Douglas LeBlanc

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

For the second consecutive week, I am pleased to focus on an amazing work of religion coverage from an unexpected platform: “Why On Earth Are So Many Millennials Becoming Nuns?” by Eve Fairbanks, writing for the Huffington Post longform section, Highline.

Her essay begins (disclosure of my bias) exactly the way I would expect a HuffPost article to begin, when dealing with a subject linked to a traditional form of faith.

It’s all here — right down to the “scare” quotes in the predictable places. But the key word in that headline is “Millennial,” a generation wrestling with some interesting hopes, fears and anxieties. Let’s start here:

I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case. …

Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men — only men — who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn’t help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.

Still, there’s a certain allure to a high school with public art “depicting the triumph of mathematical logic.” The first photo featured wit this post, taken from Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., offers one possibility.

Once Fairbanks moves past this scene-setting about how she came to write this essay, she interviews a few different young women — Tori, Rachael, Mackenzie — who are high-achieving idealists.

The key question: Is there more to life than what is offered by a consumerist American culture?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Mormons and ex-Mormons in full — covered in a tech-centric publication, no less

Mormons and ex-Mormons in full — covered in a tech-centric publication, no less

Journalist Lauren Larson has done a remarkable thing.

Writing for The Verge, a tech-centric publication within the Vox family, she has shown how it’s possible to treat both sides in a contentious issue with overall fairness. Much of her work in “The website that helps people leave the Mormon Church” simply involves following a journalist’s natural curiosity and then writing about what she has discovered. 

To be sure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes the harder punches in Larson’s report. She quotes such remarks as “I suppose to her, families are forever, unless someone comes out as trans” and “**** bigoted old men.” The implication: Who could possibly disagree with such copper-bottomed examples of inclusivity and logic?

Larson takes the further step that’s becoming less common in journalism today: Actually daring to talk to the people who are taking shots from the cultural left.

The result is a report that shows occasional sympathy for both sides, and shows even some of the church’s stronger critics as conflicted in their emotions about leaving, or not yet leaving.

Starting near the top of the report, here’s a section that shows how the Web has made it easier for people to leave. Throughout the report, Larson’s references to the Church mean the body no longer known as “Mormon”:

In recent years, the Church has been embattled by the efficiency of the internet. It’s never been easier to stumble across information that contradicts the pillars of faith. That’s true for many religions but especially Mormonism, which has a very recent history. Where the unsavory specifics of an older faith’s origins may have been eroded by time, reduced to a handful of too-old-to-question texts and some shriveled relics, the early years of Mormonism are well-documented and easily examined online. The internet has also given Mormons new platforms, from forums to podcasts, where they can share their findings. The result has been a mass undoctrination.

That language about “too-old-to-question texts” and “shriveled relics” makes my teeth hurt, but I salute Larson’s coinage of the witty antonym undoctrination.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Destroyer of Worlds” by Nicky Woolf is a longform profile of a man who helped spread shortform jibber-jabber. The platform for this piece is Tortoise Media in London, a worthy journalistic venture with a witty name: in a culture of ceaseless notifications, pseudo-events and listicles of outrage, it strives to slow readers down with subscription-funded longform reporting.

The profile’s headline creates a hope that here is a journalist with religion literacy. It alludes to a verse from the Bhagavid Gita that theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said he thought about during the successful test of the atomic weapon he helped create.

Tortoise editor Ceri Thomas loses no time in warning readers that in creating the Web space known as 8chan (which I have no interest in visiting), Fredrick Brennan did a very, very bad thing:

There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism — and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan? 

The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan.

Likewise, Woolf spends considerable time warning readers away from what is possibly the most concentrated evil (click for classic movie finale) since Terry Gilliam directed Time Bandits in 1981.

But when Woolf has an exquisite plot twist — Brennan became a Catholic — this amazingly symbolic development becomes a drive-by detail in a penultimate paragraph.

How symbolic? Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), spent several years writing about his attraction to eugenics, on the theory that it could have prevented his suffering by preventing his birth. But that attraction has dimmed a bit since his conversion:

He is married, has converted to Christianity, and spends his time designing his own fonts. Asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, he pauses. “Um. It sounds like a cliché, but it gets better. You’re not going to feel like that for ever.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New Yorker reduces a couple's faith to being 'active members of the local Jewish community'

New Yorker reduces a couple's faith to being 'active members of the local Jewish community'

The Perverse Logic of GoFundMe Health Care,” Nathan Heller’s report for the July 1 edition of The New Yorker, is a powerful mix of pathos, business reporting and ethical analysis.

What it is not is a report that shows clear interest in this story’s obvious religion angles that cry out for attention.

Heller tells the agonizing story of Zohar and Gabi Ilinetsky, a couple who met in Israel, are married and living near San Francisco, and whose year-old twins, Yoel and Yael, have Canavan disease, which likely will kill them during their childhood. The Ilinetskys turned their hope to raising $2 million through GoFundMe to pay for their children to receive, in Heller’s words, “a gene-replacement treatment being developed by Paola Leone, a neuroscientist at Rowan University, in New Jersey.”

