First, a fun follow-up to our collaborative June issue: You can watch a video of the Magnum Foundation’s Photography Expanded Symposium here. The video includes presentations by three of our On Religion issue’s contributors, Yael Martinez, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Oscar B. Castillo.
Speaking of public events, we really enjoyed our conversation with author and journalist Ian Johnson earlier this year and hope you’ll check out a piece he wrote, My Beijing: The Sacred City for The New York Times, and a review of his most recent book in China’s Astounding Religious Revival at the New York Review of Books.
What Johnson brilliantly describes in this book is how ordinary people, seeking faith to give meaning to their lives, are not waiting for Xi [Jinping] to lead them to his version of the promised land. Daoists, Buddhists, and Confucians are allowed to rebuild temples and memories of past practices persist, enabling believers to return to them.
Next, we want to feature some work by and about some of our other friends here at The Revealer.
Simran Jeet Singh will the our 2017-2018 Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow. We are looking forward to working with him and supporting his work, especially since he is too often the target of negative and unwarrented attacks. Case in point, just this last week Chris Quintana reported for the The Chronicle of Higher Education A Case of Mistaken Identity Spurs Hateful Messages for a Sikh Professor. Much more hopefully, in May Arun Venugopal reported on another story about Singh in this piece for WNYC: One Man Called Another a Racial Slur. Then They Shook Hands.
Kathryn Joyce‘s latest at The New Republic is, like so much of her work, absolutely essential reading: The Silence of the Lambs: Are Protestants concealing a Catholic-size sexual abuse scandal?
This burgeoning crisis of abuse has received far less attention than the well-documented scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. That’s in part because the evangelical and fundamentalist world, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, is diverse and fractious, composed of thousands of far-flung denominations, ministries, parachurch groups, and missions like ABWE. Among Christian evangelicals, there is no central church authority to investigate, punish, or reform. Groups like ABWE answer only to themselves.
The scale of potential abuse is huge. Evangelical Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the United States, with more than 280,000 churches, religious schools, and affiliated organizations. In 2007, the three leading insurance companies that provide coverage for the majority of Protestant institutions said they received an average of 260 reports per year of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and members. By contrast, the Catholic Church was reporting 228 “credible accusations” per year.
Alongside Joyce in The New Republic (and once upon a time here at The Revealer, too) Jeff Sharlet‘s Pew Research: To understand the political power of evangelicals, we must look beyond the pulpits is absolutely crucial, as well.
To understand “the evangelicals,” even just within the context of politics, means exploring what it feels like not just to preach, but also to sit in the pews. It requires us to examine evangelical Christianity as a religion lived by people who are also concerned with race and class, art and music, fear and ambition.
And Tom Gjelten featured the work of Sharlet’s many-times collaborator Peter Manseau, the Smithsonian’s first religion curator: To Understand How Religion Shapes America, Look To Its Early Days.
“We can’t tell the story of America without telling the story of religion,” Manseau says, “and we can’t answer questions about the importance of religion today without going back to earlier generations.”
Next, have a look at two great forums over at The Immanent Frame we want to be sure you catch, the first is about Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark:
Spirit in the Dark grew out of my desire for a better historical understanding of how things—things religious and things literary—came to be the way they are. So another way to account for (rather than obscure) the play between past and present, the personal and the historical, in Spirit in the Dark is to acknowledge the kinds of theoretical questions that animate my study of religion and the arts in twentieth-century (black) America.
And the other is on Believer, religious studies and the public.
In this short forum, we have asked a handful of scholars to discuss the relationship between scholarship, public knowledge, and popular media.
Also not to be missed is Edward Simon‘s Speaking in Tongues of Fire: Glossolalia – not just for Pentecost anymore over at Killing the Buddha.
