Julie has been a member of the Sojourners magazine editorial staff since 1990. For the last several years she has edited the award-winning Culture Watch section of the magazine. In her time at Sojourners she has written about a wide variety of political and cultural topics, from the abortion debate to the working class blues. She has coordinated in-depth coverage of Flannery O’Connor, campaign finance reform, Howard Thurman, the labor movement, and much more.
She studied English literature at Ohio State University and has an M.T.S. (focused on language and narrative theology) from Boston University and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from George Mason University.
Julie grew up on a farm in the northwest corner of Ohio. She has been fascinated by the power of religious expression in and through culture since she can remember. Obsessively listening to her older sister’s copy of the Jesus Christ Superstar cast recording when she was 10 was an especially crystallizing experience. In addition, Julie’s mother often argued about doctrine and the Bible and took her at least weekly to the public library, both of which were useful background for Julie’s current work.
She lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and is a member of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church (where she had an unlikely four-year reign as rummage sale czarina). Her personal interests overlap nicely with her professional ones: Music, books, reading entertainment, culture, and religion writing, art, architecture, TV, films, and knowing more celebrity gossip than is probably wise or healthy. To make up for all that screen time, she tries to grow things, hike occasionally, and wonder often at the night sky.
Some Sojourners articles by Julie Polter:
Replacing Songs with Silence
Censorship, banning, blacklists: What’s lost when governments stifle musical expression?
It’s the Sprawl, Y’all
Why suburbs-on-steroids are wearing out their welcome.
A glimpse of grace and abundance from - of all things - reality TV.
The Cold Reaches of Heaven
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bill Phillips talks about his faith.
Just Stop It
Daring to believe in a life without logos. An interview with journalist Naomi Klein.
Women and Children First
Developing a common agenda to make abortion rare.
Obliged to See God (on Flannery O’Connor)
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10 Children's Books That Celebrate Our Diverse World
Where do we find quality stories for children about a diverse world? Not books that preach, but that evoke empathy and curiosity and different perspectives through good stories and/or art? As is the case across all publishing categories, books by and about people of color (or people who are not able-bodied or citizens or middle-class or otherwise conforming to a mainstream standard) are in the minority.
DURING A FRACTIOUS election year marked by “how low can you go?” rhetoric, a hopeful word about democracy can be hard to find. When our civil society and citizenry seem evermore splintered by issues of race, immigration, wealth inequality, women’s health, guns, and ideology, who would dare speak with sincerity about finding common cause and increasing enfranchisement?
Rev. William Barber II, for one. In The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, he argues that “fusion coalitions rooted in moral dissent have power to transform our world from the grassroots community up.” He believes that people committed to different causes, of different races and faiths and no faith, can come together to advance broader justice and perhaps even revive a democracy that has seen better days.
He believes this because he’s seen it: He helped forge the 2013 “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina that brought more than 100,000 people to rallies across the state protesting voting restrictions and corporate-funded extremist legislation, and had sister rallies in several other states. But this wasn’t a spontaneous eruption—the broad-based coalition behind Moral Mondays first formed in 2007 to advocate for expanding voting rights.
In this book Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, uses autobiography and U.S. history to root the story—the successes, failures, and wisdom gained—of the work that led to the Moral Mondays campaign and beyond.
As a young pastor, Barber learned valuable lessons when he participated in a failed effort to unionize a textile factory in Martinsville, Va. In the aftermath, he meditated on Psalm 94 (“Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?”) and found there the spiritual mandate for sustained moral dissent, even when political victory is out of sight. But he also took an honest look at his strategic failings; a key one was not bringing white pastors and workers into the effort, allowing the white factory owners to divide and conquer the workers along racial lines. His wariness from his own negative experiences with white people had tripped him up. He writes:
IN 2000, sophomore Onaje X.O. Woodbine was Yale basketball’s leading scorer and one of the top 10 players in the Ivy League. From the outside it must have seemed like a dream come true for a young man who grew up playing street ball in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
But Woodbine felt isolated and excluded by the white players on the team, troubled by what he’s described as “a locker-room culture that encouraged misogyny,” and hungry to focus on his studies and wrestle with deeper philosophical and theological questions. So he quit basketball.
Woodbine eventually returned to the courts of his youth as a researcher, studying the practice and culture of street basketball for his doctoral studies in religion at Boston University. Woodbine is the author of Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball (Columbia University Press) and a teacher of philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He spoke with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in May.
Julie Polter: What led you to study street basketball from a religion scholarship angle?
