Since the turn of this century, following the news is like experiencing a daily repudiation of the so-called “secularization hypothesis”—the idea that modernization renders a culture less religious. Over the past two decades we’ve seen the increasing power of the religious right, the attempted resurrection of a religious left, the development of Trumpism as a quasi-millennial personality cult, and the admission from scholars that even our irrational economic system is perhaps best understood through the prism of religious studies. For any journalist covering such topics, an ignorance of religion would be a profound liability. Despite the downsizing of mainstream newsrooms, with frequent elimination of positions for capable “God beat” journalists, there has been the concurrent development of a radical, diverse, and frequently experimental new genre that, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), I termed the “New Religion Journalism.”
Associating the genre with the founding of Killing the Buddha by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau in 2000, I claim that the New Religion Journalism became a necessary way of investigating faith, especially following 9/11. Over the past two decades, there has been the emergence of sites (frequently with academic homes) such as The Revealer, Religion Dispatches, and Religion & Politics, that have been a home for such writing, while venerable larger publications such as The Atlantic have tried to offer more sophisticated understandings of how religion operates, sometimes in places and ways that are not always easily recognizable as “religious.”
I wrote that the New Religion Journalism is a genre where faith is “interrogated against a backdrop of wider issues, where authors frequently insert themselves into the story in a manner in which more traditional ‘God beat’ reporters wouldn’t, and most importantly, where the theism/atheism binary is questioned and the full ambiguity and ambivalence of belief can be displayed.”
As I’m currently coediting an anthology of this sort of writing with philosopher and LARB religion editor Costica Bradatan for Fortress Press, I’m presenting a list of ten of my favorite examples of the genre published over the past decade, organized in chronological order. As an iconoclast I’ve decided to go with thirteen books instead of the standard list of ten. Think of it as a devil’s dozen. With these authors, readers can confront a God who is both present and absent; and belief that runs the gamut from fervent, to doubtful, to dead, to reemergent (to something else entirely). Most importantly, whatever their own allegiances, they’re all guides who are willing to take religion seriously.
Paradise Lust: Search for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford (2011)
– A former editor at Killing the Buddha,
Brook Wilensky-Lanford brings a sense of the eccentric, the esoteric, and the wondrous as she provides both history and personal travelogue regarding the admittedly obscure issue of how people have tried to find the terrestrial biblical paradise. Reminiscent of the ethos of sites like Lapham’s Quarterly, Atlas Obscura,
and The Public Domain Review,
Wilensky-Lanford’s book is a veritable wonder-cabinet of the places and personages surrounding the historical question of Eden. “Lo and behold,” she writes, “the Garden of Eden had been found in Iraq, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Ohio; at the North Pole; under the Mediterranean near Crete; in Sweden, the Persian Gulf, and Egypt.” What Paradise Lust
makes clear is that the rhetorical power of words like “Eden” far transcends the actuality of any one place.
Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (2012) by Kaya Oakes
– Few religious phenomena of the last decade have been as fascinating and surprising than the internecine skirmishes that play out amongst Catholics, between traditionalists and progressives (and every other possible permutation) copiously on display throughout social media. The election of Pope Francis, with his seeming reformist commitments and his grounding in Latin American liberation theology, has greatly complicated reductionist interpretations of the Church as hopelessly reactionary, even as conservative Catholics have hardened their views in anticipation of a post-Francis Vatican. Kaya Oakes consistently explores what it means to be a liberal Catholic, as one who bears prophetic witness to injustices within a Church that can often denigrate those positions. Radical Reinvention
is a potent reminder of that complicated legacy, writing that the “Catholic Church I grew up in was not just about clunky tradition and occasionally dorky catechism: it was about service to others, liberation theology, and the legacy of scholarship used to enlighten.”
