The Common Good

Culture Watch

Why Jews Skipped Hanukkah and Wrote the Most Beloved Christmas Songs

Christians don’t seem to mind that so many beloved Christmas songs were written by Jews — and Jews tend to reel off the list with pride.

"White Christmas." "Let It Snow." "Santa Baby." "I’ll Be Home for Christmas." "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." "Silver Bells." "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Those not mentioned here could fill an album.

But why didn’t the Jews write any similarly iconic songs for their holiday that falls around Christmastime — Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights?

“I Have a Little Dreidl"? Great song … if you’re 4.

There are reasons that Jews are good at Christmas songs and why so many of these songs became so popular. And there are reasons why Jews didn’t write similarly catchy tunes for Hanukkah — or any other Jewish holiday.

But first, a little music history.

 
+Continue Reading

A Tame Kind of 'Wild'

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) attempt valiantly to solve this problem, and achieve some moments of real beauty in the process. However, they never quite find a way to effectively connect Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in her lowest moments, which include heroin addiction, the termination of a pregnancy, and divorce, with the woman we’re watching hike from Mexico to Canada — a woman who, while troubled, seems to have it considerably more together.

It also doesn’t help that the conversations Strayed does have on the trail tend towards the kind of dialogue that feels less like natural conversation and more like a talk between archetypes spouting bumper-sticker wisdom. The conversations that come up, about choices, regrets, and mistakes made, are all valuable. But the way they happen feels sanitized.

Ultimately, Wild does manage to present some solid thoughts on the process of grief and redemption. Strayed’s observation that everything in her life, both good and bad, led her to becoming a stronger, better person is important. Just as important is the film’s point that our relationships with others are vital to our survival and growth.

There’s no doubt that Strayed’s own experience was powerful and tough. But in its translation to film, particularly a film with a plot and performance tailor-made for awards season, Wild is a movie that’s afraid to upset people. It acknowledges the hard stuff, but barely hints at the true emotional complexities of its story and of its main character. Where it ought to challenge, it merely suggests. And while that’s okay, it’s disappointing that it isn’t more.

+Continue Reading

Why Does Hollywood Keep Barring Minorities From Biblical Blockbusters?

This post originally appeared in The Week. Read the full post here.

Ridley Scott's Exodus has almost every ingredient necessary to make a holiday blockbuster: a timeless tale, killer cast, massive budget, pre-release media buzz, stunning special effects, and an impressive director. But if moviegoers look deeper, they'll notice one ingredient is painfully missing: melanin.

Scott's big-budget film takes place in North Africa thousands of years ago. In real life, everyone would have had dark skin. But the movie is populated by an almost completely Caucasian cast. Welsh-born Christian Bale stars as the Hebrew liberator, Moses. Australian Joel Edgerton plays Pharaoh, and American Sigourney Weaver was almost laughably cast as an African queen.

Vanity Fair notes that most of the actors of color who have been cast were relegated to nameless roles. (Exceptions may include smaller roles for Ben Kingsley, a Brit with an Indian father, and John Turturro, an Italian-American.) The Independent adds that black and ethnic minorities do appear in the cast as "Ramses servant," "Egyptian thief," and "Egyptian Lower Class Civilian."

We can't claim that Scott's casting decisions were pernicious. They are, however, historically inaccurate and, frankly, inexcusable for a film in 2014.

Sadly, Ridley Scott is hardly alone. Whitewashing Bible films is something of a Hollywood tradition spanning decades, and it won't change until audiences demand better.

The last time a live-action Moses appeared on the silver screen was in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments." It starred a fake-baked Charlton Heston. But okay, that was 1956. Surely Hollywood's sensitivity to ethnicity has changed in the last half-century, right?

Wrong.

Read more here.

+Continue Reading

Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow: 50 Years of Song in 'Love of Community'

The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had almost 50 years together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey continue as musicians and activists, and have reflected on their experiences in a new a photo-filled book Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Life and Song (Imagine/Charlesbridge). A just-released album, DISCOVERED: Live in Concert, includes 12 live songs never before heard on their albums. And on Dec. 1 (check local listings), PBS will air 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary — a new documentary with rare and previously unseen television footage and many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs.

I spoke with Yarrow and Stookey this week about music, movements, and the spiritual aspects of both. (Stookey had what he describes as a “deep reborn experience” as a Christian around 1969 or 1970; Yarrow doesn’t affiliate with a specific religious institution, but describes much of what motivates him in spiritual terms.)

Stookey describes how all three of them were drawn to carrying on the precedent of folk forebears such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to make music “in the interest of, and love of, community.” Their appearance at the 1963 March on Washington was, he says, “the galvanizing moment” for their activism, the beginning of a trajectory that would engage them in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, environment, and immigration movements, and “less media-covered causes and events — a rainbow of concerns that we were inevitably and naturally drawn into.”

+Continue Reading

Sojo Stories: OVERRATED

Eugene Cho is overrated.

At least that’s what he’ll tell you in his new book, Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?

Cho, pastor at Quest Church in Seattleand founder of One Day’s Wages and Q Café, is an outspoken Christian voice for social justice. His first book is a self-professed confession of the risks of personal platform in the work of justice — and a call to humble self-awareness for Christians in an age of social change-idealism. When justice and changemaking are buzzwords, how do we embrace the long challenge of bettering the world while remaining humble about our place in it?

Watch the interview below.

