Sex & the Soul

I’ve just been reading Sex & the Soul by Donna Freitas. Freitas is Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University. The book shares information from 111 interviews conducted as part of a larger study titled Sexuality and Spirituality in American College Life. The semi-structured interviews allowed Freitas to gather qualitative data that she acknowledges is “an interpretive act” (p. 247) based upon the perceptions of those being interviewed and Freitas as the interviewer and interpreter of the data.

Freitas identifies four main categories based upon schools participants attended. These are public, nonreligious private, Catholic, and evangelical. The topics covered during the semi-structured interviews included college experience in general, religious background, campus social life, dating, virginity, and hooking up.

Here’s an excerpt from her conclusions:

As I have noted throughout, the great divide in American higher education is not between religious and secular schools, but between evangelical colleges and everyone else. When it comes to sex and religion, Catholic schools are little different from public and private ones. Many parents surely imagine that sending their children to a Catholic school implies that they will be educated within a Catholic community. But unless the college of choice is an institution well known for its orthodoxy, this is unlikely the case. What matters most to either faith maturation or spiritual seeking at college is not so much whether an institution has a religious affiliation but whether it has a reilgouis campus culture – one that is meaningfully integrated into campus life and therefore feels and acts like a powerful presence. [p. 213]

We will want to have a better understanding of what sets evangelical colleges apart from other colleges, and what the potential benefits and drawbacks are of the different college experiences. In a recent Christianity Today interview, Freitas mentioned a few unique aspects of evanglical colleges, including “lively” conversations “about sex, dating, kissing, and romans on campus.” These discussions were “intergenerational,” that is, “Professors are involved. Student life is involved. Campus ministry is involved. It really affects the campus culture in positive ways, and it’s a high-level conversation.”

The book also addresses the “hookup culture” so prevalent on college campuses today. Reviewing her findings, Freitas indicates that this culture is facilitated by a number of influencing factors:

What fosters hookup culture at the spiritual colleges is not student culture alone. Hookup culture is aided and abetted by all sorts of additional factors: administrators turning a blind eye, parents who don’t knwo and perhas don’t want to know what their kids are really doing, the ongoing marginalization and trivialization of feminism by younger women and men, and a society that still treats men as if they are gods and women as objects for male sexual pleasure and enjoyment. [p. 213]

Again, these are part of the conclusions, and they should get our attention. I’ll do a short series on this book in the coming weeks.

New Journal: Psychology of Religion and Spirituality

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) will begin publishing a new journal starting in January, 2009. The journal is Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, and it will be edited by Ralph L. Piedmont, PhD, a professor in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola College in Maryland. The journal will publish peer-reviewed articles dealing with the scientific study of religion and spirituality. According to the APA web site, published articles will range from experimental studies to qualitative analyses to comprehensive literature reviews and will be broad in terms of topics, but will also include practical/applied issues related to training and clinical services.

The Dark Knight


I often hear great things about a movie only to be disappointed. Sometimes I hear that a movie is not that good, have low expectations, and then I’m pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. In my opinion, The Dark Knight is as good as critics are saying. It comes in at around two and a half hours, but it doesn’t feel like it. There is very good pacing and editing. There is also a lot of good character development and it is very intense throughout, particularly the scenes with the Joker.

The villain in this one, the Joker, is more interesting on screen than is Batman. This has been true of every Batman movie I’ve seen, but in this case it was a much closer call. Heath Ledger played the Joker well, but Christian Bale played Batman well, too (with the exception of the growling ‘McGruff voice’ that was a bit overdone by the last third of the movie).

It is the first Batman movie that really gets at the complexities of the characters. Is Batman a good guy or a bad guy? Well… this movie at least looks into his motives – why he chooses to do some of the things he does. We don’t get as much insight into the motives of the Joker – he tries to tell people why he does some of what he does, but we get two different versions and a third is on the verge of being provided when he is ‘interrupted.’ We also get a good look at how Harvey Dent becomes Two Face. Nice. There is also a lot more appreciation in this move for the corruption in the police force in Gotham that leads to questions of loyalty and trust. Having this in the background of the rest of the exchanges and key decisions makes for a good story.

With the Batman movies you also get some ties to Arkan Asylum. I’ll make one comment on this. There is a scene in which one of Joker’s henchmen is said to be a paranoid schizophrenic from the Asylum. This plays into the stereotypes about mental health concerns and the supposed dangerousness of those with severe mental illnesses. This is unfortunate because it is not true (the strong association between mental illness and dangerousness), and there has been such progress made in reducing the stigma associated with serious mental health concerns. So this kind of off-hand remark – while brief – is unfortunate and unnecessary.

This is also not a movie for children. It is intense, as I mentioned. Nevertheless, we saw many children at our showing, some of whom were crying and wanted to leave. Of course, at $7.50 a ticket or more, few parents will make that decision once they are already inside.

Overall, it is a good movie. It is breaking all kinds of box office records and it deserves to do so. It is complex in character development and plot. There is enough action and romantic ties for everyone, so few will go home disappointed. Maybe just the young children who should have been home to begin with.

Book Club

Every year our family heads up to Michigan for a family vacation. We spend a relaxed week at Portage Point Inn, which is featured as the main picture on this blog. For the past several years we have held a book club. This year we are reading Stephen L. Carter’s book, New England White. Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of another work of fiction titled The Emperor of Ocean Park. What Carter is known for is “richness of plot and character” (from the jacket cover). That’s a good way to put it; Carter is strong in both of these areas (rich plot and substantive character development) in both New England White and in his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park.

