The Common Good

Culture Watch

The Problem of Poverty in 'The Great Gatsby'

The Great Gatsby doesn’t exactly fit the mold for a story about poverty. It doesn’t play into the typical genre created by Dickens or Sinclair meant to incite social change by depicting feeble orphans or working-class suffering. Gatsby is a story of excess: of tall buildings, big parties, fancy clothes, shiny cars—all that 1920s glam and glitz.

And yet — distilled to its core, The Great Gatsby is a story of poorness from the lens of richness, a rags-to-riches story where we only get to see the riches. Though high school English classes across the country paint Jay Gatsby as the poster child for the American dream and its subsequent loss, The Great Gatsby gets its poignancy not from what is lost but rather what lingers — Gatsby’s offstage childhood poverty that not even money can erase. For underneath Jay Gatsby’s million-dollar façade is James Gatz, a college-dropout, janitor-turned-swindler “young roughneck” from a poor family. 

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Stornoway: Hopeful and Honest

I first got wind of Stornoway back in 2011 when Izzy Westbury was president of the Oxford Union during the Michaelmas term of 2011 at Oxford University while studying abroad. The group of Oxford natives were Izzy’s favorite band at the time, and she made sure to give them a chance to play that I regretfully passed up to grab a pint with some friends.

So when the opportunity arose to see Stornoway in Washington, D.C., envelope myself in Oxford nostalgia, and enjoy some good tunes, I couldn’t pass it up.

And Stornoway delivered with hopeful, honest songs about life, love, and everything in between. Delightful is probably the best word to describe their music and the experience of seeing them live. It’s like taking a deep, refreshing breath. The British quartet mix elements of beach boys-esque pop with fleet foxes’ harmonies and a low fi, organic feel.

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A Controversial Broadway Play on the Virgin Mary closes Why?

NEW YORK — A Tony-nominated play that offered a controversial take on the Virgin Mary reflecting on her life held its final performance on Sunday, closing after only two weeks as poor ticket sales never matched high expectations.

Now the question is: Why?

Shows fold on Broadway all the time, of course, and as The New York Times noted, just 25 percent of them ever show a profit. But was there something about The Testament of Mary that doomed it to failure?

After all, biblically themed shows are all the rage on television and especially on cable; the recent History Channel miniseries The Bible generated huge ratings, and a host of shows and films are trying to explore — and perhaps exploit — similar territory.

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Julian 'J-Kwest' DeShazier on Rhymes & Reasons: The Stories of Hip-Hop

For nearly a decade, the ministry of Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier has been an exploration in the relationship between music and faith. As artist, this Chicago native has used his unique rhythm to tell stories of deep meaning, inside and out of the church. A 2007 Holy Hip Hop Award winner, his song, “So Blessed,” was featured on the Grammy-nominated compilation Holy Hip Hop: Taking the Gospel to the Streets, and J has been celebrated as “Living Black History” by Urban Ministries International.

In 2012 he and his group, Verbal Kwest, were featured in the Sojourners, OXFAM, and Bread for the World-produced documentary The Line, providing a critical voice against poverty and violence in the U.S. A graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Julian currently serves as senior pastor of University Church in Chicago, and is a regular contributor to Sojourners, UrbanFaith and Kidult publications.

Editor's Note: There may be some objectional language in the beginning part of this about hour-long interview. 

 

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Fr. Michael Lapsley’s 'Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer'

Most Americans sat glued to the TV or radio on April 15 (or raced to finish tax returns) transfixed by the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath. Nearly 100 friends of Fr. Michael Lapsley’s gathered that evening at Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore in Washington, D.C., to be soothed with a testimony of faith by South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, soul-stirring cello music, and a transporting testimony of healing by apartheid regime bomb victim “Father Mike.”

One of my favorite newspapers in the world, the South African Mail and Guardian, reported on April 19 this way: 

“Boston bombings: the marathon struggle of survival and healing … a priest from South Africa, apartheid fighter and a bomb victim himself reaches out to Americans about forgiveness … He had not planned it that way. The event was to launch his book. It had been scheduled for last October but Hurricane Sandy scuppered those plans. Instead it took place on a day when three people were killed and more than 100 injured in Boston.”

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'Paranorman:' Unmasking the Myth of Redemptive Violence with Cartoon Zombies

Paranorman, the stop-motion animated feature by Laika Studios just came out on Netflix instant download, so we decided to watch it for our family movie night. It's a fun film, perhaps a bit too scary for the little ones, but what really stood out for me was the surprisingly deep morality in this little film. This comes in an unlikely package since the film is about zombies and witches. Not surprisingly, if you look for Christian reviews of the film you will see many focus on warnings to stay way from the occult. Sadly, this response misses the profoundly deep moral message behind this film — one that confronts religious violence, and instead promotes a message of redemption and forgiveness. That's quite a bit of insight for a cartoon! 

