For BuzzFeed, Molly Hensley-Clancy spends time in Redding, California, home to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where you might end up with a crowd of faith healers rather than an ambulance after your car accident. Town-gown relations there are tense — the school donated half a million to save the jobs of four police officers, but students have also been banned from prophesying around one of the town’s largest tourist attractions. Hensley-Clancy’s piece is fascinating and well-balanced, and includes her personal foray into faith healing for her torn knee ligaments.
I can tell I’m a tough case, because a third healer comes over to us, and then a fourth. Soon I’m surrounded by people praying for me, one woman’s hand on my shoulder, another on her knees in front of me, and the force of their expectation — desperation, almost — is palpable. Unrelentingly, every few minutes, they ask me how I’m feeling, whether I’m better.
I try to deflect some of their questions, but it never works. When one healer asks me what I feel, I tell her I feel “your energy and prayers.” She jumps back, “But what about your knee?”
“Well, it’s a really serious injury,” I try. “So I think it might take some time.”
The woman seems almost offended. “Time?” she says. “Jesus doesn’t need time! Jesus can heal you right away.”
We start praying again, and I start feeling a little desperate, like I’ll never get out of here. The next time they ask me how my knee feels, almost automatically, without thinking, I lie.
Howard Lovy | Longreads | September 2017 | 17 minutes (4,225 words)
It was raining the morning of October 6, 1973 — the day before my 8th birthday, and the day of the Yom Kippur War — so they put a very long awning in front of Adas Yeshurun, the Orthodox synagogue in Augusta, Georgia. The canopy ran along the sidewalk so worshipers coming to Yom Kippur services could avoid getting their good shul clothes wet. I looked up at the awning and read, with some puzzlement, the one word on the front: “Elliot.”
Elliot? Very confusing. Elliot was also my baby brother’s name. I gazed up at the letters at the front of the rain canopy as water dripped off the sides. “Elliot.” Huh.
Decades later, when I remembered this day because of its significance in Jewish history, it would dawn on me that Elliot must have been the name of the company that made the awning, or perhaps the family that sponsored the awning (as everything in the synagogue had a sponsor), not the name of the object, itself. But, for years, whenever I would see a rain canopy, I’d call it an “Elliot.”
I contemplated every part of the “Elliot” for a long time as we shuffled behind older congregants on our way into services. I counted the number of poles holding it up, the canopy sections, and the number of people keeping dry beneath it. I did not mind the slow shuffle. I was hoping it would mask my odd gait. It was the latest of what my family would call “Howie’s habits.” This particular ritual involved the need to place both feet even with one another every six steps. It’s not that it felt right to perform the ritual. It’s that it simply felt wrong if I did not perform it, like a phantom limb that needed to be scratched. I’d count six steps, then stop in stride and make my feet even. If there was a person behind me, he might slam into me. If I walked too fast, I might topple when I had to halt. My father, a Vietnam veteran, had mistaken it for “standing at attention,” military style. Later, this particular habit would be embellished by my father into “Howie would stand at attention and salute.” But, I never saluted. A couple of years later, on a hike near the Grand Canyon, I’d be sent back to our motor home in tears because I’d slowed down my two older brothers and Dad with this “standing at attention and saluting” habit. My dad would later amend it to, “And then Howie would stop so suddenly, he’d fall from the momentum and roll down a hill.” Ridiculous. Every third or even sixth step, I’d bring my feet together. That’s it.
Learning where your family comes from and who you are is an exciting, confusing, often lifelong process, especially for Americans whose mixed ancestry or eradicated culture has hidden the facts and obscured the details. Many Americans don’t even have a physical homeland to make a pilgrimage to, let alone a shared cultural pedigree beyond the TV shows we binge watch and the solidarity we feel from our favorite sports teams and kinds of pizza.
In Ecotone, Naira Kuzmich travels to Armenia, where she was born and where her parents eventually left for America. Invasions, survival, Christianity, sacred numerology, femininity, hefty stones and churches — Armenia is a rich, beautiful, ancient country like no other. Living in Los Angeles, Kuzmich still struggled to understand her ancestral home. When her aunt takes her to the Garni pagan temple and the famous Geghard Christian monastery, things start to become clearer. Sort of.
