Gimme That Old Time Religion: A Starter Guide to Nonfiction Books on Religion

Image: a pile of books.

STACKED

I find religion—and especially fringe religious movements—incredibly interesting. I don’t subscribe to any faith (for the curious, I’m an atheist, but that’s tangential to the rest of this piece), but the human search for answers—metaphysical, spiritual, or something else–to the “big questions” is something that I find compelling and confusing in equal measures.

Perhaps my interest in religions old and new, as it currently manifests, is more akin to kudzu, a plant that gets all over EVERYTHING and has been known to do things like cover entire houses. But for those who are not quite at the kudzu-level of interest in religious movements, it can be hard to know where to start with reading about this sort of thing. So, here’s a list of some of the books that, for me, didn’t help to stop the intellectual kudzu growth so much as encouraged it.

Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement (2005) by Lauren Sandler: I am both terrified and fascinated by evangelical Christianity, and Salon reporter Sandler’s book on evangelical youth movements in mid-2000s America shows us exactly how these extremist beliefs have taken root in a new generation. As Sandler details in her reports from youth gatherings as diverse as anti-abortion music festivals, a skater-centric mission, and the extremely conservative campus of Virginia’s Patrick Henry College, evangelical Christianity is not a fusty, old-style movement that Millennial believers are rejecting—paradoxically, many seem to be embracing it in droves. If you’re at all interested in the “culture wars” of the last 15-20 years, the current battles over reproductive rights around the nation, or are baffled by the appeal of pop culture-heavy evangelical churches like Seattle, Washington’s Mars Hill, look no further—Sandler provides a provocative look at the unlikely direction in which evangelical Christianity seems to be headed.

Further reading: Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 expose The Family is a look at the extremely powerful faith-based group that has more influence on United States politics than many people know. Nation contributor Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (2009) paints an equally disturbing picture of evangelical gender politics—which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely regressive and being emphasized right now by many prominent leaders of that movement.

 Underground (1997) by Haruki Murakami: Celebrated fiction writer Murakami interviewed hundreds of survivors of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack perpetrated by fringe group Aum Shinrikyo, and this stunning, horrifying book is the result. Although the book does include a narrative of the events, it is less a meditation on Aum’s motives than a skilled, movingly told account of a deeply scary event that gives the reader insight into what it’s like to live through—and after—a very public trauma. It’s difficult for me to describe how incredible this book is without lapsing into hyperbole; it’s a powerful chronicle of how ordinary people react when faced with terrifying events.  

Further reading: Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It (2000) which places Aum and other apocalyptic faiths (including the Manson family, Jonestown, and Heaven’s Gate) in context with the “end of the world” strain in some religious traditions, and in the age of global terrorism. This is the book to read if you want a better idea of Aum leader Shoko Asahara’s rise to power, and/or how Aum has been influenced by Japanese culture and social mores.

Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan (2000) by John R. Hall, with Philip D. Schuyler and Sylvaine Trinh: If you’re familiar with some of the basic concepts in Sociology and/or Religious Studies—and are interested in how alternative religion/NRM activity relates to cultural anxieties about the 20th century ending, this is a fine book to pick up. Although the Jonestown material has been well-covered by this point (the primary author of this book, John R. Hall, also wrote a thorough academic study of Jonestown entitled Gone From the Promised Land), the chapters on Order of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate are excellent in narrative as well as insight. A word of caution: This is pretty clearly an “academic” text in more ways than one—that includes the price–and a new copy will run you upwards of $50. Fortunately, used copies for a couple of bucks are not too hard to locate online.

 Further reading: Journalist Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown (2011) gives readers a nuanced, humanizing view of one of the most notorious post-1960s religious sects. Since “drinking the Kool-Aid” has entered the U.S. cultural lexicon since the sect’s mass death in 1978, many still believe Jonestown to have been a cut-and-dried case of mass suicide by vulnerable people who were all swayed, zombie-like, by Jim Jones and his message of socialist revolution via a self-reliant commune (in a former French colonial country, no less). But as Scheeres admirably shows, the members of Peoples Temple who died in the massacre were people—all with hopes, aspirations and dreams.

 Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (2011) is a behemoth of nonfiction and investigative amazingness. Rumor or fact, if it has to do with Scientology, it’s probably ably documented by Reitman here–but without the “spin” that the CoS likes to put (or litigate) onto any coverage that has to do with their faith. I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but I will say that Scientology is called “America’s most secretive religion” in the book’s title for good reason. There are a lot of secrets—and even more scary tactics used to intimidate critics, skeptics, and defectors–and none of these reflect well on the faith or its followers.

 Further reading: If you’re more interested in the media and Hollywood-influencing side of Scientology, pick up Lawrence Wright’s recent Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013). Don’t be surprised if you give extra side-eye to celebs associated with Scientology after you read this book.

So many words, so many books! Readers, what are your favorite books about topics that you find endlessly interesting — or about religion? 

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raindrops

rainisapain[Description: Two-panel line drawing of a rainstorm. In the first panel, text on top reads “Other people see rain…”; the accompanying illustration shows a happy person wearing a raincoat and saying “Good thing I have my raincoat!” The second panel has top text as well, which reads “I see rain…”, and this panel’s illustration shows the cartoonist standing in the same rainstorm, with knives of varying sizes replacing raindrops. The cartoonist’s speech bubble reads “SHIT” as straight lines on both of her shoulders signify intense pain.]

