Religion

How to Get Started with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

in Health, How to Learn for Free, Religion | September 9th, 2016

If you’ve dipped even a toe into the yoga world lately, you’ve perhaps noticed controversies raging from East to West about the Hindu practice of meditative postures (āsanas). Is yoga religious? If so, does practicing it in schools violate religious freedoms; does the Indian government’s endorsement of yoga slight Indian Muslims? Is yoga an ancient spiritual practice or modern invention? Is Western yoga “cultural appropriation,” as both campus groups and Hindu groups allege? Is there such a thing as “Real Yoga” and is “McYoga” killing it?

These questions and more get debated on a daily basis online, on campus, and in statehouses and councils. No one is likely to find resolution any time soon. However, you may have also heard about the health benefits of yoga, trumpeted everywhere, including Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, and you can safely ignore the politics, and learn the physical practice in any number of ways.




Like millions of other people, you may find that it helps you “fight stress and find serenity” as Mayo writes; or become a “mindful eater,” boost “weight loss and maintenance,” enhance fitness, and improve cardiovascular health, according to Harvard.

Various teachers and schools will make other claims about yoga’s practical and spiritual effects. These you are free to take on faith, experience yourself, or check against scientific sources. And when you’re ready to get out of your head and connect your mind and body, try a yoga class. Skip the gym and Lululemon. You don’t even have to leave your home or get out your wallet. We have several free online yoga classes represented here, from reputable, experienced teachers offering poses for beginners and for experienced yogis, and for all sorts of ailments and types of physical training.

The first, Yoga with Adriene, opens things up gently with “Yoga for Complete Beginners,” at the top, a 20 minute “home yoga workout” that requires no special props or prior experience. From here, you can browse Adriene’s Youtube channel and find playlists like the 38-video “Foundations of Yoga” and 10-video “Yoga for Runners” sequence, further down.

Should Adriene’s approach strike you as too casual with the yogic tradition, you might find the instruction of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois more to your liking. His one-hour “Primary Series Ashtanga” video, above, opens with this disclaimer: “The following video is NOT an Exercise Video. It is intended for educational, artistic, and spiritual purposes only.” The text also warns that Master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ yoga practice is taught “to six highly experienced students,” as will become clear when you watch his video.

Other courses—from yoga video series by Kino Yoga and Yoga Journal—gesture to both ends of the purely fitness-based and purely spiritual-based spectrum, and both have beginner series, above and below. It’s up to you to decide where you stand in the yoga wars, if anywhere. You’ll find, if you look, no shortage of reportage, think pieces, academic articles, and rants to fill you in. But if you want to learn the physical practice of yoga, you needn’t look far to get started. In addition to the resources here, take a look at some curated lists of online yoga classes from New York Magazine, Huffington Post, and Elle UK.  Thanks go to our Twitter followers, who gave us some helpful hints. If you have your own tips/favorites, please drop them in the comments section below.

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 Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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William Blake’s Masterpiece Illustrations of the Book of Job (1793-1827)

in Art, Literature, Poetry, Religion | September 9th, 2016

Job's Comforters

Orthodox thinkers have not often found the answers to suffering in the Book of Job particularly comforting—an early scribe likely going so far as interpolating the speech of one of Job’s more Pollyannaish friends. The gnarly metaphysical issues raised and never quite resolved strike us so powerfully because of the kinds of things that happen to Job—unimaginable things, excruciatingly painful in every respect, and almost patently impossible, marking them as legend or literary embellishment, at least.

Behemoth Leviathan

But his ordeal is at the same time believable, consisting of the pains we fear and suffer most—loss of health, wealth, and life. Job is the kind of story we cannot turn away from because of its horrific car-wreck nature. That it supposedly ends happily, with Job fully restored, does not erase the suffering of the first two acts. It is a huge story, cosmic in its scope and stress, and one of the most obviously mythological books in the Bible, with the appearance not only of God and Satan as chatty characters but with cameos from the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan.

