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February 24th, 2015

Anatomy of a tweet

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I fell in love with the Perfect Man at a young age. He was humble, compassionate, strong, disciplined, affectionate, and, in all this, pure and selfless. His climb reached the highest towers. He defended the world against the enemy and his girl from harm. Although defeated in the end, he became the quintessential martyr, the model of meekness.

The Perfect Man of Iranian Shia Sufism prepared me for precisely the qualities that made me fall for King Kong as a child. In my dream-like displacements of Amerika as the land of progress and technology, King Kong’s climb up the antenna-topped Empire State Building represented the Perfect Man’s direct line of access to an otherworldly realm.

February 17th, 2015

Values and violence: Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

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Until last month’s attack, Charlie Hebdo was little known beyond France. In the wake of the massacre, however, it was quickly valorized as a symbol of freedom of expression and French secularism, and the hashtag #JesuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”) spread rapidly across social media. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared a “war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” On January 11, 2015, more than a million people, including 40 of the world’s political leaders—not all of whom are otherwise known for their support of free speech—marched together in Paris.

The week after the massacre, Charlie Hebdo’s “All is forgiven” issue featured a cover depicting the prophet Muhammad in tears, holding a sign that read “Je suis Charlie.”

The violence, and responses to it, have raised a slew of questions. Is it helpful, or even accurate, to characterize these killings as religiously motivated? How have the attack and responses to it helped to construct or entrench the identities said to be in conflict? Should the events be understood in the context of France’s history of satire or its history of colonialism? Can the two be separated in this case? What is the significance of the willingness of many not only to affirm free expression, but also to identify themselves with the magazine? Are there limits to the freedom of expression?

February 3rd, 2015

Comments don’t replace the news

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Pope Francis has called the Internet a “gift from God.” If that’s the case, one has to wonder what message the Almighty wanted to send with this kind of present. The Internet does many good things for religion, such as informing people about each other’s faiths and providing a forum for serious discussion about them. But the same medium that can foster understanding also spreads polarization and deepens existing prejudices. This divine gift sends some decidedly mixed messages.

For a reporter like me, feedback from the public used to consist of occasional letters to the editor, maybe a phone call or a discreet word from a source not completely satisfied with a report. Now, the publication of an online news story is often only the beginning of a long series of exchanges with readers. Some of these are enriching experiences—opportunities to learn more about the subject or to discover leads for further reporting. But many are, frankly, a nuisance and a waste of time.

January 26th, 2015

When readers respond

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Writing about religion in the digital age means that your readers respond. They have, of course, always responded; but in an age of stamps and paper, it required some effort. Now, it requires almost none. I still have the slender file of the paper letters people sent me after my first book came out in 1989. In 2012 I posted a short piece on CNN’s Belief Blog: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy.” There were more than 7000 comments. I couldn’t even read them.

Mind you, I didn’t want to. Readers can be unkind—perhaps because the swiftness of the digital writing process means that readers can blurt out the first vehement thoughts they might have edited away if they had to go to their typewriter and type out text on paper, or because the anonymity of posting means that the normal constraints on meanness disappear, or because people think they’re having a conversation just with other posters, and don’t really think of the writer as a fellow creature at all. Whatever the reason, people say horrible things in online posted comments. One gem from my Belief Blog essay: “This lady is (usually) crazy.”

January 22nd, 2015

Corporate veil or wall of separation?

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We stand unitedThe U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby raises a series of important questions for public debate. If for-profit corporations are entitled to exercise freedom of religion, then as a civil society we must consider certain questions that follow from this extension of the prerogatives traditionally granted to churches and other religious organizations, as well as to individuals acting in their private capacities. My analysis will focus on these larger questions of policy and attempt to provide some further context for the debate that should now occur.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, whose insights are always penetrating on these issues and worth pondering carefully, has missed the mark in her earlier reaction to the decision. She uses Hobby Lobby as an example of the reductio ad absurdum of the logic of freedom of religion, and argues that we (especially liberal exponents of toleration) are unable to reasonably deny freedom of religion in cases where the substantive rights guaranteed seem intolerable to many. I respectfully disagree.

