What is the Society of Mutual Autopsy?

In 1876, a group of French scientists and intellectuals set out to unlock the mystery of the human soul. More to the point, these freethinking anthropologists hoped to prove that the soul doesn’t exist. They maintained that an individual’s personality, character, and abilities, or what we tend to think of as “soul,” correspond to the shape and size of one’s brain. And they believed they could demonstrate this by performing autopsies on decedents whose traits in life they knew. Hitch was, they needed volunteers. Looking around the room, they finally agreed to dissect one another after death, and thus the Society of Mutual Autopsy was born.

Needless to say, after some 30 years of cutting each other’s heads open, this unusual group of organ donors didn’t prove much of anything, except perhaps that there’s a lot about human existence that scalpels can’t explain. But they did leave us a wonderfully evocative metaphor—autopsy as a tool for exploring the soul. In the original Greek sense, “autopsy” means to examine, to see with one’s own eyes. For eons, prophets and theologians have understood that faith involves a process of self-examination, questioning and criticism. “All faith is autopsy,” declared Søren Kierkegaard, a painfully self-scrutinizing theologian who insisted that an unexamined faith is not worth having.

SoMA is a magazine devoted to dissecting matters of the soul—the sacred and the profane, the ridiculous and the sublime. We don’t think of religion primarily in terms of churches or institutions. We side with the theologian Paul Tillich who understood faith, and indirectly religion, as “ultimate concern.” He saw faith as a movement toward the unconditional, or God, the “ground of being” that eludes theistic thinking. Thus, religious vitality can be found in things that aren’t overtly religious, such as a “secular” films, art, and literature. Similarly, explicitly religious beliefs, symbols, and systems easily become rigid and lose their meaning, turning idolatrous. As Tillich said, religion itself is paradoxically one of the great threats to the religious life.

As an ongoing autopsy of religion and culture, SoMA seeks to illuminate the difference between authentic and inauthentic faith, not because we consider ourselves experts on the subject—we don’t—but because we need to keep reminding ourselves that there is a difference. Our faith depends on it.

Who We Are

John D. Spalding, founder and editor.
John was baptized Catholic and raised in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. Somehow, he survived and became an Episcopalian. A columnist for Beliefnet.com, he is the author of A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City. His writing was included in The Best Christian Writing 2004, and has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Century, Commonweal, Books & Culture, KillingtheBuddha.com, and Science & Spirit, among other publications. He's been a contributing editor to The Week, a regular contributor to Maxim, and managing editor at Santa Barbara Magazine. He has a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, and he lives in Connecticut.

Mary Beth Crain, senior editor.

Mary Beth describes herself as a “born Jew, born-again Buddhist/Native American with a healthy respect for Jesus and anybody else who’s willing to die for the jerks who killed him, and love them too.” She is an established Southern California writer/editor and author of A Widow, a Chihuahua and Harry Truman and, with Terry Lynn Taylor, the bestselling Angel Wisdom (both published by HarperCollinsSanFrancisco). She is currently a contributing writer for the L.A. Weekly.

Timothy Beal, columnist, "The End of the Word as We Know It."

Raised conservative evangelical in Alaska, Tim strayed from his faith during college, and, after falling under the spell of the Episcopal Church and the writings of William Blake, settled into a Presbyterian congregation in Ohio, where his wife is a pastor. Tim is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, and is the author of several books, including Roadside Religion, Religion and Its Monsters, and Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s now writing a book about the Bible and consumer culture called The End of the Word as We Know It, from which his column takes its name.

Billy Frolick, contributing editor.

Billy's most recent screenwriting credit is the animated DreamWorks film “Madagascar.” He has also written for The New Yorker, Salon.com, Premiere, and The Los Angeles Times, and is the author of several books, including the parody “The Philistine Prophecy” and the national bestseller “The Ditches of Edison County.”  Billy is preparing to direct the comic heist Low Notes, from his own original screenplay, and his website can be found at www.billyfrolick.com.  He was born a Jew and will, no doubt, die a Jew. God willing.

Stephanie Hunt, contributing editor.

A former teenage evangelist and off-key singer of summer camp songs, Stephanie brings a Southern accent to SoMA. She majored in religion at Duke and received a master’s degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, where theology has an unmistakable country twang. After working at Harvard Divinity School for four years, she moved to Charleston, S.C., a.k.a. the Holy City. Married to a shrink (Lord help her) and the mother of three girls, she writes for a number of publications, and is currently a contributing editor for Charleston Magazine, Charleston HOME, and Skirt! magazine.

Bill McGarvey, contributing editor.

Born and bred a Catholic, Bill is the editor-in-chief of BustedHalo.com. A former managing editor of Book magazine, he has written for Time Out New York, Commonweal, The Tablet of London, and America magazine. He is also an acclaimed singer/songwriter, having released albums both as a solo artist and with his former band, Valentine Smith, with whom toured and shared stages with the likes of The Wallflowers, NRBQ, Shane MacGowan, The Lemonheads, and Joan Osborne. A graduate of Georgetown University, Bill lives in Hoboken, N.J., and maintains sites at BillMcGarvey.com and myspace.com.


Michelle W. Lee, site designer.
Michelle is a graphic designer who was raised Catholic by non-practicing Buddhists. She lives in New York City.

Thomas V. Fondano, site programmer.
A web programmer reared Catholic, Thomas now considers himself “more of a non-practicing agnostic, or a secular humanist.” He lives (but does not practice agnosticism) in Brooklyn, NY.

Chuck Wyatt, web manager.
Raised a Unitarian, Chuck has a masters degree from Harvard Divinity School. A programmer, he is the web technical services manager for Clark University. You can find Chuck's freelance work at www.wordimpressive.com. His wife is a UCC minister and they have two daughters. They live in Holliston, MA.

Karl Nelson, illustrator (drew SoMA’s logo).
Karl is an artist living in Northfield, Minn. Fifty bucks says he’s Lutheran.

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