Spring/Summer 2019 (Vol. 47, Nos. 1&2)

Spring Summer 2019 issue cover


Flipping the Script by Wendy McDowell


The Interreligious Resilience of Varanasi by Kalpana Jain
Telling and passing down narratives of interreligious amity in cities like Varanasi can demonstrate the countervailing power of peace.

Wakanda and Black Queer Moral Imaginaries by Thelathia Nikki Young
Black Panther serves as a moral imaginary pointing to freedom, fugitivity, and black queer ethical action.

Reclaiming Egalitarian Jewish Wedding Customs by Jessica Rosenberg
Reclaiming medieval Jewish wedding processional customs to open up a liminal space for a woman to be seen in between her attachments to men.

Answering the Humble Knock by John Gifford
A grandmother’s confident compassion for drifters models how to nourish others.


The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust by Robert A. Orsi
Disgust directs us toward the painful truth of religion in human life beyond the bourgeois pieties of “religion” as it is defined and policed in the modern era.

A View From the Minaret by Linda Dittmar
A day trip to Caesarea spurs memories of a childhood visit and reflections on how a disastrous past can go unseen even when it is in full view.

The Urgency of Now by Celene Ibrahim, Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, Matthew Blair Holt, Lauren Seganos Cohen, and Nora Zaki
Excerpts from the introduction and four essays in One Nation, Indivisible exemplify that “in order to build together, govern together, live together, we must make the effort to know one another.”

Turning Ghosts into Ancestors in Contemporary Urban China by Anna Sun
Understanding contemporary religious life in China requires a religious imagination freed from the preconceptions of monotheism.

In Review

C. E. Morgan Takes the Reins by Ingrid Norton
The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan, is an ambitious interracial saga obsessed with the power of stories.

Fully Fleshed Out: Religion, Womanhood, and Blackness in Contemporary Media by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant
Positive, complex representations of black women’s religious experience in Queen Sugar and Being Serena.

A Christian Pilgrim along the Buddhist Way by Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
S. Mark Heim’s Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva.

How Khmer Buddhists Reconstructed Identity and Community in the U.S. by Chipamong Chowdhury
Carol A. Mortland’s Cambodian Buddhism in the United States.

Syllabus: Faith in the Fire—Religious Public Intellectuals
A selected reading list from Cornel West and Jonathan L. Walton’s course.


Tulip Fever by Adrie Kusserow

Two Poems by Nathan Spoon


See also: Current Issue

A Christian Pilgrim Along the Buddhist Way

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

In Review | Books Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflection on Christ and the Bodhisattva, by S. Mark Heim. Fordham University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $32.


Painting of Jesus on the cross, meditating Buddha, and flower blossoms
Christ and Buddha by Paul Ranson, 1880.

The ordained American Baptist minister S. Mark Heim is a respected Christian theologian and author of important works in a range of theological disciplines. He has contributed long and well to the theology of religions, particularly with his trilogy, Is Christ the Only Way?: Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (Judson, 1985), Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, 1995), and The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Eerdmans, 2001). For decades, Heim has been one of the foremost Protestant voices in conversations about the meaning of the world’s many religions. He has more recently begun to write more directly in the field of comparative theology, a discipline which, neither theology of religions nor comparative religion, writes a form of faith seeking understanding that travels back and forth across religious borders. See, for instance, his recent “Comparative Theology at Twenty-Five: The End of the Beginning” (Modern Theology 35, no. 1 [2018]), a review that kindly begins with my own Theology after Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology (State University of New York Press, 1993). Now he has added his own Crucified Wisdom to this still growing genre of interreligious study that is both theological and comparative.

Interested in the Buddhist-Christian interface as the site for this comparative theology, Heim takes up for study the Bodhicaryāvatāra (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), an eighth-century Mahayana Buddhist text by the monk Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra is famed for its clarity and subtlety in setting forth the path of the bodhisattva, the sage who reaches enlightenment and yet then seeks enlightenment for all beings. Heim is diligent in reading around the text. Not a Buddhist scholar by training, he succeeds in showing how a theologian without such training can, with a judicious use of sources accompanied by good advice from experts, find his or her way very well interreligiously. He places his work in the context of the growing field of Buddhist-Christian studies: John Keenan’s Gospel of Mark: A Mahāyāna Reading (Maryknoll, 1995) and The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahāyāna Buddhism (Newman, 2005), and his and Linda Keenan’s I Am / No Self: A Christian Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Peeters, 2011); Leo Lefebure and Peter Feldmeier’s Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada (Peeters, 2011); Joseph O’Leary’s Buddhist Nonduality, Paschal Paradox: A Christian Commentary on The Teaching of Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa) (Peeters, 2018). Too late for appropriation in Heim’s book is yet another much anticipated book, Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s Buddha Mind—Christ Mind: A Christian Commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Peeters, forthcoming). All of this is kindred scholarship, since every sector of comparative theology has its own defining features, as different traditions learn differently from their near and far religious others. The Buddhist-Christian engagement has its own character and possibilities, and indeed its own lineage, reaching at least as far back as the work of early Jesuit missionary scholars in Japan and China, India and Tibet.

[Heim] aims at a deeper understanding of Christian faith, now imbued with enormous respect for and gratitude to Buddhism, which has become a kind of home away from home for him.

Such books usually take the form of commentaries on Buddhist texts; Heim’s work is distinguished by his choice to write a work of constructive Christian comparative theology. He knows, too, that his style of comparison is but one among several. He lists a number of several well-established forms of comparative theology: intensification (“a deepening of the existing meaning in one text by juxtaposition with another,” particularly when parallel trajectories have been detected); rediscovery (“in which study of another faith throws new light on undervalued strands in one’s own”); reinterpretation (“where key theological elements are reformulated in light of categories and insights from other religious sources,” as when Christian doctrines are re-read in accord with Buddhist rather than Hellenic categories); adoption or appropriation (“the direct borrowing of elements from one religious context for another”); and reaffirmation (“a clarification by difference, in which elements in one’s tradition that have been highlighted by contrast are grasped with renewed conviction”) (3). These approaches may of course overlap and are best taken together in profiling the overall direction of the maturing field of comparative theology as a branch of Christian theology (for it is still largely Christian, though it need not be). While Heim has learned from them all, he stakes out a different approach, “somewhat less flavored by direct interest in Buddhist-Christian relations than by the interest in integrating sources and perspectives from another religion into the normal practice of ‘faith seeking understanding’ . . . unapologetically intellectual” (4–5). He is attentive to Christian and Buddhist thinking as great traditions of learning that rely on words used thoughtfully and with precision and confidence, but without idolizing them or allowing them to float free of reflection on texts and practices and their meanings. By careful study, he aims at a deeper understanding of Christian faith, now imbued with enormous respect for and gratitude to Buddhism, which has become a kind of home away from home for him. Subtle theological clarification is at work through the whole of the book, and so we must read patiently and slowly to hear and learn from what Heim is telling us in his own deliberate manner. I return to this as a matter of practice, too, near the end of this review.

Heim devotes chapters two (“The Bodhi-sattva Path”) and three (“Extreme Wisdom, Groundless Compassion”) to a theologically sensitive summation of the progress in the Bodhicaryāvatāra’s exposition of doctrine and practice. Chapters four (“The Bodhi-sattva as Aspirant: Creatures and No-Self”) and five (“The Bodhisattva as Buddha: Immanence and Emptiness”) then walk us through a series of small insights and distinctions that show us where the traditions meet and where they differ. This solid theological learning does not aim at large breakthroughs in the theology of religions, or in promoting a pluralist view of religions. Such are not Heim’s concerns. One has the feeling that in his own careful and moderate fashion—and thus by a kind of comparative theology most likely to endure—he is most interested in innumerable small insights that add up slowly and cumulatively to a new understanding of who Christ is and what Christ means. Christian theologians who take the time to study carefully a text such as the Bodhicaryāvatāra can learn from Buddhism, and receive many gifts, even if they cannot embrace all of Buddhism (261). It is necessary to choose wisely, so that what is borrowed is not merely added to the Christian tradition but rather brings new clarity, making the Christian religion more clear even to its adherents (262).

In chapter six, “How Do Buddhas Help?: Bodhisattva as Benefactor and Christ as Savior,” Heim identifies key ways that bodhi-sattvas help the human community: the cultivation of virtues that accumulate merit, and by that merit aid the human community; the virtuous act of taking seriously (for a time) the notion that beings who are in trouble ought to be helped by other beings, exemplifying the way of beneficent action in conditioned spaces; and showing, with respect to bodies assumed, the best pathways that can be traversed to Buddhahood. According to Heim, none of these beneficent functions is identical with the salvific work of Christ; but after learning from the Bodhicaryāvatāra, we can see Christ’s salvific role more clearly, how he leads his disciples to that emptying of self that facilitates love of neighbor. Here, Heim takes advantage of the deep learning of his Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2006). He reflects on the suffering of Christ, valued as atonement, alongside the various kinds of suffering a bodhi-sattva might experience. By this time in the volume (and no doubt before it, too), attentive readers will surely not be expecting easy similarities, stark differences, or even diplo-matic complementarities (that encourage hyphenated Buddhist-Christian identities). The point comes later in the same chapter when Heim spells out the implications for our thinking about Christ, in whom “God’s love calls forth different types of creatures and, to an increasing extent in the sentient realm, calls forth individual characters and vocations” (238). Christ’s “Resurrection ensures that the subjects whose emergence is constitutive of salvation will be around to take part in it” (247).

Heim asks the pointed question why Christ suffers and bodhisattvas don’t, and, to answer it he leads his readers through a profound reflection on the meaning and value of suffering, inevitably facing up to the Christian (and not Buddhist) problem of theodicy. Bodhisattvas do not suffer, given their view of where reality and unreality happen in the human condition. Christ does not sin, because he relates to sinners in ways entirely helpful. Though divine, he becomes available to the human through incarnation and through participation in the historical and material world, in ways such as can be “replicated through the communion that perfects indwelling among persons and creatures.” But he does suffer: “a suffering Christ is intelligible . . . as part of the helping. Only the suffering God can save” (258). Heim concludes with observations that are again simple, moderate, and deep: one can become a bodhisattva, but one cannot become Christ; yet there are

specific and usually unrecognized ways in which we can be fully what Christ is. We can be what Christ is in identity with the creaturely no-self, for this is a dimension that is the same in all. We can be what Christ is in identity with the divine immanence awareness, for this is also a dimension the same in all. In these ways, Christ is what the Buddha is. (269)

In that way, too, the Christian can become Buddha-like. Such insights are quite significant and promise not only to extend and deepen the field of Buddhist-Christian comparative theology, but also to shake up Christology and other Christian disciplines. They disturb, but quietly; they do not jump off the page as testimonies about “what I’ve learned from Buddhism.” Rather, Heim’s insights require a slow reading of the entire book, composed with the modesty and understatement of a scholar who knows both traditions very well. In the end, readers will be more than satisfied with the enormous benefaction that is this book, as wise Christian learning from Buddhism and as an outstanding model for comparative theology, a field coming increasingly into its own.

An interesting key to this fascinating book lies in its title, Crucified Wisdom. Heim does not explain this in the book itself, but was recently kind enough to give me some insights, which I quote here with his permission. To refer to “crucified wisdom” is, Heim says,

Christian language for what I describe in the book as the bodhisattva miracle. In Buddhist terms that miracle is the participation of enlightened wisdom in the conditioned ignorance of suffering beings. For Christians, God deigns to share our suffering nature. For Buddhists, bodhisattvas compassionately “compromise” their nirvanic bliss by manifestation in the world of samsara. It is a “Christ-likeness” that is willing to appear in an uncomely or lower status. So “crucified wisdom” is a kind of Christian appreciation of this Buddhist attainment. Second, in a reverse perspective, it represents how Christ appears in Buddhist perspective. If wisdom (and of course the compassion implied by it) is at the heart of Buddhism, then “crucified wisdom” seems a kind of shorthand for the way in which the crucifixion and Christian teaching on the cross come up short, even to gentle and generous Buddhist interpreters. In the event of the cross, the authentic wisdom that can be found in Jesus is “crucified,” or agitated or disrupted, in the suffering of this violent event. So “crucified wisdom” is wisdom messed up. It represents taking seriously the truth of that perspective, the non-bodhisattva aspects of Christ.

Last, Heim notes, it expresses his own theological process: “I want to accept and learn from this deep Buddhist wisdom. Yet as it comes within a full expression of Christian faith, it has to be integrated with the cross. Which is what I am finally trying to do in a constructive sense. The Buddhist wisdom that lives on in Christian appropriation becomes ‘crucified.’ ”

Heim is both daring and diffident, virtues that might be thought an unusual combination that only scholars of a certain kind can manage. That Heim manages this balance very well is a clue of sorts to the kind of author he is. We can then ask a more direct question: what kind of personal practice does one have to take up in order to write a book like this? This question has been a live one for me over the years, as I have looked into the mirror of my own writing, which engages Hindu texts and practices from a Roman Catholic viewpoint. I find that I have increasingly embraced a version of the first kind of comparative theology noted above, “intensification.” But I see this as not only deepening “the existing meaning in one text by juxtaposition with another,” as Heim puts it, but also as an intensification—deconstructing, confounding, reconfiguring, redeeming—of the reader’s own identity, in her or his own home tradition as (institutionally or informally) conceived, and then as expanded across two traditions.

Two of my own recent works were a study of religious poetry in His Hiding Place Is Darkness: Toward a Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford University Press, 2013) and a plea for the humble work of slow reading of catechesis, doctrine, and an invitation to participation, in Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming). The first gestures toward depth, the second toward the slowing of time. In the two—read together, as I hope they will be—I have sought to show that the appropriation of disparate knowledges that one has come to love leaves one in the kind of unsettledness that precedes great opportunity, at the edge of several traditions, in danger of falling between them. I cultivate a certain low-key desperation, a bereftness that arrives because of and not despite expertise and disciplined study and extreme care for words.

But perhaps all of this has to do with the encounter of my Irish Catholicism and South Asian Hinduism, in a chemistry rather different from what is at work in Heim’s writing as it arises from his study. I want then to ask what it may have cost Heim personally to produce a masterwork that is, as he puts it, “so unapologetically intellectual” and everywhere so rich in spiritual insights. Here we must limit ourselves to clues in the book about his spiritual practice while writing. Certainly, he continued to live out his Christian faith in seminary settings, at Andover Newton Theological School and now within Yale Divinity School, and in Sunday worship. Yet too, in the preface he admits to sustained Buddhist practice. He refers to his vipassana practice, and more importantly to his guided practice in the Nyingma and Kargyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, including the visualization of deities as benefactor figures: seeing how the Buddha and the Christ are (differently) beneficent toward all those who will come to them. He thanks Buddhist and Christian friends with whom he shared such practice, as well as teachers like his friend and colleague Lama John Makransky of Boston College.

In the middle of chapter five, Heim reflects on a Christian manner of no-self prayer, where occasional conversations with God give way to individual and then communal surrender to the Spirit. This fosters an intimate silence that, noticed after meditation, can be recognized even as “a participation in the nonpersonal mind of God,” the relinquishing of “our limited, local perspective in favor of the indwelling of the divine energies whose quality is the same in all things” (196). This in turn can be for the Christian a retrieval of an “original unity with God and an original selflessness (‘original’ in the sense of prior to self-consciousness or action)” (198). Still later, Heim dedicates some lovely pages to “deity and benefactor meditation,” in which the meditator “is invited to picture actual persons who have acted as benefactors in her life experience,” “tuning one’s focus entirely to the well-wishing and encouragement experienced from such a person” (220). This is a cultivation of both the language of love and the language of bodhicitta (the awakening mind). He says that this meditation may be for the Christian something like learning to write with one’s nondominant hand—near, but strange; it challenges the Christian to let go of ordinary transactional language with God, so as to recognize that “God also acts in a dimension of nondiscriminating presence and bare awareness” (222). This seems to be a way to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” like the God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Heim too looks outward, since this meditative disposition, realized in the life of the Christian who has been deeply but quietly immersed in Buddhist practice, is “a bridge for sharing Jesus (as in simultaneously relating with Jesus alongside others, not only transmitting the Jesus story to them) with those large number of people—Hindus, Muslims (particularly Sufis), and Buddhists—who in fact take him as an object of respect and devotion” (226). One’s circle of love is no longer defined only by sin, redemption, and salvation. It becomes a practical cultivation of the words Heim quotes from the First Letter of John: “If we love one another, then God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (231).

Depth in Buddhist practice suffuses the book with insight and wisdom that turn out to be at one with a deeper form of Christian contemplative prayer.

Depth in Buddhist practice suffuses the book with insight and wisdom that turn out to be at one with a deeper form of Christian contemplative prayer. Crucified Wisdom is alive spiritually and as the fruits of practice. But an impatient reader, thirsting for the practical, might miss this dimension of the book, for here too Heim is modest and prone to understatement, not letting an authorial ego interfere with a more serene arising of Christian insight through meditations on the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Nor does he marginalize the ego by donning the guise of academic neutrality. For such an author and such a book, a certain kind of attentive and alert reader is needed.

If we wonder where comparative theological study may lead us in a world that is spiritually and intellectually alive yet still prone to misunderstandings and banality, we can be grateful to happen upon the path forward here: “unapologetically intellectual,” as Heim says, but also gratefully constructive of what for Heim is simply a Christian pilgrimage along the Buddhist way.


Francis X. Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology. He specializes in Indological scholarship and is a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology. His numerous publications include The Future of Hindu-Christian Studies: A Theological Inquiry (Routledge, 2017), Learning Interreligiously: In the Text, in the World (Fortress, 2018), and Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming 2019).

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A View From the Minaret

Reflecting on power, dominion, and willed blindness in Caesarea.

Linda Dittmar

Aerial view of the ruins at Caesaria

Photo by Robert Harding / Robert Harding Picture Library.


It was well into the summer of 2007, a time when Israel’s coastal plain is especially hot and steamy, that I suggested to Deborah that we visit Caesarea. “We might as well get out of Tel Aviv to see something new,” I said, noticing her lips purse in reluctance. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell she was thinking, Do we really have to leave this nice air-conditioned flat for the dubious pleasure of trudging past ancient, smashed columns and cracked stones baking in the hot sun?

“Yes, we really should,” I cajoled, knowing that archaeology interests Deborah. “Caesarea is one of Israel’s most outstanding archaeological sites,” I said, “perhaps the most. It’s equal to Masada, and not that far. You’ll see,” I continued, reading from the Internet. “It’s a ‘magnificent site . . . wave-lashed location . . . ancient Herodian port city . . . restored to create one of Israel’s most attractive and fascinating archaeological sites . . . amazing ancient harbor ruins, beautiful beaches. . . .’ ”

“You really can’t return to the United States without seeing Caesarea. This place was subjected to a succession of conquests,” I continued, summarizing the thumbnail history I found on the Internet: Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and several Moslem empires and caliphates, including centuries of Ottoman rule. “King Herod built his royal palace there, with a ten-thousand-seat Roman hippodrome and a huge amphitheater nearby, and then came Byzantine churches, a moated crusader fort, and more. There is also an ancient Roman aqueduct nearby, a museum, lovely beaches, and performances at the restored Roman amphitheater and hippodrome.”

“With so much to see,” I said, “you can’t say ‘no.’ It’s ‘Israeli tourism at its best,’ as the official write-up promises, the tour all tourists should take—anybody who wants to see more than just Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

In truth, despite the enervating weather, we were primed for this excursion. After several days at home, when we would venture out only once the sea breezes rose in the late afternoon, we were restless. We needed to get out into the world, but we also craved an outing that would get us away from the project that brought Deborah to Israel in the first place.

Deborah Bright, an American photographer, whose previous work included a large-format series of battlefield panoramas, was in Israel to search out and record what little remains of depopulated Palestinian villages demolished during the war of 1948. This was a joint project for us, stretching on and off between 2005 and 2008 and limited only to Israel within its pre-1967 “Green Line” border. I, an Israeli-American, was the local partner in this work, the one who speaks the language, knows the history, and understands the topography. Deborah, not Jewish, an outsider new to Israel, needed my help, though she was the one to select what to photograph, work the carefully calibrated lenses and dials, and eventually print and show these images.

Ours, then, was an unusual kind of tourism, if you can call it that at all. There was no designated parking for our convenience, no ticket booths, brochures, marked paths, signage, or park rangers. We immediately discovered that there was no historic or emotional distance for us, either, as we came across the leavings of deliberate destruction: the remnant of a wall disintegrating among a jumble of untended prickly pears, an abandoned well half-blocked with rocks, or desiccated fruit trees barely clinging to the crumbling remains of what used to be some farmer’s hillside terrace. And it was harder yet to discover such relics over and over again. These are not “antiquities” left by long-gone Romans or Crusaders. They testify to a life lived here within memory, people I may have seen as a child growing up in Israel, people whose descendants may still be living in a refugee camp—second, third, and even fourth generations may still be there. Locating and recording what Deborah and I could of this devastating exodus was for each of us an act of witnessing, a path to “Truth and Reconciliation.”

An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and somewhere between 400 and 450 villages were demolished during the war that saw the birth of Israel, in 1948. Caesarea was among them. For us Israelis, it’s the “War of Independence”; for the Palestinians it’s the “Nakba,” the catastrophe that saw the birth of the Palestinian refugee disaster.

Still, on this hot day, after weeks of searching for the scant remains of villages wiped off the map, we allowed ourselves a vacation—an expedition that would not be steeped in dismay. I was glad to see Deborah nod “yes,” however reluctantly. “This time we’ll just be ordinary tourists,” we told ourselves as we set out without the usual guidebooks and maps and heavy tripod and camera bag, without even the lunch cooler that we usually crowded into the back of our small and by now very dusty rental car. At least access to this “must-see destination” is easy, I thought. The Ministry of Tourism saw to it that the road to Caesarea is well marked and the parking lot’s phalanx of large tourist buses confirmed that we had arrived at the right place.

Tourists exploring the ruins at Caesaria

Photo by Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo.


Visitors were streaming toward the ticket booth by the time we parked our car and let ourselves be channeled alongside them, guided by a spacious, newly paved walkway lined with colorful banners, gift shops, and galleries nestled under vaulted ceilings. Tastefully selected wares beckoned from behind glass: antiqued glassware, exotic jewelry, ceramics, and textile art for local visitors, menorahs and mezuzahs for American and European Jews.

I find it hard to ignore such tempting goods, even when I know I need nothing: no potpourri container, mezuzah, or embroidered wall hanging, no hand-shaped hamsah talisman. And yet, like many others, I scanned these shops as I walked, every so often slowing down for a better look, not noticing what was ahead.

When I finally did look up, I froze: “Oh my,” I said, clutching Deborah’s arm. “Look!”


“Straight ahead! There!”

“So what?”

“Right here, in front of us!”

“Yes, I hear you, but so what?”

Puzzled, she scanned the row of sandstone buildings ahead, where additional gift shops and restaurants could be seen huddled on a low rise, above an umbrella-dotted sandy ribbon that edged a sparkling bay. The air trembled with heat mirages. In the distance, faintly, one could already hear the voices of children at play.

“So what?” she repeated, disengaging her arm from my insistent grip, puzzled by my urgency. After all, everything looked so ordinary, so predictably amiable.

“See that minaret?” I asked, pointing. “Right here, in front of us?”

I was rooted in place, oblivious to the tourists passing us. Deborah stopped too. The minaret, brightly lit by the morning sun, rose in front of us, towering above the stone buildings clustered below. A certain look came into Deborah’s gray eyes, intent, a gaze that told me she was beginning to see the scene differently. Like me, she was registering the incongruity of this minaret and adjacent mosque, severed from their religious use, planted there like a piece of public art.

In our eyes, the minaret loomed as a spectral witness to the Palestinian village that used to be here before the Nakba.

There was no denying its challenge, at least not for Deborah and me who had been researching the war of 1948. In our eyes, the minaret loomed as a spectral witness to the Palestinian village that used to be here before the Nakba. For me it was also a shocking reminder, quite unexpected, that shortly after that war I had seen this very village and its mosque emptied of people and lying in ruins.

Perhaps it was the sensation of the humid air depositing a thin film of salt on my arms that brought back a rush of memories. Certainly it was the minaret. The vaulted gift shops, I now realized, had been a row of derelict village buildings when I last saw them, back in 1950. The minaret had been this village’s pumping heart, the tower for the muezzin who would climb it five times a day to call the believers to prayer. Now it stood purposeless, ignored by the tourists who were mainly intent on getting to the archaeological site.

The entry to the minaret, I now noticed, had since been sealed with concrete, as was the low doorway that opened on to the balcony at the top. “Then,” I told Deborah, “when I was still a kid, shortly after the war, both the entry and the balcony were open. I climbed this minaret more than once,” I said, my voice trailing off as bits of memory returned to me.

One memory won’t let go: a small black-and-white snapshot, now long gone, taken a year or two after the war. It captured a gangly me, in shorts and a white tank top, waving from that balcony, up there at the top.

“There was this photo my dad took . . .” I told Deborah.

I see him now, yet again, and I miss him achingly, beyond words. There he is, his hair ruffled by the breeze, standing in his dark bathing trunks way below me, near the mosque, still young. My little sister, looking spindly, is standing nearby as he aims the camera up toward me yet again.

It was just an ordinary beach day, with a father amused by the feat his daughter had just accomplished. “Look at me, Dad,” I may have called out, waving.

Though none of us made much of it at the time, it was unsafe to climb this minaret back then, when my parents took us to that beach where the abandoned village houses still gaped, empty and forbidding. Like many Ottoman village minarets in Palestine, this one is chunky as it rises above the one-story mosque it touches at one end. An interior spiral staircase, windowless and narrow, opens up under a small cupola on to the narrow balcony that encircles it, where the muezzin chanted his call to prayer, reminding the believers of Allah’s greatness and merciful presence.

The spiral staircase was already crumbling when I ventured in, shortly after the war, and the opening to the muezzin’s balcony was so low that even as a 12-year-old I still had to duck as I stepped over the threshold. I would grope my way up a stone shaft in total darkness, each foot searching for the wider part of the next triangular step that clung to the central core, my palm tracing the dank inner curve of the encircling outer wall, seeking reassurance while fragments of stone crumbled under foot.