The premise of Paranorman is that the town of Blithe Hollow (not coincidentally set in Massachusetts, as we will see later) is about to be overrun by zombies because of the curse of an evil witch. Only Norman Babcock, an odd boy who can speak to the dead, can save the day. The movie begins by having us get to know Norman, who is emotionally isolated because his family does not understand him, and his peers ostracize and ridicule him as a "freak" at school. The only person who believes Norman is his friend Neil Downe, and overweight boy who is himself bullied.

The town is in peril because three centuries ago, an evil witch was executed, and in revenge put a curse on puritan judge and her accusers, cursing them to rise from the grave as zombies. So each year the curse of the witch must be appeased by reading from a mysterious book at the grave of the witch in order to prevent a zombie apocalypse. But this year that does not happen, and the zombies overrun the town. The townspeople and local police form the typical Frankenstein mob, complete with pitchforks and shotguns to kill the zombies. As the mob mentality grows, Norman and his motley band are threatened by the mob as well. 

This is the first point where we see the film’s unmasking of "virtuous" violence: in the logic of many films, so long as someone is a "monster" or an "alien," it is okay to kill them. So we have no problem with watching mass killings of monsters or aliens in movies because ... well ... they're monsters. So you're supposed to kill them. That's what good guys do in movies. This is the unquestioned plot of hundreds of movies. As long as the Storm Troopers in Star Wars are faceless, we don't bat an eye when Luke kills one after the other. They have been dehumanized, and so it's okay to kill them all. The same is true for the Orks in Lord of the Rings, or the witch and her minions in the Chronicles of Narnia. 

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If You Eat Food, Read This

If you eat food, here are two newish books you should know about.

You may already have met Robert H. Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (2012). Lustig is the UCSF professor whose surprisingly riveting 90-minute lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," has already had nearly 3.5 million hits on YouTube. The thesis of his lecture: it's not dietary fat that's making Americans gain weight, it's sugar. And sugar is doing much worse things than increasing our clothing size. It's setting us up for a whole range of lethal diseases that are almost entirely avoidable.

...

In Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, tells what the food industry has been up to during the last couple of decades. Food executives, Moss says, are nervous: people are figuring out that convenience foods aren't good for them.

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What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs Forgiveness?

We started making our new documentary “Redemption of the Prosecutor” for the same reason we always do: someone told us a story.

Bill Mefford works in the social justice office of the United Methodist Church, and he called us last August to say he’d just seen an amazing talk. The talker was one Preston Shipp, a devout Christian and former prosecutor from Nashville who went into a local prison to teach. When Preston heard the inmates’ stories, he began to realize how unjust the system was. He was especially torn up about an inmate named Cyntoia, who was Preston’s star student and had received a life sentence as a juvenile. Preston underwent a spiritual crisis that boiled down to a fundamental question: “How can I reconcile the job I was being asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who proclaimed release for prisoners?” We won’t give away the ending, but there’s a surprising twist that left us saying this is a story that needs to be told in churches across America.

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On Leaning In

Well, somebody had to do it: Somebody had to go buy the incessantly hyped volume Lean In by the stratospherically successful Facebook COO (and mother of two) Sheryl Sandberg, and figure out what’s behind the seemingly endless radio talk shows and online profiles — they have been following me, they have, filling up my car like clouds of incense and dinging on my phone with the book’s mantra-like subtitle, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

I bought this part-memoir, part self-help book on a gorgeous spring weekday when, because I work part-time, I was supposed to be home anyway. Because the pollen was getting to me and I had woken up groggy, my husband generously offered to take the children to school on his way in to work, something that Sandberg would applaud: husbands who will assume major leadership at home are a major key in enabling mothers to succeed.

I stumbled around the house in my nightgown for a while, then finally got dressed and picked up Lean In at the Target in suburban Largo, Md., which at 10 on a weekday morning, was as silent as a tomb.

I drove half an hour to have lunch with a homeschooling friend, folded laundry and cleaned some grout, picked up my children from school and finally settled down to read the book on the bench at my son’s baseball practice, as the evening sun sank over the trees.

I found myself surprised by how much I enjoyed it: Sandberg, who’s about my age and who shares some of my generational preoccupations, comes across as warm and intimate, gently self-deprecating in describing her own “monkey bar” career path (it’s not a ladder, she says, because you can move sideways too), as well as some of her mistakes.

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Still A Believer: A Talk with Singer-Songwriter Nataly Dawn

A while back I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with up-and-coming singer-songwriter Nataly Dawn about faith and songwriting. Dawn grew up in France, went to Stanford for undergrad, and made it big on YouTube with a duo called Pomplamoose before signing with Nonesuch records and starting her solo work.

This interview was edited for length and content.

Nataly: I have to warn you, I’m in a little bit of a food coma; I just made a really big brunch. I had probably five pancakes.

Brandon: Wow. Impressive. That’s awesome.

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