The Best Books Media of 2008

Annual “Best Book” lists should usually be read as a review of the best publicity work of the year—the books that make the list, as wonderful as they may be, are most often those backed up by dedicated publicists.

Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age, for instance, one of only two nonfiction titles about religion featured on The New York Times’ 2008 100 Notable Books list, is the kind of very dense, academic study that normally wouldn’t even cross the Times’ radar. But it’s big, it’s the culmination of a career, and its publisher, Belknap/Harvard University, put all of its considerable prestige behind its promotion—in 2007, that is, when Harvard published the book. The fact that the Times slipped the book onto its 2008 list is a clue that such lists aren’t so much a reflection of the best as of what the editors read and cared about that year.

That can lead to a certain amount of cronyism—books by Times contributors are especially well represented on the Times’ list—which is a problem when readers take listmakers too seriously. But cronyism can also reflect schools of thought. Looked at for what it is, the web of connections that underlie a “best of” list reveals a portrait of a certain circle’s concerns, commitments, and fascinations.

So it is below. I asked five of the writers I trust most—an anthropologist, a historian, a novelist, a journalist, and two media scholars—to share their choices for 2008’s most interesting texts that deal with religion. I say texts because I told them they were free to choose from any media. Being bookish sorts, they mostly stuck to printed pages between two hard covers, but TV, music, movies, and internet found poetry are represented below as well. Following are their picks, and then mine. They’re the result of an arbitrary process—our selection from the relatively tiny sample of the year’s new texts we saw—and a reflection of the multiple conversations that intersect at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, which is where I’m writing from. Much is missing from the list—my Islamic and Buddhist authorities let me down—and while Fucked Up’s new album, The Chemistry of Common Life, will probably show up on some “best of” lists compiled by hardcore fans, other texts selected, such as Patton Dodd’s “poem” “Sally,” would probably go unheralded were it not for this eccentric compilation of the year’s most intriguing texts, a veritable Venn diagram of overlapping ideas, enthusiasms, and fellow traveling. It’s the most honest “best of” list you’ll find.

—Jeff Sharlet

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Speaking in Tongues

Peter Manseau is the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture, the author of a novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, a memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and their Son, and co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.

No one speaks of a dying language without bordering on lament. So it’s no surprise that “The Glories of Yiddish,” Harold Bloom’s review of Max Weinreich’s 1973 two-volume History of the Yiddish Language (Yale University Press) in The New York Review of Books is an elegy. What is surprising is the ground Bloom considers it necessary to cover to do justice to this particular dying language, which happens to be the language of his youth. From Kafka to Kierkegaard, from Hamlet to Hasidism, in order to talk about this langauge that informed so much of American culture even as it was consumed by it, one needs to talk about the whole world.

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A former Christian Science Monitor political reporter, Ariel Sabar, author of My Father’s Paradise, grew up with a different dying language. His father is among the last living native speakers of Aramaic, which until the middle years of the 20th century survived as the language of Kurdish Jews in Iraq. Setting off to his father’s homeland at the worst possible time, Sabar tells the story of Aramaic as well as the unique set of circumstances that brought his family to Los Angeles, where his father is now not only a scholar and preserver of the language of his raising, but occasionally shares his knowledge of Aramaic with Hollywood directors hungry to add a little language-of-Jesus mysticism to occult plot-lines. His strangest assignment? Translating “I Am the Walrus” into his ancient tongue for an episode of The X Files.

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The morning after the election, Beliefnet editor Patton Dodd did something that was as funny as it was smart: He waded through status updates on Facebook looking for Christian responses to Obama’s victory. Lending anonymity to his sources (admittedly odd considering Facebook exists for nearly the opposite reason), Dodd gave them all the same name. The result is an intriguing, hydra-headed portrait of a mostly religious nation that is anything but monolithic. He called it “Sally”:

Sally loves America.

Sally is sad that America is incredibly naive.

Sally just popped the champagne.

Sally is disappointed, but knows God is in control.

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Big Love

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion (which is also the name of her blog) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. She’s the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army and co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture.