While this climb was creepy, stepping out on to the narrow muezzin’s balcony took even more courage because it had no guardrail. It was scary every time I braved those steps, but it was also exhilarating. With the sea glistening behind and salty breezes beguiling the scorching sun rays, I’d be enthralled by the vistas spread out far below. Clustered nearby was the abandoned village, looking peaceful as it lay empty at the rim of the bay, with its sandy dunes edging the sea as far as I could see to the north and to the south. Further inland was a wide ribbon of green farmland sliced by a coastal road that shimmered in the bright sunlight, and finally, demarcating the eastern horizon were the dun, carob, and oak-dotted edges of the Carmel mountain range, vaguely chunky against hazy summer skies.

I wonder whether this sweeping, bird’s-eye view might not also include, hidden in its folds, a sense of dominion—the raw power bestowed by heights—practiced in a child’s game of “King of the Mountain.”

When I look back at that young me, feeling triumphant as she steps on to the muezzin’s balcony, I wonder about her elation. Yes, I loved measuring my young body for the task and loved the burst of light that dispelled the darkness. But now that I have paused many times since to gaze at panoramas, I wonder whether this sweeping, bird’s-eye view might not also include, hidden in its folds, a sense of dominion—the raw power bestowed by heights—practiced in a child’s game of “King of the Mountain.”

What is there, in those vistas that spread below us, beyond beauty, awe, and geographic knowledge? Doesn’t their allure lie, at least in part, in a sense of possession similar to the way S. Yizhar’s Israeli soldiers survey the Arab village they are about to capture in his extraordinary novella, Khirbet Khizeh? Yizhar’s village, surveyed by these young men from above, seems miniscule, its people doll-like, its fields a distant patchwork carpet. In the gaze of the soldiers as they survey the village resting on the still-populated Palestinian village of 1948, there is admiration for the cultivated valley and its fertile availability. But there is also, in this gaze from above, a coveting, a drive to possess, and also, already, an inkling of incipient ownership. The land that stretches before us is available to be known, husbanded, and mastered.

I can’t imagine that any of this was on my mind as I felt my way up the steps of that dilapidated minaret at the cusp of adolescence. In 1950, the people I knew did not comment on abandoned villages, and still rarely do. Many years will have trickled by before I’d clutch Deborah’s elbow when faced with this phantom from my own distant past, still standing, irrevocably present.

Looking at that minaret, I could once again see my parents and sister settling into a day at the beach: a ground cloth spread out, picnic basket at hand, the smell of sunblock, a beach ball already being tossed. Now, welcoming Deborah and me, were the same lazy waves lapping the sands, the same salt-laden humidity frizzing my hair, and the same harsh sun burning its way into my skin. All of it the same and yet so different now, as the churning of tourists around us reminded me.

I wonder what became of that photo my father took. I’d have liked to show it to Deborah, and I wanted to see it myself yet again. But what would that old snapshot have accomplished? Would it be anything more than a shadowy effigy of an elusive truth? Would a small black-and-white snapshot taken at a distance convince you, my readers, that I’m telling the truth? Isn’t the standing minaret proof enough, finally, visible as it is to anyone who cares to notice it and wonder what it is doing here, so incongruously, amid the hubbub of tourism?

I need no such proof. I remember vividly, in my body, climbing that minaret. What I am less sure about and urgently want to recall is what that half-inch of a child, tiny at such a great distance, might have understood of those outings to a fishing village so recently vacated by its people. I invoke that image so that I might scrutinize that child that was and still is me, snapped by her father in an ordinary moment of parental bemusement. Scrutinize her? Yes, but also accept her into my being, because even at age 12 she already knew, or at least sensed, something of the place where she was standing.

None of us knew at the time that the people who were expelled from Arab Qaysaria (as it was called until 1948) were actually Bosnians who settled in Palestine in 1884 during one of the Ottomans’ many “transfers of population.” For us, Israeli Jews, they were just generic “Arabs”—see-through transparencies whose contours vanish when a new image gets superimposed on the old. Printed, I imagine these images already faded, already archival, a thing of the past. There may be some bitter irony in the fact that they were displaced Bosnians, not “real Arabs,” but does it, finally, make any difference?

It was not proof of the Nakba that rattled me that day in Caesarea as Deborah and I stood staring at the minaret. By then we needed no proof. We had already seen the lingering detritus of the Nakba scattered around the country, gradually swallowed by forests, sinking into the ground, and assimilated into new construction. We had studied the history and perused maps. What struck me most that summer morning was the indifference of passers-by to this relic of a disastrous past—a past that is unseen even when it is in full view. Shouldn’t at least some of them pause to wonder what a mosque is doing there, on the way to Herod’s palace?

Close-up of the minaret at Caesaria

Photo by Karol Kozlowski / Alamy Stock Photo.


Neither my father taking that photograph nor the girl that was me waving toward him from above can claim that we never noticed the minaret or the derelict buildings nearby. But what did such noticing mean? For us, like many other Israeli Jews, it was a willed blindness, a blurry image faintly outlined at the edge of our retina. The word “Nakba” has only come into Hebrew use lately, and still barely. The “Nakba Law” equates its public mourning with a rejection of Israel’s very existence and proscribes the observation of “Nakba Day.” Passers-by barely register the minarets that still stand in Israel in full view: in the park near Jaffa’s old port, for example, at the center of a busy roundabout in Safed, or at the landscaped water-front promenade of Tiberius, by the sea of Galilee. Mosques are more easily disguised—as an art gallery in Safed, for example, or as a restaurant in Ein Hod. Minarets are harder to assimilate. The challenge for passers-by is whether to see them for what they are or, for that matter, whether to notice them at all.

If anything, Caesarea’s mosque and minaret—assuming they are allowed to remain—are likely to become even less noticeable, since ambitious new excavations are now underway, supported and financed by Baroness Ariane de Rothschild. According to a Ha’aretz article (August 16, 2018), the goal is to turn Caesarea into a major “tourism experience” as “the capital of the ancient world,” on the scale of Pompeii, Venice, and Athens. The ancient port I only saw submerged is now being excavated and the ancient city walls are being restored, with a new promenade already in place near them.

It is strange to think that the derelict shamble of a village I saw shortly after the war has become a place reclaimed by the glitterati. Other than gingerly climbing the minaret, I mainly remember peering into the fire-blackened, cavernous, storage spaces—today’s boutiques—piled high with unidentifiable, slimy trash from which wafted strange smells of decay. When a turnaround in Caesarea’s fortunes occurred in the early 1950s, it was a great surprise to all of us: two imposing statues of toga-clad Roman dignitaries were discovered buried in the dunes. Suddenly the name “Caesarea” acquired a new weight. Headless and nameless, the statues were welcomed with great fanfare, linking our beleaguered fledgling country (as it seemed to us in those early years) to the grandeur that was Rome.

Renewed excavations unearthed Caesarea’s Crusader fortifications, its Roman aqueduct, King Herod’s seafront palace, and the amphitheater and hippodrome.

At a time when much of our archaeology was preoccupied with biblical discoveries that aimed to prove our ancient Jewish presence on the land (and hence our “right” to reclaim it now), a wider, cosmopolitan horizon suddenly beckoned. Renewed excavations unearthed Caesarea’s Crusader fortifications, its Roman aqueduct, King Herod’s seafront palace, and the amphitheater and hippodrome. King Herod, whom we as children were taught to dismiss as a troubled puppet of Rome, an Edomite half-Jew and a “bad man,” now seemed one of us after all.

It is especially the Herodian findings that are now billed prominently in Caesarea’s tourist literature. His sprawling beachfront summer palace in particular now stands as a fitting counterpart to his famed cliff-top winter palace in Massada. Edged by the Mediterranean, Caesarea was home to a pleasure palace, while Massada—austere, inviolable—has become a symbol of Jewish heroism, as it withstood Rome’s siege for three years and chose mass suicide over defeat. Caesarea still retains some of that lightheartedness. Its hippodrome now houses equestrian acts in period costume, its cafés and restaurants are full, its boutiques booming, and, as sunset approaches, crowds stream to the huge amphitheater to attend musical events of international standing.

I happened to attend two such events in the early 1970s: one by New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band and another by Mikis Theodorakis, a Greek composer and activist then in political exile. Thousands of mostly young people crowded the amphitheater’s stone benches, holding our breath as Preservation Hall’s aged black musicians walked onto the stage, the tiny lead singer leaning on a walker. The sound, once it came, swept us away. This happened in the Theodorakis concert, too, where a large band and a powerful lead singer inspired the audience with rousing political songs that spoke of freedom.

In both concerts, awash in euphoria, I felt at one with this audience of strangers. We had arrived at sunset, early enough to see the sky reddening behind the amphitheater’s ancient open-air stage, its pinks and mauves gradually turning velvety black behind centuries-old, spot-lit columns. As the starlit darkness closed in on us, we were all transported by the music, drawn closer to one another and to the history that was alive in this place some two millennia earlier.

It was only years later that I came to reconsider this euphoric feeling. It has something to do with the rhetoric of the occasion, I realized, and with nostalgia too. We were all under the spell of Caesarea’s ancient grandeur and endurance and we were all, or at least many of us, drawn also to the communal aspirations to which this music spoke. For all their frailty, Preservation Hall’s musicians traveled thousands of miles and played magnificently, drawing us into the vitality of the black experience in America, and Theodorakis’s music did likewise, with its powerful and uncompromising rejection of tyranny, as the program notes emphasized.

We—mostly an audience of native-born sabra Israelis, mostly of European descent and middle class—were swept away by the alchemy of identification with the indomitable spirit that came through this music. Many of us grew up on songs of freedom and justice—Soviet, Yiddish, American, Spanish, and more. We admired the American civil rights movement and knew that Theodorakis, a former communist and heir to the anti-fascist partisan spirit of World War II, had been a political prisoner and was now, even as he played in Caesarea, in political exile. His music spoke to our own history—to the fighters of the ghettos, our underground’s fight against the British, and the socialism that inspired our early pioneers.

And yet, for me at least, something changed. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point my memory of the inspiration that suffused those evenings gave way to another realization: beneath our shared elation at ideals of freedom and justice lurked the absence of the Palestinians to whose situation, by 1971, when I sat in that amphitheater, that music spoke most urgently. The Nakba was within living memory at the time; Bosnian Qaysaria’s recent ruins were still in plain view, barely reclaimed for tourism. In 1982, I learned later, Theodorakis, who had previously composed the acclaimed “Ballad of Mauthausen” in response to the Holocaust, had responded to Yasser Arafat’s invitation and composed the PLO hymn.

But something else struck me as I looked at the tourists streaming by the old village mosque: how comfortable we are with oblivion.

I don’t know why or when this sense of audience—of the ones present and the ones absent—struck me. I know that this awareness came before I ever met Deborah. By the time she and I came to Caesarea, in 2007, we had been tracking the Nakba for some time. But something else struck me as I looked at the tourists streaming by the old village mosque: how comfortable we are with oblivion. I was thinking of the child I used to be, climbing the minaret, gazing from its high balcony across lands that were becoming mine, giving no thought to the people whose home it used to be.

“A minaret?” I remember my American friend Carol saying. “Was there a minaret? No, I didn’t see any.”


Linda Dittmar grew up in Israel during its formative years, 1939–60. In the U.S. since 1961 and now professor emerita, she taught literature and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston for 40 years. Her co-edited works include From Hanoi to Hollywood and Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism and she is now writing a memoir, “Tracing Homelands: A Memoir of Israel’s Becoming,” that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948 and its aftermath.

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Answering the Humble Knock

John Gifford

It was a peculiar type of knock, and it always gave them away. It was a nervous knocking, a timid rapping of tired, weather-burned bones on my grandmother’s back door, nothing at all like the pushy pounding of the vacuum-cleaner salesmen who came through town each year, and yet not the calm confidence of a neighbor’s knuckles, either. This knock was different. It was humble but insistent. It was a knock born of the constant struggle for sustenance, the continual search for nourishment.

My grandmother’s house, where, growing up, I spent much of my time, where my brothers and I enjoyed many of our most memorable meals, was three blocks from the railroad tracks in Norman, Oklahoma. You could hear the trains roll through every few hours—first, the wailing whistles, then the low, heavy rumbling of the big diesel-electric locomotives as they pulled their burden along the tracks, rattling the windows of the small house and, sometimes, the dishes in the cupboard. A minute later the train would pass and the low rumbling of the locomotives would fade into the distance like an echo, and I’d begin to listen for that knock at the door.

They were hoboes, drifters, rail-rusted men who seemed fraught with the freight of their past, the creosote-smeared burden of another new day in yet another new town. They were always alone, scouring the streets in the train wake’s silence, going door to door, perhaps looking for something specific, some detail that told them they’d come to the right house.

In his book The Road, Jack London details his adventures riding the rails across the United States as a hobo, recalling, among other things, how these traveling men left signs for one another, small clues from which others could discern whether a certain homeowner was friendly or hostile to strangers and, especially, where they could find a meal. I don’t know if the drifters who passed through my old hometown had affixed some such sign or detail to my grandmother’s house, or if they somehow passed along her address, but it amazed me that so many of them found their way to her, as if they knew that here they’d find a sympathetic ear, a surviving veteran of that hunger war known as the Great Depression, who understood the value, and blessing, of food. Even more surprising to me were their requests, for they were all the same. “I’m passing through town and haven’t had a bite to eat in days,” they’d say. “Could you spare a sandwich and a cup of coffee?”

Why a sandwich? I would wonder. Why a cup of coffee? Coffee! Yet, in retrospect, I believe it was a certain gesture these dusty men were seeking as much as food itself. And perhaps, in their minds, a sandwich and coffee were the items lending themselves most easily and unobtrusively to this gesture.

I remember the first few times I witnessed my grandmother interacting with a drifter. She’d tell the man to have a seat on the porch, then she’d walk into the kitchen and fire up her cast-iron skillet. She’d fry bacon and eggs, which she’d put between two pieces of toast and served on a saucer, along with a cup of coffee—the same foods we’d eaten for breakfast, and sometimes for lunch, a few hours earlier. Then I’d follow her outside, where she’d sit on the porch and talk to the stranger while he devoured the food: Where you from? Where you headed? Belong to a church?

They ate like coyotes. Their faces were weathered. Their fingers stained, hands calloused. At the time, in my child’s mind, these men always seemed dangerous. Perhaps it was simply their disheveled appearance. Or maybe it stemmed from a fear that one of them might someday bite back at the gnawing pain that must have tormented them. But I admired my grandmother’s willingness to help them. She appeared so confident in her compassion. And brave. Perhaps she knew—she must have known—they were simply like all the rest of us.

Once, I asked her why she fed these men. The response I received was typical of my grandmother—humble yet simplistically profound. “Well,” she said in that voice of hers, which to my young ears always sounded so optimistic and uplifting and wise, and which I can hear even today, “they have to eat too.”

At the time, I thought she was just being nice. My maternal grandmother, Sarah, was the kindest and gentlest person I’ve ever known. She fed my brothers and me, the birds, stray cats and dogs, the neighbors’ kids. And in doing so, she showed me how nourishing compassion can be.

Today I live in a new city, in a neighborhood with freshly paved streets and sidewalks, with homes with bricks that aren’t yet sun-bleached and cracked. Sometimes, on winter nights, when all is still and quiet, I can hear a train whistle blowing across town, far away. Invariably, my mind drifts back to that knock from so many years before, that sound that resounds between my ears, regardless of how many donations of unused or surplus clothes my family gives to Goodwill, no matter how many checks we write in response to solicitations received in the mail. At such times, despite the distance, it seems I can feel the ground rumbling beneath me, hear the dishes rattling in the kitchen cabinets, almost see the slow, steady diaspora of hope and need dispersing throughout the neighborhood. And I listen for that knock, those few persistent notes that sound unlike anything else in the world, the ones that remind me that food is most nourishing when it’s shared.


John Gifford is the author of seven books, including two creative-nonfiction titles: Red Dirt Country (University of Oklahoma Press, summer 2019) and Pecan America (University Press of Kansas, autumn 2019). His essays and reporting have appeared in Southwest Review, The Atlantic, Notre Dame Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He lives in Oklahoma.

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C. E. Morgan Takes the Reins

Ingrid Norton

In Review | Books The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 560 pages, $27.

Illustration of three horses in a race for the Pulitzer Prize with the female jockey in second place

Illustration by Chelsea Beck.


The veterinarian is performing a prenatal check-up in a horse barn, “her arm thrust up to the elbow in the uterus of a bay mare” (380). When her hand finds two pulsing embryos instead of one, she matter-of-factly separates them and pinches one twin “until its tiny, burgeoning life was aborted.” The vet is at a training center for racehorses in Kentucky. The risk of her maneuver is that she is crushing the next record breaker, but that is better than the alternative: “Spare them both and you’d end up with two weak, undersized foals.” As she peels off her lubricated glove, she senses a presence behind her and turns to find “Henrietta Forge standing in front of her, her belly bossed out, heavily pregnant” (381). Henrietta, the 29-year-old scion of a horse farm, is in the last weeks of her pregnancy. In a few pages, the vet will rush her to the hospital as she bows over with contractions.

Morgan embraces old-school authorial high-handedness, unapologetically engineering coincidences and narrative symmetries to advance the plot and underline the themes.

The meeting, which occurs two-thirds of the way throughThe Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan’s masterful 2016 novel, is an example of the way that Morgan embraces old-school authorial high-handedness, unapologetically engineering coincidences and narrative symmetries to advance the plot and underline the themes. The conceit of the book intertwines the story of Henrietta Forge and her father, Henry, members of Kentucky’s old, white land-owning aris-tocracy, with that of Allmon Shaughnessy, a black horse groom who grew up in the ghetto in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is descended from one of the slaves that the Forge family owned in the nineteenth century—though it becomes clear their bloodlines may not be as distinct as the lineage-obsessed Henry Forge likes to think.

The bulk of The Sport of Kings takes place between the 1980s and 2006, the year of a climactic derby, but the narrative pivots back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at key points. There is also a lengthy initial section set during the segregated 1950s that narrates Henry Forge’s upbringing by his father, an elitist, racist planter who tutors him in Latin and tries to staunch his son’s burgeoning ambition to raise thoroughbreds. Telling the stories of the past always leads back to the present, and the novel’s structure becomes a kind of Mobius strip of American racial history. In one scene, an adolescent Henrietta, homeschooled on Darwin and Seneca, leafs through the old leather ledgers in her father’s study and finds her ancestor Edward Cooper Forge’s 1827 will, “scrawled in a curly, filigreed script” with appraisals for the values of slaves: “One negro Man named Yearlye, $900 . . . One negro Man named Scipio, $1000 . . . One negro woman named Prissey, $500,” and so forth (139–40). In the next section, which hurtles through Allmon’s life in racially tense modern Cincinnati, his grandfather, a preacher, will invoke his great-great-grandfather Scipio, who swam across the Ohio River to escape slavery but, after 15 years of freedom in Ohio, “hung himself in a white man’s attic from a rafter he done raised with his own two hands!” (216–17). “Nobody talks about a suicide,” the reverend reflects. “It grinds generations into the soil of time” (236). Later sections narrate Scipio’s escape across the river: his story is introduced after Allmon’s incarceration, as though the accretion of injustice and trauma has caused the past to burst through into the present. Near the end of the book, the anguished contemporary consciousness of Henry implodes into a scene from the early nineteenth century in which Edward Cooper Forge, deranged by bereavement, rapes Prissey, who, three hundred pages earlier, was recorded as Scipio’s mother in the ledger Henrietta found (483–84).

There is something exhilarating about Morgan’s command of the material. The novel is at once an epic and an example of extraordinary powers of narrative condensation, as Morgan encapsulates entire periods and narrates the course of whole lives in the space of a few dozen pages—sometimes a few paragraphs. Morgan’s command of a wide range of ideas and of different stylistic registers is immense and impressive. The novel is studded with quotes from Darwin and disquisitions about evolution, history, and geology. Morgan constantly conjures timescales far beyond those perceptible to the individual—but that can be stylized by art.

Horses are a vessel for Morgan’s larger interests—in the interplay between heredity and history; in the flawed hierarchies between races and species, men and women; in the question of humanity’s exceptionalism, or lack thereof.


Struggling to contain Morgan’s scope—and perhaps embarrassed that all this would sound over-ambitious—the promotional materials emphasized the sports plot. The hardcover edition’s dust jacket spoke of “a spiraling tale of wealth and poverty, racism and rage” but focused its summary on the fortunes of Hellsmouth, the Forge’s record-breaking horse. This is a shame, for it downplays the novel’s invigorating ambition. Hellsmouth and the standard sports drama—Hellsmouth is the best horse in the business, but will a leg injury catch up with her before the final race?—do not become central until page 400. By the time the different narrative strands have converged on Hellsmouth, her greatness is just one expression of the preoccupations that ripple through the lives of all the characters. What happens when will, temperament, and physiology clash? “The filly was eccentric, sensitive, bold, petulant,” one character reflects of Hellsmouth; another describes her as “a persnickety bitch with a monster-truck ass, but toothpick bones and a bad attitude” (439, 452). The tension between personality and environment is also a defining problem for the human characters, who are further burdened with racial and economic history. Horses are a vessel for Morgan’s larger interests—in the interplay between heredity and history; in the flawed hierarchies between races and species, men and women; in the question of humanity’s exceptionalism, or lack thereof. Lou, the veterinarian, remembers her favorite professor’s advice to never confuse your own body with that of the animal under your care. But characters again and again do confuse horses with their own emotions and ambitions. Henry Forge memorizes Xenophon’s On Horsemanship as a boy and refers to his wife’s conformation. Steeped for too long in accounts of the inbreeding family trees of thoroughbreds, he seduces his adolescent daughter.

When the novel’s characters put their own ambitions over ethics or nature, the results are often violent and self-defeating; later in the book, a chastened Henry will imagine “the absurdity of one flower asserting its singularity, its glory, yearning to stand a hard-won inch above its nearest neighbors, straining on its flimsy stalk, flailing its petals, whispering in a hoarse, pollen-choked voice, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ ” (519). Flowers and simple animals can’t tell stories, he reflects, and therefore “didn’t suffer any notion of themselves” (519). This is a novel obsessed with the power of stories, whether they are sustaining or damaging, forgotten or falsified—a novel which has the courage of its artifice.

The Sport of Kings was well reviewed upon its initial release in 2016 and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2017, but it didn’t catch on. “I do think Morgan’s book has been overlooked,” Nicholas Pearson, of 4th Estate, her UK publisher, wrote in The Guardian, sounding like he’d lost a bet. “She is a great writer and everyone at 4th Estate waits to see what she does next.”1

So why was it overlooked? Pick your interpretation: Morgan’s heady, unabashed maximalism is just too far outside current literary fashion. (In one of her rare interviews Morgan has critiqued “the ubiquity of standard realism with its seamless plotting, its quiet reflection of middle-class morality, its prohibition against prose that draws attention to itself.”2) Or perhaps, in the Age of Fragmentation, reading habits have become too diffuse and professional criticism too marginalized to consolidate around a towering new talent; the underpaid literary historians of the future will scratch their heads that writers who began their careers before the rise of Amazon and social media continued to monopolize literary sales and coverage when we could have been talking about C. E. Morgan (born 1976). You could also go with race or gender: An interracial saga by a white, Southern author played badly in a year dominated by the rise of Trump and debates about cultural appropriation. Novels by women, even when their name—Catherine Elaine—is well concealed behind initials, just aren’t taken seriously.

Whatever the confluence of all these reasons, it is hard to avoid a wearying suspicion: a young female writer wrote one of the greatest American novels of recent years, and hardly anyone noticed.

The Sport of Kings tempts one to resurrect that most beaten of horses, the Great American Novel, for it is a tradition that Morgan explicitly engages.

The Sport of Kings tempts one to resurrect that most beaten of horses, the Great American Novel, for it is a tradition that Morgan explicitly engages. In her 2012 foreword to a reissue of William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August, written while she was drafting The Sport of Kings, Morgan takes on the concept of the great American novel, writing against its contemporary dismissal and praising works like Light in August, Moby Dick, Blood Meridian, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin for signifying “a reality both universal and distinctly—perhaps even incontrovertibly—at the heart of the collective American experience.”3 In The Sport of Kings, literary lineage figures just as prominently as the characters’ familial histories. The novel is stuffed with Melvillian disquisitions about humanity’s place in nature. The Sport of Kings also takes direction from Faulkner in its complex syntax and in its heated depiction of race. In her preface to Light in August Morgan dissects the novel’s climax, when the troubled, biracial Joe Christmas commits arson and murder, becoming “what society has determined he shall become: the immoral, murderous, animalistic black man”—a reading that clearly influenced her own climactic sequence, in which Allmon Shaughnessy takes his own revenge (more on that presently). And Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at the heart of Morgan’s reading and rendering of nineteenth-century racial history.

C. E. Morgan’s engagement with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel—in her words, “easily the most influential piece of fiction in American history, made so by one writer’s genius for capturing the nation’s moral anxiety”—forms a vital part of the moral project of The Sport of Kings.4 Stowe’s influence on Morgan is legible first of all in the name of Allmon’s ancestor. Uncle Tom’s Cabin also features a slave named Scipio, characterized in Stowe’s novel as “a regular African lion” who “appeared to have the rude instinct of freedom in him to an uncommon degree.”5 Set against Stowe, Morgan’s characterization of Scipio in The Sport of Kings takes on increased definition. Allmon’s ancestor, the Scipio who escapes from the Forges in Morgan’s novel, also has a strong thirst for freedom, but his similarity with his literary predecessor ends there. Stowe’s Scipio was an African native; Morgan’s was born in “the heart of Kentucky, a place that boasts one slave for every white man” (290). Morgan’s character is fiercely intelligent and repulsed by the submissive postures of Christianity. He plans his escape carefully over three years, slipping away while other slaves are on their way to a party and timing his journey so that he will reach the Ohio River during the new moon, when he will be undetectable.