+Continue Reading

Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' a Needed Depiction of Torture

When Jon Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show a little over a year ago to film Rosewater, I’ll admit, I, along with other loyal viewers, was intrigued but skeptical. I was already aware of the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek who’d been imprisoned and tortured by Iranian officials for nearly four months, detained in part because he’d sat for an interview with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones. But the rumors circulating that the film (based on Bahari’s memoir) would be partly comedic seemed … risky. Far be it from me to question Stewart’s satirical prowess, but films about political prisoners rarely leave room for laughter.

But of course, nobody needed to worry. Stewart’s penchant for pointing out the absurd is what makes Rosewater unique among films of its kind. Where movies like Hunger focus on the brutality of imprisonment (and rightly so), Rosewater’s goal is different. It sets out to explore the personality of people like Bahari’s jailers, the Kafkaesque nature of life in Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the creativity it takes to survive in such a setting.

In the film, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves London, and his pregnant wife, to cover Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election. He meets and interviews Iranians working for Ahmadinejad’s campaign, as well as those subverting the system and working for change — one scene has Bahari led up to an apartment roof covered with contraband satellite dishes. When there are accusations of fraud after the elections, followed by widespread protests, Bahari is arrested as a foreign spy. He’s held in solitary confinement, and interrogated and tortured by a man known only as Rosewater (so named for the smell of his perfume).

While there are scenes of physical torture onscreen, the film doesn’t show them in graphic detail — to the point where it almost feels that Stewart isn’t going as deep with the subject matter as he could have. But it does something instead that feels far more important.

+Continue Reading

'The Theory of Everything,' Life's Greatest Questions, and Missed Opportunities

The new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, presents the relationship between the famed physicist and his first wife, Jane, in beautiful display. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten described the underlying theme of the film such:

“If all of us were some kind of cosmic accident, what chance love? That’s the point at which science breaks down, and something else exists.”

That rift between the proofs and facts that drive Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) and the “something else” represented by the inspiring story at its center is one that reflects a larger conversation about faith, science, and the unknown that feels like it’s been a part of culture from the beginning of time (all puns aside). It’s unfortunate, then, that the film doesn’t take the opportunity to explore those discussions beyond the surface level.

+Continue Reading

Why Every Christian Needs Doubt

The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson is worth reading. In fact, it’s worth getting the book just to read the last nine pages of his final chapter that beautifully and poignantly describes a Christian life well questioned.

The theme of the book is the challenge of questioning well. Anderson argues that not only is questioning important to a well-reasoned faith, but it is core to the development of Christian intellect and character. Writing out of a conservative Christian context that is often characterized as an anti-intellectual space that discourages those whose questions would disrupt the status quo, Anderson makes a critical case for questioning’s importance to that community — a case that applies well to the Christian community as a whole.

The End of Our Exploring includes his critique of a culture that prizes “sincerity” above all else (35), his distinction between easy access to information and pursuing understanding (72), his condemnation of the constant pursuit of novelty in place of truth (117), and his encouragement that churches allow “belonging after believing” for those who have turned away from their faith (204), just to name a few. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the section in which he points to our personal friendship as “good for America,” as we are friends who believe that the other is wrong about nearly everything (160).

In that vein, I don’t want to spend too much time pointing out my areas of agreement when we both have a lot more fun jumping in on the areas of contention.

+Continue Reading

'Black-ish:' Reimagining Blackness on Television

Black-ish, the new ABC sitcom created by Kenya Barris, really is one of the funniest shows on TV this season. I laughed my head off watching a marathon run of the first four episodes On Demand. Now it's set to record each week on DVR. One of the things I really appreciate about Black-ish is that it takes universal issues and works them out through a genuinely African-American lens.

For example, in the pilot episode the father, Andre “Dre” Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson, is looking forward to a much deserved promotion to Senior VP at a major marketing firm. He is surprised to find out he’s been promoted to Senior VP of the Urban Division. We can all relate to wanting the promotion, but Anderson’s challenge is one particularly familiar within the black professional class. How do you jump the dreaded, yet anticipated, pigeonholing of your value and worth to an organization as a “black” person? How do you become just Senior VP — not SVP of the “Urban” Division? How do you become human? The way Anderson works out this challenge is hilarious. I rolled with laughter even after the half-hour sitcom had reached its conclusion.

And then there’s last week’s episode when the biracial mother, Rainbow, masterfully played by Tracee Ellis Ross, loses her young son, Jack, while shopping at a department store. It turns out Jack is hiding inside a clothes rack and is eventually found by a sympathetic officer. We can all relate to this situation. Children hide in department stores. I did the exact same thing to my own mother when I was about Jack’s age. I hid between the racks at a Marshalls. But Rainbow and Dre’s conundrum rears its head when they are confronted with the question: Will they spank their son? It seems simple enough, but it’s not. This is not only a question of parenting, it is also a question of tradition and culture.

In fact, each episode presents a universal situation that pushes a particular issue of culture within the African-American community. Ultimately, the situation presses the question: “What does it means to be black?”

+Continue Reading

3 Reasons I Didn't Give Up on the Bible

It was in my senior year of high school that I began to lose my faith in Scripture.

Then, my first year of college I read the entire Bible, cover to cover, and that pretty much destroyed what confidence I had left.

The Bible, I discovered, was full of polygamy, incest, murder, rape, genocide, adulterers, inconsistencies, impossibilities, and a whole bunch of screwed-up people who never seemed to get anything right.

The more I studied the “perfect” word of God, the more I expected that doctrine would become clear and consistent, the authors exemplary, and the stories contain distinct and readily discernible meanings.

When I read, I found I had more questions than answers, concerns than affirmations, and was more likely to feel disrupted than tranquil.

I almost gave up entirely.

+Continue Reading