Call me an ass-kisser, but my money is on Jeff Sharlet’s The Family (Harper) as one of the year’s best and most important books about religion and politics. Sharlet’s in-depth investigation of an elite group working at the intersection of traditional Christianity and free market capitalism suggests that the religious right is just a sideshow. Few writers can pull off investigative journalism, historical research, and elegant storytelling. Sharlet does all this with a story that a lot of people don’t want to hear and others won’t believe.

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Here’s a sleep-inducing title: Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (University of North Carolina)—but don’t let it dissuade you from reading Anthea Butler’s new book. Butler writes about lower class African-American Pentecostal women, a sadly understudied group. Focusing on the experience of sanctification, and the concomitant “dedication to both spiritual practices and temporal obedience,” Butler looks at how belief shaped these women’s understanding of self, community, and God, enabling them to “negotiate for and obtain power” in ways that defied expectations for women of their race and station. Butler writes concisely and accessibly, telling stories of women you will be glad to have met.

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My USC colleague Josh Kun is co-author with Roger Bennett of the best bar/bat mitzva gift, Hanukkah present and, for the intermarried, stocking stuffer of the year. And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told be Records We Have Loved and Lost is superlative in so many ways. It’s fascinating social history that’s great to look at and totally fun. Who knew Chubby Checker recorded a version of “Hava Nagilah” sung to the tune of “The Twist”?

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Online, I am grateful for the debut of Religion Dispatches with its pointed progressive analyses, and I am thankful for the thoughtful blogs that renew my faith in the form—most recently The Kitchen Table, conversations with Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce on race, politics, religion and popular culture.

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Last but hardly least, I found some of the most provocative, pointed, and creative religious and ethical tests of the year were on television, thanks to Saving Grace, True Blood, Dexter, House, The Wire, Eli Stone, Big Love, Aliens in America, Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica (just to name a few).

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Keywords

Angela Zito teaches anthropology and history of Chinese culture and religions at New York University, where she is the co-director of the Center for Religion and Media. She is the author of Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in 18th Century China.

Re-Enchantment, Volume 7 of James Elkins’ series called “The Art Seminar” (Routledge; edited with David Morgan) revolves, dizzyingly, around the connections between religion and art. Enemies? Friends? A cadaver replaced by a vampire? As with each series’ volume, the book centers upon a literal seminar conversation among nine participants, in this case on April 17, 2007. They’ve each read the five short “starting point” essays, they talk for the record, and then 29 more people contribute “assessments,” some as short as one page, about their conversation. The reader holds it all in her hand in 315 nifty, action-packed pages. To quote Chris Parr quoting David Morgan: “Here’s the thing: Belief can be as sophisticated as art—this is something not many art-world inhabitants seem prepared to recognize.”

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At the risk of this seeming to be The David Morgan show, there’s also Keywords in Religon, Media and Culture, edited by Morgan (Routledge). “Keywords” volumes abound in scholarly life and I have wondered why. Then I was asked to contribute to this one, and realized that writing for such a monster actually provokes a kind of thoughtful condensation of all the damp, wispy thinking that was swirling around in my head. Keywords books are not encyclopedic; they are eccentric and carefully chosen for their concision in division of the topic. Besides my entry on “Culture,” another Center for Religion and Media former fellow and member Jeremy Stolow contributed on “Technology.”

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Myth and Monolith

Julia Rabig is a historian at the University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies.

From Democratic Party outreach to evangelical voters to the smackdown of Jeremiah Wright to Tucker Carlson’s assertion that “black churches are basically political organizations,” we encountered a maelstrom of media references to the “black church” in 2008. For anyone who followed this coverage and questioned what such a monolithic term as “the black church” could accurately describe, I recommend two new books:

In Your Spirits Walks Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Belknap Harvard), Barbara Dianne Savage argues, “Despite common usage, there is no such thing as the ‘black church’… Yet the ‘black church’ lives on precisely because it is political and cultural shorthand and an all-purpose stand-in for the dearth of other black institutions, especially in the twentieth century when large institutional responses to racial inequality were required.” This paradox is one of the three that animates twentieth century activists’ and intellectuals’ engagement with religion and helps explain the persistence of this troubled concept. The others are explored through Savage’s acute blend of intellectual history and biography: leaders such as Benjamin Mays, Carter G. Woodson, and Nannie Helen Burroughs argue across some of the most tumultuous decades in African-American history over the responsibilities of churches and the effectiveness of African Americans’ religious commitments in the struggle for liberation.