As ever, Morgan renders the scenes with vivid, authoritative details: Scipio “cinches sacks of crushed Indian turnip around his calf-hide brogans to throw off the scent” and packs “a satchel containing fatback, hogmeat slices, and crumbling cornpone” (290, 292). But his careful planning does not save him from unexpected complications when he meets Abby, a pregnant slave fleeing a master who bought her at age 13, chained her to a bed in a shack for his three slaves to have sex with, and sold the resulting children on the slave market. She speaks in the Tomish slave argot and is pious in a way Stowe would recognize: “I’s never going to be de slave to the white man no more, only de slave a God,” she declares, to Scipio’s distaste (303). At first he doesn’t want company and flinches from the way that an emotional woman, late in pregnancy, could thwart his bid for freedom, which he has long envisioned as solitary. But Abby’s story finally moves him: he stops resisting his own empathy and becomes protective of her. They will swim across the Ohio River together: the vision of the two of them crossing is “firm in his mind now like a story told to him long ago, a story which he now believes with all his heart” (302).

Stowe is present in this geography, as much a part of the riverine landscape as the trees that hide Scipio and Abby. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired by the years Stowe spent living in Cincinnati and her visits to slave-owning Kentucky. One of the most famous scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes when Eliza Harris, a light-skinned Kentucky house slave, flees from slave catchers by crossing the Ohio River. Holding her son in her arms, she leaps across creaking ice floes; her stockinged feet leave bloody prints on the ice as she runs from her pursuers and emerges free on the Ohio side of the river.

In The Sport of Kings, by contrast, Scipio and Abby’s crossing of the Ohio River takes place at night in a desolate part of the river bank. Instead of carrying a child in her arms, Abby is seized by pregnancy contractions in the icy cold water. Scipio tries to save her when she slips beneath the surface but she thrashes and seizes his leg, yanking him underwater with her. “With blind horror,” he kicks her in the belly; her grip releases as she sinks (304). Scipio finds his way to shore; as he turns toward Cincinnati, his back

is a curtain drawn on the crude festival of the South. But oh, reader, now Scipio has found something worse than slavery and will live fifteen more years trying to forget it. There are tales that are remembered and tales that are forgotten, but all tales are born to be told. They demand it; the dead become tales in order to live. Their eternal life is in your mouth. (305)

In Morgan’s novel, by contrast, stories are the only immortality; suffering is arbitrary and met by blank oblivion.

The direct address to the reader borrows Stowe’s manner but dispenses with her message. When good characters suffer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe invokes the surety of heaven. In Morgan’s novel, by contrast, stories are the only immortality; suffering is arbitrary and met by blank oblivion. During Allmon’s childhood, when he and his mother are forced to move to a cheaper apartment, Allmon prays for his white deadbeat father, “for God, for anyone to save them, but nobody did come, because nobody does” (250). When his mother dies of kidney failure—a complication from years of lupus, which she couldn’t get properly treated because she didn’t have health insurance—Allmon sits “in the smallest parlor of the Chase Brothers funeral home” listening to the rent-a-preacher while internally reciting his own Lord’s Prayer: “The Lord is my nothing, I shall want nothing. He maketh me to lie down in nothing, he leadeth me beside nothing, he restoreth nothing,” and so on (282–83).

It is Allmon, Scipio’s contemporary descendent, who provokes Morgan’s most explicit reference to the river-crossing scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Throughout the novel, Allmon’s emotions are described as encased in ice or in amber—frozen over by poverty, by grief, by incarceration. Toward the end of the novel, a significant and belated thawing occurs when Allmon finds out that he is going to have a child. In a desperate fury, Allmon drives to the Forge farm, unleashing a diatribe about prison, something he has always refused to talk about before. As Allmon allows the memories and emotions to surface, delving into prison’s vicious hierarchies and violence, his mental state explicitly recalls Eliza’s escape in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Ice is breaking on the surface of the river. Allmon wants to hold all the floes together, reassemble the solidity and stolidity secured by the dead cold, but he can’t, it’s coming apart under him as he’s trying to cross with his son in his arms; he can hear it whining and moaning as it cracks. . . .

Allmon’s mouth is filling with water, but there’s still room for words. (525)

There is no escape to freedom, Morgan suggests, least of all in the era of mass incarceration. The river, with all its menacing power, has been internalized.

What contemporary story about race is Morgan using these old tools to build? The biographical section that introduces Allmon to the reader depicts Allmon and his mother’s freefall into poverty and illness during his childhood and adolescence. His deadbeat truck-driving Irish father abandons them; Marie has to go on food stamps; she is accused of welfare fraud when the state discovers her ex left her a used car; her dental hygienist boss won’t give her enough hours to qualify for health insurance; she comes down with the first symptoms of lupus. Meanwhile, Allmon sabotages himself before the exam to get into a magnet school and is instead scouted by a physical education academy that enrolls him in punishing football drills. His grandfather, the reverend, describes him as “too tenderheaded by far, just like his mother” (233). As Allmon comes of age, he starts dealing drugs to support his mother—“He’d already decided that life was a gamble and his best odds were in this house” (255). During this time, he forces what remains of his boyhood “into a shadowy pocket of his heart . . . his spirit soon evanesced into a wounded silence” (258).

The chain of events is heartbreaking and all too believable—yet, as Allmon is shunted from disaster to disaster, a sense of his emotions and his agency is somehow lacking, his inner life deliberately hidden in the shadows. I found myself wondering how the novel’s devastating indictment of poverty and racism would have read if Allmon’s storyline displayed more of the friction between a strong will and unyielding circumstances that characterizes the lives of some of the book’s other characters, like his forefather Scipio and his grandfather—even Aesop, the neighborhood’s chief drug dealer, who informs Allmon, “I’m the mayor and the mafia and the motherfucking love” (254).

But, as so often with The Sport of Kings, the seeming shortcomings are purposeful. It is significant that the drug dealer who mentors Allmon is named Aesop. If Allmon is opaque to the reader—the archetype of the troubled young black man that white culture renders threateningly impenetrable—it is because his ability to tell his own story is overmastered by the story that culture has written about him. Morgan’s narrative is quite self-aware about this. “That’s the problem with you—you never learned to tell a story slant, never learned to tell your own,” Reuben Bedford Walker III, a self-made black jockey, reproaches him, echoing Emily Dickinson. Pint-size Reuben, the best jockey in the business, towers over his surroundings through his powers of self-creation, using recondite diction as a weapon. “You think I don’t know the sobstory streets you grew up on?” he incredulously asks Allmon. “I smell government cheese on your breath, you got blisters on your thumbs from selling cut-rate crack! . . . You’re daddy’s fled and your mama’s dead!” (511). Allmon’s tragedy is not just the accreted pain that has circumscribed his life; that same society will punish him for not being able to restyle his pain into a narrative. As Reuben dismissively tells Allmon: “One man’s stereotype, another man’s award-winning performance” (512).

The resolution of Allmon’s story follows an old script, one that would be familiar to Faulkner and other mid-century American novelists who wrote about race. Unable to seize agency on an existential level, Allmon asserts it through violence, incited by Reuben’s taunts. The climactic sequence—it involves gunshots and burning gasoline—made me think of James Baldwin’s 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which takes aim at the sanctimony of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but is really a critique of Richard Wright’s recently published Native Son, in which Bigger, the alienated protagonist, is ultimately driven to murder and rape. In Baldwin’s words, through violence and death Bigger comes, “for the first time, to a kind of life.” For Baldwin, Native Son’s violent climax becomes “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend [of Uncle Tom] it was written to destroy. . . . [I]t seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses. . . . Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry . . . but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life.”6 Morgan clearly means to name this theology, still robust at the turn of the twenty-first century. But Allmon’s final turn to violence bolsters rather than critiques it.

In the same way that the determinism of Allmon’s story is self-consciously stylized—“In this act, Allmon comes up on the streets of Northside . . . ” (190); “In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year . . .” (222)—Morgan is up to something different from standard characterization with the Forges, who provide an occasion for a meditation on the violent, coruscating effects of ambition. From the earliest parts of the novel, in which Henry’s lessons from his father are stylized as dialogue, Henry is portrayed as being haunted by an obsession with greatness, even to the point of madness (and, ultimately, as an adult, of incest). He rejects his father’s exhortations to be disciplined by tradition and moderation. “Choke to death on your words,” young Henry thinks. “Mania transforms! It makes the cuckold the lover again, it makes the blind man see, it ripens fruit that reason can only plant!” (89). The worldview infects Henrietta, too. As a child, devoting hours to fierce, solitary reading, she finds novels a waste of time: “She resisted how they worked on her, asking her to suffer on someone’s behalf. If they had no madness in them, they were useless; genius doesn’t speak with the limited tongue of sense. Her father taught her that” (130).

Because of Henrietta’s emotional receptivity, her concerns with greatness ultimately diverge from her father’s desire for posterity and brilliance. Henrietta’s expansiveness takes a particularly female cast, provoked by her capacity to love, and, at last, to give birth. When she first realizes she’s fallen in love with Allmon, “She’s aware of herself, perhaps for the first time, as constantly varying, no longer separate from nature, no longer the watcher” (351). The passage that describes the supernova expansiveness she subsequently feels is one of the most bravura in the novel. In this section Morgan herself seizes the reins, her narrative voice merging with Henrietta’s as she addresses the reader to describe the chaotic natural world Henrietta’s love is part of: “any striving is calcined ash before the heat of the ever-expanding world, its interminability and brightness which is neither yours nor mine. There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words”(353), Morgan declares, letting forth a litany of beauties to show this ever-expanding world: from “the icy display of aurora borealis” to “the earthworm’s curling,” “the endless configurations of cloud,” and, at last, “the peacock turning and splaying his designs, each particular shimmering feather a universe invested with its own black sun, demanding, Look before you die, Look—Don’t turn away for fear you’ll go blind; the dark comes down soon enough. Until then, burn!” (353–54). Just as Henry is willing to burn himself and others up in his desire for greatness, Henrietta will sacrifice herself to love.

The larger shake-up to Henrietta’s worldview comes when she gets pregnant and has to reconsider her interdependence with others. “With anguish, she sensed that time’s blood had been merely passing through her seemingly discrete existence, her temporary form, and that when she was gone, time’s blood would flow dispassionately on. She was beginning to think she had spent her time badly” (375). Her disquisition on how her own physiology may restrict her agency—perhaps the most meaty and philosophical treatment of pregnancy I can recall in any novel—is part of a shift during the last third of The Sport of Kings, in which the Forges must reckon with their own destructiveness and their coexistence with others. In this section, Henry belatedly realizes that he should be a steward of nature rather than a ruler of it. “Ambition,” he decides, “is a form of suicide if it kills the simple self” (520).

Hellsmouth, the record-setting horse, is rolled into the Icarus-yearnings of the Forges. After a climactic race, Henry looks at his horse and for the first time clearly sees the poignancy of her gifts:

Hellsmouth was bold as life, but her brittle bones were no match for her power. The creative vitality of her gait, the tremendous heat of her racing engine fueled by her competitor’s blood, that fierce physical ambition, which was wholly natural to her and as inextricable as her limbs, would come at the expense of her life. She would break. A competitor like Hellsmouth could never stop of her own accord. She was not just unwilling but actually unable to save herself. (504–5)

He decides that he must pull her from racing. The dissenting voice is the horse’s trainer, who makes another exhortation in which burning up is the proper end of greatness and courage: “You actually think it’s a virtue”—his lips trembled—“to coddle a great talent? To rein in the best of the very best? Listen to me, if you got the fire, then you burn! You don’t throw fucking ashes on it! You don’t tamp it out!” (508).

As The Sport of Kings draws toward its conclusion, the novel wrangles more and more with questions of mania and moderation; the pull of ambition and individuality set against the multiplicity of nature, the smallness of humanity, the importance of ethics. It is hard not to see these preoccupations as mirroring the astonishing talents of their author, who has written one of the most ambitious and daring American novels of recent years, with philosophical profundity, stylistic richness, and moral vision to spare. The concerns about the perils and responsibilities of greatness that blow through the lives of the Forges must be Morgan’s own concerns. “What can you do?” she asks, in one direct address to the reader. “You can’t pray for yourself. The gods disallow it” (467). As I read on, and reread, I found myself offering a kind of prayer to whatever gods or furies govern artistic success: that Morgan’s own flames be replenished; that her book prosper and last; that her genius burn steadily rather than burn out.



  1. “Gifts and Misses: Publishers Pick Their Books of 2016,” The Guardian, December 9, 2016.
  2. Karen Schechner, “2016 Kirkus Prize Finalist: C.E. Morgan,” Kirkus Reviews, October 6, 2016.
  3. The preface was also published as an essay in The Daily Beast: C. E. Morgan: “ ‘Light in August’ Is Faulkner’s Great American Novel,” The Daily Beast, October 16, 2012.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed., ed. Elizabeth Ammons (W. W. Norton, 2010), 214.
  6. From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, quoted in ibid., 538.

Ingrid Norton, MTS ’16, is a doctoral student in American literature at Princeton University. A former assistant editor of the Bulletin, she lives in New York City and is working on a novel.

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Flipping the Script

Wendy McDowell

“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”  —Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Research reveals that most of us have a high tolerance for hypocrisy in ourselves but a low tolerance for hypocrisy in others. We tend to be blind to our moral failures and to play up our moral achievements. And it goes deeper than this—we will distort or forget aspects of our wrongdoings “to return to the comfort of believing in our capacity for good” (a phenomenon known as “ethical amnesia”).1 So, not only do we fail to predict our own moral behavior accurately, we can believe we behaved ethically even when we didn’t!

We shouldn’t need experiments to know this about ourselves, should we? Past and present realities of genocide, endemic sexual assault and child abuse, internment or banishment of marginalized groups, human trafficking, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, and militarization of borders show us how easily human beings can slide into immorality, cruelty, and violence.2

When I first moved to New York City in the early 1990s, it struck me right away how a homeless person was mostly treated with a mixture of indifference, disgust, and social distancing, as if he was a duffel bag stuffed with rags lying on the subway seat (or park bench or sidewalk) and not a breathing man. I noticed this collective behavior, my conscience “pinged,” and yet I fell right in line. Soon I was nonchalantly stepping over disheveled bodies and moving to the other end of a subway car to avoid their stench. I so wanted “to be a New Yorker,” and this was how New Yorkers acted.

In this issue are models of courageous practices, scholarship, and creative work grounded in communities already practiced in the art of script-flipping.

One day, a homeless woman knocked on our door (we lived in an apartment building on 123rd street). In a shaky voice, she asked if she could come in to get warm. I’d heard her trying other doors in the building; I’d also heard the rude refusals and doors shutting in her face. By the time she made it to our door, she was trembling uncontrollably and looked like she might crumple to the floor. I asked if she was sick, and she said, “Yeah, I’m drug sick.” I was in the middle of making a stew, so I kept the door open and conferred with my partner. “We have enough stew to share,” I said. He agreed. I covered her with an afghan as she napped on our pull-out futon (also our bed). We woke her when dinner was ready, she ate a few bites with us, and then we called the shelter she liked best to ask if they had an open bed. We hailed a cab, gave the driver enough money to take her to the shelter, and said goodbye.

I only exchanged small talk with Mary (yes, Mary really was her name!), and I never saw her again. But after this encounter, the script was flipped. I started sitting near the disheveled man on the train when others moved away, no matter if he reeked. My disgust was no longer aimed at vulnerable, often addicted, people living on the edge, but toward those of us (myself included) who exhibit “the ability to be smug about terror.”3

This is one of the more challenging issues of the Bulletin in recent years, because many of the authors are doing, in one way or another, “script-flipping work.” I am indebted for this term to Thelathia “Nikki” Young, who explains that black queer ethics “has the audacity and rage to do this script-flipping kind of work,” while it also articulates a “substance of things hoped for.” Young situates Black Panther as both “speculative fiction and ethical action” that “allows one to confront the lie of one’s own nonexistence” and “makes room for the un/making and then remaking of subjectivity and selfhood for black folks.”

Other authors here are not afraid to take on controversial—even taboo—topics and tension points, and to flip the script. Robert A. Orsi’s response to the crimes and cover-ups of sexually predatory priests does this in multiple ways: by turning on its head the notion that there is a “crisis” at this moment in Catholic history, by showing how the “fall[ing] back on the good religion/bad religion distinction” diverts us from “the painful truth of religion in human life,” and by “proposing to take disgust itself away from the powerful and use it against them.”

Linda Dittmar’s memoir of two trips to Caesarea views the vistas of her native Israel from a perspective of destruction and absence. Once she becomes attuned to seeing the minarets and mosques in the landscape, “loom[ing] as a spectral witness to the Palestinian village that used to be here before the Nakba,” she finds she can’t go back. Recognizing her inherited position of dominion, she must confront the “willed blindness” in herself and her peers, as she realizes “how comfortable we are with oblivion.”

Here also are models of courageous practices, scholarship, and creative work grounded in communities already practiced in the art of script-flipping. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant directs us to visual media projects that allow black women “the opportunity to tell our own stories—of our bodies and our faiths—and . . . dismantle the bodily fictions that would diminish the positive ways we see ourselves.” Celene Ibrahim, Kalpana Jain, and John Gifford focus on the actions of ordinary people, religious leaders, activists, and chaplains to get to know and nourish others, nothing less than the day-to-day work of interreligious bridge-building and peacekeeping.

Anna Sun encourages us to break out of “the institutional and identity-based framework of an unacknowledged monotheism” and to instead look at contemporary religious life in terms of a “ritual rationality” that allows for multivalent, practice-oriented, fluid realities. And what better models do we have than the faith-based public intellectuals in the Cornel West/Jonathan Walton course, whose lives exemplify the humanity-validating work of freedom, fugitivity, and love that expands our moral imaginaries.

Whether opening up intellectual, artistic, political, or ritual spaces, the stakes are communal and intergenerational. It’s not a contest over how “woke” we are, but about what we generate and pass down. As Jain and Young emphasize, the stories we tell and the worlds we imagine write the scripts for future generations. “What kinds of souls, bodies, and lives are we making possible?” Young asks.



  1. This quote, and the study results, are from Jared Piazza’s “Why We Are All Moral Hypocrites—and What We Can Do about It,” The Conversation, October 11, 2016, theconversation.com. Other research has shown how susceptible we are to authority figures, social influence, and persuasive techniques, how we are less inclined to act ethically in a group due to pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility, and how our decisions and actions are driven by our biases (explicit and implicit).
  2. James Waller’s book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford, 2002) is insightful about the conditions that can lead to genocide, and how easily “intelligent and cultured” people can be persuaded to participate in atrocities. Two mechanisms stood out to me in Becoming Evil: how our beliefs start to conform to our behaviors (we tend to think it only goes in the other direction, that our behaviors conform to our beliefs), and how perpetrators will go along with what they think are “tiny things,” only to discover that they are soon being asked to engage in explicitly violent actions. Both points made me realize that once you’ve put yourself on the slide into cruelty, it becomes that much harder to back up on the slide, and only too easy to accelerate downward.
  3. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Simon & Schuster, 1973), 59. As I changed my own behavior, I began noticing other New Yorkers who were resisting the social construction of cruelty against street people. It is not an achievement to finally acknowledge the humanity of another person; this should be normal. My shame about only too quickly conforming to a dehumanizing script made me realize I needed to be more vigilant, to live by a stricter moral code. Still, I continue to face my own “willed blindness” as a white, cisgender, U.S. citizen.

Wendy McDowell is editor in chief of the Bulletin.

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Fully Fleshed Out: Religion, Womanhood, and Blackness in Contemporary Media

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant

In Review | Film & Television
Queen Sugar, produced by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, Forward Movement, Harpo Films, and Warner Horizon Scripted Television.
Being Serena, produced by Nelson and Rick Bernstein, HBO Sports and IMG Original Content.

Three adult siblings hold hands while seated at their father's funeral

The Bordelone siblings in OWN network’s Queen Sugar. Warner Brothers Studios


At the heart of my work is a concern with black women’s experiences, and critical to that work are questions that unearth how African American women respond to processes of cultural commodification. To get at this concern, I am guided by three related questions: how are black women’s religious experiences practiced, how are those practices represented, and what are the implications of those representations? As I have explored these questions, I have been struck by three discoveries: 1) that students, like many of us, are particularly drawn to visual representations of black women; 2) that, in many cases, viewers are drawing from a limited toolkit to understand and interpret those representations; 3) that visual representations tend to obscure black women’s dynamic religious experiences.

In my efforts to construct ways for these points of discovery to intersect, my scholarship, my teaching, and now my own foray into the formal study of filmmaking, I analyze how religion influences how black women’s bodies are “read” within popular forms like film. I also explore the creative responses within black communities and how black feminist/womanist discourse help us interpret these nuanced, popular depictions. My co-edited anthology Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) takes up the concern that Tyler Perry has monopolized the structure and construction of black women’s religious narratives in popular culture, and that the stakes of that monopoly are especially high when his productions are viewed as “the voice” for black women.

There are a number of sources that examine popular representations of the black female body, that consider the implications of the fat body, and that explore the complex relationship between race and film. Yet, I have found that contemporary work rarely addresses the complex intersections among race, embodiment, gender, and religion in popular culture. That is a void my work seeks to fill, and it is the driving force behind my current project, “Pushing Weight: Religion, Popular Culture, and the Implications of Image.” In “Pushing Weight,” I look at representations of black women in fat suits worn by black men in popular film (Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence in particular) to show how stereotypes of black women are reinforced by the performance of religion and are used to uphold overly simplistic portrayals of black women in popular media. I am developing a critical theory of the black female body in religious practice that simultaneously emerges from film theory and the voices of viewers who consume those images.

This theory that I speak of is explicitly informed by the day-to-day lived experiences of black women, and is also informed by two conceptual frameworks. The first is the paradox of silence and display—the idea that black bodies are constantly negotiating a type of invisibility, on the one hand, where any emphasis on the body is muted, downplayed, or ignored, and a type of extreme visibility, on the other hand, where the black body is displayed in such a way that it receives exclusive and predominant emphasis. This waffling between taciturnity and objectification is a contradiction that Dorothy Roberts captures beautifully.1 This paradox is due in large part to histories of reading the black body as other and to contemporary representations of the black body in popular culture, and it has lasting implications for the ways that the body is engaged (or suppressed) within black religion.

This paradox is particularly complicated for black folks. Within the religions of the African diaspora, the body plays a particular role in the lived adherence of faith, where the literal enactment and expression of belief is encountered, enacted, and mediated through the body. Relatedly, black folks struggle—like most religious groups—with a very deep contradiction, where the body is an important location in which to encounter the divine, yet where corporeality is diminished in order to make appropriate room for the divine.2

This sacred form of “double consciousness” cannot be underestimated, and it is tied to the second conceptual framework that guides my work, and that is of the complex relationship between body fictions and what Deborah Walker King calls the fictional double. Black women face particular challenges when their externally defined identities (especially their religious identities) and representations as bodies—their body fictions—speak louder than what they know to be their experiences. This collision exists between real bodies and an unfriendly informant: a fictional double whose aim is to mask individuality and mute the voice of personal agency.3 The relationship between body fictions and the fictional double is especially complicated because it creates a visual vacuum in which black women are not interpreted as individuals, where exposure to experiential examples is limited, and where opportunities to see oneself represented in the broadest ways possible are all too few.

Black women are literally fighting, at every visual turn . . . to see and find genuine, real representations of themselves in what they see—we see—in popular media forms such as film and television.

Taken together, the paradox of silence and display, body fictions, and the fictional double mean that black women are literally fighting, at every visual turn, to avoid being turned into or interpreted as a visual stereotype and to see and find genuine, real representations of themselves in what they see—we see—in popular media forms such as film and television.


If I am painting a bleak picture, it is purposefully so, but it is not a picture that is without some hope. I am going to do something that I rarely do, which is to offer, in a very public venue, a claim that I have yet to fully substantiate, but for which I have a pretty strong hunch.

If there is any argument to be made it is this: the medium of documentary holds the greatest possibilities for offering positive, holistic, diverse, complex, “fully fleshed out” representations of black women’s religious experiences.

Certainly, all of the mediums that I will discuss have their problems: the cinematic gaze they create, how they are funded and distributed, and who is making and viewing them all have an impact on the meaning they make. I mention this quickly here, not to dismiss these challenges, but to denote the additional layers of complexity they bring to this enterprise of analyzing their impact on our contemporary religious literacy, especially as it relates to black women’s religious expression. And yet I still want to make a case for the documentary format, but not before I talk about feature films and television series.

The Feature Film
The feature film, which is notably short (typically under three hours), fictional, and created for the purpose of entertainment, is the least capable of best representing black women’s religious experiences. I have already mentioned this, but I have the great fortune of spending a lot of time watching Tyler Perry’s films. I focus on Tyler Perry in part because of his popularity, the sheer quantity of films he makes, and his unique position as a black filmmaker, producer (director, and writer) who has made nearly a billion dollars on his various films, who owns his own studio, and whose films often implicitly, and almost always explicitly, depict black women’s religiosity.

Film still of actress Taraji P. Henson looking angry
Teraji P. Henson in Tyler Parry's Acrimony.

Tyler Perry’s particular representations of black womanhood—like his representations of African American religion—are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright problematic renderings. Is Perry a master showman or a glorified stagehand within a broader symbolic church production? Is Perry’s gun-toting grandmother, Madea, a mediated conglomerate of historical black female tropes, or an insightful religious critic with an axe to grind with the historical black Protestant church? And can the writer, producer, director, entrepreneur, actor Tyler Perry adequately depict the complexities of black women’s experiences and spiritual identities, and, even if he could, should he?

Thinking about these questions makes the insertion of Tyler Perry, who adeptly offers his own interpretation of black womanhood, black women’s sexuality, and black female spirituality, especially intriguing. One of the masterful effects of Tyler Perry’s productions—and particularly film—is that they articulate exactly what and who the modern, “good” black woman should be, even if she is angry. Whether in the drunken rage expressed by the main character, April (Taraji P. Henson) in I Can Do Bad All by Myself (1999); the obsessive, “hell hath no fury” vitriol Melinda (Taraji P. Henson) spews upon her ex-husband in Acrimony (2018); or the sentiment expressed in the title of his first feature-length movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Tyler Perry has cultivated an especially problematic brand of films that firmly locate black women within the angry black woman trope.

I look more favorably upon the medium of television, and especially the extended or series format, which I believe surpasses film in the possibilities it offers in representing black women, their experiences, their bodies, their epistemologies, and their religions.