God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Moderns (2013) by Nathan Schneider –
Rising to prominence as one of the most astute of radical reporters embedded within the Occupy movement (arguably its own religious revival, in the best of ways), Nathan Schneider’s God in Proof
is the rare religion nonfiction book that doesn’t just use the tools of New Religion Journalism to write about ritual, belief, or identity, but to actually get into the syllogisms as it were, and to investigate theology. God in Proof
concerns with the ways in which philosophers from St. Anselm to René Descartes, St. Thomas Aquinas to Immanuel Kant, have and have not endorsed logical proofs for God’s existence. Schneider writes that “there’s no better time than adolescence to fall in love with philosophy, or to develop an intellectual dependency on it,” for he comprehends that the most erudite of theological arguments have felt
belief at their center. It sounds abstract, but Schneider is an engaging explainer of some incredibly complicated ideas, moving with ease between Alvin Plantinga’s disputations on theodicy and modal logic, to the author’s own struggles with the faith which motivated his journey.
Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief by Jeff Sharlet (2014)
– Arguably one of the founders of the New Religion Journalism, Jeff Sharlet has been consistently explaining and exploring the borderlands of politics and religion for over twenty years. Netflix subscribers were introduced to Sharlet’s investigative reporting in the documentary series
that adapted his The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
which provided disturbing insight into “The Family,”
the Washington DC “ministry” on Capitol Hill’s C Street, which has been involved in a disturbing amount of conservative political success for the past several decades. “If you write about religious people, even your friends may start making certain assumptions about the state of your soul… they’ll imagine that you’re either a scholar or seeker.” What the anthologizer makes clear is that it’s far more complicated; there’s room for both scholars and seekers… and everybody else. While Sharlet’s work on fundamentalism, American militarism, and libertarianism are crucial reads, he can be at his most enjoyable and engaging when he considers quieter, subtler, and more beautiful manifestations of faith as lived experience. Radiant Truths
is the only anthology of previous writings on this list, but it demonstrates Sharlet’s keen eye and immaculate religious understanding in his collection of a counter-canon that expresses the full breadth of a nation that, for better and worse, has the soul of a church. From Walt Whitman in a Union hospital during the Civil War, to Francine Prose considering that same Whitman poem while she joins Occupy at Zuccotti Park, Sharlet includes Henry David Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Garry Wills among others.
Searching for Zion by Emily Raboteau (2014) –
One of the most astute accounts from the past decade examining how race and religion intersect, Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion
follows the author as she asks what exactly “home” means for those living in the worldwide African diaspora. Following a visit after college to a childhood friend now living in Israel, Raboteau is inspired to investigate how the concept of Zion—with all of its complexities, contradictions, heartbreak, yearning and hope—has been similarly explored by those who see Africa as a home. Diverse as Americans imagine themselves to be, and as fractured (and fractious) as our history is, it can be difficult to conceive of what homeland really means, especially for Black Americans whose own family histories have been obscured by the horror of the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, and institutionalized racism. “As a consequence of growing up half white in a nation divided along racial lines, I had never felt at home in the United States,” Raboteau writes. “I inherited my sense of displacement from my father. It had something to do with the legacy of our slave past… My father’s feelings of homelessness, which I took on like a gene for being left handed, were therefore historical and personal.” Searching for Zion
presents Raboteau’s divine travelogue, a journey to locations from Israel to Jamaica, Ethiopia to Ghana, that have been configured as “Zion” for Black Americans. Along the way, Raboteau explicates everything from Afrocentric religions like Rastafarianism, to legacies of colonialism in Africa. If religion is anything, it’s a collective exercise in identity discovery and invention, and by thinking about “Zion” in all of its multitude, Raboteau is able to demonstrate that even if such a place is nowhere, it can still mean everything.
One Nation, Under Gods: A New History by Peter Manseau (2015)
– By far the most academic book on this list, Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods
is a prime example of not just the ways, but indeed the requirement, that scholarship works best when it breaks out of the ivory tower and engages more of a public audience. Currently the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Manseau has been writing with curiosity and verve about our spiritual ancestors for two decades now. A founder of Killing the Buddha
alongside Sharlet, Manseau is a prodigious, prolific, immaculate prose-stylist who has explored everything from the Victorian combination of technology and occultism (The Apparitionists
), to his beautiful account of relic sites (Rag and Bone
In One Nation, Under Gods
he writes that “In thinking about religion in American history, we have too often focused only on the church standing above the hole and not on the hole itself.” Manseau’s book, in giving voice to the varied traditions that compose American religion from our earliest days, from indigenous faiths and Islam, to New Religious Movements and Mormonism, gives a vivid illustration of an America that was never simply a “Christian nation,” but where much genuine faith exists in the “holes” as well.
Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell (2016)
– An author of tremendous range, empathy, and curiosity, Tom Bissell is a journalist who writes his stories by fully and completely considering his subjects. This has been true since his earliest published work Chasing the Sea,
which built on his Peace Corps experience to investigate ecological devastation in the former Soviet Union. He’s brought that same immersion into his topic in other works, whether it’s the artistry of video games in Extra Lives,
or the cult movie director Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist.
His book Apostle
is perhaps his most personal reflection, a door-stopper of a book in which he travels to the burial or martyrdom site of every disciple. A lapsed Catholic himself, Bissell’s account comprehends the sheer physicality of faith, the ways in which religion is as written in our bodies as our souls, writing what could be an axiom of the New Religion Journalism: “Even after I lost my religious faith, Christianity remained to me deeply and resonantly interesting, and I have long believed that anyone who does not find Christianity interesting has only his or her unfamiliarity with the topic to blame.”
How to be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul (2017) –
If there was a major impetus for the emergence of the New Religion Journalism it was the events of 9/11. Out of the horror of that day, and the horror of the United States’ response, emerged the need for religious studies scholars and God-beat journalists to counter the reductionist and harmful “Clash of Civilizations” narrative that quickly dominated in the press, and which played a large part in indelibly marching the nation to war, while limiting civil liberties at home. Some had no choice but to counter such narratives, one of whom was NYU undergraduate and leader of the college Islamic Center, Haroon Moghul, who quickly became an explicator of his faith in the media to a wider public primed for fear and bigotry. “In just over a decade,” Moghul writes, “I’d gone from an inelegant twenty-one-year-old, compelled by an act of terror to enter a public spotlight he was terrified by, to a man sure-footedly navigating a privileged world of pundits, politicos, policymakers.” Were How to be a Muslim
simply a work that demonstrated the breadth, complexity, and diversity of a religion practiced by more than a billion people, it would be worthwhile enough, but Moghul’s memoir presents a more personal account that takes part in that venerable tradition of explicating the multifaceted diversity of this country, dwelling within that wide nation of the hyphen that connects one American identity to another.
The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann (2017) –
Few recent books so completely exemplify the instrumental and crucial importance of having an attuned religious sensibility as Ann Neumann in this moving, erudite, comprehensive, and deeply human work.
Neumann, who for several years wrote a regular column at The Revealer
about faith and medical issues, provides a portrait of the ways in which Americans face (or don’t face) our and our loved ones’ mortality. Neumann asks what it means that in the United States the vast majority of our medical resources go towards end-of-life care, using medicine, the law, philosophy, ethics, and religion as lenses through which she helps her reader understand difficult questions about what death is, how death should happen, and how death shouldn’t. The Good Death
has as a central sentiment that “Because of medical developments, we’ve gotten away from caring for our dying, from seeing death up close… [so that] The only way for us to satisfy our shock or hurt, caused by the gaping disparity between what we say about death and how it actually arrives, is to spend more time with the dying.” Bringing to bear her own experience as a hospice volunteer, and discussions about topics ranging from euthanasia to the Death Positivity Movement, The Good Death
shows how the best of the New Religion Journalism understands that faith is inextricably bound to our culture, whatever our own personal beliefs.
Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces by Kelly J. Baker (2017) –
Fewer people would have been as shocked by the horror of the 2016 election had they read historian Kelly J. Baker. In monographs such as Gospel According to the Klan
Baker rigorously examined the ways in which the white supremacist movement specifically used religious arguments in building powerful and dangerous political coalitions. In a higher education environment not racked by economic disparity, mismanagement, and the craven neo-liberal policies of university administrators, Dr. Baker’s scholarship would have easily earned her a tenure track position. As it is, the current untenable system of higher education has forced thousands of promising writers like Baker into freelance public scholarship, which as precarious as it is has also ironically brought important scholarship into the public eye. Grace Period
is Baker’s clear-eyed, sobering, and honest examination of being a millennial religious studies scholar in an academy that has no use for so many of us, where one can’t “help but think about how academia claimed my life.”
(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump by Jonathan Weisman (2018) –
Any journalist or public writer with a Jewish surname who has been published in the last several years can tell you that around 2015 something different and uglier seemed to emerge online. Suddenly the campaign (and subsequent election) of Donald Trump unleashed floodgates of antisemitism that many liberals had long assumed had disappeared. Pernicious antisemitic myths that had long been outside the pale of mainstream discourse were suddenly discussed openly by figures like Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. Drawing his title from the triple brackets used online by white supremacists to identify individuals who are Jewish (or whom they think are Jewish), New York Times
editor Jonathan Weisman used the symbol in an act of reclamation and resistance against ascendant antisemitism. Drawing from his own experience, as well as analyzing the rise in hate crimes and speech against Jews both internationally and in the United States, Weisman provides a powerful voice about what it means and feels like to have such hate directed towards you. Reflecting on a conversation with someone who had denied that antisemitism still exists in the United States, Weisman responds “I recoiled at her words and argued passionately that Jews must never think that anti-Semitism has been eradicated. Vigilance, I preached. The Jew can never be at peace. I sounded like my grandmother.” For the past few years Weisman’s sentiment has become more common, as the American Jewish community, pressed between left and right, asks itself how safe this country actually is. A few months after Weisman’s book was published the largest pogrom in U.S. history took place at a synagogue in the neighborhood in which I grew up.
Interior States: Essays by Meghan O’Gieblyn (2018)
– One of several talented and important writers working in the New Religion Journalism who came originally from an evangelical background, Meaghen O’Gieblyn’s essays in places like The Point, The Los Angeles Review of Books,
and The Believer
(among several others) probe the false dichotomy between the secular and the religious with rigorous astuteness. Interior States
collects several of those essays into an anthology where the overarching theme, as provided by the pun of the title, is what it means to be a post-religion millennial living in the Midwest who still harbors an affection for faith during our current historical moment. O’Gieblyn’s interests are wide, from the techno-humanism of Silicon Valley, to the pseudo-science of a museum devoted to creationism, and the ways in which the recovery movement does and doesn’t resemble a religion (and if there is a problem with that). As a native of “Flyover Country,” O’Gieblyn provides lived and analytical perspective about America’s current crisis of faith. With an Augustinian clarity, she writes that “Like the convert who develops a fondness for the darker moments of her testimony, I have come, through the act of writing, to believe in the virtue of my experience.”
Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (2019) –
With a theological astuteness that comes from comprehending all of the different ways in which an individual word can operate, the current editor of Killing the Buddha
Briallen Hopper analyzes what “love” in all of its myriad connotations could possibly mean. A kind of enchantment against the corporatized definitions of love which imagine it in very singular and sometimes stultifying forms, Hopper looks at the concept in its splendiferous magnitude, from the agape
of friendship, to the significance and power of spinsterhood, to the ways in which instances of love (and its lack) manifest in writers from Gwendolyn Brooks to Herman Melville, and even to what the ’80s sitcom Cheers
has to tell us about the subject. Hard to Love
embodies an important principle of the genre—that the topics considered and the stories covered need not conventionally appear like religion to most people; that writing itself can be a form of sanctification. Hopper writes that she imagines “prayerful writing to be a vigilant flame sustained and made into the words we need.” An apt definition of the New Religion Journalism.
While the above list masterfully collects some of the best writing from a relatively new genre, it’s important to remind readers that any such list is subjective. We mention this obvious point to provide context for the the editors’ 11th hour mention of a pair of books we feel are too valuable to leave out: Kathryn Joyce‘s Quiverfull and Katherine Stewart‘s The Good News Club. – eds