Book

Misery Loves Comedy

Nadia Bolz-Weber

DURING MY EARLY years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self-deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.

We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness—all punctuated with profanity. We weren’t a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we’d all have to paddle harder.

In 1992, when I started hanging out with the “rowing team,” as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn’t afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I’m funny when I’m miserable.

This isn’t exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world’s comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you’d have left ... well ... Carrot Top, basically. There’s something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. ...

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Lessons in Creating Ubuntu

Conversations in Transition is a veritable graduate course in what South Africans call ubuntu, or good neighborliness.

Charles Villa-Vicencio and Mills Soko present 23 narratives of both well-known and unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. These narratives are filled with instructive words of wisdom for seekers of peace with justice in countries emerging from post-tyranny chaos and in long-established democracies alike. Historians and activists will find hope in the stories of South Africa’s courageous, diverse citizens, as well as prophetic insights and warnings as the subjects address post-apartheid violence and oppression in a country still on the edge.

My own experiences lead me to an unqualified endorsement of this invaluable compendium. Over several decades I have pondered repeatedly two particular conversations, one with a Jew in Israel and the other with a Muslim from Cape Town.

An effort was made to introduce the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process into the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the end of an evening with South African officials and members of the Israeli and Palestinian communities, the director of a Jewish study center in West Jerusalem, Benjamin Pogrund, shared a revealing comment. He said, “TRC will never work here because Israelis do not have the theological and philosophical understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that Muslims, Christians, and Jews shared in South Africa in order to bring unity and liberation without major conflict.”

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Church of the Open Doors

WHEN CECIL WILLIAMS was 8 years old, he imagined murdering a police officer. It’s a jarring way for an influential minister to begin a memoir about radical hope and perseverance. But in a short lifetime of intense oppression, Williams had already internalized heartbreaking lessons of systemic injustice and the righteously violent tendencies that can follow. The budding young leader already nicknamed “Rev” and wise beyond his years also knew that if he could imagine brutality, he could envision a transformed society.

“Imagination is one of the most penetrating and incendiary forces I’ve ever experienced,” he writes in Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide, co-authored with his wife and longtime collaborator, Janice Mirikitani. Building on their shared vision over a remarkable half-century, they lead what might be the most exuberant congregation in America. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and the Glide Foundation are inextricable, legendary San Francisco institutions, the latter one of the city’s largest social service providers and the real-life shelter featured in the 2006 biopic The Pursuit of Happyness.

Writer Dave Eggers sums up Glide in the book’s introduction with a simple but uncomfortable truth: There are very few places in society where someone is not left out. Houses of worship are supposed to make a dream of inclusivity possible, but even the most inspiring visionaries live and lead imperfectly. Eggers proposes that because of the unconditional love necessary for a lasting marriage between two seemingly incompatible leaders—Williams, a black Texas minister with a solid upbringing, and Mirikitani, an agnostic Japanese-American poet from a broken, abusive home—Glide is one of the few radically accepting places where true unconditional love is practiced like the most dogmatic of faiths.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

A New Wave

FOR ANYONE who’s sick of explaining that not all evangelicals are flag-waving, Quran-burning, gay-hating, science-skeptic, anti-abortion ralliers, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians provides a boost of encouragement. Written by frequent USA Todaycontributor Tom Krattenmaker, this who’s who of “new-paradigm evangelicals” explains how a growing movement of Jesus-followers are “pulling American evangelicalism out of its late 20th-century rut and turning it into the jaw-dropping, life-changing, world-altering force they believe it ought to be.”

Unlike their predecessors, these new evangelicals are characterized by a willingness to collaborate with members of other religions and no religion for the common good, warm acceptance of LGBTQ folks, a rejection of the dualistic pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, and a desire to participate in mainstream culture rather than wage war against it. All this “while lessening their devotion to Jesus by not a single jot or tittle.”

