Ed Simon, Ann Neumann, Daniel José Camacho, & Brook Wilensky-Lanford, in conversation with S. Brent Rodríguez-Plate
Earlier this summer, editors and contributors to The God Beat: What Journalism Says About Religion and Why It Matters, a new anthology edited by Costica Bradatan and Ed Simon (Broadleaf Books, June 2021), gathered on Zoom to speak with The Commons editor Brent Rodríguez-Plate about how literary journalism can expand access, understanding, and interest in religion in a landscape where both local journalism and traditional academia are struggling to survive. An edited excerpt of our conversation is below. You can buy the book here, or listen to the full, wide-ranging discussion below.
Brent Rodríguez-Plate, editor of The Commons: Let’s start off with a general question: what did each of you contribute, and what are the circumstances of writing this piece for The God Beat?
Ann Neumann, author of The Good Death, former editor of The Revealer: My piece is about opioid addiction and the way that our healthcare system does or does not address it. And the religion lens for all of that is the morality issue that is used in treating drug addiction. We see it again and again how morality is cobbled out of pseudo-religious tenets and then codified into not just law enforcement regarding drug use but also this ineffective healthcare system that’s inaccessible and designed to skirt the primary issue. Looking at the opioid pandemic, Big Pharma has become the focus, instead of individual users. But it’s a great piece for the moment.
We are currently seeing mental health as an underlying issue surrounding incarceration, police over-enforcement, education issues, and certainly drug use. And as a society we continue to use morality—it’s a moral failing to have these weaknesses: to be poor, to use drugs, to not hold a steady job. And as a society, I think because of some of these strains within our primary belief systems, we’ve perpetuated that, so sadly. And the pandemic has only highlighted it.
Daniel José Camacho, writer and columnist at The Revealer: Well, with the essay Ed chose, the story starts with me wanting but feeling reluctant to take a DNA test. I talk about how uncomfortable I am with that, partly because of the way that I see people using it to construct identity in a way that I think can be unhealthy. It is a funny story of me wrestling with that—and sort of cheating, because my brother took a DNA test, so I looked at his results and tried to make sense of it.
There’s a whole mixture of Native American, the African continent, the Iberian Peninsula, but the biggest percentage is Spain. I ask this question, what does Spanish ancestry mean? My family is from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in Barranquilla, and we have very complicated stories of where we come from. Poring through old baptismal registries in Colombia can be very tricky! At least through this test I found out that we have a lot of Spanish ancestry, which we thought. But then what I realized, travelling to Spain and seeing this firsthand, in the architecture and in the culture, is that Spanish identity was very much constructed to conceal certain things. This national patriotic identity, at least the Christian European identity of Spain, was constructed over and against this Moorish legacy and also the Jewish legacy. So when I say what does it mean to be Spanish, it’s a very complicated thing! Are you talking about these parts of Spanish culture that have been suppressed, but have always been present? Or are you talking about the patriotic identity?
Brook Wilensky-Lanford, author of Paradise Lust and former editor of Killing the Buddha: My piece was originally written for Religion Dispatches. Andrew Aghapour was running a religion and science project there at the time called The Cubit. And he asked if I would be interested in interviewing Rob Bell, who I knew about as the guy who denied the existence of hell. I ended up sitting for I think it was eight hours in a room with a bunch of people who had paid a lot of money to see Rob Bell speak. And it was just that process of watching someone who is so smooth and so articulate in the world they’re trying to create with language, and having those wheels turn in the back of your head saying “Wait, what?” You know, “How could I actually believe this, how could other people believe this, how could I puncture that sense of belief?”
Bell had this idea that we had the “pre-rational” religion, which was primitive and attributed causality for the weather to rain dances, and that was obviously not right. And then we had the “rational” Enlightenment; that was great, but it left out some kind of magic, and now we’re in this “transrational” age. This idea really irked me! And sometimes the writing that I do comes out of just feeling irked and trying to uncover something.
Brent: Ed, what was the inspiration for putting this together, and what were you trying to do?