What I knew then about Armenia is what Armenia wanted me to know, that it was the first nation to embrace Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD. Christianity for Armenians is synonymous with being Armenian. Almost all Armenians in the world, if they believe in anything, believe in a Christian God, and most of them follow the Orthodox Church (also known as the Armenian Apostolic Church). Armenians are as proud of their relationship with God as they are of the fact that they have survived when greater powers wished them annihilation. For these two things are not so different—they are my hand and my mother’s hand. It is no leap to say that the genocide the Armenians of the early twentieth century faced at the hands of the Ottoman Turks brought Armenia closer to its Christian roots. We had survived. Even when more than a million of us had not, we, as a people, had survived. And who to thank but God, even when our people were being herded into our churches and set on fire?
I am happy to go to Garni-Geghard, I say to my aunt innocently, using the singular, and this tells her that I know nothing about where we are going or what kind of country we are in or the kind of people we really are.
In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap.Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.
But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.
Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”
Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.
In May, a teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Catholic high school in Chicago, was reportedly outed, harassed by his students, and fired for being gay. The school cited a single shirtless photo on Matt Tedeschi’s OKCupid profile as the reason for his dismissal. It was latest incident in the decades-long struggle of LGBTQ Catholics who seek to integrate identity, spirituality, and vocation, while held to higher standards than their straight, cisgender brethren.
In a new book, Father James Martin allies himself with LGBTQ Catholics and calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between the queer Catholic community and the Church. In an interview with Kaya Oakes at Religion Dispatches, Martin discusses the particulars of his informal ministry and the danger of believing God is on your side.
One of the great shocks in the last few months is that this ministry is not just about the LGBT person, but about a much greater population. It’s about their grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and friends. I was giving a talk at the Catholic center at Yale on Jesus, and afterwards this woman came up to me who looked like she was out of central casting for grandmother roles. She leaned over, and I thought she was going to say, “My favorite saint is Therese of Lisieux,” or “I’m going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” and she said, “My granddaughter is transgender and I love her so much. And my greatest hope for her is that she feels at home in the Catholic Church.” And I thought, this issue hits not just the LGBT Catholic, but a whole population of people who know and love LGBT Catholics. What’s more, for millennials, even if they’re not LGBT, many don’t want to belong to a church that excludes their LGBT friends. That’s a non-negotiable for a lot of people. While we might think the issue affects just a small percentage of Catholics, it actually affects a great many of them.
At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
Before its current obsession with the body, as FitzGerald observes, evangelicalism expressed itself politically through extreme and often paranoid anti-communism. My favorite example is the 1958 horror film The Blob, which told of a carnivorous mass of red Jello. Conceived at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1957 by Shorty Yeaworth, an evangelical filmmaker, the movie was widely viewed as either pure kitsch or an anti-communist metaphor free of religious overtones. American evangelicalism before the 1980s was no less political in its theology; its theology just happened to align with the anti-communist beliefs of the secular sphere.
Today, the political expression of evangelicalism seems strongest in its opposition to Islam. In this sense, it may be aligning, once again, with widely held secular anxieties.
Sunday school at a Baptist church in Kentucky, 1946 (Wikipedia)
I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.
Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.
And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.
The cross on our door, drawn in canola oil, was a symbol that our house was God’s property; demonic forces had no right to be there. It was a spiritual “No Trespassing” sign. Friends, neighbors, extended family, the mailman, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stopped by every Tuesday afternoon all stood on that same welcome mat without looking closely at our door. The evidence that my family wasn’t like all the other families on our nondescript suburban block was literally under their noses, but no one ever noticed.
The grimy oil smudges were everywhere, not just on our front door. They dotted the outside walls of our house and lined the halls inside. Throughout my childhood, my mom would often walk into my bedroom holding a mug of oil. “Don’t mind me,” she’d say with a smile, drawing an oily glob on my door and then reaching down to put some on my forehead. “Just doing an oil line.”
The Old Dutch Cleanser logo is, in fact, threatening.
With eerie political timing, the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood’s prescient 1984 book The Handmaid’s Tale drops next month. In the introduction to a new edition, which also comes out in April, Atwood responds to the three most popular questions about it: Is her novel feminist? Is it a prediction? Is is anti-religious? In response to the third, she takes us through the influences that helped her build the world of the Handmaids.
The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene. Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing. The wives of men lower in the social scale are called Econowives, and wear stripes. I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.