Admittedly, the book’s cover photo doesn’t quite do justice to Krattenmaker’s observations. Featuring young worshipers in a dark sanctuary with hands uplifted and eyes closed, each apparently lost in a private moment of four-chord progression praise, the cover looks more like a Hillsong worship concert circa 1998 than cutting-edge 2013 evangelicals. (If you’re unfamiliar with the four-chord progression, Google “how to write a worship song in five minutes or less.” You’re welcome.)

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Children of the Street

INTRIGUING AND believable characters are part of what makes Janna McMahan’s new novel Anonymitya memorable read. Through the story, which is set in Austin, Texas, the author provides a well-constructed and evenly paced plot that brings to light critical themes around home and homelessness.

Early in the story we discover classic contrasts between the two protagonists. Lorelei is a young, homeless runaway whose daily grind revolves around finding food and a warm, safe place to sleep, while Emily’s major mission centers on branching out from her bartending job to take up a more artistic endeavor as a photographer. One buys organic greens from the high-end Whole Foods Market, while the other seeks sustenance in restaurant dumpsters.

This interesting juxtaposition of characters reels us in. But as we swim through the thickening plot, we discover the startling similarities between the two: Lorelei’s rebelliousness and grit compared to Emily’s disdain for the superficial lifestyle of big-box shopping and Corpus Christi vacations; Lorelei’s refusal to seek help and get off the streets weighed against Emily’s desire to break from the overindulgence she grew up around. As Emily’s mother, Barbara, observes, “Emily liked the frayed edges of life, a little dirt in the cracks.” It should come as no surprise that Emily takes an interest in Lorelei’s hardscrabble existence.

So much about Lorelei remains a mystery, which serves to add tension and compel the reader forward. We sense she is searching for something, and there’s no way to prepare for the powerful punch McMahan delivers when we discover what Lorelei’s quest is about.

At the same time, we follow Emily on a kind of hunt of her own—a hunt for freedom from the status quo as she attempts to separate herself from materialistic parents and a society that insists happiness requires a college degree, a high-paying job, marriage, and children.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Wounding and Welcome in the Church

TWO YEARS AGO, Jeff Chu found himself at a crossroads. Like many gay Christians, he felt disconnected—condemned by a wide swath of his fellow believers because of his sexual orientation, questioned because of his faith by some in the LGBTQ community who have been pushed out of the church by the words and actions of many Christians. To top it off, there was that lingering doubt, so common among those raised in evangelical households: Does Jesus really love me?

To answer that question, Chu—an award-winning writer for Time, The Wall Street Journal, andCondé Nast Portfolio and the grandson of a Southern Baptist preacher—took off on a yearlong cross-country pilgrimage, “asking the questions that have long frightened me.” What he encountered was a divided church, “led in large part by cowardly clergy who are called to be shepherds yet behave like sheep.”

Many of the pastors Chu contacted for the book refused to speak with him, citing their suspicion of him as a member of the so-called “‘liberal media elite’” or stating bluntly that engaging on such a controversial issue might jeopardize funding for a pet project. After speaking with Richard Land, then-president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and David Shelley, a Baptist minister from Tennessee affiliated with the Family Research Council, Chu concludes that they “devote much more time talking about legislation than about love.”

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

The Preciousness of the Person

ETHICS ASKS the questions: What is right to do? How do we know? David P. Gushee puts the concept of the sacredness of human life at the center of his moral reasoning. A professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Gushee has given us a work that is an important milestone on the road of constructive Christian ethics.

In this book Gushee has set himself a large and ambitious goal. He writes, “I am proposing that, rightly understood, a moral norm called the sacredness of life should be central to the moral vision and practice of followers of Christ.”