New England White is a mystery set in the New England town of Elm Harbor. Here is an exerpt from The New Yorker

In “New England White,” the new president of the university is the formidable former White House counsel Lemaster Carlyle, Barbados-born, a “tough little spark-plug of a man” who has been introduced in “The Emperor of Ocean Park” as a “nearly perfect politician” and a founder of a “forgotten organization called Liberals for Bush.” (In the new novel, we learn that he was a college roommate—and is seemingly still a close friend—of the current incumbent of the Oval Office.) He and his wife, Julia, from whose perspective most of “New England White” is narrated, constitute “the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.” Yet more awkwardly for Elm Harbor’s color-conscious locals, the town’s first murder victim in decades, Kellen Zant, a flamboyantly driven economist and onetime lover of Julia Carlyle, also happens to be black.

The search for the identity of Zant’s killer, the circumstances involving Zant’s own investigation into a thirty-year-old mystery (a rape-murder of a white girl by, allegedly, a black boy, who was slain by police before he could be tried), the myriad snarled connections between the Carlyles and the murder victim: these provide “New England White” with the considerable fuel required to maintain narrative momentum through more than five hundred pages. As a murder mystery, the novel moves, at times, with unusual deliberation, for it is the author’s intention not to “tell” a story but to show how an essential story has been mis-told in the struggle to define the truth. Here, the truth is about who killed the teen-age girl, why the suspect may have been killed without provocation, and why no one in power has been willing to talk about the episode. It sounds like a familiar situation, with ugly racist overtones, but it’s one that Carter handles with audacious originality.

It is a good mystery, but there are also a number of interesting subplots worth considering. These include discussions of both race and religion, as The New Yorker review suggests. On the subject of religion, here is a quote from one of the early exchanges with Lemaster, one of the central characters:

The problem…was that people want a God small enough to fit in their hip pockets, to be pulled out only when necessary to gain a secular advantage. Nobody wants a God who tells us what to do, he said. We want a God who commands only what we tell Him to command, and allows whatever we tell Him to allow. We want a God who’s smaller than we are, who is never unruly, who falls into line. No wonder nobody goes to church any more. Why worship a Being that insignificant? [p. 78]

I may post more later, after our book club discussion. But it is an interesting read and one that I recommend for the complex plot, character development and navigation of various subplots.

The Host

Just to show that she can do more than the teen vampire genre, Stephanie Meyer had her first adult science fiction novel published this summer. The book is titled The Host. The book is based on the idea of aliens who take over earth by taking over the minds of humans, leaving the bodies intact. Human beings are essentially “hosts” to this other life form, and the book is about one host body in particular, that of Melanie, who is not prepared to give final control over to her alien, Wanda (The Wanderer). Okay. (The book is actually not as corny as that last sentence just made it sound. I promise.)

Books about aliens taking over the earth can go in many different directions, so I was curious where Stephanie Meyer would go with this plot. I thought that there might be more underlying messages about the environment, and there is some of that – there is certainly concern for human violence and some funny exchanges about individualism and competitiveness, but the book is not preachy in this way, and I suspect most readers will agree with many of the author’s observations and find the ways in which they are presented interesting.

Stephanie Meyer’s writing style makes this a very hard book to put down. If you pick it up you may get through it in a day or two. But it is more than just an exciting sci-fi book; it is also a book about what makes someone who they are, about the relationship between the body and the mind, and in this sense it is a book that raises questions about personal identity. It does not take itself too seriously in this regard, but I enjoyed the opportunity to think about identity issues and to reflect further on several interesting questions raised by an author I had only known for teen fiction vampires. Stephanie Meyer shows that she is in this business for the long haul.

The Twilight Series

Several weeks ago I was reading in our local paper an article about what people are reading now that the Harry Potter series has concluded. Having read the entier Potter series (and facing a summer break in which I like to catch up on popular fiction), the article caught my eye. Several series were mentioned, but one in particular stood out to me as an alternative young adult fiction series that might rival the Potter franchise. It was the Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer. I read the first two books in the series, Twilight and New Moon, and they center on a teen who falls in love with a vampire and has to navigate various issues related to this love, including a friendship with a werewolf, who, as we all know, are mortal enemies of vampires. In any case, it is interesting to catch up with what teens are reading today. I am planning to read Eclipse in the next couple of weeks, as the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, is scheduled for release August 2, 2008. Entertainment Weekly has an article on the first (of presumably many) movies based on the series.

Why did I even get into this series? What was intriguing to me at the outset was that Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon. I am not certain the extent to which her faith impacts her writing, but the article I read suggested that her conservative religious background may have contributed to decisions made by key characters in to the series. For example, the central love relationship is one of romantic and sexual tension but not of sex per se; the fact that Edmund (vampire) resists the urge to devour (literally) Bella (human) means they cannot get too close. Some critics have found this to make for a bland novel/series, while others seem to appreciate the nod to chastity (of sorts). Also interesting is that the central vampire clan does not feed on humans but on animals; they fight their own nature to live within a value system their leader holds.

So there are some interesting twists here. The Twilight series does indeed appear to be the heir apparent to the Harry Potter series. I think a few people feared that reading among adolescents would once again slump once Potter wrapped up. But thanks to Stephanie Meyer and others, there are several options in young adult fiction for the summer and beyond.