Good News About Smart Giving

IT’S EASY to lose heart when tackling the painful challenges we live with—poverty, racism, violence, sex trafficking. We volunteer and donate our time and money, but do those efforts really make a difference?

Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former Times reporter who works in finance, had the same question; A Path Appears is the result of their investigation. The husband-and-wife team canvassed the giving world, interviewing socially minded people working as individuals or in community with nonprofits, corporations, for-profit organizations, and everything in between. Turns out millions of lives are being transformed next door and across the globe—including our own.

Bernard Glassman, for example, is an aeronautical engineer who wanted to do something about homelessness. After researching the issue for six months, he decided jobs were the most urgent need and started Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, N.Y., a for-profit company whose mission is to employ homeless men and women.

Danone, a large food company that includes brands such as Dannon and Stonyfield, worked with Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus to develop a yogurt that would reduce malnutrition among Bangladeshi children. The endeavor also provided jobs for women who sold the yogurt. The project experienced multiple setbacks but also successes—because all the players sought creative solutions to malnutrition and were willing to test them.

This latter point reflects a growing trend Kristof and WuDunn see among charities and nonprofits—relying on evidence rather than intuition for what works and what doesn’t. “Every aid group in the history of the world has claimed that its interventions are cost effective,” they write, but those evaluations are often “as rigorous as those of grandparents evaluating their grandchildren.”

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A Culture War Misfire

LEFT BEHIND may be a soft target, but once seen, you may realize that it’s a soft target for anyone who has ever been on an airplane, seen what Nicolas Cage is capable of in Leaving Las Vegas, met a Muslim, or not been cryogenically frozen since the era when it was socially acceptable to treat people with dwarfism as punchlines.

It really is worse than most theatrically released movies—shot and edited like a political attack ad/music video mashup, written like a child’s Sunday school lesson, and then strangely denuded of almost anything that would make it identifiably Christian (teasing those who already believe, yet scared of alienating people who just want to see a cheesy disaster movie without heavy proselytization).

The people who made it aren’t bad people, of course. (I’m not sure anyone is, with the line between good and evil running through each human heart and all—although that’s another argument that wouldn’t make it into this film.) The producers are ideologically committed to advancing a message that they were indoctrinated into by an unthinking system—let’s call it the Christian Industrial Entertainment Complex. They’ve stumbled upon the money and basic skill to make movies. They think that what they’re doing is changing the world for the better, but that’s doubtful—it’s more likely just reinforcing the closed-set worldview of the CIEC’s pre-committed adherents. This isn’t new, so I’m not too concerned about one more example of bad art masquerading as religious experience.

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You Gotta Move

INSIDE TOWN HALL, New York’s legendary concert venue, the dusty twang of a harmonica slices through the low din of the crowd filling the 1,500-seat auditorium. Most are likely here for the headliner, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, who will take the stage after this, a performance by her opening act, Parker Millsap.

The bluesy riffs from Millsap’s harmonica are intense, long and wailing, before fading into the slow, dirty licks of a slide guitar. Then a voice, old and soulful, throbs through the room, crying out the first line of the old gospel standard “You Gotta Move” and shocking many in the audience, residents of a city where very little is shocking. You can see the wave of surprise move like a serpent across the room, with people turning to their companions, eyebrows raised and a whisper on their lips.

It’s the age that gets them—the man standing at center stage, flanked by two bandmates and looking like a rockabilly idol, with his gelled quiff and rolled-up shirt sleeves, isn’t the 60-year-old blues singer he sounds like. No, he is baby-faced, young—barely even 21—and yet he’s pulling this song from some secret, battered place inside him that’s far older than his years, and matching it with a sensual intensity that sizzles in the audience. By the time Millsap allows the last note from his weathered voice to fade, he has commanded the undivided attention of one of the world’s toughest crowds.

And they are raring for more.