He seeks to ground this moral norm in scriptural authority and in the Christian tradition at its best. His survey of scripture and of Christian history is truly impressive, considering most of the major elements of the Christian theological and ethical traditions, including the current thinking of liberation theology. He demonstrates knowledge of the feminist critique of scripture, and he at least mentions eco-feminism. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

Moreover, Gushee also considers such important Enlightenment thinkers as John Locke and Immanuel Kant. He devotes a chapter each to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and to the Nazi desecration of human life. There is much food for thought here.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

'This Doesn't Go Away'

FOR SERIOUS AND chronic mental illness, there is no cure—short of a miracle. There is no “all better.” Even when well managed, such illness is a lifelong reality, and relapses can happen without warning. Even for episodic illness, the road to health can be long and mountainous. Walking alongside someone with mental illness may mean a lifelong hike over peaks and valleys, learning to grow in faith and in relationship with Jesus through an illness that clouds the view. That walk might cause mistrust of reality and of a person’s own thoughts. It might require extra patience for processing truth. It might repeatedly tax the resources of the church and its fellowship. And churches, like other organizations, grow tired of such taxation. Culturally, we expect people who fall down to pull themselves back up and put their hands to the plow. Sure, everyone stumbles occasionally. And we’re willing to give help in times of crisis. But when that time of crisis doesn’t seem to end, we start to wonder why we’re still helping. Why we’re not seeing progress. Why we’re not moving on.

The father of a son with bipolar disorder spoke passionately from his experience:

Attitudes have to change. This doesn’t go away. … that’s the issue that anyone with mental illness or anyone who is going to minster to mental illness is going to eventually wade into. Wait a minute. We helped you with this a year ago, two years ago. The problem is like telling a diabetic, “We helped you with your blood glucose a year ago.” Yeah, but guess what. They’ve got to do this every minute of the day until they die. So that is a daunting task … it has to fall to the whole body of Christ, because it’s only the body that can handle something like that for a lifetime.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Old School Harmonies, Hold the Irony

IF YOU GREW up like I did—surrounded by PraiseGathering devotees and with Gaither Family VHS tapes stacked on the home entertainment system shelves—you probably have a frame of reference for Douglas Harrison’s Then Sings My Soul. If you weren’t raised on such a specific Bible Belt diet of white male quartets and singspirations, Harrison’s use of the term “Southern gospel” may initially seem confusing, if not meaningless.

According to Harrison, Southern gospel wasn’t labeled as such until the 1970s, and the label didn’t catch on with mainstream audiences until the 1980s. Before then, all genres of gospel—sacred music spanning regions, decades, ethnic heritages, and faith-based traditions—were given the broad label. As Harrison defines it in what is arguably one of the first contemporary attempts to do so, Southern gospel is a participatory style descending from a “post-Civil War recreation culture built around singing schools and community (or ‘convention’) singings popular among poor and working-class whites throughout the South and Midwest.” While he notes that most rigorous investigations of gospel’s longevity and legacy refer to black gospel, Harrison departs from this framework and instead focuses on the likes of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, The Cathedrals, and gospel impresario Bill Gaither, pasty proselytizers without whom the 20th century gospel movement would not exist.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Pursuing Grace, Onstage and Off

LAUGHTER IS Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor has the narrative arc of a classic Greek tragedy: Boy from religious sect grows up, becomes a butcher, goes to seminary, then finds acting acclaim as part of a duo (Ted & Lee), only to have his comedic partner die by suicide, after which the show must go on and does.

Ted Swartz’s story is a bittersweet tale, with emphasis on the sweet. It is told in the structure of a five-act play. What originally drew me was the fact that Swartz’s late acting partner, Lee Eshleman, was a classmate of mine at Eastern Mennonite University, where we were art majors to-gether. Eshleman was easily the most talented among us. (His line drawings illustrate the book.) He was also smart, funny, and regal.

After I left EMU, unmarried and pregnant, I would sometimes see Eshleman’s name on the masthead of the alumni magazine and think, “I wish I had it as together as Lee does.” It was a shock to hear that, like my own son, Eshleman too had died by suicide.

His death and its impact on Swartz take up a good deal of space in this memoir. The duo worked together for 20 years, and Swartz is honest about the ups and downs of their friendship. He does a great job of communicating that Eshleman was much more than his suicide or his bipolar disorder. He was that extraordinary person I remember.

As important as the message is of surviving a loved one’s suicide, there’s much more to Swartz’s book. It is the candid journey of an artist, one that affirms both the calling and challenges of being an artist in a religious context.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Pages

Subscribe