Job's Despair

Such a story in its entirety would be very difficult to represent visually without losing the personal psychological impact it has on us. Few, perhaps, could realize it as skillfully as William Blake, who illustrated scenes from Job many times throughout his life. Blake began in the 1790s with some very detailed engravings, such as that at the top of the post from 1793. He then made a series of watercolors for his patrons Thomas Butts and John Linell between 1805 and 1827. These—such as the plate of “Behemoth and Leviathan” further up—give us the mythic scale of Job’s narrative and also, as in “Job’s Despair,” above, the human dimension.

Blake_Job_Evil_Dreams_Detail_bb421_1_13-12_ps_300

Blake’s final illustrations—a series of 22 engraved prints published in 1826 (see a facsimile here)—“are the culmination of his long pictorial engagement with that biblical subject,” writes the William Blake Archive. They are also the last set of engravings he completed before his death (his Divine Comedy remained unfinished). These illustrations draw closely from his previous watercolors, but add many graphic design elements, and more of Blake’s idiosyncratic interpretation, as in the plate above, which shows us a “horrific vision of a devil-god.” In the full page, below, we see Blake’s marginal glosses of Job’s text, including the line, right above the engraving, “Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of Light & his Ministers into Ministers of Righteousness.”

Job's_Evil_Dreams

Other pages, like that below of Job and his friends/accusers, take a more conservative approach to the text, but still present us with a strenuous visual reading in which Job’s friends appear far from sympathetic to his terrible plight. It’s a very different image than the one at the top of the post. We know that Blake—who struggled in poverty and anonymity all his life—identified with Job, and the story influenced his own peculiarly allegorical verse. Perhaps Blake’s most famous poem, “The Tyger,” alludes to Job, substituting the “Tyger” for the Behemoth and Leviathan.

Job Rebuked

The Job paintings and engravings stand out among Blake’s many literary illustrations. They have been almost as influential to painters and visual artists through the years as the Book of Job itself has been on poets and novelists. These final Job engravings, writes the Blake Archive, “are generally considered to be Blake’s masterpiece as an intaglio printmaker.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Ultra Orthodox Rabbis Sing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on the Streets of Jerusalem

in Music, Religion | August 30th, 2016

Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, we give you this: Aryeh and Gil Gat, two once fairly-secular brothers-turned-ultra orthodox rabbis, playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on the streets of Jerusalem. Intrigued? Ready for more? Watch them play Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing,” Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” The Beatles’ “Come Together,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

If you live in Israel, the brothers probably won’t be strangers to you. In 2013, they became stars on the top-rated TV talent show Rising Star. And, defying stereotypes about the ultra orthodox, they proved that rock and orthodox religion can go together. For Aryeh, “the power of music is above everything.” For Gil, it’s “holy, it’s God’s work, because it creates love and connection.” Watch them play Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” and let me know if you disagree.

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A 12-Hour Eastern Spirituality Playlist: Features Lectures & Readings by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Isherwood, the Dalai Lama & Others

in Religion | August 23rd, 2016

800px-Bhagavata_Gita_Bishnupur_Arnab_Dutta_2011

Krishna teaching Arjuna, from the Bhagavata Gita, by Arnab Dutta, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening with 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s quote, “The East is a career,” Edward Said’s Orientalism traced the lineage of “the Orient” as “almost a European invention.” Through discourses scientific, political, philosophical, cultural, and otherwise, European thinkers, artists, and statesmen, Said contended, “accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions and political accounts.” But at the root of a long academic tradition of comparative analyses of “East” and “West,”—a relationship of dominance—there lay the recognition, however dim, that “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also… the source of its civilizations and languages.”