If glossolalia operates as a kind of obscured idée fixe upon the Christian consciousness, then I’ll go a step further and say that it’s at the very core of human communication itself. Again, this is a not a singular practice, but a universal one. That is to say that to build meaning out of sounds unrelated to an objective world is not just a question of semiotics, but at the very core of Being, which theology makes its provenance. A veritable golden thread of similarity connects speaking in tongues not just to that first Pentecost from the New Testament’s book of Acts, but back deep into ancient human history, and possibly to even the beginnings of language itself. Despite our own preconceptions as to whom it is that speaks in tongues, it is a shockingly common activity. For though we may individually speak English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Arabic, Latin, or Hebrew, from what charged field of comprehensible nonsense did such tongues arise? From what primordial soup of untethered sounds, phonemes like amino acids organized out of chaotic disarray, did meaning first evolve
Speaking of American religion, The Erie Canal and the birth of American religion by S. Brent Rodriguez Plate for Religion News Service is close to home in all kinds of ways.
Meanwhile, the canal engendered the religiously infused social movements of the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and temperance. Little wonder the 19th century’s most famous preacher, Charles Finney, called this area the “Burned-over District.” Even so, this term belies a deeper truth: Flowing through the ashes were currents of American faith that continue to influence us today.
And now, down at the end of that fabled canal, a trio of New York City Stories:
For customers, the pie is as much about history as it is about flavor. In the 1930s, the Nation of Islam founder, Elijah Muhammad, urged his followers to eat this particular bean. “Allah says that the little navy bean will make you live,” he wrote, “just eat them.” The navy bean pie became a street-corner staple, sold by bow-tied emissaries along with the group’s newspaper.
Fifty Years of ‘Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?” by Arun Venugopal at NPR
This month, two young rabbis, Mendel Treitel and Shalom Posner, stood near their mitzvah tank, in the form of an R.V., next to the Container Store on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, trying to determine which passersby looked Jewish enough to approach.
“You feel it inside your kishkes, as they say,” said Treitel. “You get this feeling, ‘Mmmm, I smell a Jew.'”
The Most Popular Buddhist Nun Cook — In Manhattan by Alexis Cheung in T: The New York Times Style Magazine
Kwan, who is 60, left home for the monastery at 17, and her approach to food remains rooted in her Buddhist practice: “The food is influenced by the mind of the cook,” she explained through a translator. Depending on that mind-set, the meal “can be poison or medicine.”
Speaking of how our cities eat, how about a few extremely coastal pieces on the ever-fascinating wellness industry:
The Wellness Epidemic: Why are so many privileged people feeling so sick? Luckily, there’s no shortage of cures by Amy Larocca in New York Magazine
When Toomey walks into a classroom, she starts to shout: “Get out of the fucking mirror. Get out of the Mother. Fucking. Mirror and get into your fucking. Physical. Body!” Her students beat their fists on their thighs and moan. They wiggle and quake and wail — a bunch of Maori warriors descended on a Southern Baptist revival tent, except that it’s all women, almost entirely white women, and they’re all wearing sports bras. Everyone gets really sweaty (the room is not ventilated) doing jumping jacks and burpees and sit-ups, with the occasional downward dog thrown in. What’s remarkable about all of it is Toomey, who talks in her low, gravelly voice into her headset the entire time, a chanting monologue of self-help and advice and encouragement: “Say good-bye to your stories,” she says. “Don’t blame and shame. Community. Unity. You, you, you,” she chants. She never once mentions body parts, and I find myself embarrassed for thinking, while doing kicks I remember from a Tae Bo class a hundred years ago, Oh, this one’s good for the butt. When it’s all over, Toomey starts winding her monologue down. No more shouting, no more “fucks.” The mirror is too fogged up to see anything, anyway. Toomey invites the room to clutch their chests (on hers is a crystal necklace she designed, a variety of which are on sale for $400 to $10,800 in the lobby. “It helps ground you,” she explains). “Oh, hi,” she says softly. “Oh, hi, my dear heart. There you are. It’s me. I’m sorry.”
How Amanda Chantal Bacon Perfected the Celebrity Wellness Business by Molly Young for The New York Times Magazine
When did celebrities become lifestyle gurus? What exactly is a “lifestyle”? These are questions you might ask yourself over a turmeric latte while reading about Jessica Alba’s Honest Company or browsing silver-plated toast racks on Reese Witherspoon’s website. The model for all of these women is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow, an icon of consumerist feminism who embodies what has come to be the holy trinity of celebrity personas: mother, healthful-living expert, entrepreneur. To achieve moguldom, a Gwyneth in training must exemplify all three facets and turn the sum into a “brand,” which is to say an art-directed social-media-fueled dream world balancing outrageous aspiration with a teaspoon of self-conscious realness.
