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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Illinois Jesus

December 30, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More >>

Take My Breath Away, and Other News

December 2, 2014 | by

topgun

A still from Top Gun, 1986.

  • Rivka Galchen on Kafka (or rather, his biography): “It has been said of Kafka’s work many times that the thing to remember is that it is funny. Kafka was known to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work aloud to friends, and though that sounds more like anxiety than hilarity to me, the funny point endures. But what kind of funny is he? … One element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work.”
  • In the eighties, Hollywood’s big-budget movies were teeming with sex scenes: The sex was often in silhouette, yes, and usually accompanied by a saxophone, true, but it was there, just as it is in the human experience. “In the era of Top Gun, The Big Easy, Body Heat, or other steamy Hollywood thrillers, the goal was to appeal to both men and women with the promise of (among other things) onscreen sex. (Ergo the fabled ‘date night’ movie.) Now the goal is to appeal to adults and their twelve-year-old kids with the promise of the absence of sex.”
  • Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower, a sixty-foot sculpture at the Hirshhorn, comprises thin steel wires and barely touches the ground. How does it stay upright in strong wind?
  • “A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant, Chris Herron, gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take for a place like hell to become a premier destination in the travel market. Herron decided that what hell needed was a complete brand overhaul. The new hell would feature no demons or devils, no tridents or lakes of fire. The brand name was rendered in a lower-case, bubbly blue font designed to evoke ‘instant accessibility and comfort’. The slogan, which was once ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,’ would be ‘Simply Heavenly.’ ”
  • Every December, the New York Public Library’s literary lions, Patience and Fortitude, have wreaths hung from their necks—and every year something seems to go wrong, somehow. (Last year the wreaths were simply too big.)

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Lawn Fawn Moon Boon

November 19, 2014 | by

fourfootedbeast

An illustration from Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658.

The excellent Public Domain Review is making its first foray into print with a new anthology, The Book of Selected Essays, 2011–2013, celebrating their three years as dedicated spelunkers of the public domain. They’ve amassed an incredible collection of esoterica—stuff that, as their editor Adam Green writes, “didn’t quite make the cut when that mysterious editor on high was working away with razor blade and glue upon the reels and reels of recorded past”—much of which I hadn’t encountered before. How, for instance, had I never heard of Christopher Smart?

Smart was an eighteenth-century English poet, an intimate of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Henry Fielding; in 1755 he got a gig producing a weekly paper, The Universal Visitor or Monthly Memorialist, and the job so overworked him that he had some kind of a nervous fit. It’s not clear whether he really went mad or not, but he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics—an admirably blunt name, no?—where he wrote one of his more enduring works, Jubilate Agno.

As Frank Key writes in the Public Domain Review,

Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last.” Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the twenty-first century than when it was written.

Indeed we are.One of the great joys of Jubilate Agno,” Key says,is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem’s most famous passage, a long consideration of Smart’s cat, Jeoffry: Read More »

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Loose Lips Make the World Go Round, and Other News

November 11, 2014 | by

loosetalk

From U.S. World War II–era propaganda.

  • Last week, our editor Lorin Stein spoke at an event in San Francisco about Édouard Levé, whose work he’s translated—the audio from the discussion is now online.
  • Flannery O’Connor has been inducted into the American Poets Corner at New York’s St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country.” “Inducting O’Connor this year was a fairly easy consensus decision. More contentious was the selection of the quotation for her plaque. The challenge was to tread a line between what Nelson called O’Connor’s ‘grand pronouncements’ and what Alfred Corn called her southern ‘cracker-barrel humor.’ The quote they settled on is from a 1953 letter that O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell … ‘I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.’ ”
  • John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man is banned at Guantánamo, and he’s altogether pretty psyched about it: “In banning my novel, the custodians of Guantánamo have once again demonstrated their sensitivity and respect for human dignity. No prisoner who has not been found guilty of any crime should be subjected to cruel and degrading literature.”
  • Today in bold claims from evolutionary psychologists: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.” Tell all your friends.
  • The long, strange birth of Fundamentalism in America: “The term itself was coined in the 1920s by American Protestants who resolved to return to the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity. Their retreat from public life after the Civil War had narrowed and, perhaps, distorted their vision. Instead of engaging as before with such issues as racial or economic inequality, they focused on biblical literalism, convinced that every single assertion of scripture was literally true. And so, their enemy was no longer social injustice but the German Higher Criticism of the Bible, which had been embraced by the more liberal American Christians who were still attempting to bring the gospel to bear on social problems.”

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Satan Comes to Oklahoma City

October 30, 2014 | by

Facing fears in the Sooner State.

satan

Photo: the Satanic Temple

My ailing wife, Amy, had demanded that I take her to a Black Mass, a well-publicized one that would have meant aligning myself with Satan on local television. These people aren’t really Satanists, Amy explained. They’re blue-collar subculture types who’ve grown up and know their rights and want to thumb their noses at the judgy creeps who persecuted them growing up. Amy, who had seen more than her fair share of those creeps in her own youth, wanted to lend her support.

“Understand that this is all they’ve got,” she told me. “It may seem stupid, but after twenty years of getting shit it’s all they’ve got.”

Despite protests from the local Catholic community, the [Satanic] Church of Ahriman held a Black Mass at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City on September 22. The Catholics had also attempted to file an injunction against them, claiming they had stolen the Holy Sacrament they intended to defile in an unholy consecration. This was their fourth mass, but this time it was for real. The Satanists had won permission to build a monument to Satan on the grounds of the State Capitol, and the wild bad reverend in charge of the Church of Ahriman (also known as the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu) was new and media savvy. He basked in the attention, held interviews and press conferences, did all he could to whip his antagonists into a righteous froth. Those antagonists arrived by the busload and dug in, singing songs and passing out leaflets.

Much of the south refers to itself as the buckle of the Bible belt, but Oklahoma has a special claim to bucklehood: there’s the hard-line Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, and everywhere you turn there seems to be a crucifix; pricey little Amish general stores line the highways and tens of thousands of churches are sprinkled throughout the state, from hippieish splinter sects nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks to goliath megachurches with media teams and television studios and lobbying groups. Life in the Sooner State has a churchy feeling—the stickiness of Kool-Aid soaking through the seams of a waxed paper cup, bake sales manned from behind rickety card tables, devotional sing-alongs, gymnasium lock-ins—and there’s a creeping sense of menace for outsiders. Read More »

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The Fruit of Another

October 21, 2014 | by

hilarion

Dominique-Louis-Féréa Papety, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion, 1843–44.

Octave Tassaert, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion, 1857.

Let’s talk about temptation, because it’s Saint Hilarion’s feast day. A fourth-century anchorite who followed the ascetic precedent of Anthony the Great, Hilarion lived for most of his life in a desert in Syria Palaestina, where … not much happened, presumably. He refused to take food before sunset and, perhaps as a result, faced a slew of hallucinations temptations. These he avoided, being saintly. When at last he rejoined civilization after many decades in the wilderness, he didn’t much care for society—so many people!—so he retreated into austerity again, in Dalmatia and then in Cyprus, where he died.

I’m simplifying things a bit.

The man wrought some miracles, for instance, but those are not my concern.

Much of what we know about Hilarion—the name is from the Greek hilaros, meaning cheerful, not super funny, though neither seems to describe the Hilarion in question—comes from a chronicle written by Saint Jerome in 390 A.D., a strange, captivating, and fittingly arid read, particularly in regards to Hilarion’s temptations: Read More »

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