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Adele Oltman’s Sacred Mission, Wordly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Georgia) blooms from a careful, revelatory reconstruction of the spiritual and economic lives of black Baptists in Savannah, Georgia into a critical mediation on the competing philosophies of late nineteenth-century black nationalism that upends the simplistic notions of accommodation and resistance through which Jim Crow-era black leadership is often described. Her impressive range of sources—including church records that were nearly destroyed in a fire—support a compelling analysis of how the sacred and secular intertwined to create a foundation from which African Americans claimed citizenship rights. But Oltman provocatively rejects the notion of a continuous line of influence from the churches she studies to those that animated the American Civil Rights Movement a half-century later. The authority of the former had to give way, she argues, before the movement could flourish.

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The Right Stuff

Kathryn Joyce, Web editor for the Revenue Watch Institute and a former co-editor of The Revealer, is the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

Sarah Posner’s FundamentaList for The American Prospect is an invaluable source in understanding the inner workings of the religious right, in Washington and across the country. In God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade (Polipoint), she deftly dissects the financial doings—and more importantly, the financial methods—of religious right leaders waging perpetual culture war on their followers’ dime. She follows the money from televangelists and tax-exempt churches to some of the stranger and more mystical corners of evangelicaldom, and back again.

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When the right-wing documentary film, Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family (Family First Foundation), premiered at the Heritage Foundation, its Mormon creators and evangelical- and Catholic-right backers declared the film’s premise—that a slow apocalypse of aging and low birth rates is imminent due to liberal policies such as family planning and gay rights—“the single most powerful force directing the fate and future of society.” I’ve been a critic of the film and the so-called “pro-family” movement that birthed it, so it’s unsurprising that I don’t agree. But I do think the film really does represent a powerful force in the future of the Christian right, which is smartly and actively combining forces across denominational and religious lines with a platform that precariously balances appeals to shared conservative “Abrahamic faith” values, exploitation of racial and cultural fears, and shifty “social science” arguments in favor of a traditionalist “natural family.”

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Though Passionate Housewives Desperate for God, by Jennie Chancey and Stacy McDonald (Vision Forum) was published at the end of 2007, I’m sneaking it in to my 2008 list as a text that’s emblematic of much of my reading this past year as I finished my research and writing on the self-described Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. Chancey and McDonald are names little-known in mainstream culture, but within the growing world of “complementarian” Christianity which emphasizes “biblical” manhood and womanhood, they are acknowledged leaders of a lifestyle that champions the idea of husbands’ spiritual and actual “headship” of their families, wives’ submissiveness to their husbands in all matters, and women’s readiness to bear as many children as God grants them. Their book was published by the homeschooling ministry Vision Forum, which as a ministry, publishing house, Web site, and event series is a vital text about the purist edges of the Christian Right in itself.

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The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper), by my friend and colleague Jeff Sharlet, is grounded in personal experience that establishes the members of the Family network not as stereotypes but as devotees to a strange and deeply flawed theology of power, and an historical scope that recalls a period of American history that conventional wisdom has forgotten. Through doggedly persistent investigation and research, Sharlet has gone far beyond the the journalism that shoehorns complex and deep-rooted networks and belief systems into bite-sized truisms and familiar mainstream resolutions to the “problem” of America’s fundamentalist history and reign.

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Picture Perfect

S. Brent Plate teaches religious studies at Hamilton College. He is the author or editor of eight books, the most recent of which is Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World.

Things that made me go wow in 2008:

Stars,” by Maya Weksler on Youtube. Tells much in a short space, and shows what can be done with the online medium to capture the power of religious myth.

