Some of the most interesting texts of 2008, selected by the contributing editors of The Revealer.
Annual “Best Book” lists should usually be read as a review of the best publicity jobs of the year — the books that make the list, as wonderful as they may be, are most often those backed up by dedicated publicists — Charles Taylor’s monumental The Age of Secularism, for instance, one of only two nonfiction titles about religion featured on The New York Times’ 2008 100 Notable Books list, is the kind of very dense, academic study that normally wouldn’t even cross the NYT’s radar. But it’s big, it’s the culmination of a career, and its publisher, Belknap/Harvard University, put all of its considerable prestige behind its promotion — in 2007, that is, when Harvard published the book. The fact that the NYT slipped the book on to its 2008 list is a clue that such lists aren’t so much a reflection of the best as of what the editors read and cared about that year.
That can lead to a certain amount of cronyism — books by NYT contributors are especially well-represented on the NYT’s list. That’s a problem when list makers are taken too seriously, as disinterested judges of the publishing universe. But cronyism can also reflect schools of thought and overlapping spheres of ideas. Looked at for what it is, the web of connections that underlie a “best of” list reveals a portrait of a publication’s concerns, commitments, and fascinations.
So it is here. I asked five contributing editors — an anthropologist, a historian, a novelist, a journalist, and two media scholars — of The Revealer to share their choices for the most interesting texts that deal with religion of 2008 — books, mostly, but since we all read across genres, I told them to feel free to roam across media. Following are their picks, and mine. They’re the result of an arbitrary process — our selection from the relatively tiny sample of the year’s new texts we saw — and a reflection of the multiple conversations that intersect at The Revealer.
Speaking in Tongues
Peter Manseau is the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture, the author of a novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, a memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son, and co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.
No one speaks of a dying language without bordering on lament. So it’s no surprise that “The Glories of Yiddish,” Harold Bloom’s review of Max Weinreich’s 1973 two-volume History of the Yiddish Language( Yale University Press) in The New York Review of Books is an elegy. What is surprising is the ground Bloom considers it necessary to cover to do justice to this particular dying language, which happens to be the language of his youth. From Kafka to Kierkegaard, from Hamlet to Hasidism, in order to talk about this langauge that informed so much of American culture even as it was consumed by it, one needs to talk about the whole world.
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A former Christian Science Monitor political reporter, Ariel Sabar, author of My Father’s Paradise, grew up with a different dying language. His father is among the last living native speakers of Aramaic, which until the middle years of the 20th century survived as the language of Kurdish Jews in Iraq. Setting off to his father’s homeland at the worst possible time, Sabar tells the story of Aramaic as well as the unique set of circumstances that brought his family to Los Angeles, where his father is now not only a scholar and preserver of the language of his raising, but occasionally shares his knowledge of Aramaic with Hollywood directors hungry to add a little language-of-Jesus mysticism to occult plot-lines. His strangest assignment? Translating “I am the walrus” into his ancient tongue for an episode of the X-Files.
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The morning after election, Beliefnet editor Patton Dodd did something that was as funny as it was smart: He waded through status updates on Facebook looking for Christian responses to Obama’s victory. Lending anonymity to his sources (admittedly odd considering Facebook exists for nearly the opposite reason), Dodd gave them all the same name. The result is an intriguing, hydra-headed portrait of a mostly religious nation that is anything but monolithic. He called it “Sally”:
Sally loves America.
Sally is sad that America is incredibly naive.
Sally just popped the champagne.
Sally is disappointed, but knows God is in control.
Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion (which is also the name of her blog) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. She’s the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army and co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture.
Call me an ass-kisser, but my money is on Jeff Sharlet’s The Family (Harper) as one of the year’s best and most important books aboutreligion and politics. Sharlet’s in-depth investigation of an elite group working at the intersection of traditional Christianity and free market capitalism suggests that the Religious Right is just a sideshow. Few writers can pull off
investigative journalism, historical research and elegant story-telling. Sharlet does all this with a story that a lot of people don’t want to hear and others won’t believe.
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Here’s a sleep-inducing title: Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (University of North Carolina). But don’t let it dissuade you from reading Anthea Butler’s new book. Butler writes about lower-class, African-American Pentecostal women, a sadly understudied group. Focusing on the experience of sanctification, and the concomitant Continue Reading →