Friday, December 2, 2016

Weekend Watching: The Invitation


"Each and every one of us is on a journey. And we feel that it's important to be on that journey with the people you love."
David in The Invitation

A few years ago I watched the haunting PBS documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Told with interviews, film, and audio records, viewers experience a beautiful utopian dream slowly twisting and turning into a (now infamous) death cult. What must it have been like to witness the descent of the Peoples Temple? What must have been like to be a member? Would you know that you were being groomed for death? Would you feel the dread immediately or would it slowly, subtly build in your subconscious? 

In The Invitation, an eerie, suffocating thriller-horror film, the lead character Will (Logan Marshall Green) may or may not be about to find out. Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party with old friends in a ritzy Hollywood home. Kira is eager to enjoy the evening, but Will is on edge. He's leery of the new peace that his fragile host (and ex-wife) Eden seems to have found with a group of devotees to spiritual guru "Dr. Joseph," (including the mesmerizing, menacing David (Michiel Huisman)). As the dinner progresses, Will's anxiety and paranoia increase. Is Will right to be this suspicious? The more we learn about the tragic history of this group of friends, the more we wonder whether or not Will's perspective can be trusted. And yet, something seems off about the house, its inhabitants, and the tranquility they seem to have found with Dr. Joseph....

The Invitation is a frightening psychological thriller. And its setting in Hollywood invites us to ask all sorts of good questions about new religious movements and class. Why is it that privileged folks in the American West, like those in this film, are drawn to religious innovations? The Invitation is fictional but there are many, many real-life examples of wealthy folks who join religious organizations like Scientology or Heaven's Gate. Why is it that having it all in California leaves people so soul-empty? Why doesn't 'old time religion' fill the void? And what is it about the region that allows for so much spiritual creativity?

In addition to academic questions about religious movements, the emotional and theological questions raised by The Invitation about the relationship between religion and tragedy are worth asking. Should religion always relieve grief? Should it explain sorrow away? Should religion reframe suffering in light of new spiritual understanding? Humans seem more open to spiritual answers during seasons of grief. What if those spiritual answers are dangerous? Like Will, you may find more questions than answers in The Invitation.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Religion & Pop Culture Holidaze Edition


Holidaze: term that defines the feelings of confusion and excitement people have between Thanksgiving and Christmas; the blur one feels after/during shopping for gifts in crowded retail stores with heavy holiday traffic
- Urban Dictionary

Friends, this is the time of year when it's socially acceptable to listen to holiday music (I like it year-round but SOMEONE in my household makes me wait until after Thanksgiving). It's also the time when you might be looking for a little escape from the family - especially during this post-election insanity! I won't lie; I like a good, sappy Christmas movie as much as the next person. But what I love is a little bit of bite to my holiday watching. So, while you enjoy your leftovers, sneak away from the in-laws and try three of my favorite holiday-themed television episodes.

"A Very Supernatural Christmas"
Supernatural Season 3, ep 8
This Christmas treat is Supernatural at its monster-of-the-week best. Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester hunt the things that go "bump" in the night and protect the world from supernatural threats large and small (all while eating tons of pie and being exceedingly handsome). In this episode they are after a creature that appears to be devouring people who are decorating their homes with yuletide cheer. The brothers investigate undercover (per usual: as FBI agents with rock aliases) and they discover a truly depressing bad Santa, the legend of Krampus, and pagan threats much older than the first Noel. This episode is creepy, funny, and full of references to ancient pagan lore and its current Christianized forms. And, for Supernatural superfans, this show also includes some poignant flashbacks wherein we see what it was like for two motherless boys to be raised as hunters.  

"Regional Holiday Music"
Community Season 3, ep 10
For those of you who are not Community watchers, this is a weird, inventive show. It's also very snarky and "Regional Holiday Music," is a tour-de-force in holiday cynicism. The study group of lovable losers (Alison BrieDonald GloverJoel McHaleGillian JacobsDanny PudiYvette Nicole Brown, & Chevy Chase) at Greendale Community College is thinking about their Christmas plans when they are interrupted by Mr. Rad (played in over-the-top glory by SNL's Taran Killam), the Greendale glee club instructor who is recruiting students to participate in his annual Christmas pageant. The study group rejects him initially, but through a series of holiday-themed songs that target each member in nefarious ways, the group is lured into holiday joy. Chevy Chase's character Pierce cannot resist "Baby Boomer Santa," who seems to know just what to say to scratch his narcissistic, consumer-oriented, generational itch ("Pierce! They're just trying to pander to your demographic's well-documented historical vanity. Resist!"). Alison Brie's Annie tempts Joel McHale's Jeff with "Teach Me How to Understand Christmas." Annie's song begins as a send-up to "Santa Baby" and quickly devolves into gibberish ("Boopy Doopy Doo Boop Sex!!!"); it's one of the canniest deconstructions of sexy-baby-voice femininity you'll see. Add to that a nod to Jehovah's Witnesses who struggle through the holidays and a Fundie's discomfort with anything other than wishing someone a Happy Jesus' B-day, and you have a holiday treat!