Onaje X.O. Woodbine: When I was 12 years old, I lost my coach. He was my father figure; I didn’t have my father for most of my early childhood. It was just devastating.
I went to the court the next day to look for him. I felt his presence in that space. It was really the only place, looking back, where I felt safe, I felt whole, where I felt like my inner life was valuable, where there was a whole community whose interest was in my growth as a human being.
From the Archives: July-August 1995
CAN THE words “Christian” or “faith” appear in proximity to political issues? And if they do, what should they mean? On May 23, a delegation of U.S. Christian leaders came to Washington, D.C., to proclaim to the press and the country’s political leadership that yes, faith and values are vital to the public life—and if they are genuinely expressed they should transform our discourse, policy, and social fabric. What true biblical faith doesn’t do is let religious conviction be manipulated by partisan politics.
“America is fed up with what many in the church are doing, polarizing us into Left and Right. Christians are called to a politics of reconciliation,” said Tony Campolo at a press conference held that morning. ...
FEELING STRESSED BY CURRENT EVENTS, weary of ugly public discourse and the contentious sniping among even those who claim the same political party or faith? Maybe what you need is context—a look at the sweep of history and the enduring mysteries of existence. It’d be nice if there were a guide. Perhaps someone with a rich, velvety voice and calm presence to accompany you to far-off places and times—even better, to take you there on a private jet—and to not only ask deep questions but arrange for experts to posit answers.
You may be in luck: The Story of God is a six-part documentary series scheduled to air weekly on the National Geographic cable channel beginning on April 3. Actor, producer, and Story host Morgan Freeman travels the globe to glimpse how some religions (and a bit of modern neuroscience) attempt to answer our big human questions. Is there life after death? How was the universe created? Will the world end, and how? Who is God? What is the root of evil and how has our idea of it changed over time? Are miracles real?
(Let’s just get this out of the way now: Yes, Freeman has played God in two feature films, Bruce Almighty and its sequel Evan Almighty. No, he is not reprising the role in The Story of God.)
Given the enormity of the task Freeman and the other producers set for themselves—wrestling with theological conundrums, including some perspective from ancient beliefs and each of the five major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism), shooting in 13 countries, and whittling all that footage down to six hours total for airing—they did admirable work. It’s impossible to go deep or broad into a religion within those kinds of constraints, but the threads of history and theology presented, and the experts presenting them, are interesting and legitimate. There are bits of melodrama in the framing of Freeman’s quest and in some of the dramatizations of historic events, but this is edutainment TV, not a graduate school seminar.
Sermons for Life
PREACHING A SERMON on an issue debated in the public square: It’s complicated. Make that issue the climate crisis, and it’s really, really complicated. Even in congregations where climate change is not broadly disputed, a pastor faces the challenge of crafting a gospel-informed message that doesn’t swing either to naïve ways we might “make it all better” or pessimistic apathy.
But there’s evidence it’s worth the work and risks: In terms of policy issues, climate is one where a clergy leader’s word has proven impact. According to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion, Americans with a clergy leader who “speaks at least occasionally about climate change” are more likely to be concerned about the issue than those “who attend congregations where the issue is rarely or never raised.”
So where does a preacher begin and with what goals?
Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching equips pastors to name the present crisis and preach a call to action and healing. She describes one theological path to sermons infused with both testimony of the sacredness of God’s creation and our call to be agents of the world’s healing. Schade is a Lutheran pastor and anti-fracking activist who has also done doctoral work focused on homiletics and ecological theology. Appropriately, in this book she explores both the theoretical underpinnings and the practicalities of climate-crisis preaching. Her approach is clear-eyed about the current dire situation of creation, but also committed to hope: “Because I am a Lutheran homiletician,” she writes, “I am compelled to find a way to preach the eco-resurrection, even when most signs indicate that Good Friday may be the fate of our planet.”
Schade sketches the sometimes contentious and damaging history of religion’s relationship to the environment, some different approaches to ecological theology, and a “‘green’ hermeneutic for interpreting scripture.” She explores briefly how social change theory can inform the vocation of preaching and the role sermons might play in a social movement.
'Spotlight' and the Value of Truth-telling
Early in the film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that exposed the decades-long cover-up of sex abuse by Catholic church leaders, a Globe reporter is shown at Mass with her grandmother. The priest, launching his homily, says, “Knowledge is one thing. Faith is another.”
In a simplistic film, this binary statement might set the tone for a black-and-white portrait of journalists as pure heroes and people of faith as solely hypocrites and worse. But Spotlight works with characters not caricatures; not one-dimensional heroes and villains, but real people who sometimes choose expediency and sometimes courage. No one is shown to be flawless, not even the reporters and editors who do great good in bringing to light systemic crimes.
