ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE HAS been raising a lot of eyebrows lately and, to my surprise, it has nothing to do with “guar gum” or Red Dye No. 40, the ingredients that make most things artificial. (Is somebody working on organic, free-range intelligence?) The main concern — other than a complete takeover by machines — seems to be that AI could write term papers for high school kids. I’m sympathetic to that concern, but from the students’ perspective. If I’d had that kind of help in school, I would have earned more than just the one A in typing class.
Most reporting has been about ChatGPT and Bing, Microsoft’s AI search engine, which still has some bugs, including combative responses. But who cares about that when you just want to find good airfares?
MOST OF OUR gospel readings in May move through sections in John’s gospel commonly referred to as the “farewell discourse.” In this long goodbye, Jesus and his disciples have finished eating their last supper together. Judas has departed to betray his friend. Now it’s time for Jesus’ final words to the remaining 11. Or, at least, it’s time for him to say goodbye from the perspective of who they’ve known him to be thus far. He’s preparing them for who he is becoming, as well as how he’ll continue to be among them — and, by extension, among us. There’s a lot that Jesus wants to accomplish without fully tipping his hand. So, his speech is at times confusing!
Unsurprisingly, a sense of longing permeates the whole address. These friends are saying goodbye to each other while also scrambling for ways to stay together. Jesus is grieving that goodbye, while also anticipating a joyful return to his Abba in heaven. As he speaks, then, Jesus tells of a fluid, swirling kind of love that permeates and connects God, himself, and his followers all to each other. This fluid love is the Holy Spirit that Jesus will “breathe” upon his followers (John 20:22) — the Holy Spirit who lingers among us still.
Our celebrations at Pentecost tend to focus on the wild descent of fiery tongues upon the early Jesus community — as they should. But in this lectionary cycle, the New Testament readings don’t focus on wind, fire, or tongues. Instead, they have us abide in these less dramatic, more subtle, ambiguous, and mysterious moments. This year, Pentecost calls us to abide in and with a love that often doesn’t make sense, but that always must be shared.
This spring, we’ll gather for a third time
since we first lost our forebears, martyrs to a cause
they did not choose for themselves.
Beloved grandmothers spent their last nights alone
in crowded hospital rooms while officeholders
deliberated over the what, not the what now or the how.
A STORM BLOWS through Weyes Blood’s fifth album, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow. A cold front of disillusionment meets the swirling tones of songwriter Natalie Mering. The effect is gorgeous and staggering.
Sounding both in and out of their time, these songs fuse darkly majestic orchestral arrangements with pop elements such as drum machines, synthesizers, and the occasional guitar. If history took a later start, this could be our classical music. Weyes Blood (pronounced “Wise Blood,” a nod to Flannery O’Connor’s novel set in the “Christ-haunted” South) has said that she craves sanctuary acoustics.
Billowing and hymn-like, “God Turn Me Into a Flower” is the album’s truest prayer. “It’s good to be soft when they push you down,” Mering sings. She sings to stand firm, but never aspires to twist into bramble: “... it’s such a curse to be so hard / You shatter easily and can’t pick up all those shards.”
“GIRLS JUST SIT AROUND and talk about being friends, but the boys go on daring adventures!” Arkansas first-grader Evan’s less-than-feminist argument for joining the Boy Scouts became the title of his mother’s book. Rachel A. Cornwell wrote Daring Adventures: Helping Gender-Diverse Kids and Their Families Thrive for kids exploring gender identity in unsupportive communities and for families seeking to support them. A United Methodist pastor, Cornwell emphasizes that full acceptance of transgender and gender-diverse people is entirely compatible with a life of faith.
At a time when Christians are championing anti-trans legislation, it is critical that cisgender, heterosexual Christian leaders publicly affirm trans and gender-diverse people. With the high rate of suicide among trans youth who experience rejection from family or community, books like Cornwell’s save lives.
For Daring Adventures, Cornwell draws from her own family’s experience with Evan’s gender transition and shares insights from interviews with nearly 20 other families of transgender and gender-diverse children. I was particularly touched by the high schoolers who started an online group for younger kids: They talked about favorite animals, transgender celebrities, and drew pictures of their future selves.
