Concerning Fashion Magazine Bibles

Artifacts in Question:
Bible Illuminated: The Book

Let's open a fashion magazine. Which means The beautiful person has their shoulders square to the corners of the magazine, though their eyes may laugh upward or blush down. Sometimes one shoulder or the other has to kick up in a gesture of sass, but a flip-book of all fashion magazines would show the beautiful person jittering only slightly, looking around as if bored by us, but always with their shoulders flat against the glass of the glossy cover. They press against the viewer like the wings of a pinned moth or the shoulders of a hieroglyphic Pharaoh.

The beautiful person presses as close to the viewer as it can, meeting us halfway. If the flip-book of all fashion covers ran forward in time, we would see little signs popping up, denser and denser, around their body like the little sign under the moth or the writings around the Pharaoh. These are the near ends of trails that lead down and in, maybe a dozen golden threads that we can follow into the maze of the beautiful person, these paths are labels on the beautiful organs: refined tastes, timely interests, sexual talents, morals, beaded chains that we can follow inward as we peel the beautiful person open and figure out what is inside of them.

This is how we learn to be beautiful. We buy fashion magazines and go spelunking within the bright caverns of the beautiful person. We follow twists of words like threads, strings running in from the words on the cover, through tables of contents, page numbers, chained sentences, onward and inward, splitting through internal reference and holding the bright images together like chains of pearls. Maybe this is what one might mean when they say that an image has "depth."

Consider two efforts to take the Bible and make it a work of depth [this is not news, per se, but I thought I would share]: The first, "Revolve," published first in 2003 by Thomas Nelson presents the beautiful person as a young woman in the company of laughing friends, and offers several paths down and through the New Century Version which is the raw material of her body. Paths like "Guy 411" and "Caught in a Sin Spiral?" in this year's edition, or "Relationships 101: Keep the friends, lose the drama" and "Rock your outlook" in last year's draw the biblical text together into chains beaded with pictures and clasped with sidebars.

The second, "Bible Illuminated: The Book," published by the Swedish company "Illuminated World" in 2008, resembles a fashion magazine on the inside, now building pearly cords from the Good News Translation that follow more subtle headings inward: "A Good Investment," "If Love Gets Cold," "All Power Comes to an End." The glaring difference though is that the beautiful person here has been refigured entirely. We are not peeling back the sides of a body presented with squared shoulders, but a single beautiful eye that watches us askance and over heavy eye makeup. The beautiful person here has perhaps been crying, maybe finally walking out of a nightclub, giving one last look to someone who should not forget her. The beauty here is that of a gaze presented to be seen, but not one that looks at us, pure sight, sight without seeing. Here we cannot know if we are looking at a beautiful believer that we should dissect to better impersonate, or if this is the beautiful, obscure body of God crying off her liquid eyeliner.

These books are the same, of course: If the letters of the Bible are cells, both draw them into tissues, organs, and systems by tracing trails in and down. Both are moralizing works that push hard to define the ways that our own body might become beautiful.

But they are as different as their covers. The beautiful in Revolve faces back, calling for the simple impersonation against which we have defined art. We can work at a reflective reconstruction, reassembling our bodies into meaningful, Biblical chains, by staring back along that gaze, as easily as learning wisdom from Cosmo, or as easy as using a mirror to retrain facehair.

The moralism of Revolve comes up from the Book of Revelation, up from the end of time, back across the text toward the cover, and out into the reader's body with the random variation and inexorable straightness of bubbles rising from deep water.

But the beautiful person on "Bible Illuminated: The Book" refracts. It bends the text into a series of complex exchanges, lenses and not panes. We don't know whose components we are learning here, whether someone like us or God herself. That eye could be not looking back glassily for any number of reasons, and those titles offer no clue.

This is the great work done by the word "art." Since Kant, art has been the engagement with indifferent beauty. One does not fuck art or eat it, or touch it, or get excited by it. One might become motivated by art, but not aroused. Art, then, is created by injecting distance into the obviously desirable. Thought itself becomes exciting through panes of glass and empty space, what we call "reflection" happens in the gap between the velvet rope and the Mona Lisa.

But, again, this is not merely distance, this is distraction. The beautiful person here on the cover traces downward as in any fashion magazine through trails of images strung together with trails of text. But the beautiful glance aside fissures each chain into a tangle. Even the apparently thick cords of images, Revelation illustrated with heartrending photographs of environmental degradation, or Acts with photos of the celebrity activists and philanthropists, never tie in a simple way. To know whether the young Black men paired with the description of the three kings are representations or contrasts would first require making a function of that beautiful eye, making those eyelashes God's or our own.

