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10 New Yorker religion articles to read while the archives are free

The December 23, 2013 cover of The New Yorker
The December 23, 2013 cover of The New Yorker

The New Yorker has recently made its post-2007 archives open to the non-subscribing public for the next several months. (Some pieces published before 2007 are available, as well.) My colleague Libby Nelson put together a collection of some of the New Yorker's best education writing. I thought that was a great idea, and put together my own collection of their fantastic religion writing. My background is influenced by American evangelicalism, so the list is heavily weighted in that area; but I've included some great articles about other faith traditions, too. Here, in no particular order, is my list of ten articles you can read for free at the New Yorker.

1) The First Church of Marilynne Robinson

by Mark O'Connell

Robinson is one of my favorite contemporary writers. This essay, by Mark O'Connell, reads like an ode to Robinson's work: "When I say that I love Marilynne Robinson's work," writes O'Connell, "I'm not talking about half of it; I'm talking about every word of it." O'Connell's love of Robinson is owed both to the "grace" of her inimitable prose — for instance, "the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary" — and her ability to write about religion in such a way that even he, "a more or less fully paid-up atheist," is attracted to the prose. Her work, writes O'Connell,

puts me inside an apprehension of the world that is totally foreign to me, and that I have often approached with borderline hostility.She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace. Robinson is a Calvinist, but her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic. There's little talk about sin or damnation in her writing, but a lot about forgiveness and tolerance and kindness. Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind. I'll never share her way of seeing and thinking about the world and our place in it, but her writing has shown me the value and beauty of these perspectives.

2) The Storyteller

by Cynthia Zarin

Another storyteller I fell in love with, but at a much younger age than Robinson, was the late Madeleine L'Engle. She was the author behind the classic A Wrinkle in Time series, for which she won a Newberry Prize, and countless essays on faith. The Storyteller is a profile on L'Engle written by Cynthia Zarin, a children's author and poet. The profile reads almost as beautifully as L'Engle's own work.

Time, for L'Engle, is accordion- pleated. She elaborated, "When you bring a sheet off the line, you can't handle it until it's folded, and in a sense, I think, the universe can't exist until it's folded-or it's a story without a book."

But, I asked, is there a difference between fiction and nonfiction? "Not much," she said, shrugging. It was a long shrug, the wishbone of her shoulders pulled up almost to her ears. "Because there's really no such thing as nonfiction. When people read your books, they think they know everything, but they don't. Writing is like a fairy tale. It happens elsewhere." She paused. "I had a friend, who died. She thought she could control everything. See? The story creeps up whether we want it to or not."

3) The Sanctuary

by Elif Batuman

For The Sanctuary, Elif Batuman traveled to Southeastern Turkey to visit the city of Urfa, which many Muslims believe to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. ("WELCOME TO THE CITY OF PROPHETS," spelled the Vegas-esque lights outside Batuman's hotel window.) She was there on a pilgrimage to Göbekli Tepe — Turkish for "potbelly hill" — which many consider to be the world's first temple structure. Batuman's piece is full of ancient history and biblical interpretations. Batuman is a talented writer who knows how to turn a phrase. This is my favorite passage:

I proceeded to the prayer area and knelt on the silk carpet, behind an extremely thin young woman in a black dress and head scarf. Palms upturned, she swayed back and forth for a minute or two, then suddenly flung her body forward and touched her forehead to the carpet. Several times, the young woman repeated this motion of tremendous beauty and fierceness. I thought about the power of the sacred: originating, if the archeologists are to be believed, in the most material expediencies of the body—how and what to eat—it overtakes the soul, making Neolithic man build Göbekli Tepe and making him bury it, sweeping through the millennia, generating monuments, strivings, vast inner landscapes. I thought about history, and the riddle of the Sphinx: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? Some people say that history is progress: isn't this just a reflection of how we're born, tiny, weak, and speechless, and then go on to build cathedrals and fly to the moon? When others say that history is a decline from a golden age, isn't this because youth is so brief and we regret it for so long?

4) The Hell-Raiser

by Kelefa Sanneh

One of the biggest Evangelical scandals in recent years had to do with megachurch pastor Rob Bell's publication of Love Wins, a book about hell. Bell's basic argument was that contemporary Evangelical understandings of the doctrine were "toxic" and called for reassessment. Many prominent Evangelical leaders publicly disagreed with Bell and in the end, the rock-star pastor left the church he'd founded. In The Hell-Raiser, Kelefa Sanneh addresses this controversy, and situates in within a broader discussion of the changing tide of American Christianity.

From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell's life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that's what many of his detractors expect. But it's also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive—and more important—than his doubts.

5) The Cellular Church

by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm always fascinated by the amount of influence certain megachurch pastors wield over political discussions. Why, for instance, does it seem like conservative politics are practically written into the DNA of Evangelicalism? Malcolm Gladwell explores this and related questions in this New Yorker profile of Rick Warren, who is one of the most influential pastors in contemporary American Christendom. In this passage, Gladwell examines why the Republican party has been so successful in courting evangelical voters:

The Republican Party may have been adept at winning the support of evangelical voters, but that affinity appears to be as much cultural as anything; the Party has learned to speak the evangelical language. Scratch the surface, and the appearance of homogeneity and ideological consistency disappears. Evangelicals want children to have the right to pray in school, for example, and they vote for conservative Republicans who support that right. But what do they mean by prayer? The New Testament's most left-liberal text, the Lord's Prayer-which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring ("Thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven"), then welfare relief ("Give us this day our daily bread"), and then income redistribution ("Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors").