The cultural debts that Europe owed its colonies were not the kind of thing most politicians liked to discuss, but many European and U.S. writers and scholars fascinated with the East have long recognized religious and philosophical continuities between the two hemispheres. The number of conversations between so-called Western and Eastern traditions only increased as the 20th century wore on and European Empires crumbled, giving rise mid-century to a whole society of comparative East/West religionists and writers: D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg…. Although many Western scholars’ pronouncements may have overgeneralized or distorted, interest in a dialogue has only grown since the 50s and 60s, and sympathetic presentations of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and other “Eastern religions” proliferated.

From this atmosphere emerged the work of Joseph Campbell, famous for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, a work of comparative religion that adopted a philological approach to myth like that of Campbell’s own hero, Nietzsche. Campbell may have seen East and West as distinct cultural entities—titling one lecture “The Eastern Way” and another “The Western Quest”—but his theory did not allow for a strict cultural hierarchy. In his many recorded lectures, Campbell stresses the similarities and common origins of world traditions, which inhabit, he says, a “single constellation.” We have a few of those talks in full in the 12 hour Spotify playlist on Eastern Spirituality above, including lectures on “Imagery of Rebirth Yoga” and “Hinduism,” delivered in the late sixties.

We also have Christopher Isherwood reading selections from his translation with Swami Prabhavananda of the Bhagavad-Gita. Isherwood’s famed embrace of Vedanta did much to foster inter-religious dialogue, and he left behind a “tremendous cache of self-revelatory works,” writes American Vedantist, “including essays, lectures, novels, his diaries, and the autobiographical My Guru and His Disciple.” Next to Campbell and Isherwood, we have Tibetan Buddhist authority the Dalai Lama giving an introductory lecture on Buddhism and a talk on “Cultivating Happiness.” Rounding out the playlist is another introduction to Buddhism by Emma Hignett, a reading of the Tao te Ching, and a reading by Robert Hamilton of his fascinating comparative study of world religions, Caduceus.

While each of us could, of course, take it upon ourselves to learn Sanskrit, or Pali, or Chinese, translate ancient religious literature and draw our own conclusions, we can also partake of the work of scholars and writers who have invested deeply in their subject, personally and professionally, and returned with a great deal of wisdom about global spiritual traditions. The lectures on this playlist (if you need Spotify’s free software, download it here) offer an excellent sampling of that wisdom and scholarship. You’ll find much more on our site in work by Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Watts, Robert Thurman, the Dalai Lama, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Leonard Cohen, and many more.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Philosopher Sam Harris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guided Meditation

in Health, Neuroscience, Psychology, Religion | August 2nd, 2016

We’ve posted on meditation research lately because it’s so compelling, and meditation music and instructions because so many creative people have found it liberating. But it’s always worth noting that a few meditation skeptics have weighed in with pointed objections to the large claims meditation teachers often make. And yet even after one of the most unsparing critiques of meditation research and teaching, science writer John Horgan still admits that “it might make you feel better, nicer, wiser” and plans to continue meditating in the face of his “perfect contempt for it.”

Another professional skeptic has gone even further along this road. Once spoken of as one of the dreaded “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, Sam Harris has also long called himself a secular Buddhist, and has written “a guide to spirituality without religion.” Wading into the politics of meditation means dealing with skeptics like Harris who treat Buddhism as quaint and archaic foolishness that just happened to preserve the scientific technology of mindfulness, and it means sorting through a lot of scientific studies, many of which—as is always the case—have a number fatal flaws in their method. Harris’ scientific claims about mindfulness have come in for their own critiques, from both mystics and secularists.

All of this said, the fact is that, like yoga and many other practices designed to harmonize mind and body, the benefits of meditation, placebo-induced or otherwise, are observable, and the risks entirely negligible. Many skeptical researchers have decided to dive in and try meditation before fully crediting their doubts. And that, supposedly, is the very instruction we find in what is often called the Buddhist “charter for free inquiry,” which tells practitioners to investigate for themselves and take no one’s word for anything, a few hundred years in advance of the British Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba.