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The Picturing the Bible exhibit at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Proves that visual and material elements were crucial to Christianity from the start.

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The Manga Bible, by Siku. One of the better new forms of this thing called the Bible.

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Envy, or Yiddish in America

Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, is the author of The Family and co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible. He publishes The Revealer at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media.

My favorite new book of the year was Peter Manseau’s astonishing novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, “a Jewish novel that was waiting to be written, that needed to be written,” as I noted, introducing an excerpt published on The Revealer. “An extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh”—Peter’s protagonist, a Yiddish poet whose memoirs, translated by a character much like Peter, make up the bulk of the novel—“is one of literature’s most stunning achievements,” declared Junot Díaz in his remarks for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, for which Peter was a finalist. Peter and I have been talking about the great American Yiddish novel (in English, of course) we both believed was was hidden somewhere amidst the thousands of Yiddish volumes at the National Yiddish Book Center, where we first met and began working together in the late 1990s. But I never thought for a second that Peter, the son of a Catholic priest and a nun (see his family memoir, Vows, for that story) would write it. Chalk my shortsightedness up to both ethnic bias and professional envy. Melvin Jules Bukiet, the brilliant author of my favorite Holocaust novel, After, wrote me an e-mail upon reading Peter’s book in manuscript, which I quote in its entirety:

My favorite joke: Takes place at the Moscow Writer’s Club. All the literati have been there for decades. The room is musty with their odor. Enter the ephebe, pale, tender, clutching a manuscript, trembling. He walks to the oldest, wisest, most venerable writer in the room and hands him the manuscript. The room hushes. The old writer glances at the pages. He reads one, reads another. For hours he turns the pages in utter silence. Finally, he turns the last page and looks up at the rest of the writers who are on the edges of their chairs, awaiting his judgment. “Good news,” he says. “It’s shit.”

Unfortunately your friend Mr. Manseau’s book does not fit into that category. My God! How could he! The Butcher’s Daughter is delirious. I will have to outdo myself for a blurb. Considering posing it in the form of a letter to the Elders of Zion in which I say what I have to say and wonder what we must do. The answer is obvious: kill him.

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There are more painful chronicles than Peter Trachtenberg’s terrifying Book of Calamities (Little, Brown)—anthologies of lynchings, compilations of genocidal documents, black books of the Holocaust—but few that hurt on so many registers, from the mundane to the inconceivable, the personal to the political, the absurd to the outrageous, the stupid to the sad. A partial inventory: a friend with cancer; the author as junkie; the Book of Job; the dead of 9/11; a martyr and a lion; Rwanda; the Holocaust; twins befriended by Trachtenberg who are afflicted by a disease that flays them alive, over and over, for 27 years; Vietnam vets trapped in their own stories; victims of AIDS in Calcutta, trapped in Mother Theresa’s story; another friend of the author, his head stuck in a plastic bag. And yet, The Book of Calamities never wallows. Trachtenberg is as humble as he is nimble, and both qualities are prerequisites for his inquiry—or rather, set of inquiries, since the book is framed as “Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meanings.” It might as easily have been subtitled “Five Hypotheses,” since in each chapter Trachtenberg not only addresses a different facet of suffering but also a variation on religion’s or philosophy’s or law’s responses, drawing on Gilgamesh, Boethius, Buddha, Simone Weil, and many others, always respectfully, never conclusively. “This book is an investigation of the ways people find meaning in suffering,” he writes, “or try not to be driven mad by the possibility that it means nothing.”

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One of my favorite books of last year was Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Harcourt), which I described then as “the first work of genuine literary journalism about Christian fundamentalism and politics. Rosin follows it up this year by collaborating with photographer Jona Frank, who gives us the astonishing Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League (Chronicle). What made God’s Harvard great was Rosin’s deep understanding of not just the conservative politics of the college but also the personal politics of its students, such as the young fundamentalist women who must choose between the ankle-length “prairie skirts” they consider appropriate for Christian women and the more modern dress that will allow them to more effectively champion their causes in the halls of power. Frank’s calm, respectful, portraits reveal that dilemma without words, such as this photograph of a young woman yet to cross the hemline divide.

