Culture

Preparing For The Storm

The Greeks know how tightly coiled
are circumstances with many windings
before tragedy’s spring snaps.
The horse bolts flame-like from the gate;
we do not see its years of training.

So too, the thunderhead today slow bloating
and thickening with muffled rumblings.
The steeds were restless, but the reins
held tight, until a crack of the whip
unleashed the pummeling flood.

 

Remember how Gandhi’s salt marchers
lay themselves before the horses
of the Raj that trotted to the very edge
of that sea of prostrate bodies
before rearing back in alarm?

Those marchers knew a storm
was brewing, were neither cowed,
nor crushed. The heart is another kind
of stallion, stamping and kicking,
trampling the mind’s sour dust.

Lie down, lie down, there is still time.
And watch the horses prance.

Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist and poet. His collection What the Dust Doesn’t Know is forthcoming from Salmon Press. Above, an Indian police officer attacks salt marchers in 1930.

Image: Ninh Hoa, Vietnam,  / Shutterstock 

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Epic Bad Behavior

EARLIER THIS year came a flurry of new horror stories about the abuses of human dignity that are, apparently, common in many of America’s college fraternities. First came the video from the University of Oklahoma in which a busload of “true gentlemen” of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are seen and heard spewing racist bile. Shortly thereafter the revelation that the Kappa Delta Rho chapter at Penn State had maintained a private Facebook page featuring nude photos of unconscious young women became national news.

The old saying “Once a frat boy, never a man” may be just another sweeping stereotype. But the evidence is mounting that many of the nation’s fraternity houses are the breeding ground for an exclusive culture of entitlement and impunity that their mostly white, upper-class members carry into their future roles in the elite circles of business and government.

It should be noted that when we talk about “fraternities,” we are really just talking about the historically all-white social organizations with Greek-letter names. Historically black fraternities have their own problems, especially with hazing, but they have experienced nothing like the epic bad behavior found among their paler brethren.

The recent fraternity scandals are no anomaly. At least since the release of the ultimate frat movie, Animal House, way back in 1978, there have been occasional flurries of alarm about fraternity-related sexual assault, alcohol poisoning, or hazing-related injuries or deaths.

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Maria and the Rabbi

IT’S THE 50TH anniversary of The Sound of Music. I never thought I’d write about it here, but someone recently offered me the kind of gentle admonishment that Maria might have given to the von Trapp children. Maria is usually right, and my friend is too. One of the wisest film critics I know, a man dedicated to contemplation and activism and who doesn’t shy away from the more challenging edges of cinema, still considers it his favorite film.

Don’t get me wrong— it’s not the greatest movie he’s ever seen (that’s usually an entirely different category to “favorite”). But The Sound of Music did something unique for my friend—it showed him that there was a bigger world out there. My friend was suffering constant night terrors. When The Sound of Music finally showed up in his town, it was the first film ever to be approved by the local religious authorities. He felt safe to watch it (as did many other townsfolk— it played at their local theater for six years without a break); it became a bath for his soul. The scale, the energy, the sheer heart seemed to leap off the screen. The night terrors stopped, and never came back. He says he’s seen it nearly 60 times in the last 50 years. Lest we forget, the story is one of hope trumping almost unimaginable odds.

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Book Groups For Dummies

Illustration by Ken Davis

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Ed Spivey Jr. is Art Director at Sojourners.

AS AN occasional participant in a book group, I’m happy to report that the wine at the last one was pretty good. Also the fellowship, the spirited conversation, and, finally, before we ran out of time, discussion about the book, which consisted mainly of how most of us didn’t finish it, or start it. In my case, however, I couldn’t put it down.

It was The Lost City of Z, a recounting of an intrepid explorer’s frightening ordeals in the unforgiving jungles of the Amazon, which ultimately ended when he succumbed to cannibalism. It was a chilling read, one that convinced me to confine my travels exclusively to the continental United States. Because if there’s anything that ruins a good walk, it’s being eaten by your own species. According to the book, at the turn of the last century certain tribes in remote South America believed they could spiritually cleanse themselves by devouring their enemies. (Fortunately, that practice has died out, except for in a few red states during primary season.)

I read every word of that book, usually with the covers pulled tightly around me and all the lights on, while making sure that I didn’t appear delicious to anyone in the vicinity.

I ALSO READ every word of my next book, A Brief History of Time. In fact, I read every word twice. I’d read a paragraph, then I’d think real hard, trying to comprehend that at the beginning of time the universe was infinitely dense and infinitely small. I’d fail, of course, then I’d read it again, struggling to pay attention. I’d read a paragraph, and then wonder if we had enough milk in the house. I’d read some more, then wonder if Alicia in The Good Wife ever divorces her husband. I’m only on season two and ... DON’T TELL ME!