Inner Peace (With a Side of Abs): These hot L.A. bros are starting a wellness revolution, no beliefs required by Allie Jones at New York Magazine
The Wildfire Initiative is not a workout class, exactly; it’s a club for like-minded health enthusiasts, the latest “wellness collective” to hit the West Coast. Each Sunday, devoted followers join Ellis and his three co-founders — a quadrumvirate of enthusiastic bros — for kundalini-inspired breathing, hiking, and Instagramming. Over the last few months, the Wildfire has spread throughout Hollywood: Jesse Metcalfe is a regular participant, and Russell Simmons, who recently opened the Tantris Center for Yogic Science in West Hollywood, wants to collaborate with the guys. Today, several models, actors, and one Olympian (sprinter Leroy Dixon) have come to network with each other and get high on life.
And if you’ll indulge our coastal myopia for just a little while longer, here are a few pieces to flag as you make your way through the towering stacks of New Yorker back issues come August (surely we aren’t alone in this fantasy of Augusts well spent!):
Alex Ross wrote about The Occult Roots of Modernism
In the Paris of the early eighteen-nineties, at the height of the Decadence, the man of the moment was the novelist, art critic, and would-be guru Joséphin Péladan, who named himself Le Sâr, after the ancient Akkadian word for “king.” He went about in a flowing white cloak, an azure jacket, a lace ruff, and an Astrakhan hat, which, in conjunction with his bushy head of hair and double-pointed beard, gave him the aspect of a Middle Eastern potentate. He was in the midst of writing a twenty-one-volume cycle of novels, titled “La Décadence Latine,” which follows the fantastical adventures of various enchanters, adepts, femmes fatales, androgynes, and other enemies of the ordinary. His bibliography also includes literary tracts, explications of Wagnerian mythology, and a self-help tome called “How One Becomes a Magus.” He let it be known that he had completed the syllabus. He informed Félix Faure, the President of the Republic, that he had the gift of “seeing and hearing at the greatest distances, useful in controlling enemy councils and suppressing espionage.” He began one lecture by saying, “People of Nîmes, I have only to pronounce a certain formula for the earth to open and swallow you all.”
And Stephen Greenblatt managed to write about both Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia
We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. Though xenophobia is part of our complex inheritance—quickened, no doubt, by the same instinct that causes chimpanzees to try to destroy members of groups not their own—this inheritance is not our ineluctable fate. Even in the brief span of our recorded history, some five thousand years, we can watch societies and individuals ceaselessly playing with, reshuffling, and on occasion tossing out the cards that both nature and culture have dealt, and introducing new ones.
And How St. Augustine Invented Sex (I wonder how many issues stacked up in the meantime…)
The archaic story of the naked man and woman, the talking snake, and the magical trees was something of an embarrassment. It was Augustine who rescued it from the decorous oblivion to which it seemed to be heading. He bears principal responsibility for its prominence, including the fact that four in ten Americans today profess to believe in its literal truth. During the more than forty years that succeeded his momentous conversion—years of endless controversy and the wielding of power and feverish writing—he persuaded himself that it was no mere fable or myth. It was the key to everything.
Surely there are greater sins than languishing subscriptions? To feel better about such delinquencies, we suggest having a look through Sin Week at Atlas Obscura. Learn about the Puritan fashion police, sin eaters, sloths, and much more.
Once you’re caught up, do give a look at these remarkable pieces:
He had that kind of soul, the kind people claim for themselves, so burying him requires sorting through any number of constituencies. He was a husband and a father. He was a citizen of Louisville; he was a citizen of the world. He was a proud black man who held the truth of his own beauty self-evident; he was offered — especially in his later years when he had been made safe by silence — as the embodiment of post-racial possibility. He became a global figure not when he became heavyweight champion of the world but when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, exchanging the name of a proud young man for a name that made his people proud. He was a Muslim, devout and conservative, and he was a celebrity who tended to speak of himself in superlatives. He never stopped calling himself The Greatest and he never stopped saying God is great, and he somehow reconciled those assertions.
