The Common Good

Culture Watch

Sojo Stories: Dirty Wars

Days before President Barack Obama's high-profile speech on drones and U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Sojourners sat down with investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to take an inside look at U.S.-led covert wars and the drones that have become an integral part of our global “war on terror.”

His thesis?

"After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”

In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield and producer of the documentary of the same name, now in theaters, calls this an "unending war ... being legitimized under a popular Democratic president, who is a constitutional lawyer by trade.”

Indeed, within five years, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq for terrorist attacks the country did not commit has transformed under the Obama administration into pre-emptive assassinations halfway around the world, for crimes citizens have not yet committed. The result, Scahill suggested, is our collective complicity to “unending war.”

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Competing … For the Greater Good

Despite the spiritual strengthening afforded by my monastic experience, this first episode of the show gave me a clearer picture of my inner, ongoing conflict. And this is what I see: in the midst of real life, when the motorcycle engines are lit and the race is on, I want to win. Regardless of what I read in the scripture about establishing your worth in God’s unique, creative expression and what I learned from my soul-nourishing experience with the monks, it pisses me off to lose.

Yes, there was an arduous journey ahead; and, yes there were people who needed attention. But in the moment, I want to prove myself. I’ve seen this so often in my life — when my connection with God grows cold, the endeavor becomes more about my performance and less about God’s presence.

We compete to determine our strengths and weaknesses, not to determine our value. I understand that. I think only a Jesus-grace experience can finally answer the value question. But in real life I’m not there yet. I still struggle with the intersection of my faith in Jesus and my fierce competitive nature. I make more out of winning (or losing) than my faith warrants.

In Latin, the word competition originally meant “to strive together or to come together toward a common goal.” In that sense, the team had come together in a spirit of true competition. Despite any egotistical desires, we grew stronger and engaged the mission as one — each of us better for the competition. And, though I don’t have it all worked out yet, I continue to trust The Great Storyteller — there is yet much grace for a fierce competitor and Whiskey Priest.

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Mumford and Sons: Eschatological Banjos

A couple of weeks ago I posted about Mumford and Sons. I suggested that the Wednesday concert was, for me, a festival of devotion. Friday's concert, however, was something else. It was an eschatological event. Not transcendent, though others have used that word to describe it, but immanent, apocalyptic, eschatological. There we were gathered all in one place, as the Bible story goes, and the place exploded. Cathleen said more than once that the Holy Spirit was present. I love it when shows differ from night to night. I love it when the audience brings something new. I also wonder how such a noticeable distinction at a concert can be a helpful reminder for all of us who plan liturgies.

My wife is an actress. She will do the same show five or six times a week for six to eight weeks. The same play. Every night. But what she will also say is that it is never the same play every night. Actually, she has said that if you do it right it should never be the same piece twice. There is no such thing as a repeat performance if one understands repetition is not exact duplication. 

Similarly, a live concert is not a track on a CD. One does not show up to a concert and press "play." No, it is a singular performative event. Even when, as with Mumford and Sons, the set list is similar and the choreography (yes, even Mumford and Sons have a couple of staged bits) is the same, the concerts still feeldifferent. Why? Well lots of reasons, but mostly because they are different.

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Farmer

Grandpa, you are my Pepa. Before me, you were
Robert Elias Cunningham: son, brother, husband and father but
God, through my birth, made you Grandpa and
I, in my smallness, through toddling talk and wondering words, made you 
Pepa.

Now, deep in my life, I feel you kneeling in your garden,
Planting your plants,
Your skin the color of newly plowed rows, your smell the humble smell of dirt.
Sweat drips off your forehead and mixes with rain and soil and
Nourishes the plants so they can grow.

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Protest Songs, Revisited: New Campaign from ONE Features Mumford & Sons, U2, and More

The ONE Campaign, co-founded by music legend Bono of U2, has launched a new platform to promote global messages of social justice, women’s rights, and putting an end to apartheid, war and poverty — just to name a few.

