Richard Byrne

  • Weird Science

    Seven years ago, I began research on a play about Edward Kelley, one of the most notorious alchemists of Renaissance Europe. Lurid legends abound about his career and pursuit of the philosopher’s stone (angelic conversations, sexual sharing, mysterious red powders found in tombs), and I quickly discovered that the primary literature on Kelley and Renaissance alchemy was a muddle of confusion and outright contradiction. Much of it had been translated from the Latin and published by spiritualists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the tracts were encoded in a seeming welter of startling

  • Policed Academy

    The cult of intellectual collegiality that suffuses the contemporary university isn’t exactly stifling American culture. But that atmosphere sure keeps academic life a lot quieter. Blood sport over ideas is frowned on. Indeed, battles over office space and budgets leave more bruises than do scraps over monographs and essays. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; some of them are even good ones. Barbarians are always lurking at the gate, seeking to re-ignite culture wars that consume precious funding and public credibility. Why give them ammunition? Better to render cool judgments

  • Beyond Belief

    Earlier this decade, Jeff Sharlet moved in with a group of men in a Christian community called Ivanwald. Together, they lived in a nondescript house in suburban Washington, DC, that was run by a group that called itself the Family. On the surface, the place seemed harmless enough—blending the camaraderie of segregated male domains (the locker room, the frat house) with more sober elements of spiritual retreat (Bible study, rigid self-denial, and structured work). Sharlet, who is the coauthor of a book on fringe American religious experience, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (2004), writes,