THERE'S A REFORM JEWISH Sabbath prayer that reads, “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”
If we want to experience awe or wonder, we need to reach for inputs of wisdom that enliven our ways of seeing. As a person who struggles with overthinking and anxiety, I find visual art, like the work of Latvian American artist Vija Celmins, to be instructive. “The thing I like about painting, of course,” Celmins said in an interview with the Tate museum, “is that it takes just a second for the information to go ‘bam,’ all the way in, and then you can explore it later.” Engaging with Celmins’ work teaches me how to pay close attention to the life in front of me, noticing the beauty that pervades everything.
Humanizing the Harrowing
The French film Saint Omer follows the trial of a Senegalese woman accused of murdering her child. The docudrama is a condemnation of the criminal legal system, and a reminder that no one is the totality of the worst thing they’ve done.
Les Films du Losange
I AM CONVINCED that 20 years from now, Dead to Me will finally get the praise it’s due, ending up in some culture magazine’s ranking of the best TV comedies of all time. (I’m giving you a head start, Sojourners: Beat Rolling Stone to the punch.)
Dead to Me, a Netflix show about a woman and her children grieving her husband after he is killed in a hit-and-run, is sort of what you would get if you merged another destined TV classic from Netflix — Grace and Frankie — with the Joan Didion memoir The Year of Magical Thinking and then sprinkled in a police investigation. The show is laugh-so-hard-you-cry funny and yet is driven by situations that would probably make you weep if you paused to think.
I barely had time to do that, though, because Dead to Me is a twisty thriller centered around a hilarious opposites-attract friendship between the widowed protagonist Jen (Christina Applegate) and a jolly woman she meets at group grief therapy named Judy (Linda Cardellini). Throw in some great meditations on friendship, forgiveness, motherhood, absence, and why everything is so screwed up if the whole world is in God’s hands; a Christian youth dance troupe; and an astounding performance by the actor James Marsden, and you have one of the best TV shows ever.
ACCORDING TO AN Orthodox miracle story, St. Nicholas — the fourth century archbishop who inspired the figure of Santa Claus — quieted a raging sea. When sailors were caught in a storm on the Mediterranean, they called out for help. Nicholas appeared, walking on the waves before them. He blessed the ship, and the storm calmed. This is why he became the patron saint of sailors. It’s also why Mary Marza, a queer Orthodox artist in her mid-20s who is based in Los Angeles, illustrated St. Nicholas as a “waterbender.” Waterbenders, from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, can control water and its movements. This is one of many works featured on her Instagram art account, Art of Marza.
“I liked the concept of blending saints with the elements or just blending the saints with things from my favorite stories and pop culture,” Marza wrote in an Instagram caption about this portrayal of St. Nicholas.
Marza (who asked to use her art account name instead of her real last name for this article) creates digital art and stickers that blend Orthodox iconography and prayer with street art and anime. The grungy, graffiti-and-animation-inspired aesthetic of her art and its confluence with iconography is part of her longing to “[see] God in places where people assume we can’t find Him,” she wrote on Instagram.
"COP CITY" IS A PLAN to raze 381 acres of forest land in Atlanta and convert it into a massive police training facility that would cost $30 million in public money and $60 million in private. It’s called Cop City because the plans include a mock city inside with things like a playground, school, gas station. All places that cops can train and simulate the things they do. It faced a ton of opposition from a wide range of organizations when it went public in 2021 — and really brought on people at different levels, including climate change and environmental preservation. The private money involved is from a lot of Georgia corporations — Coca-Cola, UPS, Home Depot — and it’s all being run through the Atlanta Police Foundation, the nonprofit entity that the city leased this land to. On the day of the vote, there were 17 hours of public comment against it. The Atlanta City Council approved the plan.
SOON I WILL be stepping away from the church I co-founded 15 years ago. After the beautiful struggle of seeing it get rooted, Metro Hope Church remains a small but vibrant, justice-minded, multicultural community in the heart of East Harlem. Our reach continues to extend beyond our neighborhood throughout the city and to other parts of the country.
My reason for stepping away isn’t, thankfully, some scandal or health concern. Nor is it burnout (I’ve been there) from the pressures of keeping a church sustainable. Nor is it managing the diversity of cultures and personalities, nor even the heartbreak of seeing people leave. Nor is it even how pastors must, at the same time, draw from the resources of theology; management and leadership thought; and diversity, equity, and inclusion — all while navigating a dicey political climate.
Pastoral expectations can be flat-out overwhelming. But my reason for stepping aside is simply because the time feels right. Today, I’m able to pass the baton with much hope through a community that will continue to live out and pursue the good news of liberation and wholeness.