Take, for example, the series Queen Sugar, which Ava DuVernay produces and directs and for which Oprah Winfrey serves as executive producer and that she distributes on the OWN network. I cannot say enough about how amazingly beautiful this show is. The story follows the Bordelone siblings, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siribo), Nova (Rutina Wesley), and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) as they grapple with losing their father, who bequeathed a failing 800-acre sugar cane farm to them. The siblings’ relationships are nuanced, evolving, and estranged, and captured in ways that any of us who have families immediately resonate with.

One still image depicts one of the most powerful scenes in the first season, where we witness the family come apart while coming together, and it is something to witness. Not only do we get a beautifully shot scene of three siblings, with very different lives and viewpoints, coming together to bury their father, but we also get to see the sacred rituals of African American religion laid bare. Christian rites, yes, but also, the last rites of the Prince Hall Freemasons offered over Ernest’s body. Nova, who is in the center, is an activist and writer, but she is also an avid believer in African-derived spiritualist practices and a folk healer who uses local, natural herbs and remedies to heal broken black bodies. Nova is the spiritual glue that holds the family together, and a conjure woman no less. It is powerful to behold such beautiful blackness and dynamic black religious expression represented on the screen.

That power is not something that should be taken lightly. In an interview with HuffPost, Rutina Wesley literally teared up when asked about what playing Nova has meant to her. She not only described the importance of representation on the screen, but she also noted: “Getting the chance to play a beautiful gorgeous black woman with dreads [who’s] smart, funny, witty, chaotic . . . She’s everything. It’s a brown girl’s dream because she’s a real human being.” To be a “fully-fleshed out,” proud, black woman makes her portrayal as Nova so special. That this show is produced and directed by DuVernay, and that every episode is directed by a woman, says something about the power of the narratives they can create.4

Like the scripted television series, the documentary format is a nonfictional movie with the intent of showing aspects of real life. It is most powerful because of that reality, and because it allows women to tell their own stories in their own words. It is a powerful thing to choose how to represent yourself and to base that representation on how you see yourself to be, versus how others see you.

Close up of Serena Williams' face with series title underneath
Being Serena. HBO.

One great example of this genre that has largely flown under the radar is Being Serena, a five-part docuseries on Serena Williams (HBO). Williams is arguably the greatest athlete of all time, and she allows us—in her own words and in her own way—access to her life, a life that we have no right to, but that she has chosen to share. In the first episode of the series, Williams documents her pregnancy from the moment she learns she is pregnant until her hospital delivery. In numerous candid shots of Williams in her most intimate moments, we learn that she is just like most other first-time parents, and that she worries about her ability to “be the best mother she can be, but also to be the world’s best tennis player.”

The mediated access we are given, however, has proven not to be enough for some. In a scathing critique of the docuseries, Slate writer Christina Cauterucci characterizes Being Serena as “surprisingly lacking in humanity,” which she attributes partly to Williams’s “stilted narration,” in large part because she found it to be too guarded. To Cauterucci, viewers benefit from an all-access view into Serena’s life, but they do not learn very much about the motives underlying her passions, interests, and drive because she “provides no access to her heart or brain.”5

And yet, Cauterucci’s claim about Williams’s seeming guardedness speaks right to the heart of religious illiteracy and to an important fact that we cannot ignore: Serena Williams is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. To bring unnecessary attention to herself and her life outside of her sport is murky territory for her to navigate within her faith, something that she has talked about in numerous interviews over the years.

I would like to make the case that, regardless of what writers, reporters, producers or consumers might think, Serena Williams has every right to depict and portray herself in the light she chooses—even if, and perhaps especially because, we might not understand it. There is something mighty powerful about telling our own stories, in our own words and in our own way, and documentaries give us the opportunity to do just that. They provide us with the opportunity to tell our own stories—of our bodies and our faiths—and, in so doing, dismantle the bodily fictions that would diminish the positive ways we see ourselves while upholding that troubling paradox of silence and display.

After all, the desire to be fully fleshed out—to have all that we see, experience, love, know, and believe visualized in a way that reflects how we see ourselves as the complex human beings we know ourselves to be—is essential to being truly seen and understood. And, regardless of the limitations that desire may yield, we have learned through experience that having someone else render our representations is a much less appealing alternative. And so we fight to ensure that the genuine, the real, the authentic, and the factual supersede the stereotypical, the imposed, the manufactured, and the fictional. This is the visual goal toward which we strive.6



  1. Dorothy Roberts, “The Paradox of Silence and Display: Sexual Violation of Enslaved Women and Contemporary Contradictions in Black Female Sexuality,” in Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, ed. Bernadette J. Brooten (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 41–60.
  2. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “African and African Diaspora Traditions: Religious Syncretism, Eroctic Encounter, and Sacred Transformation,” in Religion: Embodied Religion, ed. Kent L. Brintnall, Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks (Macmillan Reference, USA, 2016), 183–201.
  3. Body Politics and the Fictional Double, ed. Deborah Walker King (Indiana University Press, 2000).
  4. See the video interview, “Rutina Wesley on the Beauty of Playing ‘Fully-Fleshed Out’ Black Female Character,” on www.huffpost.com
  5. Christina Cauterucci, “Show Everything, Reveal Nothing,” Slate, May 2, 2018.
  6. This is an edited version of a panel presentation I delivered at the “Religious Literacy and Business: Media Entertainment” symposium, sponsored by the Religious Literacy Project and held at Harvard Divinity School on September 20–21, 2018.

LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press, 2014) and co-editor, with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan, of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). You can find her adding colorful, critical, commentary to the Twitter universe via @DoctorRMB.

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How Khmer Buddhists Reconstructed Identity and Community in the U.S.

Chipamong Chowdhury

In Review | Books Cambodian Buddhism in the United States, by Carol A. Mortland. SUNY Press, 2017. 366 pages, $29.95 paper.

Procession with monks, Buddha statue, and US and other multicolor flags

Wat Kantiyaram, Jacksonville, Florida, 2014. From The Rabbit’s Horn Blog


Like other traditions of Theravada Buddhism from South and Southeast Asia, Khmer/Cambodian Buddhism has been taking root in the United States for several decades. Despite the geographical, national, language, and ethnic differences, Theravada immigrants from South and Southeast Asia are united by their religiosity, values, and practices, all of which center on the concept of Theravada identity. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia. When Cambodian refugees fled to the United States, beginning in the mid-1970s, they rebuilt the culture, tradition, and social norms of Khmer Buddhism by establishing cultural organizations, religious institutions, and temple networks. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), more than 275,000 Khmer descendants reside in America and the vast majority are Theravada Buddhists.

Carol A. Mortland’s Cambodian Buddhism in the United States is the first and most comprehensive anthropological study of Khmer Buddhism in America. Locating Khmer Buddhism within a larger modern global Buddhist network, she examines the complex relationship between transnational Buddhism and Khmer immigrants through meticulous historical and ethnographic research and a study of reports, life histories, and the everyday religious practices of Khmer refugees in the United States. As a cultural anthropologist and director of refugee resettlement programs in New York in the 1980s, Mortland is uniquely positioned to undertake this study. The book is the product of three-and-a-half decades of research on Cambodian religion and immigrants, in Cambodia itself and in various locations across the United States.

The book provides context and a historical backdrop for the study with an introductory overview of the history of Theravada Buddhism’s evolution in Cambodia, followed by a brief narrative of the extreme violence and destruction Khmer Buddhism suffered during the course of the war between Cambodia and Vietnam, the genocide perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge, and structural damage to religious sites inflicted by American bombing campaigns. War and communist violence killed more than three million Cambodian Buddhists between 1968 and 1976 and propelled the migration of Khmer people to North America.

Mortland demonstrates a particular interest in the resettlement of Cambodians following this traumatic history, and the reconstruction of their religious life in the U.S., a history similar to that of Lao Buddhism in America.1 Alternating between personal memoir, history, and qualitative research, she shows how Khmer Buddhists maintain a ritual, religious, and cultural relationship to their homeland as they rebuild Khmer Buddhism through innovation and assimilation. She argues that Khmer Buddhist identity and community in their adopted country are profoundly reshaped by migration, displacement, and social transformation.

Cambodian Buddhism, Mortland writes, “interweaves Buddhist doctrine (dharma), belief in spirits, Brahmanic practices, Taoist principles of humoral balance, and healing practices to provide Cambodians with cultural continuity and a framework for understanding the world and conducting social and political relationships” (17). She finds Cambodian Buddhism to be more of a ritualistic religion than a philosophical or meditative tradition. She notes that “most Cambodians, except those who have served as monks for extended periods of time, know little about Theravada doctrine and are less interested in acquiring Buddhist doctrinal knowledge than in finding comfort and practical ways to improve their lives” (17).

Her study locates temples, monks, and rituals at the core of Khmer Buddhist identity, imagination, representation, and practice in the United States. For Khmer Buddhist immigrants, monasteries and temples are extremely important sites, serving not only worship and ritual but also social and political functions. Temples provide the space within which religion and culture are maintained and enhanced. Here, children learn the fundamentals of Khmer Buddhism, culture, heritage, and language. Bereaved families find a variety of death-related services, including chanting, funerary feeding, prayers, memorial services, sermons, and caregiving.2 The book describes temple organization, structure, and ceremonial life, as well as the various adaptations made within the American context.

Unlike Burmese Buddhist immigrants, who seek spiritual liberation (nibbāna) through vipassanā meditation,3 Khmer Buddhists confine themselves largely to the practice of earning merit. Cambodians’ merit-making activities involve offering dana to monks, veneration of the Buddha and pagodas, and ancestor worship. The merit-making ceremony is therefore the most popular ritual event for accumulating good karma and preparing future better lives. Merit-making also plays a crucial role in fundraising for the temple management in American Khmer society (102).

Khmer Americans continue to regard monks as principle religious leaders, healers, and moral authorities. Mortland writes: “While they could continue practicing Khmer Buddhism in private, they needed monks to assist them in earning merit, and Khmer monks could not live as monks without a temple and a lay community to support them” (115). Thus, for the refugees, a community of monks was essential to the survival of Khmer Buddhism. Mortland describes monastic life, providing stories of the earliest Cambodian monks who migrated to America. Notable was the Venerable Maha Ghos-ananda, who led the rebuilding of Khmer Buddhism both in the U.S. and in Cambodia and called for peace and reconciliation after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Among the book’s strengths is an insightful discussion of the beliefs and practices of Khmer Christians and Khmer Muslims in the U.S. Unlike Buddhist refugees who faced many challenges, Cambodian Christian refugees had many privileges in the host land, as they were given jobs, health care, education, and other communal support by Christian aide organizations while in refugee camps and after resettlement. Mortland claims that this was one reason, among others, for the conversion of many Khmer Buddhists to Christianity.

Another strength is the book’s inclusion of an ethnographic account of the persistence and ritual significance of spirit veneration among the Cambodian diaspora communities. However, given its emphasis on religious practices, the book regrettably does not explore the meditative aspect of Khmer Buddhism or document the stories that former monks tell of how they adopted American culture after leaving the monkhood. As with Thai and Lao Buddhist monks, many Cambodian monks quit monastic life after receiving permanent resident status or a Green Card. A discussion of these issues would have further strengthened the book. Nevertheless, the book’s overall value lies in its detailed ethnography, which is well supported by Mortland’s profound knowledge of Khmer religiosity.

Cambodian Buddhism in the United States is a brilliant and highly original work. It makes a crucial contribution to recent scholarship, written for anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and the general public, on the growth of American Buddhism. Some of the chapters will be of much use as textual sources or materials for students in Asian American studies and in courses on American Buddhism and Buddhist studies. Mortland’s research provides some fascinating directions and appeals for the study of religious pluralism and cultural diversity in the U.S. Her book is essential reading for anyone interested in Asian religious histories and practices in America.



  1. Penelope Van Esterik, Taking Refuge: Lao Buddhists in North America (York Lanes, 1992).
  2. By 2009, as documented by Mortland, there were 109 Khmer Buddhist temples in the United States (113).
  3. Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Chipamong Chowdhury is an independent researcher, interpreter, storyteller, and teacher of Buddhist humanities and relational mindfulness. He was a 2017–18 Beyond the Bars Fellow at the Center for Justice at Columbia University.

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See also: Books, Buddhism

Reclaiming Egalitarian Jewish Wedding Customs

 Jessica Rosenberg

Illustration of abstract figures lined up along the aisle of a wedding, with the central couple surrounded by light

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj.


Among many contemporary American Jews, there exists a significant gap in meaningful Jewish involvement between the life cycle events of the bat or bar mitzvah and the wedding. Only 15 percent of American Jewry considers being Jewish a matter of religion.1 This means that the wedding will often be a liberal Jew’s first public declaration of their Jewish identity or religion since childhood.2 When thinking about this gap in the American Jewish experience alongside the American wedding industry, the contemporary Jewish wedding sits at a crossroads between tradition and trend. In many cases, decisions about the ritual and religious elements of the wedding are deferred to the rabbi or religious movement and not given much thought; couples prefer to write their own vows rather than curate their own Jewish ceremony, devoting their time and resources to other decisions about guests, venue, entertainment, and speeches.

There is a communal understanding of what a contemporary Jewish wedding—with all its necessary symbols and rituals—entails. These wedding customs do date back many centuries, or perhaps millennia, but their roots are not just traditional, they are also patriarchal. The choreography, words, and objects used in wedding ceremonies are all endowed with the ancient understanding that a wedding is a transfer of property, and the standard of this property value is a virgin—ideally, with a full intact hymen (Mishnah Ketubbot 1). The most recognizable symbols included in a Jewish wedding today, the huppah (canopy) and the breaking of the glass, are actually impossible to understand without understanding marriage traditionally as the acquisition of a woman, and a woman’s value as inexorably tied to her virginity status.3

Our modern-day incorporations of the huppah, breaking the glass, the ketubah (marriage contract), and even the processional, or “walk down the aisle,” are millennia-old traditions steeped in the notion of woman as property—first her father’s and then, with the completion of the wedding, her husband’s. Each custom and ritual that creates the wedding ceremony is fraught with this language, imagery, and symbolism:

The bridal procession—as old as the Bible—was originally the actual transference of the bride to her husband’s home, and the chuppah, or canopy, under which Jewish marriages are still celebrated, was in ancient time either the canopied litter occupied by the bride during the procession, or the actual apartment to which the married couple retired when the wedding had been solemnized.4

Today’s Jewish bridal procession has also largely been assimilated into contemporary American norms. It is usually a restrained and reverent moment during which the bride is preceded down the aisle by modern-day shushvinim (bridesmaids and groomsmen), and is then escorted down the aisle, either by her father or by both her parents. In front of a rapt audience, the bride is met before the huppah by her groom and handed off by her parents or father; then her groom escorts her underneath the huppah. The audience stands, literally, in witness to this moment and is seated once the couple is situated beneath the huppah, ready to complete the acts of kiddushin and nisuin—the marriage ceremony.

The majority of young, liberal, American Jewish women today consider it of utmost importance to create and maintain an egalitarian relationship—before and after marriage.

While there has been a lot of work done by contemporary liberal Jewish movements to create more egalitarian Jewish weddings,5 the core meanings of these elements are often overlooked. The majority of young, liberal, American Jewish women today consider it of utmost importance to create and maintain an egalitarian relationship—before and after marriage. But considered less are the deep implications of the rituals that create the transformational moment that changes a single woman to a married wife. Is it possible to have a modern Jewish wedding replete with these iconic rituals and customs that still reflects contemporary, egalitarian, feminist values—the very values many modern Jewish identities are built upon?

Rather than create new rituals that continue to move us further away from our ancestors’ minhagim (customs), and which would no longer serve contemporary Jewish identities, I suggest instead that we look to the innovations made in the minhagim of Jewish communities of the Middle Ages and early modern period. These communities were facing some challenges similar to those confronting American Jewry today: they were minority communities in Catholic, Christian, or Muslim majority countries facing anti-Semitism and fearing cultural assimilation. Taking cues from their Jewish knowledge and local culture, they established customs that evolved but remained within the bounds of halakhah (Jewish law) and Jewish tradition. I propose a reclaiming of old traditions that have mostly fallen out of use in the United States6—thereby allowing the generations who came before us to guide the generations to come.

The European Jewish communities of medieval and early modern times can point us toward a meaningful reclaiming of traditional rituals and customs for the modern Jewish wedding. In Marriage Rituals Italian Style, Roni Weinstein provides the historical basis for this idea:

Studies of Ashkenazi Jews revealed highly surprising findings on the importance of custom. Even in the prestigious yeshivot of Mainz and Worms, where the hermeneutical traditions of the tosafists developed, custom was foremost in religious life and sometimes more authorittive for religious praxis than talmudic study.7

Traditionally, the marriage ceremony did not begin at the huppah (at the synagogue or the bridal/event house), but rather at the homes of the bride and groom. They would be escorted individually to the huppah by shushvinim, relatives, and the whole community in a ceremony known in early modern Ashkenaz as the meien. The shushvinim are a perfect example of a ritual innovation from early Judaism that holds a different, but still functional, ritual role in the modern Jewish wedding.8

Though the cultural evolution of the contemporary wedding ritual has taken us backwards in time—to an understanding of marriage as acquisition, the virgin bride as property, and marriage as the act that, both literally and metaphorically, moves the bride from the house of her father to the house of her husband—this understanding is less present in the European Jewish minhagim. In fact, as Maurice Lamm points out, “There is no expression in all of Jewish tradition of the bride walking with her father only, as a symbol of the father ‘giving away’ the bride.”9

The contemporary bridal procession can be reimagined using the meien custom. We know of it from the seferei haminhag of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Schammes and the sixteenth-century Rabbi Moelin (best known as the Maharil), both of whom detailed the customs of the Jewish communities of Worms, Germany. The bridal procession in these communities was a communal act that occurred at daybreak—a time of transition—by the light of torches and the music of the klezmerim (klezmer musicians). Music was so integral to the atmosphere of the wedding ceremony for the Maharil that he did not allow weddings to take place without it.10 The Maharil details his community’s pre-wedding ceremony:

At dawn on Friday, when the beadle called the people to prayer, he summoned the bridegroom to the Meien ceremony, The Rabbi led the way with the bridegroom to the courtyard of the synagogue, and a crowd of people followed, brandishing lighted torches and playing on musical instruments. Having escorted the bridegroom, the torch-bearers and musicians retraced their steps and soon returned with the bride and her company. When she reached the entrance of the courtyard, the Rabbi and other notables brought the bridegroom forward to receive her. He took her hand, and . . . they stood there clasped together. . . .”11

The physical movement of the couple from each of their homes to the huppah created the liminal space where the bride was no longer of her father’s house and was not yet of her husband’s house.12 Thus, the meien custom and bridal processions of the Middle Ages and early modern period created, in effect, a suspension of typical gender and communal norms. When considering the roots of these rituals in biblical texts, the Mishnah and the Talmud, it becomes clear how innovative these rituals were at the times they came into being. By reiterating and reframing the customs that formed the boundaries of women’s ownership and value, these communities began to push against certain foundational ideas. And because of a community’s investment in its own customs, a liminal space was created in the halakhic place that previously was not present. Opening this liminal space within the minhag made it possible for the woman to be seen, for the first and only time, in her own right—something that is lost in the contemporary Jewish bridal procession.

The procession as currently practiced creates a divide between ceremony and celebration, between before and after the marriage, whereas the meien creates a liminal space of transition.

Two distinct features from the meien should be particularly emphasized when reclaiming and reinstituting this bridal procession ritual in contemporary Jewish weddings: community involvement and joy. The meien procession would not be possible without the involvement of the greater community—from the klezmer musicians to the torchbearers, from the relatives to the shushvinim. The entire community involved in the wedding creates the custom and the ceremony itself. The contemporary Jewish wedding procession lacks the involvement of the full community and the participation of all attendees: only a select few family members and friends participate. The procession as currently practiced creates a divide between ceremony and celebration, between before and after the marriage, whereas the meien creates a liminal space of transition. With this ritual, our ancestors show us that this separation within the wedding ceremony is an unnecessary modern construction.

The contemporary Jewish community in the United States can reclaim these rituals and endow them not only with contemporary progressive meanings, but also with the localized meanings from the times of the custom’s creation—enabling seeing a woman, if just for a moment, in between her attachments to men.

The literal translation of meien is to increase merriment.13 The joy and celebration for all involved in the wedding can start (as it did in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Worms) before brachot (blessings) are made, rings are exchanged, and yichud (seclusion, or time alone for the newly married couple) completes the marriage ritual; the joy and celebration was, literally, taken through the streets, from within the couples’ family homes toward the huppah—from the private to the public. The joy of the married couple is the joy of the community, and vice versa. While few contemporary couples get married in locations that would allow for a full reenactment of this ritual, the meien can easily be restaged within the wedding venue. If the entire wedding is involved in the procession of the bride and groom, the chosen community of the couple participates in the act of creating the marriage, increasing joy for the couple and the community. This custom, physically and metaphorically, can create a more egalitarian space in which the bride and groom are wed—not as an act of acquisition but as an enactment of partnership and participation within community.

Weinstein underscores the importance of having the community bear witness to all ritual aspects of the wedding, in addition to the ceremony itself:

The community is considered a basic source of legitimation in the validation of the marriage. Conducting the ritual according to halakhic instructions, then, is not sufficient; without the community’s tacit agreement to the marriage and the acceptance of the new couple, the ritual is not complete.14

Contemporary weddings are occasions for family and community joy, as they have been for millennia. As our conceptions of marriage and gender norms continue to evolve, so must our wedding rituals. The Jewish wedding is ripe for a new iteration of its rituals, just as it was for our ancestors. Historically, Jewish wedding traditions have been inexorably tied to the patriarchal concepts of marriage as acquisition and in the valuation of women based on her virginity. By claiming the meien as a traditional and innovative wedding procession, the contemporary American Jewish community will again be creating this liminal space in the ceremony, enabling a wedding’s customs and rituals to stand for more egalitarian values and allowing women’s own identities to be fully recognized as they engage in this important life transition.



  1. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans (Pew Research Center, 2013).
  2. “Liberal” here does not refer to political leanings but to religious affiliation—to Jews who identify as non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, renewal, etc.).
  3. Daniel Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle: Custom, Lore and Iconography; Jewish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave (Bar-Ilan University Press; Oxford University Press, 2008).
  4. Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1911), 192–93.
  5. Anita Diamant, The Jewish Wedding Now (Scribner, 2017).
  6. Traditional/Orthodox Jewish weddings in the U.S., Israel, and around the world often retain certain elements of the customs discussed in this article.
  7. Roni Weinstein, Marriage Rituals Italian Style: A Historical Anthropological Perspective on Early Modern Italian Jews (Brill, 2004), 462.
  8. In the Talmudic period, the role of shushvinim (see Nissan Rubin, Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash: Socio-Anthropological Perspectives [Academic Studies Press, 2008]) is one of a male guardian to both the bride and groom through the betrothal period.
  9. Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (Jonathan David Publishers, 1991), 212.
  10. Sidney Steiman, Custom and Survival: A Study of the Life and Work of Rabbi Jacob Molin (Moelln) known as the Maharil (c.1360–1427), and His Influence in Establishing the Ashkenazic Minhag (Customs of German Jewry) (Bloch Pub., 1963), 49.
  11. From Sefer Maharil, in Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 204.
  12. Rubin, Time and Life Cycle in Talmud and Midrash, 105. Note that Rubin is discussing the bridal processions from the times of the Babylonian Talmud; I believe his theory regarding the procession creating liminal space is applicable to the much later meien custom and is perhaps even a better example.
  13. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 204, has “to make merry.”
  14. In his detailing of Italian Jewish wedding customs, Weinstein explains that the weddings often took place in the home of the groom. The bride would process into the groom’s city before the entire city’s population. Weinstein, Marriage Rituals Italian Style, 464.

Jessica Rosenberg is a second year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School interested in the future of ritual and American Jewish life. She has previously worked with Jewish organizations in New York, Israel, and Krakow, Poland.

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Syllabus: Faith in the Fire—Religious Public Intellectuals

A selected reading list from Cornel West and Jonathan L. Walton’s course

Engaging a tradition of faith-based public intellectuals from various eras, who tackle interrelated injustices of classism, militarism, sexism, and racism.

Gloria Anzaldua Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality
Gloria E. Anzaldúa (Duke University Press, 2015).
The culmination of the philosophy of queer Chicana feminist theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1942–2004), this work valorizes subaltern forms and methods of knowing, being, and creating that have been marginalized by Western thought.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Harvard University Press, 1993).
Class, race, and gender dynamics interact in this nuanced history of the crucial role of black Baptist women in making the church a powerful institution for social and political change.

Cesar Chavez

An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches
César Chávez (Penguin Classics, 2008).
An extensive collection of writings by César Chávez (1927–93), farm labor leader, civil rights activist, environmentalist, and consumer advocate. Included are his speeches to spread the word of the 1965–70 Delano Grape Strike and testimony before the House of Representatives about the hazards of pesticides.

James H. Cone Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian
James H. Cone (Orbis Books, 2018).
The final work and memoir of the founder of black liberation theology, James H. Cone (1938–2018), describes his efforts to use theology as a tool in the struggle against oppression and for a better world. He reflects on lessons learned from critics and students, and the ongoing challenge of his models Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin.
Brittney Cooper Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women
Brittney Cooper (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
This study charts the emergence and far-reaching influence of black female intellectuals and activists like Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara, whose work has critically reshaped our understandings of race and gender discourse.
Dorothy Day The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist
Dorothy Day (HarperOne, 2009).
The memoir of Dorothy Day (1897–1980), journalist, social activist, and cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, is an important milestone in U.S. social history.
Fannie Lou Hamer The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is
Fannie Lou Hamer (ed. Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck; University Press of Mississippi, 2010).
A selection of the most important speeches and testimonies of Mississippi sharecropper and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77), whose 1964 speech at the Democratic National Convention changed the course of black voting rights in the United States.
Abraham Heschel

The Essential Writings
Abraham Joshua Heschel (ed. Susannah Heschel; Orbis Books, 2011).
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72), Jewish philosopher and theologian, was active in the civil rights movement, in opposition to the Vietnam War, and in Roman Catholic–Jewish interfaith talks. This collection of essays reflects his conviction that prayer and study cannot be separated from public action.

