Harpers magazine

Garry Wills on Thomas Merton: Longform writing and the space for faith to breathe

Garry Wills on Thomas Merton: Longform writing and the space for faith to breathe

Shallow Calls to Shallow,” an essay by Garry Wills in the April edition of Harpers, is one example of an encouraging trend: longform magazine coverage that treats religion as worthy of reflection and an essential piece of the American cultural fabric.

I find this trend encouraging as one who left the daily morning newspaper in Baton Rouge in 1989 and began editing a magazine for Compassion International. I have worked with magazines, in varying degrees, ever since.

In a time of increasing pressures for listicles and factoids, magazines at their best offer a place for the longer view. A magazine seized by one ideology can be just as dreary as an ideological website, to be sure, but when a lively mix of editors choose the material, a magazine has the potential to dazzle.

What makes this Harpers essay more remarkable is that Wills, who has spent most of his academic and journalistic career as a liberal Catholic, takes Thomas Merton down several levels on the hierarchy of liberal Catholic saints. He does this by devoting nearly 3,600 words to reviewing On Thomas Merton by Mary Gordon (Shambhala).

Merton left a durable record of celebrity for a man who entered a monastery at age 26 (in 1941) and remained a monk (though not always abbey-bound) until his death in 1968. Merton was a prolific writer. A brief biography on the Abbey of Gethsemani website says that “more than 60 titles of Merton’s writings are in print in English.”

Merton gained a following through his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), but he broadened his audience during the 1960s because of his friendship with popular musicians like Joan Baez, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his later interest in Buddhism.

Paul Elie considered Merton’s literary legacy in The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which counted Merton in the esteemed company of Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Conner, and Walker Percy. No less a progressive icon than former Dominican Matthew Fox (an Episcopal priest since 1994) has endorsed the book-length theory that Merton was not killed by a faulty electrical fan in his room during a trip to Bangkok, but by CIA operatives in Southeast Asia.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Faith, prayer and mental health in Ghana: Harper's magazine provides even-handed story

Faith, prayer and mental health in Ghana: Harper's magazine provides even-handed story

In this month's issue, Harpers magazine has a piece about mental health care (or the lack thereof) in western Africa that touched quite deeply on religion and the efforts of some religious leaders to deal with the mentally ill.

What I thought would be an exposé on the gullibility of the ill who are taken in by religious charlatans actually turned out to be about a system where the only people with a plan to help the mentally ill are those same religious leaders.

Now, there have been exposés on Ghana’s horrific mental health facilities, but this piece took a different tack. The fact that certain Ghanaians' idea of healing involved prayer instead of medicine matters less than the fact that the places offered by these leaders are the only places to which the mentally ill can go with any hope of being cared for. Ghana is many decades behind the rest of the world in terms of any mental health care at all. The piece is called “A Prayer’s Chance: The scandal of mental health in West Africa” tries to show what those in the "prayer camps" are doing about it.

Samuel Donkoh had just turned ten when he began to slip away. His brother Martin, two years his senior, first realized something was wrong during a game of soccer with a group of kids from the neighborhood. One minute Samuel was fine, dribbling the ball, and the next he was doubled over in spasms of laughter, as if reacting to a joke nobody else had heard. His teammates, baffled by the bizarre display, chuckled along with him, a response Samuel took for mockery. He grew threatening and belligerent, and Martin was forced to drag him home.
The episode marked the onset of a frightening metamorphosis. Martin couldn’t understand what was happening to his brother, for although he had seen many abodamfo (“mad” men and women, in the Twi dialect) on the streets, the conventional wisdom was that such maladies afflicted only those who deserved it — excessive drinking or drug use was a popular explanation — or were otherwise spiritually or morally compromised. Samuel, the sensitive, well-behaved son of devout born-again Christians, did not fit that mold. 

The article goes on to describe how his mother prays over Samuel – even reprinting the exact psalm she turned to – and sets up how the rest of the story will go.

What was to be done? The approach advocated by members of the Donkohs’ church — prolonged fasting and that brand of combative, focused prayer known as spiritual warfare — had brought little respite, but pursuing a medical route seemed fraught as well. Two of Agnes’s aunts had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and repeated stays at Ghana’s largest mental hospital, in the capital, Accra, had not helped them. Infamous for its chaotic atmosphere and rampant abuse, the hospital, built in 1906 by the British colonial regime as an asylum for the criminally insane, had rather aggravated their situation. One aunt died alone, a vagrant outcast; the other subsisted on the margins of her hometown. Agnes resolved that a similar fate would not befall Samuel.
A family friend suggested a drastic course of action. He urged them to seek treatment at Nazareth Prayer Centre, a distant religious retreat, or “prayer camp,” renowned as a place where people struck with madness could be cleansed of the demonic forces holding them captive. Spurred by the Pentecostal revival that swept West Africa during the 1990s, these rural camps — some of which allowed families to stay for months or even years on end — had come to serve as alternative sites of care in a region where health services, particularly mental health services, were notoriously scarce and underfunded…

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Harper's produces a masterful longread on Iraqi rescuer of Christian hostages

Harper's produces a masterful longread on Iraqi rescuer of Christian hostages

There’s no lack of reporters running about Iraq these days getting some very gripping stories. Most are tracking the purported last gasps of revived Islamic caliphate in the country’s northwest quadrant as the battle for Mosul grinds on.

The story that your GetReligionistas passed around this week was something a bit different: A story in Harper's magazine of a Christian Iraqi who wheels and deals in Christian hostages held by those within ISIS who are willing to sell them back for the right price.

The man’s name is Matti, he is based in the mixed Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk and he’s part fixer, part Mafioso-style godfather and star of a lengthy article titled “Escape from the Caliphate.”

Emad Matti had not received a photograph of the hostages. Two months had passed, and several Iraqi Christian families that had been detained by the Islamic State in an old folks’ home in Mosul were still imprisoned. From Kirkuk, Matti had been transferring $500 each month to a bank to feed the families, and he was afraid that they were dead, or that his informant in Mosul, one of their captors, was planning to prolong their imprisonment and collect even more money before demanding an impossible sum to drop them at the Kurdish border. For now, though, Matti just wanted photographic proof that they were still alive.
He checked his watch, a gold Breitling made from the weapons of martyrs in the Iran–Iraq War. The phone rang. He put a finger to his lips.

What follows is a fascinating read about the ordinary world of Iraqis who deal with ISIS (or what they call ‘Daesh’) like the next-door neighbors they are.

Everyone knows each other in this tribal society of Sunnis, Shi’a, various groups of Christians, Yezedis and Kurds whose lives have been linked for centuries.  Everyone has their informants, friends and family members, just in the same way as long-time residents in any American state have reams of contacts, old school buddies and family members scattered about.

Matti is like a 21st –century Oskar Schindler, trying to save as many Christians as possible before the deluge.

Please respect our Commenting Policy