In this spirit, skeptics like Harris have investigated meditation and reported their findings. Many also, like Harris and academic researchers like Oxford psychiatrist Mark Williams, have recorded their own guided mindfulness meditations that correspond in many respects to the original ancient instructions. We’ve previously featured guided meditations from UCLA and a compilation of recorded instructions from new agers and scientists. At the top of the post, you can hear Harris’ very straightforward guided meditation, and further down a shorter version of the same.

In the video above, Harris employs just a little hyperbole in comparing mindfulness to the Large Hadron Collider. His claim that only through this practice can we discover “the self is an illusion” rings false when we think of the many other philosophers who have independently come to the same conclusion, whether as Taoists or Empiricists. But Harris isn’t only making the case for mindfulness meditation’s true correspondence to some fundamental nature of reality, but for its pragmatic usefulness in helping us move through the world with greater skill and peace of mind—reliable outcomes from regular meditation that no one has yet credibly denied.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Stream 18 Hours of Free Guided Meditations

in Health, Psychology, Religion | July 27th, 2016

Meditate_Tapasya_Dhyana

Image via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s crazed election got you stressed out? Or just life in general? “It’s never too late,” Allen Ginsberg reminds us, “to meditate.” On Monday, we brought you several versions of Ginsberg’s meditation instructions, which he set to song and recorded with Bob Dylan and disco maven/experimental cellist Arthur Russell, among others. Ginsberg’s “sugar-coated dharma,” as he called it, does a great job of drawing attention to meditation and its benefits, personal and global, but it’s hardly the soothing soundtrack one needs to get in the right posture and frame of mind.

For that, you might try Moby’s 4 hours of ambient music, which he released free to the public through his website last month. Traditionally speaking, no music is necessary, but there’s also no need go the way of Zen monks, or to embrace any form of Buddhism or other religion. Wholly secular forms of mindfulness meditation have been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, help manage physical pain, improve concentration, and promote a host of other benefits.

Still skeptical? Don’t take my word for it. We’ve pointed you toward the vast amount of scientific research on the subject of mindfulness meditation, much of it conducted by skeptical researchers who came to believe in the benefits after seeing the evidence. If you too have come around to the idea that, yes, you should probably meditate, your next thought may be, but how? Well, in addition to Ginsberg’s witty Vipassana how-to, UCLA has a series of short, guided meditations available on iTunesU. And just above, we have an entire playlist of guided meditations—18 hours in total. It was put together by Spotify, whose free software you can download here.

These include more religiously-oriented kinds of meditations like “Guided Chakra Balancing” and the mystical philosophies of Deepak Chopra, but don’t run off yet if all that’s too woo for you. There are also several hours of very practical, non-religious instruction from teachers like Professor Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, who offers meditations for cognitive therapy. See Williams discuss mindfulness research and meditation as an effective means of managing depression in the video above. (Catch a full mindfulness lecture from Professor Williams and hear another guided meditation from him on Youtube).

You’ll also find a 30-minute guided meditation for sleep, sitar music from Ravi Shankar, and many other guided meditations at various points on the spectrum from the mystical to the wholly practical. Something for everyone here, in other words. Go ahead and give it a try. No matter if you can manage ten minutes or an hour a day, it’s never too late.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Allen Ginsberg Teaches You How to Meditate with a Rock Song Featuring Bob Dylan on Bass

in Music, Poetry, Politics, Religion | July 25th, 2016

dylan ginsberg meditation

Image via Elisa Dorman, Wikimedia Commons

Whatever other criteria we use to lump them together—shared aims of psychedelic consciousness-expanding through drugs and Eastern religion, frank explorations of alternative sexualities, anti-establishment cred—the Beats were each in their own way true to the name in one very simple way: they all collaborated with musicians, wrote song or poems as songs, and saw literature as a public, performative art form like music.