Such a reception is not a surprise for this newcomer on the Americana music scene, whose self-titled album was released to critical buzz in February 2014. Since the album’s release, Millsap has played on the same bill as artists including Griffin, Jason Isbell, and Old Crow Medicine Show; nabbed a nomination for Emerging Act of the Year from the Americana Music Association; and counted Rosanne Cash as one of his admirers.

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'Black-ish:' Reimagining Blackness on Television

 Image via

Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross in 'Black-ish.' Image via

Black-ish, the new ABC sitcom created by Kenya Barris, really is one of the funniest shows on TV this season. I laughed my head off watching a marathon run of the first four episodes On Demand. Now it's set to record each week on DVR. One of the things I really appreciate about Black-ish is that it takes universal issues and works them out through a genuinely African-American lens.

For example, in the pilot episode the father, Andre “Dre” Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson, is looking forward to a much deserved promotion to Senior VP at a major marketing firm. He is surprised to find out he’s been promoted to Senior VP of the Urban Division. We can all relate to wanting the promotion, but Anderson’s challenge is one particularly familiar within the black professional class. How do you jump the dreaded, yet anticipated, pigeonholing of your value and worth to an organization as a “black” person? How do you become just Senior VP — not SVP of the “Urban” Division? How do you become human? The way Anderson works out this challenge is hilarious. I rolled with laughter even after the half-hour sitcom had reached its conclusion.

And then there’s last week’s episode when the biracial mother, Rainbow, masterfully played by Tracee Ellis Ross, loses her young son, Jack, while shopping at a department store. It turns out Jack is hiding inside a clothes rack and is eventually found by a sympathetic officer. We can all relate to this situation. Children hide in department stores. I did the exact same thing to my own mother when I was about Jack’s age. I hid between the racks at a Marshalls. But Rainbow and Dre’s conundrum rears its head when they are confronted with the question: Will they spank their son? It seems simple enough, but it’s not. This is not only a question of parenting, it is also a question of tradition and culture.

In fact, each episode presents a universal situation that pushes a particular issue of culture within the African-American community. Ultimately, the situation presses the question: “What does it means to be black?”

3 Reasons I Didn't Give Up on the Bible

It was in my senior year of high school that I began to lose my faith in Scripture.

Then, my first year of college I read the entire Bible, cover to cover, and that pretty much destroyed what confidence I had left.

The Bible, I discovered, was full of polygamy, incest, murder, rape, genocide, adulterers, inconsistencies, impossibilities, and a whole bunch of screwed-up people who never seemed to get anything right.

The more I studied the “perfect” word of God, the more I expected that doctrine would become clear and consistent, the authors exemplary, and the stories contain distinct and readily discernible meanings.

When I read, I found I had more questions than answers, concerns than affirmations, and was more likely to feel disrupted than tranquil.

I almost gave up entirely.

Disquiet Time: How Revelation Ruined (and Saved) My Life

Disquiet Time. Photo via Christian Piatt.

I was asked to contribute a chapter to a new book called Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. The volume, an edited compilation put together by Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant, takes on many of the weird texts in scripture that we either gloss over or completely ignore because they’re just too … well, weird.

Of course there are plenty of spiritual oddballs to choose from, but as soon as I got the invite, I knew I wanted to write about the book of Revelation (note that there is not “S” at the end; there is no such book as Revelationsssssssss in the Bible). Suffice it to say that my relationship with the last book in the bible is a little bit complicated. In fact, it ruined my potential career as a lifetime Baptist. A number of you may have heard bits or pieces of the story about how I got kicked out of church as a teenager, but may not know all the details.

Well kids, you can blame it all on one freaky Bible book, one intransigent teenager and a floppy-Bible-wielding youth minister. But although the experience pushed me out of church for a solid decade, it didn’t forever ruin my search for the divine. But this particular story isn’t about that. It’s about how I got one particular youth minister so red-faced and flustered that he cussed me out and almost hit me square in the noggin with the Good Book.

