The Common Good

Culture Watch

A Shard of Hope: HBO’s 'The Leftovers' on Grief

As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.

The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.

It is impossible to forget.

I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.

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'Reconcile:' Interview with Peace Activist John Paul Lederach

I’ve had the chance to speak with author and international peace activist John Paul Lederach about his book, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians. The book, updated from an earlier edition with a new introduction from Bill and Lynne Hybels and additional stories, is a powerful guide on how to seek and realize peace among us on both local and global scales.

Having traveled the world brokering peace agreements between governments and rebel groups, and having risked his own lives and that of his family for the sake of reconciliation, Lederach speaks prophetically to difficult issues facing us today in a way that few can.

From Gaza to Iraq and even Ferguson, Mo., we want to know: what do we do now? Thankfully John Paul Lederach offers us both the hope and the tools to begin achieving reconciliation, wherever we are. In our discussion below we talk about his book, which is capturing the attention and imaginations of leaders everywhere.

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Top 10 Books — What We're Reading at Sojourners

We love the latest Facebook “book challenge" going around. It reads something like this: 

"List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't over-think this — they don't have to be the 'right' books or great works of literature. Just books that have impacted you in some way." 

We at Sojourners are a book-loving bunch, from religion and spirituality to politics; social justice to science; cultural history to historical fiction. Below are 10 favorite or most formative books from several staff here at Sojourners (in addition to books of the Bible, which could take several spots themselves).

See any of your favorites here? Which books do you most love? Share in the comments! 

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Joan Rivers: Wicked Humor with a Jewish Touch

Joan Rivers, 81, the acid-tongued survivor of popular comedy and entertainment, died Sept. 4. Who could possibly find it funny?

Joan would have.

Humor, she said, was how she dealt with all life’s triumphs and defeats.

She once said, “I knew I was funny and I knew it was powerful” as early as 8 years old.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard. (“My mother wanted M.D. to stand for Make Dollars.”)

But she couldn’t get a door opened to the stage until she started making the gatekeepers — the agents’ secretaries — laugh.

She worked her way up through New York comedy clubs, over into TV and finally, after seven auditions, onto a stand-up stint on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” By 1983, she was Carson’s regular guest host until a bitter feud over her competing TV endeavors brought their friendship to an end.

Rivers’ first marriage ended in divorce; her second ended in tragedy when her husband killed himself. Even so, she said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”

 
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What 'The Leftovers' Can Teach Us About Hope and the Christian Faith

Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! You've been warned.

Over the past eight episodes of The Leftovers, HBO’s latest drama based on Tom Perrotta’s play of the same name, viewers have been treated to a case study in grief and faith in the midst of a life-changing event. Unlike the Left Behind series, which incorporated Christian triumphalism with terrible theology, The Leftovers examines the deeper human and spiritual issues of what would happen were two percent of the population to suddenly disappear. It is powerful and beautiful and really hard to watch (especially Episode Five). It asks the question: does life go on when your world is changed forever?

The show offers a variety of responses to the Sudden Departure of October 14: Kevin Garvey, the police chief who seems to be losing his mind after his wife leaves him for a cult and after his father needs to be committed; Nora Durst, who’s lost her entire family, so she keeps everything exactly as it was when the Sudden Departure occurred; Rev. Matt Jamison, Nora’s brother whose faith has been shaken because he was not taken; the town dogs who have become feral; and finally, the creepiest citizens of Mapleton, the Guilty Remnant, or the GR as they’re “affectionately” known.

This past week’s episode gave us a greater understanding of the GR. Although the nihilistic views of the Guilty Remnant are quite different from those of Christianity, I was struck by their powerful and strategic mission of witness. The cult was formed out of the recognition that everything changed on October 14 and that to pretend otherwise was foolish. The group, in their white clothes, their silence, their stripped-down existence, bears witness to the fact that they are living reminders of what happened. They are fundamentalists about their cause and willing to die for it — even if that death comes from their own hands.

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WATCH: 7 Video Clips That Showcase Robin Williams' Brilliance

We lost a funny man on Monday to a sad and persistent disease. Robin Williams passed away last night of an apparent suicide.

In memory of Williams, we've compiled a few of our favorite scenes.

1. Aladdin

Williams' performance as the lovable Genie: "Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck!" 

 

 

 
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Five Reasons post-Christianity Is Good for Us

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Christianity is in decline in the western world by all accounts. From progressive mainline churches to evangelical mega-churches, most institutional religious bodies are experiencing precipitous drops in attendance and giving. Meanwhile, the Christian voice in the civil and political conversations is also giving way to other perspectives, be they Jewish, Muslim, or secular humanist. It’s no longer a dark mark on one’s social character to say they don’t go to church, or even that they’re not a Christian.

For many leaders within organized Christian circles, this is all a call to arms, a warning shot across the proverbial bow to wake us up from our slumber and engage the impinging culture war with renewed commitment.

But as I suggest in my new book, postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care? It’s actually good news. Granted, it may not slow the decline and closure of churches anytime soon, and we Christians will likely continue to lose some degree of political clout, but I argue that this isn’t the point. It never was. And in fact, our numerical, political and even financial success in recent generations has taken us far off track.

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Are We the United States of Dystopia? The Politics of 'The Giver'

This Friday, a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

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Gown of Grief: The Collection’s Songs of Mourning and Celebration

No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.

The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.

At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.

Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.

Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute — and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.

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REVIEW: HBO's The Leftovers, a Grim Take on the Limits of Grief and Faith

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is the feel-good series of the summer, if your summer revolves around root canals and recreational waterboarding.

Indeed, it’s pretty grim stuff — but quite engrossing and worth your time, thanks to intense performances by Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston, and the way creators Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, and Damon Lindelof, best known for screwing up the end of “Lost,” unflinchingly tackle the nature of grief and the limits of faith.

Can you call it an apocalypse if you can still get a decent bagel afterwards? It’s three years after what has been termed the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population — Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight, gay, white, black, brown, and Gary Busey — suddenly disappeared.

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