When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

I Am an American

Shot of three buildings taken looking upward. Behind them, you can see the blue sky with a few clouds. The building in the forefront is to the left of the screen, tan, and has large windows. On a pole strung from the side is an American flag. The flag hangs limply. To the right of the frame, a tall metallic looking building with cross-cross panels of light and dark fills the sky. Behind the flag, in the background, is a tiered building that has a turret and tower at the top.I refresh the page, I refresh the page, I turn away for a few minutes, I teach a class for seventy-five minutes, I sit in a meeting for sixty minutes, and on the way to the meeting, on the way back to my office from the class, with my iPhone in my palm, at the computer on my desk, I refresh the page, I refresh the page, looking for the latest news, hopping over to Facebook for reactions to the morning’s tweets, back to the Times for an update on the latest leak and his response to the leak, looking for the next lie, on alert for the latest outrageously offensive remark.

These are my days now, my nights.

Work is an interruption. A chat with a friend is a partial interruption—for it’s impossible to get through even a short chat without a sigh, without alarm, without reference to what he’s doing and who he’s doing it to now. Picking up my prescription, reading what I’ve assigned my class (Joy Harjo! The Buddha’s Brain!), FaceTime with my grandson—these are interruptions, distractions.

I am a citizen now. I turn my attention back to the news.

What am I doing? What am I doing with you, news, what are you doing with me, news, not the full range of news:  Travel, Arts & Leisure, Sunday Styles, but the single-pointed concentration on news and opinion pieces on that man? [Read more…]

The Power of Names

tombstones public domain by Benjamin Balazs on flickrA few weeks back, the news related a story that a confederate veteran killed at Shiloh and buried under the wrong name for one hundred fifty-four years will now have that mistake rectified.

Augustus Beckmann was buried under the name “A. Bergman” at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. The descendants of the German immigrant, who fought in the Texas infantry, discovered the mistake while on a visit to the memorial grounds. Thanks to a refreshingly un-bureaucratic government response, a new stone with the correct name will be put in place. It should only take sixty days to fix an error that has lasted a century and a half.

“But why all the bother?” some might ask, for a man who even the descendants knew little of (except for the touching tale that Augustus’s brother fought alongside him at Shiloh and never learned the fate of his sibling). And it’s only a few letters, too: it should be a c instead of an r, and add another n at the end. Close enough, it could be argued, considering how little it all matters now.

And yet, it does matter; supremely. It matters so much that it makes my skin crawl to think of it. I want a follow-up story when the new stone is put in place and a picture of the corrected name on the discreet little white slab, confirming the matter. [Read more…]

Charles of the Desert

By Rebecca A. Spears

charles-of-the-desert-a-life-in-verse-5One early June, traveling to a wedding in San Diego, I’d taken the long way from Dallas by train. I wanted to see the Southwestern deserts. Two days later Amtrak’s Sunset Limited broke down in the Mojave Desert.

Pretty quickly it became clear: We are not so great. Nature is. God is.

Perhaps this is one reason why Charles de Foucauld went to live in the Sahara: not only to offer the people there hospitality and love as Jesus had, but also as a way to empty himself of the temptations of civilized life, allowing himself to be humbled by the vast universe.

The Christian hermit and martyr Charles of the Desert (1858-1916) is a complex, puzzling character. William Kelley Woolfitt’s new book of poems Charles of the Desert develops a full portrait of this mystifying cleric from childhood in 1863 to his last day in Algeria’s Hoggar Mountains. The poems, written in first person, proceed on a timeline, zigzagging geographically from France to the Holy Land to Algeria.

For over a decade, Père Charles lived a stringent life in the Sahara, a life that would kill most of us. He lived and worked among the Tuaregs, who saw him at best as an eccentric, at worst as an enemy. In 1916, he was assassinated by rebels attempting to rob and kidnap him. He left to the world a four-volume dictionary of the Tuareg language, a new order—the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus—and a public fascination for his austere life among the Muslims, whom he hadn’t been able to convert. [Read more…]

Imitating the Saints

Heaven's gatesSt. Therese once wished aloud that her own mother would die. When her mother scolded her, Therese explained that then she could sooner go to heaven.

My children received this anecdote with perverse joy, telling their siblings to jump off a bridge, run out in the street, and let go of the tree branch…that you may sooner see paradise, of course.

Given a choice between heaven and hell, they will gladly choose heaven. But faced with a choice between heaven and earth, they start hedging: Are there Legos in heaven? Who’s going to be there? Is the music any good? Why do they have a gate that keeps all the fun people out?

They’ve already noticed the problem that villains are usually the most interesting character in any novel or movie. It’s far more troubling to envision characters who are not completely wicked, characters who struggle with temptation but don’t succumb.

I tend to love my heroes too much to attribute them with serious flaws. Or I imagine there is a class of unsullied souls, anointed souls who somehow, magically, don’t sin. They may have sinned in the past, but no more. They meet Jesus, they fall off their horse, or maybe they’re just born with an incredible endowment of piety, and sin can’t touch them. A heaven full of such insufferable people really doesn’t sound appealing. [Read more…]