And though I suppose one could call some of their forays into recorded music gimmicky at times, I can’t imagine Jack Kerouac’s career making a whole lot of sense without Bebop, or Burroughs’ without psychedelic rock and tape and noise experimentation, or Ginsberg’ without… well, Ginsberg got into a little bit of everything, didn’t he? Whether writing calypsos about the CIA, performing and recording with The Clash, showing up on MTV with Philip Glass and Paul McCartney…. He never worked with Kanye, but I imagine he probably would have.

For each of these artists, the medium delivered a message. Kerouac’s odes to jazz, loneliness, and wanderlust; Burroughs’ dark, paranoid prophecies about government control; and Ginsberg’s anti-war jeremiads and insistent pleas for peace, freedom, tolerance, and enlightenment. Ever the trickster and teacher, Ginsberg often used humor to disarm his audience, then went in for the kill, so to speak. We may find no more pointed an example of this comedic pedagogy than his 1981 song, “Do the Meditation Rock,” recorded in 1982 as a shambling folk-rock jam above with guitarist Steven Taylor, and members of Bob Dylan’s touring band—including Dylan himself making a rare appearance on bass.

As the story goes, according to Hank Shteamer at Rolling Stone, Ginsberg was in Los Angeles and “eager to book some studio time. Dylan obliged, and agreed to foot the bill for the studio costs on the condition that Ginsberg would pay the musicians. The two met at Dylan’s Santa Monica studio and, as Taylor remembers it, jammed for 10 hours.” Many more recordings from that session made it onto the recently released The Last World on First Blues, which also includes contributions from Jack Kerouac’s musical partner David Amram, folk legend Happy Traum, and experimental cellist, singer, and disco producer Arthur Russell.

See Ginsberg, Taylor, Russell, and Ginsberg’s partner Peter Orlovsky (meditating), perform the song above on a PBS special called “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” created in 1984 by Korean video artist Naim June Paik. As Ginsberg explains it in the liner notes to his collection Holy Soul, Jelly Roll, the song came together after his own meditation training in the late seventies, when the poet got the okay from his Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (founder of Naropa University) to “show basic meditation in his traditional classrooms or groups at poetry readings”—his goal, he says, to “knock all the poets out with sugar-coated dharma.”

Christmas Eve, I stopped in the middle of the block at a stoop and wrote the words down, notebook on my knee. I figured that if anyone listened to the words, they’d find complete instructions for classical sitting practice, Samatha-Vipassana (“Quieting the mind and clear seeing”). Some humor in the form, it doesn’t have to be taken over-seriously, yet it’s precise.

You may have noticed the familiar cadence of the chorus; it’s a take-off, he says, on “I Fought the Law,” recorded in 1977 by his soon-to-be musical partners, The Clash. In the live version below at New York’s Ukranian National Home, the song gets a more stripped-down, punk rock treatment with Tom Rogers on guitar. Like many a wandering bard, Ginsberg changes and adapts the lyrics slightly to the venue and occasion. See the Allen Ginsberg Project for several published versions of the lyrics and his changes in this rendition.

Apart from the basic meditation instructions, which are easy to follow in writing and song, Ginsberg’s “Do the Meditation Rock” had another message, specific to his understanding of the power of meditation; it can change the world, in spite of “a holocaust” or “Apocalypse in a long red car.” As Ginsberg speak/sings, “If you sit for an hour or a minute every day / you can tell the Superpower, sit the same way / you can tell the Superpower, watch and wait.” No matter how bad things seem, he says, “it’s never too late to stop and meditate.” Hear another recorded version of the song below from Holy Soul, Jelly Roll, recorded live in Kansas City by William S. Burroughs in 1989.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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R. Crumb Shows Us How He Illustrated Genesis: A Faithful, Idiosyncratic Illustration of All 50 Chapters

in Comics/Cartoons, Literature, Religion | May 27th, 2016

crumb genesis

It is widely accepted among scholars that the first few books of the Bible—including, of course, Genesis, with its creation myths and flood story—are a patchwork of several different sources, pieced together by so-called redactors. This “documentary hypothesis” identifies the literary characteristics of each source, and attempts to reconstruct their different theological and political contexts. Primarily refined by German scholars in the late nineteenth century, the theory is very persuasive, but can also seem pretty schematic and dry, robbing the original texts of much of their liveliness, rhetorical power, and ancient strangeness.