January 21st, 2015

Twitter, scripture and practice: A twessay on #ttQuran

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In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful #ttQuran

What is #ttQuran?
We will tell you what is #ttQuran.

What is #ttQuran?
Truly you do not know what is #ttQuran.
To know #ttQuran is beyond.
It is only my ability to tell you about #ttQuran.
#ttQuran is a revelation.

Again, #ttQuran is a revelation.

January 20th, 2015

Corporation as sect

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We stand unitedIt is easy to forget that religious freedom wasn’t an only child: she was a part of a family of counter-measures listed in the First Amendment. The naming of religion in the Constitution was, and is, a defensive move: whatever government does, it should not get in the way of its citizens trying to articulate their opinions—opinions articulated through speech, through the press, through assemblage, and through petition. Religion appears in the Establishment Clause as a reminder that religion has been one of the things that has kept people from being able to reply freely to their governments. Free from influences within government, and free from religions that compete with government in their authority.

January 16th, 2015

How to make someone famous for the wrong reason

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Shahin Najafi - Unplugged Concert in Toronto | Image via Flickr user Reza VaziriShahin Najafi never set out to be a rapper, much less “Salman Rushdie of Rap,” but in early 2012, global notoriety was thrust upon the exiled Iranian singer after an ayatollah issued a fatwa against his single, “Naghi.” No doubt the young songwriter aimed to provoke—the track’s cover art depicts the dome of a well-known Shiite shrine re-imagined as a woman’s breast with a rainbow flag flying from the summit—but his satirical rhymes took aim at much more than Islam or conservative clerics. Nevertheless, Najafi became both victim and beneficiary of “catastrophic celebrity.”

How do you create “catastrophic celebrity”? First, find an artist whose work outrages some representative of a religious tradition, landing the artist in dire circumstances. Next, export the story of the outrage and the resulting drama out of its original cultural context, and count on others to disseminate the story without discovering or exploring this context. Several things result, the combination of which creates catastrophic celebrity.

January 14th, 2015

The privilege of spirit: The liberal concern with religious liberty claims

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Defend Religious Liberty | Image via Ronit Y. StahlA few blocks from my apartment, a neighbor has displayed a placard proclaiming “Defend Religious Liberty.” These words could encompass a range of meanings and raise any number of questions. What, exactly, does religious liberty entail? Who claims it? Who attacks it? But no one is left wondering for long, as the graphics define the intent of the sign more explicitly. Behind the capitalized words, an eagle shares space with an American flag and a cross. Defending religious liberty in the United States, the illustration bellows, is patriotic. And it means protecting Christianity.

This sign, I think, signifies the key issue for liberals in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2014 term major religion decisions—Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College v. Burwell, and Town of Greece v. Galloway. The core concern is not with the mixing of religion and profit, or sexual matters. Instead, it is a gnawing sense of unease about the solicitude granted to the type of religion that has long been powerful, but is presented by its adherents as marginalized; in short, the problem lies in the twin-set of power and privilege.

January 12th, 2015

Religion: The Game

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Envy the life of a Harry Potter fan. Her imaginary world is barely imaginary. She can walk into the halls of Hogwarts through dozens of not-so-secret doors: eight major-studio films, role-playing chat rooms, video game franchises, a theme park roller coaster, a local Quidditch league, dress-up conventions, fan-authored stories or—and these are completely optional—the books written by J. K. Rowling.

Our twenty-first-century stories have evolved—or returned—to a more participatory format, a phenomenon which in the academy is coming under the critical rubric of cross-media or trans-media. Such stories are no longer discreet entities that exist between two covers but cultural experiences, a wide space to explore. Play Downtown Abbey: the Game. Watch Battleship: the Movie. Jump on the Transformers roller-coaster ride. The “real” form of a story dwindles in importance. On opening night of the 50 Shades of Grey movie, it’s barely a footnote that the story began as fan-fiction on a Twilight message board.