Culture

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 dearwhitepeoplemovie.com.

A poster for 'Dear White People.' Image courtesy dearwhitepeoplemovie.com.

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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Interview: Marilynne Robinson on the Language of Faith in Writing

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke at Union Seminary in March 2014. Photo by Kristen Scharold/RNS.

What are you afraid of? That’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson asks writers who shy away from writing about faith.

The beloved author has won accolades after writing so openly about belief, but it remains a subject few other writers take on.

“It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent,” Diane Johnson wrote in her New York Times review of Robinson’s latest book, Lila, which was released Oct. 7.

Like its predecessors Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), the new novel takes place in a 1950s Iowa town and focuses on minister John Ames and his family. The story is told from the perspective of his wife — and later, widow — Lila.

Robinson has been able reach varied audiences. A member of the liberal United Church of Christ, she is far from holding up ideals put forward by the religious right, but that hasn’t stopped conservative Christians from engaging with her writing. Earlier, she spoke with Religion News Service about guns, gay marriage, and Calvinism.

Before giving an address at Union Theological Seminary last spring, Robinson also spoke about the tensions between faith and writing. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

New and Noteworthy

Paternal Insights
Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith offers diverse perspectives from men under 40 who are rooted in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Edited by R. Anderson Campbell, this is the fifth volume in the I Speak for Myself series. White Cloud Press

Sing Freedom
In Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music scholar Robert F. Darden explores the sustaining and revolutionary power of sacred song in African-American history. Penn State Press

In Between
The documentary Life on the Line follows 11-year-old Kimberly Torrez as her family await the visa that will allow them to return to the U.S. after circumstances trap them in Nogales, Mexico. An accompanying online project shares the stories of other young people affected by immigration issues. finelinefilms.org/lifeontheline

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Full-Body Repentance

THE CRY OF the church to the world should be “Forgive us.”

At a time when the American church struggles with finding its place in the world and struggles with asserting its identity, could the church be known as the community that models confession, repentance, and the seeking of forgiveness? At this moment in history, the American church is often ridiculed or portrayed as unforgiving and ungracious. Could the church offer a counter-narrative, not of defensiveness or derision but of an authentic confession and genuine reconciliation? By examining seven different areas where the church has committed sin, we ask the church to consider the spiritual power and the theological integrity of a church that seeks forgiveness for those sins.

Our scriptures testify to the necessity of confession. Confession is central to the Christian faith. The importance of confession arises from the Christian view of sin. Sin is a reality and must be taken seriously. Evangelicals consistently begin our gospel presentation with the centrality of sin to the human experience. American evangelicals often assert that the beginning of the work of God’s forgiveness is the recognition of our need for God because of human sinfulness.

It is antithetical to the gospel when we do not confess all forms of sin—both individual and corporate. The reason evangelicals can claim to be followers of Jesus is because there has been an acknowledgement of sin and the seeking of God’s grace through Jesus Christ that leads to the forgiveness of sin.

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Cooking Up Meaning

CHEF IS A small-budget film with an all-star cast and artful storytelling. Jon Favreau, who also directed Iron Man, stars in his own film as a head chef named Carl Casper at an acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles. Casper is left in a vocational tailspin after a scathing review and a public meltdown. He loses his inspiration and finds himself in an existential crisis.

In Chef Casper’s quest to recover his culinary mojo, he takes a trip to Miami and buys a used food truck. The film plays on the power of relationships in a messy, winding, but authentic path. Chef Casper’s community—his ex-wife, his son, and his best friend—are invited into the one thing Casper loves to do, demonstrating how community, at its best, can propel us on the way we should go.

Each truck stop on the journey back to California fills Chef Casper with new vision and adds distinctive ingredients. He makes his way to once again bring beauty and flourishing back to his street corner of the world.

My small group at church watched Chef together and bonded over it. We explored themes of vocation—how we can contribute to flourishing through the distinctive things “we’re good at.” And how activism isn’t just about waving the proverbial picket sign; it also can be about loving what we do with great friends.

Highlighting these conversations and convergences with Hollywood and life are vital for my own work. The congregation I serve in East Harlem consists mainly of nonprofit professionals, educators, and human service workers—convincing these folks about shalom and justice is not usually a challenge. What they hunger for is guidance in cultivating meaning through the crises and mundaneness of life and work.

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Life After A Death

IN 1998, AWARD-WINNING writer Linda Lawrence Hunt and her husband, Jim, were forced to consider a question no parent wants to ask: How do you find meaning in life after losing your child?

Their 25-year-old daughter, Krista Hunt Ausland, had just died in a bus accident in Bolivia while volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Your joys become more intense,” consoled a friend whose family had also lost a child.

This resonated with Linda, especially since Krista was known for her energy and enthusiasm. Linda and her husband, now retired professors of English and history at Whitworth University, had always encouraged Krista to travel and take part in community service, but even they were amazed by the intense joy Krista exuded serving as a school teacher in inner-city Tacoma, Wash., or volunteering in poor communities in Latin America. Writing about that joy might help to recover some of it in Linda’s own life, she thought.

Fifteen years later, Linda’s newest book is more than just an ode to a remarkably happy daughter. Pilgrimage through Loss: Pathways to Strength and Renewal after the Death of a Child is a collection of ideas and insight from more than 30 parents who decide in their darkest hours to “face grief in creative and intentional ways.” The book, which contains study questions at the end of each chapter and references new research on grief, is intended as a resource for grieving parents, as well as for those hoping to support them in the right ways and at the right times.“Closure is an illusion,” explains Linda, but she describes multiple examples of parents finding strength and even joy in sacred spaces and rituals, as well as in giving and receiving symbolic acts of kindness.

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