Recent writings

s brent plate

  • Reach Out and Touch Some-Thing

    Geraldine Weichman, handprint Passover towel, 1981. Los Angeles. Photo credit: Jodi Eichler-Levine.

    “Let’s get in touch.”

    “I feel like I’m losing touch with you.”

    “That was a touching tribute.”

    The English language is littered with metaphors of touch that tend to revolve around connection between people. Such word use creates an almost psychic understanding that communication, even when conducted over Wi-Fi and satellite transmissions, can still allow us, as the old AT&T commercial had it, to “reach out and touch someone.” We “touch” each other even when we are a thousand miles away.

    Many of us have rediscovered this during the coronavirus lockdown, reconnecting with friends and family over the phone, Skype, and Zoom. We see and hear those we love through a screen, and we are touched. Of course, this experience has also shown us the limitations of communication, that ultimately, our metaphors are not reality.

    [Read the rest at Beacon Broadside]

  • Apocalyptabuse, or How to Survive "The End"

    Thomas Cole-Pilgrim of the World

    I am 12, lying in a sleeping bag on the floor of a friend’s house. It’s dark. It’s late. My friend and I are talking, not about girls or ghosts or standard middle school matters, but about the end of the world. The End.

    As young evangelicals in the 1970s, we’d been raised in this language, steeped in the scenarios of all hell breaking loose, war, famine, the rise of the Antichrist, the return of Jesus, suffering, and the millennial reign. The stories were told in Sunday school, in the movies we watched, even in the “nonfiction” books lying around our families’ houses. It wasn’t a matter of if but when, and we both agreed The End would arrive in our lifetimes. Maybe even before the end of the school year.

    [Read the rest at Killing the Buddha]

  • Green Remains

    The spiritual and secular afterlives of bodies

    Dead bodies create dilemmas. Whether or not you believe in a soul and its afterlife, we all—saints, secularists, and spiritual seekers alike—have to cope with corpses.

    The body itself has its own afterlife, its own place in the world, and these days there is a staggering array of ways to take care of the dead body. As climate change has become a greater threat, many new funerary practices have turned to so-called green burials, environmentally sustainable modes of laying the dead to rest. Such burials enable people to have afterlives by returning their bodies into the cycle of nature in a gentler way than most modern methods have allowed.

    [Read the rest at Spiral Magazine]

    Listen to the related podcast: "The Ritual of Remains" at Religion News Service, Beliefs


  • The psychology behind our love of Christmas movies

    If you are one of those people who will settle in this evening with a hot cup of apple cider to watch a holiday movie, you are not alone. Holiday movies have become firmly embedded in Americans’ winter celebrations.

    The New York Times reports a massive increase in new holiday movies this year. Disney, Netflix, Lifetime and Hallmark are now in direct competition for viewers’ attention, with both new releases and reruns of the classics.

    Holiday movies are so popular not simply because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.

    [Read the rest at Popular Science]

  • What Drives the Appeal of the "Passion of the Christ" & Other Films on the Life of Jesus

    Church isn’t the only place people go to learn about Jesus.

    At the beginning of Lent, 15 years ago, devout evangelical Christians did not go to church to have ashes marked on their foreheads. Rather, they thronged to theaters to watch a decidedly Catholic film to begin the Lenten season.

    That film was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which would go on to gross over US$600 million globally. It brought to screen a vivid portrayal of the last few hours of the life of Jesus and even today many can readily recall the brutality of those depictions. The film also stirred up a number of cultural clashes and raised questions about Christian anti-Semitism and what seemed to be a glorification of violence.

    [Read the rest at The Conversation]

  • Technology, tradition and the invention of Christmas in 19th-century New York

    Charles Haynes Haswell, who grew up in the 1820s in New York City, remembered in his memoirs that in his youth, “Christmas was very slightly observed as a general holiday.” A few years later, when Haswell was at boarding school on Long Island, Christmas was altogether ignored.

    It wouldn’t be until 1849, by which time Haswell was on his way to a long career in the city’s Tammany Hall political machine, that Christmas became a legally recognized holiday in the state of New York, following Alabama and other Southern states a decade earlier. But by then New York City had already given birth to the winter festival that is celebrated today across the United States and beyond.

    [Read the rest at Religion News Service]

  • Why we love robotic dogs, puppets and dolls

    There’s a lot of hype around the release of Sony’s latest robotic dog. It’s called “aibo,” and is promoted as using artificial intelligence to respond to people looking at it, talking to it and touching it.

    Japanese customers have already bought over 20,000 units, and it is expected to come to the U.S. before the holiday gift-buying season — at a price nearing US$3,000.

    Why would anyone pay so much for a robotic dog?

    My ongoing research suggests part of the attraction might be explained through humanity’s longstanding connection with various forms of puppets, religious icons, and other figurines, that I collectively call “dolls.”

    [Read the rest at Salon]

  • Images Change Our Views on Race

    Images are not static. They grab our attention, incite desire, alter our relations to others, and tweak our beliefs, as they usher us into new worlds.

    When “Black Panther” was released, Baye McNeil, a former Brooklynite now living in Japan, was thrilled. As he told The Japan Times, he joined“a group of palpably positive brothers and sisters” at a Tokyo theater. Collectively they were transported to the land of Wakanda. As an exile in Japan and a black man in a country with very few people of African descent, he and his friends entered, as he described, “a bountiful realm of invigorating messages and restorative images” that provided him with a sense of connection and belonging.

    [Read the rest at Newsweek]

  • Battling Our Demons, On Screen and Off

    In the midst of one shooting after another of unarmed black men by police officers, one comment keeps sticking in my mind: officer Darren Wilson’s expressed fear of Michael Brown before he shot him six times and killed him. Wilson claimed of Brown, “he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.”

    What does it mean to look “like a demon”? How would Wilson know what a demon looks like? Was he implicitly claiming he’s actually seen a demon? Or was Wilson, most likely, projecting an image of a demon from popular media onto the face of a real person? A monstrous, unreal other overlaid on the face of another, real person? And has media so influenced us that we don’t know the real from the fake and we’re ready to pull the trigger regardless?

    [Read the rest at The Revealer]


  • The Top Ten (Non-Religious) Religious Films of 2017


    Cinema and religion are never far apartboth bring light to darkened places. Sometimes the illumination comes from bright souls gathered together to confront dark forces. Sometimes it’s the light of bonfires lit to root out (perceived) monsters. Sometimes the light beckons to us from outside the window, or at the end of a tunnel, showing us another world beyond, full of possibilities. The lights are at times alluring, and other times frightening, and usually a bit of both.

    It may sound strange to say, but in an era of fake news and truthiness, we might need the lights of fiction now more than ever. Yes, for a kind of escape (though the belief in cinema simply as escapism is a dangerous tale), but also for testing, trying, experimenting, becoming other. In the cinema we are given the point of view of someone else, made to feel what someone else does, prompted to become part of the stories playing out on screen.

    [Read the rest at Religion Dispatches]