Julie grew up barefoot and semi-feral on a farm in the northwest corner of Ohio. At 18 she began winding her way east, drawn by easy access to black clothing and strong coffee. She took a right turn in Boston and ended up in Washington. Her education includes early childhood immersion in “Gilligan’s Island,” English literature at Ohio State University, theology at Boston University, and a recent M.F.A. degree in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. The latter has led to research and writing about the people who have lived in her Columbia Heights house and neighborhood over the past century or so. Julie also learned much, some of it useful, while sharing an office with art director Ed Spivey for a dozen years; she now has her own space, but doesn’t miss Ed, since his office is next door and the walls are thin.
Julie’s abridged list of inspirations: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothea Lange, David Sedaris, Zora Neale Hurston, Rev. Billy. The gospel according to pop: indie music, 60s pop and soul, ‘ 70s funk & punk, on it goes. Eastern North Carolina barbecue. “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” A grandmother who never stopped praying, despite poverty, abuse, and ill health. The other grandmother, who once gave a house away. My mother, questioning, sarcastic, dreaming of more than she ever got. The three amazing young women who are my nieces. Peg & beam barn construction. Belle & Sebastian’s “State That I’m In.” The Perseids meteor showers. Ezekiel’s performance art prophecy. Diner communions (finding Christ in vinyl-upholstered booths).
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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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'
Carrie & Lowell, Asthmatic Kitty Records.
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?
How art can help us wrestle with race and brokenness.
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
Paternal Insights edited by Anderson Campbell / Sing Freedom by Robert F. Darden / In Between by finelinefilms.org / More than Metaphor edited by Shelia E. McGinn, Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan, and Ahida Calderón Pilarski.
Taking the Long Road Home
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. IVP Books.
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