The campaign, agit8, features new covers of famous protest songs throughout history by contemporary musicians ranging from Mumford & Sons to Greenday.

With the stated goal of ending poverty by 2030, agit8 is timed to coincide with the upcoming G8 summit next week. Noting the impact protest music has had on American history, agit8 encourages artists to “get on their soapbox” and amplify “the voices of those who spoke up for social change throughout history.”

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Giving Tree

If I were a tree

     I would like to be

          A giving tree.

Leaves a peaceful green,

     Birds could sit and sing,

          Children laugh and swing

                Upon my branches.

 
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Finding Grace in Reality TV

During the shoot one of the crew members said to me, “I could never do what you guys are doing — leave the storytelling to someone else.”  I get that. I haven’t seen the show yet and, honestly, I’m a bit nervous about it. But, I trust my friend Linda. I trust her honesty, creativity, and passion to show what is real. Just like on my better days, I trust God to work out the story of my life, despite scenes I really wish would be chopped before going to print.

I wonder what you’ll see when you watch the show. I wonder what I’ll see. I wonder how many times I’ll wince and think, “James – seriously?” But, I believe that everything is valuable – the good and bad – in the hands of God. I have faith in The Great Storyteller. I have hope in what God is doing in our real world and in our real lives.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness: A Call to Change Course

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fascinating and complicated story that is well worth watching. Instead of providing a summary, I want to explore three related aspects of the movie: sacrifice, blood, and hope for a more peaceful future.

Live Long and Prosper – The Sacrificial Formula

In a reference to my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the current movie’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) restates the sacrificial formula: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” This formula has generally been used throughout human history to justify sacrificing someone else. As René Girard points out, from ancient human groups to modern societies, whenever conflicts arise the natural way to find reconciliation is to unite against a common enemy.

Of course, there’s a lot of this going on throughout the Star Trek franchise. One conversation in Into Darkness explicitly points this out when Kirk (Chris Pine) unites with his enemy Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and explains it to Spock:

Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.

Kirk: Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.

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Should a Christian Watch 'Game of Thrones?'

Is there anything morally redeeming about Game of Thrones? Does the hit HBO series even have a moral vision?

The show is certainly entertaining, almost addictively so, and as Game of Thrones wraps up its third season on Sunday, the ratings reflect that popularity: a record of more than 5.5 million viewers have followed the ruthless struggles for power among the teeming clans of Westeros, the medieval-looking world created by fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin.

That success has also guaranteed that the show will be back for a fourth year of mayhem and passion, swords and sorcery, despite this season’s many violent endings. Or, as one tweet put it after the bloody penultimate episode: “Why doesn’t George R.R. Martin use twitter? Because he killed all 140 characters.”

But therein lies the moral problem for some: The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations – not to mention the free-wheeling sex – that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.

That, in turn, has prompted intense debates about whether Christians should watch Games of Thrones at all, or whether the show’s only possible virtue is depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born – or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.

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Is Scientology Unwatchable?

The news is not good for the new movie “After Earth,” which means the news is not good for Sony Pictures, or Will Smith … or, it seems, Scientology, whose sci-fi inflected religious system inspired what was to be a summer blockbuster. Now it’s looking like a summer bust.

As the NYTimes reports, “After Earth” took in 18 percent less than the lowest of prerelease expectations and may have ended Smith’s reputation as a surefire action-adventure box office draw — not to mention hurting the budding career of son Jaden, his co-star. Oh, and how much further off track could M. Night Shyamalan’s career go? He used to pose big questions in intriguing ways, but he directed and co-wrote this movie, yet another flop for him.

The movie has been ripped in reviews, and may well add to the narrative of decline and crisis that has been surrounding Scientology: an exodus of members, tell-all books, lawsuits, celebrity scandals. Well, maybe Scientology IS like a real religion after all.

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