“Wisdom speaks her own praises, in the midst of her people she glories in herself.” What a luscious, full-bodied image from the biblical book of Sirach (24:1). Wisdom has sass! In an increasingly combative society, I’m drawn to Sirach’s prudence, poetic excess, and the authoritative agency of Lady Wisdom.
I’ve been keeping phrases from Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, in mind as post-Roe legislation rolls across the states. The health of women and children (born and unborn) has been weakened, rather than strengthened. Political and social platforms ring out with dangerous nonsense about making criminal statutes apply at the time of fertilization, allowing the death penalty for abortion, or, conversely, promoting violence against “pregnancy crisis centers.”
How do we stop the howl when we feel urgently that lives are on the line? Sirach, which is part of the Catholic canon, says, “The fear of God is an abundant garden; its canopy higher than all other glory” (40:27). “Fear” means “body-trembling awe” before our Creator. Amid so much that I don’t understand and don’t know what to do about, this strange scriptural juxtaposition feels like Lady Wisdom speaking to our present condition.
CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER Ella Baker utilized the strength of her voice at the height of that movement to fundamentally question the notions and ideas of equality and leadership in this nation. In 1969, Baker said, “[T]he system under which we now exist has to be radically changed.” This means “facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
Black women have long been considered the backbone for civil rights, social justice, church advancement, and animators of democracy in the United States. If this is so, then why are so many still overlooked for advancement in political power as well as the everyday jobs that they are more than qualified for?
While “women” won the right to vote in 1920, Black women fought for about another half century to exercise their right. The inequities of gender, race, and access are still with us — and there is no greater time than now to push hard for political and social advancement.
IN 2016, PEOPLE of faith in the city of Billings, Mont., gathered to call for their community to get more involved in resettling refugees. With growing violence, persecution, and strife around the world and a record number of people forced to flee their homes, this community had the heart to help.
But the closest refugee resettlement office in the state was in Missoula, a 345-mile road trip west on I-90. The United States traditionally requires refugees to be resettled with families and relatives or close to these resettlement sites, which help new arrivals land on their feet and access needed services. For Billings — and for many other like-minded communities across the country — it was a logistical challenge to participate in the work of welcome.
Earlier this year, that changed. On Jan. 19, the Biden administration launched Welcome Corps, a new initiative giving everyday Americans the opportunity to sponsor refugees. Groups of at least five can now apply to form “private sponsorship groups,” which are responsible for welcoming refugee newcomers into their communities. These groups agree to assist in providing initial housing; as well as support access to health care, school enrollment, and employment opportunities; and otherwise engage directly in the life-changing work of refugee resettlement.
ENSURING THAT EVERY child can realize their full potential is a civic and faith imperative. Yet millions of children in the United States are having their futures sabotaged due to a lack of care, stimulation, and nutrition between birth and age 3. These three years, often referred to as the period of early child development, or ECD, are the most fragile and formative because most of a child’s brain is developed during this period. During the first few years of life, a child’s brain forms more than a million neural pathways every second and grows to 90 percent of the size of an adult’s brain by age 6. As a result, this period can determine whether a child realizes their full potential. The things young children learn, the experiences they have (and the amount of damaging stress to the brain they suffer), and the love and care (or lack thereof) they receive can all have an outsized impact on their lifelong mental, emotional, and physical health.
During my time working at World Vision and the World Bank, I became passionate about the crisis of ECD in low- and middle-income countries, a cause that remains urgent. However, I have become increasingly convicted about the imperative to also address the child development crisis in the U.S. Tragically, the U.S. is not doing well by its youngest generation, especially when compared to similarly wealthy nations. More than 9 million children in the U.S. face food insecurity, which hampers their healthy brain development, and in the last year, 1 in 7 children experienced child abuse or neglect. Without affordable child care, millions of children become at risk for “adverse childhood experiences” that could lead to debilitating impacts on their health and well-being.
WHEN VILLANOVA PROFESSOR Vincent W. Lloyd reflects on the theology of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” he begins with the “death-dealing forces of white supremacy” and the tragic “ vulnerability to premature death” experienced by Black people. But Lloyd doesn’t stop there. To affirm the value of Black lives, Lloyd writes, requires life that is rich, creative, and flourishing.