But the movie does illustrate quite clearly one tension between knowledge and faith: The guardians of institutions, including churches, can fear knowledge to the point of pathology.
BY NOW you’ve probably heard of a little book of hard analysis and eloquent perspective that came out this summer, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (If not, get thee to a book store or library.) Here are some other books—some out this fall, others from earlier in 2015—that you’ll want to know about.
Fresh This Fall
With Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press), James Kilgore has written an accessible field guide to an urgent topic. Geraldine Brooks gives King David the novel treatment in The Secret Chord (Viking). Aviya Kushner plumbs translation inThe Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau). Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer profile families enduring poverty in $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith (Oxford) is Robert Wuthnow’s case for why sometimes data is dubious.
In the children’s picture book Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation (Dial), Edwidge Danticat tells the stories of many through one little girl. Sarah Bessey tells us to be not afraid of questions inOut of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith (Howard Books). Women write their truth inFaithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (part of the I Speak for Myself series), edited by Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair, and Amy Levin.
The Hide-and-Seek of Faith
CANADIAN ARTIST William Kurelek was influenced both by his experiences with mental illness and his conversion to Catholicism. He would eventually be considered psychiatrically recovered, but he was institutionalized as a young man in the mid-’50s, during which he created one of his best known early paintings, showing a blind man wandering in a desert, captioned “Where am I? Who am I? Why am I?”
These are foundational questions for all of us, not just a gifted artist in a time of suffering. The institutional church tends to assert that the answers to such questions are, if not simple, at least imminently knowable: Just pull up a pew and stay awhile. Many of us who are already believers come to assume that our job is to have a spiritual GPS always on, ready to point others in the “right” direction.
But of course, finding God or our place in the universe has rarely been that easy. Church may or may not be the place where we who are lost are found. The person we’ve always claimed to be may be shattered by unexpected events or discoveries. Or theologies that we once took for granted may come to ring hollow. As Diana Butler Bass writes in her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, “millions of people are navigating the space between the secular world and conventional theism. They are making a path between the two that nevertheless embraces both, finding a God who is a ‘gracious mystery, ever greater, ever nearer’ through a new awareness of the earth and in the lives of their neighbors.”
Several other very distinct books released this year wrestle with the shape of faith, finding or naming God, and how secrets revealed can shift our self-understanding and shake even our deepest beliefs.
In her best-selling 2013 spiritual memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber described her journey from fundamentalist childhood to alcoholic rebel to believer with a priestly call. A tattooed, weight-lifting former standup comedian who is now a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Bolz-Weber helped found House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, which combines ancient liturgy and theological orthodoxy with artistic expression, social justice, and radical inclusion.
'That Song You Sing For The Dead'
BIBLICAL LAMENT includes both pleas to God for help and mournful dirges. Sometimes they are rooted in individual travails and grief, other times in anguish for those crushed by injustice or war.
The psalmist and the prophets dig deep into visceral images of bodily suffering—and stretch up, out, yearning to find symbols and metaphors in nature that might capture the mercy and presence of a God who, the psalmist isn’t afraid to say, is sometimes a bit elusive.
Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane.
In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.
Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.
So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.
Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.
Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.
Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).
Were You There?
THE GRAINY, STUTTERING surveillance footage shows police milling about, offering no medical assistance to the 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, one of them has just shot. They only spring into action when the boy’s older sister runs into the frame toward her brother. An officer tackles the girl, knocking her back in the snow, then cuffs her and puts her in the patrol car, only a few feet from her dead or dying brother.
This extended footage, released in January, and bystander cell phone footage from a few minutes later with audio of the sister wailing over and over “they killed my brother,” brought into my head the Good Friday spiritual “Were You There?” It was another moment, in months of unrest over police killings of black adults and children, when the question pressed in on me as a white person. “Were you there? Were you there when they choked my father dead? Were you there when they shot my son? Were you there when they killed my brother? Were you there?”
While books and other cultural works are no substitute or shortcut to the spiritual work of true repentance and detoxifying from cheap grace, they can be means of deepening understanding and finding the resolve to take action. Along with the film Selma, following are some of the artistic resources I’m turning to this Lent.
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.”