Heller provides sobering facts about what the twins have experienced, what they are likely to experience in the future, and what hope the Ilinetskys sees in Leone’s treatment and a physical therapy program called NeuroMovement. (“There’s a girl in the therapy institute that we’re going to who was born with a third of her brain missing,” Zohar said. “In ten years, they got her to walk.”)

We learn that Zohar had resisted turning to GoFundMe:

“When we started the fund-raising campaign, it was something that I personally didn’t feel comfortable with,” Zohar Ilinetsky told me when I visited him and Gabi at home one morning. He worried that people would mistake him for a taker of handouts. “I’m a capitalist to the bone,” he said. “But, when it comes to medicine, this is wrong—it’s inhumane. It’s like telling someone, ‘When you die, you’ll lie on the street, because you don’t have money for a funeral.’”

In Israel, he said, everyone has free coverage for all expected medical needs, from preventive care to transplants and mental health. “I remember, even as a kid, hearing people talking about how horrible the medical system in America was,” he told me. Bearded and stocky, Zohar has a lilting baritone and an open, histrionic personality that comes across as charming. Gabi—auburn hair, leggings—smiled as he expounded his case with flailing arms. She was the one who had convinced him that GoFundMe was worth trying. “I just didn’t have any other choice,” Zohar explained.

We learn that the Ilinetskys believe in using guns in self-defense:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Dispatch from the Island of Misfit Toys: it’s payback time for pagans on the far left

Dispatch from the Island of Misfit Toys: it’s payback time for pagans on the far left

There’s a simple reason for the recurring pop-culture theme about being the last kid chosen for the sports team, or fearing dodgeball, or being called a cruel nickname: nearly everyone feels the weight of being an outcast, usually by the ninth grade.

Yes, some carry that weight much longer than others, and often for reasons beyond their control. But some outcasts speak with such frequency about being outcasts that it appears to become central to their identity and actions. That brings us to “The Rise of Progressive Occultism,” a deeply researched longform report by Tara Isabella Burton in The American Interest.

You may remember that some witches joined in a collective hex against Brett Kavanagh, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, when he was but a nominee. You win some and you lose some.

The most serious practitioners of the dark arts are not mere political dilettantes, but people who believe a counter-narrative to Christianity (which they consider patriarchal) and who call on their ancient spiritual forces for supernatural assistance. This being the age of Donald Trump, well of course the 45th president serves as the bête noire (or bête blanc, if you prefer) in all of this:

In one Brooklyn zine, author and non-binary witch Dakota Bracciale — co-owner of Catland Books, the occult store behind the Kavanaugh hexing — celebrates the potential of traditional “dark magic” and outright devil-worship as a levying force for social justice.

“There have been too many self-elected spokespersons for all of witchcraft,” Bracciale writes, “seeking to pander to the masses and desperately conform to larger mainstream religious tenets in order to curry legitimacy. Witchcraft has largely, if not exclusively, been a tool of resilience and resistance to oppressive power structures, not a plaything for bored, affluent fools. So if one must ride into battle under the banner of the Devil himself to do so then I say so be it. The reality is that you can be a witch and worship the devil and have sex with demons and cavort through the night stealing children and burning churches. One should really have goals.”

As with the denizens of The Satanic Temple, Bracciale uses the imagery of Satanism as a direct attack on what he perceives as Christian hegemony. So too Jex Blackmore, a self-proclaimed Satanic feminist (and former national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple) who appeared in the Hail Satan? documentary performing a Satanic ritual involving half-naked worshippers and pigs’ heads on spikes, announcing: “We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy. … We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion, execute the president.”

Thank you for the heads up.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The Fertility Doctor’s Secret,” a longform report for The Atlantic about doctor Donald Cline of Indianapolis, reports dozens of facts — but is bound to disappoint readers who are reasonably informed about Christian teaching on infertility.

There are mere traces of religion in Sarah Zhang’s coverage, and too little digging deeper on remarks that beg for attention. In other word, this story has religion-shaped holes in it.

But first the basic narrative: Cline, who opened his clinic in 1979, is believed to be the father of at least eight children by virtue of using his sperm to impregnant unknowing patients.

That this story has come to light is one of the perverse miracles of connecting through Facebook and discovering the secrets of one’s DNA through consumer-focused DNA testing offered by 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

We’re told twice that Cline cited Bible verses to these now-grown humans, which raises some interesting factual questions. Zhang presents a sole example:

For months, nothing much happened. Then one of [Jacoba] Ballard’s half sisters went for it. She found Cline’s children — those he raised with his wife — and his adult grandchildren on Facebook and sent them a group message. A granddaughter replied, saying she didn’t know anything and couldn’t help.

But then, Ballard says, she got a message from Cline’s son. He had been looking through her Facebook photos and recognized her priest — he said he was Catholic too. He helped broker a meeting between his father and six of the siblings at a restaurant. Cline, who was then in his late 70s, walked in with a cane.

Ballard remembers this first family reunion of sorts as oddly matter-of-fact. Cline admitted to using his own sperm but said the records had been destroyed years ago. He asked each of the siblings what they did and where they lived. He read them Bible verses from a notepad. Ballard saw this as a misguided attempt to comfort her, and she snapped at him: “Don’t try to use my religion.”

Late in the story — in the 101st paragraph, to be specific — Zhang reveals only one example of Bible-thumping:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

Please respect our Commenting Policy