If you would be curious to read a Bible recomposed into chains of the most complexly moral, reflective and obscure art, and to undertake the recursive and paradoxical work of remaking your insides to resemble the beauty of such a process, you can see the whole thing online.




[A story in which a man is quickly reduced to abject misery by God, made proud by an unwhirling wind, and prospers greatly as the devil heals him and gives him a lovely life.]


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Bnei Btzithl Mihlah today will be his father and 6
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To - and if - which - to ridicule any stars - weak imprisoned island 11
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Hello Again, Great Silence

So, friends,
I have not yet made the official statement, and since no one reads this, beginning here is a far cry from making it, but I think after a year and change of calling myself an Atheist, I am giving it up and returning to Christianity.
A Jewish friend whose pragmatic approach to God-talk in defense of justice I find moving, both emotionally and socially, asked me this morning what that means. Had I spent the last year consciously batting down thoughts about Jesus. I told him that amateur meditators like me can only make a little headway against thoughts by allowing them to pass by, not by resisting them. We have to work to see them as bubbles that float up, and smile gently at them as they pass, thinking (if one must think) "Oh, a thought" and allow them to go with bitterness neither for the thought nor the thinker. In this way, I told him, for a year, when I heard ideas like "This resembles the complaints of Job's friends," or "Perhaps this is what is meant by sin, actually" I would just glance at the thought and let it drift to wherever it was going. After a year of practice, they quite nearly stopped.
And now, I am seriously considering designing a slight modification into my pneumatic fishbowl, so that when, like bubbles, typological or otherwise Christian notions pass through, a net will catch them, holding the bubbles together so they can cluster and merge for a while.
His totally reasonable question: Why bother?
There are not enough hours in the day, especially during holy week. I will answer that later.


Defining “Religion” as the Art of the Impossible: A Perspective on Religious Studies and Anthropology


This is a short paper that I am submitting for my anthropology seminar. It is not my best writing, but upon looking at it I realized that it was to blog post as a seminar paper is to journal article, so I decided to put it here. Put 'er there!

Thank God no one is reading,

In the religious studies proseminar –the structural equivalent of ANTH701– Tom Tweed, our department chair, opened our discussion of Mama Lola by saying that it represents sophisticated new trends within the “ethnographic turn” that religious studies has taken since the second World War. Of the several points which could be taken from this off-handed comment, the most important is that religious studies is a thing which can turn towards a discipline, and not a discipline in its own right. Further, I would propose that religious studies -unlike Jewish studies, for instance- is neither a data-set. With this turn the term “religion” came to more prominently designate patterns of life which it had largely neglected; New Religious Movements, religious hybridities, and various social movements which had been left on the far side of a foggy border came to be “religion.” Religious studies, thus, cannot be located by a data-set, but by the ideological proposition of a data-set. Echoing Saussure's call for linguists to define and delimit their field of study, we are those who say that there exists something well designated “religion” and then set out, through the various disciplines that led us to its borders, to examine it. So, in this light, what is an ethnographic turn? Where has post-war cultural anthropology relocated religion? I will wander towards an answer arm-in-arm with three post war theorists, two seminal and one potentially useful, to consider where religion is and where it might be soon.

In “The Structural Study of Myth” Levi Strauss presented religion as a set of “processes which, whatever their apparent differences, belong to the same kind of intellectual operation,” rather than emerging from “inarticulate emotional drives” whence he claimed “Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim” as psychologizing theorists had traced them.1 Setting aside the fact that all three of these theorists saw the religious impulse as a sort of precursor to science, and a preeminenly logical drive, it is notable the directions in which this conviction brings Levi-Strauss. He is absolutely right, of course, that the analysis of myth as he found it (and perhaps still would find it) lacks significant structures of accountability between various theorists, and that myths can be examined towards nearly any foregone conclusion, but it is questionable whether this is entirely overridden by his para-linguistic reframing,

Given that “myth” functions as a synecdoche for religion in this essay, it is notable that he has relocated its “meaning” not in “the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined.2” That is, a story cannot be identified as a myth merely because it contains ostensibly supernatural elements or characters. It must be “bundled” in the manner characteristic of mythical speech, having curiously weak temporal claims. This allows myth -and thus religion- to be located in any kind of story that bears non-propositional temporality. Though Levi-Strauss seemed content to use this method to study only those stories which are commonly identified as religious, it is the necessary ground for those recent theorists like David Chidester or Gary Laderman who explore the religious implications of Disney's narratives and other mass mediated stories.