But I couldn’t fully grasp this book because, to quote Republican lawmakers, I’m no scientist. And watching every Star Trek movie (and then watching them again) doesn’t make you one.

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Whedon's 'Ultron:' Marvelous

Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.

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.

Citing Lack of Funding, New York’s Museum of Biblical Art to Close

Photo via Gina Fuentes Walker / RNS

Patrons peruse the artwork at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. Photo via Gina Fuentes Walker / RNS

On the heels of what seemed like its greatest triumph — a magnificent display of sculptures by the Renaissance pioneer Donatello — a small but important museum in midtown Manhattan, that specialized in religious art regarded with a neutrally secular eye, announced April 28 that it was going out of business.

A press release from the Museum of Biblical Art, known as MOBIA, explained that after learning in February that the American Bible Society, which had housed it for a decade, was selling its building and moving to Philadelphia, the museum explored multiple options but could not raise the funds needed to keep going at a new location.

The museum will close to the general public on June 14 and cease operations on the 30th, although an exhibit it co-organized on Spanish colonial religious art will open in Palm Beach, Fla., in March next year.

MOBIA’s fate was not a total surprise; The Bible Society, once MOBIA’s sole funder, had been ramping down its support by mutual agreement, and the sale of the building had been rumored since 2012. But the closing nonetheless deeply rattled the museum staff and those who treasured MOBIA as one of the few museums in the country that routinely acknowledged art’s religious context.

“I’m stunned,” said Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary, who sometimes brought classes to MOBIA to see cross-cultural study of Scripture illustrated.

“I can’t believe that it’s slipping away. It was such a valuable resource.”

Sifting Through Religious Debris in ‘Dig,’ What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?

Photo via Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

A view of Qumran, Israel. Photo via Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Trapdoors, secret chambers, and mysterious torch-lit beach rituals. The eighth episode of Dig, the Holy Land conspiracy thriller that aired April 23 on the USA Network, serves up all these classic elements of suspense.

But that heady cocktail comes with a shot of religious history and biblical references that add context to what is already a complex plot involving cloned high priests, murderous rabbis, and the cutest little red heifer ever genetically engineered on a Danish farm. Can you hear religion and popular culture go CRASH?

“It can’t all be crazy, though, can it?” Emma Wilson (Alison Sudol) asks the hot FBI agent on Dig, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), as they look at end-of-the-world messages left behind by a crazed — and dead — archaeologist.

“The messenger, maybe,” Peter replies.

“But not the message.”

“To a nunnery, go!”

Both the bad guys and the good guys descend on a nunnery belonging to a group called the Sisters of Dinah, in search of an antique plaque depicting “the revenge of Dinah.”

The fictional religious order and its equally fictional plaque are derived from the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. The Book of Genesis tells how Dinah is kidnapped and raped by Shechem, a rival tribesman. Shechem then asks for Dinah’s hand and says her family can ask any “bride-price” they like from his family.

Will the PBS Series ‘Wolf Hall’ Tarnish St. Thomas More’s Halo?

Photo via Ed Miller / Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece / BBC/RNS

Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photo via Ed Miller / Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece / BBC/RNS

Sir Thomas More loses his head in this Sunday’s episode April 26 of the acclaimed PBS historical drama, Wolf Hall, which is not much of a spoiler since that’s what infamously happened to More in 1535 at the hands of King Henry VIII.

The real suspense now is whether More will also lose his halo.

Not officially, of course: Thomas More remains a Roman Catholic saint by dint of his refusal to accept Henry’s plot to have his first marriage annulled. The onetime Lord Chancellor of England also opposed Henry’s power play against the pope, which led to the establishment of the Church of England.

More was formally canonized in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his execution.

But in these past decades the secular world was also burnishing More’s reputation by turning him into the contemporary standard-bearer of the righteous man, wielding only his conscience and religious principles against the power of the state — the Man for All Seasons, as the 1966 Academy Award-winning film (and earlier play) depicted him.

“I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first,” More declares in playwright Robert Bolt’s famous line, a riff on More’s own last words.

Yet what Wolf Hall does — and the reason such an intense debate has erupted over the series — is to engage in some bold revisionism by depicting More not as a saint but as “a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig,” as the Catholic writer George Weigel put it.

'The Road to Character' Misses Grace

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

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.

'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

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