Beauty

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.

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To the Wonder: A Rumination on Love

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in 'To the Wonder,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The last Terrence Malick film I went to see was Tree of Life, in which the critically acclaimed director — and devout Christian — advised audiences to “experience [the film] like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature.” Needless to say, the film was long — extremely beautiful, but a wee bit slow.

So you can imagine the shock I felt when Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, abruptly ended after almost two hours and I thought to myself, “Wait, it’s already over?”

To the Wonder is certainly different from its immediate predecessor in Malick’s catalogue — there aren’t any dinosaurs in his latest effort. But it does still manage to have both the look and feel of a Malick film (i.e., it intersperses a linear story with lots of fluid, beautiful cinematography shot during “magic hour” with voice overs asking deep questions), albeit one that doesn’t drift off into long montages of the creation of the universe with voiceovers almost lifted from the book of Job.

Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

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Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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Art in Life

Photo:  IMAGEMORE Co, Ltd. / Getty Images
Photo: IMAGEMORE Co, Ltd. / Getty Images

We were walking up the beach, on the sand as the tide moved out toward the ocean. I was holding Zeke's hand, talking with him about sea things. "I didn't know jellyfish swam this close to the shore during the spring," he said in 5-year-old wonderment. "I bet that drift wood is as old as The Old Man and the Sea. I think a horseshoe crab's blood can be used to treat cancer."

"Look," I said.

"What is it, Dad?" he asked.

I picked up a shell out of the deep, hot sand and held it in my open hand.

The Season to Put on Beauty

“TAKE OFF THE garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). We might occasionally hear in church a prayer that makes passing use of the phrase “the beauty of holiness,” but it can’t be claimed that we are helped very often to feel that the contagious goodness of God is absolutely lovely, alluring, and attractive. We are called to be beautiful human beings. Christians who are deeply serious about social justice, who carry the burden of the world’s brokenness in their hearts, who are committed to political dissent, probably need this reminder most of all. We can hardly be agents of change if our faces are disfigured by disgust and anger.

Advent may be an especially important time to listen carefully for the Word who summons us to be walking sacraments of God’s radiant beauty. Paul will speak to us about having joy in one another and clothing ourselves in love. We are meant to fill our imaginations in these weeks with the sight of Mary in the radiance of her final days of pregnancy. Doesn’t her beauty lend all the more power to her proclamation, “[God my savior] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53)?

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ DECEMBER 2 ]
Shaken Powers
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

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Ladies: Need A Pick-Me-Up?

It's Thursday. I'm hitting the back of my closet and have second-day hair. Relate? Good, then this video is for you.

Take a few minutes to remember that our differences — whether it be crooked smiles, frizzy hair, or 6-foot-frame — to others look like character, enviable natural curls, or modelesque stature. You're beautiful. (Yes, you.) 

The clip is also full of good advice, but my personal favorite: "If it makes you feel awesome, wear it." (Do you think that means I can get away with yoga pants at work?)

'A World Journey' Documents the Richness and Beauty of People Around the Globe

In a new photo series called “A World Journey,” photographer Jim Stipe documents the people that have made an impact on his travels. Particularly in low income countries, Jim exposes the faces and lives that have meant something to him as he journeyed through foreign lands.

On the first slide of his new series, his statement reads:

“I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many countries around the world, sometimes for fun, other times for photo assignments, almost always in low-income countries. Time and again what strikes me most is the strength and dignity of people who often suffer great hardship. This small collection of photos gives you a glimpse of the amazing people I’ve met.”  

Take a minute to reflect on some remarkable, beautiful images of the world’s people.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE E-BOOK.

40 Ideas for Keeping Lent Holy

(Lenten Rose photo by Lynn Whitt/Shutterstock.)
(Lenten Rose photo by Lynn Whitt/Shutterstock.)

40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent from House for All Sinners and Saints, the Denver congregation Nadia serves.

Day 1: Pray for your enemies

Day 2: Walk, carpool, bike or bus it.

Day 3: Don’t turn on the car radio

Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing

(Sunday)

Day 5: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon

Day 6: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before

Tripp Hudgins' First Thoughts: The Beloved of God

"Aslan Speaks." Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
"Aslan Speaks." Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

"I have found great beauty in religion and religion has shown me great beauty in myself and in the world," Tripp says, as he reflects on the 11 years since he's had a drink. "I'm still not sure I know what being beloved means. Somehow we forget that we are beloved....Today is the 11th anniversary of the day I was told who I was. It's a good day."

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