Lloyd doesn’t think such flourishing is possible without faith. Specifically, he argues that to hold on to “a hope against hope” in the face of these noxious, murderous systems and practices requires belief in the possibility of life after death: “For Black life to matter,” Lloyd writes, “we must believe in resurrection.” As Carmen Acevedo Butcher puts it in her interview with Betsy Shirley, “It may not look like it,” but “Love’s in charge.” That’s an important reminder for all of us, in this Easter season and always.
On a lighter note: We’re pleased to have a guest appearance by our former art director (and humor columnist) Ed Spivey Jr., who came out of retirement to offer his pearls of wisdom on artificial and other kinds of intelligence.
IN 1633, THE Bavarian village of Oberammergau experienced a miracle. The villagers had promised God they would stage a reenactment of the passion of Christ if they were spared from the plague. They were spared. Nearly 400 years later, people continue to come from around the world to see these performances. But there’s a problem. Oberammergau’s passion play is one of the most antisemitic artworks in European history. Adolph Hitler viewed the play in 1930 and 1934 and recognized its propaganda value for his own plan of Jewish genocide.
Christians today may still perpetuate anti-Jewish racism throughout our passion narratives — particularly when the gospel of John forms the core of the lectionary. Unlike the others, John’s gospel frequently labels anyone opposing Christ as “the Jews.” Most of us realize that the writer is naming a subset of religious leaders. But when we repeat the phrase throughout Easter, we can subconsciously reproduce and amplify antisemitism found in the Christian theological imagination.
Recently, rather than ignoring the passion play’s antisemitism, the director worked with the American Jewish Committee to rid the play of anti-Jewish tropes. The 2022 Oberammergau passion play told a more complete Easter story. “The Jews” now include Jesus and his followers too. Jesus lifts a copy of the Torah to pray the Sh’ma Yisrael. Hebrew prayers were recited over the Last Supper. Mary is greeted as the “rabbi’s mother.” Significantly, the updated version calls Christians to repent for how we’ve failed our foundational sibling relationship.
TODAY I WANTED to take the time to spotlight a recipe from my forthcoming book, Appetizers to Prepare the Way: Not the Main Course, but Still Pretty Cool.
Now, Honey-Crisped Locusts are delightful to eat year-round (God knows I do!), but they are most satisfying on an early spring day. Just imagine it: You ask some
followers friends to meet you by the river. The air is still too cold for a jaunty baptismal dip, but it’s perfect for a picnic. You lay out your camel-hair picnic blanket, which took you two years to knit, and invite your friends to sit down. Then you reach into your (also) camel-hair knapsack, and one of your friends says, “Heck yeah! Did you bring us some bread and wine?” And you say, “Never! I’ve brought something better!” You hand each of them three honey-soaked locusts. Undoubtedly overcome with joy, your friends are at a loss for words, so speechless that they don’t talk to you for the rest of the picnic. The perfect day.
Compulsively larger than life,
mom swaggered out loud.
Her eyes you could get lost in,
and they gripped like a drug.
The Virgin Mary twerking in a thong,
always herself but never the same,
never quite right
but never completely wrong,
she made me feel proud
and destroyed me with shame.
IN EARLY CHRISTIAN gnostic texts, you can read the story of St. Peter’s daughter, who would come to be known as Petronilla. Legend has it that Petronilla was so beautiful that her father prayed she be paralyzed on one side (so that she would not “be beguiled”). In Emily Stoddard’s debut collection of poetry, Divination with a Human Heart Attached, Petronilla is a fruitful companion and the voice of several poems. They appear alongside poems voiced by a contemporary speaker who we assume to be Stoddard herself. In this way, Petronilla serves as a sort of spiritual ancestor for Stoddard. Both look for and lose faith. Both find signs of divine presence everywhere.
While Petronilla’s God speaks in things like “fish and flower,” Stoddard’s confessional work finds God in interior, negative space — not in religious institutions: “I cut away from my body ... slice myself awake to numb arms ... too big to fit inside the church.” She tentatively hopes that “if it’s true, if god is there at all, she kicks us from the inside.” Faith finds form here in ovaries, dreams, the “dark joy” of Stoddard’s dying grandmother finding beauty in “the sunset on the highway.” Unlike Petronilla, whose father fears her seduction by men, the poet-speaker is seduced by poetry — the power of naming things “without the restraint of a scientist.” Names for plants, names for God: “we are not done yet / inventing names / for what will save us.”