'Dear White People:' A Satire of Injustice

A poster for 'Dear White People.' Image courtesy

A poster for 'Dear White People.' Image courtesy

It might be tempting for some viewers to see Dear White People as over-the-top. To see some of its characters as caricatures, or the offensive party that makes up its climax — with white students dressed in blackface — as unrealistic. But it’s not. For evidence, you only need to look as far as the credits, which show photos from similar events at other schools across the country. And when the president of Winchester claims that “racism is over in America,” it doesn’t sound too different from Bill O’Reilly’s similar claim on The Daily Show just last week.

Dear White People is clever, loving, angry satire. It’s a multi-faceted exploration of race in a time when such portrayals are needed, like peroxide on a deep cut. The film sometimes falters in its process, but delivers the goods when it matters most. The fact that it comes so stingingly close to reality is stunning. It’s funny. It’s sad.

5 Pop Culture Jesuses

The Jesus of pop culture is multiethnic and well-traveled, pious and irreverent, singing and silent. A fictional portrayal that is blasphemy to one viewer is sacred to another. The diversity of Jesus’ depictions reflects the diversity of the pop culture audience. Most recently, another fictional Jesus has appeared in Compton, smoking weed and promoting “black-Latin” reconciliation in the new comedy Black Jesus. The sitcom presents a Jesus who uses at times crude language to ultimately promote a consistent gospel message of love. While this Jesus “shares in the pleasures” of his largely poor, African-American community, “he also challenges their prejudices, violence, and self-seeking.” Read more in Danny Duncan Collum’s “The Christ of Compton” (Sojourners, November 2014).

Check out this list to read about five portrayals of Jesus in recent pop culture history.

1.      Lion Jesus

In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis sets up a less than subtle allegory of Jesus in the form of a lion named Aslan. Aslan transforms a void into a world through song. He welcomes children. He dies and comes back to life. But still, he is a lion, fierce and elusive, helping to convey both the intimidating power and the radical love of Jesus.

“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course [Aslan] isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” –The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950)

2.      Black Jesus

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U2's Songs of Transcendence

How does Songs of Innocence stand up to U2's second album, October? Photo via Cathleen Falsani

Sunday evening I did something I haven't done in close to 30 years: I went to an actual record store and bought a brand-new U2 album on vinyl, took it home, pulled out the turntable, put on my headphones, sat on the floor, and stayed up way too late reading the liner notes and listening to the songs over and over again.

Lord, how I've missed this particular ritual.

When I was a teenager, late Sunday nights were when I indulged my secret pleasure by listening in bed (clandestinely so as not to incur the wrath of my parents for being awake well past my bedtime) to the "King Biscuit Flower Hour" on WPLR, the classic rock station in New Haven that was one of two (the other being a horrendous pop-40 station) that came in clearly on the FM stereo in my upstairs bedroom.

I listened, religiously, every Sunday night for years, hoping to hear a song by one of the British New Wave bands of which I was fond, or, if I was particularly lucky, by my favorite band on the planet: U2.

Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing a U2 song on those late Sunday nights, my ear pressed to the transistor radio secreted next to the pillow on my twin bed. But then, like a bolt of lightning  I'd hear Bono's voice or Edge's guitar begin to keen. It was a wee bit magical, although in retrospect today I might call it sacred.

All the waiting and listening was worth it. Always.

Everything Changes the World

Boys on a beach,
women with cookpots,
men bombing tender patches of mint.

There is no righteous position.
Only a place where brown feet
touch the earth.

Maybe you call it yours.
Maybe someone else runs it.
What do you prefer?

We who are far
stagger under the mind blade.
Words, lies.
My friend in Bethlehem says,
Pious myth-building and criminal behavior,
that’s what.

Every shattered home,
every shattered story worth telling.
Think how much you’d need to say
if that were your kid.

If one of your people
equals hundreds of ours,
what does that say about people?

Naomi Shihab Nye, born to a Palestinian father and American mother, is a poet, novelist, and anthologist of more than 30 volumes. Her newest book is The Turtle of Oman.

Image: A Palestinian women sells grape leaves,  / Shutterstock 

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