Getting In and Out: Who owns black pain by Zadie Smith at Harper’s Magazine
We have been warned not to get under one another’s skin, to keep our distance. But Jordan Peele’s horror-fantasy—in which we are inside one another’s skin and intimately involved in one another’s suffering—is neither a horror nor a fantasy. It is a fact of our experience. The real fantasy is that we can get out of one another’s way, make a clean cut between black and white, a final cathartic separation between us and them. For the many of us in loving, mixed families, this is the true impossibility. There are people online who seem astounded that Get Outwas written and directed by a man with a white wife and a white mother, a man who may soon have—depending on how the unpredictable phenotype lottery goes—a white-appearing child. But this is the history of race in America. Families can become black, then white, then black again within a few generations. And even when Americans are not genetically mixed, they live in a mixed society at the national level if no other. There is no getting out of our intertwined history.
Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again a conversation between Margaret Atwood and Junot Díaz at The Boston Review
Junot Díaz: When I recall the novel’s reception in the eighties, there was a lot of turmoil around that question—about whether the novel was too hard on fundamentalist Christians. And yet, now, of course, that criticism has fallen away, and it seems to me that what was most frightening about the novel is only now coming to the foreground. Publicly, it seems that there’s more space for folks to talk about the state-sanctioned rape that the novel portrays than there was in the mid-eighties.
Margaret Atwood: Oh, for sure. Well, part of the exploration is—if you want to take the Bible literally, how literally do you want to take it? Which parts are you going to be “literal” about? The Bible is an amazingly compendious book, and people have been foregrounding parts of it and backgrounding other parts forever. But if you want to take the text literally—using polygamy and using Handmaids as surrogate mothers despite anything they might have to say about it—it’s right there. Joseph and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids—amongst the four women they have twelve sons, but the wives claim the Handmaids’ babies, which is why I put that excerpt from Genesis at the front of the book, and why I called the training place for Handmaids the Rachel and Leah Center. It’s very literal.
But the real question is, if the United States were going to have a totalitarianism, what kind of totalitarianism would it be? We’ve had all kinds in the world, including atheist ones. But if the U.S. were ever going to go down that path, what would be the device under which they would do it? It certainly would not be communism.
And, on a related note, A Pence Presidency Would Give Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Vision a Run for its Money by Diane Winston at Religion Dispatches
Those who fear Christofascism are troubled by Mike Pence’s current position. That’s because Pence, who defines himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order,” is true believer. A deeply conservative evangelical—he began attending evangelical church in the mid-1990s—he’s used elective office to advance a rightwing religious agenda. Throughout his political career, Pence has ardently opposed abortion, gay rights, trade unions, and environmental legislation. He has championed deregulation as well as for tax cuts for the wealthy, and a free market that neither bails out failing companies nor assists unemployed workers.
Is Pence the last gasp of the baby boom hegemony—a misguided generation’s yearning for spiritual connection and a better world? Or is he the start of something akin to what Margaret Atwood imagined 30 years ago when The Handmaid’s Tale seemed nothing more than speculative fiction?
In Need of a Cure: Desperate Patients Seek Spiritual Cures as Country Crumbles by Meridith Kohut in National Geographic
Desperate to cure the cancer growing in her breast, Yasmary Díaz piled her three children into the back of a pickup truck and made the bone-jarring trip from her home in Guarenas to rural Zamora, up a steep and deeply rutted mountain path to a shack built of dried mud and tree branches. Here, at an altar high in the remote mountainside surrounded by mandarin trees, she sought out a shaman, a traditional healer who would call upon a powerful spirit to rid her of her disease. … Díaz, 28, is one of thousands of Venezuelans now flocking to spiritual healers because their health care system is in crisis—part of the broader economic collapse that has caused widespread medicine shortages that have crippled the public hospitals in the wake of the late president Hugo Chávez’s profligate socialist revolution.