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BACKLOG, and a hello

Hi folks! I’ve got a backlog of cartoons that I’ve drawn during my absence from blogging. While I go through them to pick the most “blog friendly” ones, here is a list of pieces that I have contributed to other sites during my hiatus.

Review of Feminist Disability Studies for Global Comment

Review of Don’t Call Me Inspirational: A Disabled Feminist Talks Back for Global Comment

Lady Products: The Odd World of Cutesy, Pink Self Defense Weapons for Ladyish

9 Stylish Pieces That Will Remind You of Your Childhood for Ladyish

Review of Get Out of My Crotch for the print edition of Bitch Magazine

Don’t Let Unemployment Crush Your Soul for xoJane

I’ve Got Your “Useless” Major Right Here for xoJane

Please read and (I hope) enjoy!

 

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Yule gift guide, part 3: Things to Read

Today’s (VERY LATE) gift guide installment features books, glorious books! Not all of these were released in 2012, but they are all worth a look for your bibliophile giftees–or for yourself, if in the new year you’ve found that you need stuff to read.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman: I read this huge honker in a couple of sittings. Yes, it’s that interesting. Good for anyone who loves non-fiction, is not a Scientologist, and/or is thinking of majoring in Religious Studies.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres: More religion! Except this time, the subject is Jonestown. Journalist Julia Scheeres gets past all of the “OMG drinking the Kool-Aid” sensationalism surrounding the group’s mass murder/suicide, and in the process uncovers a fascinating story of people searching for meaning and peace–a search which ultimately led them to extremely dark places.

Sex & Disability, edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow: I reviewed this one for Bitch over the summer, but the quality of this volume is so good that I have no problem recommending at the drop of a hat (or drawers, really). Good for people who are into cultural studies, queer theory and studies, and/or (of course!) disability theory.

In the Peanut Gallery With Mystery Science Theater 3000, edited by Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba: Yes, it’s an academic anthology on MST3K. No, it’s not boring or tedious at all. This is a good one for media studies junkies, and/or people who have managed to sit through the very early KTMA episodes of the show.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: This was one of the funniest books that I read in 2012. The weird cover featuring a little taxidermied mouse dressed in a period costume is just the beginning–if you want to read anecdotes featuring a bathtub full of baby racoons, young Jenny accidentally running into a fresh animal carcass, and awkwardness at a weekend bloggers’ meetup, this is the book for you.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson: Probably my favorite book of 2012, and certainly one of the most impeccably reported. This volume of British journalist Ronson’s collects many of his strangest and most compelling pieces, among them an interview with Insane Clown Posse (which can also be read herecontent warning for graphic descriptions of violence), a report from a week-long cruise for fans of infamously brusque psychic Sylvia Browne, and an amazing investigation of predatory credit card companies in the UK. The balance of “serious” journalism here with Ronson’s more humorous pieces is excellent, and I highly recommend Lost at Sea if you are a fan of British humor, investigative reporting, or nonfiction writing.

Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood: Those of you who are underemployed, or who are currently experiencing the purgatory of a stream of low-paid temp jobs, are sure to find much of what Southwood says about labor, capitalism, and the exploitation of young workers familiar–and, most likely, spot-on. I know I did!

All of Us or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area by Lincoln Cushing: A beautifully designed art(istic) history of the Bay Area’s famous (or infamous) reputation as a hotbed for anti-oppression movements does not disappoint. The posters included here are not just presented coffee table book-style, however–the text that describes each poster and its significance is enlightening, informative, and interesting to read. Anyone who says that history is “boring” should take a look at this book.

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A brief update

Hello readers! Due to some unexpected things happening this week, I have, unfortunately, not had time to get the remaining installments of the gift guide ready and posted in time for December 25th. I will still be posting them, but just not in time for holiday shipping. I am sorry if this causes any inconvenience! Here is a ridiculous Winston photo to make up for it; if you want, you can also read my most recent piece over at xoJane (on the clothes we just can’t throw away) and join the discussion there. Happy holidays!

Winston with his tongue hanging out

Tongue out, cute on.

 

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Yule gift guide 2012, part 2: Cosmetics & Beauty/Health items

This is going to be a long post, because I am one of those makeup/beauty nerds who loves going “YOU MUST TRY THIS!!11” to people who have asked for my recommendations (or, in the case of this post, people who have not asked). Anyway, get a beverage ready and get comfortable, because there are a lot of things in this post. Gifts listed here will be a little more expensive than in the last installment, although I have tried to keep things that I think are overpriced (heyo, Dior Addict Ultra Gloss lip gloss) out of this guide.

SOAP AND BATH STUFF

soap_substratum
My latest soap obsession is the limited edition Substratum soap ($9) from Black Phoenix Trading Post, which is the “other merchandise” arm of BPAL). I know, right–NINE DOLLARS for a bar of soap?! But it is a WONDERFUL bar of soap. Notes: Himalayan cedar, patchouli, spikenard, and black fig. I’ve already written about BPAL in other contexts, but I will mention that their current limited edition scents are worth checking out if any of your gift-ees are into that sort of thing.

Continue reading

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