"How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"
The X-Files, Season 6, ep 6
The slow burn chemistry that X-Files fans adore between the true believer Fox Mulder and skeptic Dana Scully is on display in this classic episode. It's Christmas Eve and FBI agent Mulder inadvertently drags his partner Scully to a haunted house in Maryland. Supposedly two lovers participated in a suicide pact there in 1917 and have been haunting the premises ever since. Trapped in a nightmarish bleak house, the two encounter some pretty scary early twentieth-century ghosts as well as a few phantasms haunting their working relationship. And, they do it with plenty of holiday cheer. No show blends humor and horror quite like The X-Files - especially the early episodes like this one.

P. S. If you find yourself still stressed after these eps, I recommend the Target parking lot. That's where I'll be.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

It's that time of year again - time to fly across the country and join your fellow nerds at your guild's annual conference. For me and my kind, the Big One is the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature's annual meeting (aka AAR/SBL). Once a year, thousands of religion scholars descend on an unsuspecting city and bring corduroy jackets (with elbow patches!), old-timey pipes, and all-around questionable fashion sense to discuss the latest trends in religious studies. 
See a hotel full of guys who look like this? You are probably in the right place.
If you are a first-timer, it's overwhelming. So, for my first-time students, a few suggestions on how to make the most out of your academic conferencing experience:

13 Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

1. Don't be fooled - the conference begins on the plane. You never know who will sit next to you on your flight. I recommend dressing in conference attire and having a stack of business cards with you at the airport.

2. Do bring comfortable shoes. I know, I know. I sound like your mother. But one year of walking around with blisters and a forced smile during your third late-night reception will cure you of your vanity.

3. Don't build your schedule entirely around paper presentations. There are a plethora of panels at large conferences and it can be tempting to spend your time jogging from one session to the next. But, if you aren't careful, you'll end up suffering from major intellectual burnout (and, a few years in and you'll find out that some AAR-SBL panels are... boring. Painfully boring. So, don't spend all of your time running after research papers.

4. Do be strategic when it comes to food and beverages. The line for Starbucks will be LONG. Happy hours within a 2 mile radius from the conference will be crowded. Plan accordingly.

5. Don't forget that much of the real business of conferencing gets done informally. So make sure you are prepared to stay out a bit and recruit some outgoing friends to go reception-hopping with you. My usual AAR squad (Lydia Willsky-CiolloCarolyn DavisJennifer Axsom Adler, and Devan Stahl) and I look forward receptioning (this is a verb - I can assure you!) every year.

6. Do give yourself permission to sleep in the day after a night of receptioning.

7. Don't take up too much of your scholarly crush's time at their university's reception. I learned this from a mentor of mine who will remain nameless. As gracious as many of them are, star scholars are usually at receptions to catch up with old friends, not to hear you talk for 25 min. about religion and 12th century Romanian folk art. So (unless told otherwise) introduce yourself, make an impression, and exit in less than 5 min.

You never know who you will meet at AAR/SBL! My friend Melanie Trexler and I met the one and only (very gracious!) Cornel West in 2009.
8. Do remember that the religion scholar world is small... if you are gossiping at a hotel bar, you never know who is listening. You've been warned!

9. Don't get so nervous that you ignore normal social cues. Smile at people. Shake their hands. Laugh at their bad jokes. You get the idea.

10. Do take time to enjoy some local foods and take in some local sights. You never know when you'll be in that city again.

11. Don't forget to drink a lot of water. You'll thank me.

12. Do remind yourself that everyone feels insecure at these things. You aren't the only one; impostor syndrome is real. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy yourself.

13. Don't feel bad for playing hooky a bit with your friends. This time last year, while skipping out on a session, a casual conversation with Dr. Keri Day about a video of Paula White praying over Donald Trump led me toward my next research project (and predicted the bizarre political dystopia in which we now live). You never know what great ideas you'll get from talking to your brilliant friends!

Did I miss anything? Send me your suggestions!