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)
Posts By This Author
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
New & Noteworthy
St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, is not a collection of sentimental greeting-card-style verses; instead these literary works wrestle deeply with the human condition and the yearning for holiness, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Ave Maria Press
For nearly 30 years the Christian Community Development Association has been a resource for people seeking to do prophetic, non-paternalistic urban ministry. In Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, CCDA co-founders Wayne Gordon and John Perkins, and other veteran and emerging leaders, revisit key principles and lessons learned. IVP Books
New & Noteworthy
The Spirit’s Work
Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, by Walter Wink with Steven Berry, is the final book by the late, influential Christian thinker. It blends brief autobiographical vignettes with essays on key themes in Wink’s work, offering insights into how his life story shaped his faith, thought, and witness. Image
On “Strangers No Longer”: Perspectives on the Historic U.S.-Mexican Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Migration is a collection of essays by scholars and policy experts that uses the 2003 pastoral letter on immigration “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” as its starting point. Paulist Press
Bringing the Word to Life
ONE YEAR MY small group decided to have each member choose a person named or alluded to in the gospels to “follow” during Lent. We researched our people and the customs of that time and reflected individually and collectively on their encounters with Jesus. Then we hosted a community meal for family and friends on the night before Easter. Each member of our group came in character as the person we’d studied and tried to recreate the mood of that frightening, confusing, grief-filled night for followers of Jesus after his death and before his resurrection. After the meal, each of us presented a monologue that tried to project what our person might have been thinking and experiencing at that time.
The attempt to immerse mind, soul, and body into scriptures that I had listened to for much of my life (but perhaps hadn’t really heard) was a transformative experience: It burned away long-held assumptions and revealed new facets of chapter and verse.
The book Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, by Sojourners contributing editor Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain, provides a useful and fun toolbox for small groups, Sunday schools, religion classes, and even imaginative individuals who want their own full-immersion experience of scripture and biblical scholarship. It invites readers to a deeper understanding of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth by using role play to “become” members of the different factions of that community as they hear Paul’s words read for the first time. The authors assert that “as we more clearly experience what Paul meant in the first century, we can better understand what his writings mean in our 21st century context.”
New & Noteworthy
Faith and Reform
Writer and social reform Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought many people to the anti-slavery movement. In Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, biographer Nancy Koester illuminates the shifting role and expression of faith in Stowe’s personal and public life and work. Wm. B. Eerdmans
Falling into Love
A few years ago a young man named Rocky Braat left Pittsburgh to wander India; he’s ended up working for years in an orphanage for HIV-positive children there. His friend, filmmaker Steve Hoover, went to explore why. The result is a Sundance-award-winning documentary, Blood Brother. www.bloodbrotherfilm.com
New & Noteworthy
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, by Delores S. Williams, now professor emerita of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary, is a landmark in womanist thought. The recently released 20th anniversary edition has a new foreword by Katie G. Cannon. Orbis
Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, have played on the New York subway and in other public spaces in free-ranging, mobile performances they call “love riots.” Their album Social Music offers that same positive spirit and a fresh take on jazz. Razor & Tie
New & Noteworthy
Some Western and global South churches have established “sister church” relationships as a more mutual alternative to the old mission field approach. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews, Janel Kragt Bakker studies the give and take of this model in Sister Churches: American Congregations and Their Partners Abroad. Oxford
The documentary The State of Arizona captures multiple perspectives on undocumented immigration in the aftermath of Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, dubbed the “show me your papers” law. Directed by Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, it will premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens series on January 14 (check local listings). communitycinema.org
Alternative Seasonal Reading
THE DAYS shorten and the scriptures get wild and woolly and Advent begins. Meanwhile, the secular holiday season builds in a frenzy of car commercials (does anyone really get a car for Christmas?), sale flyers, and often-forced cheer. Here are a few books—memoirs, spiritual writings, and art—that can be interesting, grounding, and inspiring companions for a complicated time of year. (They also are much easier to wrap than a car.)
Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith, by Holly Burkhalter. Convergent Books. Decades in political and human rights work convinced Holly Burkhalter that there couldn’t be a loving God—until she became a believer at age 52.
Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write, edited by Marybeth Christie Redmond and Sarah W. Bartlett. Orbis. I was in prison, and you listened to my story. Moving works from inside a Vermont prison.
God on the Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith, by Phil Madeira. Jericho Books. Nashville songwriter, producer, and musician Phil Madeira offers lyrical, wry observations on faith and life, from his evangelical roots to musing on a God who “knows she’s a mystery.”
New & Noteworthy
David Hilfiker is a retired inner-city physician and writer on poverty and politics who has Alzheimer’s. He writes about his experience, with the hope of helping “dispel some of the fear and embarrassment” that surrounds this disease, on his blog “Watching the Lights Go Out.” www.davidhilfiker.blogspot.com
Laura Mvula is a British, classically trained musician, songwriter, and former choir director whose debut album,Sing to the Moon,is a lush fusion of soul, jazz, gospel, and pop. While not overtly “about” faith, her arrangements are imbued with spiritual longing and visions of beauty. Columbia
New & Noteworthy
Cleats and Dignity
The civil rights struggle for African Americans happened in every sphere of life. Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Samuel G. Freedman, tells of two great black coaches in the tense year of 1967. Simon & Schuster
One project of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture is the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, which funded research in more than 20 countries. PCRI resources include the informative recent report, “Moved by the Spirit: Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Global South.” crcc.usc.edu/pcri
New & Noteworthy
The Dream at 50
This August marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for civil rights for African Americans. PBS will feature special broadcast and Web programming, including the premiere of the new documentary The March onTuesday, Aug. 27 (check local listings). pbs.org/black-culture/explore
The Miracle of Meaning
Secular Days, Sacred Moments: The America Columns of Robert Coles, edited by David D. Cooper, collects 31 short essays by the respected child psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Whatever the topic, Coles offers thoughtful insights on civic life and moral purpose. Michigan State University Press
'Write Your Life, Live Your Faith'
IN 1900, long-simmering resentment over increasing foreign presence and exploitation in China boiled over into a full-scale uprising, the Boxer Rebellion. It was spearheaded by the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” a peasant secret society whose members practiced martial arts—Westerners, observing their exercises, dubbed them “Boxers.” The Boxers targeted foreign officials, merchants, and missionaries, as well as Chinese Christian converts.
Comic book author and artist Gene Luen Yang illuminates two very different fictional perspectives on this conflict in his new two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints: The first volume, Boxers, tells the story of Bao, a boy who becomes a Boxer leader after seeing ongoing abuse by Westerners; Saintsfollows Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who converts to Catholicism, takes the name Vibiana, and must flee the Boxers.
Yang’s 2006 work American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to both win the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and to be nominated for a National Book Award. He lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches in the Hamline University MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter interviewed Yang in July. Boxers & Saints releases in September from First Second Books.
Julie Polter: The characters in Boxers & Saints are driven by varied combinations of ideology (patriotism, cultural imperialism) and mysticism/faith. The flaws and virtues of different beliefs seem to mirror each other. What led you to this complicated story?
Gene Luen Yang: The genesis of the project was out of my own conflicts. I majored in computer science in college and minored in creative writing. I had a professor who was also a novelist, Thaisa Frank. I remember visiting her during office hours and talking to her about my struggles with writing about issues of faith. Faith, especially in college, became very important to me; it became a critical part of how I saw my place in the world. It was really hard for me to put something authentic on the page. Her advice to me was, essentially, you have to write your life and live your faith—you don’t ever try to write your faith, because it will come out funky. That’s the advice I’ve tried to follow ever since.
Beyond 'Ruin Porn'
UNTIL RECENTLY, a company in New York City offered “a ride through a real New York City ‘ghetto’”—a $45 bus tour of the Bronx, reportedly patronized mainly by European and Australian tourists. One news report described the tour guide sharing lurid stories of crime and arson from the ’70s and ’80s, making insensitive comments about everything from local architectural landmarks to people waiting in line at a food pantry, and warning about the “pickpockets” in wait in a certain park. After an outcry from residents and officials, angry that the place they call home would be reduced to out-of-touch stereotypes, the tour company shut down in May.