Cleaning Toilets for Jesus by Gretchen Purser and Brian Hennigan in Jacobin
While work requirements are widely regarded as darlings of the conservative agenda, few recognize the role that faith-based organizations have played in lending these policies ideological and practical support. Geographer Jason Hackworth terms this phenomenon “religious neoliberalism,” the “ideational fusion” between free-market ideologues and religious conservatives. These two groups, Hackworth argues, are bound through a mutual “faith in the market, faith in the individual, and faith in a small (or nonexistent) government.”
Arguably nowhere is this ideological fusion more prominent than in the faith-based — or, rather, faith-saturated — job-readiness program called Jobs for Life (JFL). Founded in 1996 in Raleigh, North Carolina, JFL is a global nonprofit organization premised on the belief that the local church, given its capacity to mobilize the cant of volunteers, is the untapped and ideal “solution” to the enduring social crises of poverty and unemployment.
Also at Jacobin, The Uses and Abuses of Antisemitism: Campaigns to silence criticism of Israel don’t protect Jews — they endanger them a Conversation with Rebecca Vilkomerson, Rabbi Brant Rosen, and Jason Farbman:
The more the conversation about Israel changes, the more it stays the same — there are some fundamental questions that come up over and over again that we need to untangle in order to have a breakthrough. Antisemitism is one of those questions.
On the Spiritual Geography of Black Working-Class Washington by J.T. Roane at Black Perspectives
Within storefront churches, “cults,” and other non-institutional church spaces, Black communities reconfigured old and created new forms of mutually beneficial sociality and community through the unique prism of their distinctive cosmologies. In turn, these religious enclaves helped form a distinctive vernacular landscape. A vernacular landscape is understood as the creation of small-scale edits to matters of place that communities affect without necessarily disrupting dominant social-geographic relations. Parishioners shaped the city from below through distinctive visions of holiness that affected often-impermanent edits on their homes and communities. These novel religious institutions, along with other unsanctioned social spaces like the street and night clubs, constituted a unique Black social geography that challenged the predominant vision of orderly urban life channeled through the normative home, the patriarchal family, and the institutional church. Within alleys, in the streets, in clandestine night clubs, in storefronts, and in “cults,” Black Washingtonians created a kind of shadow Black world.
He preaches what he calls Poppyism, a pseudo-religion based on the teachings of Poppy. He co-moderated a Poppyism Facebook page and wrote up a Google Doc called the “Gospel of Poppy” (unrelated to Poppy’s self-published tome of the same name, which she started selling through her website in April for $16), which includes prayers to Poppy and stories about how different people came to be über-fans. “On the game Final Fantasy XIV, for instance, I’ve made a character up to look like Poppy, and I go around playing as Her to get people interested,” he writes over email. “What I personally get from Poppyism, from Poppy, is hard to put into words. I simply feel like I should follow Her, in a part of me as deep as my soul. It’s fulfilling to do so, to pass down and enact Her will as best I am able.” He says he’s in on the joke and gets that she’s a parody … but worships her all the same.
The Spiritual Photographs Khadija Saye Left Behind: Khadija Saye’s final photographs before her tragic death reveal misty self-portraits grounded in Gambian spirituality. by Emmanuel Iduma at Hyperallergic
Self-portraits memorialize death in a way no other artistic medium can. Looking at the once-photographed dead, we know they were alive, at least for the fraction of a moment. Saye’s youth, and her urge to connect to Gambian spirituality, is preserved in these photographs. Perhaps forever, but readily as well. The continued exhibition of her work, long after her death, will be an insistence on her promise. Her promise petered out too soon, yet its charm remains.
Lastly, something to listen to and something to follow.
Listen to: Alice Coltrane’s Ashram Recordings Finally Have a Wide Release by Mike Rubin at 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.”
And do follow Ilker Hepkaner‘s fantastic new project: After Said at 5
After Said at 5 is a digital humanities platform for discussing cultures and representations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism in 1978 was a watershed moment for scholars of the MENA and beyond, but the (mis)representations of the MENA that Said criticized have persisted. After Said at 5 features the scholarly and cultural milestones that were possible only after Said. We also question the (mis)representations that are unfortunately still out there, even after Said. Capturing this cultural landscape via image and text, After Said at 5 posts once a day, at 5pm EST.
See you again soon!
-Kali Handelman, Editor, The Revealer
You can find previous “In the News” round-ups here.