Ed Simon, religion writer and co-editor of The God Beat: The literal impulse for writing the book goes back to a book review that I wrote in 2019 for the Los Angeles Review of Books, of a fantastic collection of essays by Megan O’Gieblyn, who is in the book, called Interior States. She’s a former evangelical from the Midwest, and she writes about religion in a way that is similar to a lot of the writers in the book itself. The conceit that I developed over the course of the review is that there is this kind of genre called “the new religion journalism.” My argument—and I drew together all these writers in the review and identified them, willingly or unwillingly, with this—is that it’s a way of writing about religion that is not explicitly sectarian and not the same sort of sober, staid, objective reporting that we identify with the “god beat.” The comparison I try to make is that the “New Religion Journalism” deals with religion in a similar way to how the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s dealt with politics, culture, and so on. It’s comfortable with faith and doubt, in equal measure, and willing to find religion in places that religion might not be found by the more secular press. So religion has to do with opioid addiction. Religion has to do with a 23 and Me test. Religion exists in a much broader kind of way than it is sometimes configured.
One of the things that we wanted to do was give kind of a sense of the history of the twenty-first century through the New Religion Journalism. That’s why you see an essay about opioid addiction, about MeToo and Black Lives Matter, about individual important events that happened in the world of religion like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
And then the other thing, for all of you that teach, my favorite part of any semester is putting the syllabus together. You begin with all these incredible dreams of what am I going to introduce my students to, what are they gonna read, how are they gonna love this? And then of course by December everything goes to hell, normally. I was like, what if we could put together a syllabus that did not go to hell? So that’s how I like to think of The God Beat: who are these writers, what are these subjects, and who would we like to ideally put into conversation with one another?
Brent: Ann, you have worked on The Revealer and with NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, what do you think of this New Religion Journalism, what are the perils and pleasures of it?
Ann: If I can quote [Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet], religion in society tends to be either “the perfume or the mustard gas.” And what new religion journalism does well, if I can make it a thing, is get away from that dichotomy. We can look at the good and the bad in the story. We can look at where ideas of faith and morality and belief and the sacred come in, and not make a judgement about what it’s doing, but simply observe it. But also, I think in the new journalism as it was coined, the emphasis was just on good writing; treating seemingly complicated issues with descriptive language, and with patience. That moves away from the traditional item that we might have seen in the “God Beat,” which tended to be perfume-y, right? To something that is literary, and breath-y, and patient. And that’s really exciting to me, it’s what I’ve most enjoyed.
Brook: What Ann said was just marvelous. I’m thinking about the way that literary journalism can also stretch the news hook beyond a moment in time. I see a lot of religion stories with a lot of weight on survey data, results, or a big annual event. Every year, we get stories about Southern Baptists around the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. There’s a way in which that is completely unrepresentative of what is going on in Southern Baptist life. I think a lot about how to get beyond those headlines, but still be in conversation with them, to take those moments as jumping-off points and add narrative and color and character and all those things that make readers really grab onto it.
Brent: Or why do the Southern Baptists get covered, and not the [annual] Presbyterian General Assembly?
Ann: Or why not the Anabaptists? It’s the same thing, [the big headlines are] all we know.
Brent: I’m a professor of religious studies. I want to take things slow and write full books on topics, and it may take years to do it right. Then there are the journalistic pieces in which “this happened yesterday, it’s gotta be out today.” And literary journalism fills such a nice gap between these things. You get a little more time and a little more breathing room, but it’s still current.
Daniel: So I’ll be honest, when Ed first reached out about this book—I think a lot of writers can be like this, you have a certain independence and you’re like, what is this group? Because you never know, sometimes I’ve been mis-typed as evangelical just because I’m friendly to some evangelical people. They’re like, “oh you seem to not hate all evangelical people. So you must be [an evangelical].” It’s like, no, I’m not. I was, briefly, when I was a teenager, but that was a while ago. But the way that [Ed] describes it in the introduction, it’s going beyond a theism-atheism binary, and showing the full spectrum or ambiguities of faith and doubt. I feel like I’ve been looking for this kind of space where people share that sensibility.
Brent: Where you discover, “Hey, there’s these people doing this.” Killing the Buddha has functioned that way over the years for a lot of people.