New and Noteworthy
Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faithoffers diverse perspectives from men under 40 who are rooted in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Edited by R. Anderson Campbell, this is the fifth volume in the I Speak for Myself series. White Cloud Press
In Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music scholar Robert F. Darden explores the sustaining and revolutionary power of sacred song in African-American history. Penn State Press
Taking the Long Road Home
HERE’S WHAT Slow Church is not: A how-to manual with five easy steps to make your congregation more thoughtful. A celebration of how using the word “community” often on your church website will multiply your pledge and attendance numbers. An ode to really, really long worship services.
Rather, Slow Church explores being church in a way that emphasizes deep engagement in local people and places, quality over quantity, and in all things taking the long view—understanding individuals and congregations as participants in the unfolding drama of all creation. Authors C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison are self-proclaimed “amateurs,” insofar as they are writers-editors and lay leaders, not professional pastors, theologians, or congregational consultants. But this book is richly informed by their experience in their own church contexts (Englewood Christian Church in a gritty neighborhood in Indianapolis for Smith; an evangelical Quaker meeting in small-town Oregon for Pattison), conversations with other church communities, and close reading of classic and contemporary literature on culture, Christian community, scripture, and spirituality
New & Noteworthy
In Accidental Theologians: Four Women Who Shaped Christianity, Elizabeth A. Dreyer delves into the theology of four female saints of the Catholic Church, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux, describing their impact on the church in their times and today. Franciscan Media
The revised edition of Extending the Table cookbook (first released in 1991) includes new dishes, regional menus, and more photos, as well as prayers and stories. It is part of the World Community Cookbook series commissioned by Mennonite Central Committee, and royalties support MCC’s work. Herald Press
New & Noteworthy
THROUGH THEIR EYES
In 2011, Raul Guerrero provided 100 Kodak disposable cameras and taught basic photography skills to nine young students in the Newlands area of Moshi, Tanzania. The Disposable Project book brings together their images of their community, with text by Guerrero. the-disposable-project.com
“Migration has been, for centuries, not only a source of controversy but a source of blessing,” Deirdre Cornell writes in Jesus Was a Migrant. Inspired by ministering among immigrants in different settings, this is a beautifully written set of deeply humanizing reflections on the immigrant experience and Christian spirituality. Orbis Books
The Rich Get Richer
ECONOMIC INEQUALITY ISN'T NEW. But this spring it became trendy, especially after Pope Francis dropped the tweet heard ’round the world in April: “Inequality is the root of social evil.”
Around the same time, Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a just-short-of-700-page book by French economist Thomas Piketty—became a best seller. Piketty, while not quite as concise as the pope, also sees wealth inequality as a problem—he focuses on its damaging effects on democratic institutions. Using extensive data, Piketty makes the case that escalating wealth inequality is built into capitalism. Without specific interventions, he writes, our politics and culture will be dominated by a small elite controlling vast amounts of primarily inherited wealth. It might create a new Gilded Age for some, but it won’t be any shinier for regular folks than the first one a century ago.
When class and economic status become news, the conversation tends to get a little shrill. Terms such as “Marxist” and “anti-business” were tossed around freely in reference to both Piketty and the pope. Some, of a more spiritual bent, sought to warn the pope and other Christians who decry inequality about the biblical sin of “covetousness,” offering reminders of the virtue of hard work. (I guess the hidden message of the parable of the rich man and the beggar at his gate is that Lazarus is envious; the real issue must be Lazarus’ poor work ethic and lack of get-up-and-go!)
But the inequality gap should be of concern to everyone, whatever their income or ideology. The point is not the fact that there are differences in wealth—those exist in any human society. And it’s not necessarily helpful or productive to seek scapegoats or assign broad characteristics to particular classes; neither poor people in general nor rich people in general are inherently noble, lazy, or scheming—temptations may vary, but good and evil can be found in people of every economic status.
New & Noteworthy
Life with Purpose
In Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber writes eloquently of the challenge "to see with the eyes of the heart, to see oneself as responsible for the way the world is and isn't" without succumbing to cynicism. IVP Books
Just months before civil war erupted in Syria, a small group of Syria Sufi musicians known as NAWA were recorded peforming nearly lsot melodies, songs, and poems on Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo. This is the first album in a planned four-part Sacred Voices of Syria series. Cowbell/Lost Origins
New & Noteworthy
Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More advises on everything from basic setup to navigating challenging topics. By educational psychologist and girls’ empowerment advocate Lori Day, with her daughter, Charlotte Kugler. Chicago Review Press
Slices of Life
Fresh on the heels of an essay collection (The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, Loyola Press), Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle now offers prose poems that capture prayers, piercing insights, and luminous moments with craft and frequent wit in A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance. Liturgical Press