Another German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, approached Genesis a little differently. “Everyone knows”—write the editors of a scholarly collection on the foundational Biblical text—Gunkel’s “motto”: “Genesis ist eine Sammlung von Sagen”—“Genesis is a collection of popular tales.” Rather than reading the various stories contained within as historical narratives or theological treatises, Gunkel saw them as redacted legends, myths, and folk tales—as ancient literature. “Legends are not lies,” he writes in The Legends of Genesis, “on the contrary, they are a particular form of poetry.”

Such was the approach of cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb, who took on illustrating the entire book of Genesis, “a text so great and so strange,” he says, “that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions.” In the short video above, Crumb describes the creation narrative in the ancient Hebrew book as “an archetypal story of our culture, such a strong story with all kinds of metaphorical meaning.” He also talks about his genuine respect and admiration for the stories of Genesis and their origins. “You study ancient Mesopotamian writings,” says Crumb, “and there’s all of these references in the oldest Sumerian legends about the tree of knowledge” and other elements that appear in Genesis, mixed up and redacted: “That’s how folk legends and all that shit evolve over centuries.”

crumb genesis 1

The Biblical book first struck Crumb as “something to satirize,” and his initial approach leans on the irreverent, scatological tropes we know so well in his work. But he instead decided to produce a faithful visual interpretation of the text just as it is, illustrating each chapter, all 50, word for word. The result, writes Colin Smith at Sequart, is “idiosyncratic, tender-hearted and ultimately inspiring.” It is also a critical visual commentary on the text’s central character: Crumb’s God “is regularly, if not exclusively, portrayed as an unambiguously self-obsessed and bloodthirsty despot, terrifying in his demands, terrifying in his brutality.” Arguably, these traits emerge from the stories unaided, yet when we’re told, for example, that “The Lord regretted having made man on Earth and it grieved him in his heart,” Crumb “shows us nothing of regret and grief, but rather a furious old dictator apparently tottering on the edge of madness.”

“It’s not the evil of men that Crumb’s concerned with,” writes Smith, “so much as the psychology of a creature who’d slaughter an entire world.” In that interpretation, he echoes critics of the Bible’s theology since the Enlightenment, from Voltaire to Christopher Hitchens. But he doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of human brutality, either (witness Cain’s murder of his brother, below). Crumb’s move away from satire and decision to “do it straight,” as he told NPR, came from his sense that the sweeping, violent mythology and “soap opera” relationships already lend themselves “to lurid illustration”—his forté. Originally intending to do just the first couple chapters “as a comic story,” he soon found he had a market for all 50 and “stupidly said, ‘okay, I’ll do it.’” The work—undertaken over four years—proved so exhausting, he says he “earned every penny.”

Illustration-of-Cain-atta-006

Does Crumb himself identify with the religious traditions in Genesis? Raised a Catholic, he left the church at 16: “I have my own little spiritual quest,” Crumb says, “but I don’t associate it with any particular traditional religion. I think that the traditional Western religions all are very problematic in my view.” That said, like many nonreligious people who read and respect religious texts, he knows the Bible well—better, it turned out, than his editor, a self-described expert. “I just illustrate it as it’s written,” said Crumb, “and the contradictions stand.”

When I first illustrated that part, the creation, where there’s basically two different creation stories that do contradict each other, and I sent it to the editor at Norton, the publisher, who told me he was a Bible scholar. And he read it, and he said wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. This contradicts itself. Can we rewrite this so it makes sense? And I said that’s the way it’s written. He said, that’s the way it’s written? I said, yeah, you’re a Bible scholar. Check it out. 