6) The Pope and Islam

by Mark Ulriksen

It's no secret that Pope Emeritus Benedict was not as adept at interfaith dialogue as Pope Francis. This was especially true when Benedict addressed Islam. But, as Mark Ulriksen notes in this New Yorker piece, the tensions between the two faiths are hardly recent developments. This essay is a wonderfully written exploration of the historical context that helped get us to the contemporary Islam/Christian relations of our day.

St. Paul was born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. He was a Roman citizen-a Jew with an education-and he knew Greek. It has been said that if John the Evangelist put the Word into Christianity, Paul put Greece into our understanding of John. People have been arguing about the meaning of the Word for nearly two thousand years-it is one of the beautiful mysteries of Christianity. But as the Catholic Encyclopedia said, in 1910, in its chapter on Logos, "Hellenic speculations constitute a dangerous temptation for Christian writers"-even when the writer happens to be Pope. Christianity, like any faith, changes with the language that describes it.

The Muslim anthropologist Talal Asad puts it this way: "Theology, being inlanguage, is part of culture"-which is to say that, if "culture" is open to discussion, so is God.

7) Is That All There Is?

by James Wood

Subtitled "Secularism and its discontents," this essay by James Wood is a thought-provoking attempt to grapple with the ramifications of secularism, which, he writes, "can seem as meaningless as religion when … doubt strikes." Though this piece is, in a sense, a review of an essay collection titled The Joy of Secularism, Wood's astute interaction with it proves him to be much more than another book reviewer — he's a critic, and he's precisely the kind of critic the religion world should be paying attention to. (Wood's polemic on the New Atheists is another fascinating read.)

"How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life-beginning with my own, my husband's, my child's, and spreading outward-is cosmically irrelevant?" …

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer. Religion assumes that they are not valid questions because it has already answered them; atheism assumes that they are not valid questions because it cannot answer them. But as one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one's own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, such moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night.

8) Playoffs

by Shalom Auslander

This is one of the funniest pieces of contemporary Jewish writing I've read in a while. Shalom Auslander is faced with a problem: should he or should he not watch the Rangers play in the Stanley Cup on a Friday? If he violates the Sabbath, will an affronted God repay his sin by making the Rangers lose the playoffs? Auslander's voice is honest and funny. And though this piece is lighthearted, the underlying question — to what extent is God involved with our world? — is still worth thinking about.

I had decided to switch on the television Friday afternoon-before Sabbath began, at sundown-and just leave it on until Sabbath ended, twenty-five hours later, on Saturday night. This wasn't, technically, "being in the spirit of Sabbath," but it wasn't technically a sin, and the Rangers were very likely nine victories away from winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in fifty-four years.

The cable guy gone, I switched on the television, turned down the volume, and draped a bath towel over the screen to hide from the neighbors the flickering blue light of our moral weakness.

"Do you really think that if you turn on the TV on Sabbath God will make the Rangers lose?" Orli asked.

Her naïveté astounded me.

"I don't think He will. I know He will."

She put her arm around me.

"They really did a number on you," she said.

9) The Revolt of Islam

by Bernard Lewis

"When did the conflict with the West begin, and how could it end?" This is the question Lewis seeks to answer in The Revolt of Islam. Lewis' views on Islam have earned him criticism. And "The Revolt of Islam" was published in the New Yorker less than two months after the September 11 attacks — we've come a long way since then both religiously and politically. This essay also might display a certain penchant in Lewis to overstate his conclusions. (One New Yorker writer said that Lewis sometimes "stretch[ed] his points beyond plausibility.") But in spite of that caveat, this piece is an important one for those interested in learning about the religious context informing Osama Bin Laden's war with the Western world.

For Osama bin Laden, 2001 marks the resumption of the war for the religious dominance of the world that began in the seventh century. For him and his followers, this is a moment of opportunity. Today, America exemplifies the civilization and embodies the leadership of the House of War, and, like Rome and Byzantium, it has become degenerate and demoralized, ready to be overthrown. Khomeini's designation of the United States as "the Great Satan" was telling. In the Koran, Satan is described as "the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men." This is the essential point about Satan: he is neither a conqueror nor an exploiter-he is, first and last, a tempter.

10) Who Am I to Judge?

by James Carroll

James Carroll's New Yorker tribute is easily one of my favorite pieces written about Pope Francis. A former Catholic priest, Carroll navigates the murky terrain of Church issues — both theological and hierarchical — with aplomb. The essay looked at Francis' first year as Bishop of Rome, but also contextualized his first year within the greater context of former Cardinal Bergoglio's life and ministry.

I went to see Davíd Carrasco, the Harvard historian of religion. His high-ceilinged office at the Mesoamerican Archive, in the Peabody Museum, is dominated by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is a large middle-aged Latino, bearded and balding, and wears his hair nearly to his shoulders. Without any cue, he said of Francis's papacy, "What came to me was the prodigal-son story, only here it's the prodigal father! It's not the prodigal son who's gone out and is returning. It's the prodigal father-the father of the Church who seemed to have gone away." Carrasco added, "Away from so much of what John XXIII meant." He went on, "It's as though there's a return of this father who is supposed to protect us, guide us, and love us." A return from abuse, authoritarianism, misogyny-all the ways, beyond the Church, the fathers of this age have let us down.