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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Rise Up

October 5, 2016 | by

Alexander Bedward’s mythical powers of flight.



Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people amassed in August Town, Jamaica, on New Year’s Eve, 1920, to watch Alexander Bedward fly to heaven. Some eyewitnesses claimed thousands: dense clumps of people wading in the shallow waters of the Hope River, crowding the banks or perched in the branches of the surrounding trees. Most of them were unquestioning believers to whom Bedward’s words had the weight of Scripture. For thirty years he had built a vast following by healing, rejuvenating, and baptizing in this very stretch of water, helping ordinary people to know God—and themselves—in ways they’d never imagined possible. Now in his seventies, Bedward sat in a wooden throne, dressed in pristine white robes, awaiting the sweet moment of prophetic fulfillment when he, like Elijah before him, would soar into the unknowable beyond. His ascent, he promised his followers, would hasten the Rapture; before the sun had set, he would be gone and they would be free.

Some had their doubts. In fact, a great many Jamaicans dismissed him as either a charlatan or one of the island’s growing number of feebleminded unfortunates. The idea that Jamaica was suffering an epidemic of insanity had first surfaced in the 1890s, when the Gleaner newspaper ran reports about the vast overcrowding of the island’s only asylum: supposed proof that a contagion of madness was spreading out of control, especially among the black population. According to the historian Leonard Smith, in 1863/64 the Jamaican Lunatic Asylum admitted seventy-one black people and two white people; twenty-five years later, the annual white intake had stayed exactly the same, but the number of black patients had increased to 153. Read More »

A Compound of Knave and Blockhead

September 26, 2016 | by


Happy 128th, T. S. Eliot. Here’s a letter he wrote to the poet Stephen Spender in June 1932. Eliot had argued, in his religious essay “Thoughts After Lambeth,” that young people needed to be taught “chastity, humility, austerity, and discipline.” Spender wrote him to dispute that notion; the below is Eliot’s rebuttal. This excerpt comes from The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 6, edited by John Haffenden.

I can’t agree that religion provides such an effective escape as you seem to think. The great majority of people find their escape in easier ways; there are a great many unimaginative, selfish and lazy people who profess to be religious, but a vastly greater number who are not … All of the middle classes want to be gentlemen, and being a gentleman is incompatible with holding any strong religious convictions; with the latter, one must at least be prepared sooner or later to commit some ungentlemanly act. And for one person who escapes through religion into a “sentimental dreamland,” there are thousands who escape by reading novels, by looking at films, or best of all, by driving very fast on land or in air, which makes even dreams unnecessary. Read More »

Boon Companion

August 5, 2016 | by

Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname is one of history’s greatest travelogues.

Evliya Çelebi painting (c) Sermin Ciddi

Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.

According to his own recollection, Evliya Çelebi, the seventeenth-century Turkish writer and traveler, experienced a life-changing epiphany on the night of his twentieth birthday. He was visited in a dream by the Prophet Muhammad, dressed nattily in a yellow woollen shawl and yellow boots, a toothpick stuck into his twelve-band turban. Muhammad announced that Allah had a special plan, one that required Evliya to abandon his prospects at the imperial court, become “a world traveler,” and “compose a marvelous work” based on his adventures.

As religious missions go, it was a pretty sweet deal—and for Evliya it came at the perfect moment. His feet itched to travel and his fingers to write, but he could never find a way of telling his parents that the life they had proudly mapped out for him—a stellar career, a virtuous wife, and a brood of smiling children—played no part in his vision of a meaningful existence. Muhammad’s intervention, whether an act of providence or not, spurred three decades of globetrotting indulgence. Evliya took in Anatolia, Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, Corinth, Sudan, and swathes of Europe from Crimea to—supposedly—the Low Countries. His path crossed Buddhists and crusading warriors, the Bedouin and Venetian sailors, ambassadors, monks, sorcerers, and snake charmers. Along the way he wrote the Seyahatname (“Book of Travels”), a magnificent ten-volume sprawl of fantasy, biography, and reportage that is utterly unique in the canon of travel literature, and which confirms Evliya as one of the great storytellers of the seventeenth century. Read More »

Troubler of the House

July 21, 2016 | by

The McLean Asylum for the Insane.

McLean Asylum for the Insane.