Susannah Heschel The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany
Susannah Heschel (Princeton University Press, 2010).
This important work of intellectual history is a study of the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life, whose Protestant theologians and scholars placed anti-Semitism at the theological center of their efforts to redefine Christianity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. The Radical King
Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Cornel West; Beacon Press, 2015).
This collection of writings, curated and introduced by Cornel West, showcases the revolutionary vision of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68), underscoring his solidarity with the poor and the working class and his opposition to the Vietnam War and global imperialism.
Cesar Chavez The Political Spirituality of César Chávez: Crossing Religious Borders
Luis León (University of California Press, 2014).
Neither history nor biography, this book on civil rights and labor leader César Chávez (1927–93) traces the myths he created about himself and those told about him, presenting him as a religious border crosser who defies conventional categorization.
Pauli Murray Dark Testament and Other Poems
Pauli Murray (Liveright, 2018).
This sole book of poems by civil rights activist, scholar, and lawyer Pauli Murray (1910–85) speaks to the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow and the dream of racial justice and equality.
Reinhold Niebuhr Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics
Reinhold Niebuhr (2nd ed.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
This study in ethics and politics by religious intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) argues that individual morality is intrinsically incompatible with collective life, thus making social and political conflict inevitable.
Walter Rauschenbusch Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke up the Church
Walter Rauschenbusch (ed. Paul Raushenbush; HarperOne, 2009).
The classic text by theologian and leader of the Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), is updated in this 100th anniversary edition with new essays by Joan Chittister, James A. Forbes, Jr., Stanley Hauerwas, Phyllis Trible, Cornel West, and others.
Maria Stewart America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches
Maria W. Stewart (ed. Marilyn Richardson; Indiana University Press, 1987).
An introduction to and selection of the works of Maria Stewart (1803–79), influential activist, abolitionist, and public speaker, and the first black American to lecture in defense of women’s rights.
Mary Church Terrell The Progress of Colored Women: Three Civil Rights Speeches by the First Black Woman to Receive a College Education in the United States of America
Mary Church Terrell (Pantianos, 1898).
A biographic introduction accompanies this collection of speeches by Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), a lifelong civil rights activist and advocate for equality and social justice for black women who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women.
Howard Thurman Jesus and the Disinherited
Howard Thurman (reprint ed.; Beacon Press, 1996).
Acclaimed theologian and religious leader Howard Thurman (1899–1981) deeply influenced leaders of the civil rights movement with his classic treatise on how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.
Frontispiece of David Walker's Appeal David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World
David Walker (ed. Sean Wilentz; Hill and Wang, 1995).
This landmark pamphlet by abolitionist David Walker (1796–1830) was one of the most radical attacks on slavery and white racism by a nineteenth-century African American.


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The Interreligious Resilience of Varanasi

Kalpana Jain

Illustration of five silhouettes drawn like loosely woven fabric with the figures edges woven into each other.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj.


In July 2018, in yet another case of violence against minority Muslims, a man was lynched for allegedly killing a cow. This is not an isolated act of such horrific violence. Ever since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a rising Hindu nationalism has targeted minorities. A month earlier, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was brutally raped and killed, reportedly to drive her nomadic tribe out of the area. In the past, mobs have lynched a number of Muslim men for consuming beef. Many commentators have pointed to the age-old animosities between these religious groups to argue that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together.

As someone who grew up in Meerut, a city with a 36 percent Muslim population in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, I am not unaccustomed to flare-ups between religious communities. But I never witnessed the scale and the spread of hatred that is going on currently. On September 5, 2017, my own friend and colleague at The Times of India, Gauri Lankesh, a critic of Hindu nationalists, was shot dead in one such senseless act of violence.

In my hometown, communal flare-ups were considered anomalies in an otherwise tolerant city. The “work of outsiders” were the words that my young ears heard, as communities came back together. Each festival was a time to celebrate diversity, as copious amounts of food traveled from home to home. On Eid, we would scoop up bowlfuls of sewains, sweet vermicelli loaded with nuts, from our Muslim friends, as much as they would savor our Diwali sweets. My parents did not hesitate to appeal to a different higher power, if that is what a well-wisher suggested in times of crisis, be it at a Sufi shrine or with an amulet with Qur’an verses from a nearby mosque.

No matter the differences among us, the fabric of our daily lives was made up of friendships and shared stories that wove our communities together. In my experience, despite the assertion of the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) that India is a Hindu nation, in small towns and villages this plurality is what still keeps India together. But now, the narrative of hatred is so strong and powerful that the aggressor, who was always considered an outsider in the years of my childhood, has, in some communities, become an insider.

Yet, at the same time, for many ordinary people—whether Hindu or Muslim—the stories they have learned through the generations are what they still tell each other. These are the stories that make India’s diversity so extraordinary.

I recently visited the ancient city of Varanasi. On the face of it, given the current spread of Hindu nationalism, Varanasi might appear to be a tinderbox. It is a major center for Hindu pilgrimage and is also the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Modi.

For its majority Hindu population, it is a city created by the Supreme Lord, Shiva, for his beloved consort Parvati, and where he continues to dwell in eternity. Its strong Hindu religiosity is evident alongside the river Ganga, where this city has existed for centuries. The ghats, a more than four-mile stretch of riverfront steps, built around the fourteenth century, are where devoted Hindus gather on any given day. These steps lead to the many temples, and also to the site of cremation, where Hindus prefer their final rites to be performed. Death in Varanasi is itself considered to bring salvation. A dip in the sacred waters of the Ganga is said to wash away all sins.

There are thousands of Hindu temples, but for the 28.8 percent of Varanasi’s residents who are Muslim, there are also hundreds of Muslim shrines and mosques. There are places of worship of many other faiths, too. The city is an important pilgrimage center for Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Barely six miles from Varanasi is Sarnath, the place where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

In its congested, dense lanes and byways, these multiple faith traditions live in close physical proximity to one another. Much of the city retains its ancient form, what scholar Diana Eck describes as lingering in “another era” and Mark Twain described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” Most lanes that lead into residential areas or marketplaces are so narrow that if midsize cars pass through, as they do, even pedestrians have to hop off the road. On either side of such a narrow passage could be a string of shops or residential homes. Hindus and Muslims often live in separate neighborhoods, but a true separation isn’t really possible in a city this dense. A Hindu neighborhood will gradually blend into a Muslim one, with only a mosque to make the difference apparent.

In this dense and close-knit city, it is not possible for one faith to live without the others. Interdependence, built over centuries, is nurtured and cultivated in multiple ways.

I went around the city of Varanasi and talked to a wide cross-section of the local population, across different faiths. What became clear to me is that, while each faith tradition might have its own religious spaces, beliefs, and rituals, in this dense and close-knit city, it is not possible for one faith to live without the others. Interdependence has been built over centuries, and it is nurtured and cultivated in multiple ways.

All the people I spoke to are acutely aware of the current environment of increased fear among minorities and the growing radicalization of nationalists, but they have sought to distance themselves from it. Unlike in my childhood, people did not point to an obscure, invisible “outsider” but blamed current politics. Professor Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, mahant, or chief priest, of Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, made his views clear. “I am a practicing Hindu, not a radical Hindu,” he asserted, in what appeared to be a clear reference to the increasing Hindu radicalization.

His temple is an important site for this discussion. It draws thousands of devotees each day, and it was here that the first terrorist attack against it occurred in 2004, when 28 people were killed. Today, this temple is at the forefront of interfaith efforts. One way in which it contributes to interfaith relations is through music, “a common, global language,” explained Mishra, who is an engineer by profession and a professor at the well-known seat of learning, Banaras Hindu University.

In 2016 and 2017 the Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali came from Pakistan to perform. There were tensions and protests, but the program was still conducted peacefully. The fact that a Muslim from Pakistan was invited, and that he agreed to come, both warrant attention. How the event played out is a reminder of the deeply fraught, centuries-old history of Hindu-Muslim tensions, but at the same time it exemplifies how these two religious communities can work (and have) through their differences. In his remarks, Ali communicated his desire, as an artist, to transcend any religious differences. He said to one journalist, “I have nothing to do with politics. I came because I was invited. Whether they love me or abuse me, I will continue to sing. Hanuman ji has called me here.”1

That people did not want political interference or religious or national division was demonstrated by the large numbers who turned up to listen to Ali. Despite the threats, the event was a huge success.

What is important to note is that such peace efforts are not a recent phenomenon. This is a city that has been through many waves of destruction and reconstruction. The first Muslim crusaders came around 1000 CE, followed by many more conquests in which religious sites were destroyed. Sharing this common space would not have been possible without instituting practices that could keep peace between the different religious communities.

One illustration is a practice during the Shi’i observance of Muharram, which Mishra described. Shiite Muslims observe the first ten days of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and his family. The procession involves carrying the tazia, a paper and bamboo replica of the tomb of Hussain, through the lanes of the city. Horses decorated for battle, with swords, are also taken out in the procession, in memory of Hussain’s horse. Interestingly, in Varanasi, the custodian of the horse is a Hindu family. The procession cannot move without their participation. This observance is also a time when the waters of the Ganga are not just sacred for Hindus, but for fellow Muslims as well. In much of India, there is a tradition of burying the tazia, but in Varanasi, until recently, the tazia was immersed in the sacred Ganges—as is Hindu custom. (This practice has stopped recently in an effort to stem the uncontrolled levels of pollutants streaming into the river.)

These stories are told as much by Hindus as by Muslims. I met Siraj Ahmed Shah, a Muslim weaver, and one in the twelfth generation of his family to continue this trade, in his modest double-storied home, to ask what, if anything, has changed in the current environment. Shah started off by telling me how he has “lots of Hindu friends” and how he gets “lots of love in Banaras.” Given that he was talking to a non-Muslim, it is quite possible that Shah hid his deeper fears. But it is the conversation that followed that is important to understand.

What I heard, as did his two small children, sitting in his lap, were the stories of Hindu-Muslim amity that had been passed down to him, through generations.

First, Shah urged me to partake of the dates he had served as part of his hospitality. The dates were from a Haj pilgrimage, undertaken recently by a family member. When I started to throw away the pits, he stopped me. “The pits have sacred value,” he said gently, for the dates had traveled from Mecca. That he knows he can say it to me without fear, and also knows that I will respect the religious sentiment, is a moment of appreciation for me of the deeper sense of oneness that was an important part of my growing-up experience.

As he became more comfortable during the conversation, Shah narrated one story after another to convey how, and why, his beliefs of unity have been formed. Some came out of his own experience and some were part of the popular lore. He explained how, each year, the Hindu festival of Holi is celebrated at the Sufi shrine. As popular lore goes, even in centuries gone by, when some Muslims objected, they were admonished by the pir, or Sufi master. In telling this story, he acknowledged the age-old tensions, the fears, but also the efforts, over generations, of Muslim religious leaders to sustain a harmonious bond.

His next words reminded me of what I had often heard growing up about the “work of outsiders”—that it was politicians behind the instigations. He said, “Banaras is a place where there are no differences, it’s all political. It’s all about trying to get votes. Someone who is truly religious does not do politics.”

He then narrated another story, which too was passed on over generations, of how a Muslim man wanted to watch the Ramlila, the reenactment of Rama’s life. Animatedly, even as sewing machines in the next room buzzed and more bales of silk arrived for processing, he described the sequence of events in this story: A man, working in the shop of a tailor—a reminder of Shah’s own trade—was keen on going for the last day of the Ramlila, but his employer kept him back. By the time he rushed out, he knew he would not be able to make it. It was then that a miracle happened: a heavenly voice asked him to stop and shut his eyes. It was a Sufi saint who interceded so that he could fulfill his desire.

In these stories and narratives were our shared cultures—Muslim and Hindu—and Shah, though years younger than me, understood them as deeply as I did. As he concluded, I wrapped up the pits of the dates, as I would the offerings from temples, to carry with me to bless my home in the United States. He further stressed this sentiment: “I always saw how Hindus and Muslims lived together. Religion spreads love. If someone gives pain, can he be Hindu or Muslim?”

As I walked through the streets of Varanasi, I witnessed, on the one hand, a Hindu fervor, as the devout headed to the temples, but also, on the other, Muslim religiosity, as a peaceful Muslim religious procession made its way through the city.

As I walked through the streets of Varanasi, I witnessed, on the one hand, a Hindu fervor, as the devout headed to the temples, but also, on the other, Muslim religiosity, as a peaceful Muslim religious procession made its way through the city. In those narrow lanes, the majority Hindus moved to one side, to allow its passage. In the dizzying diversity of the city, such scenes of harmony can be seen at any given time or place, and within any community.

By the banks of the sacred Ganga, Christian communities have also found acceptance. Father Yann Vagneux, a priest with the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), came to India when he was 21 and has made Varanasi his home for the past six years.

He agrees there are religious and political tensions, but he also gives examples of how communities are trying to bridge the gap. Since 1952, three communities of nuns have settled along the banks of the Ganga—a river so sacred that Hindus immerse the final ashes of the physical body, following its cremation. It is not only along the banks of this sacred river that Hindus share their religious space, but also right in the heart of their main pilgrimage center, for one of the order’s contemplative communities, Mariammae Ashram (Mary’s home), is situated close to the Vishwanath mandir, which for Hindus is the abode of the lord of the city, Shiva.

To understand the deeply religious significance of this place for Hindus, think of Christians making a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That Catholic nuns have found acceptance at a site as holy as this speaks to how accustomed the city is to its multicultural and multifaith fabric. Putting this in context, Father Vagneux asks, “Can you imagine a small community of Muslim maulanas going to the Vatican and asking for a place to live and hold namaaz?”

For its part, the Catholic Church regularly organizes interreligious meetings around major festivals such as Diwali and Eid. On the occasion of Christmas, different faith communities gather for an hour-long prayer service at the invitation of the church. Father Vagneux describes witnessing in these interreligious gatherings what might defy the understanding of many devout believers. In his own room, where he gathers his friends, the Hindus chant shanti shlokas (peace prayers) for Jesus, the Muslims read the texts of the Qur’an that relate to the conception of Jesus, and other religious groups sing their proper songs. In the final rituals, everybody joins for the aarti, a ritual taken from Hindu practice, in which a prayer is sung before an image of Christ.

In every place I visited, diverse communities demonstrated their resilience against the emerging political narrative. The power of this resilience was not primarily in organizing interfaith meetings but in affirming and practicing traditions that are already so much a reality for the different communities.

In the temples of Varanasi, many of the Muslim disciples of Bismillah Khan, a Muslim maestro of the shehnai, a musical instrument that originally came to India from the Middle East, still continue the practices and traditions started by their guru. As Khan liked to say, he was a worshipper of both Allah and the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati. Today, no Hindu wedding is performed without the auspicious note of the shehnai, a rich reminder of the shared Indo-Mogul heritage.

Thus, I was not surprised when my conversations concluded with a beautiful rendition from the Bible, sung colloquially in the form of couplets in the local language, Bhojpuri, by none other than a Brahmin, Hari Prasad Dwivedi, now retired from his job at the government-run radio station, All India Radio. Present at the small gathering were many devout Hindus, both young and old.

In telling these stories, I want to be clear that I am not in any way minimizing the violence against minorities in India, or trying to put a gloss of any sort over the serious tensions that now exist. The truth is that, for many of us who grew up in India, such stories would be so commonplace that they wouldn’t be worth telling. So the telling of these stories is itself recognition of the current divisive environment.

At the same time, it is an attempt to reclaim the narrative from those nationalists for whom the plurality of India is a myth. At this point in time, narrating these daily conversations—between strangers and between friends—matters. The risk today is that if these stories are not repeated, then Shah’s children, or mine, will no longer understand the mystery of India’s 1.2 billion people, who live with multiple faiths, multiple gods, and multiple languages, while recognizing their oneness. There is a reason that Varanasi, despite its strong Hindu identity and the two terrorist attacks on its Hindu religious sites, has not seen violent incidents over beef eating, Muslim prayers, or other issues.

As the Muslim weaver in Varanasi told me, the date pits that traveled from Mecca to Varanasi, and now to my home in the United States, indeed have a sacred purpose. They symbolize the centuries-old practices of peace that keep these communities together, even in times of hatred.

In the end, it is up to each of us to decide which stories we choose to tell. But it is important to remember that the stories we tell will lay out the narrative that our children, and our children’s children, will go on to live. If we choose not to tell these stories because they are too ordinary, we risk losing them.

After all, it is the ordinary people, who, through what we might consider the ordinariness of their daily lives, build the extraordinary fabric of the day-to-day peace that the world benefits from—at least on most days.



  1. Siddhant Mohan, “Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Music Festival Continues to Preserve Syncretic TraditionsThe Wire, May 25, 2017.

Kalpana Jain, MTS ’17, is a journalist. In addition to her HDS degree, she holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School. She worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, The Times of India, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2009. Her book Positive Lives (Penguin, 2002) is the first detailed account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.

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The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust

Modern Catholic sexuality is a dark and troubled landscape.

Robert A. Orsi

Illustration of a Church surrounded by a dark maze with a lone figure emerging from the door.

Illustration by Cornelia Li.


Would we who are scholars of religion not all agree—and who ought to know this better than we do—that on balance, in the long perspective of human history, religions have done more harm than good and that the good they do is almost always inseparable from the harm? I think we would. This is not to deny that religions have done and continue to do good things. But that I even have to utter such a correction—and that we scholars of religion feel compelled to do so, always, right after we speak what we all agree is a simple truth—shows the power of the idea that, in the end, religions are essentially good. It is so powerful and deeply embedded that rarely do we—who ought to know better—pause to stare into the depths of the truth that religions have, over time, done more harm than good before we scramble up toward the warm sunlight of good religion.

Sometimes, we might observe, if we are inclined to be irenic, that the harm a religion does is a distortion of its true identity or of its essence; or we might specify the features that identify a particular religion as harmful, carefully setting a boundary between it and good religions; or we might say, if we are sociologically or historically inclined, that the harm a religion does is attributable to environmental factors. Some might even affirm in a heroic spirit of theological brutalism usually, but not always, associated with muscular male Christianity, that yes, religion, specifically Christianity, is hard, that the Christian God is a hard God, as is the world this Christian God has made, as are the things this Christian God may demand of humans, things that may go against our natural inclinations or that contravene the pallid decencies that less heroic men and women mistakenly identify with the good. In this case, the harm that religions do is embraced and called not just ethically good, but holy. Or some might say, in a spirit of theoretical rigor, that the assertion is poorly framed; that every word in it—“religion,” “harm,” “good,” “perspective,” “human,” “history”—carries a history; that this history is marked by the violence and presumptions of racism, sexism, or the hierarchies of social class; that in any case, such words mean nothing apart from their place within particular linguistic and semiotic structures, within specific ontologies and epistemologies; that used naively and un-self-critically, such words mistake the contingencies of personal prejudices for timeless truth. This is all true. I have said much of this myself in my work over the years. But still, I say, and perhaps we agree, that in the long perspective of human history, religion has done more harm than good and that the good it does is inextricable from the harm.

Please don’t think that what I have said so far and will go on to say are the sentiments of a cranky hater of religion of the sort that characterizes the inevitably short-lived but much-touted public performances of atheism in the United States.1 If you know my work, you know this is not me. I was raised in a devout Italian Catholic home. I served as an altar boy in my parish until I left for college. This means that throughout my childhood and adolescence I was at Mass many times during the week, often in the early hours of the morning, when the Bronx was held by a deep and peaceful stillness that seemed sacred to me. I have never met anyone more sanely religious than my mother, who managed to hold together throughout her life a deep and sustaining love of Jesus, Mary, and the saints with an abiding contempt for the pretentions to power and the capacities for cruelty of the Catholic Church, especially of various cardinals of New York, for one of whom, Cardinal Francis Spellman, she worked as a secretary in the Military Ordinariate when she was just out of high school. My mother is dead now, but if she hears me, as she sometimes, not always, believed she would be able to do after her death, I know she will understand when I say on this day that I am disgusted with Catholicism and, by extension, with all religion.

What I want to offer here is a phenomenology of the disgust of a scholar of religion, of its dangers, but also of what I have come to see not only as the inevitability of disgust in the life of a scholar of religion, but more, its usefulness on many levels, emotional, psychological, existential, and intellectual. I will be talking about my disgust with Catholicism for the most part, but let me say at the outset that I am also assuming that there are others here today who have reason to be disgusted with what they study and that they are ready to talk about this with me and with each other. Perhaps some of you are disgusted, for instance, by how cravenly evangelicals have embraced political corruption in the United States today in order to advance the allegedly Christian agenda of ostracizing and harassing young LGBTQ people, curtailing women’s reproductive rights and basic health care, and reviving a toxic white Christian nationalism. I know, I know, not all evangelicals, just like not all priests, not all bishops, not all congregations . . . but I am not talking about these other ones today, and anyway this is just another way of avoiding the question, and the disgust. The ecumenicism of disgust aside, however, it may be that disgust is a distinctly Catholic emotion, given that the central act of worship in Catholicism, the sacrament of God’s real presence, is the reception, ingestion, and digestion of the consecrated bread and wine, which is to say God’s body and blood, in the community that gathers for and is constituted by this practice. It is not surprising that I, as a Catholic, am disgusted with Catholicism. But then again, most religions, I daresay all religions, offer practitioners the opportunity on some occasion or another to eat, lick, kiss, or drink something, and so disgust may be a potentiality of all religions. In any case, I am assuming that in a group of scholars of religion there will always be, or ought to be, some percentage that is thoroughly disgusted.

The word “crisis” for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if “crisis” includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up.

My disgust with Catholicism has been growing for a long time. For the past ten years or so, I have been immersed in the sheer horror of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. “The sexual abuse crisis” refers to the sexual violation of Catholics by their priests, first of all, and, second, to the protection of these priests by their bishops and religious superiors, who were quite often themselves involved in illicit sexual activities. The word “crisis” for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if what is meant by “crisis” includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up. The psychologist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who spent his life studying the sexual behavior of Catholic priests, has written that on the evidence of his practice and research, at any time no more than half of all Catholic priests are living in faithfulness to their vow of celibacy. Sipe passed away in August 2018, and I would like to take this moment to say that, had the ranks of Catholic saints not been compromised by some hasty recent additions I would not hesitate to affirm that Richard Sipe is a saint. Scholar of religion Mark Jordan refers to Catholicism as an “empire of closets.” Priests have been sexually active throughout the modern era (and before, but I am primarily concerned with the post-Trent period), with children and adolescents, with nuns, with seminarians, and with each other, depending on the nature of individual priests’ needs and inclinations; these sexual activities have taken place in churches, rectories, convents, and schools, in the missions, in orphanages, in mother and baby homes, and in private residences, often owned by priests’ families—basically everywhere.2

Church authorities have known about all this, all along, and they have always taken a managerial attitude toward it. The agents of the Inquisition might be an exception to this; they seem to have pursued cases of clerical sexual misconduct not only seriously, but vigorously.3 Modern church authorities are generally without concern for the children, sometimes very young children, for the teenagers, or for the men and women of whatever ages with whom priests are having sex. Their primary concern has been the protection of the Church’s prerogatives, above all its political influence, property, and finances. The strategies for covering up the crimes and misdeeds of sexually predatory priests, as mandated by the Vatican and official church procedures, such as moving them around a diocese or out of the state or country, almost always resulted in further abuse, sexual, but also, collaterally, legal, emotional, and economic damage, as when church officials went after victims with high-powered and aggressive counsel or when parish workers who spoke out lost not only their jobs but the prospects of ever working in the Church again. The extent of the destruction is vast. Lay people at different times and in different places have more or less known about it all too; how they responded or failed to respond are questions for historical analysis. There is also, in other words, the destructiveness of pervasive bad faith.

There is no comparison between the stress the research might cause me and what the victims endured.

I am often asked whether this work is personally difficult for me. The question, as well-meaning as it is, always makes me uncomfortable, and I have usually responded by saying that while it is profoundly troubling to hear stories of sexual violence, against anyone, but especially children, it is the suffering and pain of the victims that ought to occupy the center of our attention. There is no comparison between the stress the research might cause me and what the victims endured. This was true enough until about a year ago, when I began working my way through the enormous cache of documents on Boston’s Father Paul Shanley. These included 30 years of correspondence between Father Shanley, who was known already to his classmates at St. John’s Seminary for his excessive and bizarre sexual appetites, and his various overseers in the Boston chancery. It was here, with Father Shanley, that the research began to get very difficult for me.

Father Shanley’s first assignment out of seminary in 1960 was to Saint Patrick’s parish in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where he immediately began sexually abusing boys as young as six. On one occasion, after listening in confession to a boy’s struggles with purity, Father Shanley demanded the boy masturbate him, calling this the “lesser evil” than the boy masturbating himself. He compelled another boy to masturbate him in the baptistry. On land he owned or rented in rural New England, Father Shanley had some sort of campground where he brought boys for weekends of sex; afterwards, on the way back to the city, he dropped them off at the church of a “brother priest,” as members of the clerical fraternity refer to one another, who absolved them of the weekend’s sins. By 1969, so notorious had Father Shanley become in the Boston archdiocese for his out-of-control sexual behavior that, in his own words, “no pastor in the Archdiocese will have [me]” as his assistant. This did not stop the aged Richard Cardinal Cushing from agreeing to Father Shanley’s plan to establish a residence in Roxbury for homeless youth, a population Cushing identified in the 1970 letter appointing Fr. Shanley to this ministry as “desperately need[ing] the solace of Christ in an increasingly impersonal world.” What they got, thanks to Cardinal Cushing, was a rapist.4

Fr. Shanley was an effective self-promoter: during his nine years in Roxbury he successfully cultivated a romantic image of himself as a hip young street priest who understood the problems and needs of Boston’s “alienated youth” better than other adults did, including their parents. He became a much-sought-after public speaker on the “youth problem” and, increasingly, on gay rights, for which he was an ardent—and ardently self-aggrandizing—advocate. As the 1970s wore on, Father Shanley’s belief that only he was courageous and bold enough to speak the truth about sexuality seems to have made him more and more aggressive in his public pronouncements on the subject—outrageously so. His lies become bolder in this period, his self-embellishment extravagant. Cushing had been succeeded by Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros, who clearly did not know what to do with the notorious street priest he had inherited. The aura of the late Cardinal Cushing’s support and affection protected Father Shanley. Everyone in Boston seemed to know that in the last year of his life, Cushing liked to drop by Warwick House, as Fr. Shanley had rather grandiosely styled his Roxbury apartment, after holiday dinners at his sister’s home. The cardinal died later that year. “I remember how Cardinal Cushing loved [Father Shanley],” Shanley’s longtime secretary, (Miss) Eileen Mulcahy, wrote to Medeiros in November 1971, “and how he came to Thanksgiving dinner with the street kids.” It is more than likely that Father Shanley dictated this letter.

