Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel White Boy.
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Embracing Art's Sacred Power
AMONG THE MANY hopeful initiatives to come from the Vatican under Pope Francis is an attempt to rebuild the church’s relationship with the arts. Francis declared this to be among his priorities in his famous 2013 interview with Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro (published in the U.S. by the journal America). Francis listed among his inspirations painters Caravaggio and Chagall, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky and the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, the music of Bach and Mozart, and the films of Fellini and Rossellini.
Lately the pope’s passion for art has taken tangible form with an interview-based book in Italian, whose title translates to My Idea of Art, and a documentary film of the same name, subtitled in six languages, that tours the Vatican Museum’s artistic treasures. In the book, Pope Francis argues that great art can serve as an antidote to contemporary greed, exclusion, and waste and maintains that “a work of art is the strongest evidence that incarnation is possible.”
Pope Francis came to office determined to downgrade some of the papacy’s pomp and splendor. He lives in a guest house instead of the papal apartment. He wears sturdy black walking shoes instead of those iconic red slippers and a silver cross where his predecessors went for the gold. He seems like the sort who might auction off the Vatican’s art collection and give the money to the poor.
But Francis instead sees the church’s involvement with the arts, past and present, as an occasion for evangelization.
The Divine Comedy for Our Time
THIS SUMMER, in Mississippi, I sat by my father’s bed for three weeks and watched him die. After that, I drove one of my kids from Kentucky to New England for a college visit. Along the way, we climbed a mountain and spent the night in a rest area when we couldn’t find a motel room. Then, with five-sixths of my family and three weeks’ worth of camping gear packed into (and onto) an aging minivan, we drove to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Along the way, in British Columbia, we went through an active wildfire and saw a tree explode into flames about 50 feet from our van. At Banff we saw a moose, two grizzly bears, and the vast acres of gravel left behind by the rapidly receding Columbia Icefield.
On every step of this long, strange trip, I carried with me a big, fat, well-worn paperback book, its margins filled with my youngest son’s class notes. So, what did I do this summer? I read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Every night—well, most nights—I spent 15 or 20 minutes accompanying the poet of the early 1300s down into the depths of Hell, up the winding mountain trails of Purgatory, and on to the beatific vision of Paradise.
AS A WHITE native Mississippian, I grew up among Confederate sympathizers. As an adopted Kentuckian, I live among them still. But the news cycles lately have been dominated by some fans of the Confederacy unlike any I’ve ever seen.
First there were the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, who purported to defend the honor of Robert E. Lee by chanting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us!” Those twisted and deluded young men and women are ignorant of so much; how could they be expected to know about the thousands of Jewish Confederate soldiers, or the Confederacy’s Jewish attorney general?
Then came President Trump, a New Yorker, going all atwitter about the loss of the “beautiful” [Confederate] statues and monuments in “our cities, towns, and parks.” Closer to home, our Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, a right-wing multimillionaire businessman who grew up in New Hampshire, accused Kentuckians who want to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from our state capitol of a “sanitization of history.” (Bevin later denied he said this—though there is a recording—and asserted that he meant to call these efforts “revisionist.”)
Unlike Bevin, I’ve seen history “sanitized.”
How Facebook Is Commodifying Community
YOU COULD SAY it’s been the best of times and the worst of times for Facebook Inc. This summer the social media platform’s number of monthly users reached 2 billion. That’s more than one-fourth of the world population, and Facebook has achieved that global reach while still off limits for more than a billion Chinese. More than half of Facebook users log in every day; in the U.S., one out of every five internet page views takes place on Facebook. The company is currently valued at $435 billion.
This success has come despite what should have been a truly dreadful year for the company’s image. Rapes, murders, and suicides have been live-streamed on Facebook. And at least some of those atrocities may have been provoked by the unparalleled opportunity Facebook offers to sociopaths and exhibitionists. In addition, in the past year Facebook was guilty of helping disseminate false information that helped elect Donald Trump. The social network has also been widely named as a major contributor to our increasingly toxic political culture, in which citizens never have to face facts that might contradict their prejudices. A 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh even found an association between social media use, including Facebook, and depression among young adults.
AMONG THE THINGS the Trump administration has successfully disrupted is the media hierarchy within the White House press corps. These days the Christian Broadcasting Network gets called on at presidential press conferences and CNN gets ignored.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this shift has been a chain of local TV stations called the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which currently reaches 38 percent of U.S. households with a blend of local news and right-wing messaging. Sinclair is a big power on the U.S. media landscape, and it’s about to get a lot bigger and more powerful. Today the group owns 173 stations, but it is about to take advantage of a Trump administration change in media ownership rules to buy the 42 stations owned by Tribune Media, including outlets in New York and Los Angeles and the Chicago-based WGN America cable channel.
Strange and Beautiful Psalms
AT THIS POINT, it’s almost a tradition that aging roots music icons find a third, fourth, or fifth act in partnership with some latter-day guru of cool. Think Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, Jack White and Loretta Lynn, Joe Henry and almost everyone else.
But the latest such pairing is, on the surface at least, the most incongruous yet. Jessi Colter, a soulful country singer most famous for being the widow of Waylon Jennings, has made an album (The Psalms) with Lenny Kaye, the rock historian, producer, and guitarist most famous for his lifetime membership in the Patti Smith Group.