Crumb invites us all to “check it out“—this collection of archetypal legends that inform so much of our politics and culture, whether the bizarre and costly creation of a fundamentalist “Ark Park” (“dinosaurs and all“), or the Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille or Darren Aronofsky, or the poetry of John Milton, or the interpretive illustrations of William Blake. Whether we think of it as history or myth or some patchwork quilt of both, we should read Genesis. R. Crumb’s illustrated version is as good—or better—a way to do so as any other. See more of his illustrations at The Guardian and purchase his illustrated Genesis here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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170 Renowned Academics Talk About Why They Disbelieve, or Believe, in God

in Philosophy, Physics, Religion, Science | May 11th, 2016

Whether we choose to affiliate with any sort of atheist movement or not, many people raised in theistic religions came over time to see God as a literary character in ancient mythologies and historical fictions, as a placeholder for human ignorance, or as a personification of humanity’s greatest fears and desires. The notion that such a personal super-being actually exists has become for many of us, in William James’ terms, a “dead hypothesis.” As physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it in the video above, “there’s absolutely no evidence that we need the supernatural hand of God” to explain the universe. Religions give us fanciful stories, illustrate ethical (and unethical) principles, and enforce tribal loyalties, but they do not describe reality as it is.

We all come to hold our beliefs, or lack thereof, about religious claims for an irreducibly complex variety of reasons that are intellectual as well as moral, political, and emotional. Can we demonstrate, however, that “the more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively sceptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god”? Such is the thesis of Dr. Jonathan Pararajasignham’s documentary 50 Renowned Academics Speaking About God, which consists of edited clips from interviews with “elite academics and professors at top institutions, many of whom are also Nobel Laureates.” The claim appears on the screen in each of the three videos above and below, framing the interview clips as mounting evidence for the convincing case that disbelief is strongly correlated with, if not necessarily caused by, scientific literacy, intellectual honesty, and skepticism.

Since his first video, Pararajasingham has expanded his series to include 100 more “Renowned Academics Speaking About God.” (See Parts Two and Three of the series above.) On the videos’ Youtube pages, he anticipates a ready objection, writing, “I do not claim that this video demonstrates there is no God. It is not an argument against God in itself, so there is no argument from popularity and authority.” If you’ve already arrived at the conclusion, you’ll find it confirmed many times over by a cast that includes physicists like Krauss, Richard Feynman, and Steven Weinberg, philosophers like A.C. Graying, Bertrand Russell, and John Searle, and far too many more illustrious thinkers to name. (See a complete list on the Youtube pages of each video.) In addition to well-known atheist writers like Daniel Dennett, the series also features academics like anthropologist Pascal Boyer, whose book Religion Explained makes a novel and very persuasive naturalistic argument for why humans have believed in the supernatural for thousands of years.

Believers may counter with their own list of smart people who do believe in God, and who also work in the hard sciences and academic philosophy, including renowned figures like Human Genome Project director Francis Collins and physicist Freeman Dyson. Whether or not they’d wish to claim failed presidential candidate Ben Carson or religious apologists Dinesh D’Souza and Ravi Zacharias as examples of “intellectual honesty and scientific literacy” I couldn’t say, but all of those people and more are included in the video above, 20 Christian Academics Speaking About God, which Pararajasingham produced as a counterpoint to his 50 Academics series. Find the complete list of names for this video, along with links to complete interviews, on Youtube.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Religious Songs That Secular People Can Love: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash & Your Favorites

in Music, Religion | December 15th, 2015

There are good reasons to find the onslaught of religious music this time of year objectionable. And yet—though I want to do my part in the War on Christmas—I don’t so much object to the content of Christmas songs. It’s the music! It’s hackneyed and tired and grossly overplayed and a lot of it was never very good to begin with. I’d make the same distinction with any kind of music, religious or otherwise. I grew up in churches full of Christian music, and a lot of it was just terrible: the worst of kind of soft rock or adult contemporary paired with lyrics so insipid they would make the gospel writers—whoever they were—cringe. Updates with the slick production of alt-rock, hip-hop, or pop-country styles have only made things worse. On the other hand, some of the most powerful and moving music I’ve ever heard comes from the church, whether Handel, The Staples Singers, the Louvin Brothers, or so many other classical and gospel artists and composers.

