Heart and Head

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a conference table in a Chicago convention center, along with a couple dozen strangers, tears streaming down my face. How embarrassing! It was awkward enough to be a civilian at the Academy of American Religion conference, intimidated by the advance reading packet for this Religion and Media workshop on the theme of “affect,”  known to us commoners as “emotion,” which started with Spinoza and got more involved from there.

Fortunately the day did not peter out into obscure academic jargon.  The tearjerker in question was part of a presentation by a group of progressive media consultants, one of their 30-second spots supporting gay-marriage legalization in Maine. An elderly couple explained that yes, it had been “very emotional” when their daughter came out to them, but that they “really wanted her to be able to get married at home.” Okay, it helps that I am from Maine and I will in fact be getting married at home next year, but still, these guys knew their stuff.  Minutes later, I sat with the same group of strangers, guffawing out loud as Bonnie Turner, the SNL writer who’d created the Church Lady—talk about religious affect in the media—showed clips from her favorite creation, Third Rock From The Sun. So I could actually say of an academic panel, “I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats.”

But I still felt like a tourist, hightailing it back and forth across the gargantuan convention center alone to steep myself in all kinds of obscure topics, including: the commercialization of yoga, fraud in Biblical archaeology, Brazilian spiritualist movements, tree worship is Uzbekistan, and the various practices of Muslim and Christian saints’ festivals in Egypt.  Fortunately, on the second day, I got to meet with my fellow KtB editors Nathan Schneider and Ashley Makar.

They reassured me that I had not been crazy to actually feel whole avalanches of emotion at an academic presentation. Ashley had come from a panel discussion that had been given in honor of Sarah Hammond, the conscience of her field, who had died an untimely death in 2011. Her topic of study, evangelical businessmen, sounded innocuous enough, but the feeling in the room was amazingly powerful, Ashley said. Killing the Buddha has always occupied this sometimes-touchy space between scholarship and soul.

Our mission involves constant questioning of accepted dogma and arm’s-length analysis of religion and culture.  Surprisingly often, we receive and publish submissions from writers who have been working on an article for another publication, only to find that their curiosity about religion-related topics has not satisfied said publication’s chest-thumping requirement. They’ve gone and investigated something like pray-the-gay-away camps, or evangelical businessmen, or the encroachment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, without stating repeatedly how much they disapprove of said subject. At Killing the Buddha, we try to let curiosity take its own path, feeling like if we’re thumping our chests in the same way everyone else is, we’re doing something wrong.

On the other hand, we’re also often in the position of calling academics out of the sturdy shelter of their discipline to do some chest-thumping on something relevant to the larger world.  These are the people we love to find, like Samuel Zinner, who was probably working on ancient Coptic papyrus translation for some other angle entirely but who was also savvy enough to see that his expertise was valuable in the public discussion of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”

Buddha-killing is an orientation, a school of thought, and a way of writing that’s been envisioned, revived, maintained, and passed on for twelve years now by a group of passionate people whose hearts just won’t leave their heads alone. (And you should stop right here and go read the work of two of them: Ashley’s latest essay, on The Color of Christ, and Meera’s beautiful post at our sister publication The Revealer on how to make hard work feel like the worship it is.)

I’m just the latest keeper of the flame, and I’m only just starting to understand that keeping Killing the Buddha and its vision alive is not a small thing. In fact, it’s crucial; we see it every time we get a submission from a writer who has gone on to bigger and better things but comes back to us because no one else will quite appreciate his story like we will, every time we hear about a professor who’s using one of our stories in class, or whenever we hear from readers.

There’s a learning curve, as Ashley reminded me. People start with shock and discomfort at our name. (I got another one of these yesterday, who told me Killing the Buddha was “not cool,” just “ignorant.” If only he knew how little we try to be cool.) Then there’s sort of an “aha” moment, and then they get really excited to to have stumbled upon a magazine that thinks about religion in the way that they do–which is to say, all the time, almost obsessively, but not in that dogmatic way.

We know you’re out there. So get in touch. Even if it’s just to tell us how much you hate our name. We’ll be your gateway drug. Send us a note. Get our weekly email. Follow us on Facebook, and on Twitter. It’ll do your heart and head good. And thank you!


Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth