Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Religionist

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two: Religionist (American).

The OED’s definition of this is, “One addicted to religion; one imbued with, or zealous for, religion. Sometimes in bad sense, a religious zealot or pretender”. The examples here given show that through the seventeenth centuries in England religionists were contrasted with atheists. Webster’s dictionary echoes the English definition and does not go beyond; yet lately in the United States religionists are referred to in the current press, it is clear that this term includes anyone who is professionally occupied with religion, of whatever church, movement or status – that is, anyone from Billy Graham to Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is, like womanizer, a word that destroys distinctions. Here again one has only to remember the words it is used to displace – priest, minister, rabbi, etc.; churchman, divine, man of God, evangelist, religious teacher, parson, preacher; sky-pilot, hot-gospeller – to see that it is now as generic as businessman, farmer or artist. The contrast with atheist is no longer implied. A religionist is merely someone who professionally works at religion as an industrialist works at industry. Religion is the religionist’s “line”.

6 September 1958. Next up: Massive.

The American evangelist Billy Graham. Photo: Getty Images.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.