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On the surface, it looks a lot like your typical Sunday School. There are children gathered at the feet of the woman teaching the class. They are singing Christmas carols, listening to stories about how we as people came to be on this earth, making arts and crafts. It could be taking place in any church basement across America.

Until you start to listen to the words of this particular version of “Silent Night.”

Silent night, holy night

all is calm, all is bright

planets gracefully circle the Sun

Stardust cycles through everyone

Life abounds upon Earth

Life abounds upon Earth

They begin another song, this one without the familiar melody.

In the beginning

was the Great Radiance

14 billion years ago

out of the fireball

came simple hydrogen

and helium from that great glow

The children gather now to make what look like rosaries, and the instructor spreads out a large selection of beads. Only, rather than using them to count prayers, the beads are there to help the children contemplate the stages of life development. The first bead represents the Big Bang, next the formation of the stars, then the birth of the planets, the beginning of life on Earth, and so on. More… “Earthly Intervention”

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
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Both Jews and Muslims consider the pink, snout-nosed animals we know as pigs to be unclean. The question of why this is so has not been conclusively resolved. Did the Koran follow a Jewish rule? Or does the ban stem from the fact that eating raw or undercooked pork meat can contain roundworm larvae, which cause trichinosis? People may have made a connection between pigs and disease, resulting in a fear-based taboo. For the anthropologist Marvin Harris, the main reasons for prohibiting the eating of pork were ecological and economical. Pigs require lots of water and shady woods with seeds, conditions that are scarce in the Middle East.

But the full story may be even more complicated. Whether pigs are considered “clean” or “unclean” has differed from culture to culture, and no clear dividing line based on climate conditions is evident. As a result, it’s difficult to determine what exactly people in the distant past thought about meat. Could it be that this taboo was chosen more or less randomly to create a sense of community among believers of the same religion? To the Egyptian pharaohs, pork was unclean, to the ancient Greeks it was not. The hoggish Romans had a great deal of sympathy for the genus sus, and one pig in ancient Rome even had its own tomb. The inscription reads “Porcella hic dormit” — here rests a piglet. This particular pig lived for three years, ten months and 13 days. Its modern descendants “enjoy” much shorter lives, as they are usually slaughtered when they are between six and ten months old. Christianity’s Saint Anthony, a monk who was born in Egypt, serves as the patron saint of farmers, swineherds, and butchers. Legend has it that at some point he worked as a swineherd, and Hieronymus Bosch painted him with a pet pig at his side. In the Middle Ages, pigs, like many other animals, were held culpable for criminal acts and could be taken to court and executed. All in all, the pigs do not exactly have the best reputation in the Christian tradition — but people still eat them. More… “Between Porcophilia and Porcophobia”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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It’s hard to know exactly what moment we occupy in regard to the New Atheism and its concomitant backlash. Are we in the backlash of the backlash? Or the backlash of the backlash of the backlash? As Tim Whitmarsh shows in his recent Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, this debate is about two thousand years old; I don’t propose to resolve it today or tomorrow. I do, however, have a modest suggestion: Instead of riling up ourselves and our antagonists any further, we atheists might direct at least some of our righteousness into good-humored mockery of a perfectly harmless figure whose feelings can’t be hurt: God.

Admittedly, it’s almost impossible not to rile up people on this subject, but short of taking a vow of silence, atheists don’t have much choice. While muzzling ourselves in deference to the sensitivities of believers is not a reasonable expectation, expressing full-blown contempt for those same sensitivities isn’t much better. Might there be a middle path between excessive deference on the one hand and hurtful belligerence on the other? Yes, there is, and Friedrich Nietzsche marked it out in his gloriously intemperate polemic The Antichrist. More… “How To Laugh At God”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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Near the end of Christopher Durang’s satirical one-act play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, the title character shoots dead one rebellious former student in self-defense and holds three others at gunpoint before murdering one of them (the gay one). Addressing the audience during a moment of calm between the shootings, Sister Mary Ignatius insists, “Most of my students turned out beautifully, these are the few exceptions.” She then turns to her seven-year-old stage assistant, Thomas. “But we never give up on those who’ve turned out badly, do we?” she asks in obvious bad faith. “What is the story of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep?”

THOMAS: The Good Shepherd was so concerned about his Lost Sheep that He left his flock to go find the Lost Sheep, and then He found it.

SISTER: That’s right. And while he was gone, a great big wolf came and killed his
entire flock. No, just kidding. I’m feeling lightheaded from all this excitement.

Finally, Sister explicates the parable in earnest. “By the story of the Lost Sheep,” she states, “Christ tells us that when a sinner strays, we mustn’t give up on the sinner.”