In late September 1977, Fr. Shanley gave a talk to the Rochester, New York, chapter of Dignity, the organization of gay Catholics. This event came amid the controversy over the Declaration regarding Certain Questions of Sexual Ethics, issued in January 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Declaration is a complex document beyond the scope of this essay to consider. What is important for understanding Father Shanley’s talk was Rome’s reassertion of the (singular) “natural law” argument against sexual acts that “do not have their true significance or moral force outside of legitimate marriage.” These included extramarital sex, masturbation, and homosexuality. Fr. Shanley opened his talk in Rochester with the assertion that “straight people cannot tell the truth about sex” and then went on to say that no sexual act causes psychological damage to participants, not even bestiality or incest; that when adults have sex with children “the kid is the seducer,” not the adult; and that the only thing that harms children in these cases is when the police “drag” them in for questioning. (He later repeated this claim at a meeting of the Boy-Man love association in Boston.) All of this was faithfully reported to the Boston Chancery by a Catholic woman who had attended the lecture. She identifies herself in correspondence with the cardinal as a former nurse, the wife of a physician, and an anti-abortion activist. She was quickly impugned by church officials in Rochester, who challenged the presumptuous “tone” of her report—she was a woman, after all, and they were priests, one of them a monsignor—before they dismissed it and her.

Then, in November 1978, Cardinal Medeiros received a sharply worded letter from Cardinal Franjo Seper of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which had gotten hold of a set of audio tapes Fr. Shanley had made for public distribution, titled “Changing Norms of Sexuality.” In them, Fr. Shanley claims, falsely, to have been assigned to “full-time ministry to homosexuals” under Medeiros’s authorization. Seper asked Medeiros “to inform the Congregation of any steps you have taken or intend to take in regard to the spread of [Father Shanley’s] erroneous ideas and in regard to the position of Father Shanley.” Medeiros’s response, dated February 12, 1979, is anxiously defensive, not surprisingly. But of greater interest is his decision to cite in his own defense the new procedures for evaluating candidates to the priesthood he had introduced in the archdiocese, as a result of which, he writes, a “large number of homosexual men,” who otherwise would have been ordained, were “removed from the path to the priesthood.” It is as if he were reassuring Seper that he, Cardinal Medeiros, was as good at the carpentry of closets as any other Catholic authority. Then he puts the blame for Shanley squarely on Cushing’s shoulders (leaving open the question of why he himself left Shanley in place for eight years), and he concludes, “I believe Fr. Shanley is a troubled priest.” Shortly afterwards, Medeiros removed Fr. Shanley from the Roxbury ministry and put him back in parish work, although he reassured Shanley that this new appointment was not meant as punishment. To the sheep among whom he had put the wolf, the shepherd said nothing.

Ten troubled years followed. Cardinal Bernard Law succeeded Cardinal Medeiros in 1984, and in 1990, Fr. Shanley resigned from parish work and moved to the diocese of San Bernardino, California, vaguely citing ill health. To smooth the way for his reception, the vicar for administration of the Boston archdiocese, the Most Reverend Robert J. Banks, who knew full well Shanley’s history, writes to his counterpart in San Bernardino: “His Eminence, Cardinal Law, will appreciate whatever assistance can be given to Father Shanley. . . . I can assure you that Fr. Shanley has no problem that would be of concern to your diocese.” Officially, Fr. Shanley was on medical leave. He continued to collect his salary from the Boston archdiocese, which also paid his medical bills. He told the administrators back in Boston who were responsible for him that he was working part-time at a parish in San Bernardino. But since the archdiocese was sending his paychecks and reimbursements to a post office box, they in fact had no idea where he was. As it turned out, Fr. Shanley was operating a bed-and-breakfast for a gay clientele with a fellow priest in Palm Springs.

Illustration of a walking figure with his reflection below distorted
Illustration by Cornelia Li.

Throughout this period in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston, if a pastor of even the smallest, most remote parish wanted to make long-postponed repairs to the physical plant he was responsible for—say, for example, he wanted to purchase a new heater to replace the malfunctioning, dangerous, and unhealthy one he had been living with for years—he was compelled to enter into a protracted correspondence with chancery officials. His letters to them would need to be couched in the most deferential and obsequious language, while their responses to him bristled with mistrust of his judgment and contempt for his management abilities. A maintenance engineer sent out from the chancery to review the situation might suggest cheaper alternatives, or perhaps another contractor, one better known to the chancery, or he might propose temporary measures. These could be as specific as the advice given a South Boston priest in 1978 to change the location of a thermostat in the rectory.

Yet, between 1990 and Fr. Shanley’s conviction of sexual crimes in 2005, officials in the chancery, many of whom had known him since the seminary, treated his hectoring and abusive demands for money with the most exquisite respect, attention, and courtesy. They settled legal claims against him and, afterwards, with the greatest solicitude reassured him that he need not worry anymore. They rarely knew where Shanley was living. “I hope you are well, Paul,” Father William F. Murphy, delegate to the archbishop, writes Shanley in the summer, 1998, when Shanley may have been rooming with a young man in New York City, adding, “as always, I will help you in any way I can.” Two years earlier, Shanley had taunted the assistant to the secretary for ministerial personnel, Fr. Brian M. Flatley, who had inquired about his living arrangements, “Do you prefer that I have a female roommate?” (Father Shanley was a master of the misogynist non sequitur, a distinct genre of Catholic clerical discourse: when he is accused of sexual misconduct with boys or men, he often redirects chancery officials’ attention to the figure he knows they would all have agreed was the real threat to clerical celibacy, the priest-obsessed women in the parish who, Father Shanley alleges, are after him.) He tells his correspondents what to put in their reports on him. After Flatley visited Father Shanley in New York to check up on his living situation—and discovers the young male roommate—Father Shanley demands he add to the draft of the report Flatley has already shared with him, “There was no evidence of children present while I was there.” Flatley obediently does so. Father Shanley threatens, cajoles, and bullies, sometimes subtly, most often with obvious pleasure. He knows exactly what he is doing when he works the system. “Now that my friend and classmate John McCormack is a bishop,” he warns Flatley at one point, “I shall expect upgraded consideration and respect from you at every turn.” He informs Flatley, McCormack, and others that, for their sakes, to permit them deniability, he is not telling them the whole truth about his whereabouts or activities, thereby implicating them, in writing, with every letter he sends them.

Why did these men of authority, prestige, and prominence, who were empowered to loosen and to bind on heaven and earth; men who decided who might receive God’s body in good conscience and who were forbidden; men who demanded government recognition for Catholic moral teaching in setting hospital practice, prohibited abortion even in the most extreme cases of medical emergency, and denied contraceptives to employees of Catholic institutions that are underwritten by federal funds; men who extended their hands even to the most powerful that they might kiss their rings, why did these men behave so cravenly toward a rapist and pedophile who had so often embarrassed them, betrayed their faith, and endangered their Church? Perhaps it was solidarity among “brother priests,” secured by the enduring bonds of seminary friendships, with all the prerogatives that come with faithful allegiance to this network; or maybe it was genuine affection (which seems to have been true of Bishop McCormack); perhaps in some cases it was respect for what was seen as Shanley’s moral courage in the 1970s for speaking out against the Church’s teaching on sexual issues; or perhaps it was, as it is so often claimed, the risk of scandal (which is serious because of the grave threat it poses to ordinary Catholics who lose their faith on account of it).

Or maybe it was because of this: in September 1995, Fr. Shanley, fighting to stay in New York City on the Boston archdiocese’s payroll and health plan, reminds Flatley that he, Father Shanley, has abided by “every rule and restriction given me,” including that of never mentioning the “fact” that he had been sexually abused as a teenager “and, later, as a seminarian by a priest, a faculty member, a pastor, and ironically by the predecessor of one of the two Cardinals [sic] who now decide my fate,” a reference to Boston’s Cardinal Law and New York’s Cardinal O’Connor. Flatley forwards this correspondence to the New York chancery the next day, with the comment, “Some crazy stuff in there! He is an interesting character.”5

With this, we come at last to disgust. It took this long to get here because I could not speak casually or without sufficient warrant of my disgust with the religious world of my ancestors in Sicily and Tuscany, on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the Bronx, in which I was raised. Do you think this is easy for me? I needed to tell you what brought me to this horrible place. It is a defamation of the demand for justice by victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse and of its cover-up by Catholic authorities to attribute it to some passing reflex of modern anti-Catholic prejudice. It is also a defamation of my disgust.

Disgust lacks the cultivated reserve of the hermeneutics of suspicion that so easily slides into a posture of knowingness, with the reassurance of the scholar’s superiority over religious practitioners.

What distinguishes disgust from other responses a scholar might have to religious phenomena? Disgust is visceral and intimate; it is the power of revulsion in the body. Disgust lacks the cultivated reserve of the hermeneutics of suspicion that so easily slides into a posture of knowingness, with the accompanying reassurance of the scholar’s superiority over religious practitioners. Disgust brings the scholar directly into the horror; it represents the force of his or her body refusing to allow him or her to step back. It signals arrival at a point where critical analysis, for the time being at least, is not adequate to the reality encountered. Disgust is not shame; it is the rejection of shame and a step toward agency.

Contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists commonly view disgust as a device of social, moral, and ontological control, when disgust is caused, for example, by persons or behaviors that are transgressing racialized or gendered norms that have been granted the status of the natural in a given lifeworld. To be disgusted by another in such instances is not only to project onto him or her the judgments of the powerful, meaning those who determine the coordinates of the normal or the “natural”; it is to mobilize the other to underwrite the realness of that world he or she is said to be transgressing by his or her behaviors, or body, or by his or her very being. Disgust in this sense has been a powerful device in the hands of religious authorities generally, Catholic authorities in particular, against gay people (as in aversive therapies or rejection from the sacraments), women (as in menstrual taboos), trans persons, and others. Likewise, we ought to pay special attention and take particular care when we find ourselves disgusted by the behaviors of the poor or the needs of the sick, by the smells of poverty or sickness, or by the inevitable breakdown of the human body.6 Not to be attentive to the dangers of disgust poses the risk that my unexamined disgust may be directed at actions that are merely unpopular or unfamiliar to me, or that perhaps my disgust is not directed at actions at all but at categories of persons. But these things do not disgust me. When I am so attentive, when I take the necessary care, I discover that my disgust is on the other side of critique. I know, I know, I know . . . but I am still deeply disgusted. And I am proposing to take disgust itself away from the powerful and use it against them.

I am disgusted with them not for who they are, but for what they have done, what they have permitted, and now for what they refuse to say or do in order to atone for their years of complicity and criminality and to prevent the recurrence of this horror. I am disgusted by the cowardice, venality, and cruelty of diocesan administrators, by their failure first to recognize the grievous harm done to persons in their care, then to empathize with their sufferings, then to protect them, and then to take responsibility for these failures. I am disgusted by the strange sadomasochistic rituals that some prelates have offered by way of expiation that only reinscribe the very dynamics of abuse from which sexual violence emerged and that empowered them.7 I am disgusted by what priests and bishops did to children, to their bodies and to their minds, to the rest of their lives, and I am disgusted that they knew all along the harm they were doing, over and over again. I am disgusted by what they did to families and to communities, and I am especially disgusted that they said they were doing all these things in God’s name.

Disgust makes it all but impossible to fall back on the good religion/bad religion distinction. I say “all but impossible” here because I know, as I said earlier, how deeply pressed this distinction is into our bodies and minds as modern people. I want to say: but no . . . think of—[insert here the name of a good priest]. But disgust reminds me that this good priest knew what was going on with his “brother priests,” that he colluded in the discourses, practices, and privileges that turned the vulnerable into victims. But no, I want to say again, think of—[insert here the name of a religious institute dedicated to good works]. Disgust reminds me of the sexual abuse of indigenous people at the hands of Catholic missionaries who claimed a vocation to go and care for them in the United States and around the world, of those who knew about it and tolerated it in the name of something higher, and of the sexual abuse of orphans, of children with disabilities, of drug-addicted teenagers.

Please make no mistake about this: it is impossible to separate “religion” here from the rape of children, young people, women, seminarians, and novices. “There is no one” among the victims of clerical sexual abuse, a survivor I got to know well named Monica told me, “who was not abused in a Catholic way.” Here is an example of what you find in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: “Victim three reported that, while he was an altar boy, Father Ed, as the boys called Parrakow, told the altar boys not to wear any clothing under their cassocks because God did not want any man-made clothes to be worn next to their skin while they were serving Mass. Parrakow also told the boys their cassocks had been blessed and were meant to be worn next to the skin.”

Disgust teaches me that the history of religion is always also a history of perversions…in the sense of perversions as fundamental to the constitution of a religious world.


Disgust directs us toward the painful truth of religion in human life beyond the bourgeois pieties of “religion” as it is defined and policed in the modern era. Scholars of religion are exquisitely attentive to how religion is implicated in social questions—and Christian scholars of Christianity’s efforts to practice a social gospel; they are less attentive to religion’s inextricability with human beings’ most basic drives and impulses, with sex, with aggression, with the dynamics of domination and submission, sadism and masochism. These exist even among the ostensibly good religious practitioners, as the history of the civil rights movement attests, for instance, or as we now know about the pacifist John Howard Yoder. Such dynamics do not exist apart from the realities of particular social environments and structures of power. But neither is the reverse true, that we can account for the dynamics of a religious world in purely social categories without examining the movement of these subterranean currents, which are themselves born of the peculiarities of particular religious worlds. There are theological, historical, and social reasons why priests fantasized children as objects of their desire—and why John Howard Yoder aimed to control women theologians sexually—but the desire is real and takes on a life of its own. Disgust teaches me that the history of religion is always also a history of perversions, not in the sense of “perversions of the original goodness of a religious world” but in the sense of perversions as fundamental to the constitution of a religious world.

What I understand now is that the dark and troubled landscape of modern Catholic sexuality, and therefore of modern Catholicism itself, has been the normal, everyday life of modern Catholicism. This is not a crisis. It is the modern Catholic normal, finally disclosed for all to see clearly. What Richard Sipe’s claim that no more than 50 percent of ordained men at any time are living in faithfulness to their vow of celibacy translates into as lived experience is that priests and prelates are always in possession of sexual dirt on each other. This makes every priest intimately vulnerable to the network of “brother priests,” but it also gives priests a measure of control over it. It is there to be manipulated for their own purposes of power and sex. Secret sexual knowledge is the integument of the network and its operating principle. This is the sexual modernity created in large part by the Council of Trent’s insistence on maintaining clerical celibacy. In grand jury reports, victims’ testimonies, and perpetrators’ dossiers, the relationship between ordination and sexual privilege, between what is permitted to priests and forbidden to lay people, is on display for all to see. All this sexual activity has taken place in the context of official and unofficial repression, denial, secrecy, and moral condemnation, with their attendant stimulations, permissions, and excitement. This has facilitated the sexual exploitation of children, young people, and women, rendering them silent by canonical decree, legal agreement, and public shaming. The modern Catholic normal has been a dangerous, violent, and horribly destructive environment.

It feels to me that disgust is the final step in the explication of the idea of lived religion. On the other side of disgust is a clearer vision of how religion is actually lived in everyday life, with its intimate cruelties, its petty as well as profound humiliations, its sadism and its masochism, its abuses of power, and its impulses to destroy and dominate. We know there is more to religion than this. But we ought to know as well, and never forget, that there is nothing to religion without this and that even the more of religion, religion’s really realness, is implicated in horrors.



  1. On a recent, much-touted public performance of atheism, see Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Fry, The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Sparked an Atheist Revolution (Random House, 2019); for a longer historical perspective, see the excellent study by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press, 2016).
  2. In general, it is difficult to imagine that relations between a layperson and a priest might be consensual, given the priest’s ontological superiority and privilege within this particular religious world; yet it seems necessary, if only in recognition of the diversity of choices humans make and respect for human complexity, to allow for the possibility of consensual relations between priests and others in specific circumstances.
  3. See Stephen Haliczer, Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned (Oxford University Press, 1996).
  4. All documents referenced here may be found under Shanley’s name at bishop-accountability.org (BishopAccountability.org: Documenting the Abuse Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church).
  5. Recently, more disclosures about prominent authorities, including Cardinal Spellman, are coming to light. Lucian K. Truscott’s account in salon.com (“I Was Groped by a Man Called ‘Mary’: The World Changes but not the Catholic Church,” February 9, 2019) describes Cardinal Spellman’s multiple attempts to grope him, with three other people present in the room, when he was a West Point cadet.
  6. For a powerful example of the philosophical inquiry into disgust, see Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2018), 256–61.
  7. See, for example, Rick Rojas, “Catholic Archbishop, on His Hands and Knees, Begged for Forgiveness over Abuse,” The New York Times, March 8, 2019.

Robert A. Orsi holds the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Religion Department at Northwestern University. His award-winning books include The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (Yale, 1985, 2nd ed. 2002), Thank You, Saint Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale, 1996), and Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them ( Princeton, 2004). His most recent book is History and Presence, published in 2016 under the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press. He is currently at work on a book about the role of Catholic sexuality and sexual abuse in the formation of boys at a Jesuit high school in New York City in 1967–71.

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The Urgency of Now

There are many entry points into building inclusion.

Celene Ibrahim

Illustration of a woman wearing a traditional Muslim head covering

Illustration by Yusef Abdul Jaleel, from Covered: Celebrating Muslim Women.


These excerpts, from the introduction and four other essays in One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets, edited by Celene Ibrahim, are used by permission of Wilpf and Stock Publishers © 2019.

I am presently a scholar and chaplain in the extremely diverse and multicultural urban center that is greater Boston. Each time I hear Mayor Marty Walsh’s voice blaring over the loudspeakers at Logan Airport proclaiming Boston to be the “Hub of the Universe,” I am reminded of my context. Hyperbole aside, the rising generation is the most ethnically diverse America has ever seen. American Muslims are themselves the most ethnically diverse of America’s faith communities, and the majority of us are under forty. Even in the face of severe anti-Muslim bias, our generation, our children’s generation—and whoever comes after generation X, Y, and Z—will help shape an America that is more multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious than ever before.

If you are thinking this is a rather scary prospect instead of a delightful and exciting one, I am glad that you are reading this book and hope that you will continue to read. And to be clear, I still do live in a primarily rural area, which I adore, and I own a Dodge Ram pickup truck,1 which I proudly drive wearing a headscarf. You can take the girl out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the girl!

I actually am not an anomaly. Every so often, I return to my old neck of the Pennsylvania woods and note that—like many parts of rural America—the residents have diversified a bit with respect to religion and ethnicity. There is even a mosque a short drive from my hometown that gets packed to capacity on Fridays, and the city of Allentown, where I was born, now hosts an impressive enclave of Muslim teachers providing instruction in traditional Islamic sciences. My father, once the “foreigner” in rural Pennsylvania as an Italian fresh from the Bronx, now has a retirement job as the town constable. Italians are no longer the foreigners in this country; there are newer kids on the block who have to stand tall and face down the ridicule.

In our current hometown in rural New Hampshire, my daughter is most likely the first “hijabi” (headscarf wearing person) that the vast majority of her classmates had ever befriended. She initially got many blunt questions to the effect of: “Why are you wearing that?” The real answer: The alternative option I gave her was to brush her hair in the morning, which seemed to her to be less convenient at best, and a complete waste of time at worst—basically useless (apparently in the same category as making the bed). Getting from bed to school in record time is the pragmatic angle of the hijab; the subtle angle is that she is genuinely proud to be Muslim. She is proud to be American and proud to be Egyptian too, which, she insists, makes her African American: isn’t Egypt in Africa? These are integral parts of who she is and how she understands herself in the world.

For her teachers and classmates, their sustained interactions with her put a face and a personality to what might otherwise be a stereotype. Who are Muslim girls? They are softball pitchers and cat lovers; they can be precocious and—against the stereotypes—quite assertive. Rahma2 in Arabic means “compassion” or loving mercy”; her name harkens to both the Arabic word for the womb and one of the most prominent epithets for God in the Qur’an. However, she is better known to her friends and teachers as “Rocky,” a nickname my father gave her because he could not pronounce the breathy “hhh” of the Arabic, and, apparently, because he liked the idea of his grandchild being named after a fictional boxing icon. Somehow, it fits.

Naming aside, there are immense challenges in parenting in a sociopolitical environment where hate, against Muslims and others, is rampant and increasingly normalized. As a parent, I am mindful of the toll the political zeitgeist has on youth. The increase in hateful rhetoric, the incidents of race-based violence, the insecurity immigrants feel, and bullying are issues we talk about regularly at home: we have to. One such conversation, in particular, is etched into my mommy-memories. The weekend after the initial signing of the legislation known widely as the “Muslim Ban,” my daughter piped up at bedtime: “Mom, we are citizens, right? What’s the worst they can do to us?” Oscillating for a moment between my impulse to shelter her and my urge to equip her with the knowledge she will need to navigate the world, I replied, “Anne Frank saw the worst that can happen.” She understood the high stakes. I continued, “but there are a lot of people who are working tirelessly to ensure something like that never happens here.” We had read the diary together when the proposal of a “Muslim list” was initially embraced with gusto by a cohort of powerful American politicians, including the current president of the United States. After a moment, she inquired pensively: “Why do they want to put us on a list anyway?” We had discussed Islamophobia before, but I again went through my spiel about how some politicians win votes by depicting Muslims as a danger to society. When I had finished my piece, she launched into a monologue, the parts I remember most vividly being: “We’re dangerous? Seriously? Are they going to put baby Noura on the list too, because they definitely should, because she is wicked dangerous!” Noura is a daughter of our family friends, and her name harkens to a divine epithet meaning “light.” However, Rahma, equipped with her ever-sardonic sense of humor and a marked dislike for babies, continued unabashedly: “Mom, have you smelled her stink bombs? They’re deadly.”

I am grateful for my daughter’s resilience, but I also want her to appreciate the enormous privilege of her education, her American citizenship, and the relative stability of her day-to-day life. I want her to recognize that these privileges come not only with the promise of civil protections but with the duty of civic engagement. At least, that is the point I was trying to make when I shared with her the news of one of my mentors, Dr. Ahmed Ragab, who had just been arrested for protesting against policies that attempted to suspend DACA.3 This all transpired on the very day that Dr. Ragab had become an American citizen in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, just like Rahma’s own father had.4 As I shared the story, I felt Rahma’s preteen eyes glaring at me quite bemused. Arms crossed at the chest, she was peering over large-rimmed glasses poised on her nose: “So you’re telling me this because you want me to get myself arrested?” (Cue raised preteen squint.) “Not necessarily,” I said. (Cue best serious parent look.) “But I do want you to have the courage to take risks and stand up for what you believe is right.” She spent the next year as a “senator” at MicroSociety Academy fighting hard to get recess back for sixth grade. She even learned some valuable lessons from the fight: some days you win, some days you lose, but by June, you will definitely win because the teachers want to get out of the building just as much as you do. Moral: everybody can win when you seek common ground.

We have distinct priorities and diverse causes; some causes we carry on from the generations before us, others are unique to our times. Fifty years after the watershed year of 1968 that was such a defining historical moment for movements for peace; for racial justice; for immigrant, youth, and women’s rights, and many of us find ourselves engaged in similar struggles on the streets and within our civic institutions. In some moments the news seems hopeful, and in other moments we would be best advised to get the news from a late-night comedian; at least then we can cry and not be entirely sure if it is out of glee or despair. Throughout many such moments of mixed glee and despair, this volume took shape as an effort to speak out against the dangers of prejudiced ignorance and as a call for a greater recognition of our common humanity, in all its complexities and paradoxes, and in spite of all of our real and perceived differences.

In this collection, we turn to the voices of activists, ministers, rabbis, and chaplains. They approach their work in the world from a place of moral conviction—but readers need not have a particular faith background or heritage to appreciate the contribution that this book aims to make to public discourse. It is a book for those with Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and friends, for those who are Muslim or have Muslim family members, and for those who may never have had the occasion to strike up a relationship with a Muslim in the flesh, but who might seize the next opportunity. It may even be a book for those who think they probably dislike all Muslims but are willing to be persuaded that we have some redeemable qualities. I invite readers to enjoy the spirit of intellectual curiosity and occasional humor that animates these pages and to appreciate the willingness of the contributors to reach for meaning and connection in new ways and in unexpected places.

In order to build together, govern together, live together, we must make the effort to know one another. There are many entry points into this work of building inclusive polities, and many organizations and individuals doing brave and inspiring work. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these individuals and to convince them to write a reflection for this anthology or contribute their artistic talents. Because of my identity and life experiences, my push for greater literacy and inclusion is focused on making space for Muslims, in particular, as valued participants in American civic discourse and institutions. Hence, this anthology seeks to humanize Muslims and teach about lived Islam. It is my hope that such an effort can help, in whatever small way, to foster cohesion across our often divided social and political enclaves.

Each of us can contribute toward creating a polity that is, at least, a bit stronger—or greater—than the one that we have inherited. This great, strong polity cannot tolerate bigotry in its midst. Realizing a vision for a truly pluralistic society requires all of us. I am convinced of the dire need—the obligation even—that we have, as residents of the United States, and as human beings, whoever we are, to reach beyond our social and political niches, niches that can all too easily become homogenous and confining without our conscientious efforts. Developing literacy in issues related to the religious and philosophical diversity in our midst can even be thought of as a civic duty.

Much in this spirit, the volume’s contributors address themes such as anti-bigotry activism, radical hospitality, spiritually grounded efforts for socioeconomic justice, and more. Drawing upon reflections, poetry, essays, sermons, photography, and protest art, the book highlights different kinds of efforts—from the pulpit to the streets—to move American public discourse and civic institutions toward a more robust vision of pluralism.