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Sharman Apt Russell went back to the land, moved into town, wandered into the desert again, and literally kept reading every step of the journey, her nose in a book as she explored the mesas and riverbeds of New Mexico. The result is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books), a meditation on philosophy as a practical concern and the desert landscape as a spiritual calling. Apt Russell calls her religion Pantheism; I call it beautiful prose, filled with wisdom and populated by songbirds, heretics, wild pigs, philosopher-kings, and cottonwood trees.

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In God’s Profits (Polipoint), journalist Sarah Posner follows both the money and the beliefs of a crew of the nation’s sleaziest snake oil salesmen to produce a horrifying but important story. Posner knows which side she’s on—this is hard-hitting lefty journalism—but God’s Profits is a book that anyone who wants to understand how good and honest people are seduced into movements led by theological sham artists needs to read. Of particular value is Posner’s reporting on Rod Parsley, a rising star of “populist” fundamentalism. This is fast-paced, fearless muckraking of the first order. My one complaint: God’s Profits is burdened with one of the dullest covers of the year, which probably explains in part why this book wasn’t the hit it should have been in liberal/left circles. Polipoint, a new small press, has done a nice job of producing timely work that evokes the early American pamphlet tradition at its best; now they need to bring that same vigor to their packaging.

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Mike Mignola’s Hellboy books are bundled up every year into “graphic novels” that make them almost acceptable for literary folk, if you can get past the fact that the hero is a big red devil. But for the real thing, stop by your local geek palace comic book store and buy Mignola’s three-book Hellboy series “The Crooked Man,” (Dark Horse Comics) with art by Richard Corben. Set in an Appalachian hollow in 1958, it’s a riff on an old folktale about a satanic emissary called the Crooked Man. Our hero, Hellboy, is there to help a man who’s sold his soul bury his father in sacred ground. That summary does it no justice—it’s one of the scariest stories of any genre I encountered all year, loose with its folkloric roots but as evocative of the fear and humor of Southern folk religion as Flannery O’Connor. Only, the “ragged figure moving from tree to tree” off in the dark isn’t Jesus, it’s a demon with rolling eyes, a neck beard, and the spookiest grin in pulp literature.

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“Sometime in 2003 the bottom fell out of sex in America,” writes historian Dagmar Herzog, commenting on media narratives about sex in Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution (Basic Books). According to the press, Americans were having less sex than in recent decades—or maybe they were feeling more anxious about it. Why? Herzog argues that while the religious right has lost nearly every individual battle it’s fought over sexual freedom, it has subtly won an ideological war. “The religious right succeeded in setting the terms of conversation about sex in the United States,” writes Herzog, “not least because it adapted aspects of the old sexual revolution, as well as of the feminist and men’s movements of the 1960s to 1980s, for its own sexually conservative ends.”

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Religious album of the year: The Chemistry of Common Life, by Fucked Up. Pitchfork says this album “could possibly revitalize hardcore.” I think it might give the New Atheism some much-needed soul. There’s lotsa roaring guitar, some trippy sound effects, backup singers, and some surprisingly pretty rock flute a la Jethro Tull, but the emotional heart of the album is lodged in the metal grater that passes for singer Pink Eyes’ larynx. It’s a fascinating instrument, but don’t let the lyrics pass you by. In songs like “No Epiphany” and “Royal Swan,” the band wrestles seriously with faith, acknowledging its allure as well as its absence. In “Son the Father,” Pink Eyes points out that “It’s hard enough being born in the first place,” and logically asks, “Who would ever wanna be born again?”

jeff.sharlet@gmail.com'

Jeff Sharlet, a Visiting Research Scholar at New York University?s Center for Religion and Media, is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. His longer essay on Pegler, ?Paradise Shot to Hell: The Westbrook Pegler Story,? is included in Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, edited by Thomas Frank and Dave Mulcahey. You can download a PDF of it here.