The Common Good

Culture Watch

The Cheery Optimism of 'Tomorrowland'

It’s both ironic and appropriate that the new Disney film Tomorrowland is being released exactly a week after Mad Max: Fury Road. The new film from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) is the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic. It’s a film that’s hugely optimistic about the future, and our ability to fix the world’s problems through good old-fashioned ingenuity. The movie occasionally veers towards overly naïve, and its internal logic doesn’t always work. But despite some problems, it remains a refreshing alternative to a summer movie season that’s otherwise been filled with darker worldviews.

The film starts not with a jump forward, but backward, to the 1967 World’s Fair, where boy genius Frank Walker arrives with a homemade jetpack and hopes of winning an inventing competition. There Frank is befriended by a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who takes him to the magical world of Tomorrowland, a colorful futuristic place full of advanced discoveries and retro-space age design.

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But What About Intersex? 'Sex Difference in Christian Theology' Questions Churches' Views

Some children are born without being clearly one sex or another, usually in the case of having ambiguous genitals. Even as puberty progresses, a few medical conditions can arise that make it impossible to label a child a boy or a girl. These children, usually referred to as intersex, have faced shame and alienation from society and sometimes even painful and invasive surgeries to “correct” the way they were born. Sadly, this trauma is often inflicted by Christian communities.

Megan DeFranza’s Sex Difference in Christian Theology challenges that treatment. Written primarily for Christians with more conservative views on sexuality, the book shows how the demographically small but pastorally significant question of intersex people points to larger problems within a Western conservative theological anthropology. If we understand the Trinity to be reflected in our sexual or marital relations, we end up with some seriously problematic theological and pastoral implications for our broader treatment of gender and sex.

DeFranza’s key pastoral goal is to enable conservative Christians to hear the voices of intersex people and to understand their concerns over non-consensual surgeries and exclusion from the life of the church.

 
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The Redemption of Don Draper

Mad Men transported us to the pivotal decade of the 1960s and dealt deliberately with the advent of Madison Avenue and the heyday of the advertising industry. This was the time in our nation’s history when our materialistic fates were sealed: We became a people defined by things, things produced in mass quantities to feed an insatiable cultural appetite. And that appetite was fueled by advertising.

Don Draper, the quintessential ad man, describes advertising early on in the series as “selling happiness.” In the boardroom, Don repeatedly does exactly that — creating scenarios that attach emotional, if not transcendental, value to otherwise common products and services. He brings his clients to tears or laughter or both, and opens their wallets besides. Deals are closed, Clio Awards are won.

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The Sneaky Progressivism of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

But this isn’t just a movie about brooding wanderers and spectacular car crashes. The women of Fury Road are the ones who get most of the attention, and who are undeniably the heroes of the film. They are tough, and know how to take care of themselves, but also represent their world’s best hope for change. The film frequently juxtaposes the difference between their compassionate, renewal-focused instincts, and Immortan Joe’s destructive excess.

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‘Stand Your Ground’ Shows a Racist Culture, Continuing to Kill

Douglas writes in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, tracing the intellectual and cultural genealogy of a “stand your ground” culture — one that polices our public ‘white’ spaces, and kills men and women of color who are in them. Sadly, as the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray show, our cops and our culture are still killing innocent people of color. We aren’t a post-racial culture at all. 

Stand Your Ground takes a cruciform shape: we face the death of the cross in her depiction of the despair of a culture that kills its citizens, before rising in the resurrection hope of a black faith.

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Abuse, Not 'Radical Christianity,' Is the Issue

Runaway Radical is a heartbreaking story told with great courage and honesty. In it, the authors offer a much-needed critique of both fear-based, crime-and-punishment theology and unjust power dynamics which are sadly commonplace within Christian culture. It’s an important story, one which I hope will create space for others who have been hurt by the church to share their experiences without shame or fear of rejection.

But Runaway Radical struck me as an inappropriate title for a book whose subject matter was spiritual abuse and unhealthy striving, rather than any fundamental problem with the “radical” idea of taking Jesus’ teachings about wealth and sacrifice seriously.