On September 14, 1838, the precociously gifted twenty-three-year-old poet Jones Very was removed under mysterious circumstances from his post as a Greek tutor at Harvard. The previous day, he had visited the Unitarian minister Henry Ware Jr., a prominent opponent of the radical new school of religious thought associated with Very’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Concord-based intellectual circle. Unprompted, Very started reciting a heated, controversial commentary on the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. “To Mr. Ware’s objections,” his fellow divinity student George Moore would later relate, 

he said he was willing to yield, but that the spirit would not let him—that this revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the father who was speaking thro’ him. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and says that Christ’s second coming is in him. 

Read More »

Jeff Koons the Union Buster, and Other News

July 19, 2016 | by

You can make these all day long—just don’t organize your labor.

  • Still haven’t planned your summer getaway? It’s never too late for a trip to balmy Orlando, where, at a theme park called the Holy Land Experience, “Jesus is crucified most afternoons around five P.M. … Miracles are the stock-in-trade of this Christian theme park, which welcomes about a quarter-million people per year. They might come to the Holy Land Experience (HLE for short) out of faith or fascination or a misplaced sense of irony, but they all pay fifty dollars for entry, and some will spend a little extra for a ‘My Cup Overflows Refillable Souvenir Cup.’ In return, they get a curious kind of history lesson, plus a dose of American prosperity theology, which turns spending into a higher calling and spiritual pathos into gaudy pageantry.”
  • You’d think one of the nation’s preeminent research institutions would have an innovative approach to digitization. But the Library of Congress is still lumbering in the general direction of the Internet. Kyle Chayka spoke to one activist who called it “a national embarrassment,” and he took a look himself: “The LOC takes scholarly care in digitization, assuring that the replicas it creates will be authoritative and stable, but the process is slow and inefficient. Every object from the collection that gets digitized must first be removed from the LOC stacks or its storage warehouses offsite in Maryland, evaluated for its ability to endure physical scanning, and then hand-fed through a scanner. The resulting data is processed and uploaded to the Internet with proper tagging and citations, following standards that the LOC itself developed. A single print could take as long as a day to scan and upload.”
  • Welcome to the final horizon of academe: boredom studies. Randy Malamud attended the third annual Boredom Conference, in Warsaw, and he was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to pay attention to: “I roundly nominate boredom for the catalogue of interesting new things for academics to study, all the more enthusiastically for the paradox lurking therein. We have nothing to lose but our chains. Like coffee, masturbation, and bullshit, boredom promises fresh terrain: untrammelled intellectual exploration … The myriad tropes and venues of boredom range from Nietzsche’s ‘windless calm of the soul’ to Beckett’s claustrophobic infinite stuckness. The historian Jeffrey Auerbach, who presented at last year’s Boredom Conference, is completing a monograph called Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire, about the bureaucracy, loneliness and disenchantment that accompanied England’s exploitative world domination; it turns out imperial oppression wasn’t that much fun after all.”
  • On the face of it, Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head is just your average midcentury sex romp, stacked with extramarital affairs and cuckolded husbands and even (why not) some incest. But it’s really, Gabe Habash argues, “a surrealist novel in the guise of a realist novel … Murdoch smashes the old rule that you can’t have more than two coincidences in a narrative, and so the book passes through any dubiousness and out the other side … Somewhere around the second or third revelation that one of these characters is sleeping with another one, you stop expecting the unexpected and begin expecting everything. It’s as if Murdoch is saying, ‘Yes, that can happen. And so can this.’ ”

The Little Man of Nuremberg

March 17, 2016 | by

Wonder in the age of Matthias Buchinger.

A late sixteenth-century portrait of a disabled man, included in a Wunderkammer at Ambras Castle.

Though he had neither arms nor legs and was only twenty-nine inches tall, Matthias Buchinger spent his sixty-five years variously as a magician, a musician, a carver, and an inventor, among other vocations. But his most astounding talents were in micrography—that is, literally, small writing. Since his death in 1740, his renown has been relegated to an obscure niche between print design and outsider art. “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Inventive Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” showing now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rescues him from a seventeenth-century German wunderkammer of conjurers, carneys, witches and “freaks” endemic to early modernity. Accompanying the exhibition is the equally eccentric art-history and antiquarian memoir Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest Living German by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are herein Revealed, in which Jay, something of a sleight-of-hand artist, reconstructs Buchinger’s exotic life and oeuvre. Read More »