Ed: So often you could categorize a lot of writing about religion as being between apostasy or orthodoxy, either explicitly sectarian or more atheistic. And what I loved about [the book Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible] and the ethos of [the related website] Killing the Buddha is that it’s spiritually experimental. It’s fine with this type of heretical position. Because heresy of course, is a category that takes religion seriously. Like it might be irreverent. It might be potentially blasphemous. It might be willing to go after idols. But going after idols is what religion does, you know?
Brook: I really like that. I wanted to ask you about your use of the term, “Agon” [in the anthology’s table of contents]. I had to look it up, and what I got was the sense of conflict or struggle, or an arena where things are fought over. I would love to hear how you thought about that in organizing it.
Ed: The way in which the four sections of the book divided are we have “personal Agon,” something about a conflict within oneself. We have pieces that are about “science and technology,” then we have pieces that are about “politics and society,” and the final one is conflict against divinities, the more traditionally theological pieces.
Brook: I like how it goes from I to thou. It’s very classic.
Ed: Ooh, that’s good. That was totally unintentional! I’ll take credit for that. Sort of moving from the subjective to the objective, insomuch as we can say that.
Ann: How do we see the relationship of this type of writing to the academy? Because most of the people in this book have a tie to the academy.
Ed: Many of the writers are academics. But my guess is a lot of them are contingent faculty. I’m an adjunct, for example. Because of neoliberal economic policies, we’ve had a collapse of traditional higher education that’s been concurrent and for a lot of the same reasons why we’ve had a collapse of local journalism. I think one of the unforeseen consequences of that is it’s freed a lot of us to write in a way that otherwise we would not have been able to. I started writing in this vein in the last two years of my PhD, and among some [of my advisors], there was a sense of, “well, if you’re writing these literary pieces and not peer-reviewed academic publications, you’re not going to get a job.” What I realized that maybe they didn’t, is, there’s not really a certain job for anyone in my cohort at the end of the road, so why limit myself? To quote Kris Kristofferson, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
Daniel: I do agree that the material conditions play a huge role. For myself, I did a master’s in divinity school. I decided for economic and family reasons to not go on for a PhD, because of the scary job market. But I’m stuck with all of these questions and all of these things that I’ve read and these habits that partially came from the academy. So what do I do with these passions, these interests? I want to be able to write and share it with my friends, or with people that are not necessarily specialists, and to have a conversation about these things. I think we just find a way to still pursue that intellectual life, but it looks different.
Ann: We’re living right now—ironically, for as dire as things are in the academy, and in part precisely because of those material conditions—in a golden age of writing that is written for a general public that comes out of the academy, that liberates scholarly discourse. And beyond just religion, so the Los Angeles Review of Books or n+1 or The Point, is available for whoever has an internet connection to read, and they don’t have to go through JSTOR to access it. All of that stuff is over the past 10, 15, 20 years.
Brent: To me, the problem in academia is what masquerades as criticism is deeply cynical, but they pretend they’re just being super critical. Part of what I see in the new religion journalism is there is a compassion. I mean, Daniel was talking about, you’re not totally against evangelicals, but it’s not a cynical view of evangelicalism. You’ve experienced enough of it to know it’s not monolithic.
Ann: I think that we know what we get from the academy. It’s the theory, the way of approaching a subject that is interdisciplinary, that pulls in all of these resources, particularly in religious studies. And what this genre may get from literary journalism is the reporting. It’s the inquiry, the curiosity, of being in the same room with who you’re discussing. Call it ethnography, call it what you will, but the pursuit of one’s own curiosity about a person, being, subject, idea. “What is sacred?” may be the academic question. But the journalistic question is “what is sacred to this being in this space?”
Ed: And through editors who have curiosity about faith that Ann spoke about, that’s opened up the opportunity to talk more about religion in places not explicitly focused on covering religion. All of us have had the experience of pitching an article to a venerable publication that is like, “we already have published our two religion articles of the year.” If there’s a benefit to the new religion journalism, it hopefully dissipates its ethos throughout the wider publishing world. You can write about religion and that doesn’t mean you are X, Y, or Z. It just means that you are interested in the fact that religion deals with questions of ultimate meaning. And that’s something that should be important to any curious person.
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