More… “A Good Parable is Hard to Write”

Myles Weber is the author of Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish. His literary criticism appears frequently in such journals as The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Salmagundi, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is an associate professor of English at Winona State University in Minnesota.
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Religion and spirituality are not subjects that have figured heavily into the world of American comics. When they have, traditionally, it’s been either in the form of evangelism (i.e. Jack Chick’s hardcore proselytizing pamphlets), straightforward adaptation (Picture Stories from the Bible and Robert Crumb’s by-the-numbers version of Genesis) or nose-thumbing iconoclasm (Winshluss’s In God We Trust being a recent example). Rare is the comic or cartoonist that attempts to grapple with issues of theology — or at least Western theology — in the modern world.

Not Chester Brown, though. While far from being the central focus of his bibliography, Brown has long been fascinated with exploring and questioning Christian doctrine, especially when it dovetails with sexuality. It’s a fascination that comes to a head in his latest work, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible.

More… “Chester’s Christian Comics”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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Do ethnic groups or religious believers own their myths and legends? That is the question raised by a controversy involving British author J.K. Rowling. The creator of Harry Potter and Hogwarts has been condemned for incorporating Native American traditions — for example, stories about supernatural “skinwalkers” — into her expanding literary mythology.

It is impossible not to sympathize with the complaint. Few groups have suffered more than Native Americans from having their traditions stereotyped or appropriated by white Americans and Europeans. Outright caricature, like the big-nosed, red-skinned Indians in old cartoons, is the least of it. From the American patriots who dressed up as “Indians” to vandalize British ships during the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to the New York political machine named “Tammany Hall” after Tamanend, a Lenape leader, to the modern Washington Redskins football team and the appropriation of Native Americans as New Age sages and environmental heroes, the casual and disrespectful borrowing of Native American motifs and imagery by white Americans has paralleled the white supremacist tradition of blackface minstrelsy. More… “Who Owns Myths and Legends?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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We live in an era of identity wars. On both sides of the Atlantic, old partisan loyalties are being reshuffled as a new national populist right battles over immigration with an open-borders, multicultural left. Beyond the West, the most dynamic leaders are seeking to root their legitimacy in historic national and religious traditions — Russian Orthodoxy and Eurasianism in Putin’s Russia, Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India, Chinese nationalism in Xi’s China, and post-secular Islamic Turkish nationalism in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The most extreme form of identity politics is that of the Islamic State that has risen from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. Its adherents seek to recreate a version of the early Muslim caliphate.
More… “The Age of Identity Wars”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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When I was a child I read poorly written Sunday-school books. They happened to be Catholic books because I read them in a Catholic Sunday school. My mother was a Congregationalist and she would have preferred I be reared to that austere faith, but she lacked the strength to battle the passionate alcoholics and living martyrs of my father’s side — Catholics to a man jack.

It was bad news for me but even worse for the nuns. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t in their face, loaded with questions they weren’t answering: Why do humans have immortal souls and not animals? Why would God create people with free will if he knew ahead of time some of them would damn themselves to eternal agony? Was this some kind of self-loathing he was working out symbolically through us?

These were small-town nuns, not scholars, and so they brushed off all of my questions with, “It’s a holy mystery.”
More… “The Novelist as Anglerfish”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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In the future, will God-fearing Russians defend Christianity against decadent, godless American atheists? The very question would have perplexed American Cold warriors who defended both America and Christianity against godless Russian communists in the 1950s and 1960s.

But consider the data. According to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, the number of Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians rose from 31 percent in 1991 to 72 percent in 2008. In the 1970s, the exiled Soviet dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn scandalized Western liberals and his Soviet persecutors alike by calling on Russians to return to their Orthodox Christian roots. Under Yeltsin and Putin, this appears to have occurred. Putin led the mourners at Solzhenitsyn’s funeral.

While Russians are rediscovering religion, Americans are abandoning it. Between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians plunged from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
More… “The Future of God”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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The Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center is near the train tracks that cut through Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. Nearly every town in southeastern Pennsylvania is organized like Pennsburg: A few houses lining a short empty street that was once a thoroughfare for trains that stopped moving a long time ago. The trains once served the mills and the factories, but those have stopped moving too. The street in these towns might have a restaurant or a gas station for the commuters who live in the housing developments that now ring a fortress around the railroad tracks. The architecture of southeastern Pennsylvania might be called development by erasure; the more that is built, the less of southeastern Pennsylvania there seems to be. The farms erased the wigwams and the railroads erased the farms, and sometimes it feels like few people really live here. The woman at the laundromat and the man at the… More…