Unlike all those other musical odd couplings, this one is not cross-generational. Colter is only three years older than Kaye, but it was always a long way from CBGB to the Grand Ole Opry. Yet here they are collaborating, on an album of Bible verses set to music no less. But when you look a little bit below the surface, this pairing makes all the sense in the world.
The origins of this album go all the way back to 1995, when Kaye, who has always kept up his career as a music journalist, was in Nashville helping Waylon Jennings write his autobiography. One morning, he walked into the living room and beheld Colter at the piano, her Bible open before her, laying down chords and improvising melodies as she sang from the King James Version of the Psalms. It was, Kaye has written, “one of the most beautiful expressions of belief I had ever witnessed.”
News We Could Lose
IN MY YEARS of writing this column, the politics and culture of U.S. public broadcasting has been a topic in regular rotation. During Democratic administrations, I’ve tended to bash both the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio for elitism, timidity, and pro-corporate bias.
But during Republican administrations it’s always seemed necessary to defend the very existence of a nonprofit, public-interest alternative in the vast, depressing, and sometimes dangerous strip mall that is U.S. commercial media.
These days the timidity of U.S. public broadcasting is still in evidence. For instance, NPR has steadfastly refused to join other prestigious media outlets in calling Donald Trump’s patent deliberate falsehoods by the appropriate four-letter Anglo-Saxon word: “Lies.” And as for elitism, take Victoria ... please!
But let’s put all that aside for now. The guard has changed again, and a new president has issued a budget blueprint that would eliminate any federal spending to support public broadcasting. So it’s time again to restate the obvious reasons why public media matter.
Picked Clean to the Bone
IN THE 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for president, Donald Trump declared, “The American dream is dead.” The people of Lancaster, Ohio, a small town at the edge of Appalachia, heard him loud and clear and later gave him 60 percent of their votes. Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town , by Lancaster native Brian Alexander, shows in fine-grained detail how the American dream of opportunity and fairness died in Lancaster and in similar towns all across the middle of the country.
Lancaster should have been the last place you would look for evidence of American decline. In 1947, a Forbes magazine cover story depicted it as “the All-American town.” It had a thriving manufacturing economy, a burgeoning middle-class, and enlightened civic leadership. For reasons of history and geography, Lancaster also had a reputation as “the whitest town in America,” but that didn’t bother Forbes too much back then.
The Lancaster of Alexander’s childhood and youth sounds a lot like Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, but as the 20th century wore on, the town turned into Pottersville. When Alexander went back to write this book, he found that the glass factory where his father had worked was demolished. Most people had to drive an hour or more to Columbus for a job, civic life was deteriorating, and opioid addiction was rampant.
The main foundation of Lancaster’s All-American past was Anchor Hocking, a Fortune 500 glass manufacturer. According to Alexander, the industrialists who built Anchor Hocking in the early 20th century were real George Bailey types. Sure, they wanted to make a buck, but they were suckers for fuzzy-headed notions about the common good that led them to subsidize various public amenities for the town and cooperate with the unions that delivered a family wage to generations of Lancastrians. In those days, we learn, executives and managers might live on the same block with machine operators and share beers at the same local tavern.
Fake Populism at the FCC
WITH EACH PASSING week of his administration, the epic scale of the deception Donald Trump pulled off last November becomes more evident.
In his last TV ad of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump decried “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” Two weeks earlier, when the AT&T-Time Warner merger was announced, Trump said: “As an example of the power structure I’m fighting, AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.” Later he added, “Deals like this destroy democracy.”
Since then, of course, the great champion of the people has given us a Treasury secretary (Steven Mnuchin) who, as a hedge fund manager and banker, made a specialty not only of “robb[ing] our working class,” but foreclosing on their homes to boot. And now the candidate who condemned the AT&T-Time Warner merger as oligarchic and anti-democratic has become a president whose most recent comment on the merger was simply, “I haven’t seen any of the facts, yet.” Worse still, Trump has appointed a Federal Communications Commission chair (Ajit Pai) who has promised to undo the Obama-era net neutrality regulations, and who never met a media merger he didn’t like. For example, Pai, who has worked as a lawyer for Verizon, said he would have approved the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger that the Obama FCC blocked in 2015.
The Niebuhr We Need
NEARLY 46 YEARS after his death, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is never very far from the public eye. He’s already immortal as the originator of the world-famous Serenity Prayer (“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”). And just last fall, an article in Harper’s took up the eternal question: “Where is our Reinhold Niebuhr?” President Obama once called him his favorite philosopher, and Niebuhr is regularly “proof-texted” by polemicists across the political spectrum, especially on questions of war and peace.
In April, PBS will air a documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, directed by Martin Doblmeier. It will give an even broader public the chance to reflect on Niebuhr’s significance, in the company of such notables as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, President Jimmy Carter, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
I was eager to see the film. I’ve always felt that Reinhold Niebuhr was somewhere in my family tree. As a student at a Baptist-related college in the 1970s, I got heavy doses of his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. Later, I had the opportunity to interview Myles Horton, founder of the mother church of Southern radicalism, the Highlander Center, and learned that Horton had studied with Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. In fact, Niebuhr helped fund Highlander. And about a dozen years after that, I gave one of our sons the middle name Myles, in honor of Horton. So how many degrees of separation is that?
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