Culture

Illustration by Tiffany McCallen / RNS

Illustration by Tiffany McCallen / RNS

Pope Francis told an Argentine newspaper on May 25 that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Think of all he’s missed, not just in terms of popular culture, but also in terms of American Catholicism. Here, in no particular order, are seven television shows the pope might want to catch up on before his September U.S. trip.

Abby Olcese 05-22-2015
Screenshot from 'Tomorrowland' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Tomorrowland' trailer.

It’s both ironic and appropriate that the new Disney film Tomorrowland is being released exactly a week after Mad Max: Fury Road. The new film from director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) is the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic. It’s a film that’s hugely optimistic about the future, and our ability to fix the world’s problems through good old-fashioned ingenuity. The movie occasionally veers towards overly naïve, and its internal logic doesn’t always work. But despite some problems, it remains a refreshing alternative to a summer movie season that’s otherwise been filled with darker worldviews.

The film starts not with a jump forward, but backward, to the 1967 World’s Fair, where boy genius Frank Walker arrives with a homemade jetpack and hopes of winning an inventing competition. There Frank is befriended by a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who takes him to the magical world of Tomorrowland, a colorful futuristic place full of advanced discoveries and retro-space age design.

Zach Hoag 05-18-2015
Photo via Michael Yarish / AMC / RNS

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Photo via Michael Yarish / AMC / RNS

Mad Men transported us to the pivotal decade of the 1960s and dealt deliberately with the advent of Madison Avenue and the heyday of the advertising industry. This was the time in our nation’s history when our materialistic fates were sealed: We became a people defined by things, things produced in mass quantities to feed an insatiable cultural appetite. And that appetite was fueled by advertising.

Don Draper, the quintessential ad man, describes advertising early on in the series as “selling happiness.” In the boardroom, Don repeatedly does exactly that — creating scenarios that attach emotional, if not transcendental, value to otherwise common products and services. He brings his clients to tears or laughter or both, and opens their wallets besides. Deals are closed, Clio Awards are won.

Abby Olcese 05-15-2015
Screenshot from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' trailer.

But this isn’t just a movie about brooding wanderers and spectacular car crashes. The women of Fury Road are the ones who get most of the attention, and who are undeniably the heroes of the film. They are tough, and know how to take care of themselves, but also represent their world’s best hope for change. The film frequently juxtaposes the difference between their compassionate, renewal-focused instincts, and Immortan Joe’s destructive excess.

Richard Twiss 05-07-2015

How Native Christians are reclaiming tradition to create an "Indigenous hymnody." 

The Editors 05-07-2015

Ibeyi by XL Recordings / The Collected Sermons of Walter Bruggemann, Volume 2 by Westminster John Knox / And The Word Became Color: Exploring the Bible with Paper, Pen, and Paint by Debby Topliff / Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children's Youth Ministry by CopperHouse

Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It will Help Us All. The New Press. 

David P. Gushee 05-06-2015

Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. Fortress Press. 

Julie Polter 05-06-2015

Carrie & Lowell,  Asthmatic Kitty Records. 

Richard Schiffman 05-06-2015

The Greeks know how tightly coiled
are circumstances with many windings
before tragedy’s spring snaps.
The horse bolts flame-like from the gate;
we do not see its years of training.

So too, the thunderhead today slow bloating
and thickening with muffled rumblings.
The steeds were restless, but the reins
held tight, until a crack of the whip
unleashed the pummeling flood.

 

Danny Duncan Collum 05-06-2015

Fraternities have become the tail that wags the dog in U.S. universities. 

Gareth Higgins 05-06-2015

Lest we forget, The Sound of Music is a story of hope triumphing almost unimaginable odds.

Ed Spivey Jr. 05-06-2015

Illustration by Ken Davis

A Brief History of Time is a great read, especially the one page I understood. 

Abby Olcese 05-01-2015
Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.

From the first Avengers film, Whedon has shown that his primary interest, apart from the utter coolness of watching Hulk destroy a city block, is the dynamics of the Avengers team. This is a group of people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and agendas who might never have come together on their own. That they are forced to work together under impossible circumstances forces those tensions to their breaking point, but also creates a sense of camaraderie that’s thrilling to watch in action.

