red state” immigration narratives of the new Starz show American Gods are newly relevant. Based on a book by Neil Gaiman, the show wraps fundamental American themes around a weird and wild story about the old gods staving off threats from the upstart deities of technology. Much of the show takes place in the heartland, where we are consistently told “real Americans” live in opposition to those in coastal bubbles, but even in the heartland of American Gods, we find deeply ensconced immigrant narratives. Look back far enough, and every American story starts with immigration.
And we were totally captivated by Kathryn Schulz‘s telling of The Many Lives of Pauli Murray for The New Yorker
Despite all this, Murray’s name is not well known today, especially among white Americans. The past few years, however, have seen a burst of interest in her life and work. She’s been sainted by the Episcopal Church, had a residential college named after her at Yale, where she was the first African-American to earn a doctorate of jurisprudence, and had her childhood home designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. Last year, Patricia Bell-Scott published “The Firebrand and the First Lady” (Knopf), an account of Murray’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and next month sees the publication of “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” (Oxford), by the Barnard historian Rosalind Rosenberg.
All this attention has not come about by chance. Historical figures aren’t human flotsam, swirling into public awareness at random intervals. Instead, they are almost always borne back to us on the current of our own times. In Murray’s case, it’s not simply that her public struggles on behalf of women, minorities, and the working class suddenly seem more relevant than ever. It’s that her private struggles—documented for the first time in all their fullness by Rosenberg—have recently become our public ones.
As we were taken with Nathan Goldman‘s In the Age of Trump, Reclaiming the Golem as a Symbol of Jewish Resistance by for Literary Hub
Many white Jews would prefer not to hear Spencer’s opening of the question of Jewish inhumanity and its echoes across the nation and in the White House. And many have responded by clinging closer to whiteness, hoping that it will protect them. These white Jews reaffirm their commitment to whiteness in the hope that, by mimicking the motions, they will be protected and spared.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps that we need not cling to the white supremacist imaginary’s understanding of personhood. Just as Rabbi Loew, with his black magic golem, refuses to advocate for Jewish personhood on the anti-Semitic terms set up by the Christian community—white Jews can refuse to hold firm to their whiteness. We cannot, of course, shed it. But we can say, with Baldwin, that whiteness is a moral choice. We can try to make different choices.
That’s a lot to read, now somethings to listen to: Kendrick Lamar’s Holy Spirit by Hua Hsu for The New Yorker
Religion is often invoked in hip-hop in a metaphorical way, a method of dramatizing one’s struggles against temptation or judgment. Two of last year’s most acclaimed releases, Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” and Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book,” turned spirituality into a kind of gilt-edged aesthetic. Those artists’ songs were radiant and euphoric; you wanted to see the light that they saw.
Until “god.,” the album’s penultimate track, Lamar’s version of faith feels heavy-handed and wearying: far from the megachurch’s spotlit pulpit, he’s more like a street-corner preacher whom people go out of their way to avoid. God is invoked not merely to lend texture to his triumphs. Lamar’s faith reminds him of the possibility of judgment, of an old-fashioned belief in the discrete categories of good and bad. Where others might simply bow to self-contradiction as inevitable, Lamar remains drawn to the idea that we will be judged by the path we walk, and by the work we leave behind. “I don’t love people enough to put my faith in men / I put my faith in these lyrics, hoping I can make amend,” he raps, over Steve Lacy’s slowed-down, jingle-jangle guitar, on “pride.”
And Alice Coltrane’s Ashram Recordings Finally Have Wide Release reports Mike Rubin for The New York Times.
The newly remastered recordings feature Ms. Coltrane singing for the first time on record, leading a large choir through Eastern-influenced devotional music, with lyrics chanted in Sanskrit but shaped by the African-American church tradition. “That touch of gospel feeling in there never existed with the Hare Krishnas, I can promise you that,” said Baker Bigsby, a Los Angeles audio engineer who worked with Ms. Coltrane for over 30 years. “It’s a little bit of Detroit inserted into this Indian music.”
Keep your headphones on for Najam Haider answering See Something Say Something‘s questions in their latest podcast episode Why Is Alcohol Banned In Islam?
And Josef Sorett’s appearance as a guest on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know‘s episode on Music
Then, back to the page for Judith Weisenfeld reading of the film “Moonlight” using Sorett’s book, Spirit in the Dark in The Spirit of Black Modernism in Public Books
Sorett’s goal in Spirit in the Dark is to illuminate the entanglements of religion and literature in 20th-century African American history; he makes a strong and persuasive case for the significance of religion to the language that black artists and intellectuals used to talk about race. The book also offers new ways of thinking about the history of secularism by identifying the spirit of Afro-Protestantism embedded in black theories of culture, thereby challenging the notion that American secularism is a uniform phenomenon. The concept of racial aesthetics offers a key term for understanding how African Americans used the arts to ponder the meaning of blackness. In this way Spirit in the Dark does indeed offer a rich set of tools for understanding the power of a work like Moonlight, and should serve as a model for future work attending the long history of the entanglement of religion and art in black life.
In fact, there was a lot of good writing about race and religion this month, which also included:
Reverend Resistance: William Barber’s Progressive Christianity by Tommy Tomlinson for Esquire
The opposition to Trump so far has been powerful but leaderless—millions of bodies but not many faces. But Barber is working his way toward the middle of the frame. He’s a regular on MSNBC and on Roland Martin’s show on TV One. He has a PR advance team and a video crew to livestream his sermons. He has traveled to New Jersey to speak to union workers and to a church in Flint to preach about the water crisis there. He helped lead a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march of 1965. He went back to Raleigh for a civil-rights rally that drew tens of thousands of people. And the day before the House was supposed to vote on a health-care plan that would cut benefits for millions, Barber led a group of clergy and activists to the Capitol to protest. One by one, they placed a pile of holy books outside Paul Ryan’s office. People talk about swearing on a stack of Bibles, but it’s not often someone is confronted with a literal stack of Bibles. Ryan later pulled the plan from the floor before it came to a vote. Maybe the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
And The Heart of Whiteness. Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black in The Stranger after which it’s worth reading Oluo’s public Facebook post in response to some of her critics (here).