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Whedon's 'Ultron:' Marvelous

From the first Avengers film, Whedon has shown that his primary interest, apart from the utter coolness of watching Hulk destroy a city block, is the dynamics of the Avengers team. This is a group of people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and agendas who might never have come together on their own. That they are forced to work together under impossible circumstances forces those tensions to their breaking point, but also creates a sense of camaraderie that’s thrilling to watch in action.

Working within the conventions of postmodern superheroism, Whedon also addresses the side effects of frequent exposure to violence. It might seem ironic that Captain America (Chris Evans), introduced as the ideal patriot, is one of the group’s more peace-loving members. But as the sole military veteran on the team, his outlook makes sense for someone who’s sacrificed a lot in battle. When he tells Stark, “Every time someone tries to end a war before it starts, innocent people die,” you know he speaks from experience.

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What I Learned from 'The Hunting Ground:' I Am A Part of Rape Culture

During my freshman year of college, a girl who lived in my dorm was raped. It was during the first month of school. I didn’t know her well. As the rumors spread, I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, the blonde with the big boobs.”

I remember having a conversation with my friend about how nice the accused boy seemed. I remember that friend replying, “She did wear low cut shirts during orientation — makes sense she would start a rumor like that.”

The survivor transferred from my college the following semester.

During my senior year of college, my best friend was the president of his fraternity. During the fall semester, there was a reported case of rape that occurred with two males and one female in the basement during a party. All I remember is how stressed my friend was because, as president, he had to deal with the legal proceedings of the case. The case was closed without either of the men being prosecuted. I remember being upset because my favorite fraternity was put on probation (no parties on the weekend) for two months. I never knew the survivor.

The documentary The Hunting Ground taught me I was part of campus rape culture, and I didn’t even realize it. It is estimated that between 20 percent and 25 percent of women experience completed or attempted rape over the course of a college career. That means for every 1,000 women attending a college or university, there are 35 incidents of rape each academic year.

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'New Girl' and the Constant Negotiation of Race

For being a television show based on absurdist humor and millennial first-world-problems, New Girl hit home earlier this month.

Winston, played by Lamorne Morris, is a roommate with a thousand changes in career, the latest and most lasting being that of a cop for the Los Angeles Police Department. The hilarity surrounding Winston has mostly been about his police training or his friend’s concern for his safety, when they tried to physically keep him from policing by stealing his cruiser keys. Then, with script writing help from Morris himself, New Girl took a momentarily serious turn.

When a pretty woman invites Winston on a date to the park for a rally to protest the police, who she describes arrested a 14-year-old because he “fit a description,” Winston declines, walking backward to hide his LAPD shirt.

He later says, “With everything that’s been going on, I just feel like she wouldn’t respect me.”

In that moment, Morris’ character finds himself caught between two conflicting worlds, what W.E.B. Du Bois called having a “double consciousness” — the brotherhood of a police force alongside white officers, keeping the peace and making neighborhoods safer; and the collective turmoil that comes with being a black man in a post-Ferguson America.

Many Americans must feel this conflicting pull and feel unable to voice it: citizens with friends or family who are officers and who are in solidarity with their black and brown neighbors; officers themselves who fear for their safety every moment they are on duty and battle with racial implicit bias because of harrowing experiences in their communities.

I myself feel this pull as a woman of color who grew up in North Philadelphia, where a mistrust of police was built into my framework of survival despite never once having a negative experience with Philly police.  Solidarity with Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Dante Parker is a given. They are the kind of men I saw everyday growing up, men with questionable pasts and an unquestionable love for their families and communities — despite only the former being brought to light.

And I have met police officers working in neighborhoods where they and their partners are cornered and ambushed by street gangs; men and women with families, who are told they are hated by the black and brown children they rescue from crime scenes.

I turned to music as I wrote myself in circles, trying here to verbalize an emotion, a worried feeling that I’m not doing something right. I came across a radio interview with Community star and rapper Donald Glover in which he talks about what I believe Morris was battling with his New Girl script.

“Being young and black in America is schizophrenic. You kind of have to change who you are a little bit all the time for people to even respect you.”

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'The Road to Character' Misses Grace

Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.

When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.

I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.

Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.

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