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Reading List: Religion Gone Extreme

This week's list by Emily includes stories from The New Republic, Philadelphia magazine, Susan J. Palmer, and Religion Dispatch Magazine.
PUBLISHED: Nov. 24, 2013

Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Grandparents' Lives

After his grandfather’s death, Samanth Subramanian attempts to piece together what he did not know about the man’s past—and understand why he hadn't sought out the information earlier:

Given all this, I now wonder, why did I fail to learn more about him? It is true that, for all the diligence my family has expended on passing down the rituals of our religion, it has never been as attentive to personal histories; I know absolutely nothing about my eight great-grandparents except for the name of one of them. Even so, my grandfather always felt like a special case — less a real person than a character pulled out of a fable, his abilities and his flaws both immensely larger than life, and his past obscured as much by my own ignorance as by the half-truths and legends that swirl around him.

PUBLISHED: Oct. 26, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2900 words)

The NYPD Division of Un-American Activities

An excerpt from Enemies Within, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman on the NYPD's secret spying unit:

"Police collected the phone numbers and e-mail addresses from the website. One was for Agnes Johnson, a longtime activist based in the Bronx. 'We were women and mothers who said, "We’re going to hold our money in our pocketbooks," ' Johnson recalled years later. 'That’s all we called for.'

"Confirmation that the activities of the Demographics Unit went far beyond what federal agencies were permitted to do was provided by the FBI itself. Once, Sanchez tried to peddle the Demographics reports to the FBI. But when Bureau lawyers in New York learned about the reports, they refused. The Demographics detectives, the FBI concluded, were effectively acting as undercover officers, targeting businesses without cause and collecting information related to politics and religion. Accepting the NYPD’s reports would violate FBI rules."
PUBLISHED: Aug. 25, 2013
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5701 words)

Jahar's World

An investigation into Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's troubled past:

"Yet he 'never raised any red flags,' says one of his history teachers, who, like many, requested anonymity, given the sensitivity of the case. Her class, a perennial favorite among Rindge students, fosters heated debates about contemporary political issues like globalization and the crises in the Middle East, but Jahar, she says, never gave her any sense of his personal politics, 'even when he was asked to weigh in.' Alyssa, who loved the class, agrees: 'One of the questions we looked at was 'What is terrorism? How do we define it culturally as Americans? What is the motivation for it – can we ever justify it?' And I can say that Jahar never expressed to us that he was pro-terrorism at all, ever.'

"Except for once.

"'He kind of did, one time to me, express that he thought acts of terrorism were justified,' says Will. It was around their jun­ior year; the boys had been eating at a neighborhood joint called Izzy's and talking about religion. With certain friends – Will and Sam among them – Jahar opened up about Islam, confiding his hatred of people whose 'ignorance' equated Islam with terrorism, defending it as a religion of peace and describing jihad as a personal struggle, nothing more. This time, says Will, 'I remember telling him I thought certain aspects of religion were harmful, and I brought up the 9/11 attacks.'

"At which point Jahar, Will says, told him he didn't want to talk about it anymore."
PUBLISHED: July 17, 2013
LENGTH: 45 minutes (11415 words)

Reading List: Double Consciousness and Religion

Picks from Emily Perper, a freelance editor and reporter currently completing a service year in Baltimore with the Episcopal Service Corps.

Share your favorite stories in the comments.
PUBLISHED: June 2, 2013

Courage and Survival

The Legends of the Fall author and poet on aging:

"Obviously I need courage to deal with my current dysfunctional body. And religion? The bible says that the kingdom of God is within you. If so, I haven’t noticed it lately. I’m not making light of devotion or a mother praying to bring her baby back to life after it’s been cut out of the stomach of an anaconda in Venezuela. Human suffering has to be the largest of all question marks. You must beware of hope, a radically dangerous emotion. Hope can roll over and crush you. I went to a dozen doctors last winter in Tucson for shingles relief and each time I had a wide-eyed Midwestern hope and faith that was promptly smeared. Hope is a bourgeois Tinker Bell toy that can transform into a guard dog of the most vicious nature. You raise your expectations then are gutted like a deer. However, if you need to say a little prayer, go ahead and moisten your lips for the deaf gods, although it’s like fly fishing in a sewer: 'Raise your chin, o son of man, your doom is around the next corner on the left.'"
PUBLISHED: Nov. 26, 2012
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2391 words)

How My Mother Disappeared

Adapted from Witchel's forthcoming memoir All Gone. A daughter adjusts after her mother develops stroke-related dementia:

"Mom faced me. 'I want you to kill me,' she said solemnly. For decades, she insisted that if she was mentally compromised in any way, her children were to pull the plug. But the situations we’d imagined never included her being compromised outside of a hospital, lasting years on end.

"'I can’t kill you,' I answered steadily. 'I have a husband and two stepsons and a mortgage. Someone will find out, and then I’ll have to go to prison.'

"She sighed, exasperated.

"'I know this issue has always been important to you,' I said. 'So if you feel strongly about it, I understand that. You can end your own life. There are plenty of places that can help you do that.'

"She was monumentally offended. 'Committing suicide is against the Jewish religion!' she declared.

"I was dumbfounded. 'So is committing murder! Did you ever think of that?'

"Apparently not."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 7, 2012
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3614 words)

A Year After the Non-Apocalypse: Where Are They Now?

Radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011. It didn't. A look at what happened to some of Camping's followers:

"I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

Other believers had no trouble recalling what they now viewed as an enormous embarrassment. Once October came and went without incident, the father of three was finished. 'After October 22, I said "You know what? I think I was part of a cult,"' he told me. His main concern was how his sons, who were old enough to understand what was going on, would deal with everything: 'My wife and I joke that when my kids get older they’re going to say that we’re the crazy parents who believed the world was going to end.'"
PUBLISHED: May 18, 2012
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2809 words)


A history of sprawl and escape routes in a Central California town, from the perspective of one family searching for its own escape:

"As I started high school my mom became convinced my dad had ruined her life. They’d married quickly, and for superficial reasons. Two immigrants from the same country, raised in the manacles of an obscure religion, who both had a hunger to build a familial kingdom of their own. It could have been done with anyone. As my brother and I neared adulthood, the fervor of kingdom-building had subsided, and so too the optimistic glow it had brought. My parents had their dream careers, their dream family, and had just built their dream house. There was nothing more to want except each other. But they didn’t like each other."
PUBLISHED: May 18, 2012
LENGTH: 15 minutes (3850 words)