While it isn’t conventional grammar, there are times when people use “New York Times” as descriptive phrase, rather than as a noun. Here’s a common example: “He is a New York Times Republican.” A variation would be, “He is a New York Times conservative columnist.”
From time to time, I have also received emails from readers pointing me toward a story with a description that reads something like this: “There are New York Times stories and there are New York Times stories, but this is a perfect NEW YORK TIMES story.” In other words, this particular story is a symbolic example of the worldview commonly found in America’s most influential newsroom.
If you follow social media, you know that quite a few people had that kind of reaction to a feature that ran the other day with this eye-grabbing double-decker headline:
A Taste for Cannibalism?
A spate of recent stomach-churning books, TV shows and films suggests we’ve never looked so delicious — to one another
As veteran GetReligionista Clemente Lisi put it, via email: “This story wouldn’t pass what we at the NY Post used to call the ‘Cheerios test.’ That is, people don’t want to read about this as they have breakfast, especially on a Sunday!”
As that headline suggests, this is one of those oh-so New York Times trend pieces about the sophisticated cultural tastes of sophisticated people living in sophisticated zip codes. The only question, with this kind of topic, is whether it appears first in the Times or on National Public Radio. Here is the overture:
An image came to Chelsea G. Summers: a boyfriend, accidentally on purpose hit by a car, some quick work with a corkscrew and his liver served Tuscan style, on toast.
That figment of her twisted imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel, “A Certain Hunger,” about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.
Turns out, cannibalism has a time and a place. In the pages of some recent stomach-churning books, and on television and film screens, Ms. Summers and others suggest that that time is now.
The contents of this feature — think issues of omission, as well as commission — led me to a logical question, at least one that would be logical here at GetReligion: What does this influential cultural trend have to do with religion?
Very little, and that surprised me, since cannibalism and religion are often served on the same platter in certain cultures. Hold that thought, please.
The Times story ticks off a number of fairly recent examples of this influential trend. It appears that the tipping point came, as is so often the case these days, in young-adult entertainment — as in “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime series about, as the Times team states it, “a high school women’s soccer team stranded in the woods for a few months too many.”
What happens? Do you need to ask?
The pilot episode of “Yellowjackets” shows a teenage girl getting trapped, bled out like a deer and served on a platter in a terrifying ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit message board dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.
The show’s tension is in the knowledge that you know cannibalism is coming, but when? And why? The creators of “Yellowjackets,” Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who live in Los Angeles, say they wanted the plot to hint that human consumption wasn’t merely for the characters’ survival.
Ah, so there is some deeper hunger at work here.
As it turns out, the word “taboo” does appear in some historical background material in this report. The key voice is Bill Schutt, author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.”
Pointing to examples that include the man-eating Cyclops in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Dr. Schutt, who holds a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell University and is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, said the taboo has artistically been used to horrify for centuries. … [As] his book documents, cannibalism has occurred around the world throughout history, lending these fictional tales a queasy whiff of “what if?”
Historical examples in the book include “mumia,” a practice of using ground-up mummified bones to soothe various ailments that was popular in 17th-century Western Europe; the infamous Donner Party pioneers who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada in 1846; ritual cannibalism that took place in Papua New Guinea until the 1950s; and famine-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.
Dr. Schutt’s book also features the story of the so-called Cannibal Cop, a former New York Police Department officer who was arrested in 2013 for participating in fetish forums that fantasized about cannibalizing women, and later acquitted. The New York Post has published more than 30 articles about the case, including one suggesting the Halloween costume of a policeman’s uniform with a severed hand on a plate.
It’s time to ask: What is going on here? What has made this topic trendy in the circles that look to the New York Times for cultural guidance?
Voices featured in this story offer a number of rather predictable theories including, of course, a gentle hint that it has something to do with horrors of the Donald Trump era. Then there’s climate change, school shootings, the coronavirus pandemic, women struggling with eating disorders, “commentaries on capitalism” and rising numbers of Americans struggling with burn out.
The feature ends with this:
The prop team on “Yellowjackets” had a similarly unnerving task in determining what to use as faux human flesh in the show’s pilot episode.
Should it be the lab-grown human steak made from stem cells that spurred outrage at a London museum? The animal-free chicken, beef, salmon and dairy substitutes that some companies are creating using similar technology?
Ultimately, the prop team went with venison. But they’ll have to find an alternative for future episodes, Ms. Lyle and Mr. Nickerson said, because many in its cast are vegan.
Back to the missing religion angle. If one goes online to do some basic research on cannibalism, it’s hard not to run into a basic trend — humans eating other humans is taboo in certain types of religions (think radical monotheism), but rather common in pagan traditions. Check out this online search for “cannibalism,” “world religions” and “beliefs.”
You’ll find some headlines that might have been relevant to this topic. Think: “ ‘The Bread of Life’: Exploring Ritualistic Cannibalism.” Or this one, perhaps: “Eating People Is Wrong — But It’s Also Widespread and Sacred.”
There are a number of interesting potential research threads in this passage:
Cannibalism has no single, ubiquitous meaning. Rather, it is adapted to suit the spiritual framework of each culture in which it’s practiced. For ancient Egyptian pharaohs, it guaranteed an eternal afterlife. For Druids, it might have been connected with agriculture and fertility. For others, cannibalism has served as a tool of empowerment and intimidation — and as a way to honor the beloved dead. But most of all, cannibalism deals in taboo.
We often think of taboo in terms of proscribed action: It’s taboo to marry your brother or, in certain cultures, to eat pork. But in a much deeper sense, the word “taboo” denotes the very points where the sacred and profane converge.
The word “taboo” implies the rejection of a strong moral or religious perspective. Such as? This article might help: “What does the Bible say about cannibalism?”
Cannibalism is mentioned in the Bible. Although there is no direct statement such as, “Thou shalt not eat human flesh,” the obvious indication from Scripture is that cannibalism is a terrible evil.
After the global flood, God gave Noah permission to eat meat. “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). However, God specifies that the “food for you” does not include fellow human beings. People are treated much differently from animals: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:6).
Cannibalism is mentioned several times in Scripture (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Jeremiah 19:9; Lamentations 2:20; 4:10; Ezekiel 5:10), but in each case, the practice is regarded as a horrible curse and inhuman act of desperation. Moses and other prophets predicted that, if the Israelites forsook God, they would fall into such awful degradation as to cannibalize their own children. These harrowing prophecies were fulfilled during the siege of Samaria during the reign of King Jehoram (2 Kings 6:28-29). Cannibalism was the physical horror which accompanied the spiritual horror of apostasy.
In conclusion, let me suggest that the headline for this Times story needed to include the word “taboo.” That would be a framework that raise ethical and moral questions, as well as — uh — questions about hip entertainment trends.
Maybe it is getting harder to shock pixel-saturated Americans. Maybe many media consumers have, at this point, seen it all.
If so, they may be struggling to find images and plotlines that sent thrills through their exhausted nervous systems. At the same time, it might help if these trendy stories openly rejected specific, in some zip codes unpopular views about morality and the sacred.
Adding one or two paragraphs from liberal or conservative religious thinkers would have helped, on a topic that — for millennia — has been linked to religious practices and taboos. Quote both sides and things could get interesting.