Continuing along the same trajectory, Geertz' definition of “religion” again opens the field to new areas of inquiry by considering “religion” best demarcated by arrangements rather than contents. If we figure religion as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men3” it is neither necessary that ghosts be religious, nor that religion be ghostly. This has, of course, drawn critique from those scholars of religion who do not want “everything” (often meaning specifically sports, advertising and other areas of Roland Barthes' specialization) to become religion. However, I have personally found it a quite useful reframing in that it allows for a more adverbial use of “religion” in the case of videogames and other popular cultural phenomena, allowing that certain elements may operate “religiously” even if their total conjuncture is unlikely to be well received as fully “religious.” Toward this sort of work, Geertz' is a fruitful extension of structualist framings of “religion” in that it does not ask about characteristics of the system of symbols, but about the roles it plays in the lives of those engaged with it.

It is notable that both of these efforts, however, have been applied exclusively towards bringing new elements under the label “religion.” In Levi-Strauss' methodology of including all variants of a myth, this makes some sense, but one would think that Geertz would be well applied towards the claim that some phenomenon that had been labeled “religion” was actually incapable of establishing moods and motivations of the right sort.

Niezen's World Beyond Difference follows this same trajectory. Just as Levi-Strauss had located “religion” in a particular sort of para-linguistic interaction rather than in content traditionally termed religious, and as Geertz had brought this consideration into the particulars of lived life by considering the interaction of elements in life, so Niezen locates the religious in structures of global organization. This is an extension in that it retains the focus on the effects (and affects) that these arrangements have upon their members, but obviates the regional focus visible in Geertz' work. By allowing the identifying features of religion to combine without spacial reference, Geertz' spirit-neutral framing of religion is empowered to explain many movements that could not have been discussed otherwise, not only including patterns of global capitalism and Fundamentalism in the present, but even, for instance, patterns of historical Catholicism. I have designated this a “potentially useful” text, however, because it, like much work in anthropology, expounds its theories of religion without ever demarcating its object clearly.

The most explicit descriptions of “religion” here, however, are groups whose religious nature seems to largely emerge from the fact that their claimed precedents were designated so by Niezen's. The “religious dissension” he describes seems to be only a form of dissent shared among various types of groups, but which is being enjoined here by Muslims.4

But there are glimmerings of a much more useful understanding of “religion” in this work that deserves to be unearthed. Consider his reflections on the strong sense of “Globalization,” the process of accelerating global networking irrespective of whether its specific nature is basic or superstructural: “For some, the rapid pace of change attributed to globalization is a source of almost millenarian hope, an expectation of the end of history... It is almost a secular source of spiritual awe that rules human fate beyond the reach of petition or salvation.5”

My only complaint about this location of religion is Niezen's conservative use of “almost.” There is nothing “almost” about it, particularly if this is only “for some:” In my ethnographic work with the Ordo Templi Orientis in Atlanta, a group who envisions the world as having entered a New Aeon of human interconnection in autonomy in 1904, the internet was positively proof of their apocalypic doctrines; Timothy Leary, in Chaos and Cyber Culture explicitly detailed the net age as the new world which prophecy had been unable to articulate clearly; The Kabbalah Centre, likewise, has framed globalized modernity as the age which is properly prepared for the messiah.

But Niezen's “for some” is by no means insignificant. All of the groups I have detailed are constituted largely by internet culture, the OTO managing their 3000 members and disproportionately large sphere of influence in the New Age movement through podcasting and web archives, Leary's followers continuing to publish his texts online, and the Kabbalah Centre clustering a network of perhaps millions around their own online store. These groups are religious with regard to their discourse on globalization both because they have framed the current configuration “mythically” through Levi-Straussian atemporality -these things were explained by ancient prophecy much as they currently being recounted on the news- and because their members are engaged with them in the ways that Geertz would designate “religious.”

The work that remains to be done in demarcating the bounds of “religion” is precisely that which Niezen may not have realized he was doing by writing “for some.” The bounds of “religion” usefully pushed out by (post)structuralism have in fact come to encompass nearly everything, and are beginning to take on the uncritical possibility which Levi-Strauss had seen in the study of myth. The next task is to ask for whom various arrangements actually act on their constituent members as any given theorist has decided to characterize “religion.” If the term is to encompass groups like the Kabbalah Centre which describes itself as the opposite of a religion, should they behave (as, I argue, the Centre does) “religiously,” the possibility must be left open that some groups commonly so designated may need to be reclassified. This need not mean, of course, that anyone say “Methodism is not a religion.” My best prediction is that a structuralist drive focused on affective and network structures could eventually clarify religious arrangements down into more workable units by emphasizing specific affective and network structures: “Methodism includes sixteen religions.” It is a work worth doing, and one towards which it seems religious studies is turning.

1. Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270 (Oct. - Dec., 1955), 428.
2. Levi-Strauss, 431.
3. Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” in The Interpretation of Cultures, 88.
4. Niezen, 65.
5. Niezen, 36.


And Experiments


The effort following the thyspace group has been a Facebook type group on a similar attempt to plant a node for digital and progressive Christianity. This, incidentally, worked only slightly less terribly [ http://unc.facebook.com/group.php?gid=15020685067 ]. Time, I suppose to reconfigure the way I am imagining internet nodes.

Good to think,


An experiment

Hello friends,
The application of Deleuze to that music video seemed like a fine way to resume this strange little effort, didn't it? Oh well, you can't win them all. As it turns out, Deleuze's Cinema is one of those books that I encounter periodically and have to admit I cannot read. I can't, not now. (Though his claim that watching The Passion of Joan of Arc proves the existence of a "non-psychological spirit" in the human seems to be hinting at something that needs to be said, and said quickly, to me.) So I am going to return to the thousand tiny projects that made this seem like a useful project in the first place. I doubt anyone will mind.

I have recently set out to try a meta-theological, meta-ecclesiastical (meta-heretical would not be entirely unfair) experiment on the new Christian social service "Thyspace." Perhaps it will be worth writing about here:

Critical Mass: A Meeting Place for Christians with Unpopular Questions

This is a group for Christians without a sense of their place in The Body because the questions that occupy their thoughts and prayers are not only unanswerable, but even unaskable within their communities.

Here Christians can meet up to discuss all of the intellectual and theological matters not (or not adequately) discussed within the narrow spectrum of our denominations. And can do so without being pressured to accept any answer that does not satisfy their intellect.

The commitment here is to the proposition that just as The Body encompasses Catholics, Congregationalists, and Quakers, just so does it have room for the many creative theologies which are currently adrift without communities. This is a meta-group, one that hopes to serve as a rally-point around which people can meet, and begin conversations that can continue here and elsewhere.

Thus, this group invites all of those who would like to meet to discuss Christian perspecives on (and not merely against) evolution or atomism, pan(en)theism or deism, agnosticism/fideism or monism, anarchism or feminism, radical literalism or radical anti-literalism... or any of the other theological and intellectual visions which are legitimate possibilities within our shared heritage.

That also means that this is not a group for would-be heresy hunters who want to tell others that their Christianities are invalid. Nor is it a group for those who do not consider themselves Christian (may they find their peace). There is a forum for efforts to draw people in to a denomination or push them out of Christianity entirely. That forum can be found (unfortunately) in most churches and nearly everywhere else.

Any Christian who feels alone in their intellectual pursuits, any Christian who thought there was no community in which they could think freely (and who does not want to use such a forum to promote hatred of other people, whether Christian or otherwise) is welcome here.

Admittedly, this is an effort to repair the past: I was eighteen when I was first traumatized by Darwin and by the presumption that women are men's equals in all senses relevant for politics or theology (that is, this world or any other). I was traumatized, of course, because these ideas struck me as both entirely convincing and absolutely impossible to discuss within the frame of my church. I was sent back, sore with questions, to the Bible. My fissure was then quickly opened into a complete fracture by the fact that the cosmological (and occasionally angelological) questions that seemed necessary parts of the Bible stories at hand were avoided by everyone from whom I sought answers. I spent five years convinced that I could not call myself a Christian, before realizing that every issue that was killing me has been answered in many different (and occasionally satisfying) directions by generations of Christians from whom I was kept. Whether this was through malice or ignorance hardly matters now; if the medium is the message the internet itself may be a balm for either. Maybe a wikilisiology will sustain Christians who thought they had the sin of inventing and the sad burden of sustaining their heresy alone.

Of course, this could fail in a dozen ways: "Thyspace" could never really catch on; I could be thrown off (though I can hardly imagine a clearly worded rebuttal for this sort of group as a whole); No one within the thyspace community could care or want to join. But the visions for success are messy enough that simple failure is hardly a worry.

Maybe there will be nothing to report, but if this becomes beautiful (or otherwise), I will tell you about it.

Love always,


Oh yes, and I've learned something.

I am setting out to coherently discuss (as an experiment in my apprehension of Deleuze) a single goddamned music video. This is me reopening this file. I will be writing here more often. So, my homework: