Culture

Poetry: Picture of a Family after Cavafy

Micael Nussbaumer/Shutterstock

There’s a photo he carries for long journeys
like this one, for trips on loaded market lorries
where the passengers take their seat, perching
on top of cargo, or sitting on crude benches
inside the buses coming from Sudan with names
like “Best of Luck” or “Mr. Good Looking.”

As the road rumbles from Chad through Cameroon
to Nigeria, toward another year of medical school,
he always reaches into his inside coat pocket
and brings out the folded 4x6. Sees his brother,
with the latest jeans from the capital and a maroon
hoodie zipped half-way up, one leg placed forward
and his head tilted back—an “attitude” he’s learned
from movies and music pipelined from America.

Sees his mother, bright pink polyester swirling
around her figure, and remembers how she woke
before dawn to make him fangaso for his trip.
He sees the lines he and his brother have caused,
drawn into her face after years of worry,
fatherless years of selling produce in the market
and begging relatives for support. He sees the slight
twist of her mouth, the triumph of a mother
shining through the sorrow of leave-taking,
the promise for her child to have a better life.

Aaron Brown, author of Winnower, is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Maryland. He lives with his wife in Lanham, Md.

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Seven Deadly Sins: A Playlist

 

Wrath
Rolling in the Deep — Adele
Mama Said Knock You Out — LL Cool J
Sloth
Lazy Song — Bruno Mars
Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler — Pink Martini
Greed
Rich Girl — Gwen Stefani ft Eve
I Want It All — Queen
Gluttony
Eat It — Weird Al Yankovich
Can’t Stop — Miley Cyrus
Lust
I Want You to Want Me — Letters to Cleo/10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack
I’m Sexy and I Know It — LMFAO
Pride
I’m the Best (clean version) — Nicki Minaj
Devil Went Down To Georgia — Charlie Daniels Band
Envy
Jessie’s Girl — Rick Springfield
Dancing on My Own — Robyn

What Do I Do With My Confederate Flag?

confederateflagblock

Image via /shutterstock.com

I own a Confederate flag. Growing up, the flag meant little more to me than school spirit, pep rallies, and Southern pride … until I left East Tennessee. I’ll never forget the moment things began to change. I moved into my college dorm room and established my new home at Eastern University in Philadelphia. I carefully set up my desk, put my posters on the wall, and displayed my high school yearbook — with a Confederate flag on the cover — proudly on my bookshelf.

Reality TV’s ‘The Briefcase’ Looks at Line Between Need, Greed

Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

The Wylie family from Rio Vista, Texas. Photo courtesy of ©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc / RNS

If a briefcase of money fell in your lap, would you keep it, share it, or give it all away?

The new reality show The Briefcase is asking that question. But viewers and ethicists are asking more:

How could CBS put this on the air? Are there better ways to address the financial challenges of the middle class?

The hourlong show, which airs its fourth episode June 17, introduces two families each episode with the struggles of bills and not enough money coming in to achieve all their goals — whether dealing with a lost job, medical bills, or the potential costs of in vitro fertilization.

'Jurassic World' and the Problem with Hollywood Reboots

Image via Jurassic Park on Facebook

Image via Jurassic Park on Facebook

Among the big releases this summer, two films offer new installments of iconic franchises. One, Mad Max: Fury Road is a master class in how to do it right. Made as a labor of love, not a studio cash-grab, it uses a familiar setting and hero to explore new artistic territory, and still maintains an insanely entertaining level of action.

The other is Jurassic World.

Two Guys Walk into a Bar

Illustration by Ken Davis

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Ed Spivey Jr. is Art Director at Sojourners.

FOLLOWING IS a conversation between an aging, award-winning humor columnist and a young man who, in his short life, probably only earned an award for Most Tattoos On One Arm.

Me: Excuse me. What’s that metal thing in your mouth?

He: It’s an electronic cigarette.

Me: Dude, you can’t smoke in here. Even if we’re the only ones in this hotel bar, and although it harkens back to simpler times, a time when men were men, and ...

He: There’s no smoke, just steam. It’s a noncombustible cigarette.

Me: Cool phrase that, “noncombustible cigarette.” Yours?

He: Nah. I heard it on a commercial. Some people call it an e-cigarette.

Me: Is that like e-mail? Or E. coli?

He: No. E. coli is bacteria that are dangerous to your health, possibly fatal.

Me: Nothing in common with smoking, then.

He: Right. It’s the latest thing, and it’s helping me quit combustible cigarettes.

Me: That reminds me. Did you know that after the helicopter was invented, people had to start calling airplanes “fixed-wing aircraft.” This little upstart invention changed the whole vernacular of the aviation industry. That makes me SO mad! Friggin’ helicopters!

He:

Me: So, back to this cigarette. What’s the point?

He: It delivers nicotine without second-hand smoke.

Me: Confining horrible medical consequences to the user, and protecting innocent bystanders.

He: Exactly. Plus, we can do it anywhere we want, like here, for instance.

Me: As opposed to huddled in small groups outside doorways in the dead of winter.

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Faith's Power and Variety

JEFF SHARLET, author of nonfiction books about faith including New York Times best-seller The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, isn’t so much interested in religion as he is in belief. “That interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether,” he writes of drinking whiskey with Mormons and marching in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer group of up to 40,000 men and women from 52 countries who traveled to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

In his newest book, Radiant Truths, Sharlet collects stories like these, stories about what happens when religious ideas meet social practice. He attributes this concept to anthropologist Angela Zito. In her essay “Religion is Media,” Zito ponders, “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” Using Zito’s question as a jumping off point, Sharlet dives into 150 years’ worth of literary journalism at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.

He admits his own bias; as with most anthologies, his selections are personal favorites, and not wholly representative of the nation’s religious pluralism. Sharlet also explains each selection in a short interlude between pieces, a helpful cohesion if, like me, you read the book from front to back. Journeying from a 19th century Purim to a 20th century healing ceremony conducted by a traditional Laotian Hmong shaman is an exhilarating adventure, but one that requires a chaperone.

The anthology begins in 1863 with Walt Whitman, moving through the end of the 1800s with writing by Thoreau and Twain. The 20th century opens with a fierce female duo, Sara Jeannette Duncan and Jane Addams, writing about historic Hull House. By the middle of the last century, we’ve met boy preacher James Baldwin and been introduced to Louisiana voodoo by Zora Neale Hurston.

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Tell Me Why

I’M IN THAT cohort of earnest, educated, now-middle-aged North Americans who fell in love with Dave Eggers’ sprawling, sometimes unapologetically self-indulgent memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All my life I had lived with an ongoing inner monologue of exaggerated self-consciousness, but I’d never read anyone who could articulate the experience as precisely, never mind playfully, as Eggers.

Eggers could have made a fortune repeating the same entertaining self-indulgence, but he’s shaped his career into anything but navel-gazing. He’s formed writing workshops for kids; started two long-running magazines; cofounded an oral history book series on human rights crises; and written a string of beautiful, compassionate books of fiction and nonfiction with an unmistakably critical eye.

In his latest novel—Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—Eggers uses a dialogue-only form to tell a compact story that thunders with probity and timeless, existential urgency. The main character, Thomas, a middle-aged man with psychological issues, has conversations with six different kidnap victims—an astronaut, a former member of Congress and Vietnam vet, his high-school teacher, his mother, a policeman, and a woman he meets during walks on the beach—holding them on an abandoned military base on the California coast. He doesn’t physically harm any of them; he just wants to know where everything went wrong. Why do our friends die? Why do our career dreams come to naught? Why do the mythical promises of science, democracy, education, nationalism, law, progress, and even love fail to deliver?

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The Ultimate Threat

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON asks what happens when you give a computer the ability to think for itself. To which we could add, what happens when you make a science fiction film that assumes the audience can think for itself?

Sadly, in the case of Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon’s serious attempt to make a smart blockbuster collides with corporate cookie-cutting and the belief that stockings are best overstuffed, even if what’s in them is just cotton wool or dead weight. Too much is going on, and not all of it is good. Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and the other guy with the arrows are still looking for a magical object, but when they find it we’re none the wiser about what it’s for. Bad guys still threaten the safety of the world, and the Avengers still think that only maximum force can secure a result.

So Tony Stark builds Ultron, a supercomputer with a body—the super-est of supercomputers, to be sure—whose job will be to “protect the earth” and end violence. I think. I’m not being snarky—the film is so overpaced that it mostly misses the opportunity to nurture plot points or emotional beats.

One exception is a funny sequence in which the team tries to lift Thor’s hammer, revealing their personalities in a competition between alpha (and omega) males—and Scarlett Johansson. Here Whedon (witty, politically intelligent) gets to be Whedon, and it’s clear that there was a more interesting movie intended behind, and even trying to break free from, this one.

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Rock-and-Roll Transcendence

THE CLUB WAS full by the time New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem took the stage. Lead singer and songwriter Brian Fallon stepped to the mike in denim jacket and jeans, and the band lit into their song “Howl” (yes, a Ginsberg reference). That’s when I heard a strange doubling sound on Fallon’s vocal. The Gaslight Anthem is very much straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes, guitars-and-drums. Why would they use that weird effect on the vocal?

Then it hit me. That sound wasn’t coming from the sound board or the speakers, but from us. The audience, en masse, was singing along with every word, on time and in tune. It was what happens when rock and roll is working right: The performers and the audience become one and are swept up into something much larger than themselves.

I’ve also experienced this in churches and sometimes even in collective political action. But some of my most dramatic moments of transcendence have come like this: in a dark room, packed with sweaty people, screaming back at some guy onstage with a guitar. The experience is even more interesting when you know that the guy with the guitar, Fallon, is also a Christian, who knows the true name of the Spirit that has overtaken us.

I only caught this show because my 15-year-old son, Joseph, took advantage of his spring break to insist that he be driven an hour each way, on a Monday night, to see one of his favorite bands. But it didn’t take much arm-twisting either. One of the last of the great guitar-rock bands, Gaslight is firmly rooted in the punk-rock ethos, but its sound has broadened to include elements of R&B and mainstream arena rock. And Fallon’s lyrical references range across the rock-and-roll tradition, from Hank Williams to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding to Elvis Costello and The Counting Crows.

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