That someone would even think of fleecing misguided tourists this way hints at the complicated, sometimes contradictory, role that cities play in our culture: In our collective imagination they represent both civilization’s pinnacle (arts, style, technology, intellectualism, innovation, industry, finance) and depravity’s depths (crime, corruption, exploitation, decadence, filth). For much of the 20th century, many people of means fled cities for the pastoral promise of the suburbs, while many a farm girl or boy dreamed of escaping to a city and tasting the bustle and thrill: “Until I saw your city lights, honey I was blind.”
And yet cities are not only symbols, but real and intricate places. Whether booming or busting, they shape and are shaped by the people in them. Both the built structures and the people of a city have stories to tell. But a fleeting tour-bus view with distorted narration can lead us down an alley with no exit.
Here are some different takes on the bright lights of the big city.
New & Noteworthy
A Terrible Thing to Waste
Many U.S. children living in poverty are further penalized by struggling public schools. Nicole Baker Fulgham, former vice president of faith community relations at Teach for America, offers passionate, practical solutions in Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids. Brazos Press
The documentary Bidder 70 tells the story of a different kind of civil disobedience: Tim DeChristopher helped save 22,000 acres of Utah wilderness by outbidding industry figures at a disputed Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction, with no intention of paying or drilling. www.bidder70film.com
New & Noteworthy
WAGS AND WISDOM
Critically acclaimed author Sue Halpern writes about experiences with her trained therapy dog, Pransky, illuminating seven classic virtues along the way, in A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. A charming and insightful book. Riverhead Books
GOD AT THE BORDER
In Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration, Kristin E. Heyer develops a theological analysis, mainly rooted in Catholic thought, that examines the injustices of the current U.S. immigration system in the light of concepts of social sin, Christian family ethics, and broader policy considerations. Georgetown University Press
The Endlessly Fascinating Word
- Preaching God's Transforming Justice, edited by Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, is a lectionary commentary series from Westminster John Knox Press that helps preachers better proclaim the biblical call to be agents of God's love and justice in the world. Embodying that mission in a small but key way, the 90 contributors include close to equal numbers of women and men and represent significant ethnic and racial diversity. Each volume provides commentary for all the year's lectionary days, plus essays on 22 "Holy Days of Justice," from World AIDS Day to Children's Sabbaths. The first two volumes, for Years B and C, are already available. The Year A volume is due for release in August.
- The Revised Common Lectionary's readings for each Sunday—four selected scriptures, generally one each from the Psalms, the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the epistles, and the gospels—are heard by millions of Christians each week. Timothy Matthew Slemmons, an assistant professor of homiletics and worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, has been captivated by what isn't heard. In Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary (Cascade Books), he argues for an expansion of the lectionary in order to present a fuller portrait of God's revelation. It includes a proposed one-year set of readings that does not shy away from many difficult texts, including from the Psalms and prophets.
Glorybound, by Jessie van Eerden. WordFarm.
A luminous debut novel that features two sisters shaped by family estrangement and holiness faith in a hard-scrabble West Virginia mining town.
Hold It 'Til It Hurts, by T. Geronimo Johnson. Coffee House Press.
This debut novel and 2013 PEN/Faulkner-award nominee follows an African-American combat vet in his search for his missing sibling, a journey tangled with the fallout of war and race.
The Mirrored World, by Debra Dean. Harper.
A reimagining of the life of an 18th century Russian saint, Xenia of St. Petersburg, set against the excesses of the royal court.
Benediction, by Kent Haruf. Knopf.
An elderly man in a small Colorado town receives a terminal diagnosis, and the intricacies of human community are revealed in the stories of the people who gather around him.
New & Noteworthy
Whom Shall I Send?
Drawing on years of pastoral and executive experience in churches and parachurch organizations, Sherry Surratt and Jenni Catron deliver on the pragmatic promise of their book's title, Just Lead! A No Whining, No Complaining, No Nonsense Practical Guide for Women Leaders in the Church. Jossey Bass
Dreams. Wind. Bread. Oriental rugs. Puppet shows. These are a few of the inspirations for Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast's 99 Blessings: An Invitation to Life. These short, concise, sometimes whimsical prayers of gratitude for gifts great and small are invitations to increase our awareness of life's daily wonders. Image