I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t blackness that Dolezal doesn’t understand, but whiteness. Because growing up poor, on a family farm in Montana, being homeschooled by fundamentalist Christian parents sounds whiter than this “silver spoon” whiteness she claims to be rejecting.
Dolezal feels she is different from others who would genuinely compare their hardships to slavery: “But those people are not aware, they haven’t been black history professors,” she says with a voice trembling with indignation.
I want to remind Dolezal that she is a former black history professor who has degrees in art, not black history, African history, or American history, but I don’t. I’m trying to not get kicked out of her place early.
It’s only been an hour, and I still need to ask The Question.
The month also had a few good new installments of everyone’s favorite ongoing series: “What’s the deal with Evangelicalism?”
The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society by Molly Worthen for The New York Times
Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.
Evangelicals and the New Urbanism by Abram Lueders in the Marginalia Review of Books
In the last few decades, however, evangelicals have changed their tune on the city. This is largely due to the work of one man: Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Due to Keller’s success in planting evangelical congregations throughout the supposedly-secularized metropolis, the city looms large in evangelical conversations. It’s now common for evangelical churches to proclaim that they are “in the city, for the city.” City Church has joined the ranks of Christ Church, First (Insert Denomination) Church, and Church of the Good Shepherd as a go-to church name. However, this new-found infatuation with the city is often skin-deep. As the cultural cachet of all things urban has grown in the culture at large, claiming the mantle of “the city” allows certain congregations to set themselves apart from their less hip forebears, without actually engaging with the urban realm in any meaningful way.
Eric Jacobsen’s The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment is an attempt to bring evangelicals back to the bricks and mortar of the city itself. Rather than using “the city” as a marketing buzzword, Jacobsen’s goal is to plot a course toward a distinctively Christian way of interacting with and shaping the physical patterns of development that define the cities we live in. Ultimately, it’s a much-needed exercise in thought, hampered by a failure to carve out a practical path toward thoughtful engagement.
What Would Jesus Disrupt by Mya Frazier for Bloomberg Business Week
For Crossroads, embracing the gospel of Silicon Valley isn’t solely about money; it’s also about bringing the next generation into the church. Ocean Accelerator offers a way to reckon with two converging trends: growing anxiety about jobs and a decline in church attendance among young people. “Up until the millennial generation, there was inherent faith in large corporations, social enterprises, and governments to drive employment,” Weiss says. “But this millennial group has come along and said, ‘No, no. It’s actually my responsibility to create jobs.’ ”
And in a different sort of conservative Christian mood altogether, there’s Joshua Rothman superb profile of Rod Dreher’s Monastic Vision for The New Yorker
For a decade, daily and at length, Dreher has written about his obsessions—orthodox Christianity, religious freedom, the “L.G.B.T. agenda,” the hypocrisy of privileged liberals, the nihilism of secular capitalism, the appeal of monasticism, the spiritual impoverishment of modernity, brisket—while sharing candid, emotional stories about his life. Dreher writes with graphomaniacal fervor and ardent changeability. He is as likely to admire Ta-Nehisi Coates’s dispatches from Paris as to inveigh against “safe spaces” on college campuses, and he delights in skewering the left and the right simultaneously—a recent post was called “How Are Pope Francis & Donald Trump Alike?” Because Dreher is at once spiritually and intellectually restless, his blog has become a destination for the ideologically bi-curious. Last year, his interview with J. D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” was largely responsible for bringing the book to the attention of both liberal and conservative readers. He gets around a million page views a month.
From the porch of a rented house, he began to codify his intuitions. He had long been fascinated by Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century monk who, convinced that it was impossible to live virtuously in a fallen Roman Empire, founded a monastery where the flame of Christianity might be tended during the Dark Ages. This March, Dreher published “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” which David Brooks, in the Times, has called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.
Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
We imagine Dreher would have a lot of respect for Emma Morano, whose story Elisabetta Povoledo tells in Remembering the World’s Oldest Person, in the Objects She Left Behind The New York Times
She was devout, wearing her rosaries for decades, though she did not wear them recently because her nieces, her principal caretakers, were afraid she might choke on them. She hung the rosaries next to her bed, near a photo of her only child, a son who lived from January to August 1937.
That photograph was buried with her, according to her wishes.
From some much younger folks, a few final items:
How Meme Culture Is Getting Teens into Marxism by Hannah Ballantyne for Broadly
“I mean obviously memes aren’t the be-all and end-all of political engagement, but they can often help explain and engage young people in a discourse that they get shut out of. I once saw this great meme from Sassy Socialist Memes that epitomized a really thoughtful criticism of economic rationalism.
The scene looks like this: There’s a dark, stormy-looking landscape with a picture of lightning in the background. In the foreground, there’s a forest with a path wandering through it. There are also signs around, with the names “Stotternheim” and “Erfurt” printed on them. Trees abound, with a big rock planted among them. One of the trees no longer has branches, with a flash of lightning 25 centimeters long hitting the tree and running into the ground.
In front of that stands a Playmobil figure dressed in black, with its hands held upward. It is the moment in which Luther makes his vow. Looking more closely, one discovers a small family of hedgehogs who are searching for shelter. Crows and owls sit in the trees; rabbits sit in the brush. Everything has been rendered in as much minute detail as possible.
And lastly, Witchmoji exist.
See you again soon!
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.