Anyone with a deep affection for Western classical music probably has their share of favorite Christian music, whatever their personal beliefs. So, too, do fans of American folk, blues, and country. Some artists have covered the odd religious tune as part of a broad roots repertoire, like the Byrds’ cover of Bluegrass gospel legends the Louvin Brothers’ cornball “The Christian Life,” above, from 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Though Gram Parsons, with the band for the recording of this album, had his traditional leanings, his musical religion was more “Cosmic American” than Christian. But before Parsons joined the band and turned ‘em full country rock for a time, the Byrds recorded another religious song, one of their biggest hits—Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” (below), which cribs all of its lyrics verbatim from Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes (easily the non-religious person’s favorite book of the Bible).

Other American legends have turned to faith in dramatic conversions and have written earnest, original religious music. Most famously, we have the case of Bob Dylan, whose conversion to evangelical Christianity saw him proselytizing from the stage. He also wrote some beautiful songs like “Precious Angel,” at the top of the post, which he claimed was for the woman who brought him to Christianity (and which supposedly contains a dig at his ex-wife Sara for not converting him). Though it features some of the more disturbing lyrical turns Dylan has taken in his career, it’s one of my favorite tunes of his from this strange period, not least because of the brilliant guitar work of Mark Knopfler.

Whatever beliefs he’s claimed over the decades, Dylan’s music has always been religious in some sense, partly because of the American folk traditions he draws on. Almost all of the early R&B and rock and roll artists came from the folk gospel world, from Elvis to Little Richard to Jerry Lee Lewis. Notably, the golden-voiced Sam Cooke got his start as a gospel singer with several vocal groups, including his own The Soul Stirrers. The harmonies in their rendition of gospel classic “Farther Along” (above) give me chills every time I hear it, even though I don’t credit the song’s beliefs.

It’s a common feeling I get with American soul, blues, and country singers who moved in and out of the popular and gospel worlds. Then there are those artists who left gospel for outlaw stardom, then returned to the fold and embraced their church roots later in life. A prime example of this kind of spiritual, and musical, renewal is that of Johnny Cash. There are many sides of gospel Cash. Perhaps the most poignant of his religious recordings come from his final years. Though it suffers from some commercial overuse, Cash’s recording of blues classic “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (often titled “Run On”), above, is equal parts menacing and haunting, a Christian-themed memento mori that caught on big with lots of secular music fans.

The list of religious music that non-religious people love could go on and on. Though the examples here are explicitly Christian, they certainly don’t have to be. There’s Yusef Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, who came back to record stirring original music after his conversion to Islam, and whose powerful “Morning has Broken” moves believers and non-believers alike. There’s Bob Marley, or any number of popular Rastafarian reggae artists. Then there are more contemporary artists making religious music for largely secular audiences. One could reference indie darling Sufjan Stevens, whose religious beliefs are central to his songwriting. And there’s a favorite of mine, Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees singer and current rock and roll journeyman who often works with religious themes and imagery, most notably in the glorious “Revival,” above, with the Soulsavers project.

The love many non-religious people have for some religious music often comes from a religious upbringing, something singer/songwriter Iris Dement discussed in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Dement has recorded one of the most moving renditions of a hymn I remember fondly from childhood church days: a powerfully spare version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” from the 2010 True Grit soundtrack. She’s also written what may be one of the best religious songs for secular (or non-religious, or post-religious, whatever…) people. In “Let the Mystery Be,” above, Dement’s agnostic refrain expresses a very sensible attitude, in my view: “But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me / I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

These are but a few of the religious songs that move this mostly secular person. Whether you’re religious or not, what are some of your favorite religious songs that have broad crossover appeal? Feel free to name your favorites in the comments below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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