The contributors are all individuals who are mobilizing social change and opening up new and positive horizons for fostering public discourse related to religion and civic life. As their biographies and reflections in this book reveal, some contributors are at the forefront of efforts to push for greater diversity and inclusion at the grassroots level. Others have decades of experience leading on social issues from homelessness, to international conflict resolution, to promoting the arts as spaces of spiritual sanctuary. They have each inspired me with their wit, sincerity, and presence as they model how to engage creatively with human differences and as they make space for the human beings who are all too readily pushed to the social margins, villainized, and dehumanized. Their collective wisdom attests to the richness of encounters across difference as well as to some of the real struggles and limitations.

As the volume’s editor and curator, I have annotated throughout to provide further orientation on concepts that might otherwise be foreign to some readers. Apart from source citations, all footnotes are editorial contributions.5 Throughout the book, readers will come across simplified transliteration of Arabic terms. I have attempted to keep terminology to a minimum, except in places where I hope that particular terms will enter more fully into the lexicon of English speakers. I’ll know that we have achieved some success in this regard when my spell checker stops converting “minbar” to “minibar” and “dhikr” to “liquor.”6

. . .

I hope that this anthology will both inspire and challenge, entertain and provoke. These pages offer the potential to enrich—or even to transform—the state of our spirits as we attempt to chart a course forward amid waves of rising bigotry and the tides of rising discrimination. I remain hopeful that we can live up to our highest ideals to be “indivisible,” to be one nation that honors our many different origins. Rather than hide, fear, exacerbate, or suppress our differences in creed and conviction, we can acknowledge and even embrace that we have a multiplicity of conceptions of what it means to be “under God.” And maybe, in the end, our ability to wholeheartedly welcome persons of different creeds and origins to this country is the epitome of being American (right up there with baseball and apple pie, folks).

We have different pulpits in different places, we have bimahs and minbars (and yes, some have minibars), but I encourage all of us, wherever we find our spiritual and intellectual homes, to tap into that imagination and mystery, that wisdom and that prophetic voice, to advocate for an American polity that is “indivisible” in its quest for liberty and justice, for all.


from A Seed Of Humility

Taymullah Abdur-Rahman

After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, many American Muslims, myself included, became defensive and hurt after having been wrongfully accused, surveilled, investigated, and suspected of plotting against the country to which we were loyal. So, when I entered Concord prison as Muslim chaplain, I was prepared to be a “defender of the faith,” embodying a kind of mythical archetype of the Muslim knight shunning evil, refuting falsehood, and defending the integrity of my religion and values. I had no expectations about how prison chaplaincy would in fact change me. Many small life-giving moments occurred during my formative years within prison chaplaincy, but two individuals in particular made an utterly unexpected impact on the way I understood my religion and values.

I shared a large chapel with the Protestant pastor, the Catholic priest, and an occasional visiting rabbi. We each had worship spaces dedicated to our specific tradition. One day, Father George, who was at the time working on his second master’s degree, asked if I would give feedback on his thesis comparing tawhīd (Islamic monotheism) and the Trinity. . . .

Father George’s essay asked questions about God’s transcendence, the use of force to protect the faith and faithful, and how to bring to fruition the preferential option for the poor described in the Gospels and echoed in the Qur’an. He concluded by exploring the ways in which synergy could be created around both faiths and their objectives to make a more morally just and compassionate world. Through this and other such encounters, I began to rethink what it meant for me to be Muslim and to have been placed by Allah in some semblance of a leadership position. What was I charged with? How was I to behave among other faith leaders? In a multifaith context, how should I model decency and civility for my Muslim students?. . .


from Let Truth Come

Matthew Blair Hoyt

The idea of submission, particularly to something that we cannot see or touch, may seem strange, even dangerous. For me, and I suspect for many others, this is largely the result of history. Submission, as a political idea, has had poor representatives arguing in its favor throughout time—every example from the neighborhood bully to the global tyrant argue against it. The list of men who have used the cudgel of obedience in tandem with the demand for submission could be endless. Thus, in our contemporary environment, submission is viewed negatively, as an indication of weakness, and sometimes as a cowardly succumbing to evil. But the idea of submission as a theological principle is different. As I have come to learn from my Muslim sisters and brothers, submission is the idea of acquiescing to the One God, the idea that men and women who seek the wisdom and blessings of an all-powerful God must first submit themselves to God and God’s commands.

I had no idea when I was a young boy that I was reading from the Qur’an, but I recognized truth when I saw it. This is largely because in my childhood home, my parents lived the ideas taught by the prophet Joseph Smith: “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can learn much from our Muslim friends and neighbors. The principle of submission to God, as taught in the Qur’an, confirms the truths in our own scripture. Together, these holy books witness that there is a Divine Power in the universe, and that our willingness to submit to God will yield more than we can see, more than we can imagine. . . .


from Mary, a Different Perspective

Lauren Seganos Cohen

What can the stories about Mary in the Qur’an teach us about the theological similarities between Islam and Christianity? What can the stories teach us about our perceptions, as Christians, of Islam and Muslims? Many women are mentioned in the Qur’an, but Mary is the only woman identified by her first name; her name appears thirty-four times in the Qur’an, which is actually more times than in the entire New Testament. Mary even has an entire sura of the Qur’an named in her honor. Muslims throughout history have admired and celebrated her as an example of faith for all believers. . . .

There are clear similarities between the announcement of the birth of Jesus in the Qur’an and the announcement of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. . . .

But there is…something that differs quite drastically between the New Testament account of Jesus’s birth and the Qur’anic account. In the Gospel of Luke, when it comes time for Mary to give birth, she is with her husband Joseph in Bethlehem, and she lays her newborn in a manger. But in the Qur’an, Mary is quite alone; in fact, she withdraws during the birth. In her pain and desperation, she even cries out, wishing she had died before this trial. The more I read this passage, the more I find it remarkable that this woman, one of the most highly regarded women in Islam, has so much in common with young, unmarried, pregnant women who are often stigmatized and looked down on by our society. . . .


from Intimate Strangers

Nora Zaki

As the intimate stranger that hospital chaplains are called upon to be, I saw the humanity in all these patients and the love and pain in the eyes of their family members. It is not always easy to be merciful and compassionate to strangers, and the vast majority of the people I visited with were from a different faith tradition than mine. I was even rejected by some patients because I was a Muslim chaplain, and I can say that the rejection and stereotyping hurt, even as I strove to rise above it. I reminded myself not to take such encounters personally, and that, well, I was not exactly the typecast image of a hospital chaplain, the white Christian man that some people might have expected when they called for a chaplain. . . .

Even when I came face-to-face with anti-Muslim bigotry that was expressed by the patients that I was called upon to serve, I took it as an opportunity to shrink my own ego and grow my own capacity for patience and compassion. This process of struggle against the lower impulses of the ego is called “mujāhada al-nafs” (struggle against the soul), and is very much at the center of Islamic character formation. The ultimate goal of such a spiritual struggle is to bring about a clean, pure spiritual heart (qalb salīm), a heart that is free from the “diseases” of greed, pride, hatred, and so forth, much like our physical hearts also need to be free of diseases to function properly. The Qur’an instructs human beings to come to God on the Day of Judgment with a sound heart (qalb salīm) because on that day, every soul possessing sound faculties will be responsible for the moral weight of his or her actions in the world. I believe it is incumbent upon me as a Muslim to be introspective and to take myself into account, rather than seeking to find faults in others. . . .




  1. Don’t stop reading either, my dear environmentalist friends. We mostly drive a fully electric vehicle and buy organic foods with reusable bags from local farmers. If it is possible to subsist on harvesting wild blueberries and sorrel, we are nearly in the category of homesteaders.
  2. This is a breathy “HAAAA” like you’re generating fog to clean glass. This is not—Hebrew speakers take special note—a scratchy “kh” sound, which, rest assured, Arabic is not devoid of, but which should not be heard at all in “Rahma”—at least not in her presence.
  3. DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program enables young people who were brought to the United States without immigration paperwork as children to secure government permission to reside and to go to school in the United States legally.
  4. Ahmed Ragab, “The First Thing I Did as a U.S. Citizen Was Get Arrested,” The Washington Post, September 13, 2017.
  5. I would like to acknowledge volume contributor Nora Zaki for her work in reviewing annotations for accuracy and clarity, standardizing Qur’anic citations, and providing other editorial feedback. All potential errors are, of course, my own.
  6. Minbar is roughly the equivalent of “pulpit,” and dhikr is a form of repetitive chanting, commonly of divine epithets and short prayers, as described in this volume by contributors Lynn Cooper and Cheryl Stromski.

Celene Ibrahim, the Muslim chaplain for Tufts University, graduated with an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School in 2011, and has a PhD in Arabic and Islamic civilizations from Brandeis University. She has authored numerous publications in the fields of Qur’anic studies, women’s and gender studies, and interreligious relations. Her monograph on women in the Qur’an is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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Tulip Fever

Adrie Kusserow

Each spring, when the sun finally dragged its paw
across the mangy, battered meadows, I’d wander,
light starved into the 1,000 tulips my Dutch
father planted, just as they opened their gaping
red and purple jaws. What an indulgence,
the farmers said, as they bitterly whacked the caked
manure off their black rubber boots. Still,
how I loved the tulips with such desperate hunger. In their presence,
my brain began its frantic hunt, ravenous
pounce, an almost violent pecking of metaphors,
similes flocking in like a murder of crows. For it
was in the ritual of perfect description I thought
I could be closest to them: Burning Hearts, lipstick streaked,
brazenly splaying their thighs. Queens of the Night,
standing aloof, regal rococo ruffles the color of eggplant.
Orange flames of the Fire Parrot black-beaked and wild,
guzzling wells of ink down their necks. Double
fringed white Angeliques, like a whole squawk of geese
flapping and nipping toward sky. The giant red Darwins,
shiny clawed lobsters, underbellies bulging and blue veined.

And yet it was a kind of torture to be separate from the tulips.
Hoping to swallow their beauty whole, I sucked on a petal, a mammoth
white lobe bringing nothing but a gagging fake communion.
Meanwhile, the squawking in the birdcage of my mind continued.
The shame and lunacy of it all. Didn’t I have
enough? Think of the farmers, forced to sell
their land, watching TV in the stuffy heat
of their trailers where I sheepishly delivered bouquets (on orders
from my father). As if this could make up for our glaring wealth,
I yelled at him one day. I didn’t know
that something mute and elemental would open,
as I sat throat deep in that field, and let the tulips
be, a kind of quiet softening in the bed
of my mind, that I would come to cherish for even
five or six seconds, when all the crows stopped pecking
and all the tender beauty of my father’s
last crop, by now pockmarked with such
desperate description, finally stopped bleeding.


Adrie Kusserow, MTS ’90, is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. She has had two books of poetry (Hunting Down the Monk and REFUGE) published by BOA Editions as part of their New American Poets Series. Her poems have been published in Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, The SUN, and elsewhere.

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See also: Poetry

Turning Ghosts into Ancestors in Contemporary Urban China

Making sense of Chinese religious life requires a new logic.

Anna Sun

Six women gather around an open flame to light bundles of incense

People pray in a Daoist temple in Shanghai during Winter Solstice. Photo courtesy Anna Sun.


It was the psychoanalyst Hans Loewald who said that his discipline was about “turning ghosts into ancestors.”1 However, I am using the phrase to address the deep, emotional impact of Chinese ancestral rituals in the context of religion, rather than Loewald’s context of psychotherapy, although the two cannot always be easily separated. My fieldwork in China, some episodes from which I will describe shortly, has compelled me to develop a new, theoretical framework for the analysis of ritual life. This involves a logic of religious practice—my debt to the sociological theory of Pierre Bourdieu is apparent—which is centered on the logic of prayer as “ritual rationality.”

I shall begin with an analytical definition of prayer, dealing with issues of agency, intention, sincerity, language, embodiedness, and forms of interaction with the divine. Instead of crediting religion with rationality by analyzing it through rational choice theory, or discrediting religion by challenging its truth-claims, as do the arguments of the New Atheists, I suggest that we should understand prayer as human social action for maintaining meaningful relationships with the divine, the dead, and the living. Ritual activities, including prayer, make sense to people—in the literal sense of the word make, as a creative act that opens connections with God, gods, or spirits of ancestors. People who are well versed in scientific rationality—such as the engineer in Shanghai or the environmental scientist in Beijing, both of whom I interviewed—are as likely to practice such rituals as those with no background in science, for ritual rationality is embedded in ritual action and engages reasoning in a different realm of life than that of scientific inquiry.

This is not only to say that ritual rationality co-exists with scientific rationality, but also to suggest that the boundary between the two is far more porous than might be assumed. Feminist critiques of “universal rationality” over the past 30 years have opened up new ways of thinking about reason and rationality as having multiple modalities, including a gendered dimension that permits epistemological acts of exclusion (Linda Martín Alcoff, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Elizabeth Anderson, to name a few). Theories such as “multiple situated rationalities” (Alister McGrath) and the view that what we think of as “secular modernity” might be understood as rooted in “a logic of fundamentalism” (Bruno Latour) further point to ways of challenging the prevailing modern dichotomies of science versus religion, propositional knowledge versus “superstition,” or belief versus magic. Indeed, it is time for us to examine the unspoken hierarchy in our intellectual understanding of religious life, which implicitly places doctrinal belief above ritual practice, a universal God above local gods and spirits, and established religious identity above a more fluid sense of belonging.

In any culture deeply attached to its traditions, as China emphatically is, despite the last 70 years of its political history, the creativity of ritual life is like a river flowing through a wide valley: no matter how much the river changes its course over time, its banks shifting like an undulating snake, the valley exists both as the foundation and the usual limit to the deviating course of the water. For the flow of ritual life over centuries in China, that valley is the ritual calendar, which the majority of contemporary Chinese continue to follow, hardly conscious of the temporal depth of what they are doing.

Although the Chinese ritual calendar is, of course, specific to China (with great regional variations in this vast nation), it is clearly far from unique in the world. Ritual calendars are essential parts of daily life for people in all religious traditions, including those of the contemporary Western world. Although an increasing number of people no longer have clearly defined religious identities—i.e., the religious “nones” (23 percent of the adult population in the USA in 2015, according to Pew)—many in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions still follow ritual calendars. But far more people who count themselves outside these traditions or any religious organization still pray (38 percent of religious “nones” pray at least monthly, according to Pew).2

Another important aspect of Chinese religious life can be analyzed through the metaphor of “linked ecologies” (in Andrew Abbott’s terms) of pluralistic practices, beliefs, and institutions. I suggest that there exists not a single ecological system of Chinese religious life, but a set of linked ecologies that are somewhat looser in overall structure than the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour would allow. This is where religious traditions, sacred sites, ritual objects, religious texts, and people engage one another as in a complex ecological system, with individuals managing and internalizing—in the terminology of Anne Swidler and Michèle Lamont—toolkits and repertories that allow them to develop varieties of ritual habitus, ethical outlooks, and spiritual connections.

As part of what I call “the Chinese religious ecological system” (or “Chinese religious system,” in short), there is a linked ecology of temple life, which refers to the ways religious organizations and sites coexist through competition as well as interdependence. The study of the linked ecologies of local temple life examines not only how temples in a given region coexist and thrive together, or fail together, but also how the linked ecologies of local social, political, and cultural life overlap with those of the temple.

The institutional and identity-based framework of an unacknowledged monotheism cannot do justice to the diversity of religious experiences in non-Western societies such as Asia.

My hope is that, through this new framework, we can begin to understand unfamiliar ritual life in a new light, free from the monotheistic bundle of assumptions with which the sociological analysis of religion (quite unintentionally) has often been saddled. Researchers are inevitably influenced unconsciously by the profound transformations brought about by the rise of monotheism in later antiquity and by its latest convulsion, at the Reformation. The institutional and identity-based framework of an unacknowledged monotheism cannot do justice to the diversity of religious experiences in non-Western societies such as Asia.

What is more, this monotheistic framework no longer works for much of the contemporary Western world today, because the number of people in the West who identify themselves as having “no religion” is steadily increasing, especially in younger generations. Within the framework of a ritual rationality concerned with linked ecologies of religious practice, it may become possible to ask what it truly means for humans to be religious and to pray in the twenty-first century.

My hunch was that I would need to begin by looking back far into the human past for answers about the present, for it appears that the Weberian model of modernity as “disenchantment” may need revision. Rather than being “liberated” from the enchantment of religion (or, on some accounts, being deprived of this enchantment), it looks as if, everywhere in the world and not only in China, we are falling back into the more ancient and enduring paradigm of religious life: multivalent, practice-oriented, and fluid.

This was the hunch that led me to the study of ancient Roman religion, especially in the first and second centuries, as a lens for considering practices in China today. And, of course, if analysis of the Chinese religious situation at present were to throw a little light on the study of ancient Roman religion, so much the better. As we shall see, some scholars in the latter field think this is so. They have been turning in my direction, as I have been turning in theirs.

Now, the juxtaposition of Chinese and Roman religions might be regarded as little more than a heuristic device, though a useful one, a large methodological strategy employing the tactics of social science. But I believe the similarity of the religious ecologies of ancient Rome and contemporary China are symptomatic of something much deeper in the historical development of human religiosity, or in the “evolution of religion,” to use Robert Bellah’s phrase (while modifying some of his claims). But to see where the models of contemporary China and early imperial Rome are pointing requires a religious imagination freed from the preconceptions of monotheism, and an understanding of rationality—in Pascal’s terms, reason—that is different from that of scientific reasoning: “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know: we know that through countless things.”3


There are two seemingly straightforward questions in the study of religion in China that are difficult to answer, the one definitional, the other classificatory. Are the Chinese religious? If so, which religions?

The difficulty lies not only in the various forms of conceptual confusion across different religious traditions (what do we mean by “religion” and “being religious”?), but also in the apparent uniqueness of Chinese religious practices (many of these don’t seem to belong to a particular religion). What makes the case of China fascinating is that such difficulty increasingly echoes what we also face while studying religions in other parts of the world, not only in the rest of Asia but also in the contemporary United States and Europe. Who is religious and who is not? How do we categorize people who say they don’t belong to a particular religion and yet still engage in ritual practices? The case of Chinese religion helps us to discover the fault lines underneath the complex and ever-changing phenomenon of religious life in general, and to open up a new way of inquiring what it means to be religious in the first place.

The first question—Are the Chinese religious?—is one that has long given social scientists trouble. In Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities,4 I show how the Protestant preconceptions of late nineteenth-century discourse concerning “the great world religions” have affected the way Chinese religions, especially Confucianism, are classified and understood today. A Eurocentric discourse based on a strong linkage between belief and religion leads to confusion when we study religious life outside Protestant Christianity. For instance, in the 2001 World Values Survey, to the question, “Do you belong to a religious denomination?,” 93.9 percent of Chinese respondents answered “No.” The number is about 87 percent in the “Spiritual Life Study of Chinese Residents” survey (Horizon 2007 Survey).5 The unwarranted conclusion from such an approach is that the Chinese are overwhelmingly nonreligious.

If, however, we focus on everyday religious practices, we find that at least 75 percent of people in China perform some combination of rituals, prominent among them rituals for the spirits of deceased family members (Horizon Surveys 2007 and 2016).6 Indeed, as many scholars, such as Talal Asad, Robert Weller, Kenneth Dean, and Diana Eck, have argued, a conception of religion that assumes the exclusivity of belief, conversion, and membership cannot capture what is distinctive about Chinese religions in particular, and Asian religions in general. The time has come for a more post-Eurocentric analysis of a non-monotheistic religious world, starting organically, from within. By from within, I mean observing what people do, as well as listening to their own accounts of their actions. It is our duty as scholars of religion to do justice to what is real in the lived world, and it is our duty, too, to make new conceptual tools that can make visible what we have been unable to see.

The second question—Which religions do people belong to in China?—is equally challenging. Scholars have been debating for years about how to understand the diversity of Chinese religious life and its apparent contradictions. For example, a single person visits different temples for different purposes: a Buddhist temple to pray for health or for fertility; a Confucian temple for success in school examinations; a Daoist temple devoted to a local god for protection of one’s fortune in business. In fact, the majority of Chinese perform rituals from different religious traditions largely indiscriminately, and in most cases without any religious institutional membership.

There is also the phenomenon of the so-called syncretistic religious practices, observed when, for example, Catholics perform ancestral rites or when Christians identify themselves as “Confucian Christians.” For instance, the Protestant taxi driver I interviewed in Shanghai, chary of engaging in idolatry because the pastor of his church explicitly forbade it, asked his neighbors to burn paper money (ritual currency, of no monetary value) for his ancestral spirits on his behalf on the ritual date of the winter solstice, so that the dead could buy warm clothes at the outset of winter. He was not doing this because he believed it to be effectual in any objective sense, nor was he doing it for narrowly therapeutic reasons. He was doing it to activate, and to remain active in, the ecology of relationships in which he is an actor—to connect himself not only to the dead but also to the living, and in particular to his own child, who would one day be doing the same thing for him.

Multiple religious actions of this kind are often performed without the actors having, or needing to have, any religious identity at all. How can we make sense of such apparent anomalies in Chinese religious life? If our ideas of religion are tied up with institutions and belief, the subtleties of what is occurring here will always escape us.

Contemporary China is a society in which widespread polytheistic Chinese religious traditions, from veneration of ancestors to worship of local deities, coexist with monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam. Today, China has the world’s eighth largest Christian population.7Religious practices, especially prayer, which coexist along porous boundaries between distinct traditions, demand a conception of religious rationality that does justice to such intrinsic multiplicity.


Three people hold open boxes of gift offerings while others in the background light incense

A family in Shanghai prays to the God of the New Year in a Daoist temple. Courtesy Anna Sun.


These questions have led me, over the past decade, to study various forms of prayer practice in China, mostly in urban areas. My fieldwork has taken me to 14 quite different cities. But my focus in the past five years has been on the metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Hong Kong. I have observed ritual activities at dozens of sacred sites, including Confucian temples, Buddhist and Daoist temples, Protestant and Catholic churches, mosques (including a women’s mosque), and shrines devoted to local gods. I have conducted interviews with over 100 people who have offered prayers at these sacred places. My focus has been primarily on urban religious life, because urbanization is the largest social trend in China today, but I have also been to rural villages where people still perform ancestral rites by the graves of their deceased family members. I also have a strong interest in charting the changing nature of gendered roles for women in religious life in urban China.

There are two other projects that provide the empirical foundations for my work. In 2006–09, I was co-principal investigator of the “Empirical Study of Chinese Religious Life” project (funded by the Templeton Foundation). We produced “The Spiritual Life Survey of Chinese Residents,” with 7,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in more than 50 locations in China. It is widely considered the best survey on Chinese religious life available today and is used by many, including the Pew Research Center.8 In addition to designing the survey with the other lead investigators, I conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork on temple life throughout the project’s duration. In 2013–16, I was co-principal investigator of the project “The Pursuit of ‘Blessed Happiness’ in Contemporary China.” Most of my interviews on prayer life in urban China were conducted during this time. In 2016 this project yielded its own survey, which was on the social determinants of a good life. Prominent among the questions were those regarding ritual practices.

In most survey data, as I have observed, as many as four out of five Chinese people see themselves as having no religion, a high proportion that cannot be explained away simply by the political situation in China, since the state does not criminalize most religious activities, or indeed membership in a religious organization. Not surprisingly, ethnographic research shows that there is in fact a rich prayer life in temples, shrines, churches, mosques, gravesides, and private homes. In fact, at least three out of four people engage in ritual activities annually, particularly the ancient Confucian ritual of ancestral rites.9 The thriving ritual life can be seen in some of the most metropolitan areas, drawing people young and old, professionals and migrant workers alike. China is one of the most vibrant religious societies in the world, where monotheistic and polytheistic practices coexist, often in unexpected, creative ways.

Through all these complicated byways of Chinese religious practices—and narratives concerning those practices—I walk the theoretical compass bearing first laid down by Marcel Mauss in 1909 in his unfinished book, On Prayer.10 I seek to discover new regions of practice that Mauss could not know but definitely knew how to find. For, by any sufficiently broad and unbiased measure of what religion means, it is not the case that the Chinese are less religious than the mass of people in the West, or even that they are less religious than people who belong to monotheistic religions. What needs to be explored is how they do religion differently, less officially, perhaps, but with equal or greater enthusiasm. I suggest that, far from being unique, the China case is archetypal, in the sense that we are seeing similar patterns arise today around the world: people are moving away from clear-cut religious doctrines and identities without moving away from ritual life. In the United States, for example, people who say they are “not religious” nevertheless still pray. By focusing on prayer life and analyzing its fundamental components, I hope to show what doing religion differently means in our pluralistic and global twenty-first-century world. For many reasons, the Chinese fasti are the best place to begin.

People who . . . declare they have no religious identity are constantly interacting with the sacred, often following an unwritten ritual calendar passed down from ancient times.

As I mentioned above, when I was doing research in the field in China, I was continually reminded of Roman religion in late antiquity, when temples for local gods and hero cults were found everywhere, coexisting and interdependent, even after the arrival of Christianity. With the significant exception of Christians, Muslims, and, to a lesser extent, Buddhists, most of the people who engage in prayer life have no self-avowed religious identity. And those who do, like the taxi driver to whom I spoke, maintain this identity within a larger ecology that is heterogeneous to it. People who, in answer to Western-devised surveys, declare they have no religious identity are constantly interacting with the sacred, often following an unwritten ritual calendar passed down from ancient times. They do it not for themselves but for the ecology of relationships, of connections, in which they are inevitably (and not, it appears, disagreeably) entangled.

I therefore find accounts of Roman religion in late antiquity—in the work of Jörg Rüpke, Peter Brown, Mary Beard, and Glen Bowersock, to name only the leading figures—to be the closest comparison to what I observe in the everyday religious practices of contemporary China. Although it may seem radical to make such a broad analogical connection across vastly different historical periods, when we take a step back and survey the scenes of ancient Roman religious life and practices in China today, we begin to see how a comparative analysis may lead to a deeper understanding of religion as a rapidly changing but fundamentally constant aspect of human nature, itself a very slowly changing phenomenon, with religion as one important driver of such change.