Working within the conventions of postmodern superheroism, Whedon also addresses the side effects of frequent exposure to violence. It might seem ironic that Captain America (Chris Evans), introduced as the ideal patriot, is one of the group’s more peace-loving members. But as the sole military veteran on the team, his outlook makes sense for someone who’s sacrificed a lot in battle. When he tells Stark, “Every time someone tries to end a war before it starts, innocent people die,” you know he speaks from experience.

David Van Biema 04-29-2015
Photo via Gina Fuentes Walker / RNS

Patrons peruse the artwork at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. Photo via Gina Fuentes Walker / RNS

On the heels of what seemed like its greatest triumph — a magnificent display of sculptures by the Renaissance pioneer Donatello — a small but important museum in midtown Manhattan, that specialized in religious art regarded with a neutrally secular eye, announced April 28 that it was going out of business.

A press release from the Museum of Biblical Art, known as MOBIA, explained that after learning in February that the American Bible Society, which had housed it for a decade, was selling its building and moving to Philadelphia, the museum explored multiple options but could not raise the funds needed to keep going at a new location.

The museum will close to the general public on June 14 and cease operations on the 30th, although an exhibit it co-organized on Spanish colonial religious art will open in Palm Beach, Fla., in March next year.

MOBIA’s fate was not a total surprise; The Bible Society, once MOBIA’s sole funder, had been ramping down its support by mutual agreement, and the sale of the building had been rumored since 2012. But the closing nonetheless deeply rattled the museum staff and those who treasured MOBIA as one of the few museums in the country that routinely acknowledged art’s religious context.

“I’m stunned,” said Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary, who sometimes brought classes to MOBIA to see cross-cultural study of Scripture illustrated.

“I can’t believe that it’s slipping away. It was such a valuable resource.”

Photo via Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

A view of Qumran, Israel. Photo via Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Trapdoors, secret chambers, and mysterious torch-lit beach rituals. The eighth episode of Dig, the Holy Land conspiracy thriller that aired April 23 on the USA Network, serves up all these classic elements of suspense.

But that heady cocktail comes with a shot of religious history and biblical references that add context to what is already a complex plot involving cloned high priests, murderous rabbis, and the cutest little red heifer ever genetically engineered on a Danish farm. Can you hear religion and popular culture go CRASH?

“It can’t all be crazy, though, can it?” Emma Wilson (Alison Sudol) asks the hot FBI agent on Dig, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), as they look at end-of-the-world messages left behind by a crazed — and dead — archaeologist.

“The messenger, maybe,” Peter replies.

“But not the message.”

“To a nunnery, go!”

Both the bad guys and the good guys descend on a nunnery belonging to a group called the Sisters of Dinah, in search of an antique plaque depicting “the revenge of Dinah.”

The fictional religious order and its equally fictional plaque are derived from the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. The Book of Genesis tells how Dinah is kidnapped and raped by Shechem, a rival tribesman. Shechem then asks for Dinah’s hand and says her family can ask any “bride-price” they like from his family.

Photo via Ed Miller / Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece / BBC/RNS

Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photo via Ed Miller / Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece / BBC/RNS

Sir Thomas More loses his head in this Sunday’s episode April 26 of the acclaimed PBS historical drama, Wolf Hall, which is not much of a spoiler since that’s what infamously happened to More in 1535 at the hands of King Henry VIII.

The real suspense now is whether More will also lose his halo.

Not officially, of course: Thomas More remains a Roman Catholic saint by dint of his refusal to accept Henry’s plot to have his first marriage annulled. The onetime Lord Chancellor of England also opposed Henry’s power play against the pope, which led to the establishment of the Church of England.

More was formally canonized in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his execution.

But in these past decades the secular world was also burnishing More’s reputation by turning him into the contemporary standard-bearer of the righteous man, wielding only his conscience and religious principles against the power of the state — the Man for All Seasons, as the 1966 Academy Award-winning film (and earlier play) depicted him.

“I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first,” More declares in playwright Robert Bolt’s famous line, a riff on More’s own last words.

Yet what Wolf Hall does — and the reason such an intense debate has erupted over the series — is to engage in some bold revisionism by depicting More not as a saint but as “a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig,” as the Catholic writer George Weigel put it.

Greg Williams 04-23-2015
Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.

When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.

I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.

Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.

Abby Olcese 04-21-2015
Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.

Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

Emily Dause 04-21-2015

Image courtesy 'Runaway Radical' book page on Facebook

In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.

After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.

When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.

What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

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