In the past two years, I have had the privilege of joining in conversations about urban religion, ancient and modern, at the Max-Weber-Kolleg at the University of Erfurt. These conversations are part of the “Lived Religion in Metropoleis” project led by the classicist and anthropologist Jörg Rüpke and Rubina Raja, a scholar of classical archaeology.11 It has been incalculably beneficial to my thinking and research to have a chance to share my work on contemporary prayer life in Shanghai with colleagues in classics, archaeology, and ancient history, and to learn from their fascinating projects on such subjects as solar worship in antique Rome (Michele Renee Salzman), the city as Jewish ritual space in late antiquity (Charlotte Fonrobert), and the cultural geography of Saqqara, the necropolis of ancient Memphis in Egypt (Lara Weiss).

My new friends appear to be interested in my research, as well. In November 2018, I delivered the keynote lecture at the conference “The Walking Dead: The Making of a Cultural Geography,” which took take place in Leiden at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Archaeology. I spoke of how my recent work in Shanghai in many ways mirrors the rituals performed in the ancient Egyptian necropolis, but in China the celebrants are still walking about the cemetery carrying offerings, cleaning and praying, laying out flowers, food, and wine. If you ask the right questions and listen, they will speak to us, and through them so too will those who have gone before—those who are as far back in time as the First Dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt.


Photo shows a woman's hands as she points to specific writing on a gravestone

A woman in Shanxi Province explains the writings on the gravestone of her deceased father. Photo courtesy Anna Sun.


Let me end with a story. In the autumn of 2016 I spent four months in Beijing for my fieldwork on prayer life in urban China. I was staying at Tsinghua University, a leading science and technology—oriented university on a large, leafy campus. It is often referred to as the MIT of China, although it also has strong humanities and social science divisions. The college where I resided, Schwartzman, was modeled after Harvard Business School. It was established as China’s answer to global elite business and policy education, funded by an American financier who wished to institute the Chinese equivalent of Rhodes Scholarships.

The first class of Schwartzman Scholars, a select international group of master’s students, arrived on campus when I did. Although I occasionally gave guest lectures on Chinese religion and politics, my remit was to focus on my ethnographic research on prayer life in Beijing, interviewing ordinary people who performed ritual activities in sacred sites. One evening in late November, I went to the sumptuous dining hall early for dinner, before a night of fieldwork, for this was a special date on the Chinese ritual calendar, the ritual occasion for “Sending Winter Clothes to the Underworld” (寒衣節 hanyijie).

In a survey conducted in January 2016, the team . . . learned that nearly 80 percent of the Chinese population participated in requisite rituals in the past year.

Mapped out on the traditional lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, which China adopted only in the beginning of the twentieth century, the Chinese ritual calendar prescribes certain dates of the year with differing degrees of ritual significance. Like the Roman Imperial Period fasti analyzed by Jörg Rüpke, the Chinese ritual calendar is both deeply traditional and surprisingly open to new developments in social and ritual life. It faithfully accommodates millennia-old designated dates from diverse religious traditions—Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, and many local traditions—as well as incorporating, through constant adjustments, contemporary legally demarcated dates such as national holidays. For Muslims and Christians (respectively, 1.8 and 5.1 percent of the Chinese population in 2010, according to Pew Research Center),12 ritual dates are unquestionably centered on Islamic and Christian calendars. But many also observe at least some of the dates on the traditional Chinese ritual calendar. It is astonishing how seriously people take these ritual days, especially in the increasingly urbanized and industrialized China of the twenty-first century. In a survey conducted in January 2016, the team of which I was a part learned that nearly 80 percent of the Chinese population participated in requisite rituals in the past year.13

The most important ritual date is the lunar New Year, often called “the Spring Festival,” which usually falls in February on the Gregorian calendar. People travel back to their hometowns to gather with family for the festivities. These are prepared for by elaborate rituals for ancestral spirits, often performed on a home altar or in an ancestral shrine on New Year’s Eve, and often on New Year’s Day as well. These rituals are called “ancestral rites” because they are addressed to the spirits of deceased family members. The Chinese term jie is often translated as “festival,” but another way to understand it is to think of it as a “significant date for rituals,” the way Ash Wednesday or Yom Kippur is not a celebratory “festival” but a date with great ritual significance.

The next most important ritual date is 清明 Qingming, which takes place in early April. Unlike the Spring Festival, this is a somber occasion, for it is the day when everyone—if one can manage it—is supposed to attend to the graves of deceased family members, usually one’s parents or grandparents. This often means traveling to one’s ancestral hometown where the graves are, and as a result this is one of the busiest times for travel over the entire country. At last, in 2008, the Chinese government bowed to necessity and made it a national holiday to better manage nationwide air, train, and highway traffic. The government was also acknowledging that most people would not show up for work anyhow.

On the day of Qingming, which I have observed in several cities over a 10-year period, people go to cemeteries to do what is traditionally called “grave-sweeping.” They sweep the gravestone and place fresh flowers on it; they offer to the spirits food and drink that they had particularly enjoyed in life; they light incense and candles; and they offer prayers. A particularly vital ritual is to offer the deceased “paper money” (also known as “spirit money”) by burning it at the grave. Fire reduces the paper to smoke and ashes, which is supposed to be the only way of transmitting money to one’s deceased family members in the underworld.

The paper money is not expensive: one can purchase a large wad of colorfully printed, fake million-dollar bills for a pittance. As I learned in an interview with a 30-something subway engineer in Shanghai, what matters is not how much money you send, but the very act of sending it. “Of course, there are no supermarkets or shops for the deceased to spend it in,” he laughed when I asked about the use of the money. “Also, if the money were real, imagine how bad the inflation must be in the underworld, for everyone is sending millions!” Clearly, the question of belief has been decoupled from practice.

There are a few other ritual dates involving ancestral rites in the summer and autumn, but one is especially significant in northern China: 寒衣節 hanyijie, the date for “Sending Winter Clothes to the Underworld.” There are great regional variations of the Chinese ritual calendar, with the exception of the most major ritual dates. In the north, 寒衣節 hanyijie (also called 十月一 shiyueyi) takes place in early winter, at the end of October, a traditional time to send paper money to the deceased. In the south, in Shanghai, for example, people do similar rituals in December, at the winter solstice. I had long hoped to observe the ritual activities related to 寒衣節 hanyijie in the north but never had a chance until I was at Tsinghua University that fall semester.

On the evening of 寒衣節 hanyijie, I had my camera and notebook ready when I went to the dining hall at Schwartzman College for an early dinner, knowing that the ritual activities would only start at night. But when I stepped into the well-lit hall, I was in for a surprise: there was a riot of sounds and colors around me, with exuberant students rushing about in strange and elaborate costumes. Several young men carrying what looked like objects for the stage—wooden swords, axes, and other traditional Chinese weapons—were dressed in clothes that must have been borrowed from the wardrobe department of the Peking Opera.

It was Halloween, of course. I suddenly realized that that year, 寒衣節 hanyijie fell on October 31 on the lunar calendar, which happens to be All Saints’ Eve on the Christian calendar. All around me there was a great party happening, with mostly American students leading the merriment, and others—European and Chinese—happily following. I was delighted by this unexpected festivity in Beijing, a place that has not yet added Halloween to its growing list of Western-style holidays. Halloween is probably as religious a holiday to young people these days as St. Valentine’s Day, which is to say, not at all. The spirits of the dead are acknowledged in theatrical reenactments, not in acts of communion. It was a time for celebration, for rejoicing in the simple fact of being alive, and unafraid of the dark.

As the jubilation was reaching its peak, I put on my winter coat and stepped out onto the empty street. None of the festivities could be heard when the front gate of the college closed behind me with a clang. It was a quiet night under a luminous new moon. It was also chilly, and I was glad that I had not forgotten my scarf. As I walked along the deserted street toward the South Gate of the vast campus, it occurred to me why the “Sending Winter Clothes” ritual took place now rather than at the winter solstice: cold weather always arrived earlier in the north than in the south.

My plan was to walk to the residential buildings adjacent to the university, as I was hoping to observe people conducting rituals on sidewalks near their buildings. The only requisite ritual on 寒衣節 hanyijie is to burn paper money for the deceased, something one cannot do in an apartment. I was lost in thought during my walk until suddenly I saw flames rising from the corner of a crossroad one block away, not far from the university buildings, the flare-up stoked by the wind. Could this be what I was looking for?

He told me that he was sending paper money to his deceased parents for winter clothes, something he has done every year since they passed away.

As I approached, the fast-burning flames were already dying down. A man in his 60s was tending it. He nodded to me as I stopped by the fire, which now looked like red lava shimmering in a pile of pale ashes. I asked if he would mind telling me about what he was doing, and we had a long conversation. He told me that he was sending paper money to his deceased parents for winter clothes, something he has done every year since they passed away. A retired technical manager in the waterworks, whose wife worked for the university, he lived in a building for university employees not far from where we were standing. He was the oldest son in his family, and it was his responsibility to make sure that the proper rituals were rendered to his parents on all the dates for ancestral rites. “Parents have worked hard to raise you to be good, kind, and responsible human beings, and the only thing you can do now, after they pass away, is to show that you genuinely care about them and take your duties seriously. How can you not make sure that you will do all the rituals for them? This is one of the most important duties for any decent person.” Decent is the key word, indicating that the importance of the action has to do with ethical connectivity.

I asked him if he believed that the money would go to his parents after being burned. He smiled benevolently: “That I do not know, and the truth is that I don’t care to know. What I care is to do the right things for my parents, to show that we have not forgotten them. It is getting cold here, and we are buying new winter clothes to keep ourselves warm. I like knowing that we are sending money to do this for them as well, to take care of them in the only way that we know. The rest is beyond us, and not to be thought too deeply about.”

He was not surprised by my next question, which was about the women’s role in these rituals. “Can your wife or daughter do these rituals, too?” I asked, since, traditionally, women are not allowed to conduct ancestral rites, even though they often prepare the food and give indirect logistical and financial assistance. “Of course,” he said, “as long as they learn how to do them right. My wife just lets me do it. But I have been teaching my daughter the rules. She is our only child, so she will be the one taking care of all the ritual things in the next generation. She is actually really interested and wants to learn. And she will be teaching it to her children as well. But she is not home; otherwise she would be with me tonight.”

As we spoke, the evening grew quieter around us, and the wind settled into an unhurried movement of air, as on the shore of a river. Change was clearly in the early winter air, in the seasonal weather, but also in the current of history that sweeps us all along. The women’s role in ancestral rituals was becoming increasingly important, as it was becoming more central in other aspects of contemporary Chinese life. In response to the feeling I had that evening, I would soon be thinking about the lack of “ritual anxiety” in urban China, or the apparent indifference to the “correctness” of ritual activities, that is, ritual orthodoxy, as well as about “gender equality in rituals.” But in that moment I felt wholly in the presence of this man who was telling me about the connections he felt with his deceased parents, how they had suffered while living, and how he thought it was his duty, and his daughter’s too, to honor and attend to their spirits a few times a year. He was keeping that thread, woven of love and care, strong between this present world and the world beyond, which, for him, was perhaps no less real than his own.



  1. H. L. Loewald, “On the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis” (originally published in 1960), in Papers on Psychoanalysis (Yale University Press, 1980), 221–56.
  2. Michael Lipka, “Religious ‘Nones’ Are Not Only Growing, They’re Becoming More Secular,” Pew Research Center, November 11, 2015.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi, ed. Anthony Levi (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  4. Anna Sun, Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  5. Cited in ibid. The World Value Survey can be found at www.worldvaluessurvey.org. The Horizon 2007 survey can be found at Association of Religion Data Archives, “Spiritual Life Study of Chinese Residents.”
  6. Horizon 2007 Survey. The 2016 survey data is not yet publicly available.
  7. Jeff Diamant, “The Countries with the 10 Largest Christian Populations and the 10 Largest Muslim Populations,” Pew Research Center, April 1, 2019.
  8. For instance, see Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010,” December 18, 2012.
  9. Based on responses to the Horizon 2016 Survey.
  10. Marcel Mauss, On Prayer: Text and Commentary, ed. W. S. F. Pickering (1909; Berghahn Books, 2003).
  11. See Jörg Rüpke, On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome (Cornell University Press, 2016). See also the journal Religion in the Roman Empire.
  12. Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape.”
  13. Horizon 2016 Survey.

Anna Sun is an associate professor at Kenyon College and is a Women’s Studies in Religion Research Associate at Harvard Divinity School for the 2018–19 academic year. Her first book, Confucianism as a World Religion (Princeton University Press, 2013) was the recipient of the AAR’s “Best First Book of the History of Religions” award. Her current book project, “The Social Life of Prayer in Contemporary China,” examines the rich lived experiences of religious life in urban China, challenging many existing conceptual assumptions about religion.

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Two Poems

Nathan Spoon

Sacrum convivium

as if a cloud and the bodied neurology of a starfish          were
combined as if the person walking toward us like          a friend
were a friend as if the Goddess of Anarchy rose          and drifted
never leaving her place because she held no place          as if that

eternal classic of a trope of looking for the flaw in          any sort
of awful logic were sufficient to instantly banish it          from this
collection of ours as if anarchy were feasible as if          anarchy
were infeasible as if tears could prevent bad people          from

scrunching their shoulder with glee while doing bad          things
while the sun shines on delicious leaves of grass as if          another
breath was all that is needed to round out our world          again
as if there is a courtyard beyond the window behind          our good

backs as if our lives mean nothing more than what they          seem
to mean as we strike the poses we hope will shimmer          eternally




The Susquehanna by Moonlight

All the lovers a single chain has joined together
—Guillaume Apollinaire

Tiny feathers
are drifting through air
shared by opposing reinforcements
cluttering heads. Before lowering your
platform helmet,

consider what your breath
and blood are doing out beyond the edge of
these woods. Consider how coyotes are calling
each to each
at acceptable distances

from where you are.
When it is night you will be sleeping
with your bedroom window open. In your dreams coyotes
will walk calmly past
your unlit window. In your dreams

you will feel their fur softly
inside the ventricles
of your soul. Their fur
will be a willow stick
shoved in earth merely to mark

a spot, until, to the surprise of all, that stick, sprig by
leaf by sprig by leaf, becomes
a mature willow. The leaves of your dreams will
droop and mingle
with the leaves

of ordinary grass.
These leaves will be
the living
eyes and ears
when you wake.


Nathan Spoon is an autistic poet with learning disabilities and “low academic fluency” whose poems have appeared in the publications Poetry, Mantis, Reflections (Yale Divinity School), Oxford Poetry, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Doomsday Bunker, was published in 2017. He is senior editor of X-Peri and a 2019 visiting poet to the Ruth Stone Foundation Reading Series.

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See also: Poetry

Wakanda and Black Queer Moral Imaginaries

Thelathia Nikki Young

Illustration of many small figures coming together to blend into the Black Panther

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj.


I am going to start by telling you something that you already know: freedom is a necessity—not the kind of freedom that allows a man to fire his gun because a teenager’s music is too loud or to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court despite a history of sexual assault and harassment. Not that freedom. I am talking about the kind of freedom that allows each of us the possibility of being, so that we can participate in the world as moral subjects and agents. Katie Cannon reminds us in Black Womanist Ethics that at the foundation of Christian ethics is the assumption of a free being.1 One needs to be free in order to make moral decisions or to have the capacity to make moral decisions. When we establish who is a subject/a human, we also establish who can be free and, likewise, when we ascribe freedom, we recognize and validate humanity. Within that process, we are also determining who can and cannot be moral. So basically, one cannot be a moral subject—or any subject at all—if one is not free.

A notion of freedom that relies solely upon rights and the capacity to offer or deny them to others actually suppresses possibilities for individual and collective performances of virtue (or moral excellence). That is why we have to disentangle nation-state-driven, empire-embedded freedom from the moral aims of people seeking emancipation from external (and internal) limits on their sense of self, choices, and livability. We need to recognize freedom as an existential condition that is accessible to and potentially experienced by every human subject. So, we need a freedom of being. That “young, gifted, and black” freedom. That “We gon’ be alright” kind of freedom. We need that “just as I am, Lord” kind of freedom. That “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” kind of freedom. That “Wakanda Forever” freedom. “I am that I am” kind of freedom. We need a freedom that emanates from an undeniable and unapologetic knowledge about, memory of, and return to who we are. This is what Ryan Coogler seemed to want to portray in Black Panther. From the depictions of technological independence to the illustrations of rituals and cultural practices, Coogler offered a vision of a free society, liberated from the constrictions of Western idealism and whiteness.

Now, in a United States context—which is basically the anti-Wakanda—such freedom is suppressed through a narrative of blackness and black people that is so ingrained in our own narratives that it is a part of the air we breathe. This narrative is about how whiteness came to be understood as the most highly functioning race and thus marked by an inherent capacity for freedom. In brief, the creation of a stable labor force, also known as slavocracy, produced and was produced by legal, political, religious, and scientific distinctions between those races who could be in service “for life” and those who could not. Racial difference supposedly pointed to increased or decreased capacity for rational thought and served as a measurement of functional capacity. The falsified distinctions “explained” why different kinds of people behaved differently and thus experienced different material realities.2 Even more, they alleged that whiteness represented full human functional capacity, while blackness represented a disabled form of human existence. This construction of race, and particularly the perversion and disabling of blackness and its link to freedom in concert with the normativizing of whiteness, is fundamentally a moral enterprise—an enterprise in which whiteness and white supremacy are moral goods.

Efforts to salvage black subjectivity, person, and being through the refusal of capture is a process of escape. It is an ethical project of fugitivity.

This moral enterprise is the work of slavery, certainly, but also the inevitable outcome of colonization. In fact, it is colonization that underwrites slavery and the proliferation of white supremacy through the systematized signification, dehumanization, and erasure of subjects turned into objects. What results through these processes of objectification is a foreclosure of possibilities that is essentially material and ontological capture. We—most people, but especially minoritized and marginalized persons—do not have the privilege of understanding our subjectivity from a starting place of freedom; instead, we have to generate our subjectivity by fleeing from the shackles of signification, objectification, dehumanization, and erasure. And so, efforts to salvage black subjectivity, person, and being through the refusal of capture is a process of escape. It is an ethical project of fugitivity. Fugitivity, as escape from foreclosure, exists in a space between liberty and freedom, a space which is not tethered simply to a historical reality or a new political future but instead to ongoing and material effects of slavery, or what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of property.”3

Fugitivity assumes a future—an “elsewhen,” as Alison Kafer puts it in Feminist, Queer, Crip.4 The else-when that fugitivity presupposes is not merely a different time; it is also the possibility of another situation, place, and being—an else-what, -where, -who. It is a kind of space-making, an alteration of what can be by a recognition and then rejection of what is. It is more than a fleeing-from; it is a creative projection and the continual generation of freedom through the process of escape. This is what we see in Black Panther’s illustration of Wakanda and all the relational, religious, and political economies therein. Wakanda exists as a site of technological advancement in uncolonized Central Africa. Its kingdom is kept safe through isolationism and a commitment to shared governance. While the Black Panther is ultimately king, he answers to a council of elders whose experiences and investment in Wakanda reach beyond his years. In this way, Wakanda represents a different time, of sorts. We might even think of it as out of time, though set in a time that seems somehow recognizable to us. Perhaps eschaton, perhaps genesis, perhaps both.

But, I believe that the creative work of fugitivity is even more about generating an else-who than it is about projecting an else-what, -where, or -when. This is because a significant part of what happens in and through capture is the evisceration—or even before that, the preemptive exclusion—of a black person’s selfhood. And here, I don’t just mean an individual’s sense of self, though that is certainly a part of it. Rather, I mean that the concept of self, the existence of self, the very possibility of being is persistently and systematically foreclosed. One way that this foreclosure happens is through the constant misnaming—the signifying—that happens when we are named by another who claims the sole and ultimate power of subjective citation—that is, the power to name and get credit for naming our existence. Such a citation is not merely designation; it is, quite literally, denigration . . . blackening.

Ryan Coogler’s depiction of Wakanda, Black Panther, and the royal community points to a fugitive existence, as odd as that seems. Wakanda and T’Challa, its recognized prince and Black Panther, have to depend on isolationism in order to maintain the safety of an uncolonized experience. In this way, Wakanda is African, but not “Africa” so named and constructed by, in, and through whiteness. Yet, it is not quite untouched. It has not been captured fully, but it is related to the possibility of capture through its dangerous proximity to “Africa.” As a construct of whiteness’s vision of the world, “Africa” exist only as occupied or colonized. But Wakanda, while African, barely or narrowly escapes the capture of whiteness. And, some might argue that its dependence on isolation suggests no escape at all.

I do know that Wakanda and the Black Panther open up possibilities for a historical otherwise that depends upon a spiritual, conceptual, and embodied investment in a reality that testifies to an existence prior to and outside of colonization, capture, and naming. This is why I understand the fugitive elements within the story and depiction as a genealogical and ethical project. It is a retelling of history from the place of flight, but it is more remarkably the claiming of a history in the first place. And so, inasmuch as it has a different story to tell of its history, its lands, its language, bodies, and cultures, Wakanda and all of its inhabitants have access to what Jelani Cobb calls a redemptive counter-mythology.5 A testimony, if you will, that transforms concepts of “the dead” and boundaries between time and space, that overruns the limits of science and logic, and outdoes the most dramatic family drama possible. It’s like reading Genesis, the Gospels, or Revelation. Within this retelling and claiming work, fugitivity allows one to confront the lie of one’s own nonexistence, and to draw on and even evoke a new account of that existence. This confrontation is crucial because it not only calls attention to the fallacy of signification, it also deliberately uncovers the relational component of subject formation. It points directly to the reality that whiteness’s existence is only a result of having falsified the existence of—and then named—blackness. And inasmuch as that process of making seems difficult to undo, its undoing is what makes room for the un/making and then remaking of subjectivity and selfhood for black folks.

Blackness and black people in Wakanda live into the sacred work, generating different ontological self-understandings than the ones that would be signified upon them by the overlapping powers of capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy.

Blackness and black people in Wakanda live into the sacred work, generating different ontological self-understandings than the ones that would be signified upon them by the overlapping powers of capitalist white cisheteropatriarchy. Such a living out is ethical labor toward freedom. The freedom that seems to articulate itself in these folks’ lives is one of being, and I encountered it as I was working on my first book, Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). When I argued that black queers are moral subjects with moral agency, I was suggesting that we/they create the possibility of being virtuous or having virtue through a process called creative resistance. This resistance, while often manifested socially and politically, produces the ontological reality of freedom in individuals and communities. I was drawing on the legacy of black feminist and womanist praxis, along with queer discourse, to be able to see and interpret my observations and interviews with black queers who were themselves just trying to make a way. When black queers imagine new relational possibilities—through the practice of recognizing and resisting oppressive ones—there is a confrontation with present reality. Imaginative work uses the simultaneity embedded in queerness to doubly focus on fostering alterity to what is tangible and present as well as generating newness based on possibilities. And, moral imagination does not leave our realities, experiences, and motivations in some forgotten past; instead, it honestly and intentionally recognizes how those elements (can) contribute to the new worlds.

So, then, when I write about the survival, livability, and futures of blackness and queerness, I participate in the construction of worlds and social relations that are built on notions of subjectivity that we don’t currently have or with which we don’t quite operate. When I talk about the revolutionary quality of black love, I am making a statement about how the reality of black love stands in opposition to the moral discourse that we have used to describe black lives. And so, between the lack of a future, due to the expendability of labor, and the fungibility of black lives and bodies, it makes sense to think that black lives do not matter. The articulation of anything opposite to that is absolutely science fiction. Wakanda and Black Panther are not science fiction because they are comicbook stories; rather, they are sci-fi because they articulate a “substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1).

Again, this kind of speculative fiction is ethical action. When situated against volumes of histories and fictional re-instantiations of histories that denigrate, consume, exploit, and eviscerate blackness, Black Panther looks like a black and black queer version of the “it is written, but I say” refrain (Matthew 5). One exciting feature of that declaration is the shift from what has been written to what is newly iterated. But the dopest part, I think, is the shift from “it” to “I”—the injection of subjectivity, moral subjectivity, and a capacity for change.

In my work, I talk about these shifts as black queer ethics, and I love that it has the audacity and rage to do this script-flipping kind of work. To make us recognize ourselves as sources of knowledge and then to challenge our use of normative frameworks, language, and categories within those descriptions of knowledge. This is what allows black queer ethics to be a mode of destabilizing the structures of domination that build upon anti-blackness, the suppression of sexuality, sexual self-knowledge, and self-love, as well as collective experiences and expressions of joy. In this way, black queer ethics is a process of decolonizing the imagination and imaginative process. Writer and activist Walidah Imarisha reminds us about this in Octavia’s Brood, where she writes: “once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. . . . Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us.”6

The black queer ethics that makes freedom possible is about bending reality to create freedom and justice, but it is also about shattering what we know as reality, breaking apart epistemological framing that shackles us in neoliberal bondage. It is about snatching back what looks like the collective good right now, in order to make room for all that is not yet. To make room for that same substance of things hoped for. So, then, I will leave us here and with questions that black queer ethics poses for us: Whose ancestors will we be? Who are we writing into our future? What kind of souls, bodies, and lives are we making possible? And, to whom among the dead will our children speak?7



  1. Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Wipf and Stock, 1998), 2.
  2. Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Indiana University Press, 2009), 98.
  3. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 13.
  4. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Indiana University Press, 2013), 3.
  5. Jelani Cobb, “ ‘Black Panther’ and the Invention of ‘Africa,’ ” The New Yorker, February 18, 2018.
  6. Walidah Imarisha, introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, ed. Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown (AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015), 4, 5.
  7. This is an edited version of a panel talk I delivered at the third annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference, held at HDS on March 1, 2019.

Thelathia “Nikki” Young is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Religion at Bucknell University. Her first monograph, Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination, was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. Her second book, co-authored with Eric Barreto and Jake Myers, is In Tongues of Mortals and Angels: A De-Constructive Theology of God-Talk in Acts and Paul (Fortress Academic, 2018). She is working on a new manuscript, tentatively titled “We Plead the Blood of Freedom: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberative Practice.”

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